While some people are naturally gifted with an athletic physique, most have to work pretty hard at reducing body fat percentage and increasing lean mass. Bodybuilders often focus on gaining mass, then cutting fat; however, most people are eager to ditch the fat first. The truth is it's not all one or the other. Losing body fat actually depends on gaining muscle, so some muscle building will be part of your initial fat-loss phase.
Accelerate fat loss by controlling your calorie intake, expending calories with cardio and increasing your metabolism by building lean muscle. Then, up your calorie intake to focus on building mass.
How to Cut Fat
Everyone has lean muscle mass, but for many people, it's hiding under a layer of subcutaneous fat — the type that sits between the skin and lean tissue. Reducing your body fat level means shrinking this layer, which will then reveal the shape of the muscle underneath. Building muscle mass will make your muscles larger and more defined.
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Fat gain occurs when you are in a calorie surplus, meaning you are consuming more calories than your body can use. Because it can't use the calories, it stores them as fat for future needs. When you continue to remain in a calorie surplus, your fat stores continue to grow. Therefore, in order to lose fat, you have to reduce your calorie intake below your calorie needs, creating a calorie deficit.
Your daily calorie needs are comprised of basic physiological function, daily activities of living and exercise. You can manipulate the latter, as well as your diet, to create the calorie deficit you need to lose fat. Typically, creating a calorie deficit of 500 to 1,000 calories each day will help you lose 1 to 2 pounds of fat per week, according to Nutrition.gov.
Setting a Goal
How lean would you like to get? According to the American Council on Exercise, a woman will look lean and fit when she reaches a body fat percentage of 21 to 24 percent, while a man will achieve the look with a body fat percentage between 14 and 17 percent. You can go lower than that if you want to look even leaner and more athletic — 14 to 20 percent for women and 6 to 13 percent for men. You wouldn't want to go any lower than that because a body fat percentage that is too low is unhealthy.
To determine how much fat you need to lose, you first need to know your current body fat percentage. An easy way to get a rough estimate is to ask a personal trainer at your gym to administer a skin fold test. This uses calipers to determine the thickness of your subcutaneous fat layer. A less accessible but more accurate route is to seek out underwater weighing or air displacement.
Once you have your number, you can use this equation to determine your fat loss goal:
Desired body weight = Lean body weight/(1-desired body fat percentage in decimal form)
For example, let's say you weigh 150 pounds, have 28 percent body fat and your goal body fat is 18 percent.
Your equation would look like this:
Desired body weight = 108/(1-.18) = 131.7
Subtract 131.7 from 150 to get the amount of fat you need to lose to hit that weight: Since you currently weigh 150 pounds and want to weigh 131.7 pounds, your goal is to lose 150 - 131.7 = 18.3 pounds of fat.
If you created a 1,000-calorie deficit each day, you could, theoretically, get to your goal body fat percentage in about 9 weeks. In reality, that's unlikely. Weight loss isn't linear, and it depends on many factors, including genetics, medical conditions, medications and other lifestyle factors such as sleep and stress. Also, in the beginning of a weight loss program, the majority of the weight lost is not fat, but rather stored carbohydrate, water and lean tissue, according to a June 2014 article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
That's why it's so important to have a well-rounded fat loss program that includes cardio, diet and muscle-building resistance exercise. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat and contributes much more to your total daily energy expenditure. So, the more muscle you have, the more fat you'll burn.
Read more: The Truth Behind 20 Diet and Exercise Myths
Diet Is King
Maybe you've heard the saying, "Great abs are made in the kitchen." Basically that means that no matter how much you work out, if you're not watching your diet, you're not going to reach your goals. In the first phase of your program, your focus should be on reaching your calorie deficit and eating foods that help you control your calorie intake.
The best fat-burning, muscle-building diet includes plenty of protein. Protein is the building block of muscle; without enough of it, your body won't be able to gain mass. But protein also has benefits for fat loss.
According to a November 2014 review of research in Nutrition and Metabolism, protein is the most satiating nutrient. Eating more protein can potentially help you feel more satisfied at meals so you can control your calorie intake. Additionally, thanks to something called diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT), protein digestion increases energy expenditure by 15 to 30 percent. This is greater than the DIT of carbohydrate (5 to 10 percent) and fat (0 to 3 percent).
The recommendation for the general population from the National Academy of Medicine is to get .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. However, for both effects on calorie control and expenditure, and its role in muscle building, aim to consume more than that. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends a daily intake of 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight for strength-training adults.
As for the other components of your diet, food choice is most important. You cannot lose fat eating fried foods, fast foods, processed foods, sugary foods and beverages, baked goods, etc. Sugar and refined grains are detrimental to fat loss and muscle gain.
Choose lean protein sources such as chicken, fish, eggs and beans, and get your carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Eschew saturated fats from red and processed meats, and increase your intake of heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats from fish, avocado, nuts and seeds.
Phase I Workout Plan
Any quality exercise program is periodized — meaning it highlights certain aspects at different times. In this first phase, the focus is going to be on increased calorie expenditure through various forms of cardio and metabolic conditioning. Whether you're running on the treadmill or doing a circuit-training workout, your goal in this first phase is to up the intensity. More intensity = more calories burned.
Plan to do a mix of high-intensity interval training and some moderate-intensity steady state workouts. You can do sprints on the treadmill, bike, rower or stair climber, alternating bouts of high intensity with brief bouts of recovery. Keep these intense workouts to about 20 to 25 minutes. Longer, steady state cardio is a good way to get in some extra cardio while still allowing for recovery. Also, it's not a good idea to do high-intensity workouts all the time.
You will be building muscle in this phase, but it will be different than your muscle-building program for phase II. Metabolic conditioning is a type of training meant to burn a lot of calories and rev your metabolism, and at the same time build muscle and cardiovascular endurance. It involves doing compound exercises that use large muscle groups and more than one muscle group at a time back to back without rest in between sets. Examples of compound exercises include:
- Renegade rows.
You can also add in metabolic boosters, such as jump squats, burpees, jump roping and mountain climbers, to really torch calories. Aim to do full-body circuits two to three times per week.
Read more: 20 Fat-Loss Secrets
Phase II Workout Plan
By phase II, you have made noticeable progress in reducing your body fat and you are ready to build mass. To do this, you will need to increase your calorie intake, reduce your cardio volume and increase your strength training volume. How many calories you need is highly individual, but generally, you should be in a slight caloric surplus when your goal is gaining mass.
In the weight room, you should still focus on compound exercises, but the structure and volume of your routine will be different. Longer rest breaks in between sets will allow your muscles to replenish adenosine triphosphate (ATP) — or cellular energy — so that you can lift heavier weight for more reps and put the amount of stress on the muscles required for muscle adaptation and growth.
Aim to do three to five sets of 6 to 12 reps of each exercise, with between-set rest breaks of 1 to 2 minutes, recommends the National Academy of Sports Medicine. With each subsequent workout, aim to add weight, even if it's just 2.5 or 5 pounds. Making your workouts progressive will continue to exert the physical and metabolic demands that trigger physiological adaptations and continued gains.
Read more: How Long Does It Take to Get Six-Pack Abs?
- Nutrition.gov: "Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)"
- ACE: "What Are the Guidelines for Percentage of Body Fat Loss?"
- University of Georgia: "Body Composition"
- NIH: "Factors Affecting Weight & Health"
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Time to Correctly Predict the Amount of Weight Loss With Dieting"
- University of New Mexico: "Controversies in Metabolism"
- Nutrition and Metabolism: "A High-Protein Diet for Reducing Body Fat: Mechanisms and Possible Caveats"
- National Academy of Medicine: "Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Protein Intake for Optimal Muscle Maintenance"
- ACE: "How to Get Real Results With Metabolic Conditioning"
- Bodybuilding.com: "Ask The Muscle Prof: What's the Best Cardio for Preserving Mass?"
- ACE: "How to Select the Right Rest Intervals and Post-Training Recovery for Your Clients"
- NASM: "Back to the Basics: Hypertrophy"