Most of us want to achieve a lean and muscular physique. To do this, you obviously need to build muscle and lose fat. We’ve been told that it’s impossible to do both at the same time.
”You need to be in a calorie surplus to build muscle!”
Less is true. Building muscle in a calorie deficit is not impossible for most people. There’s also a good evidence base to support this.
But whether you can build muscle optimally while in a calorie deficit, well, that’s a different story.
What Happens In A Calorie Deficit?
When you’re in a calorie deficit, you’re consuming fewer calories than your body requires to fuel your daily activities. This puts you in a catabolic state, which means your body is breaking down internal reserves for energy. The primary energy reserve your body taps into when it’s in a calorie deficit is body fat.
After all, the body gains fat when you overeat so it can use the fat in times of food scarcity. But body fat is not the only thing your body breaks down when you’re in a calorie deficit. Research shows that muscle protein breakdown also significantly increases.
As you’ve probably read in my post about protein intake, the human body builds muscle by synthesizing new muscle proteins. This is referred to as ‘‘Muscle Protein Synthesis”. The body also breaks down muscle proteins: ‘‘Muscle Protein Breakdown”. If the number of muscle proteins your body synthesizes exceeds the number of muscle proteins your body breaks down, you’ve gained muscle.
So, if you increase the number of muscle proteins you build and decrease the number of muscle proteins you break down, you gain more muscle. Unfortunately, maintaining a calorie deficit does the exact the opposite. Research shows protein synthesis rates drop and protein breakdown rates increase when you’re consuming fewer calories than your body needs. So muscle growth essentially slows down when you are in a calorie deficit.
Calorie Deficit Slows Down Muscle Growth
But just because muscle growth slows down while in a deficit, doesn’t mean muscle growth is completely inhibited. With effective training and moderate calorie restriction, most novice to intermediate trainees can still gain some muscle. This is supported by several studies.
When it comes to overweight populations, they can even see good results if the diet is aggressive. In a 2016 study, overweight volunteers gained 2 lbs. of muscle and lost 10 lbs. of fat on average. They did this while maintaining a daily calorie deficit of 40% in a 4-week period. So if you’re not a seasoned lifter and have some body fat to lose, you likely will build muscle in a calorie deficit.
But let’s discuss the exceptions for a second. Because trying to build muscle and lose fat at the same time is not for everyone. Two factors seem to mostly influence how well (or not) you can gain muscle in a calorie deficit.
- Strength training experience
- Your body fat percentage
The leaner you are and/or the more experienced you are in strength training, the harder it becomes to gain muscle in a deficit.
Advanced and/or Lean Athletes
The closer you are to your “genetic limit” for muscle growth, the harder it is to gain muscle. So muscle growth naturally slows down as you advance in your training. As you can imagine, being in a calorie deficit will then only further slow down muscular adaptations. This is why a lean bulking phase is generally the way to go for experienced lifters that want to gain muscle.
With that said, this again doesn’t mean experienced lifters cannot build any muscle in a calorie deficit. It just means that if there is any gain in muscle size while dieting, it’s probably very slight. So slight that it may not be noticeable.
When it comes to lean athletes, by definition they have little body fat to lose. Because of the limited amount of stored energy available from fat tissue, you are likely going to break down more muscle proteins for energy. This makes you more susceptible to muscle loss and makes it unlikely that you can gain significant muscle while becoming even leaner.
Based on my experience coaching a wide spectrum of people, the trend I’ve noticed is that those who have 2+ years of effective strength training under their belt and/or are below 12% body fat (20% for females), have a hard time gaining significant muscle while losing fat.
But let’s not forget that most people out there are not very lean or advanced strength trainees. So the general population probably can lose fat and build muscle through effective training and nutrition.
How Most Can Build Muscle and Lose Fat
We now know that even though a calorie deficit is not optimal for muscle growth, most people still can gain muscle while in a deficit.
But in order to build muscle in a calorie deficit, you need to have a few key points in place. We’ll discuss these points below.
Muscle growth is an adaptive response. By constantly training your muscle beyond their present capacity, they’ll have to adapt. Your muscles adapt to overloading strength training by increasing muscle size and strength.
This helps explain why there’s research showing progressive muscle tension is an important mechanism for muscle growth. There are several ways you can progress in your training. The simplest way is increasing the amount of weight you lift or the number of repetitions you do with a certain weight over time.
When trying to build muscle, you’ll often hear that you need to maintain a small calorie deficit, so your body has more energy to work with. From a short-term, ”muscle-building” point of view, this is true. But to lose a significant amount of fat you would need to stay in a deficit for a fairly long time. This is not favorable for multiple reasons.
Research shows that the longer you stay in a calorie deficit, the more your metabolism slows down and the more susceptible you are to muscle loss.
But then again you have to be careful because an approach that’s too aggressive can decrease the amount of muscle gain or preserve. Based on these three studies, losing 0.5-1% of total body weight per week is a good range for most people looking to improve body composition. This generally can be achieved by maintaining a calorie deficit of roughly 20-25%.
Protein plays an important role in muscle preservation when you’re in a calorie deficit. There are plenty of studies supporting this. Next to decreasing muscle breakdown, research shows that a high protein intake also increases the amount of fat you lose (in the same calorie deficit). So a high-protein intake helps with both sides of the equation.
A 2017 systematic review indicates that a daily protein intake of at least 0.7g/lb. (1.6g/kg) of body weight is sufficient for maximizing muscle growth. If you want to err on the safe side of things and want more of the satiety benefits of a high-protein diet, feel free to consume more protein in a day.
As you’ve read in this article, building muscle and losing fat at the same time isn’t impossible. It just gets harder as you get closer to your genetic limit and decrease your body fat percentage. If you have any questions about this article or have a question about your personal fitness, don’t hesitate to comment below!
Lastly, I want to finish off by mentioning my eBook that goes into how you can maximize your muscular potential. This book translates the currently available scientific research regarding muscle growth into “Simple English”, so everyone can start implementing an evidence-based approach to training and nutrition.
If you are interested in learning more about how to maximize muscle growth, check out my eBook “The Art & Science of Muscle Growth.”
As many of you know, I’ve been running a successful online coaching program for a while now. Today I want to share the progress of one of my clients, Scott from New York.
Scott is 35 years old and has a full-time job. Around mid-April, Scott decided that he wanted to lean down for the summer. So we ended the lean bulk phase he was pursuing at that time and decided to get into a fat loss phase.
The progress pictures you see here in this post (including the thumbnail) are the result of a 15-week fat loss phase in which Scott lost 14 lbs while at least maintaining his strength on all of his lifts. The before pictures are from April 15th, 2018. The after pictures are from the 21st of July in 2018.
Below I’ll briefly go over the training and nutrition approach I’ve designed for Scott to achieve these results. After this, Scott will chime in on his fat loss journey by answering a few questions I’ve asked him to answer for you guys.
Scott performed a 4x per week Upper/Lower split with only two 30-min walks per week (so minimal cardio). Scott’s main goal is physique development. Essentially, being lean and muscular. In order to lean down and at least maintain muscle, resistance training needed to be prioritized.
Now, there’s not much wrong with doing more cardiovascular exercise, but it’s generally not that important for fat loss or muscle growth if you have your resistance training and nutrition dialed in.
The Upper/Lower split Scott uses contains primarily heavy compound lifts to promote progressive overload.
To lose fat, you need a caloric deficit. An easy way to ensure you are in a caloric deficit is by controlling your calories through calorie counting. Scott already was familiar with how to count calories and actually likes having more control over his nutrition. So calorie counting suits him quite well.
Scott had a lot of flexibility with his nutrition. I did not give him a strict meal plan, but a set of simple nutrition guidelines he needed to adhere to. The guidelines regarded his:
- Caloric intake (~25% calorie deficit)
- Macronutrient distribution (a minimum protein target + balanced carb/fat intake)
- Micronutrient density of the diet (minimum servings of fruits/veggies per 1000 kcals consumed + food variety)
As long as Scott stayed within his nutrition guidelines, he would tick all the nutrition boxes necessary to lose fat and perform well. This allowed Scott to be flexible with his nutrition and integrate it with his lifestyle. But he’ll tell you more about this. Below, you can read about Scott’s thoughts on how the fat loss phase went and his experience with my coaching service.
Q: What did you like most about the way we have set up your fat loss phase?
Answer from Scott: It was never static. If there was ever anything that posed a challenge or simply wasn’t enjoyable, we covered it during our consults and a minor adjustment here or there was all that was needed to correct the situation.
Q: What are the next steps in your fitness journey?
Answer from Scott: The beauty of this program is that it doesn’t feel like a “fitness journey” even though it is. My training and diet feel like a part of my daily routine that I’ve grown so used to that I don’t think of my lifestyle as inconvenient. I’m continuing to make progress and improve subconsciously.
Q: How does this online coaching service compare to others you have tried?
Answer from Scott: I’ve had two other online coaches and comparing those experiences to what Mounir offers is night and day. I’ve never seen any online trainers (or in-person trainers for that matter) offer the kind of 1-on-1 attention that Mounir offers 24/7. On top of that, the evidence-based and scientific approach that Mounir uses is truly a game changer to what’s historically been a confusing and unclear endeavor- fitness.
Q: Who would you recommend this online coaching service to?
Answer from Scott: I won’t give the cliché answer and say something like “anyone who is willing to put in the work!”..I think this service is best for someone who is willing to understand the science behind proper training and nutrition, and isn’t looking to be handed a workout or diet plan to blindly follow. You need to be willing to learn how to count calories, estimate food portions, and keep a daily tally of what you’re putting in your body. While it seems like a lot of work at first, it gets easier and becomes second nature.
Q: Can you give some final words of advice for those starting a fat loss phase now?
Answer from Scott: Patience. While these were my results over a 3.5 month period, I’ve been working out for much longer than that. It took some time, but once I stopped expecting results to magically show up one day, things started to fall into place. Patience is key, and before you know it the results will be here. Ok, now that sounded cliché 🙂
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Some people have clear fat loss goals whereas others want to focus on gaining mass. But there are also people that are stuck in the middle. If you feel like you currently carry too much body fat but at the same time still look skinny, let me introduce you to a concept known as being “skinny fat.”
Being skinny-fat refers to a physique that doesn’t look overweight, but lacks muscle mass and has fat stored in all the wrong places. Perhaps the best way to describe it is that you look “soft” while having a healthy body weight.
If you currently have this type of physique and would like to do something about it, this article is for you. In this article, I will give you a simple 3-step “skinny fat solution” that you can put into practice. But first, let’s look into what causes this skinny fat look.
Why You Are Skinny Fat
In essence, the skinny fat look is the result of a lack of muscular development and having a body fat percentage that’s slightly higher than desired. Having too much fat and not enough muscle is generally caused by the following two factors:
- You are (or were) eating too many calories
- You are not prioritizing resistance training
By eating too many calories, you are slowly accumulating fat, which makes you look “softer.” And because you are not resistance training, minimal muscle growth occurs so you remain to look skinny.
Also Possible: Dieting Too Aggressively
Another possibility is that in a fat loss phase someone is dieting down too quickly, prioritizing cardiovascular exercise as their form of training, and not eating enough protein.
We know that severe calorie restriction with a low protein intake results in muscle loss. There’s also research showing that cardiovascular training is not an effective form of training for muscle preservation.
So what potentially can happen is that you lose muscle in your efforts to lose fat. Combine this with the fact that you almost always leave some fat stored in the stubborn areas like your lower belly, hips etc, this can leave you looking skinny fat.
Your Simple Skinny Fat Solution
Now that we know what causes the skinny fat look, let’s look into the 3-step skinny fat solution. The 3 steps are actually quite simple:
- Maintain a caloric deficit and consume enough protein
- Prioritize resistance training
- Be patient and track your progress
Below I’ll discuss how to approach each step in more detail.
Step 1: Be In A Slight Deficit With Enough Protein
In most cases, having your focus on leaning down first when you are skinny fat is a good idea. What we are trying to accomplish is body recomposition (less fat, more muscle). If you are in a slight caloric deficit for fat loss, you can still gain muscle. But if you are in a caloric surplus (a.k.a. “bulking”) to prioritize muscle gain, by definition you cannot lose fat.
So the quickest way to break the cycle of being skinny fat is by focusing on losing the excess fat you have while consistently training with weights to stimulate muscle growth. You can always have lean bulk phases later on in your fitness journey to focus solely on optimizing muscle growth.
To lose fat, it should be clear by now that you need a caloric deficit. When you consume fewer calories than your body requires, your body mobilizes excess fat tissue for energy. But if you are a novice trainee who wants to also gain muscle while trying to lose fat, it’s important you don’t excessively restrict your caloric intake. Muscle growth is a high energy-demanding process. So moderate calorie restriction is desired.
Having a caloric deficit of 10-15% is what I’d recommend for most people. At this deficit, you can still lose fat at a good pace without overly restricting yourself. If you want to calculate your individual caloric targets, multiply your average maintenance level by 0.9-0.85. Use this calculator (click here) if you want an estimate of your average maintenance level.
To support muscle growth while in a caloric deficit, you obviously also need sufficient protein. Current evidence indicates that a good protein target for most people is around 1.6-2.2g/kg of total body weight.
Step 2: Prioritize Resistance Training
As we discussed earlier, a lack of muscular development is the main cause of the skinny fat look. So an essential part of the skinny fat solution is to start properly lifting weights.
There is good research showing that when novice-to-moderate lifters in a slight calorie deficit train with weights, they can gain muscle effectively. But this obviously requires some effort.
The way muscle grows is by continuously presenting more overload. If you impose greater demands on your muscles over time, they have to adapt (by gaining in size and strength) so that it can more efficiently handle the training stressors in the future. This refers to the principle of “Progressive Overload.”
So to gain muscle in a caloric deficit, you need to train in a way that promotes progressive overload. This requires at least three resistance training sessions with mostly major compound movements. For more detailed information on how to train for progressive overload, I’m referring you to my free “Novice Example Routine” (click here to download). This covers everything you need to know on how to start progressing as a novice trainee.
Now, as you saw earlier, doing tons of cardio is not desired when trying to get rid of the skinny fat look. You can still perform multiple cardio sessions in a week and gain good amounts of muscle, but it’s important to emphasize that your main form of training should be resistance exercise.
Step 3: Be Patient & Track Progress
This is arguably the most important factor. As natural trainees, we need to face the reality that muscle growth does not come quickly. So to prevent yourself from getting discouraged while working on your physique, consider that making noticeable progress takes time.
As a novice trainee, gaining 10-15 lbs. of muscle on your frame will help tremendously with getting rid of the skinny fat look. But depending on how consistently you train, this may take 5-10 months to achieve. So don’t expect change overnight. Like most things in life, you are going to have to put in the work first.
Now, to gauge whether you are on the right track throughout your fitness journey, I recommend you track your progress. After all, if you track your fitness progression, you can manage it.
I personally recommend three progress-tracking tools:
- Daily body weight measurements (so you can establish weekly averages, day-to-day fluctuations mean little)
- A training log
- Weekly progress pictures
These tools should be used in conjunction. Here are some examples of how tracking progress can help:
Scenario 1: If your weekly average body weight is not dropping and after a couple of months you don’t see any fat loss progress in your progress pictures, your caloric deficit is probably too small. Therefore, you may need to further lower caloric intake and/or increase energy expenditure for fat loss.
Scenario 2: If your strength is decreasing (you can analyze this in your training log) and your weekly average weight is dropping rapidly, you likely need to slow down the rate of weight loss by increasing caloric intake. This will likely help your training.
The point here is that tracking progress basically gives you control over your fitness journey. You can step in and change the approach whenever needed.
I hope you enjoyed reading this article on my skinny fat solution. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!
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