Ask anyone for their health (or aesthetic) goals and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you they want to torch fat and build more lean muscle mass.
It’s an honourable intention that’s good for overall health and functional fitness — and has the pleasant side effect of delivering a lean build with defined muscles.
But what a lot of people don’t realise is that it’s rare that you’re able to do both at the same time. Greg Stark, trainer at Better Being, instead advises to think about which one you want to do first.
“It’s usually very hard to increase muscle and decrease fat at the same time [because] if you want to increase muscle, you need additional calories, and if you want to decrease fat, you want a calorie deficit,” he tells 9Honey Coach.
“If you look at bodybuilders, who are the epitome of body composition training, they will always do a bulking phase, where the sole focus is putting on as much muscle mass as they can, knowing they will put on body fat as well.
“Then they’ll do a shredding or cut-down phase where they try and maintain as much of that muscle mass as possible but really lean down their body fat percentage.”
When Stark talks goals with his new clients, he usually gets them to decide which they want to start with — muscle gain or fat loss.
“We test people’s body fat percentage and then we can help them make decisions on what their training program might be like,” he says.
Stark says that the bodybuilder way — build muscle then burn fat — is usually the most logical strategy and can be easier for people to get their head around, because you don’t need to go on a super strict diet at the beginning of a health kick.
Rather, it’s about eating good, wholesome food and doing plenty of strength work, then worrying about the “reveal” of your defined muscles later.
“That’s usually the best way to go, but not everyone wants to train like a bodybuilder,” Stark says.
If you don’t want to bulk up with both muscle and a bit of extra fat, then Stark says you might instead choose to start on a lower-calorie diet with more aerobic work at the gym to get your body fat levels down, then move onto a maintenance diet and work on muscle building.
“The thing I always reinforce is that body fat is a good thing, particularly for women,” he points out.
“If you don’t have enough body fat, you’re going to lose your [menstrual] cycle, it’s going to completely mess up your hormones and can affect your reproductive health.”
There are some exceptions to the “can’t lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously” rule — but they tend to involve quite extreme measures that may be difficult to maintain.
For example, preliminary research showed that young active men who fasted for 20 hours a day on four days a week and did strength training three days a week had better muscle gain and endurance after eight weeks than a control group who did the same training without the fasting periods.
So if you can handle limiting your eating window to just four hours a day on four days a week, then it might enable you to get fat loss and muscle gain results quicker.
Other programs have led to fat loss and muscle gain at the same time, however they involved a 40 percent reduction in calorie consumption with high levels of protein and six-day-a-week high intensity training — which even the study authors said would be hard for most people to stick to.
“The most important thing is that you’re enjoying what you’re doing — that’s where the real benefit comes from in terms of exercise,” Stark says.
“Not everyone wants to train to be a bodybuilder, so it’s a case of finding something sustainable for you.”