Gaining Muscle and Strength While Losing Weight: A User’s Guide to Your Body!
Gaining muscle and losing fat are the two key goals that make up most of fitness. They’re common and meaningful changes to your body that improve health, confidence, and performance.
Choosing between the two is crucially difficult and makes a significant difference to your experience. Cycles of “bulking” and “cutting” produce different diet and training methods.
Today we’re going to get past bulking and cutting, providing a brief guide on how to gain muscle and strength while losing fat. It’s possible and in around 1100 words, you’ll know how to do it for yourself!
First of all: it’s entirely possible to lose weight and gain muscle simultaneously.
The idea you need to gain weight to gain muscle just isn’t correct. As our muscle-mass measures have become more accurate, we’ve seen a bunch of studies proving this is possible.
This doesn’t mean it’s easy – there are a lot of fine points you need to focus on – but it’s a great goal and totally realistic. It’s also not just for total novices since studies in resistance-trained individuals exist.
It might get harder as you get more experienced, but so is any muscle growth!
The Key Principle: Systematic Deficit, Local Abundance
This is a simple principle but complicated to actually put into practice.
The idea for a good “recomposition” diet – one that builds muscle and burns fat – is to produce a systematic calorie deficit while keeping local energy levels abundant.
This means producing enough deficit to lead your body to burn fat, without starving the crucial tissues of energy. This means supporting muscle, bones, and connective tissues – as well as preserving neurological health.
Sound complicated? Fortunately, we’re going to make it simple…
Slow cutting: Calorie Balance is Step One
If you cut weight too quickly, you’re going to really struggle to gain any muscle at all.
This is the result of producing local energy deficit. When your body thinks you’re struggling for dietary calories or protein, it can easily begin breaking down muscle into its building blocks (amino acids), which it will convert to glucose.
The point is to avoid this, as you’re trying to build these tissues up more – not break them down! Too much deficit makes this impossible, so you need to pay attention to the intensity of your diet and commit to the long-term.
Studies have shown that a maximum of 0.7% bodyweight loss per week should be the goal. This is enough to produce meaningful, consistent weight loss while allowing for muscle gains throughout. If you overshoot it, you’ll stall out.
Don’t rush it: a recomp diet/training approach takes a little time. It’ll pay off, but you have to fuel yourself effectively.
Protein: Ensuring Recovery – Facilitating Growth
Getting plenty of protein is going to be essential for this process. This is true for maximal muscle gains in any situation or diet!
Skeletal muscle contains a huge portion of the body’s proteins and when you’re dieting, they’re going to be under threat. Providing your body with the raw materials to support muscular growth and recovery is key to avoiding muscle break down.
Protein intake also produces two of the key signals for muscle growth in humans: effective nitrogen balance and Leucine. Leucine is a key amino acid that signals for plentiful energy/protein in the body.
Protein has a whole bunch of dietary benefits. When it comes to Recomping, a high protein intake can be a great way to optimise your results. This is around 2.5-3.2g of protein per kg of lean body mass (roughly 1-1.2g of protein per lb of bodyweight).
Carbohydrates: role in AMPK system and glucose’s role in local energy abundance
Your carb intake also needs to be well-matched to your exercise volume and timed to support performance and recovery.
Carb restriction directly impedes your ability to build muscle, so it’s clear that your carb intake is tied into muscle growth. This means keeping your carb intake high to support muscle repair, fuelling, and ultimately growth!
There’s a simple way of figuring this out:
- Figure out your TDEE (estimate of daily calorie needs) then aim at 85-90% every day
- Figure out your protein intake from above
- Add a fat intake of 15% of your target calories
- Use (high-quality) carbs to fill your remaining calories!
This provides a carb intake that is high enough to support muscle growth within the context of a slight calorie restriction in-line with the science on Recomping.
The timing of carbs is also key for getting the most from a recomp. They aren’t going to be entirely dependent on training, but you should consider carbs to be exercise-fuel.
They’re short-term energy providers, so treat them as such. The GI of your carbs (their tendency towards sugar, as compared to their fiber and starch content), should be higher during pre- and post-training feeding.
These are the key areas where you should be eating carbs in the first place. They’re ideal for roughly 2 hours either side of training, where they supply or re-supply existing glycogen stores. This is the sugary fluid stored in the muscles for use as fuel.
Vitamins and minerals are tied into the energy-producing processes that come with eating, digesting, and absorbing food. Deficiency in key compounds like B vitamins, vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, or potassium can all show up in your results.
When you’re not close to training, focus on slow-digesting, fibrous carbs such as vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, and other nutrient-dense foods. The vitamins and minerals in these foods are also key for Recomping – so make sure to prioritise healthy, nutritious carbs.
Creatine: Local Energy Abundance support
Supplementing creatine is a great way of producing a local abundance of energy.
Creatine works at the cellular level to improve energy stores and cell volume/hydration. These are both important to support existing muscle and are key in the muscle-building process.
Supplementary doses (2.5g upwards) can make a significant difference to the energy balance of muscle cells. This delays their degradation/death and supports local energy abundance.
Combined with existing suggestions on diet, creatine is a fantastic supplement for providing the very best possible support. It’s also got fantastic benefits to artery/heart health and supports metabolic health.
Overall, the health and performance benefits make for a significant boost on a cutting diet.
Intensity and Volume: managing your training appropriately – train smart, your recovery is limited
The last pointer is a simple one: manage your training appropriately or you’re going to overtrain and/or injure yourself.
A calorie-restricted diet is going to produce serious concerns for recovery. You’re walking a fine line when it comes to Recomping. You are providing the minimal viable energy for losing weight and the maximum possible energy for muscle within that context.
Training s going to be limited in volume but can still support great intensity. Intensity produces strength in meaningful ways, when combined with effective volume. However, the latter will be capped during a recomp.
You can only manage so much volume. The key is to get enough to produce strength and muscle growth without causing muscle damage. This would increase calorie costs and require even greater nutrient intake (protein and vitamins/minerals). There are a few ways to maximise muscle growth without additional muscle damage:
- Always use weights that challenge you
- Perform at least one higher-intensity set for key exercises to stay strong!
- Work in the 3-6 rep range at an RPE 9-10
- Avoid training to failure
- Increase the role of concentric loading, while reducing intentionally-slow eccentric (lowering) portions of your lifts
- Working through full ranges of motion that include a stretch at the end position
- Finish your workout with a high-rep, “pump” style of training for key body parts
- Train as often as you can possibly recover from, without significantly spiking your lifting volume!
These tips reduce your overall muscle damage, keep muscle growth stimulus high, and allow you to match workouts to dietary performance.
This process of gaining and losing simultaneously is a fantastic one if you can make it work. Once you strike that balance you’ll see significant, sustainable change.
It’s a process that demands attention, time, and effort. However, the changes you see in consistently looking, feeling, and lifting better all justify what you’re putting into the diet and training.
Gaining muscle and strength while losing weight is the holy grail of effective performance and getting comfortable with this process is a long-term benefit to your results.
We hope this guide has been helpful and would love to hear your thoughts/results!
About the Auther: Liam Rodgers:
Good coaching and good writing rely on attention to detail, forward planning, and deep knowledge of the technical aspects. As an Olympic weightlifting coach and the director of Apex sport and fitness content, Liam lives these out: he has huge enthusiasm for sports performance, nutrition, narrative and immersive, engaging writing.