Should You Lose Fat and Build Muscle at the Same Time?

Discover whether you should lose fat and build muscle at the same time.

Ben Greenfield,
October 10, 2016
Episode #306

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Back when I was a bodybuilder, it was common knowledge that one of the best ways to get a nice body—especially if the goal was the ultimate combination of lean muscle mass and low body fat—was to do a “bulking” phase of muscle gain, followed by a “stripping” or “cutting” phase of fat loss leading up to the show (in which one basically poses on stage in scant clothing while performing a highly entertaining “flex-off” against fellow competitors).

But new exercise science research suggests that my approach (and the approach of many other professional fitness enthusiasts and workout “gurus”) could be flawed when it comes to building muscle and losing fat. You’re about to discover exactly what that new research says, and get practical tips based on this new science that will help you build muscle and lose fat—whether you’re pursuing bodybuilder-esque bulk or just want to get a lean body.

Lose Fat to Gain Muscle

This latest study on losing fat and gaining muscle, “Anabolic sensitivity of postprandial muscle protein synthesis to the ingestion of a protein-dense food is reduced in overweight and obese young adults.” (gotta love these fancy study titles, right?), compared ability to gain muscle in response to a protein-dense meal in three different populations: people who were normal, healthy weight, people who were overweight, and people who were obese.

After the subjects had consumed 170 grams of pork, which is approximately a 36 gram protein and 3 gram fat meal, the researcher studied the subjects’ skeletal muscle anabolic signaling, amino acid transporters, and myofibrillar protein synthesis, which are all three gold-standard markers of the ability to gain muscle.

So what did the research find?

It turns out that the group who was overweight experienced a much lower ability to be able to generate the activity necessary for muscle building in response to a protein-rich meal, and the group who was obese fared even worse. The researchers hypothesized that increased fat mass altered anabolic, muscle-building signals, reduced muscle sensitivity to food ingestion, and even caused greater amounts of mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1 (mTORC1) protein, which is a protein that inhibits the ability to be able to build muscle (just Google “mTOR knockout mice” or “mTOR knockout bulls” to see what happens when the opposite occurs and mTOR is allowed to get out of control).

In the paper, mTOR phosphorylation (which is “pro muscle growth”) was elevated in both overweight and obese participants, but that meant they couldn't increase phosphorylation (i.e. produce a growth signal) after protein ingestion. 

So what exactly does this mean for you? It means that if you want to gain muscle as efficiently as possible, you need to first get lean. In other words, rather than gaining muscle, then losing fat, you should lose fat, then gain muscle. You should “cut” first, then “bulk” (or get strong, or put on lean muscle, or whatever your muscular goals are) after that.

How to Lose Fat and Gain Muscle

Now let’s delve into some practical ways you can lose fat and then gain muscle.

Step 1: Have a Fat Loss Phase

Let’s say you want to look as good as possible for swimsuit season, which would generally be about May through September. In  a case like this, in the fall, you would begin doing intense fat loss, specifically by utilizing some of my favorite strategies such as:

-Morning fasted workouts in your body’s fat burning zone.

-Calorie restriction and lower meal frequency with slightly less protein (e.g. 20-30% of total dietary intake), preferably using a strategy such as calorie cycling, in which you restrict calories for 5 days of the week, then have 2 days of the week during which you eat to caloric balance. For more on this strategy, listen to Nutrition Diva’s episode on calorie cycling here.

-Cold thermogenesis such as cold showers, cold baths, keeping your home and office cool, and using cooling vests and cooling garments. Here is my latest episode on cold thermogenesis.

-Higher rep, lower weight weight training, with less of a focus on strength and mass and more of a focus on metabolic conditioning and “feeling the burn”.

-Using research-proven fat burning and blood sugar controlling supplements like caffeine, green tea extract, cayenne, bitter melon extract, cinnamon, and ketones.


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