About the end of each year we often hear the lament, “I need to lose some weight!” No! No! We do not “lose weight,” we lose either fat or muscle. For most of us, we want to lose fat and build on, or at least maintain the amount of muscle we currently possess. Can we lose fat and build muscle at the same time? This is a hugely controversial subject among fitness professionals, but it also has real-world implications for regular wellness questors, especially beginners. So, we need to wrestle with it and try to come up with the issues that frame the question, if not define a pathway to fat/muscle balance. The controversy centers around the conventional wisdom that one needs to generate a caloric deficit to lose fat and generate a caloric surplus to gain muscle.
Physiologically, it’s not possible to lose fat and build muscle at the same exact moment in time because one process is catabolic (losing fat) and the other is anabolic (building muscle). It is possible, however, to gain muscle and lose fat over the course of say, two months (or even over the course of a day), but on a very small scale. If we are to have a shot at growing-or at least maintaining muscle-while losing fat, most fitness professionals agree that we need to create a slight caloric deficit, follow a high-protein eating plan (0.80 to 1.00 grams per pound per day-that also tends to crowd out some bad carbohydrates!) and pursue an aggressive resistance/strength training program.
Gaining muscle without gaining fat is generally a difficult proposition. In order to gain muscle our bodies need to be in a state of caloric surplus. If we are attempting to build muscle, it is expected that we will add some fat. This is keenly understood by fitness models and bodybuilders who “bulk up” with both muscle and fat during the off-season while attempting to build muscle. There is not one top fitness model or “natural-no steroids” bodybuilder who tries to lose fat and build muscle at the same time. They focus on a muscle-building phase of about nine months, then a fat-loss phase of about three months before “photo-shoot” time. That might tell you a lot about our “lose fat/build muscle” conundrum right there, even though most of us are doing just the opposite of the bodybuilders/fitness models, i.e., we want to lose fat first.
Losing fat and building muscle at the same time may sound desirable, but for most of us it may not be the best approach to maximize results. Those who have a substantial amount of fat to lose should first concentrate on losing fat while trying to preserve the muscle they currently possess. The fine tuning here involves a caloric deficit, resistance/strength and cardio training. In general, stepping up the cardio will speed fat loss.
Here is the good news! The more fat we have to lose, the more fat we will lose vis-à-vis losing muscle at the same time, and beginners do best at this! The body is inefficient at performing both activities at the same time. About the only time both happen together at peak efficiency is when a person is just beginning her/his wellness quest, in which case strength training is such a new stimulus to the body that muscle gain and fat loss happen together quite efficiently.
Since each of us is a bit different in how we metabolize nutrients and responds to the stress of strength/resistance training, the watch-phrase, as always is; “TRY, then ADJUST!”
None of the above is to be construed as medical advice.
Ron Ringlien is a Senior Wellness Coach, a Certified Fitness Nutritionist (CFN) and a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 310-463-1720