Editor’s Note: This post was updated on November 15, 2018, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on October 23, 2015
If you ask someone who works out – a client, a friend, anyone really – if they’d like to lose fat or gain muscle, a lot of the time they’ll say, “Both!” And of course they do! Weight loss and muscle gain: that’s the ideal situation for almost everyone.
However, if you’re like most people struggling in the gym, trying to do both at the same time is extremely difficult, verging on impossible. That’s because your metabolism is made up two different processes: catabolism and anabolism.
Catabolism is focused on the breakdown of cells for energy while anabolism is the process of building simple cells into more complex cells. Note that we didn’t specify between fat or muscle cells. Your body will either being in a catabolic state in which you are burning fat and calories or an anabolic state where you are building muscle mass. We will go more in depth on these two states down below.
From what we understand about metabolism, we should look at losing fat and gaining muscle as two separate fitness goals. It sounds pretty complicated, but if you’re measuring your weight loss/weight gain and tracking your progress with your body composition results,you can fine-tune your fitness program and nutrition to avoid unwanted fat gain and muscle loss depending on what state you are in. Here’s a three step guide on how to do that:
Step 1: Decide Which Goal Comes First
The first step in any fitness strategy is always the same: figure out what your body composition is at the start can help you set healthy, realistic fitness goals.
Like we mentioned above, setting a goal of muscle gain and fat loss is extremely difficult. That’s because it’s very rare that your body can exist in both a catabolic and anabolic state at the same time. Your body exists in a catabolic state when it is working to reduce body tissue. When you are breaking down muscle through strength training and restricting calories to lose fat, this is the state your body will be in. However, although it is possible to encourage your weight loss to be mostly from fat than muscle, some loss in muscle tends to occur in catabolic states. Anabolism is the opposite of catabolism. Your body is in an anabolic state when it is working to grow and develop body tissue. If you are looking to gain Muscle Mass, this is the state you want to be in. Unfortunately, just like in a catabolic state, anabolism also has unintended side effects. A key contributor to maintaining an anabolic state is consuming more calories than you need to build Lean Body Mass (Muscle Mass and Lean Body Mass will be used interchangeably throughout this article. To learn the difference click here). Those extra calories of course can lead to gaining Fat Mass.
The ultimate question that needs to be answered is: “What’s more important to me, fat loss (catabolic state), or muscle gain (anabolic state)?”
A good way to determine your fitness goals is to take a body composition test. A test will breakdown your total body weight, so you can compare your body fat percentage to muscle mass levels and see what you should work on first.
Example 1: High Muscle Mass, High Body Fat Mass
Result Sheet sample measurements are from the InBody 570.
Because this individual already has a high level of skeletal muscle mass, they decided to focus on fat loss. If you decide that losing as much fat as possible is your priority, you’re accepting that you’re likely going to lose some Skeletal Muscle Mass.
Example 2: Low Skeletal Muscle Mass, High Body Fat Mass
Result Sheet sample measurements are from the InBody 570.
This individual does have a higher level of body fat mass, but they decided to prioritize muscle gain first because of it would help improve their functional strength.
If you still aren’t sure where to begin, here’s a guide that will help you decide which starting point is best for you.
Step 2: Find the Point of Diminishing Returns
The next step will be to start your fitness plan based on the goal you want to achieve first: either losing Fat Mass or gaining Lean Body Mass.
Goal: Fat Loss
If your goal is fat loss, you will need to put your body in a caloric deficit (burning more calories than you take in) in order to help your body enter a catabolic state. This can be achieved with a combination of caloric restriction, consuming healthy nutrient dense foods, and increased energy expenditure with some combination of resistance training and cardiovascular exercise. This is commonly referred to as “cutting.”
After 1 – 2 weeks, measure your body composition again. If you are dieting and exercising properly, you should start to feel that your clothes fit a little differently, but even if they don’t just yet, your body composition results will show your progress. What you should hopefully see is that you lost weight due to a loss in Fat Mass and little to no loss in Lean Body Mass.
If these are your results, great! Continue with another 1 – 2 week cycle, and retest again. At a certain point, however, you’ll start to see losses in Lean Body Mass. If you were lifting weights before you started targeting Fat Mass, you will probably start to feel the loss in the amount of strength you have before you see it in your body composition results.
At this point, you have to make a personal choice: are your Fat Mass losses worth the loss in Lean Body Mass?
Catabolic Exercises: Think Long Moderate-Intensity Workouts
- Long Distance Running
Goal: Gain Lean Body Mass
If your goal is to gain Lean Body Mass, you will need to be in a caloric surplus (bringing in more calories than you use over the course of one day) in order to be in an anabolic state. “This is commonly referred to as “bulking.” You’ll need those extra calories for energy, to push yourself in a fitness program that focuses on tearing muscle fibers in different body parts, and then rebuilding them with the extra nutrients. Don’t forget that just because you are bulking, doesn’t you can forgot about nutrition. Make sure you are getting plenty of protein and other vital nutrients to rebuild those muscles.
Because gaining muscle is typically a slower process than losing Fat Mass, it’s best to give yourself a bit more time – 3 to 4 weeks – before having your body composition measured again. What you should hopefully see is a gain in Lean Body Mass, with little to no gain in Fat Mass.
If these are your results, keep going. Train for another month and retest. At a certain point, you’ll likely start to see some Fat Mass start to build up over time. This isn’t necessarily cause for concern, especially if the majority of your gains are coming from lean tissue; this can actually cause your body fat percentage to decrease, despite your gains in Fat Mass.
When you reach a certain level of Lean Body Mass, those extra calories you are consuming for muscle gain will just be converted to fat. At this point, your Fat Mass gains might become substantial enough to where you may want to think about stopping this bulking cycle and working on reducing some of the Fat Mass you gained.
Anabolic Exercises: Strength Building Workouts
- Isometric Resistance
- Free Weight Exercises
- Functional Workouts
Step 3: Rotate Goals Until Satisfied
If you’re happy with your Fat Mass loss, then it will be time to develop Lean Body Mass and regain what you lost during your cut. If you are happy with your gains in Lean Body Mass but picked up too much Fat Mass along the way, it will be time to cut out some of that unnecessary fat mass.
The key to success is to be constantly tracking your body composition and understanding where your measurements are at. Without tracking and measuring your body composition, you won’t be able to fine-tune or optimize your fitness, leading you to spend more time in the gym and on calorie restricted diets than is necessary. By tracking your body composition results and seeing where your key measurements are at (skeletal muscle mass and body fat mass), you will know how to adjust your fitness programs. This knowledge will help empower and motivate you to achieve your ideal body.