Everyone who gets into fitness has at least one goal in mind. It might be to train for a sport, to lift heavier weights, or it might be to tone up a bit to impress that cute girl who is always at the gym. But there’s one extremely common request people have when they start hitting the gym: “I want to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time”. Some people will tell you it’s pointless and can’t be done, that you either have to focus on putting on weight first, then cutting down, or drop some fat before you start lifting to pack on some size.
Those people are WRONG. Can you gain muscle and lose fat at the same time? Yes. Is it going to be easy? No. But if it were easy, everyone would be doing it, right? Lean gains are what we are talking about – putting on some quality, lean muscle, not only with minimal fat but actually reducing fat as well. Obviously there are a few different factors to consider when you travel down this road, such as your diet, lifting schedule and cardio. It might take longer to hit your desired goals, but once you have everything in check, you will love the results and it will all be worth it.
The Importance Of Diet
Like anything to do with losing weight or gaining muscle, your diet is going to play a key role in helping you reach your goal. This time it might not necessarily just be about how you divide up your macros, but also about how to structure your eating patterns during the day. Naturally, you have two options for losing or gaining weight – eat in a deficit or eat in a surplus. When striving for lean gains, you might have to ask yourself what your most pressing concern is (losing fat if you are seriously overweight or gaining muscle if you are skinny-fat), but generally the idea is to eat in a caloric surplus.
This is because to gain muscle, naturally the body needs to take in more energy than it is burning in order to replenish and rebuild your muscles. What you need to focus on is HOW MUCH of a surplus you eat in. Anywhere from 250 - 500 calories above your maintenance level is the general rule, but when you are trying to simultaneously lose fat AND gain muscle, this probably doesn’t apply.
Instead, try eating in a surplus anywhere between 100 - 250 calories. If you eat more than that, you might not necessarily put on fat, but you will likely have a harder time losing it. At the other end of the scale, if you ate in a deficit, you would be able to lose fat but would have a hard time piling on muscle.
Sorting Out Your Macros
Once you have your surplus sorted, you need to figure out the best way to arrange your macros – your protein, carbs and fat – to achieve your daily calorie goal. While all three are still going to be essential no matter what your goal, arranging how many grams of each macronutrient you get will significantly affect your chances of putting on muscle and losing fat.
Carbs are the main macro you will need to manipulate. Your diet should consist of lots of protein, moderate-high levels of fat, and only a relatively small amount of carbs. You can’t just cut out carbs altogether, because you want to eat enough to be in a caloric surplus, but you won’t need as much as if you were purely looking to gain muscle. Approximately 1g carbs per pound of LEAN BODY WEIGHT is a good starting point, though you can potentially start at 1g per pound of OVERALL BODY WEIGHT. For those who are significantly overweight, I advise you abide by the LEAN BODY WEIGHT rule.
Protein should make up most of your diet, because excess proteins, unlike carbs, are not stored as body fat, which means you can eat more protein than you need to. This is also the reason you should limit your carb intake. Your MINIMUM aim for protein should be 1.2g - 1.5g protein per pound of OVERALL BODY WEIGHT, but you can eat more than this. This ensures you get all of the protein you need to support muscle growth.
Lastly we have fat, which should make up the rest of your calories needed to hit your calorie goal. There is no specific ratio for how many grams of fat to eat, but it should be a reasonable amount to make up for the fact you have cut down on your regular carb intake. If you want to, and if it is more convenient, you can also eat more fat rather than protein, as fat doesn’t make you fat – just be sure to stick to mostly monosaturated fats and healthy saturated fat like coconut oil.
There are at least a couple of ways you should go about eating. One option is to eat 5 - 7 small meals a day, spread about 2 - 3 hours apart. This way you aren’t packing all of your food in at once, instead you are limiting the amount of work the body needs to do to digest food, and providing a slow release of energy throughout the day.
You also might want to try and eat most of your carbs around your workout time. Carbs before and after your workout are super important, to provide energy and replenishment. The main thing with your timing of carbs is to avoid eating them late at night. At dinner you can probably get away with a little bit. But when you start snacking on high-carb treats late at night before bed, all you are doing is giving your body energy which it won’t use while you are sleeping, and will instead store as fat.
Another option you have is to try Intermittent Fasting (IF). This is where you choose a specific eating window, say an 8 hour block from 12pm-8pm, where you eat all of your calories. IF helps the body deplete glycogen stores, therefore basically forcing the body to use fat for fuel. For more on this topic, check out Erica’s article via this link: Intermittent Fasting (IF)
The Importance Of Cardio
You need cardio to lose fat, and in case you’ve heard otherwise, cardio DOES NOT directly hinder your ability to gain muscle, if utilised correctly. If you choose to do long bouts of cardio, such as marathons or 10 mile runs for all of you cardio, it will aid your fat loss, sure…but it won’t be good for building or maintaining muscle.
The most common cardio for aiding muscle growth and retention is High Intensity Interval Training. HIIT doesn’t take long, just 15 - 25 minutes is sufficient, and doing it 2 - 4 times a week is plenty. The short bursts of intensity and short periods of rest combine superbly – the intensity helps to increase your metabolism, so you keep burning fat for longer once you have finished training, and in the short rest periods, you recover enough stamina and energy to continually push basically as hard as you can. HIIT doesn’t just have to be cardio either, you can do weight training with little to no rest to simulate the same thing.
Now, this isn’t to say you can’t go for long runs, but think of it this way – what do you see when you look at a long distance (e.g. a marathon) runner? A pretty lean dude, but also a skinny dude with little muscle. Compare that with a short distance runner (e.g. a 100m sprinter) and you get someone with low body fat levels, but plenty of defined, big and powerful muscles. Stick with HIIT for the majority of your cardio, but definitely don’t be afraid to do some long distance stuff too.
Something else to consider is fasted cardio. Instead of having something to eat before you train in the morning, do your training first, then come home and eat. By training fasted, you are more likely to dip into your fat stores for energy, instead of just using carbs that you might have eaten prior to your workout. This can apply to weight training too.
There are a few things to think about when it comes to gaining muscle AND losing fat, but the most important point is that it is possible. It will take hard work, and if you are expecting something quick and easy, lean gains isn’t it. But wouldn’t you rather build a lean body all at once, rather than ‘bulking’ to then just ‘cut’ it all away? The end result will be more or less the same, the overall time frame will be similar, and it’s important to remember that once you have fat cells, they never disappear without operations. Lean gains are hard to get, but nothing worth having comes easy.
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