The holy grail of fitness goals - building muscle whilst cutting body fat.
This is probably the biggest request I get from clients and emails I receive from people I connect with online. This is the perfect scenario, right? Who wouldn't want to simultaneously cut body fat and build big strong muscles, giving that chiseled look at the same time? Well, I hate to be the one to burst the bubble here, but it is nearly impossible to accomplish without ideal circumstances.
Building your body is not unlike building a house. You have to have the materials (protein) to build your house, you have to have the manpower or energy for construction (carbohydrates/fats), and you need to have at least a bare minimum of both materials and man power in order to complete construction.
Let's say you were to build a house, and during the planning stages, you placed an order for 2000 units of wood, 2000 units of brick, and hired 6 construction workers.
On day one of construction you find out that only 1500 units of wood, 1000 units of brick, and 4 construction workers showed up. Now, you could certainly get started with construction, but it will be impossible to build the house to the size of your specifications without the required materials.
Your body is like a construction site all hours of the day. Old tissues are being broken down and replaced. This is why we need to consume calories rich in all macronutrients. We need energy to complete bodily tasks as well as the materials (protein) to re-build old tissues. Exercising will cause a rate increase of breakdown and therefore rebuilding, however, in order to actually increase the size and strength of your muscles, you need to consume calories at a surplus in order to have the sufficient tools and energy available to complete such a task.
Two questions then need to be addressed:
First, why do we need a surplus of calories to build tissues when there should be a set amount of calories for optimal growth? Hitting that point where you are just past the caloric needs of your body to maintain your current weight is like hitting a bullseye from several miles away. It is certainly doable, and individuals that spend their lives devoted to optimal body composition work very hard towards accomplishing this very goal - minimal body fat whilst increasing lean body mass.
However, for most people, a moderate caloric surplus past your maintenance caloric intake is generally the best scenario for promoting muscle and strength gains. Trust me when I tell you that you will drive yourself crazy if you are trying to gain muscle without any body fat at all.
The second thought should have something to do with improvements. You may know someone who just started a exercise program with great success in losing weight and getting stronger, in fact, you may have experienced it yourself. You start the program, improving your diet, watching what you eat, eating less than you maintenance, feeling great, the scale is going down, your muscles are looking more plump, etc. What about that? I'm sure many of you reading this have started a workout program and have lost weight and gained strength at the same time. See, building muscle and losing weight at the same time is entirely possible!
Well, not so fast. Did you know that it takes an average of 16 workouts for a beginner to start to see any muscular growth? And that is on a program specifically designed to increase muscle. The strength gains made during a workout program are almost entirely efficiency-based. Huh? Well, without getting too science-y, your muscles are made up of contractile units that shorten the length of a muscle in order to generate force. When you don't work these contractile units consistently, they become less efficient or effective. Your muscles also follow the "use it or lose it" mentality, and they will in fact atrophy over time, although a lot of the blame here should also be pointed towards your neural integrations. In other words, your brain to muscle connection becomes poor when you don't complete certain actions.
So, an individual who starts on a new workout program and experiences increases in strength, despite consuming a diet in caloric deficit, is experiencing improvements due to an increase in efficiency between their brain and their muscles. In other words, their brains are becoming much better at firing the contractile units of their muscles to generate more force. Early improvements are due to coordination, not necessarily from growth.
Then how come my muscles look bigger and even measure bigger despite being at a caloric deficit?
Working muscles retain more water and sugar (also known as glycogen). When you start exercising, your muscles become a bit more plump due to retaining water and sugar. They are essentially increasing the size of their fuel tanks, anticipating more exercise. This growth will plateau and should not be considered a continual increase in muscle size.
I really am sorry to be a downer to many of you reading this. Keep this in mind, however; this should be a good motivator to you to keep exercising and working out towards long-term goals. Maybe you wish to get bigger muscles? If that's the case, then make sure to check out a future blog about eating at a caloric surplus. If you're an individual who wishes to lose weight, then fear not, there is a section on this post for you too. Keep in mind that there are ways to preserve muscle the best you can whilst losing weight, and with a lower body fat percentage, not only will you be looking and feeling healthier, but your muscles will actually appear to be larger too due to the increased definition.
To summarize: want to lose body fat, weight, and/or "define," then you must eat at a caloric deficit. Want to gain muscle? Then you must eat at a caloric surplus. Choose one, not both.
Tyler Robbins B.Sc. CSCS
Director of Fitness
Head of CrossFit