By far the most frequently asked question I receive. How do you build muscle while burning fat? The concept alone is contradictory. In order to gain muscle, the body needs food. In order to shed fat, the body needs a deficit of calories. In the gym, you need to lift to build muscle with minimal cardio that cannibalizes your hard work. To lose fat, you need cardio to aid the above deficit. The line to find the mutual compromise between the two is fine – very fine, at best. But NOT impossible. With an understanding of how various cardio-based and strengthed-based training systems coupled with nutritional tracking and timing impact your body, you can build muscle while shedding fat. Spoiler alert: This is NOT for the fickle or faint of heart. Without dedication, you cannot find success.
I HATE cardio, so it pains me to admit how crucial it is for fat loss. At a bare minimum, some form of cardio should be done 3 times a week. These sessions should alternate between steady-state cardio and HIIT cardio. I begrudgingly do every minute of my cardio sessions, but it’s such a necessary evil. Barry’s is my drug of choice for HIIT cardio always. Sprints, dynamic treadmill sprints, dashes on a track. I’ll also do windgates on a bike or 25 or 50-yard sprints in a pool. Steady-state cardio is usually power walking on a high incline, the StepMill or running at 70% max effort on a flat road.
- For HIIT, I like to keep the work to rest intervals at a solid 1:2 ratio in order to allow your heart rate to come all the way down. HIIT sessions really don’t need to exceed 20 minutes, if you’re doing it right.
- Steady-state cardio should last 30-45 minutes. It will be the longest 30-45 minutes of your life. If you struggle with losing fat, you should prioritize your HIIT cardio, doing no more than 3-4 sessions a week.
I LOVE strength training, so it gives me so much joy to say it’s crucial for fat loss! Strength training should be done 3-4 times a week, on non-consecutive days if possible. Sessions should consist of heavy compound movements to target the largest muscles in your body. When I’m lifting on my own (and when I’m training my Full Body classes) I like to keep 3-4 sets per exercise and around 8-12 reps per drill. I’ll throw in a few super or giant sets to really get to failure and fatigue any given muscle group.The Barry’s schedule is a great way to target antagonistic muscle groups. If you’re lifting on your own, the below is a good guide for your lifts.
- Session 1: Chest/Back
- Session 2: Shoulders/Biceps/Triceps
- Session 3: Legs (I ALWAYS have a dedicated leg day)
- Session 4: Full Body
Schedule the weight training to allow for a minimum of 10 hours between sessions. I usually recommend at least 12-15 hours for optimal recovery.
The crux of any program is diet. To build muscle and lose fat you should have two different plans to cycle between depending on your workouts. The first being a low-calorie/low carbohydrate day and the second a higher calorie/high carb and portion day. As mentioned, your workout schedule will dictate the type of plan you follow.
Lower-Calorie/Lower Carb Plan
- When to implement: All day on weight-training off-days
- Caloric intake: 10-12 times body weight
- Macronutrient ratio: 50% protein, 30% fat, and 20% carbohydrate
You’ll need to play around with this. If 10x your body weight is too low, then stick to 12x. If you don’t have a lot of fat to lose and know that your body can process fat or does well on a high-fat diet then you could split your protein or fat macro ratios evenly.
Higher-Calorie/Higher Carb Plan
- When to implement: On weight training days only
- Caloric intake: 13-14 times body weight. This is just over your low-calorie day, but all food should be consumed in the span of 6-8 hours to directly refuel your muscles and give yourself enough time to digest and deplete your glycogen levels for the next day. This is the same concept used in intermittent fasting
- Macronutrient ratio: 45% protein, 5% fat and 45% carbohydrate
Remember you’re lifting heavy, so you need fuel to recover and promote muscle growth. Consuming too much fat on your lifting days may get in the way of your body’s digestion and use fat for fuel. In fact, most of the fat you consume will be stored as opposed to burned. If you follow a high-fat diet, consider switching it up to follow this protocol to test your results.
The timing of consumption is just as crucial as what you consume. The body is most responsive to carb consumption directly following your workouts – regardless of the time of day. Consume your carbs directly after your workouts to allow your body to maintain a fat-burning state throughout the balance of the day. The rest of your diet should consist of mostly lean meats, fibrous veggies, minimal fruits (sugar!) and quality fats.
If you take the weekends off stick to 15-16 calories per pound of body weight and be mindful of what you’re eating.
Why This System Works
It’s no doubt it’s complicated to strike the balance of caloric intake for muscle growth and deficit for fat loss – but it is possible! The above allows you to do the following:
- Maintain a moderate calorie deficit
- Eat plenty of protein, you’ll rebuild muscle AND feel full
- Build muscle through heavy lifting
- Shed fat through the various cardio systems and increase metabolism
If you have a significant amount of fat to lose, you’ll experience change quickly while being more flexible with the above. If you’ve been training and cycling nutrition for the last few months or years you may need to be a bit more strict with your nutrition lifting. Regardless, it does require discipline to see the changes you’re looking for. Be patient, go hard and reap the rewards.
Image via HDQWalls.