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Can You Build Muscle While Losing Fat?

Points You’ll Takeaway -
  1. It is very much possible to achieve both at the same time, but we need to look at who this applies to.
  2. An overweight and gym newbie would find it relatively easy to recomp their body.
  3. An experienced lifter can build muscle while dieting as long as a calorie deficit is controlled to 10-20% and training is sufficient.
I hear this question over and over again and the majority of the time the answer I hear is either ‘yes, you most definitely can’ or ‘no, no such thing!’ You also hear companies selling products and programs ensuring you will ‘build 10lbs of muscle and lose 15lbs of fat in 4 weeks!’ Well, whenever you hear something that is too good to be true you should always be sceptical and ask for the evidence. Because most the time when something sounds too good to be true it normally is! So today I would like to dispel some myths and look into the how and why when answering the question. [caption id="attachment_3781" align="aligncenter" width="650"]The holy grail - more muscle and less fat! The holy grail - more muscle and less fat![/caption]

So is it really possible to build muscle while you’re losing fat in a calorie deficit?

It is very much possible to achieve both at the same time, but we need to look at who this applies to and the rates at which it occurs within different people. Not everyone is going to make such rapid progress. Many believe that in order to build muscle you must be consuming more calories than you are burning, a calorie surplus, while losing weight is the process of eating less calories than you are burning, a calorie deficit. Of course this will create an ‘optimal’ environment for you goal as the calories from a surplus can be partitioned to build muscle or the calorie deficit will cause a loss in weight. But it would be possible use calories stored in your fat cells to support muscle growth, while eating a calorie deficit. The process of building muscle and losing fat is the basis of body recomposition – the process of eating and training to end up with more muscle and less fat than you had before.

The Overweight Gym Newbie

Now let me start by saying if you are carrying lots of fat and very little muscle it is of course going to be easier for you to build muscle and lose fat at the same time. An overweight and gym newbie would find it relatively easy to recomp their body. Take anyone who is sedentary with high levels of body fat and they’ll often drop large amounts of fat while gaining muscle at the same time.

So Why Is This?

People who carry high levels of body fat are usually insulin resistant. Insulin is a hormone that controls blood sugar levels, along with controlling the storage of other nutrients in muscle and the storage of fat. With their fat cells already very full and resistant to insulin, the storing of nutrients is inefficient and excess nutrients start to stay in the bloodstream. Things start to change when this individual starts to diet and lift weights. Muscle cells increase their insulin sensitivity, due to muscle contraction (1, 2) and nutrients are diverted away (and released) from their fat cells and towards their working muscles for recovery and growth. The second reason these individuals can make good and fast progress is due to the fact they have never lifted before. This means a relatively small stimulus is needed to increase both strength and muscle mass, compared to a relatively experienced trainer. The combination of these 2 can provide an environment for body recomp, until the body adapts, with fats cells no longer being insulin resistant and fat levels being lowered. The more and more we lift weights the rate of strength/muscle gains slow and a greater the stimulus is need to provoke a response resulting in us having to seek a properly designed program.   [caption id="attachment_3779" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Make sure you know what you're consuming... Make sure you know what you're consuming...[/caption]

So An Advanced Lifter Has No Hope?

Gaining muscle while losing fat in experienced lifters is achievable but isn’t ‘optimal’ and takes time. Many trainers and coachers simply dispel this and claim that it is unachievable. However, when I dieted for my last show my strength improved. A stronger muscle must be a bigger muscle right? Of course it could be central nervous system adaptions but generally speaking a stronger muscle is a bigger muscle. One experiment (3) compared changes in body mass, fat mass, lean body mass, and performance after 2 different weight loss interventions promoting loss of 0.7% vs. 1.4% of body weight per week in elite athletes. To achieve this, energy intake was reduced by 19% ± 2% and 30% ± 4% in slow and fast rate weight loss diets, respectively. The conclusions revealed that lean body mass and upper body strength increased more in slow rate diet compared to the fast rate diet; 2.0% ± 1.3% vs. 0.8% ± 1.1% and 12% ± 2% vs. 6% ± 2%, respectively. But after 12 months there were no significant differences between groups in body composition or performance. This suggests that during a period of calorie restriction strength and muscle can be increased in elite athletes, but what it emphasises is the need to control the calorie deficit and not cut calories too drastically. Will it be ‘optimal?’ No of course not, but apply any adequate stress to the body and adaptions will occur- SAID (Specific Adaptions to Imposed Demands.) From experience I would suggest only looking to create a deficit of 10-20% of total daily expenditure. Macronutrients ratios should be optimised along with a periodised and sound training program that keeps you training heavy and looks to ‘optimise’ recovery. For further information on how to estimate your total daily energy expenditure and macronutrients requirements, check out my article.

References –

  1. Niu W1, Bilan PJ, Ishikura S, Schertzer JD, Contreras-Ferrat A, Fu Z, Liu J, Boguslavsky S, Foley KP, Liu Z, Li J, Chu G, Panakkezhum T,Lopaschuk GD, Lavandero S, Yao Z, Klip A. Contraction-related stimuli regulate GLUT4 traffic in C2C12-GLUT4myc skeletal muscle cells. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2010 May;298(5):E1058-71.
  1. Richter EA1, Hargreaves M. Exercise, GLUT4, and skeletal muscle glucose uptake. Physiol Rev. 2013 Jul;93(3):993-1017.
  1. Garthe I1, Raastad T, Refsnes PE, Koivisto A, Sundgot-Borgen J. Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2011 Apr;21(2):97-104.
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