When trying to transform your body, you may end up finding you're building muscle but not losing weight. If weight loss is one of your goals, this can be a frustrating situation. Here's how to tell if you're on the right track and how to spark fat loss if you're not getting the results you'd hoped.
The process of building muscle requires fuel — excess fuel in the form of calories from food. This means you need to eat more than you burn through daily activity — including your workouts — if you want to gain muscle.
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On the other hand, weight loss usually requires you to burn more calories than you take in. So, if you have goals of both losing weight and gaining lean muscle, you can see how they might contend with one another. If you don't train and eat correctly, you could find yourself at a standstill.
Read more: How Women Can Build Muscle Fast
Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss
The first thing you need to know is that weight loss and fat loss are not equivalent. In other words, you can be losing fat but not losing weight, especially if you are consistently building muscle through resistance training.
When you embark on a weight loss program, if you try to follow a very low-calorie diet or over-perform cardio exercise, you could end up losing muscle instead of fat. You may see the scale go down, but your body will be soft and jiggly instead of lean and firm like you'd hoped, says the Cleveland Clinic.
So when it comes to weight loss, slow and steady wins the race. The experts at the University of Rochester Medical Center recommend losing no more than 1/2 to 2 pounds per week. The rate of weight loss that you attempt should be based on how lean you are already, aiming for the lower end if you are already relatively lean.
The Mayo Clinic concurs, stating that losing weight too quickly will cause you to lose your precious lean tissue, which can reduce your metabolic rate causing weight loss to become more difficult.
It's vital to remember that gaining muscle means gaining weight on the scale and that the scale is a very narrow and limited predictor of success. You could very well be losing fat, but the scale may stay around the same number. Pay attention to how you look in the mirror, how your body feels and how your clothes are fitting, as well as non-aesthetic reasons to feel accomplished such as increasing the amount of weight you can lift or feeling more energized throughout the day.
Building Muscle But Not Losing Weight?
If you're building muscle but not losing weight, then your body is undergoing a process commonly known as body recomposition. This is a coveted state that is ideal for maintaining fat loss. According to the Mayo Clinic, strength training can help you reduce your body fat while increasing your lean muscle. With strength training, you could be even better at burning calories since muscle increases your metabolic rate.
The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) says that muscle gain is typically a slower process than weight loss. Still, if you are experiencing a weight loss plateau, it is vital to know that muscle gain could be the culprit.
Effective training for ensuring that you are losing fat while building muscle includes the evident strength training along with specific types of cardiovascular activity that can boost results.
Your strength training regimen should include three to four sets of 8 to 12 repetitions of an exercise, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). When it comes to results, maintaining consistency is essential. Aim for four to five days of strength training sessions per week, being sure to give each muscle group 24 hours minimum rest in between sessions.
You can experience an added benefit of increased calorie burn during your strength training routine if you program it such that the exercises you choose burn a maximum amount of calories. For example, ACE recommends choosing compound exercises that incorporate all of your large muscle groups such as bench press, deadlift, barbell rows, squats and overhead press.
These exercises require the activation of your entire body and, as such, burn more calories during your workout. Keeping rest times to a minimum and incorporating a circuit training style in which you move from one exercise to the next to keep your heart rate up will also help you burn more calories during your training sessions.
A September 2013 study published in Lipids in Health and Disease found that this type of high-intensity circuit training can help improve specific measures. These measures include body weight, fat mass as well as other markers for health such as blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides better than lower intensity training.
When it comes to cardiovascular training, choosing high-intensity exercise can help increase levels of a hormone called human growth hormone, which stimulates muscle growth and fat burning alike, according to Colorado State University.
Growth hormone increases fat metabolism so that it is used as energy instead of being stored. Another role of growth hormone is that it helps you to make use of the amino acids present in protein to help repair and build muscle.
A small study published in 2017 by the International Journal of Medical Research & Health Sciences suggests utilizing high-intensity exercise for increasing growth hormone. Adding HIIT notes to your regimen could help encourage fat loss while increasing muscle.
The study researchers measured blood samples of subjects before and after high-intensity exercise. They found that those who participated in higher-intensity exercise showed a significant increase in circulating levels of insulin-like growth factor, which is regulated by growth hormone and results in muscle growth.
It is important to note, the researchers point out that exercise of any type can stimulate growth hormone, but high-intensity training elevates muscle-building and fat-burning hormones substantially with only a short workout.
Boosting your levels of growth hormone is an excellent strategy if you are building muscle but not losing fat since it supports both goals. Try incorporating high-intensity circuit training or cardiovascular workouts to your routine to take advantage of this hormonal effect.
Best Fat-Burning Muscle-Building Diet Tips
Diet plays a significant role in your ability to burn fat or to gain muscle. Although the strategies for focusing on either one of these goals are usually considered to be opposite with a caloric surplus needed to build muscle and a caloric deficit necessary to lose fat, there are strategies you can adopt to try and accomplish both at once.
A June 2017 article in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition stresses that your diet needs to be in a caloric deficit if your focus is on fat loss, but losing weight slowly will help you to preserve the lean mass you currently possess. If you'd like to focus more on gaining muscle mass, then eating more than you burn (caloric surplus) will aid in muscle gain while you strength train.
An essential component of your diet if you wish to burn fat or gain muscle is protein. Increasing the amount of protein you eat over the current recommendations for typical lifestyles can help you reach your goals. Try intakes of 1.3 to 2.3 grams of protein per kilogram of fat-free body mass. The studies researchers say that sticking to your diet and exercise routine consistently is crucial to body recomposition.
Furthermore, in a May 2017 article published in Advances in Nutrition, researchers stress that losing weight through dieting leads to a loss of muscle mass but that increasing protein amounts helps to prevent this effect, preserving your muscle while losing fat.
Moreover, a September 2017 article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science notes that reducing calorie intake might not even help you to lose body weight. The researchers explain that the body counteracts reduced energy intake by slowing the metabolic rate and that hormonal mechanisms are stimulated to increase appetite when you try to lose weight through a reduction of calories.
This is not to say that a calorie deficit is ineffective but that there are many factors at play when it comes to maintaining fat loss. The researchers recommend a focus on foods that are less calorie dense, yet filling such as foods that are higher in protein, fiber and water will help keep us feeling full while maintaining a calorie deficit. The study notes that protein has the added effect of increasing calories burned through something called thermogenesis while also helping improve satiety.
Higher protein meals result in less calorie intake in subsequent meals. Protein also increases calorie burn through absorption, digestion and metabolism. Consuming protein results in 23 percent of the calories consumed being burned, whereas carbohydrates only use up 6 percent and fat 1 percent.
ACE makes it clear that careful nutrition is imperative if you're hoping to lose fat. Using strength training to build muscle is vital; however, to lose fat, your nutrition is the dominant player. Careful maintenance of calorie intake that supports your body weight, activity level and needs while creating a small deficit through diet and activity level will increase your chances of being able to build muscle and lose fat.
You can use ACE's calorie needs estimator to determine your ideal calorie level for weight maintenance and then add a small deficit. Use the ACE activity calorie counter to calculate your calories burned through exercise. Keep in mind that building muscle will help to increase your calories burned through metabolic activity, as well as the growth hormone release incurred during and after strength training and high-intensity training.
- Cleveland Clinic: "The Very Best Way to Lose Weight & Keep It Off"
- University of Rochester Medical Center: "Maintaining Weight Loss"
- Mayo Clinic: "Why Do Doctors Recommend a Slow Rate of Weight Loss? What's Wrong With Fast Weight Loss?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner, Healthier"
- NASM: "5 Fitness Myths-Busted!"
- ACE: "A Girls Guide to Gaining Muscle: Weight Training"
- Lipids in Health and Disease: "Effects of High-Intensity Circuit Training, Low-Intensity Circuit Training and Endurance Training on Blood Pressure and Lipoproteins in Middle-Aged Overweight Men"
- Colorado State University: "Growth Hormone (Somatotropin)"
- International Journal of Medical Research & Health Sciences: "Effects of High Intensity Interval Training on Plasma Levels of GH and IGF-I"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Diets and Body Composition"
- Advances in Nutrition: "Preserving Healthy Muscle During Weight Loss"
- Perspectives on Psychological Science: "Reducing Calorie Intake May Not Help You Lose Body Weight"
- ACE: "5 Weight-loss Lies We Tell Ourselves"
- ACE: "Daily Caloric Needs Estimator"
- ACE: "Physical Activity Calorie Calculator"