How To Gain Muscle While Losing Fat
Looking to build muscle and do away with stubborn body fat? It may seem impossible considering a calorie deficit helps with weight loss, while you need a calorie surplus to build muscle.
However, it is possible to gain muscle and shed fat with the right balance of nutrients and the ideal exercise regimen.
There are some strategies for gaining muscle while losing fat that we will examine to help you determine the ideal approach to eating and training to meet your goals.
Find the right balance of calories
Gaining muscle while losing fat requires the ideal balance of eating enough calories to build muscle but not too many calories to promote body fat. Gaining lean muscle mass is tricky if you’re in a calorie deficit, on the other hand, eating an excess amount of calories will increase your fat stores.
Body bulking is a popular method of training and eating in which people increase their calorie intake far beyond their needs while participating in intense weight training. However, this method will often result in muscle gain but not necessarily fat loss.
While you’ll want to be in a slight calorie surplus to build muscle effectively, you don’t need to eat an extra 600 calories or more a day to meet your goals.
In fact, one study found that athletes who maintained a slight calorie surplus gained the same amount of muscle as athletes who maintained a large, (almost 600-calorie) surplus after 8 to 12 weeks. Furthermore, the large surplus calorie group didn’t gain significant amounts of extra muscle but did gain significantly more fat than the slight calorie surplus group.
Recommendations from professional organizations such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics are to increase your daily energy intake by roughly 200 calories daily to help build muscle.
Eat plenty of protein
Protein plays a critical role in building muscle because the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) found in this macronutrient help to repair and maintain muscle tissue. Training hard at the gym can only go so far if you aren’t providing your body with the correct building blocks to help support muscle gains.
So how much protein do you need to lose weight and gain muscle? While there’s some conflicting information on the amount of protein needed, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, aiming for 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is sufficient for most exercising individuals to help promote muscle growth.
Adequate protein intake can help transform your physique in several ways. Protein can help you feel fuller for longer and one study found that a high protein diet was linked with a lower body fat percentage and a higher muscle mass among athletes.
It’s always best to discuss your ideal protein needs with a dietitian specializing in sports nutrition to help determine the correct amount for you.
When selecting protein sources try whole foods like fish, chicken, beef, eggs, nuts, soy, and beans first. Unlike protein supplements, these foods will provide essential vitamins and minerals that can support your health goals.
Unlike carbohydrates, which can be stored, excess protein isn’t stored for energy so you’ll want to spread your protein intake throughout the day, ideally every 3-4 hours, so you can optimize muscle growth.
Don’t ditch carbohydrates
With carbs on the chopping block for so many, it may be tempting to try to go low carb when trying to lose weight and gain muscle. However, this will only hinder your progress and lead to burnout. While protein may seem like the obvious choice in helping to build muscle mass, carbohydrates play an important role as well.
Allowing yourself to eat adequate carbohydrates throughout the day will enable protein to do its job by helping to rebuild and repair your muscle tissue. By restricting carb intake, protein will be used as an energy source rather than to restore and rebuild lean muscle mass. The key to recovery is to eat some protein and some carbohydrates after working out.
But before loading up on just any carbohydrate source, keep in mind that high-quality carbs that reach your bloodstream slowly will provide the sustained energy that you’re looking for. For example, some of the best carbohydrates for athletes will include whole grain bread, brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, and fresh fruit. Many of these sources also provide fiber, which can benefit both our digestive health and cardiovascular health.
You may be wondering how many carbs you should be eating in a day to help gain muscle while losing fat. According to current guidelines, The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), Dietitians of Canada (DC), and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommend that moderate exercise requires around 5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day. Carbohydrate needs will increase as your exercise intensity and duration increases.
If participating in moderate to high intensity exercise (1 to 3 hours per day) you may need 6 grams and in some instances (endurance athletes) up to 10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per day.
Focus on weight training but don’t forget about cardio
While nutrition is important, exercise is also key when it comes to gaining muscle while losing fat. Resistance training or weight training will help to stress your muscle fibers so they can then grow back stronger.
As a general rule of thumb or if you’re new to strength training you’ll want to choose three to four exercises per muscle group and perform three to four sets of 8 to 12 reps of each exercise. Start by training three to five times per week, and as you gain strength, increase the weight or intensity so that you're steadily progressing. If you’re new to strength training, meet with a personal trainer to assist you with proper form and programming.
Cardiovascular exercise like jogging or cycling is an excellent way to help shed body fat. Aim for one or two days of cardio per week to help maintain a healthy weight and to enhance your heart health.
Get quality rest
Believe it or not, rest is a vital part of losing weight, gaining muscle, and supporting your overall health and well-being. While you sleep your body releases human growth hormone, an important chemical that helps support tissue repair, muscle growth, metabolism, and stress management.
Research suggests that adequate sleep and improved sleep quality can help enhance performance, reduce the risk of injury, and lead to improved endurance performance.
Just like training, getting enough sleep takes commitment and time management skills. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to allow your body to help repair itself.
Additionally, don’t discount rest days as they can be essential in meeting your goals. Rest days are important for athletes and active people at all levels because they allow your muscles to repair, rebuild, and increase in strength.
The number of rest days you need will vary depending on the type of activity you’re doing and the intensity of your workout. Generally speaking, The American Council on Exercise (ACE) advises that you should have a rest day every 7 to 10 days if you participate in high-intensity physical activity.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, you don’t have to choose between losing fat or gaining muscle as they can be done together. By finding the right balance of calories, and including plenty of protein and adequate carbs to your meals, you’ll allow your body to shed some fat and gain some muscle.
Additionally, you’ll want to participate in weight training exercises along with some cardio while scheduling some rest days.
While gaining muscle while losing fat may seem daunting, with a proper training schedule and adequate consumption of certain nutrients, building muscle while staying lean is an achievable goal.