The Truth Behind Burning Fat & Building Muscle Simultaneously
Some science will tell you that, technically, building muscle while burning body fat is completely impossible. Some science can prove that it may be possible and plenty of experience, from the greatest strength coaches to hit the gym, will tell you it absolutely is possible. Today, we bridge the gap from hope to reality – showing you exactly what you need to do and implement in order to dramatically shift your body composition.
Let’s be honest here, it’s every meathead’s dream… be jacked and huge, while staying lean enough to have a fully visible 6-pack even after dinner (not just waking up to it).
But science has been telling us for years that the key to fat loss is a calorie deficit and the key to gaining size is a calorie surplus. Which makes sense, plus science is a hard thing to prove wrong.
But what this science doesn’t take into effect, are the hormones that can be optimized in order to enhance fat loss and see serious muscle growth (naturally). Not to mention, the supplements that can improve performance, sleep optimization, training frequency hacks, and plenty more intelligent, science-based, strategies that are only suitable for the committed gym-goer.
I’ll reiterate that last line… The committed gym-goer.
The reason I’m going to reiterate that, is because what I’m about to teach you isn’t for the average Joe or anyone who isn’t ready to truly dedicate themselves to the process and the journey of getting jacked.
But the point here is simple, you canburn fat and build muscle simultaneously. I’ve watched it happen with many clients over the years – and not just with my newbie clients… because yes, it’s true that if you’re in your first 1-2 years of training damn near anything will work to get you jacked. But this article is for the novice and advanced lifters who are ready to take things to the next level, finally stimulating some growth while actually getting leaner.
Real World Clarifications and Expectations
Before getting into the strategies, we need to clarify some expectations. Because if you have no knowledge on how much you should lose, how much you should gain, or that you may technically not gain or lose anything at all… you’ll be confused and wondering what to look for.
There are 3 things that I see happen with bodyweight and composition when people lose fat while building more muscle:
The Scale Doesn’t Tell Us EVERYTHING
Losing 2-3lbs of fat and gaining 2-3lbs of muscle, leading to zero weight fluctuation at all. Which is why the scale isn’t always the best way to track progress during this phase/journey. I suggest taking weekly progress photos, measurements every 1-3 weeks, and using a higher rep strength indicator (work to build your 6-8RM throughout the process as this is a great indicator of building muscle mass).
You Gain Muscle Mass and Remain Lean
Staying the exact same body fat, while adding muscle mass onto your body and appearing to be leaner. So technically speaking, this actually isn’t losing fat and building muscle… it’s more like staying lean, while gaining muscle. But to be honest, that’s just as good! In fact, for some this is even better because it allows the gains to be a bit faster.
We need to remember that many people simply do not look lean because they have very little muscle mass, NOT because they have a high body fat percentage. So for many guys out there, I wouldn’t even suggest trying to lose fat – we just need to slab some muscle mass on you. This will make your skin actually stretch a bit while your muscles start to poke out a bit more, and because of this you end up actually appearing much leaner.
You Shed Body Fat While Maintaining 100% of Your Muscle Mass
Shredding body fat, while maintaining 100% of your muscle mass. So again, technically not seeing both fat loss and muscle gain simultaneously… but the truth is, if you can maintain 100% of your muscle mass, which you will be able to do with what’s inside this article, than you’re still above average compared to 99% of people in the gym and you will look much more jacked.
Most guys cut so aggressively and do not take any muscle building strategies into consideration during their cutting phase, that they also drop lb’s of muscle mass. This just leads to being skinny fat, unhappy, and repeating the process of trying to build muscle (while gaining fat)over again. Obviously this is not ideal or optimal, which is exactly why it’d be better to focus on maintaining your muscle while cutting.
If you can implement these strategies to maintain 100% of your muscle while even just cutting 2-6lbs of pure body fat, you will look dramatically more jacked than you did before hand. This will absolutely look as if you gained muscle and burned body fat, which is again exactly what we’re shooting for here.
You may have noticed I didn’t list a situation where someone would lose 1-2lbs of fat and gain 3-4lbs or more of muscle… because if you’re natural, good luck. Not happening, bro. Unless you’re a 19 year old who’s never been in the gym and is getting ready to fully commit to 6 days a week of training and an individualized nutrition plan or someone who is ready to become an enhanced athlete, than it’s highly unlikely that this situation would even be possible.
Strategy #1 – Training Frequency
As most of the avid DrJohnRusin.com readers will know, there are 3 main components to programming for muscle and strength. These are Volume, Intensity, and Frequency. Well when we want to train for fat loss, we shouldn’t be doing more cardio – we should be prioritizing training that builds muscle and strength.
Why? Simple. It promotes a faster metabolism, higher energy production (aka burn calories), improves insulin sensitivity, and primes both the nervous system and the hormonal system for faster fat loss.
But out of those 3 components, there is 1 that is commonly under valued and utilized, and that is Training Frequency. Training Frequency, for those who may not know, is the amount of times you train a muscle per week.
Studies have shown us that a Training Frequency of 2-3 times per week is the most optimal way to build muscle. Because of this and because our goal right now is to build muscle while burning body fat, we’re going to maximize that frequency and possibly even take it a step further. During this phase, you’re going to target each muscle group 3-4 times per week.
The reason for this is simple; we want to constantly send an anabolic signal to each and every muscle in your body. This is going to promote more growth, more activation, and less degradation or catabolism. Simpler put, if you’re not growing you’re shrinking.
When we train a muscle 1x a week, we have to do a lot of volume in that given session. This means that towards the end of the session, our intensity is falling short and slowing down. Andthatmeans that our volume will actually be lower, even though your metabolic fatigue (the burn)feels so high at the end of those brutal Monday Chest Day Sessions….
Training a muscle 3-4x a week is going to allow the intensity in that session to be higher, volume to stay at it’s highest point, and for us to provide our body with the signal to grow more frequently throughout the week. Given all of that, this also means we’re likely to burn more calories per session WHICH is going to lead us to the result of shredding body fat quicker.
We need to remember that the bigger the muscle and the more muscles worked in a session, the more taxing it will be and when I say taxing I’m referring to energy draining (energy = calories, calories burned = fat lost).
The most optimal way to set up your week would be as such:
- Sunday – Performance Recovery
- Monday – Full Body Strength
- Tuesday – Full Body Strength
- Wednesday – Cardio/Conditioning
- Thursday – Full Body Hypertrophy
- Friday – Cardio/Conditioning
- Saturday – Full Body Hypertrophy
(And yes, as you can see I still believe you should be doing some form of conditioning. Whether that’s HIIT or LISS depends on the person’s recovery ability.)
You’re going to set up your week so you’re hitting everything 2-4x a week. 4x a week for your priority muscle groups or weak points and 2-3x a week for your stronger and more dominate muscle groups. Even though you may be targeting it only twice, there is crossover and it will get worked more than enough to maintain. But your weak points or the muscles you need to grow most, should be using the absolute highest frequency you can handle while still fully recovering.
You’ll split these sessions up into strength and hypertrophy, an even 50/50 split. We need both the higher intensity strength work to maintain muscle at the most optimal rate; this has been proven by studies. We’ll also need the higher rep hypertrophy work to grow at the most optimal rate, again proven by studies. But we’ll need a mix of both to make sure we’re optimizing our hormones, nervous system, and recovery demands.
The 2 best ways to do this are to either just split up each of the days as a strength day and a hypertrophy day or to simply hit your compound lift towards the beginning for your training, possibly using an intensity tactic like 1-6 contrast or ramp up scheme towards a 2-4 max effort lift, prior to your hypertrophy training.
(*Note: This is for another article, but remember that a big key driver of muscle growth is your ability to recruit more/new muscle fibers… well by being explosive and training the strength range at the beginning, we prime our nervous system to do just that during the hypertrophy training that follows.)
Now, can you use an upper/lower split? Push/pull/legs? Yeah, absolutely – you should be choosing whatever allows you to get the most amped up and keep adherence highest.
But I’m giving you what is the most ideal in this specific situation, which is going to be choosing something that allows you to target every muscle group 3-4x a week while still managing recovery properly. So if you do go with the others, keep in mind the “why”behind what I’m advising here!
Strategy #2 – Sleep Requirements
We’ll keep this short and sweet; because it’s the least sexy topic we’ll talk about today. Sleep – we all know we need more of it, yet we all ignore that and keep putting our sleep on the back burner.
The truth is, much of our results happen during our sleep. Think about it…
We replenish both muscle and liver glycogen, our nervous system goes into parasympathetic mode for recovery, our growth hormones are amplified, metabolism kicks up a notch, our digestive tracts get a break, the joints on our body get some rest…. Literally every system in our body goes into repair mode during sleep.
And if we look at what muscle growth actually is, it’s a balance between stress and adaptation. Training the muscle during our workouts is the stress, which is absolutely necessary in order to elicit any type of change. The recovery is our sleep (amongst other things we’ll touch on), which is the time where our body can actually stop to rebuild the tissue we broke down in training (recover from the stress).
So it’s obvious now, I hope, that you need to prioritize sleep if you plan to burn fat and/or build muscle. Without it, you will not recover muscularly, neurologically, and hormonally.
But how much is enough? What does good sleep even mean or look like?
Both of these are relative questions because everyone has a different stress load in their life, meaning that everyone’s body will have different recovery demands. But one thing we know for sure is that 7 is the minimum and upwards of 9 is optimal. So if you stay within the 7-9 hours, per night, range, you should be golden.
When it comes to what great sleep actually is… it’s what will allow you to wake up fresh, hormonally charged (guys, you know what I mean here – this is a necessary measurement for hormonal balance),with energy and motivation. This is a great reason to track biofeedback, which is something I have every single one of my clients do every week.
On a Scale of 1-5, Rank The Following:
- Sleep: X/5
- Performance: X/5
- Fatigue: X/5
- Cravings: X/5
- Hunger: X/5
- Stress: X/5
- Mood: X/5
- Daily Energy: X/5
All of these things should be a 4 or 5 regularly, that’s the goal. How do you even gage? You just start! Once you start you’ll know what a 1 feels like compared to a 5, in any of these. But the goal is to consistently work them up and as you become more aware, you’ll notice that they’re all linked and as one raises… they all rise.
As for strategies to increase the quality of your sleep, there are SO many we could go on for days. But I’ll start with a few simple hacks for you:
- Cool temperature room (60-65 degrees)
- Completely blacked out dark, media/lights off 2 hours prior
- Contrast shower and a meditation session prior.
Do these things and I guarantee you’ll be sleeping twice as well as you were before.
So going taking it back to the actual strategy now; sleep is absolutely crucial for results. The best way to get better sleep is to adjust your schedule so you can guarantee 7-9 hours, track your biofeedback daily or weekly, and adjust your room to promote a better and more restful sleep.
Strategy #3 – Nutrition
There’s a lot involved with this one when it comes to burning fat and building muscle simultaneously, because nutrition is one of the most individualized aspects of body composition change that there is.
The first thing we need to look at is calories, which is actually a pretty simple one to cover.
- You cannot be in a major deficit. If you are, you won’t build muscle and your hormones will slowly tap out. So although this may be necessary for a major fat loss phase, that’s not what this phase is about. This phase is about shredding up WHILE building, or at the very least maintaining, as much muscle as possible.
- You cannot be in a major surplus. If you are, you won’t burn any body fat because you’re eating too much! So again, even though this may be ideal to bulk up or gain as much muscle as fast as possible… it’s only ideal if you plan to add some body fat along with that new muscle mass.
- This leaves us with one option left, which is the right option here… around maintenance level calories. I say around, because some people will be genetic freaks that can push that up and others will be unfortunate metabolically speaking and will need to be very careful with where they lie.
See at about a maintenance level of calories, we’re insuring enough for progress with performance and that is one of the most important aspects here because as we know, if we perform better we will likely build more.
But another great thing about being at a maintenance level is that we can still strive for a slow pace of fat loss – which is the exact type of fat loss we want here, slow. At this caloric intake we can keep our hormones pumping as well, which is very much so linked to our bodies ability to efficiently burn body fat.
So what are your personal maintenance calories? That, I cannot say for sure. But the best way to find out is to track calories for 7-14 days and take your daily average.
In many cases, you may actually not be eating enough. So my advice to those that fall into the under-eating category, work your calories up slowly until you reach the maintenance level I am going to suggest here – when doing this, I’d suggest starting with protein, bumping up to where you should be right away and then work carbs and fats up towards what I’ll be suggesting soon.
Maintenance Calories Bodyweight x 14-16
I know, I know… Pretty broad range there, but the reality is everyone is individual. I have clients who were stuck at 12x BW for maintenance at one point and others who can push it upwards of 18x BW. But 14-16, is by far most common.
So take your daily average, see where you fall, and then work your way up or down to these numbers. Once you’re in this range, track your weight and your biofeedback.
You should be shooting for a caloric intake that allows good performance and recovery, while ensuring no weight gain. Because before we can work on shredding while building, we need to find that maintenance caloric intake – so stay put, be patient.
Daily Protein Intake Bodyweight x 1 – 1.2
If you’re already fairly lean, which will be most of the people reading this article I assume – since the goal is to build while burning MORE fat… You’re going to be perfect in this range and for most people, I’d actually suggest pushing the 1g per pound of bodyweight and here’s why:
- New studies just came out proving that there is no long-term damage down to the liver, kidney, or any other primary organ/system in the body from consuming a high protein diet.
- Knowing the above, we need to take advantage of other studies that have shown )a higher satiety (hunger)rate throughout the day/week in dieters eating a high protein diet and b.)that eating a little more protein than what is “necessary”during a dieting phase will lead to more muscle preservation while losing fat/weight.
- This allows you to optimize MPS (Muscle Protein Synthesis)to the highest degree. When we have a high rate of MPS, we recovery better and build more. Plain and simple. How do we create this anabolic signal in the body? The first way is through resistance training, which we covered. The second way is through consuming protein throughout the day. Studies have shown that what’s most optimal lies somewhere between 25-50g per feeding, depending on bodyweight. Your job, take your daily intake and divide it by your number of meals.
Daily Fat Intake Calories x 0.2 (25%)
Fat is very important, without it we will all die. Actually, quite literally… it’s an essential nutrient we need in order to survive. Which is why we check it off the list first, making sure we get enough but not too much.
Fat is going to be the lowest portion of your caloric intake, here’s why:
- Carbs and Protein are more metabolic stimulating AND we need them in high amounts in order to perform and build.
- Fat has the lowest thermic effect of food, meaning we burn the least amount digesting it of all the macronutrients.
- Once you get enough to hormonally and neurologically stimulate yourself… more is not better, it’s worse (in this case).Because we’re NOT in a deficit, so even a low % of fat is still plenty to thrive and any extra nutrients that are not being burned, will store as body fat.
- A study that followed 51 competitive natural bodybuilders for 22+ weeks during their contest prep concluded that )the most successful bodybuilders to hit the stage follow a higher carbohydrate diet and b.)a higher carbohydrate diet is likely a strategy to use in order to preserve the most amount of muscle possible while in a deficit.
Daily Carb Intake Whatever’s Left! (Usually Around 50-60%)
Whatever you have left in your carbs, which will absolutely be the majority of your calories, should be left to carbohydrates. Carbs are the body’s preferred fuel source and the only muscle-sparing nutrient, meaning when there is not enough amino acids flowing through the blood stream to rebuild tissue – the body can use carbs.
For both these reasons, we need to promote a higher carb diet. Here’s why:
- You will perform at a higher level when following a higher carbohydrate diet.
- You will be much more likely to preserve, or even build, muscle mass while shredding body fat when following a higher carbohydrate diet.
- This allows an abundance of higher fiber and nutrient dense foods. I’m talking high quality fruits, vegetables, and starchy root vegetables. These foods are VERY important for gut health and gut health needs to constantly be on the back of our mind.
Putting It All Together Example Client
I will use myself, as an example here.
Calories– 170lbs x 16 = 2,720 / Round to 2,700
Protein– 170lbs x 1 = 170
Fats– 2,700 x 0.25 (25%) = 675 cal ÷9 = 75g
Carbs– 1,345 (calories left) ÷4 = 336
As you can see, I used 170g rather than 200g that would’ve been my BW x1.2 like I mentioned… the reason for this is simple, it’s the very beginning of my shredding/building phase. I know that a plateau will arise and when that time comes, I want to keep my calories steady. So I will drop my carbs slightly to enhance fat loss, while replacing them with protein to maintain muscle or promote even more growth.
Strategy #4 – Supplementation
The very last strategy we need to implement is supplementation. Something that normally, when I have a lifestyle client, I’m not a huge proponent of. Because truthfully, you should be able to get everything you need from food.
But this isn’t a normal setting; this is above average and somewhat extreme.
You’re attempting to build muscle mass, while shredding body fat. It takes more than what the normal individual is willing to do. And in this case, that means supplementing with anything that will enhance our results – legally of course…
The Minimalist’s Supplement Guide:
Whey protein is a key supplement that should be in any gym goer’s pantry, mainly because it’s there to add some protein in your diet when you’re on the go or cannot plan ahead of time accordingly. But it can also serve the benefit of ensuring you get your protein in post workout. Now, with that being said, the anabolic window where you “Lose all your gains”is much bigger than once predicted.
So this doesn’t mean I’m suggesting you run straight to the locker room and slam a shake as you’re finishing your last set of bicep curls… but I am suggesting that if you cannot eat within 2 hours of training, you should absolutely have a whey shake in that time window. It’s going to speed up recovery, boost muscle protein synthesis, and will likely contribute to building more muscle. We suggest whey protein because it has the most optimal amino acid profile.
This is a supplement that science has proven to work and work well, time and time again. There’s no fighting that creatine will help muscle saturation/hydration, recovery time, performance, and even possible cognitive enhancement. It’s cheap and effective; take 5g daily at any time (no, timing it does not matter – all’s that matters is you take it).
This is a powder carbohydrate that’s rapidly absorbed and utilized for recovery, promoted by some of the smartest, and most jacked, guys in the industry. I do not believe that is correlation anymore – yes calories in vs. calories out matters, but why do the top guys keep promoting this supplement? Because it works. Same reason why over the last couple years I’ve had clients using it and back when I hit the physique stage I used it throughout the entire process.
If you’re the person who really struggles to put mass on, I’m going to recommend sipping it throughout the training session and possibly another small serving post training as well. This is going to help breakdown replenish that much faster, while optimizing your insulin sensitivity during training to build more muscle mass.
But for those who struggle more with fat loss, live a higher stress lifestyle, and/or train in the evening, within 3-5 hours of going to bed, I want you taking 1 scoop of this along side some easily digestible whey protein, BCAA’s, or EAA’s immediately post workout.
No, not because of the anabolic window. This is because when you train, cortisol is through the rood – which is good, for training. When you stop training and need to start recovering, let alone go to sleep soon, you need to shut off that high cortisol response by giving your body carbs and amino acids right away. This is going to help get you into parasympathetic mode, blunt the cortisol response now that training is over, digest your food later on better, and get a real night’s rest.
This will be in your post workout carbohydrate drink, but also pre/intra workout by itself for everyone reading this. Not because BCAA’s are a magic supplement, in fact if we look at most studies it doesn’t show much benefit if you’re consuming enough protein daily.
We’re taking this because studies have recently shown that neurologically it can allow you to push a bit harder, helping you improve your RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion). That and it will stimulate muscle protein synthesis and we’re here to take every edge we can take in order to optimize muscle growth.
Vitamin-D is a hormonal precursor… actually; most scientists will argue that it isa hormone itself. Knowing that and the fact that at least 50% of the USA is deficient in it, we’re going to be supplementing it. The dosage that has been shown to truly have benefits is around 4-5,000 IU’s.
It’s the super food of vitamins and we’re not going to skip it, because much like vitamin-d most of the country is deficient in it. So unless you’re eating salmon and sashimi on a daily basis, I want you supplementing this – from a reliable source.
The dosage that has been shown to have the highest benefits for joint health, insulin sensitivity, metabolism, heart health, and more is 2-3g of combined EPA/DHA daily.
Another one we’re almost all deficient in, that holds so many benefits when it comes to higher levels of performance and muscle growth. The issue is that there are about 17 kinds of magnesium on the shelves and almost all of them just give you diarrhea. The type and dosage for neurological and muscular benefits, is going to be around 300-500mg daily of glycinate, aspartate, malate, and/or citrate.
Once again… we’re almost all falling short on this and it’s going to help hormones, muscles, sleep, and more. So we do not want to skip this. The suggested daily dosage of zinc is going to be between 35-50mg daily.
Bringing It All Together
All right… now that you’re taking more pills than your grandma at breakfast, we’re ready to wrap up.
The truth is, building muscle while burning fat is hard. It takes some grinding gym sessions, a lot of consistent efforts, and some dedication to the finer details. But to say it’s impossible is simply false and anyone who will tell you that has probably not dialed in all of the above like you’re about to do.
My final piece of advice to you…
Measure everything. Metrics are so important and if you’re not taking weekly photos, notes in the gym, tracking macros, and looking at biofeedback constantly, you will never really know if you’re moving towards the end result properly.
About The Author
Cody McBroom is a strength coach, certified nutrition coach, writer, podcaster, and owner/head coach of the Online Coaching Business Boom-Boom Performance. Cody’s expertise is in Nutrition and Fat Loss Transformations specifically. He is also known for his free daily content where he takes science based fitness and nutrition information, and delivers it in a simplified “real-life” approach through all of his platforms (instagram, Facebook, blog, podcast, etc.).