Origially posted on the DAC PT blog: written by Derek Marsette.
We all think we can build muscle and lose fat at the same time. After all, that’s the fastest route to our fitness goals.
But we can’t.
- It’s for a short period.
- We’ve been sedentary for a long time.
- We’re a young woman (ages from 12-17)
- We’re using performance-enhancing drugs
- We’re genetic freaks of nature
Sound like you? Yea, me neither.
So what makes it so hard to build muscle and lose fat at the same time?
For one, for muscle growth to occur there has to be body fat stores that will provide the extra energy needed to fuel muscle growth.
Two, the less muscle someone has, the more room they have to grow. Someone who has been sedentary or has little muscle mass (relative to their body) has a high growth ceiling.
In other words, beginners have the advantage here.
During the beginning stages of an exercise program, the body is very uncomfortable. Your first workouts make it difficult for your body to stay in its comfort zone, or homeostasis. Homeostasis refers to the dynamic equilibrium our body maintains to regulate our metabolic systems. Dynamic because our environment continually forces our body to adjust to maintain homeostasis.
The endocrine system plays a vital role in homeostatic regulation because hormones control the activity of our body’s cells. The release of these hormones is triggered by a stimulus (anything in our environment that causes a response, including the food we eat, mental and physical stress, as well as conditions we can not control such as air quality, weather, U.V rays, etc.) Where this gets interesting is how our body responds to the original stimulus changes the internal conditions of our body and can itself become a new stimulus. These self-adjusting actions are called feedback loops.
These feedback loops mean that our bodies become either more or less efficient over time as we respond to specific stimuli.
To put it simply, we have to disrupt homeostasis for our body to change and feedback loops make it more difficult because our body is incredibly adept at adjusting to stimuli over time.
Because of these feedback loops, it’s much harder for a professional bodybuilder to build muscle than someone who’s never lifted weights before. The stimulus the pro requires must be diverse, intense, and consistent because the body has adapted over time. It takes minimal effort for the beginner to disrupt homeostasis because the endocrine response to any program is a drastic internal change.
Therefore, beginners can often build muscle and lose fat at the same time because it’s so easy to trigger the endocrine response required to do so.
How to Build Muscle (if you aren’t a beginner, on drugs, or a freak of nature)
Remember the difference between the newbie and the pro going forward. Once you're a pro (or at least no longer green), there are specific things you must do to build muscle.
One, have a surplus of calories or energy. Two, create a physically stressful or overwhelming environment where the muscles are forced to adapt and grow in response to said stress. When doing this, you must dedicate all of your efforts into stressing out the musculature; otherwise, you run the risk of leaving potential “gains” on the table. For this reason, I don't typically advise individuals to add cardio training to their workout programs if muscle growth is a primary goal.
You must keep in mind during this period of increased intake and stress that you can't control the entire allocation of those extra calories. You simply encourage muscle growth by doing your best to stimulate hormones for that purpose. Again, the key to this is ENCOURAGE, not control.
To sum it up, you probably can't build muscle while you are trying to lose fat. Building muscle requires a surplus of calories and concerted effort. Fat loss requires a caloric deficit. When you're trying to lose fat, you can't control how much fat vs. muscle is lost; all you can do is encourage fat loss while trying to retain as much muscle as you can.