How To Gain Muscle and Lose Fat
By: James Richardson, Sports nutrition dietitian, RD(c), BScFN, JM Nutrition Team of registered dietitians and nutritionists
It only takes one quick Google search for how to gain muscle and lose fat to become flooded with hundreds and thousands of different answers from a myriad of different people, all of whom have differing advice.
One “expert” might push the idea that you must “bulk” (eating an enormous excess of calories) to grow muscle, which almost always results in substantial fat gain.
Another “expert” could say you should never bulk, but do “intermittent fasting” instead and you will grow muscle and lose fat.
Yet another pundit may just want you to buy their supplements that promise to magically meet all your fitness goals.
Unquestionably, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and confused, when searching the web for the best way to do so. For this reason, I’m here to tell you that the notion of how to gain muscle and lose fat doesn’t need to be confusing.
Many scientific studies have shown that both people who have been training for a long time, and those who are just beginning their fitness journeys, can gain muscle while also losing fat. This method is often referred to by practitioners as body recomposition.
In this post, we’ll attempt to explain why body recomposition is a more straightforward, healthier, and more sustainable method to gain muscle, and how to use it to achieve your fitness goals.
Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
Body Recomposition, What is it and Why Does it Matter?
To gain access to a more profound understanding of how to grow muscle and lose fat, we need to take a closer look at body recomposition.
What is body recomposition?
Body recomposition is when an individual gains muscle mass, while also losing fat at the same time.
This is done by eating slightly more or slightly fewer calories than your body needs. You then combine it with consistent training, such as lifting weights. This is a popular goal for many gym-goers and athletes.
A common misconception, however, is that you must do a “bulking” and a “cutting” phase to achieve your fitness goals.
Bulking vs. cutting
“Bulking” refers to eating more calories than your body needs. In contrast, “cutting” refers to eating much less food and energy than your body needs.
Following this method is not only unnecessary, but can contribute to you developing unhealthy eating patterns, disordered eating, body dysmorphia, and an all-around poor relationship with food. Eating is one of the core human needs and should be something you enjoy and look forward to each day without causing you stress.
Related: Nutrition and stress
Body recomposition, on the other hand, tackles fitness and muscle gain in a much healthier and sustainable way. This is because you don’t need to change your eating patterns drastically between a “cut” and a “bulk” cycle. Additionally, studies have found that gaining muscle and losing fat has been associated with increased athletic performance (Barakat et al., 2020).
How to Gain Muscle and Lose Fat: How to Make a Body Recomposition Plan
To build muscle and lose fat, a concrete plan is required.
Step 1: Clarify your goals
This is an often overlooked, but essential step for anyone looking to improve their fitness. It is also important a critical component of anyone looking to build muscle and lose fat.
Identifying exactly what you want to change and the motivation for why you want to change it will no doubt help you plan better and make it easier to stick to the changes.
There are many different reasons why you may want to gain muscle and lose fat.
Maybe you just want to put on some muscle to feel stronger against the big guys in your Sunday night hockey league. Perhaps you are a high-level athlete trying to maximize your athletic performance to take your career to the next level. Or, maybe you just want to make yourself proud and feel empowered by accomplishing your fitness goals.
Regardless of your goals and motivations to grow muscle and lose fat, identifying these should always be the first place you start before you begin anything else.
Step 2: Be realistic about how you gain muscle and lose fat
For anyone asking the question, “How do I lose fat and gain muscle?”, one of the first things to keep in mind is: be realistic.
Once you have narrowed down your goals and motivation, ask yourself if these are realistic.
Being realistic with yourself and your goals can sometimes be challenging for many individuals of all ages and backgrounds. With social media being so prevalent today, we can easily fall into the habit of comparing ourselves and gauging our success against the best of the best. This habit can often be damaging to our mental health. It can also lead us to make highly unrealistic and unsustainable goals.
Don’t be mistaken, looking up to different role models and feeling inspired by them and their stories can be powerful motivation. But this can certianly go the other way, too.
I remember getting into fitness and lifting weights as a young teenager. I looked up to Arnold Schwarzenegger like he was a bodybuilding god. This deeply motivated me to read all the books on bodybuilding I could get my hands on and wake up much earlier than most other 14-year-olds to get a workout in. I thought this was a well-laid plan to grown muscle and lose fat.
But, over time, my dream of becoming like Arnold Schwarzenegger made me feel like my progress in the gym was minimal and prevented me from giving myself due credit for how far I had come. The reality was that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be like Arnold Schwarzenegger because I am someone completely different. This unrealistic comparison set the foundation for developing many unhealthy habits and damaged my relationship with food and my body.
You can still dream big, but it will be much easier to stick to your goals, maintain healthy habits, and feel proud of yourself if you aim for something more achievable based on where you are right now.
Once you reach this first goal, you can set up the next one. An example of a more healthy, realistic goal could be a youngster starting to train in boxing for the first time.
He eventually decides he wants to put his skills to the test and fight in the ring. Instead of setting his goal to be a boxing champion of the world, he could make the goal of training for his first fight and getting a win as an amateur. After achieving this goal, he could set a new goal of reaching a dozen wins and turning pro.
That said, it will be better for your mental health and easier to stick to your goals if you make a realistic and attainable goal. Working with a certified and trained professional, such as a registered dietitian, will help you outline your goals and how you will achieve them effectively and healthily.
Step 3: Plan your nutrition
Unquestionably, nutrition plays an integral role in muscle gain and fat loss.
Now that you have identified a realistic and achievable goal, you can start getting into the “meat and potatoes” of designing your body recomposition plan.
It is important to note that there is no perfect nutrition plan to grow muscle and lose fat. One size does not fit all. Nutrition and meal plans should be individualized. We all have unique lifestyles, food preferences, dietary behaviours, and motivations. So, our nutrition plans should reflect and cater to our specific lives to maximize their effectiveness and sustainability. This is an immensely important step in the how to build muscle and lose fat journey.
You must calculate your estimated energy requirements (EER) and your macronutrient needs to plan your nutrition correctly.
Calculating your EER:
Getting the estimated amount of calories (energy) you need is essential to be able to design a nutrition and meal plan.
Practitioners will commonly calculate someone’s EER using a formula considering their activity level.
Below is a formula I like to use to calculate the starting point of EER for an individual discussed by J Park in a 2019 academic study in The Journal of Exercise Nutrition & Biochemistry.
Men: 662 – 9.53 x age (years) + PA[15.91 x weight(kg) + 539.6 x ht(m)]
Women: 354 – 6.91 x age (years) + PA[9.36 x weight(kg) + 726 x ht(m)]
PA for Men = 1.0 (sedentary), 1.11 (low active), 1.25 (active), 1.48 (very active)
PA for Women = 1.0 (sedentary, 1.12 (low active), 1.27 (active), 1.45 (very active)
Below is a simplified method to determine physical activity (PA):
Sedentary = skill-based activities, minimal movement or no movement, sedentary work life
Low active = moderate exercise 1 hour a day, regular walking/movement, sedentary or lightly active work life
Active = 1-3 hours of moderate-vigorous training per day, regular movement, or physically demanding work life
Very active = extreme training commitment, 3-5+ hours of moderate-vigorous training per day, or highly demanding work life with 1-3 hours of additional moderate exercise per day.
Once the EER is determined, practitioners typically decrease or increase the goal calories by ~250-500kcal based on weight. Reducing the calories tends to favour losing fat more, while increasing the calories will favour building muscle (Barakat et al., 2020).
Both methods will result in body recomposition results. However, recent studies outlined in a systematic review (Barakat et al.) have found increasing calories more effective.
A 21-year-old female student who weighs 59kg, is 1.7 meters tall, and trains with the swimming team for ~2 hours daily wants to put on some muscle without slowing herself down with body fat.
I would determine her PA to be active because she regularly trains for 2 hours of moderate to vigorous activity with the swim team but has a relatively sedentary work life as a student.
354 – 6.91 x 21 + 1.27 [9.36 x 59 + 726 x 1.7]
EER = 2478kcal per day
Then, since she wants to put muscle on, I would add 250kcal of energy to her EER.
2478kcal + 250kcal = 2728kcal per day
Once you have your EER, you can then calculate your macronutrient needs. Luckily, this is more straightforward than determining your EER.
While you design a nutrition plan for body recomposition, eat a high protein diet because it is important to gain muscle and lose fat. This is commonly known these days.
Multiple studies have found a correlation between consuming a high protein diet of 2.6g – 3.5g per kg of body weight and superior body recomposition results (Barakat et al., 2020).
In my experience, consistently having an intake of 2.6-3.5g/kg of protein is expensive, burdensome, and difficult to maintain for most people.
So, it is better to aim for a range of 1.5g-2.0g of protein per kg bodyweight per day with room to eat more protein if your lifestyle, preferences, and budget can accommodate it.
Either way, you will still get results, but the sustainability of your diet is paramount. A diet that fits your lifestyle and you can stick to will always do better than any other unsustainable diet because you will have lasting results.
Someone who weighs 75kg aiming for 2.0g/kg per day of protein will plan to eat 150g of protein per day.
This is a critical concept to understand for anyone wondering how to build muscle and lose fat.
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary energy source and should not be heavily restricted except in some specific cases. They are also crucial for high-performance and endurance athletes, as they require much more.
A simple way to estimate how many carbohydrates you need daily is to use the activity levels we used to calculate your EER (Dietitians of Canada, 2016).
Sedentary: 3-5g/kg body weight
Low active: 5-7g/kg body weight
Active: 6-10g/kg body weight
Highly active: 8-12 g/kg body weight
If you’re looking to gain muscle and lose fat, you simply cannot overlook the importance that fat plays.
Although fat isn’t as important as protein and carbohydrates when doing body recomposition, it is still important to consume a healthy amount.
Reason being, fat has critical bodily roles that promote overall health, such as vitamin absorption and hormone regulation.
I encourage 20-35% of intake from fat sources, mainly from unsaturated sources such as fish or seed oils (Dietitians of Canada, 2016).
There is 9kcal per gram of fat. So, if someone requires 2500kcal per day, 20-35% of those calories would be 500kcal – 875kcal. We would then divide those calories by 9 to convert them to grams.
500kcal – 875kcal / 9 = 56g – 97g of fat per day.
Now that you know your EER and macronutrient needs, you can use these estimates to help make a meal plan, aiming for all your meals and snacks to equal your estimated needs.
Remember that these calculations are only estimates. Our exact energy needs are extremely difficult to calculate and can change daily. Understanding your estimated needs helps guide your nutrition and meal plans.
Still, listening to your body and understanding that you don’t need to follow these numbers perfectly to make meaningful progress is essential. Again, this is an important point we need to underscore, if your goal is to build muscle and lose fat.
Working with a registered dietitian can help you calculate your estimated needs and create a personalized meal plan based on your lifestyle, preferences, and goals. Then, adapt them as needed based on your progress.
Step 4: To gain muscle and lose fat, ensure you have a fitness plan
To succeed in body recomposition, you need to do some form of consistent training.
Ideally, this would be resistance training (e.g., lifting weights) that you regularly do 3-6 times weekly. The type of resistance training you do is less important as long as it is moderately to vigorously challenging, appropriate for your skill level. What’s more, it should be enjoyable.
If you follow a resistance training plan you enjoy, you will likely stay motivated. It will also make it easier to push yourself more.
The bottom line is: find a resistance training style you enjoy that works with your lifestyle. Then, plan to do it 3-6 times weekly. That’s it.
Resistance training style examples:
- Weight lifting
- Bodyweight (calisthenics)
- Circuit training
Step 5: Is the plan to build muscle and lose fat sustainable?
Now that you have finally made a plan to gain muscle and lose fat, you should critically look at it and ask yourself, “Can I realistically maintain this for the next 2 years and be happy?”.
Nobody will be perfect, when following a nutrition and fitness plan. Still, the key is to design a plan you can maintain and be happy doing. Use this thinking to adjust your nutrition and fitness plan.
For example, instead of trying to go to the gym every day, maybe you can plan to go at least 4 times a week with the potential to go another day or two depending on your energy and time. Again, personalize it to your lifestyle.
It’s important to look at body recomposition like a marathon. If you try to sprint right to the finish line, you will gas out before you complete it. Instead, you need to pace yourself and go at a speed you can maintain for the entirety of the race to get you across that finish line.
How Do I Lose Fat and Gain Muscle: Tips for Doing a Body Recomposition
Here are some of my top tips for making and following a body recomposition plan:
- Experiment with what works best for you and adapt your plan as you go.
- Periodically switch up your nutrition and fitness plan can help keep things interesting and yourself motivated.
- To reduce the chances of nutrient deficiencies, eat a diet full of a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein sources.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself, nobody is perfect.
- Keep things as simple as possible. Simplicity works. Pure and simple.
- Work with a registered dietitian to help make a plan and show you how to grow muscle and lose fat, adjust as you go, and keep you accountable and healthy.
How to Gain Muscle and Lose Fat Final Thoughts
Body recomposition is one of the most superior and maintainable methods for anyone looking to grow muscle and lose fat. It is more sustainable than other methods. It is also healthy for mind and body. And effective. Although it will take commitment, time, and effort, following a body recomposition plan will empower you and help take your athletic performance to the next level!
Now that you know how to grow muscle and lose fat, why not set yourself up for success by booking a consultation with a registered dietitian and start your body recomposition journey?
If you’re interested in receiving nutritional counselling for strength training, a personalized meal plan, or any other fitness and performance goal, book a free consultation and we will gladly lend a hand.
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Nutrition Tips to Boost Academic Performance: References and Resources
1. Barakat, Christopher MS, ATC, CISSN1; Pearson, Jeremy MS1; Escalante, Guillermo DSc, MBA, ATC, CSCS, CISSN2; Campbell, Bill PhD, CSCS, FISSN3; De Souza, Eduardo O. PhD1. Body Recomposition: Can Trained Individuals Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time?. Strength and Conditioning Journal 42(5):p 7-21, October 2020. | DOI: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000584
2. Park, J. (2019). Using physical activity levels to estimate energy requirements of female athletes. Journal of Exercise Nutrition & Biochemistry, 23(4), 1-5. https://doi.org/10.20463/jenb.2019.0024
3. Dietitians of Canada. (2016). Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research
James Richardson is a Prince Edward Island native and a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist who provides individualized support for a wide variety of individual and team sport athletes, including endurance, strength trainers and those involved in combat sports. James also provides services to the residents of Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
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