How to Increase Muscle Mass and Decrease Body Fat Percentage

Create a weight loss and muscle gain workout plan by combining fat-burning cardio with muscle-building resistance training at least twice a week. Round out your routine with a healthy diet plan to achieve optimal results.

Create a weight loss and muscle gain workout plan by combining fat-burning cardio with muscle-building resistance training at least twice a week.
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Set Realistic Goals

You know you want to lose fat and gain muscle, but how much weight can you really lose and still be healthy? Your body needs a certain amount of fat to perform its essential functions, so you don't want to go overboard and lose too much weight.

The first step in creating your plan is evaluating your current weight and body composition. Setting a target weight may help you to evaluate your goals, but keep in mind that lean muscle mass weighs more than fat.

One way to determine if you're at a healthy weight is to use the body mass index (BMI) as a reference, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To calculate your BMI, divide your weight in kilograms by your height in square meters.

You can also try the Adult BMI Calculator provided by the CDC to make the calculations easy. Simply input your height and weight.

Once you have your BMI, evaluate the results:

  • A BMI of less than 18.5 indicates you are underweight
  • A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 indicates you are in the normal range
  • A BMI of 25 to 29.9 indicates you are overweight
  • A BMI of more than 30 indicates you are obese

The BMI can give you a good starting point, but it doesn't directly measure your body fat percentage. You can measure body fat by using a skin-fold measurement or bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA), such as the one found on many bathroom weight scales.

Both of these methods have a degree of error, though. For example, the BIA method may be less accurate if you have high levels of abdominal fat. But you can use these measurements to gauge your progress.

According to Pima County Employee Wellness, the body fat percentage levels for females are classified as:

  • 10 to 13 percent: essential fat
  • 14 to 20 percent: athletes
  • 21 to 24 percent: fitness
  • 25 to 31 percent: average
  • More than 32 percent: overweight

The body fat percentage levels for males are classified as:

  • 2 to 5 percent: essential fat
  • 6 to 13 percent: athletes
  • 14 to 17 percent: fitness
  • 18 to 24 percent: average
  • More than 25 percent: overweight

Once you know where you are starting from, it's time to put together a plan to reach your goals.

Build Muscle, Lose Fat Workout

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend a minimum of 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise each week. Spread this out over at least three days each week. This will help you lose weight and keep the pounds off.

Other benefits of meeting these activity guidelines include:

  • Decreased risk of coronary artery disease, hypertension and stroke
  • Lower risk of depression and anxiety
  • Better sleep
  • Improved cognition and decreased risk of Alzheimer's and dementia
  • Lower risk of developing type II diabetes

Also, aim for at least two strength training sessions that target each of the major muscle groups. Round out your routine by including stretching and flexibility exercises.

To lose one pound of fat, you need a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories. You can achieve this through diet, exercise or a combination of both. A healthy rate of weight loss is one to two pounds per week.

Read more: How to Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle

Warning

Always consult a doctor before beginning any new diet or exercise program. Start slowly to avoid injury and increase the intensity of your workouts over time.

Burn Fat With Cardio

Certain activities torch more calories than others. While you want to choose an activity that burns plenty of calories to help you meet your weight loss goals, it's also important to pick something that you enjoy and will stick with.

Consider the area where you live and what facilities you have access to. If you live in a hot and humid climate, for example, you may want to avoid outdoor exercise. The same applies if it is extremely cold and icy.

If you will be working out indoors, check out your gym to see what equipment is available. If you don't have a gym membership, you can still get in a good workout at home by jumping rope or doing calisthenics.

The specific number of calories you burn doing any given activity depends on the intensity of your workout and your body weight. The heavier you are, the more calories you will burn.

Harvard Medical School offers an estimate of the number of calories burned by a variety of activities during a 30-minute session. Here are a few good options to choose from:

  • Stationary bike or rowing machine at a moderate pace: 210 to 311 calories
  • Rowing machine at a vigorous pace: 255 to 377 calories
  • Stationary bike at a vigorous pace: 315 to 466 calories
  • Stairstep machine: 180 to 266 calories
  • Jumping rope: 300 to 444 calories
  • Walking at 4 miles per hour: 135 to 200 calories
  • Running at 6 miles per hour: 300 to 444 calories
  • Swimming laps at a vigorous intensity: 300 to 444 calories

Playing sports can also count towards your cardiovascular workout. Some great options to consider are tennis, soccer, martial arts, rock climbing and dancing.

Build Muscle Strength and Size

While the amount of muscle you can gain depends on a variety of factors, everyone can increase their muscle mass to a certain degree with proper training. Some factors that influence the amount of muscle mass you will develop include your hormone levels, genetics and the age you began training, notes the American Council on Exercise. Men typically gain more muscle mass than women because they have higher testosterone levels.

When you first begin resistance training to build mass, the first thing that happens is neural adaptability. This is not an actual increase in muscle size, but the nervous system becoming more efficient and engaging existing motor units more. With continued training over three to six months, the body begins building new muscle tissue.

To gain muscle mass, perform resistance exercises with a weight that is approximately 70 to 80 percent of the maximum weight you can lift in one repetition. Then perform three to six sets of six to 12 repetitions of each exercise.

Be sure to target all of the major muscle groups. Increase the resistance as needed and consider switching up the exercises you perform to keep your body from adapting and stagnating.

Beware of Injuries

Always warm up for five to 10 minutes before beginning your workout and cool down after training to reduce your risk of injury. If you've been inactive or you're returning to exercise after an injury or illness, be sure to start slowly and increase your workouts to the full time and intensity over several weeks or months.

Perform each exercise with correct form and using the proper level of resistance for your current fitness level. When you're no longer able to do an exercise with proper form, stop and rest. Decrease the resistance if necessary. If you continue to push yourself, you're at greater risk of injury.

Read more: 5 Common Workout Injuries and How to Avoid Them

Avoid overtraining too. While this is unlikely to occur if you are only meeting the minimum recommended levels of physical activity, it's something you may face when you increase the time and intensity of your workouts. Rest is an important part of recovery and muscle growth, so pay attention to what your body is telling you.

Some signs that you may be training too much include:

  • You are frequently sick or injured
  • Your muscles are constantly sore
  • You feel too fatigued and weak to complete your normal workout
  • You continue to feel tired throughout the day after training
  • You have trouble sleeping
  • You have mood changes or depression

If you are overtraining, you will stop seeing results from your workout. Take a break and give your body time to rest and recover before returning to training.

Adjust Your Diet

The best fat burning, muscle building diet includes good nutrition to support your workouts and the correct number of calories to maintain and grow muscle mass. While you may want to maintain a slight calorie deficit in your diet, don't reduce your food intake too much as this may result in muscle loss.

To determine how many calories you need to consume to maintain your current weight, use the Estimated Calorie Requirements calculator from ExRx.net. Simply enter your sex, age and current weight and estimate the number of hours of exercise you do.

When you first start to exercise, it's easy to start overeating as your body may feel hungry from the increased activity level. Monitor your portions and food intake to avoid this pitfall.

Focus on eating a diet that includes lean protein, healthy fats and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Avoid processed foods, added sugars and trans fats. Stay hydrated throughout the day and during your workouts.

Make healthy substitutions to help decrease your caloric intake. Here are some examples:

  • Use skim milk instead of whole milk
  • Drink water instead of a sugary soda or sports drink
  • Add extra veggies to your sandwich instead of cheese
  • Select a side salad instead of french fries when eating out
  • Opt for broth-based soups instead of cream-based soups

Track Your Progress

Tracking your progress will allow you to see your weight loss and gains in strength. Decide what is important to you and then develop a system to track it. Some things you might want to monitor include:

  • Weight
  • Body fat percentage
  • Food intake
  • Body measurements such as waist, arm and thigh circumference
  • Cardio activities, including time, intensity and how you feel during and after each workout
  • Strength training exercises, including the type of weight lifted and the number of reps

If you have trouble staying motivated or pushing yourself during a workout, consider finding a workout buddy to keep you accountable. Make sure this person has a similar fitness level and similar goals as you do, advises ExRx.net.

Alternatively, consider group fitness classes. These give you the benefit of both social interaction and the expertise of a fitness trainer.

Working with a personal trainer can also make it easier to stay on track. A PT can evaluate your progress and push you to make sure you're getting the most out of every workout.

Read more: The Best Way to Gain Lean Muscle Mass

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