I take no pleasure in being a bubble burster… I really don’t. But I feel like it’s my job as a certified strength and conditioning coach and nutritionist to do something about the aggregating number of misleading nutrition and fitness myths running rampant. I’m willing to fall on the sword if it means setting the record straight! So here’s a big one I hear all the time.
“I want to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.”
Have you ever said or thought this? You’re not alone. The crux of this issue is simple: losing fat and building muscle are two completely separate goals that cannot happen simultaneously. Take any product or advertisements you see that promise you otherwise with a massive grain of salt. When things sound too good to be true…they almost always are.
It comes down to the basic science behind energy balance.
Calories in, calories out, people! Losing body fat requires a caloric deficit (eating less calories than you expend). Meanwhile, building muscle tissue requires a caloric surplus (eating more calories than you expend). See the dilemma?
Sure, there are always exceptions to the rule—like what we call “newbie gains.” For an individual with little to no existing muscle mass who might have more body fat to lose, it IS possible to lose fat while gaining muscle in the very initial phases of starting up a strength training routine. Apart from that… building meaningful lean muscle mass just isn’t in the cards when you’re in a fat loss phase because you’re not feeding your muscles the energy they require to grow new tissue. (Although, with intelligent coaching, preserving existing muscle mass is absolutely on the table.)
With this in mind, it’s important to distinguish your primary goal.
Understanding the difference between fat loss and muscle gain phases will enable you to adequately manage expectations and avoid frustration. Pick one, focus on it, crush it, and then transition to the next goal! This is what we call “nutrition periodization.” Periodizing your nutrition and transitioning from fat loss phases to maintenance phases and muscle gain phases is how we lose fat and gain muscle—just at different times! It certainly takes patience, effort, and consistency to get from point A to point Z. But remember… the “quick fixes” rarely provide us the lasting results we want.
The final point worth noting surrounds the emotional readiness that intentionally gaining muscle mass involves. If gaining strength and muscle is your goal, understand that there is a sacrifice at play when it comes to body fat. Implementing a structured caloric surplus is certainly in your best interest to minimize body fat gains, but fluctuations and body fat gain are very standard in a gain phase.
With my own nutrition clients who express the desire to gain muscle, I first encourage a very honest conversation surrounding their readiness to enter a prolonged caloric surplus. If building muscle mass is your goal but you aren’t mentally equipped to see the scale number go up, I recommend re-evaluating whether or not it’s the right time to bulk. In this case, it may be in your best interest to first work on your relationships—with yourself, with food and with the scale—before purposely attempting to gain muscle (and, therefore, weight).
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