Gain muscle and lose fat at the same time - can you do it? Yes, and it isn't that complicated, but you have to be very strict about your diet.
Gain Muscle And Lose Fat?
We first of all have to discuss how you lose weight and how you gain muscle mass.
The process of losing weight is very, very simple: eat fewer calories than you burn. As long as you follow this rule, you will lose weight. It doesn't matter how you do it and 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:
- You need to encourage them 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 calories than you burn. 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.
Can we get these together and play nice?
Taking Care Of The Protein
Let's say you weigh 200 lbs and want to lose 2 lbs of body weight per week. You will have to limit your daily calories to about 2,100 kcal.
At 200 lbs you also need one gram protein per pound of body weight. One gram protein has four calories, which means you'll have to have 800 kcal worth of it. Get that and you're left with 1,300 kcal you can still spend.
Sounds simple enough, right? But you can't have high protein food high calories or you overshoot your daily calorie allotment. And you can't have low-calorie food low in protein or you won't get enough protein.
You could, for example, decide to eat chicken breast - high in protein, not many calories. But for how long can you eat chicken breast without anything to go with it? Yet boom goes your calorie limit when you add some sauce, rice or fries to it to get it down.
Taking Care Of Carbs
At least the carbs you can easier take care of. Carbs are important for your workout efforts, no matter if you're on a diet or not. Because carbs are "fast fuel."
When you do low maintenance tasks (watching TV, sleeping), the body uses its "slow" energy reserves, the fat cells, to provide energy to maintain your body. This works nice if you want to lose weight and don't ask for a lot from your body.
But if you need peak power output for high intensity stuff like weightlifting, fat is like driving a sports car with the fuel being converted from raw oil to gasoline right in your trunk. The more demanding a task, the more your body will rely on carbs to do it.
To not limit your workout performance during a diet have some carbohydrates 30-60 minutes before you start exercising. Bananas are an excellent source for them, as they provide you with carbohydrates and more nutrients on top. And one banana has only 100 kcal.
When we put it together, what you need to lose fat and simultaneously increase in muscle mass is...
- Restrict calories
- Still fulfill your daily protein needs
- Provide carbs one hour before your sessions as fast fuel source
- Work out
Yes, it's just four steps. But they require some big self-control. It can be done, but now you know what you are up against and why so many guys claim it's impossible. Being on a diet is hard, limiting your food choices to those high in protein and low in calories is even harder.
Good News For Overweight Beginners
Do you have to go through this? Not if you are a beginner. If you are overweight and start working out, your biggest strength gains won't come from your muscles having to increase in size. They come from your brain learning to use the existing muscles better.
"Catabolic" Vs. "Anabolic"
Last but not least let us address these two terms, because when the topic of gaining muscle while losing fat mass comes up people often throw them around. And say a lot of nonsense.
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 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 break down and digest food (catabolic) and at the same time letting your hair grow (anabolic). Muscles are either 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 body system in is in one state, the rest in the same state. They believe when during a diet the fat cells are in catabolic state (getting broken down to fulfill the body's energy needs), the muscle cells have to be too.
But 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 getting those three things discussed above.
Picture courtesy of Anton Kudris.