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Published on October 23, 2015 by Ryan Walters
If you ask someone who works out – a client, a friend, anyone really – if they’d like to lose fat or gain muscle, a lot of the time they’ll say, “Both!” And of course they do! Losing fat and gaining muscle: that’s the ideal situation for almost everyone.
However, if you’re like most people, trying to do both at the same time is extremely difficult, verging on impossible. That’s because it’s very rare that your body can exist in both a catabolic and anabolic state at the same time.
What’s catabolism? Your body exists in a catabolic state when it is working to reduce body tissue. When you are exercising and dieting to lose fat, this is the state you’ll want your body to be in. However, although it is possible to encourage your body to lose fat instead of muscle, some loss in muscle tends to occur in catabolic states.
Anabolism is the opposite of catabolism. Your body is in an anabolic state when it is working to grow and develop body tissue. If you are looking to gain Lean Body Mass, this is the state you want to be in. Unfortunately, just like in a catabolic state, anabolism also has unintended side effects. A key contributor to maintaining an anabolic state is consuming more calories than you need to maintain your weight, which can lead to gaining Fat Mass as well as Lean Body Mass.
However, if you’re measuring your weight and tracking your progress with your body composition results, you can fine tune your workouts and diet to avoid unwanted fat gain and muscle loss before they become too significant. Here’s a three step guide on how to do that:
Step 1: Decide Which Goal Comes First
The first step in any fitness strategy is always the same: figure out what your body composition is at the start so you can decide where you plan on taking your journey. This will vary from person to person.
The ultimate question that needs to be answered is: “What’s more important to me, losing as much fat as possible, or preserving (and possibly increasing) the muscle that I have already?” If you decide that losing as much fat as possible is your priority, you’re accepting that you’re likely going to lose some Lean Body Mass in addition to losing Fat Mass.
If you’re focused on preserving your Muscle Mass, start by trying to gain more muscle than you have now. Knowing that you will lose some Lean Body Mass when you start cutting fat mass, if you build up more Lean Body Mass first, you’ll be giving yourself some extra LBM that you can afford to lose in the future without dropping below your original Lean Body Mass levels.
If you aren’t sure where to begin, here’s a guide that will help you decide which starting point is best for you.
Step 2: Find the Point of Diminishing Returns
The next step will be to start your fitness plan based on the goal you want to achieve first: either losing Fat Mass or gaining Lean Body Mass.
Losing Fat Mass
If your goal is to lose Fat Mass, you will need to put your body in a caloric deficit (burning more calories than you take in) in order to help your body enter a catabolic state. This can be achieved with a combination of caloric restriction and increased energy expenditure with some combination of resistance training and cardiovascular exercise. This is commonly referred to as “cutting.”
After 1 – 2 weeks, measure your body composition again. If you are dieting and exercising properly, you should start to feel that your clothes fit a little differently, but even if they don’t just yet, your body composition results will show your progress. What you should hopefully see is that you lost weight due to a loss in Fat Mass and little to no loss in Lean Body Mass.
If these are your results, great! Continue with another 1 – 2 week cycle, and retest again. At a certain point, however, you’ll start to see losses in Lean Body Mass. If you were lifting weights before you started targeting Fat Mass, you will probably start to feel the loss in the amount of strength you have before you see it in your body composition results.
At this point, you have to make a personal choice: are your Fat Mass losses worth the loss in Lean Body Mass?
Gain Lean Body Mass
If your goal is to gain Lean Body Mass, you will need to be in a caloric surplus (bringing in more calories than you use over the course of one day). However, you’ll need to put those calories to work by lifting heavy. You’ll need all that energy to push yourself to continuously lift more than you did the workout before, workout after workout. “This is commonly referred to as “bulking.”
Because gaining muscle is typically a slower process than losing Fat Mass, it's best to give yourself a bit more time – 3 to 4 weeks – before having your body composition measured again. What you should hopefully see is a gain in Lean Body Mass, with little to no gain in Fat Mass.
If these are your results, keep going. Train for another month and retest. At a certain point, you’ll likely start to see some Fat Mass start to build up over time. This isn’t necessarily cause for concern, especially if the majority of your gains are coming from lean tissue; this can actually cause your body fat percentage to decrease, despite your gains in Fat Mass.
It’s a lot easier to gain Fat Mass than it is to gain Lean Body Mass, and so long as you are taking in more calories than you are using, you will gain Fat Mass over time. At a certain point, your Fat Mass gains might become substantial enough to where you may want to think about stopping this bulking cycle and working on reducing some of the Fat Mass you gained.
Step 3: Rotate Goals Until Satisfied
If you’re happy with your Fat Mass loss, then it will be time to develop Lean Body Mass and regain what you lost during your cut. If you are happy with your gains in Lean Body Mass but picked up too much Fat Mass along the way, it will be time to cut out some of that unnecessary fat mass.
The key to success is to be constantly measuring your body composition. Without measuring your body composition, you won’t be able to fine tune or optimize your fitness, leading you to spend more time in the gym and on calorie restriction longer than necessary. By tracking your body composition results and observing trends over time, you’ll be able to reach your goals efficiently, quickly, and with a more positive outlook.
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