First, ask the right question
We’re often asked – usually by guys*: “Can I build muscle and lose fat at the same time?” The simple answer is, yes. Under the right conditions, and contrary to popular belief, you can. It’s not easy but it’s certainly doable and we’ll come to how, shortly.
(*Women generally ask about toning up, rather than muscle building, but the principles we’re going to cover are the same.)
However, you may be asking the wrong question. It should be, “Can I ‘optimise’ both muscle building and fat burning at the same time”.
The answer here, is no. Or certainly, not likely.
Optimally building and cutting takes an enormously high volume of exercise. It also requires a perfect diet. The only people who may be able do this are professional athletes and some celebrities. And possibly, some body builders who take high levels of steroids. For most of us mere mortals, it’s about as likely as the Queen abdicating and leaving the throne to Posh and Becks!
But why can’t you optimise both?
The problem is that the biological mechanisms that build muscle are also the ones that lay down fat. Likewise, the signals telling fat to burn will also stop muscles from growing. Trying to maximise both effects at the same time is like trying to ride two horses with only one butt!
So, what can you do?
Okay, first, we’ll examine the problem and then offer some solutions.
Anabolism versus catabolism
Your body varies continually between two states. It can be anabolic, where it’s growing (building muscle). Or it can be catabolic, where it’s cutting down (burning fat). It’s never both at the same time in equal measures. For example, when you are restricting calories or training hard, your body is catabolic. It’s breaking down sugars, fats and small amounts of muscle tissue to make energy. When you eat food and recover between workouts, your body is anabolic. It’s using the carbs, fats and proteins from your diet to rebuild tissues and replenish energy stores.
It’s a fine balancing act
The trick to building muscle whilst cutting fat is to be slightly more anabolic that catabolic. This means controlling two, powerful hormones: testosterone (anabolic) and cortisol (catabolic). Now, these hormones rise and fall in a natural pattern throughout the day.
However, they are also positively or negatively influenced by the following:
- Energy balance (calories in versus calories out)
- Stress (both mental and physical)
- Exercise and activity levels
- Sleep patterns
Cortisol is released in greater amounts than normal when you are restricting calories, over-stressed and training too hard. And it goes through the roof if you have the sleep patterns of an insomniac on a caffeine drip. However, if you have the opposite: a good diet, unstressed, not over-training and sleeping well, then testosterone will dominate.
The caveat here is age. If you are a teenager, then testosterone will likely be coming out of your ears. So, cortisol has a long way to go to make any form of impact in restricting muscle growth. But if you are over forty, then the prognosis is not so good. At this point, your body will be looking down the back of the sofa for every little scrap of testosterone. Basically, as you age, cortisol isn’t just knocking on the door, it’s sat in the kitchen and eating your dinner.
Now, this doesn’t make it impossible, just harder as there is less room for error in your training and diet.
Easier for novices
The other consideration about muscle building and fat cutting is training experience. This issue is not really about testosterone/cortisol levels. It’s more the fact that after about two years of training, it’s difficult gain more than 2-3 pounds of lean muscle growth per year. (We’re not talking about weight per se, just new muscle growth.)
Yet, as a novice lifter, you can make phenomenal gains in muscle and shed lots of fat. Unfortunately, even beginners can’t gain one pound (.5kg) of muscle for every pound of fat lost. But it’s possible for them to achieve four or five pounds (2kg) of fat loss to every pound of muscle gained.
So, how do I build muscle and lose fat?
If you can’t optimise both at once, the next best thing is to prioritise one effect, then the other. (You only have one butt, so ride one horse at a time.)
This is where an individual plan comes in handy because we can work out the specifics in detail. However, we’ll try and give you an overview of how we work with a new client.
Cut in phase one, build in phase two
We start by aiming to reduce whatever your current body fat levels are by about 25-30%. Alternatively, we can aim for a specific reduction in your waistline. We generally avoid a weight target because this won’t tell us if you’ve lost fat, muscle or water. Whereas body fat levels and waistline measurements will. (Note: on average, every inch off a man’s waistline will equal about four pounds (2kg) of fat loss.)
Regardless, this entails designing a diet and training plan that focuses on fat loss and increasing muscle fitness. Dietary-wise, this is an elimination of junk food, alcohol, etc., and a reduction in starchy carbs. Training-wise, the workout stimulates the metabolism and burns lots of calories: light weights, high reps, circuits and plenty of cardio. (It’s much more complicated than this but we’re only providing a general outline here.)
Incidentally, why fitness and fat loss first, and not bulking up? There are a few reasons:
- A fit muscle builds faster than an unfit one and a fitter body recovers quicker between workouts.
- There is an excellent rebound effect for building muscle following a cutting phase.
- People new to training benefit from increased volume of training.
- Everyone has some stubborn, hard to shift fat cells that fill faster than they empty. Keeping surplus fat away from these cells is a priority.
It’s also worth noting that bulking up will increase strength and psychologically-speaking, strength can be addictive. This makes it harder to cope with the drop-off in strength that happens when you lose weight. Some guys start to ‘bulk-up’ and never stop because they become fixated on how much they lift. If this happens, then at least you’ve shed some fat first and will be in better condition.
Once we’ve achieved the required body fat reduction, we shift the training into muscle growth. We use heavier weights and less reps. We also cut back on the cardio. Dietary-wise, we reintroduce some starchy carbs to help recovery and promote anabolism.
From here we monitor weight, muscle size and body fat levels. Your muscle mass and overall weight will increase. However, phase two ends once the body has regained about 5% body fat, or another inch on the waist. Then we move back to phase one and reintroduce another fat loss target. But this time, it won’t be as much as the initial phase one. It’s now about fine-tuning and we don’t want massive swings in weight loss/gain.
Once this new target has been achieved, we move to phase two again and start muscle growth.
We move between phases one and two as necessary until the clients’ goals have been achieved.
Flexible and highly effective
This type of cycling system works extremely well with most people. It’s flexible and usually avoids both extreme dieting and bulking up. Both of which can be counter-productive. Also, it teaches the client how to permanently manage their weight safely and effectively.
So, you see, you can build muscle and lose fat.
Keep up the fight and win the inch war.
Paul & Ann, Get Physical personal training
We (Paul and Ann, Get Physical Ltd) are not doctors, nor are we licensed medical professionals. This website and blog is not here to diagnose any medical condition or replace your health care provider.