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Tips on How to Gain Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time

by Evelyn Valdez

Contrary to popular belief, you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time. Many believe when it comes to building muscle, you need to bulk up to actually get effective results. But many people don't want to get bulky and gain weight to build muscle. That's when a process known as body recomposition comes in! That just refers to the process of simultaneously building muscle and reducing body fat. So, yes it is possible to lose fat and gain muscle, but it's not easy... It requires consistency and understanding of how to accomplish body recomposition correctly.

Fat loss is just one component, so despite what you may believe, to accomplish body recomposition you won't be following a strict weight loss plan. So, before you cut back on your calories drastically, and start lifting heavy weights 5+ times a week, we'll give you the best tips that will get you on the right track to gaining muscle and losing body fat at the same time!

Eat at maintenance and increase activity level

The typical protocol for achieving fat loss goals is to eat at a caloric deficit by following a low-calorie diet. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) guideline, to lose bodyweight or fat you must be at a 500 calorie deficit. But that is only referencing weight loss, not building muscle. 

So, what do you do when you're trying to accomplish both? 

Well, you can't eat at a surplus because those extra calories can be stored as fat, but at the same time, you need to eat enough calories to fuel the muscles building process. In this case, instead of reducing your calorie intake and give your body sufficient energy so it functions at optimal levels while keeping your body from storing too much fat, eat at maintenance (or a little bit higher) and increase your activity level. You'll want to make sure that you're being more active, this could be done by implementing cardio into your strength training routine (we'll dive deeper into this later). Increasing the activity will help burn those extra calories you're eating so instead of storing them for fat, you'll be burning them.

We recommend you calculate your macronutrients (not just calories) using a macro calculator but set your goals at maintenance. As an example, let's say you've calculated your macros and your body needs 1,800 calories a day. Stick to those 1,800 calories on the days you're not working out, and on the days you do workout, increase your calories by 200-300. This approach will give your body enough food and nutrients so it's operating at 100% and since you'll be increasing your activity when you do recover your calories, your body will be recovering more muscle than fat. However, it's important to get those calories from good sources, that is why we recommend you calculate your macronutrients instead of only calories.

Eat plenty of protein

Calculating your macros should show you a nearly accurate number on how much protein you should consume every day, but don't be afraid to bump it up a little more. To build lean muscle, you need to help protect your muscle tissue from breaking down, getting enough protein throughout your day helps with just that! And considering you'll be increasing your activity, your muscles can use all the help they can get – so, don't be afraid to slightly increase the amount of protein you eat! If you're not calculating or tracking your macros, consider at least calculating how much protein you should be eating so you can make sure you're getting enough of it. Increase your daily protein to at least 1 gram per pound of body weight, but for those training harder and trying to get really lean, consider getting at least 1.5 grams or more.

It may sound like a lot, but protein has a lot of benefits, including (but not limited to), being satiating, important for muscle recovery and building, reducing cravings, and more. In fact, a study shows that a high-protein diet positively impacts the number of calories you burn throughout the day, meaning, it increases the metabolic rate after eating a meal. [1] Another study concluded that they are also better at reducing body fat as opposed to muscle mass. This study was conducted on 24 women in which half followed a standard carbohydrate-based diet, and the other half followed a lower carb, higher protein diet (at least 30% of calories consumed was protein intake). After 10 weeks they found that both groups lost 16 pounds each, but the group that followed a standard diet lost an average of 10.4 pounds of weight in body fat and 3 pounds in muscle mass. The high-protein diet group lost an average of 12.3 pounds in body fat, and only 1.7 pounds in muscle mass! [2]

Try to get your protein from whole food sources, like meat, chicken, fish, legumes, etc. High-quality protein sources are essential, but it might be hard to get your protein from only these sources, in fact, many struggle with it. So, if need a protein boost consider getting a protein powder! We recommend getting a high-quality one like whey protein powder, but if you're dairy-free then there are plenty of good plant-based options too, like pea protein powder!

Scale back on the carbs

This one should be a given! On the bright side, you don't have to cut them out completely, but you should drastically reduce your intake of refined carbs (baked goods, candy, chips, sugary drinks, etc.) and increase your intake of high-fiber vegetables. Basically, you want to prioritize eating complex carbohydrates, like sweet potatoes, fruit, chickpeas, whole grains, and don't forget to eat plenty of dark leafy greens! Eating nutrient-dense carbs like these will help supply you with the energy you need, keep you full, and keep your cravings at bay.

If you want to calculate your macros, but make sure that your carb intake is correct, aim for 1.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight. And on your non-training days, drop your carbs to about 1.0 grams per pound. We also suggest timing your carbs around your workout to make sure that they are efficiently being used, so try to consume most carbs at least two hours before your workout and after your workout as well.

Prioritize lifting weights

As many should know if you want to build muscle you have to implement some type of resistance training program and prioritize it over cardio! In the short run, a 60-minute cardio session would burn more calories than a 60-minute weight session... but not in the long run.  One of the many benefits of strength training is that it enables your body to burn calories even after your workout! Muscle is metabolically active so making them undergo stress by lifting heavy will help make your metabolic rate spike which in turn helps you burn for up to 16 hours after your workout. Not only that, but you'll replace the fat with lean muscle, thus reducing your overall body fat percentage while building muscle!

If you want to change your body composition by putting on more muscle and burning fat then strength train at least 3-4 times a week for at least 45-minute per session. Focus less on circuit training style workouts, and more on lifting challenging weights and prioritizing compound exercises (deadlifts, squats, rows, etc.). These movements allow you to lift heavier and stimulate the most muscle mass. The weight you should use depends on your fitness level, just make sure to pick a weight that's challenging to you. If you want to dive deeper into how to get started, Fit With Iulia has a Beginners Guide for Strength Training that has all the info you need!

Sprinkle in some fat-burning cardio

Weight training should be your main priority when it comes to working out, but don't leave cardio behind! While any cardio is beneficial, to promote body recomposition focus on fat-burning cardio as opposed to lengthy steady-state cardio sessions. Like high-intensity interval training (HIIT)!

HIIT workouts are convenient (typically 15-20 minutes long), and studies have shown that they're efficient at burning fat, and help to preserve muscle mass! [3] Steady-state cardio, on the other hand, can get you in a calorie deficit in which your body prefers to burn muscle tissue instead of fat. Just don't do HIIT every day, it is a high-intensity workout after all! Keep your sessions to 1-3 a week, and if you feel like your strength training is taking a back seat then scale back on the HIIT.

Get enough sleep and manage stress levels

Aside from following a healthy meal plan and working out, your sleep and stress levels play a role in whether you will burn fat efficiently or not. Having constant high-stress levels increase your cortisol (stress hormone) levels which in turn can affect you in a number of different ways. This includes triggering sugar cravings, slowing down your metabolism, fatigue, and more – we actually cover it all here! So, try to manage your stress levels by practicing self-care and getting plenty of good sleep. Poor sleep has been linked to reducing the body's ability to burn fat and it even makes it harder to build muscle. That's because sleep is when the body begins to repair and rebuild the muscle tissue torn during weight training. Many studies back this up as well, including one published by the Public Library of Science. In this study, 1,024 people's sleeping habits were observed. The participants that had trouble sleeping and had little sleep had elevated levels of hormones related to appetite regulation and an increased BMI (body mass index).

Gaining muscle and losing fat is possible, you just need to know how to structure your diet and training! Following our tips will help you get on the right track, just remember to be patient and focus less on the scale. Results take time, and the scale might not move a lot because you're still going to be packing on muscle. Instead, take progress pictures, check your measurements, or check your body fat every few weeks to make sure that you're on the right path. And if you need effective home and gym workout plans check out >>> Fit With Iulia workout plans!


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