Episode 91 Transcript – Can You Gain Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time?

Leah:

Hello and welcome to the Ideal Nutrition Podcast.

I am Leah Higl and I’m here with my co-host Aidan Muir. And today we will be answering the question, can you gain muscle and lose body fat at the same time?

A good place to start with this would be just why would you think that this isn’t possible as a theory? So if we theoretically look at it, the body is made up of calories. So the logic would be that if we have a surplus, there is more calories left to be stored as muscle. So you have these excess calories that can be stored as muscle. But if we have a calorie deficit, so eating less than maintenance, the body already has to be pulling from other stores and then it’s less likely to prioritize muscle growth. Which is a pretty energy intensive process.

So if looking to optimize muscle building, it makes sense that logically a surplus would be the best option. And then vice versa for fat loss, a deficit would logically be the best option. So it seems that fat loss and muscle growth somewhat are competing goals and that we probably can’t optimize both at once. But whether or not it is possible to do both at once, not optimize but do both at once is probably a different story and we will go through that.

A quick note on that though before we do kind of delve into the research is that it’s actually pretty rare for people to stay in a surplus or a deficit 100% of the time, even though that’s what they’re aiming for. Our energy expenditure does change on a daily basis. So even if you are tracking and you think you’re being pretty diligent, it is common for you to dip in and out of the surplus and deficit, which could be… It could play a role in all of this as well.

Aidan:

In the research, it is actually super common for both to occur at the same time. I came across the idea of you not necessarily being able to do this than both at the same time, if you’re relatively well-trained, through forums like bodybuilding.com and stuff like that. And I think it’s a good rule to learn and then unlearn, if that makes sense.

Because I think learning it makes you see that it’s probably not the most efficient way to achieve your goals. But then the next step unlearning it is just being like, okay, you can technically do both at the same time.

Instead of looking at the research instead of going through the studies individually, probably mostly going to talk about a 2020 review titled body composition, oh sorry… Body Recomposition can trained individuals build muscle and loose fat at the same time. I prefer to go through this review just so that way it’s summarizing all of the research rather than just going through individual stuff.

Another thing I really wanted to focus on is notice the emphasis on trained individuals, because that’s really what the question is about. Because it is super common for untrained individuals to be able to do it. You get the average person off the street who’s never lifted weights in their life and you give them a decent program and don’t change the nutrition or anything like that. It’s very likely that they’re doing both at the same time. Not necessarily the most efficient way to go about it, but they’re going to get good results regardless. In the second paragraph of that review I was talking about, there are eight well controlled, randomized controlled trials cited where muscle gain and fat loss occurred simultaneously in reportedly well-trained individuals. Kind of answers the question, can you do them both at the same time? Yes, but we’ll dig a bit deeper.

They highlighted case studies identifying that bodybuilders typically don’t recomp during their contest prep. And that makes a lot of sense because bodybuilders are typically pretty well-trained, and they are also striving for levels of leanness. Where the body doesn’t necessarily want to be pulling from body fat because there’s not much left. We obviously need a certain amount to just maintain being alive and certain functions and it makes it more likely to lose lean mass during that process.

Another thing that they highlighted is that recomp almost never occurs in a calorie surplus. This is something that makes a fair bit of sense in terms of… Just looking at through the stuff you highlighted at the start, being like if you have a surplus of calories, it needs to be stored somewhere. Muscle growth is a slow process. If not a large percentage of them can be stored as muscle. Where else does it go? It makes sense that it’s going to be stored as body fat. There are a couple of studies reportedly where people do recomp in a surplus, but I question major aspects of them.

One of the most famous examples of this is one by Jose Antonio, where you’ve got people to have 4.4 grams per kilogram body weight protein per day. Think about that for a second. If somebody’s a hundred kilos, it’s 440 grams of protein.

It’s insane. And the participants gained muscle and lost fat. But the thing is they also lost a little bit of body weight overall, and the obvious reason for that is that they didn’t end up in a surplus.

One, because it’s hard to eat that much protein that they got full before they ate too many calories. And then two, the thermic effect of food. Protein has a higher thermic effect of food than other macronutrients and that would’ve increased energy expansion a little bit more. So it’s like they might have been a predicted surplus, but I don’t think they actually ended up in a surplus, which explains it.

Obviously, that’s my own thinking. If you read the paper, he says something quite the opposite of what I just said, but that’s my interpretation.

Leah:

A note on why it happens so much in research. So, one reason it happens in research in terms of recomping is because participants, they’re often literally just trading harder, as part as a research participant, and more consistently than they’ve previously trained.

So they are often usually newer to training. So if you’re newer to training, you’re of a younger training age, you are more likely to recomp than people with a higher training age.

Aidan:

I’ll also add onto that in that review that I looked at, most of the quote, well-trained participants had trained for over 12 months, but they weren’t super experienced. They had about 12 months, 12 to 24 months experience was common.

Leah:

I wouldn’t call a year or two a high training age, personally. We know in terms of muscle building, that is something that takes a long time. So that’s going to be very different to someone who’s been resistance training for a decade. That’s going to be pretty drastically different. So usually it is, it’s probably pretty hard to find a bunch of people who have been training for a decade and put them into a study. So often it is people with a little bit of training experience, but probably not years and years and years. So their potential to gain muscle, whilst not in an optimal state of I guess calorie surplus et cetera, is probably a little bit better.

We have quite a lot of research indicating that we need to train somewhere nearer to failure to optimize muscle growth. That’s not saying go out and do everything to failure. That’s not us suggesting that. But we do know when you train to proximity of failure, you’re probably more likely to build muscle mass. And in these research settings that’s probably more tightly controlled in terms of, if they have people usually taking them through the sessions and they are more likely to push themselves nearer to failure than say someone who’s been training for a year and is training on their own in the gym. So something to consider, in that the research people are often pushed to complete failure where that may not be happening in real world settings.

Another factor is their nutrition is also often monitored in some capacity in these studies too, which plays a role. So potentially more optimized protein intake, just general optimized kind of dietary aspects compared to real world settings and more consistency. We have heard some research in this space, researchers in this space say that at the end of the six to 12 week studies, most participants report wanting to take a break from training or a deload just due to kind of general soreness and fatigue.

But if we look at general people in the gym, how often are these people needing… Are they training so hard that they actually need deloads. Definitely we see it in athletes. We are both powerlifters. We’re in a power lifting gym. So these are people with high training ages who are training to kind of this extent.

But if you walk into a regular commercial gym, how many people are needing deloads from working this hard? Probably not a lot. But we know in research they’re probably working a bit hard to the point where they do need these deloads.

So I think there’s just a big discrepancy between what we do see in research and what we do see in the real world, that plays a role in why we’re less likely to maybe see recomposition happening in the real world and a little bit more in research.

Aidan:

Explaining when is more or less likely to happen in terms of recomp and building muscle and losing fat at the same time. There’s a bit of a criteria.

People who are more likely to recomp are going to be those who, as we said, are new to training or are detrained, as in they’ve come from a layoff from training. Ideally they have a good training protocol and they execute it well. They ideally, have good nutrition, particularly good protein intake. They get a good amount of sleep, they have low stress levels and ideally they also have good genetics. And a final nutrition point is it’s less likely to happen if somebody’s in a massive deficit or they are in a surplus, we kind of said. Because if somebody’s in a massive deficit, they’ll be losing more body fat. There’s not many calories left for muscle growth or anything like that.

Is it, the further you get from that kind of criteria I laid down, the less likely it is to happen. And another way I like to say it is if somebody’s getting close to their most optimal physique or whatever you would like to call it, the less likely it is to happen.

Leah:

Yeah. So what would we recommend in the real world? What do we recommend, I suppose, as the most efficient way to build muscle, lose fat, change your body composition? It is really rare for me to recommend recomping.

I think what I like to say to a lot of the people I work with is you’re not going to probably recomp yourself to a significantly different body composition. Sure. If you’ve got all those factors on your side that you just mentioned, you are more likely to see good results from recomping. But the more you move away from those factors and the more well-trained you are, the leaner you are, the more muscle mass you have, the less significant change or the less likely it is that you are going to be able to recomp. So for those people, I would much prefer to cycle between phases of a calorie surplus for optimizing muscle building and then phases of a calorie deficit for fat loss.

Aidan:

And I view us as evidence-based professionals and everything like that. But something that is factored in with being an evidence-based professional, is not solely just looking at research, also looking at anecdotal evidence when there’s large, large, large sample sizes.

And I think a great example of this is the sport of bodybuilding where if you look at all bodybuilders who are taking a long off-season between competitions, but they’re doing it as an improvement season where they’re trying to get better. What is one thing almost all of them have in common? They spend long periods of times in relatively small calorie surpluses and they might do mini cuts occasionally if they do gain a little bit too much body fat. But something we don’t really see is people just trying to recomp. It’s not like they gain a bit of weight after the comp and then just try and recomp for the entire off season and then go into another contest prep.

We never see that or it’s very, very, very rare. And I think the reason why that’s very, very, very rare is because the participants of this sport, one, are looking around and seeing everyone else doing it. I think that’s, but two, I think everyone’s fallen into that kind of thing of doing, not aiming for recomp because it’s just less efficient and it’s something that has been seen over and over and over and over. So it makes sense to do these calorie surpluses and then deficits if you’re trying to optimize progression from a physique perspective.

Leah:

And even just looking at people’s, I guess, aesthetic goals, unless you are like genetically predisposed to that certain physique, you’re probably not going to reach that physique goal with recomping.

You’re not going to have a huge amount of muscle mass and be very lean by continuously just trying to recomp. So I think that’s just something to note.

Aidan:

This has been episode 91 of the Ideal Nutrition podcast.

I was on Spotify earlier today and I saw that the ratings, we’ve got like 81 ratings or something like that in comparison to big name podcasters. That’s obviously nothing right, but I am ridiculously grateful for anybody who has left a rating. It only takes two seconds to do, but it has a huge impact on us. So I massively appreciate it. Thank you.