What’s the reason you go to the gym and follow a diet plan?
For most, training and diet is all about aesthetics – the desire to look good, naked.
To achieve this goal you may need to drop some body fat and gain some lean muscle. We call this process recomposition, or recomp for short. But there’s a challenge: the things that help you build muscle tend to make you fat. The things that help you lose fat also tend to make you lose muscle. This creates a dilemma: do you drop the fat first and deal with the lack of muscle? Or do you get bulky and then worry about the extra fat you’ve gained?
It is likely that you will want to tackle both goals at once, but is that the best solution? Is it even possible?
In this article, we answer the question ‘can you burn fat and build muscle simultaneously?’. We look at the process of burning fat and building muscle. We also identify common pitfalls and the best practice to achieve the goal of improving aesthetics.
A lot of the best practice and anecdotes come from the world of bodybuilding. If you’re put off by that, just bear in mind that the science and physiology is the same for almost everyone. The recomposition practices will work for you regardless of your goals or current status.
Is body recomp possible?
You can burn fat and build muscle simultaneously, but only if the conditions are right. Here are the groups that are able to burn fat and build muscle at the same time.
New to training
If you are someone who has never exercised before and been unrestricted in your diet, you will be able to do both. By introducing exercise and a structured calorie deficit, you will be able to burn fat and build muscle simultaneously. However, this will only be possible for the initial stages while the stimulus is new. The results also depend on how much body fat you are holding and your genetic potential for muscle growth (we will discuss this later).
Excessive body fat
If you are holding a high level of body fat, it will be possible to burn fat and build muscle simultaneously. As you begin a structured training programme and a calorie-controlled diet, your body will tap into the bodyfat reserves for energy. The lower your body fat levels drop, the slower this rate will happen until it naturally plateaus and you must change approach.
Return from lay off
If you have previously held low body fat and high lean body mass (LBM), it is easier to achieve it again than starting from scratch. You may have had a lay off due to injury or lifestyle. The time off is likely to have negatively affected your body. Once you return to regular exercise and structured diet, you will begin to burn fat and build muscle simultaneously. However, this will only get you back to your previous status.
A study known as ‘the Colorado experiment’ was conducted in 1973. During this study, one participant was able to put on 28kg of LBM and drop 10% bodyfat, within 28 days. The participant in question was a professional bodybuilder who had nearly a year away from training and diet. What he managed to achieve returned him to his previous condition. Although there are several criticisms to the study, what it does show is that returning to the former state can be rapid, compared to starting from scratch.
There are several performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) available both through medical prescription and on the black market. PEDs can range from hormones such as testosterone and human growth hormone to chemicals such as clenbuterol and ephedrine. Each of these PEDs have different roles which can help you build muscle, burn fat and recover quicker than nature intended.
We won’t go into the ethical reasons for or against the use of PEDs, but just state that using them can allow you to burn fat and build muscle simultaneously and achieve a physique that’s not possible without them. However, there are two key points to highlight. First, the use of PEDs without medical supervision can be extremely damaging to your health. Secondly, PEDs are not magical. You will still need to be focused and dedicated to your diet and training to benefit from the use of PEDs.
The issue with trying to burn fat and build muscle simultaneously
The reason why it is not easy to burn fat and build muscle simultaneously is due mainly to the physiology of energy balance. With physique goals, it all comes down to calories in versus calories out. In general, fat loss requires you to be in a calorie deficit. That means eating less than you need, moving more than usual or ideally a combination of the two.
To build muscle you generally need to consume more than you expend, placing you in a surplus. You can keep activity high; however, this will increase the number of calories needed. The exact numbers of calories are different per person based on several factors. Once you have worked this out, the magic number typically used is 500 calories.
If you are trying to achieve a deficit, you remove 500 calories from your daily calorie requirement. You add 500 calories when you are creating a surplus. As you can see by the numbers, they are two different sets of logic. Trying to achieve both at once could be compared to attempting to travel east and west at the same time.
Let’s look at fat loss and muscle gain individually to explain the processes and limitations of performing both at the same time.
We recently discussed how fat burning works within the body. We explained how body fat is stored, released into our system and how it’s used for energy. Fat burning is one side of the coin. You also need to make sure you are not topping the fat stores back up after you have emptied them.
Fat loss vs weight loss
Fat loss and weight loss are two different things. Fat loss is when you lose only stored body fat from your frame. Weight loss is the total of all weight loss from your structure. If you focus on maximal weight loss, this can lead to a reduction in LMB, which is unhealthy and counterproductive. We want to focus on fat loss as this is healthy and improves our physique. As you lose LBM, it also becomes harder to burn calories. Lean body mass increases your metabolism as it uses up energy even at rest; therefore, the more muscle you hold, the easier it becomes to burn calories.
How much fat can I lose?
With fat loss, slow and steady wins the race. But burning a lot of fat will take more time. One pound of stored body fat contains 3500 calories. Therefore, if you are holding 15kg of body fat, that’s 33 pounds which is 115,500 calories of body fat. As you can see, that’s a lot of calories!
In terms of application, the rule of thumb is to reduce calorie intake by 500 from your daily requirement. In doing this, you will be at a 3500 calorie deficit per week, which is equivalent to one pound of fat loss. If you also increase your daily activity between 300-500 calories per day, you are safely on track to lose at least one pound of fat per week.
You might try a more significant deficit to elicit more fat loss. The problem is that this will encourage your body to burn both fat and muscle tissue to make up the deficit. You need the deficit to be big enough to burn body fat but small enough not to trigger muscle breakdown. When your body suffers a net breakdown of muscle tissue, we refer to this as being catabolic. We will discuss catabolism later.
The actual amount of body fat you can lose is dependent on your current body fat levels. Studies show that the maximum amount of energy you can transfer out of fat stores is 63-75 calories per kg of fat per day. To do this, you will need to know your exact body fat numbers and follow a strict diet and exercise regime. Naturally, it is easier to stick to the 500-calorie deficit from food while exercising to elicit fat loss.
The best diet for fat loss
Open any fitness magazine or search for fat loss on google and you will see lots of different diets touted as the best for fat loss. Amongst the most popular are the Keto, Paleo and Carnivore diets. All these diets use the principle of removing one or more food groups from your diet.
The studies show the diet used doesn’t matter; what matters is that you maintain a calorie deficit to allow your body to use stored body fat for fuel.
At Life Force Fitness we take a more balanced approach to nutritional planning. First, you will need to know your daily calorie requirements. We are able to calculate that during your initial onboarding process when you become a client. However, if you are doing this for yourself, there are plenty of calorie calculators online to help you work this out. Once you have your calorie requirement, you will need to work out your macro split.
We suggest a macro split of 10-35% protein, 20-30% fats and the rest in carbs. Your protein does not need to exceed 1g per pound of LBM. No additional protein synthesis will be achieved by going higher. We discuss protein synthesis later. Try to keep fats around 20% but allow yourself to go up to 30% if you find that more palatable. Your body can make fat, and it’s very good at it. But some fats cannot be made and are therefore essential in your diet. The right fats will help you stay healthy – they’re good for your brain and they help you reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol, for example. Most people’s diets tend to be higher in fat. So, you might start with a higher ratio of fats then slowly work it down. The remaining calories from your daily total will come from carbohydrates, which will sit between 35-55%.
An example of how to structure your diet for fat loss
‘Dave’ is 34; he weighs 85kg and has 30% body fat. Based on this, Dave has an LBM of 59.5kg. Dave is new to exercise and plans to train three days per week. Based on his calorie requirements, to lose one pound of fat a week, he needs 2010 calories per day.
To work out protein, we take his LBM of 59.5kg and times it by 2.2 to give us the number in pounds. That gives a total of 130.9 (let’s round up to 131). So Dave’s protein requirement is no more than 131g. Protein contains four calories per gram, so his calories from protein are 524, which is 26% of his daily total.
We want to keep his fats moderate so we will go for 25% of calories from fat. Fat contains nine calories per gram, so we take the 25% of total calories which is 502 and divide it by nine. That gives us 55g of fats per day.
The carbs are what remains. We have 26% from protein and 25% from fats, leaving 49% for carbs. That gives us 985 calories. Carbs have four calories per gram, so we divide 985 by four gives us 246g of carbs.
In summary, Dave’s daily requirement is 131g protein, 55g fat and 246g of carbs. He would follow this until his bodyweight stalls, at which point you’d recalculate the requirements again. Once you reach a bodyweight you are happy with, you”ll maintain the calorie numbers and activity that got you there.
We have previously covered the importance of muscle from a health and wellbeing point of view. Here we are explicitly looking at the requirements for adding additional mass to your frame. For men and women alike, having a muscular body is desirable, and it is common to see many people ‘slinging iron’ in the weights room to grow their muscles. But how does this work?
How to grow muscle
It’s important to understand that two mechanisms are involved in growing muscle. These are called hypertrophy and hyperplasia. Hyperplasia is the addition of new cells, and this can happen in any part of the body. In terms of muscle growth, this means the creation of new satellite cells and muscle fibres. Hypertrophy is the splitting and growth of existing muscle fibres, taking what is already there and making it bigger.
The science tells us that although there is some correlation to new cell growth from resistance training, there is not enough clear evidence to suggest a protocol to cause hyperplasia. It is the common understanding that hypertrophy is how we grow our muscles.
Hypertrophy in a muscle occurs when you provide it with enough stress to cause a growth in the number of myofibers and sarcomeres within the fibres, which increase the fibre size. When you lift weights, you elicit physiological triggers that stimulate adaptation. It is when we rest, refuel and recover that those fibres adapt and grow back bigger and stronger.
Anabolic vs catabolic state
You might not have heard of these before, but your body is in a constant see-saw between the two. Being anabolic is when your body creates new cells and grows them. An example of this is gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogenesis is when the liver and kidneys produce glucose from non-carbohydrate sources.
Being in a catabolic state is the opposite. Catabolism is when your body breaks down cells to create energy. You can trigger catabolism by being overly stressed or in an extreme calorie deficit. Performing excessive amounts of exercise, especially aerobic exercise, increases catabolism within the body. You can also create catabolism by training too much and eating too little. Resistance training triggers anabolic pathways due to stress placed on the muscles. Although the process is anabolic, you will require protein to provide the raw materials for fibre growth and energy to fuel the processes. If you do not supply the body with protein soon after a workout, you may lose the window of opportunity where your body is very responsive to nutrients and primed for anabolism.
When you are trying to build muscle, you need a calorie surplus to give you the additional fuel to support the growth. Not only will the protein be used to repair tissue, carbohydrates will help fuel your workout and recovery. In the same way, we suggest a 500-calorie deficit for fat loss; we advise a 500-calorie surplus when trying to gain weight. Be cautious with extra calories: going too high will not increase the gain in muscle, it’s much more likely to increase the amount of stored fat.
Protein synthesis and timings
Your muscles are in a constant process of synthesising and breaking down protein. Protein gets broken down to create cell growth within the muscle through a signalling protein called mTOR. mTOR positively promotes cell growth while inhibiting catabolic processes in the body. For your muscles to retain size, you require protein balance to be zero: there needs to be a balance between protein used and protein consumed. If you want to gain mass, you need to be in a positive protein balance. To do this, you need the right nutrition on top of the right training.
Resistance training stimulates protein synthesis. The stimulus is particularly strong right after training. To maximally promote protein synthesis, consuming proteins close to resistance training is vital. Another study found that consuming protein within one to three hours after completing resistance training is critical.
The ingestion of protein is required to trigger muscle protein synthesis. Some studies suggest the amount necessary to trigger muscle protein synthesis is 0.4g per kg per meal, split across a minimum of four meals. To help make this easier for most people, we suggest an average of 18-25g per meal, across 4-6 meals, including a post-workout shake.
Best training method for hypertrophy
The topic of how to train for mass can raise much debate. There are advocates of different methods for various reasons. It is common to see ‘bro-splits’ favoured in many bodybuilding gyms. A bro-split is where you train one muscle group per day across a week. The idea is that you focus on one muscle group and work it so hard that it requires a week for recovery. The problem is that muscles need to recover, adapt and grow if you want to make progress. If you’re not using PEDs, can the muscle really recover from such a pounding?
Another problem is that after adapting, a muscle will slowly lose that adaptation if it is not trained again. Might you be back to where you started if you only train once a week?
If you’re a mere mortal, drug-free with average genetics, there’s an optimum number of times per week to train. The science shows that if you increase the frequency while keeping the volume the same, you can get better results in size and strength.
In our article, we cover the best way to train for muscle mass. It can be summarised as:
- Increase intensity throughout your programme – aim to lift more weight each week
- Increase volume (number of sets) each week until it stops you from increasing intensity
- Train each muscle group 2-3 times per week, spaced out
- Make most of your exercise selections compound exercises (big lifts)
Use personal preference when choosing your training split. Some of the common options are:
- Whole-body sessions, 2-3 times a week.
- Upper body, lower body, rest, repeat.
- Push, pull, rest, repeat.
- Torso, limbs, rest, repeat.
How much muscle can you gain
There is a genetic limit to how much muscle someone can gain naturally. You may be genetically gifted and able to add mass to your frame rapidly. Dr Casey Butt created a calculation which estimates your maximum lean body mass potential. The calculation takes your height, lean body mass weight, body fat % as well as ankle and wrist circumferences to generate your maximal potential for lean mass.
The amount of lean muscle you can add decreases as your training exposure increases. The Lyle McDonald muscle-building model states that during your first year of training, you have the potential to gain between 20-25lbs of muscle. By year two that drops to 10-12lbs, and from year four onwards it is 2-3lbs per year. Those numbers might sound disappointing to you as they are far below the dramatised promises of many training programmes and products.
The traditional approach: cutting and bulking
Both fat loss and muscle gain are complex processes that are best targeted one at a time. It is commonly called a cutting and bulking approach. By giving each goal a specific period, you can maximise the results in each. On paper, this sounds optimal, but there are regular pitfalls that can happen during this training cycle.
The cutting phase
Each phase contains three elements: cardio, resistance and diet. Historically, in the cutting phase, this is how each element would look:
- Cardio – perform lots of cardio, usually intervals in the morning and steady-state cardio after your resistance training. Total daily completion would be more than 90 minutes in the belief of increasing fat-burning all day long.
- Resistance training – performing lighter weights for higher reps and lots of sets to promote muscle toning. Every session ends with core work to help reduce stomach fat.
- Diet – going low carb and high protein within a high-calorie deficit. Allowed one cheat meal a week to boost metabolism.
There are several flaws to this cutting method.
- Performing excessive cardio can put you in a catabolic state. Staying catabolic will cause not only fat loss but also muscle loss.
- The style of resistance training is not optimal to fight off catabolism.
- Following an extremely low-calorie diet will have adverse physical and psychological effects that increase the likelihood of going off-plan. The weekly cheat meal becomes a binge and can become counterproductive to the process.
- You can’t burn belly fat by doing abdominal exercises!
- The resulting weight loss will be a mixture of fat, muscle and water. As we saw earlier, reducing LBM makes it harder to burn calories, which increases the difficulty to burn fat.
The bulking phase
- Cardio – is non-existent. Keep any non-training activity to an absolute bare minimum. You welcome any chance to sit, lay or sleep to initiate recovery.
- Resistance training – one muscle group per day using multiple exercises to hit the muscle from every angle. Big focus on lifting heavy and in moderate volumes.
- Diet – go big on calories. Super high protein intake and relaxed food options to fuel recovery due to the insulin response. The more food, the more you grow.
There are many flaws with the traditional bulking phase also.
- The lack of any cardio can decrease general health markers and hinder recovery and muscle growth.
- Training a muscle to annihilation once a week is not the best stimulus to promote muscle growth.
- The change to heavy lifting and excessive volume per session increases the risk of injury.
- Bulking diets generally become an excuse to eat junk food and excessive calories. The belief is that all these extra calories are being soaked up by the body as training increases insulin sensitivity. The resulting weight gain is primarily body fat with minimal amount of muscle.
The outcome of traditional cutting and bulking
It is common the see someone follow a cycle of cutting and bulking through the space of a year and not make progression. What tends to happen is you gain excess body fat during the bulk, then drop fat and LBM in the cut. You start the next bulking phase and regain all the body fat and muscle mass, repeating the cycle. Mainly, you have taken two steps forward and two steps back. I know this as early in my training experience, that was me. I followed the advice of the biggest guys in the gym, and it saw me balloon and shrink across the space of a year. It wasn’t until I did research into science-based principles rather than ‘gym lore’ that I made significant changes to my body.
New method: mini cut/lean bulk
A sensible approach is to spend short periods in each phase to achieve a set goal. If your body fat is above 15%, you are best to focus on getting this down through a standard weight loss programme first. The more body fat you are holding, the easier it is to store fat. You will see better results by keeping your body fat between the 10-15%, especially if you are trying to hold a six-pack and muscle definition.
Below I summarise the mini cut and lean bulk process.
- This phase lasts between four to eight weeks in total.
- The goal is to lose up to 1% of current body weight each week. For most this sits between 0.5-1.0kg per week.
- While in your calorie deficit, favour reducing fats over carbs, but keep proteins as required.
- With resistance training, keep intensity and frequency high but don’t push the volume.
- Perform steady-state cardio as a method to increase the calorie deficit.
- The lean bulk should be twice the length of the mini cut, provided you can keep below 15% bodyfat.
- Training is kept at high frequency; high intensity and push training volume each week until it affects the intensity.
- Increase calories back to maintenance first before moving to a surplus.
The advice here sits in line with our recommendation. We always suggest to clients a 1kg weight loss per week for healthy fat loss. If your goal is to lose fat and build muscle, the sensible approach is to focus on weight loss first. Ideally, to be considered ‘lean’, you will be between 10-15% body fat. Once you reach this level, you can increase calories by 500 per day and push intensity in your training sessions to gain lean mass. The amount you can obtain will be dependent on your training exposure, genetic potential and compliance to diet and training.
Focus on each phase independently until you reach your desired aesthetic look, then begin a maintenance programme.
Everybody has different training goals. You may wish to look toned with minimal body fat. Some people prefer the big and bulky look. You may want to attain the ‘Greek statue’ physique, which is lean and muscular. To achieve your goal, you may wish to lose fat and build muscle at the same time. If this is your goal, prioritise weight loss to reach between 10-15% body fat adding mass. The amount of lean mass you can add might be less than you expect. Having patience as well as the commitment to the programme is essential to see constant positive gains.
Science shows us that you are more likely to stick to a diet when you are supported. Having a coach can not only support you but provide a critical eye and guidance to get the best results possible.
Both Jon and Haydn have been competitive bodybuilders which shows that they practice what they preach.