Losing body fat while simultaneously gaining muscle.
For nearly a century, physique enthusiasts have sought this holy grail of fitness.
Why bulk up and diet down when you can do both simultaneously? As illogical as it may seem – the two goals happen to directly oppose one another – it plays to the impatient nature of the typical fresh-faced gym rat, who plans to go from skinny fat to superhero in 8 weeks or less, with weekends off to chase skirts and eat cheeseburgers. With that timetable, there's little room for logic.
To that end, countless training programs, fad diets, and supplements have been marketed to aid these folks in their quest for a quick and miraculous physique transformation in exchange for a few dollars that were likely intended for college or new socks.
The results, however, have been disappointing. The average trainee emerges from months of various "cyclical" diets and rebound training programs to find himself at basically the same place he started from, only half as motivated and twice as jaded.
Fact is, many experienced trainees question whether losing fat while gaining muscle is even possible for the steroid-free athlete with a life outside the gym – so the old school system of separating bulking and cutting remains the method of choice.
But here's the deal: contrary to what the gurus tell you, heavy training and big eating followed by "cutting" with calorie restriction and cardio isn't the best method, nor is it ideal for building a lean, muscular body.
So, back to the question, is it possible to build muscle and decrease body fat simultaneously and still live a somewhat normal life?
The answer is, yes! But in order for this to happen, you must follow a training program that facilitates fat loss (lipolysis) while stimulating muscle growth (protein synthesis) at the same time. Easier said than done, yes, but not a fantasy.
To fully understand the process, let's take a closer look at the requirements for fat loss and muscle growth.
Maximizing Fat Loss
How do we maximize fat loss? The following list is adapted from the work of Dr. Mauro DiPasquale:
- Increase fat release from fat stores by triggering lipolysis through hormonal modulation and physical activity.
- Increase the oxidation and elimination of the released fatty acids (body fat) by maintaining metabolic rate and by maximizing the transport of fatty acids into the mitochondria.
- Decrease fat accumulation or lipogenesis by decreasing excess inflammation, improving insulin sensitivity, and optimizing cortisol secretion.
- Target fat loss while maintaining (in our case, accumulating) muscle tissue; this is done by maximizing anti-catabolic hormones and growth factors (GH, Testosterone, IGF-1).
- Avoid the metabolic slowdown associated with mono-phase diets by following a high protein phase-shift diet.
The take home message: You must elevate growth hormone secretion, minimize insulin spikes, improve muscle insulin sensitivity, and keep training sessions brief in order to lose fat.
Maximizing Muscle Growth
To induce muscle growth we must stimulate protein synthesis in muscle tissue.
Protein synthesis is initiated by proper exercise that:
- Recruits all available muscle fibers with multiple exercises that create sufficient muscle tension through an optimal range of motion.
- Fatigues as many recruited muscle fibers as possible with sufficient volume.
- Ensures adequate availability of amino acids and energy to amplify protein synthesis.
The take home message: Recruit and fatigue as many muscles as fast as possible and ensure adequate amino acids are available during the process.
The Next Wrinkle
How do we get these two processes to work together so that we create an anabolic environment where we use body fat stores to help meet energy demands?
1. Stimulate muscle growth with compound exercises, performed for 6-20 repetitions to failure.
The repetition range will determine which muscle fibers are recruited. We want to recruit as many as possible, including slow twitch, intermediate, and fast-twitch fibers. As with all strength exercises, slow twitch fibers are recruited first, then as the muscles fatigue, intermediate and finally fast twitch fibers are recruited if and only if the set is continued until fatigue sets in.
Muscle growth is best achieved when the exercises are performed with controlled eccentric movements and continuous tension. Make an effort to minimize momentum unless the nature of the exercise dictates otherwise.
2. Improve insulin sensitivity by performing a sufficient volume of work.
Multiple sets performed within the 6-20 repetition range is best for depleting muscle glycogen (and stimulating protein synthesis). During high intensity strength circuits, muscle glycogen is broken down at a rapid rate when the volume of work is sufficient.
This results in improved muscle insulin sensitivity and increased LPL activity on muscle tissue, causing nutrients to be preferentially partitioned towards muscle tissue.
Insulin sensitivity increases on muscle cells when glycogen stores are low. When this occurs, nutrients are partitioned into the muscle tissue and fat stores are broken down.
3. Maximize GH production with short rest interval circuits.
Traditional split training (upper body, lower body split) has a beneficial effect on anabolic hormones and growth hormone (GH), but we need to maximize GH if we're going to hit the target.
An effective way to maximize GH release is by performing strength circuits where you're stimulating both upper and lower body muscles and keeping rest intervals short.
Properly executed circuit training leads to a significant drop in blood pH, which triggers increased production in GH. The rapid breakdown of glycogen causes a release of hydrogen ions. These hydrogen ions accumulate in the system causing blood pH to drop.
Contrary to the belief that lactic acid causes muscle burn; it's actually the lowered blood pH that creates the acidic environment resulting in muscle burn and fatigue. The brain senses the situation and increases output of GH.
What's so great about growth hormone?
GH has been shown to stimulate fat breakdown (lipolysis), increase the use of fat, and decrease the use of carbohydrate as fuel.(1) GH has beneficial effects on muscle mass, bone density, body fat, and it can reverse some of the age-related changes in lean body mass.
GH has a suppressive effect on myostatin, and myostatin inhibits muscle growth and is a negative regulator of muscle tissue. Higher GH release means lower myostatin expression; lower myostatin can result in increased anabolic activity and an increase in androgen receptor expression.
Research shows that circuit strength training (and high intensity sprint training) are both effective methods for naturally elevating GH secretion in healthy adults.
Let's put all this info into action. The following 4-week program is designed to hit each of the above targets and accomplish the greater goal of losing body fat and building muscle simultaneously.
This program is very challenging and is ideal for the advanced trainee or physique athlete. You'll need to adhere to a regimented recovery regimen (massage and rest) and a high-protein, low carbohydrate diet to maximize results.
- You'll train 2 days on, 1 off; 3 days on, 1 off, for 4 weeks.
- Exercises are grouped in circuits of 2 to 4 exercises. Exercise A1 - A4 are performed in series and repeated until the recommended number of sets are done.
- Take each set to the point of muscle failure – the point at which you can't maintain the prescribed tempo and you can't complete another repetition in good form.
- Progressively add weight and always strive to get the most out of each set – you're trying to make the muscles work as hard as possible.
- Adhere to the tempo prescription. Don't rest between reps.
|A1||Back Squat with Ankle Extension||3-4||6-8||3010||15 sec.|
|Perform a squat as deep as your structure will allow. Continue the movement up onto the balls of your feet, then immediately descend for the next repetition. Repeat until all reps are complete.|
|A2||Dumbbell Squat with Heels Elevated||3-4||10-12||2010||60 sec.|
|Use a hip-width foot stance, elevate heels 1-2 inches, hold dumbbells at sides, initiate squat by pushing knees forward and squatting as low as possible. Do not rest at top of movement; keep constant tension on quadriceps.|
|A3||Incline Dumbbell Chest Press||3-4||6-8||3010||15 sec.|
|A4||Push-Ups, Feet Elevated||3-4||AMRAP *||2010||60 sec.|
|Use hex dumbbells or push up bars, elevate feet 6-12 inches. Create a stretch in the pectoral muscles by lowering yourself as far as possible.|
|B1||Drop Lunge||3-4||8-10||20X1||15 sec.|
|Step off of a 4-6 inch platform, explode up to start position. Perform all reps on one leg before moving to the other side.|
|B2||One-Arm Dumbbell Row||3-4||10-12||3010||60 sec|
|C1||Chest Dip||3||AMRAP *||2010||15 sec.|
|C2||Supine DB Triceps Extension||3||10-12||2011||15 sec.|
|C3||Bent-Over Rear Delt Lateral Raise||3||12-15||2010||60 sec.|
* AMRAP — as many reps as possible
|A1||Standing Dumbbell Push-Press||4||6-8||20X0||15 sec.|
|Use leg drive to initiate the press to full arm extension, lower the dumbbells in a controlled manner.|
|A2||Kneeling Lateral Raise||3-4||10-12||2010||60 sec.|
|A3||Deadlift, Mid Grip||3-4||6-8||30X1||15 sec.|
|A4||Glute-Ham Raise or 45-degree Hip Extension||3-4||10-12||2010||60 sec.|
|If necessary, add weight by holding a dumbbell across chest.|
|B1||Chin-Up, Mid Parallel Grip||3-4||AMRAP *||30X0||15 sec.|
|B2||Kettlebell Swing||3-4||15-20||10X0||60 sec.|
|C1||EZ Bar Reverse Curl||3||8-10||2010||15 sec.|
|C2||Dumbbell Upright Row||3||10-12||2010||15 sec.|
|C3||Seated Rope Row to Neck||3||12-15||2020||60 sec.|
* AMRAP — as many reps as possible
Wednesday: Rest and Recovery
Get a full body deep tissue massage if it's in the budget.
|A1||Trap Bar Squat||4||6-8||40X1||15 sec.|
|A2||Dumbbell Bench Press||4||8-10||3011||60 sec.|
|B1||Russian Step-Up, Dumbbell||3-4||10-12||2110||15 sec.|
|B2||EZ Bar Row, Supinated Grip||3-4||8-10||2010||60 sec.|
|C1||Triceps Push-Up with Weight Vest *||3||8-10||2110||15 sec.|
|Hands spaced 6-8 inches apart, elbows out during lowering phase.|
|C2||TRX Rear Delt Row with Weight Vest *||3||10-12||2010||15 sec.|
|C3||Triceps Pressdown, Straight Bar||3||10-12||2010||60 sec.|
* Triceps Push-Up — Perform exercises in a 10-30 pound weight vest if possible.
|A1||Seated Arnold Press||4||6-8||2111||15 sec.|
|A2||Good Mornings, Safety Bar||4||6-8||3011||60 sec.|
|Use straight bar if safety-bar isn't available.|
|B1||Pull-Up, Shoulder-Width Grip||3-4||6-10||2011||15 sec.|
|B2||Romanian Deadlift||3-4||8-10||20X1||60 sec.|
|C1||Standing Thick Barbell Curl||3||8-10||2010||15 sec.|
|C2||Wide Grip Barbell Front Raise||3||10-12||2020||15 sec.|
|C3||Bent-Over Rear Delt Lateral Raise||3||12-15||2020||60 sec.|
Saturday: Sled Day
|A1||Sled Medley #1||30 sec.|
Backwards drags for 80 feet; immediately turn around and perform
Hamstrings drags for 80 feet
Repeat 2-4 more times
|A2||Sled Medley #2||60 sec.
Lateral Drag 40 feet/side for a total of 80 feet
Pull-Through, 40 feet
Sled Row, 40 feet
Note: If you don't have access to a dragging sled, perform 6-10 sets of 50-meter sprints with 60-second rest intervals. Perform a thorough, 10-15 minute warm-up before starting sprints.
Sunday: Rest and Recovery
Transforming your physique isn't just about training – to achieve the holy grail of physique enhancement, you also need to follow a well-designed nutrition program that supports your goals.
Ideally, you should follow a high protein (1-1.5 grams per pound), low carbohydrate (50-100 grams/day) diet for five days/week with two days of moderate carbohydrate (200-400 grams/day) intake.
I recommend you do the higher carbohydrate day on two of your training days and the lower carb days on your off days. Do not go high carb on rest days.
Consume at least 3 grams of omega-3's such as Biotest's Flameout® each day.
Consume a pre-workout beverage containing protein and smart carbs 20-30 minutes before training. Biotest has a number of peri-workout formulations that make this quick, convenient, and tasty.
Also, take 5-10 grams of BCAA's during training and another 5-10 grams immediately upon completion of training. Eat a solid meal 1-2 hours later.
Change Your Approach, Change Your Body
This certainly isn't the first article to claim to have the secrets to building muscle and burning fat simultaneously, and I highly doubt it will be the last that you see this year or this month, or even this week.
It is, however, a scientifically based approach that's forged from real-world practices and years of in-the-trenches experience. And one that I can almost guarantee will finally take you to the physique promised land.
- Doug McGuff, M. (2009). Body by Science. New York: McGraw Hill.
- Loren Cordain, P. (2005). The Paleo Diet for Athletes. RODALE.
- Pasquale, M. G. (2008). Amino Acids and Proteins for the Athlete. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
- Specialist, R. T. (2001). Physics, The Engineering of the Muscoloskeletal System and the Mechanics of Load Application. Oklahoma City: Focus on Fitness.
- Yuri Verkhoshansky, M. S. (2009). Supertraining, 6th edition. Ultimate Athlete Concepts.
- Zatsiorsky, V. M. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign: Human Kinetics.