For many people trying to lose weight, their body goal comes with a buddy: building muscle.
It’s not as simple as the aesthetic. Having a healthy level of muscle mass is vital to overall health, especially when it comes to weight loss. Lean muscles support your strength, your energy level, your mobility, your heart and insulin health. It is associated with a longer lifespan and plays an important role in your basal metabolic rate.
The problem is that by the time most people achieve their weight loss goals, they lose muscle mass. Some even find that their body fat percentage increases.
Why? Because when you’re following a calorie deficit – that is, eating fewer calories than you burn each day – you’re telling your body to break down rather than build, explains Marie A. Spano, an Atlanta-based, board-certified sports dietitian and certified Strength and conditioning trainer specialist. This calorie deficit is imperative to both breaking down and losing fat.
But an excess of calories – which uses more calories than you burn off daily – is what tells your body to … and build lean muscle.
[See: The Best Diets for Fast Weight Loss.]
Muscle building strategies
So how can you gain muscle and lose fat at the same time when biology is working completely against you? By following these six expertly recognized strategies.
1. Keep your calorie deficit small.
With calorie deficits that promote weight loss and excesses that stimulate muscle building, a middle ground is ideal for “recomposing” or reducing body fat while increasing lean muscle mass.
For example, in a 2016 obesity study, people lost 8.8% of all their body muscles when drastically cutting their calories for 12 weeks. When people cut conservatively, they only lost 1.3% of their muscle mass.
The smaller your calorie deficit, the less muscle you will lose as you lose weight – and the greater your chance of actively building muscle, explains Jim White, registered nutritionist, exercise physiologist, and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia. Previous research has shown that exercisers can build significant muscle if they maintain a very small calorie deficit.
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Your aim? According to White, lose no more than 1 to 2 pounds a week. While any person must reduce calories and / or increase their activity level slightly to lose weight at this rate, reducing their calorie intake by 500 calories per day is a good start. To get bigger muscle gains, cut even less.
2. Be patient.
This may be the toughest tip of all, but it’s important to keep it in mind. This is because, while you may initially notice that you are making big profits, over time they naturally slow down.
“It’s getting harder and harder to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time the more you exercise and get leaner,” says researcher Brad Schoenfeld, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and former board member of the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
This is how the human body works: the more excess fat we need to lose, the easier it is to lose 5 pounds of fat. (This is especially true when a very small calorie deficit is maintained.)
The more muscle we need to build, the easier it is to gain 5 pounds of muscle mass. As you get closer to your goal, expect more subtle changes in your fat and muscle levels and don’t be discouraged.
[See: 11 Benefits of Strength Training That Have Nothing to Do With Muscle Size.]
3. Eat 25-plus grams of protein four times a day.
Your muscles use the protein you eat to get bigger or stronger. As you cut calories, your body’s muscles may be less sensitive to the protein you are eating, says Spano.
For this reason, in a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, men lost 10.56 pounds of fat when they followed a low-calorie, high-protein diet for four weeks while gaining 2.64 pounds of lean muscle mass. Meanwhile, those who followed a diet with the same amount of calories but less protein lost only 7.7 pounds of fat and gained less than a quarter pound of muscle.
“In addition, this protein intake should be evenly distributed throughout the day,” says Spano. This keeps your muscles supplied with a steady stream of building blocks.
In fact, a 2018 review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that for optimal muscle growth, people should consume between 0.4 and 0.55 grams of protein per pound of their body weight four times a day.
For a 180 pound adult, that’s the equivalent of four meals containing 33 to 45 grams of protein. Other studies recommend 25 to 35 grams of protein with each meal for most adults – and a little more for vegetarians and vegans.
4. Do compound strength exercises at least three times a week.
“We need to plan at least two days of strength training a week to maintain existing muscle mass and three or more times a week to build muscle,” says White. And in a Harvard School of Public Health study of 10,500 adults, researchers found that strength training not only built muscle, but also helped reduce belly fat.
The most effective exercises for both fat loss and muscle building are compound – that is, they train several muscle groups at the same time. Examples are squats, chest presses, and rows.
Focus on making these movements the top priority of your weekly exercise routine and then you can start thinking about adding the right cardio workouts to your routine. (More on that next.)
5. Use cardio for recovery.
Cardio isn’t the most effective way to build (or maintain) muscle when you are in a calorie deficit.
Fortunately, it’s a great tool to help you recover from your weight training so that you end up maintaining and building as much muscle as possible. Low-intensity cardio exercises like walking, jogging, and gentle cycling or swimming increase blood flow to the body to bring oxygen and other nutrients into your muscle cells, explains Dean Somerset, an Alberta-based kinesiologist.
Use light cardio between strength training sessions. Stick to low intensity workouts where things don’t feel harder than a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10.
[See: The Best Exercise for Every Mood.]
6. Do HIIT sparingly.
As a final addition to your training plan, try high-intensity interval exercises like repetitive sprints on the treadmill, elliptical, or bike.
These workouts can help burn calories and reduce body fat while building muscle at the same time, says White. However, they are best served if you only use them occasionally, e.g. B. once or twice a week. Strength training should still be your training focus, and if you overdo it with high-intensity cardio it can overuse your muscles – making them much less likely to grow.
Do HIIT on non-consecutive days and when you feel well rested.
The bottom line: Yes, you can build muscle as you lose weight. Focus on strengthening and exercising your muscles while keeping your calorie deficit small. Make sustainable changes that you can hold onto for the long term – both fat loss and muscle building take time.
K. Aleisha Fetters, MS, CSCS, is a freelance health and wellness reporter for US News with over 15 years of experience. As a certified strength and conditioning specialist with a degree in health and science reporting, she has contributed to publications such as TIME, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, Runner’s World, and Shape. She empowers others to achieve their goals using a science-based approach to fitness, nutrition, and health.