I’ve been having some really good success in my attempts to lose fat and get in better shape, but I also have a goal to get stronger and to gain more muscle as well. While I have made some strength gains, they’ve been nothing to write home about and I really don’t believe I’ve added any muscle either. Any suggestions?
On the subject of simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain, in all but a few conditions, these two goals are mutually exclusive. I’ll touch on strength gains while dieting a bit later, but in the mean time, to lose fat, you need to create a caloric deficit. Without this deficit, which can be created via dietary means (reduced calories) or increased expenditure, you simply cannot lose fat. Period. On the flip side, to build muscle, you generally, outside of a few conditions that will be mentioned shortly, need a caloric surplus. You simply cannot build a house out of sweat. There needs to be some raw materials available. In fact, in drug-free lifters, muscle gains are intimately tied to caloric intake. The reason you don’t see more people progressing, assuming a reasonable training program (which is also asking a lot), is that they don’t eat enough. Gyms everywhere are full of people that are trying to accomplish these two goals at once. They train hard (whether smart or not is another issue entirely), and then it’s off for 45 minutes of cardio. They want to get big and ripped … yesterday. And what happens? You see them a year later and they look the same. It’s a year spent spinning their wheels. There’s a reason competitors have off seasons and precontest seasons – the goals of each are different. The former is typically focused on increased muscle mass and improving certain aspects of one’s physique as well as strength gains. The latter is typically focused on losing fat, getting in shape, and holding onto all that newly earned muscle, the last of which is a battle in itself. So, we first have the dietary obstacles to these two goals. In addition to what’s been already said, there’s also the issue of hormones and their response to over- and under-eating. To make a long story short, the anabolic hormones responsible for increased muscle mass are stimulated by over-feeding and increased calories. On the flip side, they fall in response to under-eating/caloric deficits, and if that wasn’t bad enough the catabolic hormones rise in response to under-eating. So again, we have conditions that do not support the goals of simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain.
The training programs followed also affects these goals. Muscular gains are the result of tension placed on the muscle (weight lifted) as well as how long that tension was applied (time under tension). Basically a product of the properly managed manipulation of volume and intensity. When your calories are over maintenance and you’re eating enough, your ability to recover from more work in the gym is greater. You can train with more volume, cause more protein degradation, and yet recover and hopefully grow. Contrast that to when you’re in a caloric deficit; your ability to recover from strenuous exercise is reduced, due to more than likely less than optimal anabolic hormone levels, decreased glycogen stores, and just generally lower energy intake. So you simply cannot do the same amount of work that you could if you were eating in a caloric surplus. If you try to, and this is one of the most common mistakes made in training while dieting, then you’re going to find yourself eventually regressing, potentially losing size and strength, and feeling overtrained. Training volume needs to be reduced while dieting and research suggests that you can maintain with a volume reduction as high as two thirds. Always keep in mind the goals of resistance training while dieting – maintenance of muscle and strength.
So, what are the conditions for when the phenomenon of simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain (often referred to as repartitioning) occur?
- Beginner – beginners tend to be able to accomplish this feat quite easily. Resistance training is a brand new stress to the body and the body is very apt to respond positively. Remember your first year of weight training? That’s likely when you experienced some of your best gains.
- Detrained/Returning from a lay off – similar to the above, after taking an extended break from training, many of the positive adaptations experienced gradually go away. When a person returns to lifting these adaptations quickly return. Whether this is due to ‘muscle memory’ or some other phenomenon, the bottom line is that after a lay off, simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain is quite easy to achieve. In fact, there’s support for the fact that not only will you quickly return to your previous best, but that you might even overshoot and tap into new growth.
- New to ‘Effective Training’ – most people honestly are fairly clueless when it comes to smart training program design. You see it all the time in gyms – the old fashioned body part splits where you’re hitting muscle groups once per week with insane amounts of volume, (25 sets for biceps anyone?), the focus on isolation exercises to ‘feel’ the muscle, and just straight up silly training. It’s no wonder the majority of people in gyms never make any gains; they get their training programs from the latest ghost written pro bodybuilder article. When said trainee suddenly starts training properly – focus on compound exercises, more work in the heavy rep ranges, properly managed volume and intensity, increased frequency of stimulation, a move away from body part splits (outside of perhaps periods of training where they’re specializing on a muscle group), etc., the next thing you know, their body starts responding positively, at least for a little while.
- Drugs – this one is a no brainer. Steroids change the rules.
- Cyclical Dieting/Calorie Cycling – one could argue that this isn’t exactly simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain since when following such a dietary set up, you typically have periods of caloric surplus and periods of caloric restriction, so the muscle gain and fat loss that occurs is still not breaking the rules mentioned previously. But suffice to say, a properly set up plan can actually result in some fat loss and muscle gain. That said, the results tend to be less than if one were focusing solely on fat loss or solely on muscle gain.
As for strength gains while dieting, this is possible, but again, clearly not to the extent that would be possible if one were eating in a caloric surplus. Provided you’re not in too great a caloric deficit, and your training program is set up properly – decreased volume, focus on heavy, low reps, compound lifts, etc., then yes some strength gains are possible. This is also the proper way to train for the maintenance of strength and size. Remember, what builds it, keeps it.
Strength gains while dieting, in the absence of muscle mass increases are the result of the effects such training has on the nervous system. Strength gains can be derived in two ways – increased muscle mass and increased efficiency of the nervous system. The latter basically meaning an improved ability to recruit and fire the high threshold motor units – those most responsible for maximum strength and size.