By Erica Willick
“I want to lose fat AND build lean muscle” is the most common goal I hear amongst new clients. That would be amazing wouldn’t it? Reach your target weight at the same time your muscle tone and shape perks up to reveal shapely hotness.
Unfortunately, our bodies are inefficient at performing both activities at the same time. Building pretty lean muscle means you need to feed your muscles for growth. Yet to get fat off requires some form of calorie deficit. While it would be nice if our bodies could just take the fat from our rear-end and turn itself into a firm round booty with squats, the reality is our bodies don’t function that way.
Fat is storage of excess energy so while it can be used as fuel for your squats the fat doesn’t morph into muscle. Fat loss and building muscle are two completely different physiological processes.
I’ve seen specific protocols that claim they do both the fat loss and muscle building simultaneously. Most of these are gimmicky claims, and a few that are supported by some science have protocols that hinge on precise execution of nutrient timing to unlock this simultaneous lose fat/gain muscle goal. Even if these precise nutrient timing programs did in fact work, as a nutrition coach and trainer of women with real lives, (you know the kind of lives that do not solely revolve around nutrition and workouts?), complicated and precise protocols are unattainable for 90% of my clients especially as they are just start into their goals. The reality is most women struggle to get good fundamental nutrition and consistent exercise into their daily habits. Therefore, a longer-term view of the lose fat plus gain lean muscle goal is needed.
Focus should be put to one of these goals, then at some point, switch your focus to the other goal and tackle it in a separate phase. You may need to switch back and forth between these phases to work through various physical and mental roadblocks that often come with physique transformations. However, a clear intention and seeing it through on execution along with some best practices for these two phases yields the best results instead of a haphazard approach.
Which Do You Tackle First? Fat Loss or Lean Muscle Building?
The two biggest factors are:
1.) How comfortable do you feel in your body right now with the current amount of fat?
2.) Roadblock Question: How much are you eating to maintain your current weight?
The Comfort Factor & Your Mindset
This is a completely personal question. No one-size fits everyone answer. How comfortable do you feel right now, with your body fat at its current level? If your answer is “quite/very uncomfortable”, then it may be indication that you tackle a fat loss phase first. Many clients feel better with the 10lbs off that is making them feel very uncomfortable. However, be careful of a dysfunctional view of your body, or a misinformed one, as you may not have much (if any) fat to lose. Instead many women I see reach their goal physique by adding lean muscle, not shedding more fat, yet most still come to me saying, “Maybe I need to lose some weight?”
To illustrate how lean muscle can transform a physique, here is a client at exactly the same weight yet transformed with 5 months of focused lean muscle building NOT fat loss protocols. In the after photo (right photo), a flatter tummy, rounder booty and firmer arms are all the result of lean muscle additions not fat loss.
If you have gone through many rounds of fat loss dieting in the past (lose-gain-lose-gain), consider how powerful it would be for you to break free of the “get smaller” mentality of fat loss. Consider spending some time adding lean muscle, getting stronger (both physically and mentally) and working on your mindset about your size before you dive into another fat loss goal. You may choose to revisit your fat loss goals when you are in a better place mentally about your body.
The Roadblock Question
How much are you eating to maintain your current weight? If you’re under eating and yet maintaining your current weight, then you’ll likely encounter a serious roadblock in your fat loss pursuits. Eating 10x your bodyweight in calories (or less) and not losing weight is a general indication that you’re under eating. Track your calories for a week to check this for yourself. Ideally before entering a fat loss phase you’d be eating in a healthy maintenance range of 13-17x your bodyweight in calories.
To lose fat you need to create a calorie deficit, and at a low level of current intake, there’s nowhere to go but down with calories and up with exercise. Both are dangerous to your health and unmaintainable. You may even adapt your metabolism to this lower level, and make even harder to lose and keep the weight off.
If you find yourself at this roadblock, then it’s time to get off the fat loss train and put your mind into some muscle. Whether you start out here, or get to this point part way through to your fat loss goal, recognize this is the point most fat loss dieters become frustrated and give up. They see the “diet” isn’t working and so they resume old habits and put the weight back on (and often more). This continues the yo-yo cycle of fat loss-then-gain too many experience.
We’re strong Gorgo women, so we’re going to do something different at this point. Instead of saying “screw it”, we say “let’s get stronger”. Eat to fuel your workouts and heck, you might as well put on some hot lean muscle while you’re at it!
My awesome Gorgo girl client Sara exemplifies how to bust through this fat loss roadblock with strength. Sara came from a history of fat loss dieting where her calories were below 10x her bodyweight before we started working together (far left photo). Within 8 weeks of starting on her fat loss goal, we hit a plateau (middle photo). Her body wasn’t responding to a healthy calorie deficit and exercise. Restricting calories further was not maintainable or healthy, so we started the process of slowly adding calories to stoke her metabolism and focus on lean muscle building protocols. Sara didn’t give up or sit idle while we fuelled her metabolism with food. We focused on lean muscle building protocols while we rode out the plateau. A few weeks later, her body started to respond and so we switched to focus on fat loss again. We’ve gone through several of these fat loss > lean muscle > fat loss > lean muscle phase rotations (far right photo) and continue to do so as we move closer to her long-term goal of shedding fat and adding lean muscle.
I encourage you to take a break on a constant fat loss focus. This doesn’t mean eat whatever you want and pack on excess fat. This means you can do amazing work on your shape and strength while you eat to build lean muscle and mentally regroup on your desire to shed more fat. This allows your body an opportunity to become a metabolic machine, gives you a mental break from fat loss dieting, and may even change your desire to lose weight (“Hey, I’m actually pretty great right now. All strong and happy.”)
What to Look For In Fat Loss & Muscle Building Programs
Fat Loss Best Practices
Revisit the way you think about “dieting” by watching this video by Dr. Layne Norton published in a previous issue of GORGO Magazine.
“Whatever diet you can stick to (long-term), is the one you should be on.” ~ Dr. Layne Norton
In a fat loss phase, I also work to improve my client’s strength, form and abilities in the weight room. This serves a number of purposes, both physically and mentally. First, most women need a ramp-up period in the weight room as they gain confidence, strength and knowledge to rock an amazing lift session. While their nutrition is doing the hard work on fat loss, they are becoming more competent and confident amongst the tools that will be key to sculpting the shape they’re aiming for. As well, these strength-training sessions are more likely to help her shift from “get me smaller” to “get me stronger”. Mentally this is a game changer. When this happens, the scale loosens its hold on her original goal and she starts to see her body as something that is capable not just flesh to fit into a certain size of pants. I can take a client with this mentality to new heights in her training and physique transformation.
Muscle Building Best Practices
For a busy woman, it’s more of a struggle to get in enough food as she works on her lean muscle goal. You can’t build lean muscle out of thin air so you must fuel your body with sufficient lean protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats to have your hard work in the gym yield lean muscle gains.
The notion of becoming “bulky” with all this eating and lifting isn’t going to happen. If you’re still unsure about that part, then take comfort that you can easily reign in your muscle building efforts by reducing your food intake once you achieve the look you’re after (though I’m sure that’s years away as building lean muscle is harder work than most women estimate).
What to Look For in a Lean Muscle Building Program:
- Protein at all meals and most snacks
- Includes carbohydrates, especially pre/post workout
- Introduces nutrient timing pre/post workout
- Includes healthy fats, may be lowered pre/post workout for nutrient timing
- Indicates the power sources of protein post-workout
- Training day nutrition may differ from non-training days
- Calories exceed fat loss deficit for your body
- 4-6 days of strength training per week
The Best of Both Worlds
Eat Well. Lift. Repeat. OK, it’s a bit more involved than that, but not too much. Put your focus into your goals or forget about them. It’s awful to see women self-deprecating themselves and yet doing nothing of notable action to correct the perceived issue (either externally or internally).