How Fat Loss Works
In order to lose fat, you need to give your body less energy (food) than it burns over time. This is known is creating a “calorie deficit,” and it’s the most important factor in weight loss. No calorie deficit, no losing fat. Period. There are some negative side effects that come with a calorie deficit though. And there are two in particular that I’d like to call your attention to:
A calorie deficit reduces anabolic hormone levels.
A calorie deficit impairs protein synthesis.
That is, a calorie deficit causes changes in your hormonal profile that make it more catabolic (a state wherein muscle breakdown is higher) and directly interferes with your body’s ability to create muscle proteins. These are the two primary reasons why it’s generally true that you can’t build muscle while in a calorie deficit (losing fat). Notice I said generally true, though, and not universally…
Who Can Burn Fat and Build Muscle Effectively and Who Can’t
WINNIPEG CERTIFIED PERSONAL TRAINER ONLINE PERSONAL TRAINING CONTEST PREP COACH NUTRITION NUTRITIONIST DIETICIAN WEIGHT LOSS BUILD MUSCLE TONE SCULPT BODY FAT TRANSFORMATION CHALLENGE FITNESS
Nov 4, 2015 by Michael Matthews
How Muscle Growth Works
When we train our muscles we damage the cells in the muscle fibers, and this signals the body to increase protein synthesis rates to repair the abnormally large amount of damaged cells. Our bodies don’t want to just repair the muscle fibers to their previous states, however–they want to adapt to better deal with the stimulus that caused the damage. And to do this, they add cells to the muscle fibers, which makes them bigger and stronger. Thus, what we think of as just “muscle growth” is actually the result of protein synthesis rates exceeding protein breakdown rates.
Muscle growth = protein synthesis rates exceeding protein breakdown rates.
At the end of, let’s say, every 24-hour period, if your body synthesized more muscle proteins than it lost, you gained muscle. If it created fewer than you lost, you lost muscle. And if it created more or less the same amount as it lost, your total lean mass has stayed more or less the same. Realize that if your goal is to gain muscle, everything you do in and out of the gym is to achieve one simple thing: more protein synthesis than degradation.
How to Build Muscle and Burn Fat at the Same Time
Just because your body can lose fat and build muscle simultaneously doesn’t mean it comes easily. The first thing you should know is that even when you do it right, muscle growth while in a deficit is slower than muscle growth during a proper “bulk.” Protein synthesis rates are higher when you’re in a calorie surplus and this translates into more muscle gain over time. I haven’t come across any studies worth citing for this, but I’ve worked with thousands of people and it would seem that potential muscle gain is halved by a calorie deficit.
That is, if you could gain 10 pounds of muscle in your first 12 weeks of weightlifting if you were in a mild calorie surplus, you could expect to gain about 5 pounds if you’re in a deficit. So be patient. Wild claims on the Internet about losing double-digit amounts of body fat and gaining the same in muscle are lies. What you’re usually looking at is a combination of muscle memory, drugs, and Photoshopping.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at how to best go about the “body recomp.”
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep deprivation hurts both your body’s ability to burn fat and build muscle. Research has shown that sleep deprivation can cause muscle loss and has also been linked to muscular atrophy. One study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago found that when 10 healthy men reduced sleep for a week from about 9 hours per night to 5, their testosterone levels dropped by up to 14%. It’s also known that insufficient sleep decreases growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-1) levels, which play important roles in maintaining and building muscle mass. As if all that weren’t enough, sleep deprivation also decreases fat loss. Sleep needs vary from individual to individual, but according to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need 7–9 hours of sleep per night to avoid the negative effects of sleep deprivation.
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Do HIIT Cardio
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is perfect for maximizing fat loss while preserving muscle and strength for two primary reasons:
HIIT burns more fat per minute than steady-state cardio.
This has been proven again, again, and again–it’s finally just an indisputable fact.
A study conducted by The University of Western Ontario gives us insight into how much more effective it really is, as well. Researchers had 10 men and 10 women train 3 times per week, with one group doing 4-6 30-second treadmill sprints (with 4-6 minutes of rest in between each), and the other group doing 30-60 minutes of steady-state cardio (running on the treadmill at the “magical fat loss zone” of 65% VO2 max). The results: After 6 weeks of training, the subjects doing the intervals had lost more fat. Yes, 4-6 30-second sprints burns more fat than 60 minutes of incline treadmill walking.
HIIT preserves more muscle than steady-state cardio.
Reducing protein degradation rates is particularly important when you’re recomping because, as you know, your body isn’t able to synthesize proteins as effectively while in a calorie deficit. Research has shown that HIIT spikes GH levels higher than steady-state cardio does and growth hormone is a powerful anti-catabolic hormone, which means it suppresses protein degradation. Furthermore, research has shown that the longer your cardio sessions are, the more they impair strength and hypertrophy. Thus, the shorter your cardio sessions are, the less impact they have on your muscle cells, and that’s what HIIT cardio is all about–short, intense and effective workouts. When I’m cutting, I personally do no more than 2 to 2.5 hours of HIIT cardio per week (and no more than 30 minutes per session). Many people are shocked to learn that you can get down to 6 to 7% body fat (men) with only a couple hours of cardio per week, but there’s nothing special to it.
You maintain your calorie deficit and macronutrient balance to drive fat loss, you lift weights for 4 to 6 hours per week to burn energy and build/preserve muscle, and you use HIIT cardio to help keep the ball rolling…and you stay patient…and voila, you eventually reach your goal.
We ensure each client is gaining muscle and achieving a level of leanness and health they desire. No guess work, with questions and concerns answered immediately, all with a one to one approach between us and the client.
Maintain a Moderate Calorie Deficit. Building muscle is an energy-intensive process and the less energy that’s available, the less of a priority it will be for the body. We can see this in the fact that the more you restrict your calories, the lower your protein synthesis rates will be. Thus, it’s very important that you don’t try to rush your diet by putting yourself in a large daily calorie deficit.
How large of a deficit is too large, though? What’s optimal? Well, we can thank researchers at the University of Jyväskylä for an answer.
How large should your calorie deficit be?
In a study they conducted, they split their subjects–20 to 35 year-old national and international level track and field jumpers and sprinters with low levels of body fat (at or under 10%)–into two groups: a daily calorie deficit of 300 calories (about 12% below their total daily energy expenditure) and a daily calorie deficit of 750, with both groups following a high-protein diet. After 4 weeks, the results were surprising: the athletes utilizing a 300-calorie deficit lost very little fat and muscle while the group utilizing a 750-calorie deficit lost, on average, about 4 pounds of fat and very little muscle. Remember, however, that the 750-calorie deficit group was not starving themselves by any means–they were eating over 2,000 calories per day. Nevertheless, they were utilizing a pretty aggressive deficit of about 24% and the results speak for themselves. These findings completely jive with my experience both with my body and the thousands of people I’ve worked with:
Mild calorie deficits can work if you’re very overweight, but as you get leaner, larger deficits become necessary and don’t automatically cause muscle loss. And this is why my standard calorie deficit recommendations for weight loss are between 20 and 25%.
I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training. You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does. Supplements don’t build great physiques. Proper training and nutrition does. Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans. Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging. So, while workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help. The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.
As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others. For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to help you get the most out of your efforts to build muscle and lose fat.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:
Supplementation with creatine helps…
Build muscle and improve strength,
Improve anaerobic endurance
Reduce muscle damage and soreness
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however. If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.
You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical. That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however. Many pre-workouts are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy. Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds. Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA. Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
And that’s why I recommend these stand alone products.
Caffeine: Caffeine is good for more than the energy boost. It also increases muscle endurance and strength.
Beta-Alanine: Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that reduces exercise-induced fatigue, improves anaerobic exercise capacity, and can accelerate muscle growth.
Citrulline Malate: Citrulline is an amino acid that improves muscle endurance, relieves muscle soreness, and improves aerobic performance.
Betaine: Betaine is a compound found in plants like beets that improves muscle endurance, increases strength, and increases human growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 production in response to acute exercise.
When you want to build muscle while losing fat, you want to train for muscle growth and diet for fat loss. That is, you want to do what works best for muscle growth in the gym and what works best for fat loss in the kitchen. In terms of diet, that simply means a moderately aggressive calorie deficit. In terms of training, that means emphasizing heavy, compound weightlifting in your workouts. Focus on heavy (4-6 or 5-8 rep range), compound movements like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and military press, and train with a moderate workout volume (9-12 heavy sets per workout). Some people might scoff at this advice and talk about the important of the “hypertrophy” rep range of 10-12, and I address this in my definitive guide to muscle growth, and in my books.
The long story short is this: you can certainly build muscle training in higher rep ranges but if you want to maximize muscle growth over the long term, you want to emphasize lower-rep, heavier weightlifting. The big “secret” behind the super high-rep, high-volume workouts espoused by many fitness models and bodybuilders is…drugs. It’s really that simple. Working in the 12 to 15+ rep range for 2 to 3 hours per day is great if you’re chemically enhanced because your body can actually repair all that damage. It just can’t if you’re natural though.
Many people think it’s impossible to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously. Others think it’s easy. They’re both wrong. Here’s how it works.
Gaining muscle while losing fat, or body recomposition as it’s sometimes called, is the holy grail of getting fit.
Some people say it’s a fool’s errand. Others claim it’s only possible with “advanced” diet and training protocols. Other still think it requires steroids...Well, they’re all wrong.
It’s doable. And it doesn’t require esoteric knowledge, fancy or newfangled methodologies, or drugs. There are some catches though. Depending on your body composition and training experience, you may or may not be able to build muscle while losing fat. And in this article, I’m going to help you understand why.
To get there, we need to start with some basic physiology related to how muscles grow and how fat cells shrink. So let’s get started.
The Bottom Line on Building Muscle and Losing Fat at the Same Time
Building muscle and losing fat doesn’t require anything special. If you’re in a position to pull off a recomp, all it takes is smart, consistent application of the fundamentals of proper dieting and exercise.
Maintain a moderately aggressive calorie deficit
Maintain a proper macronutrient balance
Do 4 to 6 hours of weightlifting per week and emphasize heavy, compound lifting
Do no more than 2 to 3 hours of HIIT cardio per week
Get plenty of sleep
Use the right supplements to speed up the process
And your body will take care of the rest.
Why Losing Fat and Gaining Muscle is Tricky
There’s a good reason why many people think building muscle and losing fat at the same time is a pipe dream. And it has to do with something called protein synthesis. You see, every day, your muscles undergo “maintenance work” whereby damaged and degraded cells are eliminated and new cells are created to take their place. This process is known as protein biosynthesis or protein synthesis.
Under normal health and dietary circumstances, muscle tissue is fairly stable and the cycle of cellular degradation and regeneration remains balanced. That is, the average person doesn’t lose or gain muscle at an accelerated rate–his or her lean mass more or less remains level on a day-to-day basis. If we don’t take actions to stop it, we actually slowly lose lean mass as we age, but you get the point.
You now know what your body is up against when you’re in a calorie deficit and why building muscle in a deficit is an uphill–and sometimes unwinnable–battle. The good news, however, is that if you’re reading this article anxiously, you probably can build muscle and lose fat at the same time. I say that because the people that can’t are experienced weightlifters that have several years of training under their belts and that have achieved a large portion of their genetic potential in terms of muscle growth. And those guys and gals have usually learned the lessons of this article along the way and know that a traditional cutting, bulking, and maintenance approaches serve them best.
The main reason for this is as an advanced weightlifter, you have to fight tooth and nail for every pound of muscle you gain. If you have 3 to 4+ years of proper weightlifting under your belt and have built your foundation of size and strength, the most muscle growth you can hope for (naturally) is about 5 pounds of muscle gain per year. And that’s men–women can expect about half of that.
People new to weightlifting, however, can benefit greatly from what we call “newbie gains.” ‘Newbie gains’ are real and here’s how to make the most of them: Simply put, when your body is relatively untrained, it’s going to be hyper-responsive to resistance training. So much so that the reduction in protein synthesis rates caused by a calorie deficit just isn’t enough to stop muscle growth. Thus, muscle can be built while fat is lost. I’ve also seen these effects with people with some weightlifting experience but who that have made very minimal progress. In fact, I’ve experienced it myself with my own body.
So, with that out of the way, let’s move on to how to actually build muscle and lose fat at the same time.
How do you determine your calorie intake?
I give a very simple formula for weight loss in my books that results in about a 20 to 25% calorie deficit if you’re exercising 4-6 hours per week:
1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight, per day
1 gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight, per day
0.2 grams of fat per pound of body weight, per day (increase to 0.25 if you have a fast metabolism)
This gives you a good starting point and you can adjust up or down as needed (I discuss how and when to do this fully in my books, Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger.) Oh and in case you’re worried that eating that many carbs per day will prevent you from losing weight, rest easy–eating carbs does not inhibit weight loss. In fact, keeping your carbs moderate/high is an important part of building muscle while losing fat, mainly because it helps preserve your strength in the gym and the insulin your body produces to process the carbs helps suppress protein breakdown. So, once you have your daily numbers, the next step is to create a meal plan that you’re going to enjoy.
Once you have your meal plan, stick to it every day, throw in a cheat meal once or twice per week, and you’re good to go. You know you’ve got it right when you’re losing 0.5 to 2 pounds of fat per week (the heavier you are the more you can lose), you never feel starved or wracked by cravings, and you stay strong in your workouts.
Focus on Heavy Compound Weightlifting
The oft-repeated advice to focus on high-rep workouts to really “shred up” is idiotic. Getting that coveted “shredded” look is only a matter of having sufficient muscle and getting your body fat low enough. One style of lifting will not make you look “more shredded” than another. Thus, if you want to look as good as possible when you’re lean, you want to add muscle to your frame as quickly as possible. And when that’s the goal, I can’t overstate the importance of emphasizing heavy, compound weightlifting.
What are compound exercises?
Compound exercises involve multiple major muscle groups and require the most whole-body strength and effort. Examples of compound exercises are the squat, deadlift, bench press, and military press. Isolation exercises involve one muscle group and require significantly less whole-body strength and effort. Examples of isolation exercises are the biceps curl, cable flye, and side lateral raise. The subject of compound versus isolation exercises deserves (and will get) its own article, but here’s the long story short:
If you want to build maximum muscle and strength, you want to focus on compound exercises in your workouts.
How heavy is “heavy”?