One of the much debated issues in fitness is whether it’s possible to lose fat and build muscle at the same time. Achieving what is often considered “the holy grail of fitness” depends on your definition of the “same time.”
From a physiological standpoint, it’s not possible to lose fat and build muscle at the exact same moment because losing fat is catabolic (meaning it breaks down tissue) and building muscle is anabolic (meaning it builds tissue). Your body can’t be in both states at once.
However, over the longer term, such as over the course of a month, or even just over the course of a day, it is possible to gain muscle and lose fat if you take actions that allow you to spend more of your time in an anabolic state than a catabolic one.
Of course, this is not easy to achieve. When you consume fewer calories than your body requires, it starts to burn a combination of fat and muscle tissue. Typically, anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of the weight lost during dieting comes from lean tissue. Muscle burns substantially more energy than fat, which means that your resting metabolic rate will drop, so you burn fewer calories over the course of a day. Losing muscle also appears to discourage physical activity and it leads to a drop in strength levels.
Fortunately, recent studies show there are key strategies that help you reduce body fat, while promoting an increase in muscle and strength. In fact, a new 4-week study from McMaster University in Canada cracks the code for achieving that elusive combination of simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss.
Researchers took recreationally active, overweight young men and split them into two groups. The only difference between the groups was in the amount of protein they ate daily. The normal protein group (NP) ate 1.2 g/kg of bodyweight of protein daily whereas the high-protein group (HP) ate 2.4 g/kg/bw of protein daily.
Both groups ate the same amount of carbs (50 percent of calories) and then fat rounded out the calories with the NP group getting 35 percent of energy from fat and the HP group getting 15 percent of calories from fat. All food was provided by the study to take the guesswork out of the diet and ensure compliance with the program.
Additionally, participants got a post-workout recovery beverage that differed between the groups. In the high-protein group it contained 49 grams of whey protein and 48 grams of carbs, whereas in the normal protein group it contained 15 grams of whey protein, 41 grams of carbs and 12 grams of fat.
In order to promote weight loss, the diets reduced calories by 40 percent from the amount necessary to maintain body weight. They calculated daily calorie intake while dieting by multiplying kilograms of lean body mass by 33 calories so that they averaged 2,340 calories a day. This may sound like a lot, but these were big guys. They had an average bodyweight of 98 kg (215 lbs) and were slightly over 6 feet tall.
In addition, they were training hard throughout the study so energy requirements were significant. The workout routine was designed to build muscle, burn fat, and trigger a substantial post-workout energy expenditure. Participants trained 6 days a week, doing two high volume, intense weight workouts (with loads in the 80 percent range), two maximal intensity cycle sprint sessions, a time trial workout, and a plyometric day.
Participants also wore a pedometer and were instructed to accumulate at least 10,000 steps daily in order to avoid being sedentary for long periods. Step counts averaged 11,915 daily throughout the intervention.
Results were impressive on all fronts:
Both groups lost fat: The HP group lost 4.8 kg, whereas the NP group lost 3.5 kg of fat.
Neither group lost muscle. The NP group had no change in lean mass, whereas the HP group gained 1.2 kg (or 2.5 pounds) of lean muscle mass.
The HP group had a 20 percent decrease in body fat, finishing with 18 percent body fat. The NP group had a 15 percent decrease in body fat to end with 21 percent body fat.
Strength, power, and time trial performance improved in both groups with no notable differences between groups.
The researchers were impressed because this is one of the first studies to show that when diet, exercise, and nutrient timing are carefully controlled, it’s possible to lose a substantial amount of fat and build muscle in a relatively short period of time. They point to the following key factors that made this a successful body transformation intervention:
1) The high-intensity sprint workouts on the bike likely increased levels of fat burning enzymes and boosted the rate of fat oxidation during the workout and in the post-exercise period. The result was that all the weight lost in both groups was from body fat with none coming from lean mass.
2) The high protein consumption of 2.4 g/kg consistently triggered muscle protein synthesis and reduced protein breakdown allowing for participants to achieve a greater anabolic environment.
3) A large dose of whey protein in the range of 50 grams may be necessary to maximally trigger protein synthesis and promote muscle gain when subjects are dieting. This dose is double the amount that has previously been found to maximally trigger protein synthesis post-workout when subjects were in energy balance (not on a diet).
4) The study was relatively well controlled with all food and workout beverages being supplied by the study. This ensured that participants ate the necessary protein and didn’t cheat on the diet.
Based on these conclusions you probably have a pretty good idea of how to go about designing your own fat loss, muscle-building program. It just so happens that we have a few more solutions from our bag of tricks that can help you to build muscle while simultaneously losing body fat. Here’s the full list of recommendations:
Tip #1: Train Hard
Studies consistently show that non-responders (those poor people who get no results out of exercise) almost completely disappear with higher exercise intensities. Instead of spending hours burning calories with aerobic exercise, overloading your body with weights has a profound effect on building muscle and burning fat for a successful transformation.
Tip #2: Do Sprints
With sprints, the payoff is so much greater than the effort required. You’re done in no time (20 to 25 minutes max), and they have a whole host of powerful fat loss benefits without interfering with muscle building pathways in the way that aerobic-style cardio does. Try a 20-mintue bike protocol in which you alternate 8 seconds of sprinting with 12 seconds active pedaling. Progress to the Wingate protocol used in the McMaster study: Four reps of 30 second all-out bike sprints with full 4 minute recovery.
Tip #3: Increase Protein
To build muscle during fat loss, shoot for 2.4 g/kg of complete protein. Choose meat, fish, eggs, and dairy because these protein sources will supply the greatest number of amino acids for the fewest calories.
Tip #4: Time Your Protein
Spread your protein intake throughout the day, getting close to 50 grams of protein per meal. This amount is more than previously identified to maximally stimulate protein synthesis when in energy balance, but you’re creating an energy deficit, which appears to indicate a higher dose.
Tip #5: Don’t Compensate
Compensation occurs when people inadvertently eat more following exercise, negating any energy deficit and sabotaging their fat loss goals. It’s incredibly common and people are often powerless to overcome it. One reason the McMaster study was successful was that it supplied all the food, which limited the risk of compensation.
Tip #6: Log Your Food
Writing down everything you eat can help reduce compensation and it makes you more likely to monitor portions. If you do it honestly, food logs also provide raw data for times when you are more likely to go off track, which you can then troubleshoot.
Tip #7: Eat Healthy Carbs
Because intense exercise was an important component of the McMaster study, researchers chose to have both groups get 50 percent of their calories from carbs. Carbs allow for the body to replenish muscle energy stores quickly, which boosts the quality of training and reduces how difficult workouts feel.
A possible problem with this approach in the real world is that people often have a hard time keeping carb portions under control when dieting. However, as long as compensation doesn’t occur, it appears that the higher carb, lower fat approach may be effective for the dual goals of fat loss and muscle building.
Tip #8: Boost Daily Step Count
In the same way that people tend to compensate for energy burned during exercise, they get lazy when in a calorie deficit due to changes in hormones. You can consciously counteract this by being as active as possible and minimizing sedentary time with frequent walking and low-intensity physical activity.
Tip #9: Have A Plan For What Happens After
Hopefully, it goes without saying that a diet that reduces calories by 40 percent in conjunction with intense training is not a long-term sustainable approach. Living this way for more than a month or so would induce a metabolic slowdown and make most people pretty miserable. Therefore, its recommended you give it all you’ve got for set period of time (3 to 6 weeks, depending on your body composition going into it), and then slowly ratchet calories up while maintaining training volume.
Tip #10: Counter Cortisol
Cortisol is a stress hormone that opposes fat loss and promotes the loss of lean body mass when there is an energy imbalance in the body. It breaks down lean tissue in order to free amino acids, which can be used for energy when blood glucose levels get low.
In the McMaster study, there was a inverse relationship between lean body mass gains and cortisol, indicating that one of the best things you can do if you’re trying to build muscle is to help your body clear cortisol with the following tricks:
Avoid fasting for long periods.
Eat frequent high-protein meals.
Supplement with vitamin C because it helps the body metabolize cortisol.
Boost B vitamin intake—the Bs are rapidly depleted by high cortisol.
Get restful sleep.
Cope with your stress, either with deep breathing or meditation.