Can You Lose Fat While Gaining Muscle?
Have you ever felt there was information overload when it comes to fat loss and muscle gain? Everywhere you look, there’s a new piece of advice, type of trend, or a workout craze that everyone swears is the reason “they got abs”.
Allow me to introduce myself and tell you why I’m qualified to share this information with you. My name is Baraa El Sabbagh, and I’m a dietician, sports nutritionist, and personal trainer in Dubai. I also have a podcast called B for Better Health where I talk to experts in the field of nutrition and fitness to bust myths and uncover the facts.
The Skinny Behind Fat & Muscle
One common question every trainer or instructor will hear over the years: Can I lose fat and gain muscle at the same time? Well, the short answer is yes. But if you want to find out why it’s working for your friend but not you or why you lost fat for a while but then plateaued, read on.
To lose fat and gain muscle at the same time you will have to rely on both nutrition and exercise. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like peanut butter and jelly, Tom and Jerry, Batman and Robin, or a burger and fries. Seriously, the combination of nutrition and exercise cannot be stressed enough, here’s why:
Lunges Are Your Friends
What happens when you focus on diet and ignore exercise? You will lose lean mass. Lean mass are the muscles that are burning calories for you all day, every day. They help with aging gracefully, fighting diseases, strengthening bones, looking toned, and combating obesity. So you don’t want to lose lean mass, it’s the reason behind long term health!
Exercise makes you stronger and able to heal if God forbid you’re ever injured. Having lean mass improves our ability to heal from falls. In fact, it even prevents us from falling and getting injured because stronger bones means more stabilized joints.
Can’t Out-Train A Bad Diet
What happens when you just focus on exercise and ignore nutrition? Remember that saying: “You can’t out-train a bad diet”? Here are some reasons why you can’t:
Number 1: It’s so much easier to take in more calories than you burn. For example, a Big Mac meal with a coke would be 990 calories approximately. To burn that, you’d need to cycle intensely for 110 minutes. But guess what? After a meal like that, chances are you won’t even be up for a light stroll, even if it is the next day. When it comes to junk food, you could easily go above the number of calories your body needs per day and your body would not be in the right state to burn any of it.
Reason number 2 why you can’t lose weight even if you’re exercising daily is because your metabolism is slowing down with every year. You’re not allowing your body to build muscle properly if you’re not giving it the right amount of protein, carbs, and fats. That’s why some people eat the same stuff they did when they were younger, but are gaining weight now that they’re getting older. Nothing changed except today their body needs more TLC and nourishment that they’re giving it.
- Number 3: Last but not least, if you’re not eating well, you won’t be able to train well. When your diet includes too much of sugar, trans fats, and carbs, your gym performance won’t be great. Your body needs the right nutrients to recover, feel good, and be able to progress week by week. After a night of fried food and alcohol, our bodies are unable to break down or metabolise the energy consumed. You’re going to feel inflamed and bloated, which will likely cause you to cancel anything you have that day - including the gym.
Beginners Will Progress Faster
When someone is just starting out on their fitness journey, it’s going to be pretty easy to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously. Their body is burning more calories, they’re eating a little less, and muscles are being stimulated for the first time. And as long as nutrition is on point and the muscles are getting enough protein, both goals will be reached. At some point, however, the journey will get more difficult and a choice will have to be made: continue to lose fat or make muscle the priority?
Dividing Into Phases
Why do you have to choose, you ask? Because 3-6 months into working out and eating well, your body will need more energy to gain muscle. But if you’re taking in more calories, then you’ll be halting the process of fat loss. On the other hand, let’s assume losing weight was chosen for the first phase. You would need to reduce your calories, continue working out, and get enough protein. This way you won’t lose muscle mass but you won’t necessarily gain any.
Weight Loss Phase
Here are some other ways you can help your body lose fat:
- Start strength training and increase your cardio and HIIT workouts.
- Get more sleep. We underestimate the importance of a good night’s rest.
- Cut out trans fats, sugary drinks, and sodas. Drink water, green tea or black coffee instead!
- Include more fiber in your diet, like veggies and fruits.
- Try to cut down on refined carbs such as sugar that’s found in many packaged products.
Muscle Gain Phase
If you chose to make muscle gain your priority, you will need to maintain your calories or perhaps go for a slight surplus. This process is going to feel so rewarding because you’re focusing on pushing yourself to the max with your training. Your nutrition gets you to the gym feeling good, your new muscles can lift heavier, and your endurance is getting better. That’s progress! And it will feel great.
Some other tactics you can use during the muscle gaining phase are:
- Having a healthy and hearty breakfast every single day.
- Focus on strength training 3 to 5 times a week.
- Eat a healthy snack every 3 hours so you’re not starving and overeating when it comes to meal times.
- Have protein with every meal.
- Have vegetables with every meal.
- Have a healthy fat intake.
- Save your carbs for before & after a workout.
- Make sure you’re always drinking water.
- Lastly, try to have whole foods a lot more than packaged foods.
Whichever phase you choose, nutrition will obviously be playing a role. If you're having trouble reaching your goals, it might be a good idea to work with a nutritionist and a personal trainer to troubleshoot and create a plan that's customized for you. A sports nutritionist will also take into account your hormones, gender, age, and body composition. If you’re doing an online consultation, a nutritionist will ask you about your lifestyle, what you like to eat, what you do on the weekends, just to give you a more personal plan that works for you and ensure you’re doing what it takes to reach your goals, whether it’s muscle gain or fat loss.
Why is it important to customise this process instead of just Googling a food plan? Because each body is different and so many factors will come into play. Someone that’s taller and with a higher metabolism will need more calories than you, so if you start increasing your energy intake to match that random meal plan, you will gain weight.
Now that you have all the facts, you can make the best decision that suits you and your lifestyle. But always remember: Your happiness and health are more important than what your body looks like. Make sure your goals are realistic for you, and enjoy the process.
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