Making muscle gains whilst burning fat is the holy grail for just about anyone who is serious about training. Lean, muscular, strong, and healthy — it’s what many of us aspire towards and are constantly striving to achieve. Far from being easy, however, striking the balance between making muscle and burning fat is always said to be notoriously difficult.
So, what’s the verdict? Can you lose fat and gain muscle? We take a closer look at the evidence and provide some practical recommendations to help conquer your goals.
1. How to build muscle
Our muscle tissue is forever in a state of breakdown and repair in order to remove damaged proteins and replace them with new proteins. This balance between the processes of muscle synthesis and muscle breakdown will determine whether muscle is gained, lost, or just maintained. As such, the goal of anyone looking to increase muscle mass should be to maintain a state of positive muscle synthesis (i.e. muscle synthesis is outweighing its breakdown). The two main ways to do this are through weightlifting and protein intake.
2. Resistance training
Resistance training, or weightlifting, is a great way to build muscle. It kick-starts the synthesis of new muscle proteins. In fact, it seems as though lifting keeps muscle synthesis elevated for up to at least 24 hours and ultimately sets the foundations for new muscle to be built.1
When we ingest protein (through either our food or via a supplement) we give the body building blocks for muscle protein synthesis.2 To be exact, it’s the nine essential amino acids that are responsible for this effect.
As such, the protein you ingest should contain a mixture of all nine essential amino acids which can be found in a variety of animal and dairy products, but also plant-based foods such as soy products, quinoa, and buckwheat.
When choosing a supplement, research demonstrates that whey protein is the superior choice in order to maximise the response given its rapid digestion rate, although soy and casein proteins are still effective and shouldn’t be overlooked.3
When it comes to protein, it’s common to guzzle down a post-workout shake, but are you getting enough throughout the rest of your day? In order to maximise your muscle gains, daily protein intake should be at least 1.6 grams for every kilogram of your body weight4 — that’s around 120g for a 75kg guy.
Not only this, but spacing the protein you consume out across the day also appears beneficial to maximising your muscle gains, so aim for a serving in each of your meals and snacks5
Ever find yourself struggling with the final few reps of your lifts? When you lift weights, one of the energy systems that you use relies on creatine to help replenish energy stores quickly. This is where creatine comes in.
If you’re able to increase your creatine stores within the muscle, then you can complete those final few reps as your system is able to replenish the energy needed to do so. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that regular creatine supplementation leads to increases in both muscle mass, strength, and power.6
Although creatine can be sourced from numerous animal products —most notably red meat — supplementation can further increase our creatine stores and is particularly useful for vegetarians and vegans.
If you’re wanting to see the benefits quickly, an initial loading phase of 4 x 5g doses per day (for 5-7 days) can be completed followed by daily maintenance doses of 3-5 g per day. Alternatively, lower doses of 3-5 g per day can be used although this will take approximately 3 weeks longer than the loading strategy.7
5. How to lose fat
So you’ve got all your muscle-building needs covered. Now, let’s focus on losing that unwanted body fat. In order to lose fat, we need to ensure the body is in a state of negative energy balance. In short, this means that we have to eat less energy than our bodies require on a daily basis.
The key to doing this is to start with a small negative balance, as cutting back too much will only leave you lacking energy in the gym and would be counterproductive to your muscle building goals. Aiming for somewhere in the region of a 10% reduction below your daily requirements is a good starting point.
Although there’s a number of different methods to do this (e.g. intermittent fasting or calorie restriction), they all come down to the same principle — reducing daily calorie intake below daily requirements.
6. How to build muscle and lose fat
It’s time to put together building muscle and fat loss for the ultimate physique-defining formula. While changes to your physique are possible, we should note that this process will depend on a number of factors, such as your training experience and current level of body fat, where beginners with higher amounts of body fat will find achieving targets much easier.
Take home message
If you want to master increasing muscle mass and shredding body fat for your ultimate physique, then this is an achievable goal, but it’ll take patience and hard work. Regular lifting, adequate protein, and topping up muscle creatine stores should fulfil all your muscle-building needs, whilst a small calorie deficit will help shred that unwanted body fat. Be sure to keep in mind that this process may be a lengthy one and definitely more difficult for experienced lifters with already relatively low body fat.