Build Muscle While Losing Fat : Fallacy or Fact?
Is it possible to build muscle while shedding fat simultaneously as an unassisted physique athlete or even someone just wanting to recomposition their body?
If you google search the subject of recompositioning or build muscle while burning fat, you will get a plethora of articles making opposite claims. So here you go, based on my experience, my own dexa scans, research, and asking around to several reputable, experienced, successful contest prep coaches, this article is what I have come up with.
In this post:
- The Holy grail: optimal goal to build muscle while burning fat, aka recomping
- Some say fallacy?
- Muscle growth
- Fat loss
- Competitors in contest prep
- Studies showing muscle loss
- Who on this earth can recomp?
- The Noob vs The Experienced
- muscle building rate potential
- Muscle gain rates
- Training Program
- The Noob vs The Experienced
- Recomping How To
- Diet slow
- Studies showing recomp is possible
- My own experience with dexa scans to prove it!
- Diet slow
- My experience
Is it entirely possible to build muscle and shed fat at the same time? There are many factors that come into play here. Let’s dive in….
The Holy Grail
Losing fat and gaining muscle, aka body recomping, or recompositioning is the ultimate goal when getting fit.
It actually is entirely possible BUT, yes, there is a but….
…. there are variables that must be considered like age, gender, genetics, training experience, program and diet.
Some say fallacy?
There are people who say that recomping is a fallacy and here is why. Muscle growth and fat loss are two contradictory processes. One is anabolic (building) while the other is catabolic (breakdown).
Muscle growth happens when protein synthesis rates are greater than protein degradation, also known as being in an anabolic state to build muscle. This requires energy to build thus you must be getting enough energy and nutrients through your diet. ( For a detailed explanation on how muscle grows see this article on rapid gainz.)
When you diet, in other words, being in a caloric deficit, your body is in a catabolic state- breaking molecules down for energy. Based on this, recomping is a falsehood. Why would anyone think that you can build muscle while in a catabolic state and your body is breaking down molecules like fat (fatty acids), carbs (glycogen) and protein (amino acids) to be utilized for energy? Well, before we get into this, lets talk about fat loss.
In order to burn fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit. So, you must be eating less calories than your body needs on a daily basis. Dieting is great to shrink that waist line but it doesn’t go without consequences over time. ( For some serious details, see 3 Reasons Why it’s so Hard to Get and Stay Lean and What to do About it. ) The big issues while creating a caloric deficit through exercise and calorie restriction manifests itself in hormonal compensation creating a catabolic (breakdown) environment (ref 1, & 4). Here are a few key players:
- Cortisol (stress hormone) = increases
- Testosterone ( muscle building hormone) = decreases, yes ladies, this is significant for you too
- Thyroid (metabolic regulation) = decreases
- Leptin (satiety hormone) =decreases
When the above hormones are out of wack or signaling that your are starving, your body will not want to be preserving muscle, an energy expensive tissue, when it’s trying to keep you alive. Your body does not know you are dieting for a bodybuilding show, it thinks you just might die! These hormones listed above are the very hormones you need to maintain and build muscle thus fueling the fact that recomp is not possible. Oh but there is more….
Competitors in prep
Let’s first take a look at competitors that diet for 12-20+ weeks to shed fat to low and below body fat levels and hit the stage as buff as possible during a contest prep.
If you are in a contest prep trying for those low body fat percentages as a natural athlete, you may be on the road losing muscle.
A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2001 tracked 5 female bodybuilders in contest prep over 12 weeks and were compared to 5 athletic woman of similar body composition not trying to lose fat and hit the stage.
The 5 female bodybuilders lost an average of 12.76 lb/ 5.8 kg of weight and 5.6% body fat going from 18.3% to 12.7%.
- 9.72 lb/ 4.42 kg of the weight loss was fat
- 3 lb/ 1.38 kg was lean body mass (muscle)
Conclusion– dieting caused muscle loss along with fat loss.
Another study published in the Australian Journal of Science and Medicine of Sport found a similar conclusion. This study took 3 elite male bodybuilders in contest prep. These bodybuilders lost an average of 4% body fat. Of that:
- 9.72 lb / 4.42 kg loss was fat
- 4.62 lb / 2.1 kg loss was lean body mass (muscle)
Conclusion– dieting caused muscle loss along with fat loss.
Cliff Wilson of Team Wilson bodybuilding, had tracked two of his natural male bodybuilders with blood panels and body fat tests and found that testosterone levels decrease 70-77%, cortisol increased 100% and found one male to have lost 6 lb of lean body mass and the other to have lost 14 lb of lean body mass. The large difference in muscle loss can be attributed to genetics, age, training experience, length of contest prep and how much they had to loose. Again, these hormone imbalances are detrimental to muscle preservation and fat loss but will inevitably happen for a short time during prep.
Based on the above, it seems pretty bleak for the natural physique competitor to, at the very least, maintain, if not impossible to build muscle while in a negative energy balance. But, not so fast. It is possible… but for who and under what circumstances?
(See also – What are those rapids gainz post show?)
So, who on earth can build muscle and lose fat at the same time?
Let’s take a look at various factors that will affect your ability to be able to build and lose all at the same time.
The Noob vs The Experienced
If you are a noob, aka newbie, aka a person that has done little to no weight training, you my friend are one that will reap the best benefits of recomping with a good nutrition and training program. When a noob starts to train hard their body will undergo changes much faster than an experienced fitness buff. If a newbie can strength train with a half way decent diet, they will be able to shed fat while building muscle.
A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology took trained and untrained men over a 21 week period monitoring strength, hormones and cross sectional areas (CSA) of the quad muscle. They found that there was a 20% increase of maximal force and a 5.6% increase in muscle CSA in the untrained athletes. In the trained athletes, they found a 3.9% increase in maximal force and a 1.8% increase in muscle CSA.
- Untrained athletes= 20% increase in strength and 5.6% in muscle.
- Trained athletes = 3.9% increase in strength and a 1.8% increase in muscle.
Conclusion-Newbies have the best results at much faster rates than an experience trained athlete.
An experienced weight lifter of 3-5+ years has most likely met his or her genetic potential. It becomes a much harder fight to really put on 1 or 2 lb of muscle per year. Below are some tables showing muscle growth potential according to years of training experience. Keep in mind, these values are for men as women should expect about half the potential rates.
As stated above, female weight lifters will experience a much slower rate of muscle gain due to having testosterone levels MUCH lower than men’s. (See also, Don’t Lift, You’ll Look Like a Man!). Women have on average about 42.5 ng/dl of testosterone where men on average have about 700 ng/dl. That’s a big ol difference!
This also has implications on muscle loss rates by gender.
Females are much more likely to retain more muscle than men when in contest prep as shown in the studies mentioned in the above section Competitors in prep.
Your workout program is also a key factor for building muscle, especially in experience weight lifters.
A beginner and the genetically elite can get a way with lifting each muscle group 1x per week. The genetically elite will build no matter what they do as will the noob. But, as time goes on, adaptations occur and muscle building slows. Working a program where lifting volumes in various rep ranges has been shown to be more advantageous for muscle growth as utilizing a daily undulating periodization program has been shown be superior to a linear program.
Genetics will play a large role in your capacity to build muscle, at what rate and how well you keep it during a time of caloric deficit.
The genetically elite have the perfect shape and symmetry for the optimal physique. They can put on muscle easily with most programs and keep that muscle better during periods of dieting.
Yes, this isn’t fair. I am unfortunately one who is NOT among the genetically elite but oh well. I just have to work harder!
Recomping how to
Preserving and building muscle at the same time as shedding fat is not super easy and the muscle growth you can accrue during a time of dieting will be much slower than a traditional bulk, but none the less, a natural bodybuilder in contest prep needs to preserve all the muscle she or he can get!!! Here’s how.
A study published in the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences, dieted 24 athletes. Half dieted slowly with a body weight loss of .7% where their energy intake was reduced 19% below maintenance calories . Essentially, dieting at a rate of 1 lb per week weight loss. The other group dieted more quickly with a 1.4% body weight reduction and an energy intake that was reduced by 30% of maintenance calories. This group lost an average of 2 lb per week.
Slow diet group, 1 lb/ wk =
- Body weight decreased by 5.6%
- Body fat decreased by 5.5%
- Lean body mass (muscle) gain of 2%
Fast diet group, 2 lb/ wk =
- Body weight decreased by 31%
- Body Fat decreased by 21%
- Lean body mass (muscle gain) 0%. Remained unchanged
Conclusion= dieting to lose 1 lb per week actually built muscle mass while losing fat as opposed to dieting to lose 2 lb’s per week. Also, the 2% increase in lean body mass for the slow diet group may seem like nothing but 2-4 extra pounds is actually quite a bit of muscle when you hit the stage lean! Recomp achieved!
Another study done on track athletes had some interesting results noting that body recompositioning is possible. 15 track and field athletes were split into two groups. One group took in about 300 calories below daily maintenance levels and the other group decreased daily calories by 750 below maintenance for 4 weeks. Both diets were aiming or a slow weight loss… 1 lb or less per wk.
The group in a 750 calorie deficit
- Body weight decreased an average of 4.84 lb’s
- Body fat decreased an average of 3.74 lb’s
- Performance increased
- 20 meter sprint improved .04s
- Counter movement jump improved by 2 cm
The group in a 300 daily calorie deficit
- Body weight – negligible change
- Body fat decrease- negligible change
- Performance-negligible change
( exact numbers are not listed in the abstract and I do not have access to the full article :/)
Conclusion– Both groups were dieted slowly at 1 lb per week weight loss or less which showed muscle sparing results. The group with the larger calorie deficit, enough to actually lose weight, maintained muscle and improved performance. Calorie deficits don’t automatically mean muscle loss will happen. Also consider the fact that these are experienced athletes where muscle growth rates are not as great as untrained athletes AND, these track athletes were doing HIIT type cardio with the sprints and jumps, which leads me to my next point.
HIIT is an acronym for high intensity interval training. Its short, it’s fast, it’s hard as hell! HIIT is a great cardio type to build or at the very least, maintain muscle mass (much like the track athletes above) while trying to lose fat. Benefits of HIIT include:
- Ramps up metabolism for hours after the HIIT session (ref 10)
- Sessions are short and only a few times per week
- Less time in a catabolic state (muscle breakdown)
- Recruits all muscle fiber types (ref 9)
- HIIT retains and/ or builds muscle (ref 6-8)
- HIIT may be Anti-Aging (see Its Not Nice to HIIT! )
HIIT works like this; you sprint all out, as fast as you can go for 20-30 seconds, then slow jog or walk for 60-90 seconds, then repeat for the allotted number of intervals (interval times vary per program). You should reach your max heart rate by the 2nd or 3rd interval and on. I aim for 170-180 bpm (beats per minutes) but it may take 1-2 intervals to get your heart rate up there. then, viola! 10 – 15 minutes and you are done! But the post calorie burn keeps on going for hours! Bonus!
I love to use an alternating HIIT protocol to reverse diet clients in an off season, after a show or for non competitors that need to lose weight but also gain muscle. It works like a charm. My coach and mentor John Gorman came up with this idea and did an informal study with 30 of his clients.
Essentially, you would do 3 HIIT intervals (20-30 seconds hard, 60-90 seconds rest 3x) everyday for 7 days. Then for 7 days, you do no cardio but keep lifting as usually. On the HIIT weeks you can add calories and keep eating those calories through the non HIIT weeks.
When I reverse diet clients in the off season before prep, my clients will end up going into a show doing no cardio, lean as hell eating just as much calories as we started with. We cut in-between of course but I would have to reverse them into a show. See more on Reverse Dieting here.
Also see: Its Not Nice to HIIT!
-protein, carbs, fats-
Nutrition is of the utmost importance when trying to recomp a physique and build muscle. Getting in the correct ratio of nutrients will help to optimize protein synthesis (build muscle) as well as improve performance and recovery.
The following is a typical diet set up for those looking to improve performance and muscle mass.
Protein: Take in about 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. See The Ultimate Get Fit Girls Guide to Protein for details and references.
More protein has shown to not have more benefits than the amount listed above (ref 17 & 18) and, getting in enough protein will help to spare and build muscle mass. If you don’t get enough protein while dieting, your body will break down muscle for the amino acids.
Fat: Take in about 20-30% of your calories from fat. About .2 -.5 grams per pound of body weight.
Carbs: Fill in the rest with carbs. Maximizing carbs is important as they fuel your muscles and your performance!
Track your daily intake and make adjustments as needed. Timing nutrients, specifically carbs and protein around your workout during a period of dieting, especially during a contest prep will help to fuel your workouts and build muscle.
A ketogenic diet approach can also be taken. A true ketogenic diet is a diet comprised of 75% fat, 20% protein and 5% carbs. For a person eating 2000 calories per day, they would be eating, 166.7g fat, 100g protein and 25g carbs. The goal is to “fat adapt” the body where your body is depleted of its glycogen stores (carbs) and must utilize ketone bodies converted in the liver from fatty acids (fat) for energy. This diet uses fat as its main fuel source, not carbs.
It usually takes 2-6 weeks for a person to enter a state of ketosis and can feel low on energy and performance may suffer. Once in ketosis, energy levels and mental clarity increase. If you are a highly active athlete, you will need to do a cyclical ketogenic diet where you carb up 1-2x per week. This is a super general overview of a ketogenic diet so please research this before doing it! (see links below)
Benefits of this diet include eating lots of bacon :D, low to no cravings, and evidence showing fat loss benefits while building muscle (ref 19, 20).
Dr. Jacob Wilson PH.d., CSCS has done research on ketosis and found benefits with fat loss and muscle building. Check out his article on the Ketogenic Diet Frequently Asked Questions.
Also check out the works of Lyle McDonald such as The Ultimate Diet 2.0 and The Ketogenic Diet: A Complete Guide for the Dieter and Practitioner , or a book by Dr. Di Pasquale called Anabolic Solution for Bodybuilders .
There are also many prep coaches utilizing keto in the last stage of prep successfully to lean out and get shredded such as Team Gorman. Check out Johns’ article Is Ketogenic Dieting Bad for Natural Athletes?
Sleep in HUGE for recovery! If you are getting less than 6-7 hours of sleep, you may be hindering that goal of muscle building and fat burning all together! Recomposition fail!
Sleep deprivation can actually cause muscle loss (ref 11 & 12) and decreased testosterone (T) levels (ref 13). Yes ladies, again, this does affect you! Not only does a sleep deprived beast mode gym rat have lower T levels but also lower growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1 levels (ref 14). All very important to building and maintain muscle.
Aside from hindering the muscle building area, fat loss is also slowed or halted all together when sleep deprived. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine took two groups of people in a moderate caloric deficit. Group 1 slept about 8.5 hours per night and group 2 got about 5.5 hour per night on average. They found that group 1 lost 55% more weight and kept 60% more lean body mass than group 2 (ref 15).
Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep consistently (ref 16).
See also: 8 Ways to Sleep Tight
During my 25 week cut phase, I dieted slowly, watched my nutrition, utilized HIIT and intense lifting techniques and prioritized sleep.
Part way through my off season I started using dexa scans. November 2015 through the beginning of March my fat mass went up due to enjoying the holiday season a little too much! When I started to cut in April 2016, you can see over the course of my 25 week prep I lost 13 pounds: 16.6 pounds of which were fat! How is that possible!? Well, I gained 3.6 pounds of muscle from March 2016-September 2016. 13 + 3.6 = 16.6. Since I have been tracking with dexascans I have gained 8.25 lbs of muscle. The big jump in muscle gain from 7-29-16 to 9-28-16 happened when I changed my lifting routine and hired a strength coach to kick my ass. I was losing motivation and needed the push. It was intense but awesome at REDLine HP in Woodbury, MN.
Yes, it is entirely possible to build muscle while burning fat simultaneously. Many factors come into play for body recomping to be successful such as gender, experience, genetics, diet, training program, rate of weight loss, sleep and nutrition.
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