Anyone who is trying to get into shape will know how bloody hard it can be to lose fat while gaining muscle at the same time. Either you build muscle but your stomach pooch doesn’t budge, or you lose fat but everything becomes more flubby than toned.
While doing both simultaneously may seem impossible, it is doable.
To get into it, let’s first understand why losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time is so damn difficult.
“The easiest explanation for this is due to the fact that for optimal fat loss you want to be expending more calories (energy) from physical exercise than what you consume through food and drink, and for optimal hypertrophy or building lean muscle mass, it’s the opposite,” dietitian and sport nutritionist Robbie Clark told The Huffington Post Australia.
Body science expert Moodi Dennaoui, aka The Diet Doctor, agrees, saying that achieving both goals comes down to dedication and knowledge.
“Anyone who’s ever truly been on a bulking or a cutting diet will know exactly what difficulties lie in trying to build muscle and burn fat simultaneously,” Dennaoui told HuffPost Australia.
“In order to gain muscle, the body needs copious amounts of food combined with a reduction of all extraneous activities.”
FYI, ‘extraneous activities’ refers to extra or indirect exercise you may do outside your training program, such as playing footy with your mates.
“In order to shed fat after building this muscle, the body needs fewer calories and more tedious cardiovascular-type exercise. To try and embark on a mutual compromise between gaining muscle and losing fat typically brings compromising results in either direction.”
If you’re wondering how on earth you can achieve your goals, don’t worry. Here are Clark and Dennaoui’s simple tips on how to lose fat and gain muscle.
1. Consider your training weight
When it comes to the best approach for losing fat mass while building lean muscle, Clark says it’s important to note that the major determining factors for success come down to training state and experience.
“If you’re new to resistance or strength training, or are getting started again after a break, you shouldn’t have any trouble building muscle and losing fat simultaneously,” Clark said.
“If you have at least 6-8 months of weightlifting experience and aren’t coming off a long break, you may have trouble building muscle and losing fat simultaneously.
“The exception to the second point is if the person that has been lifting weights for some time but has never incorporated heavy compound weightlifting. It’s very likely that he or she will experience initial gains in lean muscle, while being in a calorie deficit.”
If you’re not new to training and having difficulty gaining muscle and losing fat, you may just need to follow the next steps more closely.
2. Implement a calorie deficit
A calorie deficit refers to the number of calories (energy) you need to consume in a day in order to lose weight, compared to the calories you need to maintain your weight. To implement a calorie deficit, you need to either eat less calories, burn more calories through exercise and training, or do a combination of the two.
“While necessary for losing fat, a calorie deficit causes the body to adapt in various ways. Two major adaptations occur, which impacts on your body’s ability to build lean muscle efficiently at the same time,” Clark explained.
“Number one is a reduction in both anabolic hormone levels, and number two is a reduction in protein synthesis (growth) rates. As a result, both these changes directly interfere with your body’s ability to create new muscle proteins.”
In simpler terms, you don’t want too large a calorie deficit, otherwise this can impact your body’s ability to gain muscle mass.
“Implement a moderate (20-25 percent) calorie deficit in your diet, which will allow you to lose fat while preserving muscle,” Clark said.
To calculate this, first figure out your basal metabolic rate and put this into a calorie deficit calculator.
4. Choose HIIT for cardio
For the fat loss side of things, balance your strength training with exercises that will raise your heart rate.
“If you’re going to perform cardio training, focus on high intensity interval training (HIIT),” Clark said.
Sprinting outdoors or on a treadmill and cycling are ideal forms of HIIT cardio which should be done on weight training off days (2-3 times per week).
“This type of cardio training incorporates intense periods of work with short recovery segments. HIIT helps you give maximum intensity within the session and keeps your body burning fat even after you finish.”
Dennaoui also recommends alternating HIIT with longer, slow duration cardio.
“Some form of cardio should be done 3-6 days per week,” he said. “Walking on a slightly inclined treadmill for 45 minutes is an ideal form of the longer duration cardio, which should be performed on weight training days (up to 3 times per week).
“Sprinting outdoors or on a treadmill and cycling are ideal forms of HIIT cardio which should be done on weight training off days (2-3 times per week).”
5. Switch up your training
Over time, your body gets used to certain exercises and movements, which is why it’s important to mix it up to work different muscles.
“Change your training program every 4-6 weeks,” Clark said. “One training principle that occurs over time is adaptation. This means your body becomes used to the exercises and intensity you are performing and so, in order to make continual gains, you need to change your program.”
You may also find that you get stuck at a certain weight or body fat percentage. Don’t worry, this is normal — you just need to adjust your training program.
“You will hit plateaus, so it is important to make changes to your training program and diet as required,” Clark explained.
“The most common ways to increase the intensity of your training sessions include to modify rest periods, vary the load, increase the speed of movement and progress from isolated to compound movements and exercises.”
6. Eat a varied, whole food diet
Exercise and training is just one part of losing fat and gaining muscle. To optimise your training, eating a balanced, varied and healthy diet is crucial.
“One of the biggest areas where people fall down with their diet is that they do not plan or prepare their meals. In an age where we are so busy, not planning your healthy meals and snacks will cause you to make poorer food choices and hinder your results and health goals,” Clark said.
7. Have rest days and sleep well
Although it’s tempting, avoid working out seven days a week. According to Clark, recovery is just as important as training.
“Get enough sleep. This is very important to allow your body to rest and repair, especially any damage done to muscle tissue,” Clark told HuffPost Australia.
“Muscle soreness is going to be likely, but if you don’t rest appropriately you are at more risk of injury or burnout, which will lead to hindrance in your training and results.”