The fitness industry can be a funny place at times, especially when it comes to claims that sound too good to be true. These tend to create a divide of belief or opinion.
Someone might pick up a fitness magazine and see claims like “MELT 10 POUNDS OF FAT WHILE ADDING SLABS OF MUSCLE!”, and think “whoa, I want some of that.”And then, there’s the other camp. More experienced folks who have a better understanding of nutrition, training, and physiology. These people can sometimes look too close with skepticism, and end up dismissing the claim that you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time altogether.
I’ve been on both sides of this fence
I loved the Men’s Health mags that promoted the latest celeb program. Promising the exact same body within 2-3 months. Jumping from a month-long “bulking” phase only to then switch things around with the aim to get “shredded”.
Then, I went full science and would only believe what the experts and studies say. Keeping a closed mind on my own thoughts and experience.
Ultimately, there would have to be some truth there. To lose fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit. To add muscle, you need to be in a calorie surplus. So how can both happen at once?
I would’ve struggled to believe it fully until I experienced with an early online client.
He came to me because he had been training for a couple of years. Following online popular programs. Yet, was only becoming more bulky, instead of stronger, leaner, and healthier. So, since I was new to the coaching thing, I felt I could help him despite lacking a lot of knowledge myself.
Little did I know that it would go so well. You see, we didn’t have a timeline for progression, but we both knew we wanted to see something happen quick, as well as steady. So we went to work.
Over the course of 8 months, Alan consistently lost fat in a steady state. Some weeks he would drop more than anticipated. Some weeks there would be no weight change. On top of that, he was progressively becoming stronger. So much so that we entered him into his first powerlifting competition in which he picked up a bronze medal. Only nerves prevented a silver.
You might argue that he hasn’t added slabs of muscle, but he easily added muscle to go along with the strength he gained, while only a blind person wouldn’t be able to see the amount of fat he lost.
So, How Can You Build Muscle & Lose Fat?
On Building Muscle….
Firstly, to gain muscle you need to be in a calorie surplus.
Quite simply this means you need to be taking on more calories than you burn per day. Around 10-15% over maintenance seems to be the sweet spot.
Once you’ve got that sorted you’ll want to focus on ensuring that your body has enough fuel to perform at its best in the gym.
Make sure you eat about 2-3 hours beforehand (here are some high protein meal ideas).
Continuing the food theme, research suggests that you want to be eating around 1.6-1.8g of protein per kg of body weight too.
Lastly, if you want to get stronger and bigger then when you’re in the gym, you need to focus on ‘progressive overload‘. This means that overtime, you’ll gradually increase the volume you lift.
On Losing Fat….
To lose fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit. This is the opposite of a surplus. You burn more calories than you consume per day.
Thankfully, your body has plenty of stored fat that it can use for energy that can also support basic exercise which allows you are able to burn more calories on non-training days.
This means that your body is able to utilise energy from fat to both build muscle and burn unwanted fat. The energy is still being used whether the body is in a calorie deficit or surplus. We’re just adjusting the amounts of calories to support the intended outcome. Meaning body composition can be changed throughout. Winner winner chicken dinner.
You first need a method, and time, lots of time…
Building muscle is a very slow process. Its glacial. The more advanced you are, the slower it is. If you’re a newbie, adding some decent muscle to your frame can take between 9-18 months.
To support your training progression you need the calorie surplus like I mentioned above. To lose the fat you need the calorie deficit, so, we will create this throughout the week. This is different to most approaches where you go on a ‘bulk phase’ for several months then a ‘cut phase’ then repeat the process.
This is called Calorie Cycling
It’s more simple than you think. You’re going to modify your calorie intake based on your activity levels.
On the days that you train, your calorie intake will be around maintenance levels, if not a fraction above.
On rest days you will be on a fairly typical calorie deficit of around 15-20% below maintenance. Need some help to work out your calories and macros, read this.
Now it’s important to ensure that you’re tracking your intake accurately! This is where many people can go wrong – they either eat too little on rest days or too much on training days.
Going too far into a deficit on rest days can inhibit your ability to recover. It might blunt the muscle repair process. No bueno my friend.
Also be aware that if you do cardio on your rest days then it should support your recovery, not add more physical stress.
How Often Should You Train?
You need to find a happy medium between training enough to grow but not so much that you can’t recover.
This doesn’t include going #YOLO six times a week performing drop sets to complete failure while some dude in a Golds Gym vest is screaming “It’s all you, bro!”, spraying particles of his Carb Killa bar mixed with his BCAA shake all over your veiny puffed up face.
This requires something that most us are not a fan of, but is always the key to progress. Balance.
The best approach to this is to have a 4-5 day training week. You can split this however you want depending on your training goals.
A solid starting point would look like two to three days upper, and two days lower.
One day of each can be purely strength focused with rep ranges between 3-8, while the other two days can be more hypertrophy focused with the rep ranges between 8-15. If you choose to do a fifth day, then this can be for any accessory work so that you are not stressing out the body too muscle.
Adding enough volume to support the other four days. The goal, of course, is to create progressive overload with each passing week. Not going to failure on every exercise.
What about the rest day cardio?
If you don’t like the idea of feeling generally unfit and gasping for breath while you are getting up off the toilet, then I highly recommend staying relatively active.
Because I constantly prioritise recovery, you want to avoid too much stress on your rest days. This means you can add a form of aerobic finishers at the end of your workout to support this. Here are some methods to do this without slogging it out on the treadmill for hours.
Method 1: The High Intensity Option
SHIIT (Super High-Intensity Interval Training)
These are short and to the point. Think of it as the standard HIIT sessions but cranking it up a level, if you can.
I first came across these a number of years ago when I read about a pro bodybuilder using it in some lab testing. I assume it was legit as the guys around him were wearing black-rimmed glasses and were wearing white robes, so, this means they are real doctors, right?
Anyhoo… I later read of another variation of this on a podcast by someone more reputable, so checked it out. It turns out that is is actually legit, based on research used with Wingate Bikes coming out of the University of Tampa.
Grab yourself a stationary bike. A spin bike would be easier for this. Set it at a moderate difficulty. After a warmup period, you will go all out max for 10-20 seconds. After this, crank up the difficulty and go for it even more for another 10-20 seconds. Once you are done, reduce the difficulty and rest for around 2 minutes, then repeat.
It should look like this:
Warm-up: 1-2 minutes
Moderate intensity: 10-20 seconds
High intensity: 10-20 seconds
Rest: 2 minutes
How many times you do this is dependant on your experience levels too, so if you just joined the gym last week and you see some guy who is super jacked, wearing all the knee wraps, wrist wraps, and screaming at himself throughout, then you are probably not wanting to follow suit. Actually, best to stay clear and remain within normal realms of humanity.
Beginner: 2-4 rounds
Intermediate: 5-7 rounds
I’m a huge fan of these, and so are most of my clients. I say most because not everyone can do these. Be sure that you have a skill level to the point where you feel comfortable performing some of these lifts at a high-intense level without risking injury.
These are great because they will not only fire up your aerobic capacity but will do so by getting you stronger. building muscle simultaneously. How could you possibly lose?
A favourite of mine is called The Bear Complex. It looks like this:
- Power Clean x 1
- Front Squat x 1
- Push-Press x 1
- Back Squat x 1
- Push-Press x 1
Pick a weight that you feel confident enough in both, that you won’t gas out too quick, and, will avoid letting go or dropping the bar. Be sure to take your time performing these if you have never done them before as it can be really easy to mess this up.
This is another one that I’m a big fan off. Thanks to John Romanellio, I first found out about these on his site back when I was in my bro phase; looking for more fancy ways to look more jacked in my stringer vest.
I often use these in client programming when in a fat-loss phase and don’t have the time to add in any excess cardio or avoid going into a larger calorie deficit
It works by setting a timer for between 8-20 minutes. Then, pick between 3-4 resistance exercises, selecting a weight that you can comfortably perform for 8-12 reps. Now it’s important that you drop the ego here as the weight you select will be the one you will continuously be lifting, with perfect technique, until the timer runs out. This will light up your lunges and muscle.
I tend to mix it up with upper and lower exercises, such as:
Bent Over row
Dumbbell Bench Press
Similar to the density circuit, these are great for improving both your aerobic capacity while building strength. This time, you don’t need any equipment so you can do them anywhere. You can even do this at home if you struggle to get into the gym and want to fit in a quick workout.
Pick 2-3 bodyweight exercises and start with rep 1, then, work your way up to a specific rep target. Once you get there, start to work your way back down. Sound simple enough?
Here’s an example for you:
Push-up x 1
Reverse Lunge x 1 /Leg
Chin-up x 1
Push-up x 2
Reverse Lunge x 2 /Leg
Chin-up x 2s
Rest then you would do 2 push-ups, 2 reverse lunges, 2 chin-ups etc. Once you’ve worked your way up to your target, say 8 reps for each exercise, you work your way back down again.
Annnnnnd you’re done!
Method 2: The Low/Moderate Intensity Option
On your rest days, you want to prevent as much physical stress as possible, so an easy way to do this while expending energy is by simply increasing your steps. You can do this in any way, shape, or form. If you want to play it safe then you can target the standard 10,000 method in your favourite mode of movement.
Again, it’s important to not do anything over strenuous here, so anything I listed above would go against this as this will require some muscle repair.
Basically, be active and healthy and get yourself a FitBit. Netflix isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
So, how do I know if I should recomp?
I’ going to bang on about this again – recomp is a sloooooooow process. Because of this, if you go into it thinking that you are about to look like Superman in a few months then you will be greatly disappointed my young padawan.
If you are in. You are in it for a longer haul.
I cannot put that across any clearer than that.
We good? Good. Here are several reasons why you might want to consider body recomposition.
Reason #1 You are ‘skinny-fat’
This is sort of a grey area to be in. Not quite muscly and strong. Not quite lean. Or, nowhere near either of them, to be exact.
When you’re at this stage it can be common to fall into an endless loop of cutting fat and gaining muscle. What happens here is that a weight cut starts, and may be successful, but, there is little to no muscle to display.
Because of that, you end up just looking skinny and gaunt with a semi-sweet set of abs. You achieved your goal of getting lean but sacrificed any muscle that you had to get there. Back to dieting you go.
On the flip side, you go heavy on the quest for muscle. Slamming out chest, back, shoulder, arm, and skipping leg day, until you look…. bloated.
i’m bulking, ja!
Note: I’m not sure why he has a German accent. It just made me chuckle to myself while writing that.
Anyway, a good way around this endless look of cut and bulk is a recomp. If you are going to spend the time on this merry-go-round then you may as well put the time and effort to better use.
Reason #2 You are a beginner
Much like our German friend above, this works perfectly well for someone who is just starting out with lifting weights and dieting.
Often times, when I take a new male client on they say something along the lines of…
I want to lose this *grabbing their stomach*, but I also want to build some muscle too. Not like Arnie, though, but, you know what I mean.
In other words, they would love to look like Arnie but are being too shy to just come out and say it.
They follow this up by instantly dismissing that they know it can’t happen. Well, I have some news for you my German friend, you can.
As a beginner, your body is essentially “primed” to take on the new physical demands that you place upon it. If programmed correctly, you will gain some sweet new muscle while also burning off fat. However, like the previous example, if you diet too hard then you will just be lifting weight while getting skinny. Diet too easy and you will look like you’ve got muscle, but end up looking more like the guy what walks about with his arms flared out looking like there are invisible rolled up carpets under his arms.
Reason #3 You want to maintain fat while in a gaining phase
First off, this demands some training and dieting experience. Mainly because you will get a better understanding of how to manage your diet, training recovery, and how to actually train effectively. These are all important components to any sort of progression, whether it’s dieting or muscle and strength.
In this scenario, you may have been enjoying a good ole’ maintenance phase over the holidays and decided that you wouldn’t mind shedding the few pounds that you picked up. Along the way you think
I tell you what, since I have nothing in the calendar for the next six months, let’s see if I can add a pound or two of muscle.
This bodes well for you here. Not only that, but because your body is already familiar with dieting, it will be able to partition the nutrients more effectively. Meaning that the body will direct calories toward muscle repair and fat burning independently.
Also, on top of this, you can also get away with being more relaxed on certain days. Consuming some extra calories on bigger training days to help move things forward a little on the recovery front while making little to no effect on the fat gaining side of things. Think of this as more of a refeed. A beginner or skinny fat person don’t have the luxury of this as their bodies aren’t used to these scenarios so are more likely going to straight up gain fat.
Reason #4 You just want to maintain
On paper, this should be the easiest of them all, but in fact, it is the most difficult. Not in the way that you will be measuring everything to the absolute gram while forcing out the very last rep to complete that crushing workout you downloaded from bodybuilding.com. More because it is very easy to stray from the intended path of maintenance into the realm of “Ah shit, where’s my abs!?”
When you are able to master maintenance then you are are gaining a new set of skills. Now, say that last part with the voice of Liam Neeson for added dramatic effect.
There are a few things to be aware of here.
First, be aware of where your body falls naturally. Meaning, if you’re a skinny-fat person then you will easily gain fat. Because of this, you will need to be more mindful of how many carbs and fat you consume on your rest days.
Second, avoid allowing yourself to be too relaxed. You’ve got a weekend away with friends, drinking, eating, and having a couple of late nights? Sweet! First of all, just remember to come home. Then, when you do, taper things back again. It is very easy to stray from the path for longer periods. This is especially if you have no particular goal in mind, which can often result in simply being bored of training and dieting too. So set yourself mini-reminders for training and physique goals.
Can you still squat X amount? If not, then direct yourself toward being able to do so again.
Are you still visibly lean? Nope? Then make some small changes in your diet until you can.
Both of these examples will take a couple of weeks to achieve so they can help kick-start some motivation back in.
Body recomposition is another great tool. Especially for those who find themselves in yo-yo programming scenarios.
It does work extremely well if you play it outright. Sure, it does not require you to be 100% dialed in, but it does demand your attention, especially since it’s a longer process than most.
However, it’s not a magic pill. This will work very differently for each person. Some will take to it very easily when others will grow frustrated. Be patient and document your progress.