A few weeks ago, I received a voicemail on the Get-Fit Guy hotline from a listener named Erin. She had a great question of muscle definition. This is what she asked.
Hi Brock. My name’s Erin. I’ve been listening to your podcast for a long time and I find it really helpful. I’m a woman in— well, close to 50, and I’ve been working out with free weights, kettlebells, and battle ropes pretty consistently for about three years. I’m finding that it’s like running to stay in place. I’m reasonably toned, but I never seem to be able to develop real muscle mass or definition. Should I be taking a lot of protein? Should I be trying to lose a bunch of weight? My weight is actually quite normal, quite good—but if I want definition, should I be increasing my weights by quite a bit? I’m hesitant to do that because my recovery time is not what it used to be. What are the most impactful things you can do in terms of muscle definition and gaining muscle mass when you’re in midlife?
This is a question I bet many listeners are interested in.
What Erin is really asking about is how best to change her body composition. She’s not that interested in losing body weight; she simply wants to shift the composition of her body from fat tissue to muscle tissue.
Increasing muscle definition is really just a simple idea of increasing muscle mass and decreasing body fat, especially the fat between the skin and muscle called subcutaneous fat. Doing these two things in concert is what creates defined muscles that you can see.
While muscle definition isn’t an actual measure of better fitness or health, I understand the desire to show off the hard work you’ve done. While I don’t encourage anyone to lower their body fat to extremes, there’s a healthy way to accomplish reasonable body fat loss and muscle mass increases.
Now, I said that the idea behind building muscle definition was simple, but like many ideas, simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. Increasing your muscle definition requires some patience and something called periodization.
What is periodization training?
Generally, periodization training is a way to keep an athlete from overtraining by deliberately moving through periods of high and low intensities or volumes of training. But it can refer to any deliberate division of training that leads to a specific outcome.
In this case, we’re going to periodize the fat loss first and then concentrate on muscle gain. Sounds simple, right? It is … in theory. But there’s an added complication—you have to not lose muscle while you lose fat and then not gain fat back while you build muscle.
Why fat loss before muscle gain?
I mentioned that we put fat loss first for a reason. Let me explain the science behind it.
In a landmark paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers compared the ability to gain muscle after eating a protein-dense meal in three distinct populations of people: healthy weight, overweight, and obese.
The researchers studied the people in all three groups and monitored some key muscle-building biological factors. These were elements like skeletal muscle anabolic signaling, amino acid transporters, and myofibrillar protein synthesis, which are all gold-standard markers of the body’s ability to gain muscle. They measured these factors after the study participants had consumed 170 grams of pork, which equals approximately 36 grams of protein and 3 grams of fat.
The overweight group showed a much lower ability to generate the biological activity necessary for muscle building in response to a protein-rich meal, and the obese group had even more trouble.
What the researchers saw was that the overweight group showed a much lower ability to generate the biological activity necessary for muscle building in response to a protein-rich meal, and the obese group had even more trouble.
The researchers concluded that:
There is a diminished myofibrillar protein synthetic response to the ingestion of protein-dense food in overweight and obese adults compared with healthy-weight controls.
So what exactly does this mean for our question-asker, Erin? Well, I take it to mean that if you want to gain muscle as efficiently as possible, you need to first get lean, which is a fancy way of saying “lose body fat.”
As simple as this sounds, the key here is a little more tricky. We don’t want Erin to lose any of her precious muscle mass as she loses body fat. And that means two things—she needs to lose weight slowly and she needs to exercise and eat in a way that supports her muscles.
Losing body fat
One key factor in losing body fat while maintaining muscle mass is the speed of weight loss. A big reason why I co-founded the weight loss program called Weighless.Life is that most diets encourage you to lose weight too quickly.
When Nutrition Diva Monica Reinagel and I created our program, we found that virtually all of the studies that have been done define “slow weight loss” as 1-2 pounds per week. The problem is that most humans can’t lose body fat that quickly, which means they’re losing (cue scary music) muscle mass.
We have found that matching the rate of weight loss to one that matches the pace of actual fat loss (about 2-3 pounds per month) is a huge game-changer for everyone, including athletes who are looking to either hit their optimal race weight or get that well-defined look.
Yes, I know, you want to lose the weight now. But while a slower weight-loss pace means it will take longer to lose the pounds, your body will actually look and feel like you’ve lost more than X pounds because the loss is all fat. Cool, right?
Now, I am going to defer to an article and podcast from my partner in the Weighless program, Monica Reinagel, called Diet Strategy to Lose Fat and Gain Muscle.
If you have a significant amount of weight to lose, I think your best strategy is to focus first on reducing your body weight while minimizing muscle loss. To do this, you’d want to lose the weight slowly, do some strength training, and keep your protein intake up. If (or when) you’re within 5 or so pounds of your goal weight, you might want to focus more on improving your body composition. To do this, you’d challenge your muscles while adjusting your food intake to keep your weight more or less steady. Again, incorporating high-quality protein into every meal can help build lean muscle tissue and may also help with weight maintenance.
Now, as Monica said (and Erin mentioned in her question), while dietary protein is a key to building and maintaining muscle mass, it’s important to keep in mind that we don’t want to just pile a bunch of protein on our plates.
The typical middle-aged American male eats about 90 grams of protein, which is enough to maximize muscle protein synthesis (or muscle building). However, he’s likely to eat the majority of that protein at dinner time. In the US (and likely Canada, too) people eat about 42 percent of their daily protein at dinner and only 16 percent at breakfast. If your goal is to maximize muscle, this isn’t a great way to portion-control.
To quote from another episode of Nutrition Diva, called How to Slow Age-Related Muscle Loss:
Research shows that for guys in their twenties, muscle synthesis peaks at an intake of about 20 grams of protein. As we get older it takes a little more protein to hit that peak—about 30 grams at a single meal. That’s about what you’d get from four ounces of cooked chicken, lean beef, pork, or about six ounces of tofu. Protein intakes above that amount don’t really provide any extra muscle-building benefit.
Now, consider our typical eating patterns: If we’re only eating 10 or 15 grams of protein at breakfast, we’re not consuming enough to maximize muscle protein synthesis. Meanwhile, if we’re eating 50 grams of protein at dinner time, some of that protein is being wasted in terms of its muscle-building benefits.
So, whether you are in the fat-loss or the muscle-gain part of periodization, instead of hitting that peak dose of protein only once per day, focus on hitting it three times a day. In terms of hanging onto muscle mass as you lose fat, this could really help make a difference.
In terms of exercising during this period, continue to do resistance training but don’t worry about maxing out your lifts or lifting to failure. The focus is to keep those muscles challenged regularly so they don’t give up on you.
Make sure you avoid long cardio sessions, since they’ve been shown to be catabolic (muscle destroying) rather than anabolic (muscle building). Going for a run, a bike ride, or something similar is fine, but don’t do it too often or for too long. Take a look at my article about Cardio vs Weights for more info on that.
After the fat loss phase is complete, switch your focus to muscle gain. I have articles and podcast episodes that highlight some of the best ways to gain muscle.
The latest is an episode about whether or not you need to lift to failure every time you do resistance training. You can check it out for all the details, but the upshot was that the most promising approach to strength and muscle gain was to lift to failure occasionally. At all other times, lift just below failure (20 percent below, to be exact). This will help shorten the recovery time and allow you to return to your workouts sooner and with more energy and focus.
You could also try some more interesting techniques like occlusion training. The interesting thing about this technique is that it is not only being used by bodybuilders but it’s also a favorite for physical rehab and the elderly because it can build a substantial amount of strength and muscle while you lift only a fraction of what you would normally need to lift.
There is also a great muscle-building strategy called drop sets. This is a lifting protocol that allows you to go beyond your failure point by removing weights from the bar or machine each time you reach failure. This style of lifting also takes less time than a traditional weight training session, and it’s an easy way to raise your heart rate, increase blood flow to your muscles, and ensure that your workout is fatiguing your muscles enough to create some serious muscle hypertrophy.
Another great strategy is to lift heavy weights using full-body exercises like squats, deadlifts, presses, weighted pulls, and power lifts like the clean-and-push press. Doing these full-body exercises is a great way to build more muscle. It allows you to lift heavier loads than with a single-joint exercise like a bicep curl.
The complete plan
- First, periodize fat loss by restricting your calories, but not too much. Concentrate on losing only two or three pounds per month.
- While you’re losing fat, continue to do resistance training but focus on lower weights and higher reps and avoid chronic-style cardio.
- Focus on eating reasonable doses of protein throughout the day, not all in one overly ambitious meal like dinner.
- Once you’ve hit (or nearly hit) your goal weight, switch your focus to gaining muscle by training to failure (occasionally), using full-body exercises (instead of single joint ones), and incorporating strategies like drop sets or occlusion training.
- Continue to eat your protein in steady doses throughout the day.
If you have access to a scale that measures body fat as you gain muscle, keep an eye out for a rise in fat. Check out my article about how and why you can measure your muscle mass for some pointers on this as well.
And finally, as fun as it can be to do this “stripping and bulking” protocol, please don’t confuse muscle definition with better fitness or better health. As I’ve said before, this column and podcast is called Get-Fit Guy, not Get-Skinny Guy or Get-Jacked Guy for a reason. Fitness is all about being able to move through this world with as few limitations as possible. While looking good in a t-shirt can be a nice side effect of fitness, don’t get so caught up in the aesthetics that you overshoot the goal.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.