Building muscle while burning fat can prove to be a difficult task. Some might say, nearly impossible. Typically, building muscle and losing fat are done in cycles (one then the other). You may have heard the terms “bulking” or “cutting,” which refers to putting on weight, or losing fat.
The reason why it is difficult to build muscle and burn fat at the same time is because to build muscle, you need to be in a caloric surplus (eating more calories than you are burning), and to lean out, you need to be in a calorie deficit (burn more calories than you are consuming). Quite the conundrum, isn’t it?
This is why during an “off-season” of a body builder or figure competitor, their muscles don’t look as defined as they do on stage. Those muscles are still there, there is just some fat covering them due to an excess of calories. This is completely normal. Having a surplus of calories allows you to have more energy to put into your workouts, and also to aid in recovery/muscle growth, but, along with that comes some fat gain as well.
When the time comes to lean out, you go back to a caloric deficit to lose fat, and (hopefully) maintain that muscle mass that you worked so hard to build. It is inevitable to have some muscle loss while in a caloric deficit, however, this can be minimized with proper nutrition.
So how do we do both at the same time?
If you time your nutrients properly, you can maximize muscle gains while still promoting fat loss. Not all calories are created equal. I know this may be a difficult concept to grasp, but when you consume the right foods at the right time, this triggers responses in the body that are much more complex than just how many calories you are eating.
Now, I must warn you, the rest of this article is going to be a little science-y. I try to avoid getting too technical, but for this particular topic it’s somewhat necessary. However, I will try to make it as simple as possible 🙂
You may think protein is the most important factor here. You need to consume enough protein to prevent breakdown in the muscle and to promote growth, right?
While this is true, there is another factor here that you may not be so familiar with.
Carbs do more than just provide energy. I know a lot of you are scared to eat carbs when you are trying to lose fat, but consuming them at the right time is just as important, if not more important, than consuming protein.
I know, you probably think I’m crazy right now. No way are carbs better for building muscle than protein. Let me explain…
We have glucose stored in our muscles (aka glycogen) that is our body’s first source of energy. When we use up all of our glycogen stores, the next source of energy is protein (what your muscles are made up of). So, if you aren’t consuming enough carbs and your glycogen levels are low, your body is going to start breaking down your muscle for fuel. This is why a pre-workout snack is most often some type of carbohydrate. However, with intense/prolonged exercise, this is not enough glycogen to sustain your workout.
Once you have finished your workout, you have a 45 minute time frame of what’s called an “anabolic window” where your muscles are more insulin sensitive. During this time period, you want to consume protein with a quick digesting carb. Quick digesting carbs are food that have a high glycemic index. These are rapidly broken down and absorbed in the body.
Carbs create a rise in our blood sugar levels, most people know this. When our blood sugar levels spike, that triggers a release of a hormone called insulin. Remember before when I mentioned that our muscles are more insulin sensitive during that anabolic window? This is a good thing, this means insulin can help synthesize muscle proteins and muscle glycogen at a more rapid rate, thus leaving less fat synthesis and storage.
Insulin plays a large role in muscle growth, and quite frankly, to explain it all would make this more like a research paper than a blog post.
The timing and composition of your meals do make a difference in how you will progress. If this is something you would like to know more about, I highly recommend this book* that breaks down the science behind the timing or your meals. There are charts to help you understand and even meal plan templates included to help you time your meals perfectly.
So to sum all of this up; eating protein with a quick digesting carb within the 45 minutes you’ve finished your workout can help to preserve current muscle mass, promote muscle growth, and minimize fat gain.
Hopefully this wasn’t too medical/scientific for your taste. I tried to keep it as simple as possible while still explaining in detail the science of it all.
Have any of you successfully gained muscle while losing fat? How did you do it?
*denotes affiliate link