The Anabolic and Catabolic Cycle
Your metabolism doesn't multitask well. Why? Because the body functions in an anabolic (building up) and catabolic (breaking down) cycle.
The body either likes to be devoting its resources to storing fat and muscle (anabolism) or burning fat and muscle (catabolism). It can do both, but it's the metabolic equivalent of rubbing your head and patting your tummy. It's not easy and takes time to master.
There are two notable exceptions to this rule: anabolic steroid users and diet beginners. Both groups seem to be able to respond to diet and exercise in exactly the way we wish we all did. They lose fat and gain muscle. For all of us natural and seasoned exercisers, we have to be far more careful.
Skinny Fat and Muscle Fat
This multitasking nature of the metabolism is the primary reason most people fall into what I call the "skinny fat" or "muscle fat" categories:
- Skinny Fat: If you exercise like crazy and eat like a bird you'll burn fat, but you'll burn muscle too. This can often leave a person smaller, but much flabbier. Not really what most people are after.
- Muscle Fat: If you train with weights and gain some fat (or don't lose it) it's like putting a jacket on top of two sweaters – you're naturally going to look bulky.
This is the law of metabolic multitasking at work.
This experience is individual and largely contingent on the type of exercise you do, as well as the type of diet you choose as you lose weight.
Carbs, Cardio, and the Goldilocks Zone
A higher protein diet and a lifting-centered workout regime helps the metabolism multitask much better, but many people miss these two critical points. They don't do the style of weight training that's best at building muscle, opting for fast-paced cardio-centered lifting regimes over traditional bodybuilding and heavy strength-training exercise.
They also forego carbs and shirk on their protein. Carbs are the major stimulator of the hormone insulin (protein is too, and even more so in certain situations and in certain people), and insulin is a major anabolic hormone. Without insulin muscle building is compromised.
The idea here is to get more nuanced in your training and diet. Find your Goldilocks zone: not too much, not too little, but just right. This is most important for carbs and cardio. You likely need both, but not too little or too much.