Strategies for Gaining Muscle While Losing Weight – WTOP

U.S. News & World Report
September 29, 2022, 8:00 PM
Strong is the new skinny.
Preserving lean muscle mass while losing weight isn’t always easy, but it’s important to overall health and wellness. Maintaining muscle mass and strength is critical as you age, and adding muscle can also help with weight loss efforts. This is because lean muscle burns more calories than fat. Muscle is metabolically more active than fat; the more muscle you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate will be. Muscle also provides better mobility, heart and metabolic health.
The challenge is that shedding excess weight and reducing body fat levels can claim some of your lean muscle mass, too. “When we lose weight, we tend to lose muscle tissues, which means we unfortunately burn fewer calories,” says Michal Mor, co-founder, head of science and chief of product at Lumen, a Tel Aviv-based company aiming to bring metabolic health products to the general public.
This effect can slow your basal metabolic rate and make it more difficult to lose weight.
Weight loss basics
Generally speaking, to lose weight, you have to burn more calories than you’re taking in. For most people, that means cutting your overall intake of calories and boosting how much you move to create a caloric deficit that can lead to weight loss.
However, when you create a caloric deficit, you tell your body to break down fat, rather than build, explains Marie A. Spano, an Atlanta-based board-certified sports dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist.
This caloric deficit is mandatory for losing fat. But a caloric surplus — consuming more calories than you burn every day — is what tells your body to build more lean muscle. And therein lies the challenge of building muscle while losing fat.
Strategies to build muscle
Losing fat and gaining muscle can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. These 10 expert-approved strategies can show you how to build muscle while losing fat:
1. Get a baseline.
Chris Travis, a personal trainer and owner of Seattle Strength & Performance in Washington state, says knowledge is power when searching for the best way to lose fat and gain muscle. He recommends undergoing body composition testing using InBody or DEXA scan to determine how much of your current body mass is fat versus lean muscle and bone.
These diagnostic tests can also provide information about your basal metabolic rate, or the number of calories your body needs to power its basic functions. This information “will be important pieces to track as you move forward,” he says.
2. Keep your caloric deficit small.
Travis says that “gaining muscle while losing fat simultaneously is definitely possible,” thanks to a process called “body recomposition,” but this process needs to be managed carefully — cut too many calories and you’ll stifle your muscle-gaining efforts. “Oftentimes, aggressive diet plans will put you in a big caloric deficit to lose weight,” he explains. And if you’re not strength training and consuming enough protein at the same time, “you’ll most certainly lose weight, but it will be a combination of fat and muscle.”
But keeping your caloric deficit smaller can help stave off muscle loss. According to a study in the journal Obesity, which found when people consumed 500 calories per day for five weeks, followed by a four-week weight stable period and a nine-month follow-up period, they lost 8.8% of their total body muscle. In comparison, when people consumed 1,250 calories per day for 12 weeks, followed by a four-week weight stable period and nine-month follow-up, they only lost 1.3% of their muscle.
The smaller your caloric deficit, the less muscle will break down as you lose weight — and the greater your likelihood of being able to actively build muscle, explains Jim White, registered dietitian, exercise physiologist and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia. Previous research shows that people who exercise can build substantial muscle if they keep a very small caloric deficit, just enough to keep weight loss at half a kilogram, or 1.1 pound, per week.
White says your goal should be to lose no more than 1 to 2 pounds per week. While every person will need to cut calories and increase activity levels slightly differently to lose weight at this rate, reducing caloric intake by 500 calories per day is a good place to start. Over the course of seven days, those 500 calories add up to 3,500 calories, or 1 pound of body weight.
3. Be patient.
Being patient might be the hardest tip of all because you may notice yourself making great gains to start with, but they naturally slow over time.
“It becomes progressively more difficult to increase muscle while losing fat as you become more trained and get leaner,” says researcher Brad Schoenfeld, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and associate professor of exercise science at Lehman College in the Bronx, New York.
It’s just how the human body works: The more fat you have to lose, the easier it is to do. Likewise, the more muscle you have to gain, the easier it is to accomplish.
For some people, noticing these changes as a number on the scale might be slow initially, too. “As you change your body and gain muscle mass and lose body fat, your weight may not actually fluctuate that much,” Travis says. “That’s normal because muscle is denser than fat. This is why I encourage regular body composition scanning to ensure you understand what’s happening in your body — how much fat you’re losing and how much muscle you’re gaining.” But the shifts should show up in a change in appearance, how your clothes fit and how strong you feel.
As you get closer to your goal, expect to see more subtle changes in your fat and muscle levels. Remember not to get discouraged.
4. Eat 25-plus grams of protein four times per day.
“We’ve all heard the cliché, ‘abs are made in the kitchen.’ It’s so true,” says Thomas Roe, an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, endurance athlete, founder of TRoe Fitness and owner of Local Moves Studio in San Antonio, Texas.
Following a strict nutrition plan that’s high in lean protein while doing the right kind of exercises can help maintain muscle. That’s because your muscles use the protein you eat to grow bigger or stronger. When cutting calories, your body’s muscles may be less sensitive to the protein you eat, Spano says.
Examples of healthy proteins include:
— Chicken and turkey breast.
— Fish.
— Tofu.
— Tempeh.
In one study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, when men who exercise followed a low-calorie diet that was high in protein for four weeks, they lost 10.56 pounds of fat while gaining 2.64 pounds of lean muscle. Meanwhile, those who followed a diet with the same number of calories, but less protein, only lost 7.7 pounds of fat and gained less than a quarter-pound of muscle.
“In addition, this protein intake should be spaced out evenly throughout the day,” Spano says. This approach keeps your muscles fed with a steady stream of building blocks.
In fact, a 2018 review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that for optimal muscle growth, people should consume between 0.2 and 0.25 grams of protein per pound of body weight four times per day. For a 180-pound adult, that equals four meals of 33 to 45 grams of protein. Other research recommends 25 to 35 grams of protein at every meal for most adults and slightly more for vegetarians and vegans.
But, as Travis notes, “everyone is different, particularly as it relates to nutrition.” For this reason, he says you’ll probably “need to do some experimentation to find what works best for you.” He recommends talking with a registered dietitian for personalized advice tailored to your goals and your current body composition situation.
5. Consider trying intermittent fasting.
Mor recommends intermittent fasting as a strategy that has been shown to help people preserve and gain muscle mass while losing weight. Intermittent fasting can help support metabolic rate and metabolic flexibility, she says. Metabolic flexibility means your body is able to efficiently switch between burning both carbs and fat as fuel.
“This relates to muscle building and weight loss because if you’re able to burn through carbs efficiently during a workout, you can lose weight more efficiently since you’ll then be burning through fat stores,” she says.
Combining weight training with intermittent fasting can help activate that process, Mor adds. “Combining strength training with intermittent fasting is a great way to burn through leftover carb stores overnight and increase your chances of waking up burning fat in the morning,” she says.
6. Strength train at least three times per week.
“You need to include at least two days of weight training a week to maintain existing muscle mass and three or more times a week to build muscle,” White says. In one study from the Harvard School of Public Health, researchers found that among 10,500 adults, strength training doesn’t just build muscle; it also helps reduce abdominal fat levels.
The most effective exercises for both fat loss and muscle gain are compound, meaning they work multiple muscle groups at once. Examples include squats, chest presses and rows. Focus on making these moves the top priority of your weekly workout routine, and then you can start to think about adding the right cardio workouts.
7. Use cardio for recovery.
Cardio isn’t the most effective way to build or maintain muscle when you’re in a caloric deficit. However, it’s a great tool to help you recover from your strength-training workouts because it helps you maintain and build the most muscle possible.
Low-intensity cardio, such as walking, jogging, gentle cycling and swimming, increases blood flow throughout the body to get oxygen and other nutrients to your muscle cells, explains Dean Somerset, an Alberta, Canada-based kinesiologist.
Roe recommends adding 35 to 45 minutes of cardio a few times a week. Stick to low-intensity workouts, with your effort feeling no more difficult than a seven on a scale from 1 to 10.
He also encourages “drinking at least a gallon of water per day” to support your efforts for fat loss and muscle gain. However, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine say adequate daily fluid intake is about 15.5 cups daily for men and about 11.5 cups daily for women.
8. Adjust your exercise program’s structure.
James Suchy, a sports medicine physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California, says “the way in which an exercise program is structured can impact the outcome of your training.” In other words, adjusting the number of sets, repetitions or the amount of rest in between them can affect the type of physical gains you’ll see.
For example, to increase muscle size and definition, Suchy says you should “lift the maximum weight you can lift for 6 to 12 repetitions paired with a rest period of 1 to 2 minutes between sets. This is a good entry point for those new to weightlifting and will still provide significant strength and endurance gains.”
By contrast, if you’re looking to increase muscle strength, Suchy recommends lifting the maximum weight you can lift for 1 to 6 repetitions paired with a rest period of 2 to 3 minutes between sets. “This requires more experience with weightlifting to avoid injury from poor technique,” he cautions, so it’s best to work with a trainer or coach when you begin this type of training.
If your goal is to increase muscle endurance, “lift the maximum weight you can lift for 12 to 20 repetitions, paired with a rest period of 30 to 90 seconds between sets,” Suchy says. “This may be useful for someone who doesn’t want to increase muscle mass or size.”
9. Do HIIT sparingly.
As a last add-in to your workout plan, try high-intensity interval exercises such as repeated sprints on the treadmill, elliptical or bike.
These workouts can help burn calories and reduce body fat while still building muscle, White says. However, you’re best served using them only on occasion, like once or twice per week. Strength training should still be your workout focus, and overdoing it on high-intensity cardio can overstress your muscles and make them much less likely to grow.
Perform HIIT on nonconsecutive days and when you’re feeling well rested.
10. Get enough rest and recovery.
“Building muscle in the gym starts with placing sufficiently challenging stress on muscle fibers during a workout,” Suchy says. But you can overdo it. “For muscle gains and fat loss to occur, adequate recovery is also essential.” Adequate recovery means that “getting restful, deep sleep every night is critical.” For the average adult, 7 to 9 hours should be the goal, “with a preference toward the high end if you’re exercising on a regular basis,” he explains.
That’s not always easy, though. “High levels of stress at work and in your personal life can detrimentally impact your recovery and capacity to come back strong for your next workout,” Suchy says. But, he adds, “stress-relieving activities like deep breathing or meditation have been shown to help.”
The bottom line
Yes, you can gain muscle while losing weight. Focus on both fueling and training your muscles while keeping your caloric deficit small. Make sustainable changes that you can stick with over the long term — both fat loss and muscle gain take time.
“I can’t stress enough that we are what we eat,” Roe adds. “Wasted calories on high-sugar, processed foods, dairy and alcohol are a sure-fire way to derail your goals from putting on muscle mass and leaning out.”
10 strategies for gaining muscle while losing weight:
— Get a baseline.
— Keep your caloric deficit small.
— Be patient.
— Eat 25-plus grams of protein four times per day.
— Consider trying intermittent fasting.
— Strength train at least three times per week.
— Use cardio for recovery.
— Adjust your exercise program’s structure.
— Do HIIT sparingly.
— Get enough rest and recovery.
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Strategies for Gaining Muscle While Losing Weight originally appeared on
Correction 09/30/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.
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