How to eat and exercise to lose fat and build muscle at the same time – INSIDER

Dear Rachel,
I’m not hugely overweight or unfit, but I’d really like to get in better shape. I want to lose fat and build muscle, but I’m confused about whether I can do both at once. Should I focus on one goal first and then switch to the other? I’m eating a balanced diet and have seemingly been consuming maintenance calories for a while, as my body and weight haven’t changed. Training-wise, I like working out and do a bit of light weight training, classes like HIIT and Pilates, and sometimes go for a run. What do I need to do to start seeing change in both areas at the same time?
—Ready but confused
Dear Ready,
Having two different goals like yours can make knowing how to train and adjust your diet confusing.
There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there, but you’ll be pleased to know I’ve spoken with three experts in the area to find out the truth.
And it’s good news: You can build muscle and burn fat at the same time.
People often talk about wanting to lose weight, but in most cases that’s not really what they mean. They usually want to lose fat.
If you lose weight, you’re losing both fat and muscle, so though your body may get smaller, your shape won’t really change. This means you won’t reveal the athletic “toned” physique many people desire.
That, my friend, comes from having muscle definition, and it’s why you don’t want to chase weight loss but rather shift your goal to be about fat loss.
The challenge is losing fat while holding on to, or even building, muscle, a challenge I previously took on.
The general rule is that losing fat requires a calorie deficit and building muscle requires a calorie surplus, which would make it seem like these two goals are incompatible. But it’s not necessarily the case.
“Although many people claim that you cannot do it, it is indeed possible to build muscle and lose body fat simultaneously. This process is often referred to as ‘recomping,'” Ben Carpenter, a qualified master personal trainer and strength-and-conditioning specialist, told Insider.
“Part of the confusion is that people understand you need a surplus of calories to gain weight and a calorie deficit to lose weight, so these two concepts sound completely opposing,” he said. “However, this refers to total body weight as one. You can lose body fat and gain lean body mass at the same time.”
Carpenter cited a study that found that men eating in a 40% energy deficit for four weeks while resistance training, doing high-intensity interval training, and consuming a high-protein diet were able to increase their lean body mass.
A second study found that women who did resistance training and ate a high-protein diet simultaneously lost fat and built muscle. (We’ll come back to the importance of these things.)
So yes, it’s doable.
Knowing how much to eat depends on your body-fat levels. If you don’t have much fat to lose, Carpenter suggests continuing maintenance-calorie consumption.
If you have more fat to lose, going into a slight calorie deficit might help you achieve your goals, the important word here being “slight.”
If you drop your calories too low, it’ll be a lot harder to hold on to your muscle, let alone build it.
“You’re likely to lose muscle tissue, feel run down, and potentially fall off the bandwagon,” Emily Servante, a certified personal trainer at Ultimate Performance Personal Training, told Insider.
As the two studies suggested, eating enough protein is essential for body recomposition.
“This is key for retaining and building lean muscle, which we want to fuel when dieting,” Servante said, adding that “more lean tissue also prevents negative adaptations such as lowered metabolism.”
There’s no clear-cut figure for exactly how much protein you should eat, but Carpenter recommended 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight per day as “a good protein target for maximizing resistance-training adaptations,” a fancy term for increasing muscle mass. That suggestion is supported by research.
How much protein do you need? This is an ongoing argument, some people claim that you can only “absorb” a certain amount at a time, others refute this. What gives? Well, part of this argument is spurred because the word “absorbed” is not the same as what your body can use exclusively for muscle building purposes. People are conflating two different terms and then getting confused. Here are two studies comparing high and low protein intakes, both showing greater body composition changes with a higher dose of protein (first image is a study on females, second is on males). Yes, you can lose fat and gain fat-free mass simultaneously. Note: when comparing two doses of protein you can’t draw conclusions on the “best” dose, simply that the higher dose outperformed the lower dose. Perhaps an intermediate dose would have been sufficient. To summarise, the third image gives an overview to protein research, showing how much you should aim for if your goal is optimal body composition change. Any questions? . . . #keto #ketogenic #lowcarb #cleaneating #eatclean #lowcarbohydrate #atkins #lchf #myfitnesspal #creatine #protein #ifbb #npc #wbff #bodybuilding #neat #iifym #flexibledieting #cleaneating #eatclean #protein #caloriedeficit #calorie #calories #caloriecomparison #caloriecounting #intermittentfasting #weightwatchers #slimmingworld
A post shared by Ben Carpenter (@bdccarpenter) on Feb 27, 2020 at 9:51am PST
How much of the other macronutrients (fat and carbs) you eat is less important, but make sure you eat enough of each for your all-around health and energy.
“Prioritize whole, unprocessed single-ingredient foods, including lots of green vegetables and fiber, which improve satiety and cravings,” Servante said.
It’s awesome to hear you’re already active, but it sounds like you’d benefit from incorporating more heavy weights.
Resistance training is key for recomping.
Servante said that training hard with heavy weights would help you to gain — and, if you’re in a calorie deficit, retain — muscle.
Strength training alone isn’t enough, though. You need to make sure you’re applying a concept called progressive overload.
This means gradually increasing what you’re lifting, either in reps or weight. It’s something that has really worked for me, in terms of not only changing my physique but keeping me motivated to train.
You can achieve a lot through being persistent. But you can achieve a lot more through being consistent.
A post shared by Rachel Hosie (@rachel_hosie) on May 31, 2020 at 12:09pm PDT
“Focus on improving in the gym, such as increasing the weight you lift or increasing the number of reps you can perform with the same weight,” Carpenter said.
“One reason resistance-training programmes might not deliver expected results is the lack of progressive overload.
“Your body adapts to stimulus, so it makes sense to give it something to adapt to rather than performing the same number of reps on the same exercises with the same weights.”
If you’re new to serious resistance training, lucky you: You’ll get to enjoy what’s known as “newbie gains.”
This is the rapid muscle growth that occurs when someone starts lifting weights for the first time.
“You will increase muscle tissue purely through neurological adaptations to this new stimulus,” Servante said. “The more advanced you are, the harder you need to train to gain muscle.”

A post shared by Ben Carpenter (@bdccarpenter)
Similarly, Carpenter said, those who have a higher body-fat percentage and are new to training might be able to make quicker progress.
“If someone is highly trained and very lean already, it is much more difficult,” he said.
You may be wondering when I’m going to tell you to hit the treadmill, but the truth is you don’t have to do lots of steady-state cardio like jogging or cycling at a consistent pace to reach your goals. (Of course, there are lots of other benefits of cardiovascular activity.)
In fact, if you’re in a calorie deficit, doing lots of cardio will make you more likely to lose lean tissue, Servante said.
Instead, she recommended keeping active by walking rather than running or doing HIIT classes.
“First, we know that fat is used as a fuel source in low-intensity exercise like walking,” Servante said.
“Second, running and strenuous cardio place stress on the body, which interferes with recovery, can cause water retention, and, anecdotally, increases appetite. So running isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s probably not the best option for your physique goals.”
Start by trying to hit 10,000 steps a day and see how you get on.
All that is not to say there won’t be benefits to getting a sweat on. In fact, getting your heart rate up in the right way could help you get lean while building muscle.
That’s why Ngo Okafor, a celebrity personal trainer and transformation coach, recommends following a program combining high-intensity strength-training circuits using light weights and high repetitions with cardio bursts mixed in.
He told Insider that while lifting weights or strength training builds muscle, “your heart rate is not as elevated as it would be if you were doing cardiovascular activity.”
“However, the process of breaking down muscle and rebuilding them continues long after the activity ends,” he said. “Strength training actually burns calories for several hours after the workout had ended.”
Cardio, on the other hand, may blast calories while you’re doing it, but this burn “slows down immensely when the cardiovascular activity ends,” he added. “Combining cardio and strength training elevates the heart rate and keeps it elevated throughout the workout, thereby causing a higher calorie burn during the workout.
“Because strength training builds muscle and the body requires energy to rebuild muscle, the calorie burn will continue for several hours after the workout has been completed.”
An example of a lower-body workout that would fit Okafor’s training style? Strength movements like squats and deadlifts (at a weight where you can perform 20 reps) along with cardio bursts like 60 seconds of high knees.
With a goal like body recomposition, it’s important to be patient and measure your progress in ways other than the scale, because you’re not just trying to lose weight.
“Progress may feel slow because, unlike a dedicated weight-loss or weight-gain phase, you won’t be able to rely on the scales to help monitor progress,” Carpenter said. “You may train for a month and see no change in actual scale weight.”
Measuring body composition without expensive equipment is challenging, but a couple of options are keeping waist measurements or using a tight-fitting pair of jeans to see whether they start to feel tighter in some places as you gain muscle and looser in others as you lose fat.
“Understand that the scales won’t be able to tell you much about your progress, and other ways to measure body composition may be valuable, if you are the kind of person who enjoys tracking progress like that,” Carpenter said.
Changing your body composition is a long journey, and you need to be prepared for this to take some time.
Fat loss doesn’t happen overnight, and muscle gain typically takes even longer. Don’t rush it.
“Unlike weight loss that can be very rapid (demonstrated with the prevalence of hardcore crash diets), building muscle is a notoriously slow process, and, therefore recomping is no different,” Carpenter said.

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Instead of waiting for aesthetic results to keep yourself motivated, set training goals to work toward, like deadlifting 1.5 times your body weight or doing an unassisted pull-up.
“Implementing some performance-based gym goals may be good for a motivational perspective, as physique changes are likely going to be slower changes that are harder to monitor,” Carpenter said.
Essentially, there are many ways to get strong and lean, but resistance training, protein, and patience are key.
It’s doable — and you can do it.
Wishing you well,
As a senior lifestyle reporter at Insider and a self-described fitness fanatic with an Association for Nutrition certified nutrition course under her belt, Rachel Hosie is immersed in the wellness scene and here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you’re struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light versus heavy weights, or unsure whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.
Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips. She regularly speaks to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she’s always up to date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest and healthiest life.
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