Can you really lose fat and build muscle at the same time?

The ultimate goal of many of us is to lose fat and simultaneously gain muscle. Do we need to go to the extremes of switching between “cutting” (a term used to seriously restrict caloric needs in order to lose fat) and “bulking” (a term used to eat more calories than we need in order to gain more muscle) or is there a middle ground? Are we able to have our cake and eat it too (no, seriously, is that possible?)? Can we create an exercise program and eating approach that will let us do both? Or do we need to focus on one goal at a time? Those are the questions I am constantly asked.

The answer is yes and no.

No: Physiologically speaking, it isn’t possible to lose fat and gain muscle, at the exact same time. This is due to your metabolic state and whether you are currently catabolic (losing fat) or anabolic (building muscle). Catabolism (think catastrophe) involves all of the metabolic processes that break down biomolecules; in contrast anabolism (think anabolic steroids) is the metabolic process that builds up biomolecules.

This is important to remember when training: Hard exercise breaks down the muscle fibers whilst rest & recovery rebuilds the muscle fibers. Hence, recovery is just as, if not more, important than training to increase muscle growth and to get better results (1).

Yes: It is possible to lose fat and gain muscle over the course of a few months, weeks, or even the course of a day (2). We are capable of switching between the two processes (catabolism and anabolism) frequently. However, just because we can doesn’t mean that it is the optimal approach. For those whose livelihood depends on their physique such as bodybuilders, fitness models and some athletes, focusing on both will produce sub-optimal results. If you fit into one of these categories a better approach would be to focus on a muscle-building phase for 6-12 months, then a fat-loss phase for 2-4 months.

If you don’t fit that description and your goals are to lose a bit of fat around your midsection, look good naked and sculpt some defined arms, then you can achieve both, without creating specialized phases. This is known as body recomposition. Not everyone can recomposition successfully (I know, I am sorry) the determining factors are:

1: If you are new to weightlifting

2: If you have taken a long break from weight lifting (more than 6 months).

*For those that don’t meet the criteria, it still may be possible if you split your week into “focused diet and training”. From there you can assess if it’s a method that works for you.

So lets start by splitting your week into Fat Loss and Muscle Building. The schedule I have outlined usually suits people who are looking for flexibility with their diet at the weekend.

Fat Loss Phase (Sunday after 5pm to Thursday before 3pm)

Reduce calories below your maintenance level (calculate fat loss calories here). Eat a palm-size serving of protein at every meal and restrict carbs throughout the day. Eat as many leafy greens as possible and keep fats moderate to high. I recommend doing a high-fat and low-carb approach to shift over to fat burning.

Do a mix of cardio and weight lifting. Exercise intensity is the key to fat loss (3). Keep rest periods short, <30 seconds, using supersets (2 exercises together without rest)/trisets (three exercises together without rest) or circuits (more than 3 exercises together). Focus on full body compound movements in order to tear down more muscle fibers and create a greater metabolic effect (resulting in more calories burned during and after exercise) Keep sessions under 1 hour. Bottom line, if you're in the gym for 2 hours you aren't working hard enough!

Muscle-building phase (Thursday after 3pm to Sunday before 5pm)

Here you will be in an anabolic state. You will be eating 200-300 calories above maintenance level and consuming more carbohydrates (40-70%) whilst reducing fat intake (<15%). Don’t be afraid of consuming more carbs! You will need them. Keep protein intake higher (30-40%). The extra amino acids will build muscle. You will train in all rep ranges for power, strength and hypertrophy. Start with multi-joint movements, go as heavy as possible, with good form (within 4-8 reps). Rest for 2-4 minutes during sets to replenish energy stores and be 100% ready for your next set. Next, do single-joint exercises (tricep pulldowns, bicep curls, chest fly). These aren't as taxing on your nervous system so mid-high rep ranges are appropriate. Reduce your rest time with these types of exercises (1-2 minutes). Finish with depletion exercises to ensure every single muscle fiber has been hit and muscle glycogen is depleted. This means our heavy carb day will go towards refilling muscle and liver glycogen and not be stored as fat.

THE KEY to building muscle:

1. Progressive overload (lifting heavier weights or doing more reps than previously)

2. Increased volume (load (kg) x reps x sets = volume)

3. Increased frequency (x of times you train)

4. Increased time-under-tension TUT (amount of time muscles are contracting)

Sample Fat Loss Workout (Lower Body)

​​SMLXL

*Active Rest: Rest time is factored in by the mobility/flexibility exercise.

*Perform 1A then 1B together then repeat for 4 total sets. Perform 2A then 2B together, rest for 30 seconds and repeat for 4 total sets.

Sample Muscle Building Workout (Upper Body)

​​SMLXL

*7/7/7 = 7 reps wide grip, 7 reps medium grip, 7 reps close grip

Takeaway: If you skimmed the article for the good stuff (shame on you) here is a list of points to remember:

1. Yes, you can build muscle and burn fat at the same time, under the right conditions.

2. No, some people cannot successfully recomp (burn fat and build muscle simultaneously

3. Split your nutrition and exercise into weekly “fat loss” and “building muscle” phases

4. Always train using compound lifts

5. Fat loss requires less calories, increased exercise intensity, <30s rest between sets and HIIT (optional but recommended)

6. Building muscle requires more calories, training close to your 1RM (100% Repetition Max/effort), longer sessions and more volume.

7. For some people, focusing on “fat loss” first and then “building muscle” in two separate phases is a better idea.

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