Gain muscle and lose fat at the same time – can it be done? Yes, and it actually isn’t that complicated, but you have to be rather strict about your diet.
Fat Vs. Muscles?
The process of losing weight is very, very simple: eat fewer calories than you burn. As long as this rule is fulfilled, it doesn’t matter how you do it and you can choose whatever diet works best for you.
For your muscles, three things decide if they increase in size, no matter if you are on a diet or not:
- They need to be encouraged to grow by doing strength training with enough resistance
- They work best during workouts when carbohydrates are available as a fast fuel source
- They finally need protein to increase in size, because muscles are made of protein
So here comes the rub: if you want to lose weight, you have to eat fewer your calories than you burn. But if you want to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, you have to fulfill the above three and still limit your daily calories.
When Diets And Your Muscles Meet
Let’s start with the protein. The general rule of thumb about how much protein your body needs to build muscle mass while working out is one gram per pound of body weight and one g of protein has four kcal. If you weigh 200 lbs, you therefore need 200 g of protein, which translate to 800 kcal. But, if at 200 lbs you want to lose 2 lbs of body weight per week, you also have to limit your daily calories to about 2,000 kcal – and now 800 are already gone just for the protein, leaving you with a measly 1,200 to spread.
Over to the carbs. When you are on a diet, the body uses its “slow” energy reserves, the fat cells, to provide fuel. This works just nicely for your average daily tasks, but when it comes to weightlifting it’s like driving a sports car with the fuel being converted from raw oil to gasoline right in your trunk. Because the more demanding a task is (fast running, heavy weightlifting), the more your body will rely on carbs to do it.
To not limit your workout performance during a diet it therefore usually is a good idea to have some carbohydrates 30-60 minutes before you start exercising. If the 2,000 kcal guy from above does that with a banana, as I recommend here, another 100 kcal of his daily calorie allotment will have been spent.
Good News For Overweight Beginners
It’s all really simple on paper (or a computer screen, if you will), isn’t it? Limit calories, get some carbs, work out, get some protein and there you go and gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. In reality, it requires some big self-control. Being on a diet is hard enough. Being on a diet and limiting your food choices to those high in protein and low in calories is even harder.
But do you really have to go through this? Not really if you are a beginner. If you are overweight and start working out, your biggest strength gains actually won’t come from your muscles having to increase in size, but from your brain learning to use the existing muscles better.
Catabolic Vs. Anabolic
Last but not least let us address these two terms, because often when the topic of gaining muscle while losing fat mass comes up, they are thrown around and there is a lot of nonsense being said.
Especially (self-appointed) workout pros will tell you that you can’t gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, because the body supposedly can only be in either “catabolic” or “anabolic” state. Check for example this enlightening explanation at the Muscle & Strength Forum.
In truth, both processes always happen at the same time and together form your “metabolism”:
- “Catabolic” simply means the breakdown of stuff to use as energy or to get the building blocks to construct something else
- “Anabolic” is the process by which this stuff is then build
If either of them came to a standstill, you would be dead. As a practical example think about your body being able to digest food (catabolic) while at the same time letting your hair grow (anabolic). Muscles can be catabolic or anabolic, too, and when you work out, your encourage your muscles to be anabolic and increase the size of their cells.
The confusion some muscleheads finds themselves in about this is that they think if one system in the body is in one state or the other, the rest has to be as well. They take the catabolic state of fat cells during a diet (who have to be broken down to fulfill the body’s energy needs) as the same thing as a catabolic state of the muscles. If one happens, they reason, the other does too.
But, as hinted above, your muscles give zilch about the fat cells, as long as there are enough fat reserves to keep the processes in the rest of the body going and they themselves getting those three things discussed above.
Picture courtesy of Anton Kudris.