Who said it wasn’t possible?
There is a prevailing myth that permeates the fitness industry. This myth would lead you to believe that the whole concept of losing fat while gaining muscle at the same time is an impossible task. Perhaps, this is a significant contributing factor to the existence of the commonly accepted ‘cutting’ and ‘bulking’ phases in bodybuilding. During the earlier stages of my training, this had set me back considerably, at least it did for my specific goals because it felt like I was running endless circles.
While this myth may hold a small partial truth, it is for the most part untrue and misguided.
I only wish that I had learned the truth sooner. I have compiled information from reputable sources with leading industry research and some anecdotal observations from my personal experience.
Below, I have broken down key concepts to give you a better understanding.
To gain muscle one must ‘bulk’, to lose fat one must ‘cut’. This is everywhere; from blogs to people talking about it endlessly at gyms.
As mentioned, it is only partially true. This is because of the fundamentals of nutrition and biology.
Catabolic state- the body is overloaded from either a lack of calories and/or a highly stressful level of physical activity over time that is promoting the breakdown of molecules – including the use, and therefore loss; of stored reserves from both fat and muscle tissue.
Anabolic state – the body is in a state of hypertrophy, where it operates at the optimal hormonal efficiency including, but not limited to – the growth of muscle and strength.
Nitrogen balance – YOU NEED PROTEIN: firstly, what is the chemical difference between fats, carbohydrates and proteins? While they all contain: Oxygen, Hydrogen and Carbon. Proteins also contain Nitrogen.
Based on this fact, we can make an accurate estimation of sufficient protein intake based on measurements of nitrogen in a person’s body.
Nitrogen balance is the measure of nitrogen output subtracted from the level of nitrogen input. So, if a person is taking in less nitrogen than what is lost through fluids or excretion, this is what is said to be: a state of negative nitrogen balance.
A negative balance can be caused by a dominance of catabolism over anabolism – i.e. being malnourished, running a fasted marathon or general over-training without the intake of adequate calories. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a positive balance can be attributed to adequate eating/overeating, and consistent stimulation from resistance training.
Factors affecting balance
Many factors are in play regarding how much protein intake is required for a positive nitrogen balance. Your protein intake will vary depending on what kind of consistent activities you are involved in, and it will be useful to know whether your intake should be higher.
One of the main factors is overall energy intake and level of carbohydrate intake.
Take for an example a person who wants to gain muscle, but lets take a rather extreme scenario in which said person is simultaneously on a crazy diet in preparation for a beach holiday, additionally this person plays sports 2-3 times a week, and pushes hard weights at the gym.
With such a high energy expenditure, this person is going to need a drastically higher intake of protein because energy level is also affected by the level of carbohydrate intake – which is going to be low, if they are currently on a strict diet with that much energy being expended at the same time.
“Carb cycling” or a reduction in the intake of carbohydrates has shown to be most effective tool for losing fat. Although potent, this can be a double-edged sword because of the effect is has on hormonal and nitrogen balance. A study from the Australian Journal of Science and Medicine (1), found that 3 elite male bodybuilders in preparation for a contest (typically a 10-12 week period) dropped an average of 4% (4.42 kg) in body fat, but also reported a 2.1 kg loss of muscle.
I will be detailing a more thorough explanation about carbohydrates and its relation to weight loss, and protein requirements for physically active individuals in an upcoming page.
Testosterone, along with energy intake and nitrogen balance, is the other key to gaining muscle. Low carbohydrate dieting and long periods of intense exercise while in a caloric deficit has been linked to a decrease testosterone.
I said it wasn’t impossible, but I didn’t say that it would be easy. But FEAR NOT!
Of course, both cases above are extreme examples. Bodybuilding preparation is brutal, whether or not the bodybuilders are enhanced or natural. As you can observe, the challenge of gaining lean muscle while losing fat is trying to go above simply maintaining the current level of muscle, let alone gain.
Heed knowledge and do the right things. A dual state can be achieved with patience and the right amount of tweaking based on goals and factors. Do not try to stay in this state for too long, as it does evidently take a toll on the body, take what you need and leave, repeat the process when you have taken enough breaks between monthly/yearly goals.
It is inevitable that some muscle will be lost when you aim to get to a low body fat level, but more fat will be lost over muscle, and more muscle will be visible over time. You will end up feeling like you’ve lost some battles, but you will ultimately win the war.
Calories and other factors
Calories is simply a measure of energy. Once again, how much energy your body requires differs significantly for different people. The factors accounting for these differences are mainly: lifestyle, age, size – and the amount of energy one uses during training. If you were to Google: average daily calories for men and women, you would get a result showing an average number (typically averaging at 2500 KCAL for men and 2000 KCAL for women). For our context, these numbers do not take into account the variable factors.
The partial truth comes from the fact that it is simply optimal for muscle growth – when the body is in a state of caloric surplus or maintenance, while it is optimal for adding muscle mass at a fast rate, it is not invariable.
As you would likely have guessed, this basically means, if a man’s daily healthy caloric requirement is 2500 KCAL, then his maintenance: (calories required to maintain his current weight), would be equal or a close estimate to that number. A surplus, would of course mean that the number is exceeded.
Apply the same in reverse for fat loss, which would be a caloric deficit. Only in this case, a deficit is crucial for losing weight. You simply cannot lose weight if you are overeating, even if you are overeating only clean healthy food. While you can maintain and even gain some muscle when you are running a small deficit.
Lose fat or gain muscle?
‘Bulking’ refers to a phase of training and nutritional plan that incorporates a surplus of daily calories combined with a relatively high period of intense training frequency and consistency. This is the muscle-packing period, where you aim to gain as much muscle as possible. This is typically known as ‘off-season’ in the art of bodybuilding. You will notice that bodybuilders seem to have puffy and softer-looking muscles compared to their peak times when preparing for a show. During showtime, this is when any excess of fat and water is lost. After successful preparation, what the world then ends up seeing; is an extremely vascular and almost impossibly shredded physique that combines both size and definition.
Bulking, is indeed ideal if you are purely interested in packing on strength and size – as muscle grows better with more calories in the tank. Depending on what your goals are, this does however come with a sacrifice. If you are looking to achieve a lean, ripped physique that intends to be aesthetic, over bulking will make your muscles bigger but they will appear softer.
What is your goal? Do you intend to only get bigger at any cost? Or do you desire to achieve the physique of a Spartonian with an unbelievable six-pack? With time and dedication, you can certainly become powerful and grow big yet lean in only the right places.
Hidden beneath the layers of fat in a sumo wrestler and a world strongman, lies incredible muscular vehicles capable of performing at the highest level of athletic ability in their sport. But to the untrained eye, they would just appear to be big overweight people, as the details of these vehicles cannot be seen.
If performance only is your sole objective then I would recommend never being in a caloric deficit for the vast majority of the time. For beginners, it is advised to pack on as much muscle as possible while minimizing fat gain in the process You cannot shred to the bone without having a foundation first, you cannot reveal much if there is nothing to be revealed.
To get the best of both worlds, it is ideal to stay at maintenance. This way, you still add plenty of muscle over time because you are consuming the adequate calories without adding the extra bit of fat- it’s what we call lean body mass.
This does take time of course, and it will probably slower than a bulk, but the upside is that you don’t have to burn off the excess when it comes to summer. Cutting is a lot of work that generally isn’t as enjoyable as gaining. You also get to observe all the finer details of your progress in glorious HD!
Maximizing gains while losing fat
As previously mentioned, if you are starting out; you want to focus on building the foundations of strength and muscle gain first and foremost. Throughout your progress, you may want to adjust your regime to allow a bit of bulk here and there for optimal growth and recovery. As long as for the majority of the time, you don’t excessively consume more energy than you burn, gaining fat should be of no concern.
In fact, if you are a beginner, you are actually in the best possible mode for simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain, for at least the first year. When you have no muscle to begin with, you have everything to gain. This dual state becomes harder the more you progress and subsequently end up with a higher level of lean body mass.
The chart below is an estimation of progress with consistent training throughout the years shown from the Alan Aragon model.
|Category||Rate of Muscle Gain|
|Beginner||1-1.5% total body weight per month|
|Intermediate||0.5-1% total body weight per month|
|Advanced||0.25-0.5% total body weight per month|
Aragon is a well-respected top nutritionist and fitness expert. For a detailed insight on maximum muscular potential, I would highly recommend reading his book “Girth Control”.
Note: The chart is at best an estimation for a male average, there are of course other factors to be considered such as: age, medical condition and gender. Because of hormonal differences, women should expect to gain around half the amount of muscle at the same rate. A male beginner can expect to gain around 20-30 lbs of muscle in a year.
Calorie counting may seem like a tedious task (which it is), but you absolutely do not need to work out any calculations and estimates by yourself. Here is a basic but essential tool that has helped me tremendously when I first started out:
It does all the work for you, you simply select from a few boxes based on what your current lifestyle is and you will be given a number. Aim to stick to this number and adjust accordingly when things change.
Adequate exercise and the right nutrition are the exact tools you need. If you’re a beginner, the first six months to a year may be the hardest, but it is the most glorious part because you get the most results.
If you are in a position where you need to lose a lot of weight and lose it faster, then by all means adjust your regime to a deficit plan. There is however, a healthy way to do this and an unhealthy way. Lose too much weight too fast and you will crash just like a crash diet. If you’ve ever wondered why crash diets generally don’t work is, as the name suggests, you get stopped in your tracks by a brick wall – only to bounce right back to your old habits or worse.
Slow and steady
Consistency prevails. Fitness is a lifestyle – if you want success, you can’t just jump in and jump out. When things become second nature, they become a part of you. Think less ‘go on a diet’, rather, live a healthy life. Your physique embodies the very definition of health and fitness. No words required. Your incredible body is living proof to your testament.
If you absolutely need to be in a deficit, stay no less than under 10-20% of your daily caloric intake. So if it was 2700 KCAL you needed to maintain your weight, you would then be consuming 10-20% less of that requirement on a daily basis with the best of your ability. This is not only easier and more enjoyable, it is healthier and more sustainable in the long run. A small deficit, enables you to lose weight at a steady pace while maintaining as much muscle as possible.
Within this range, it is possible to still make strength and muscle gains with a high enough protein intake. For the average person who is resistance training 3-5 times a week, aim for 1.2 – 2 grams per KG of your body weight.
Gaining and maintaining overall muscle mass increases your base metabolism, overtime, it also makes your caloric requirement higher. Both of these encourage fat loss at a faster rate.
A 2011 study (2) conducted by the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, measured the effects of slow vs fast dieting on 24 athletes. Of these athletes, half of them were controlled for a slow reduction of body weight by 0.7% per week (daily caloric intake at 19% below maintenance), while the other; were controlled for a fast reduction at 1.4% per week (daily caloric intake at 30% below maintenance).
The findings confirmed the initial prediction of the hypothesis. The fast control group lost more fat, but gained no lean muscle in the process. Indeed, the hypothesis indicated that a fast reduction of body weight; at around 1 KG per week, would result in faster overall weight loss, but would be detrimental to strength performance and lean body mass.
- Body fat reduction by 5.5%
- Lean muscle mass increase by 2%
- Body fat decrease by 21%
- Lean muscle mass increase 0%
This is good news. A slow rate with a 19-20% reduction in maintenance calories proved to result in both simultaneous fat loss and lean muscle gain. A 2% increase might sound like nothing to write home about, but this is significantly visually noticeable and leads to objectively better performance levels at the gym. Boom!
The big picture
Whether you are primarily aiming to gain muscle or lose weight – or both. It will not be a quick and easy job, especially if you are aiming to balance both. Progress will typically be slow for the average person with a normal metabolism. Remember, people with a higher level of overall lean muscle mass will have increased base metabolisms, thereby making the process of burning fat easier. All the more reason to incorporate more strength training!
A quick summary for the most important things you need to know:
- Maintain a positive nitrogen balance at all times.
- Run a small caloric deficit for as long as it is necessary for your goals.
- For lean body mass, it is best to run neither a surplus or deficit for extended periods of time – stay in maintenance for most of the year. This is because you want to maximise muscle gain and fat loss while minimising fat gain – if you stay too deep in a bulk, or a dieting phase, you will run the risk of never losing enough fat or gaining enough muscle. You want to be breaking a plateau and not turning a wheel time and time again.
While I am militant about the consistency of hard training, my philosophy in life is all about balance. A balance between work and play, between pleasure and pain – each make the other all the more gratifying – amplifying the effects.
So, allow yourself good rest days and a few cheat meals here and there. Eat whatever you want in moderation (except maybe actual trash like soda floats and deep-fried mars bars), it won’t kill you, but I wouldn’t personally go that far.
Enjoy life, it’s not that serious. More power to you.