The dual goal of building muscle and losing fat is common amongst exercise enthusiasts and athletes alike. In an ideal world, we will have figured out a way for the body to build and maintain all muscle while simultaneously burning fat. Unfortunately, science has not shown that to be true, despite claims from leading health and fitness publications.
While we can maintain muscle or minimize its loss, it is extremely difficult to put on muscle when losing fat. Our body can only be in one of two states; anabolic for building and catabolic for breaking down. Therefore working on building muscle and decreasing body fat are ideally completed as two different goals with different fitness and nutrition strategies.
The most important factor in increasing muscle size is an adequate training stimulus. Without a an adequate training stimulus, mechanical and metabolic pathways that induce muscle growth cannot be stimulated. This is where proper programming will help that is sufficient enough to stimulate muscle synthesis. Nutritionally, in order to build muscle your body needs an excess of calories over your daily needs. Yes, to be anabolic, or to grow, your net calories for the day needs to be positive. Ideally, a diet higher in protein (1.2-2.0 g/kg of body weight) with adequate carbohydrates dependent on activity level and training intensity (ranging from 3-7 g/kg), with the remaining calories coming from healthy fats. While sufficient protein and timing is important, overall calories is even more important to build muscle. Eating three meals a day with snacks in between is essential to provide adequate nutrients and calories to fuel muscle building.
Now to losing fat, or being catabolic. The most important factor here is being at a caloric deficit. A caloric deficit can be accomplished through increasing physical activity or through decreased caloric intake. To preserve the most muscle mass, in other words decrease the amount of mass lost, it is ideal to engage in gradual reduction of weight over an extended period of time. A study on athletes by Garth et al (2011), had shown that a gradual reduction of 0.7% of body weight to preserve muscle and strength is ideal. Nutritionally, higher intakes of protein, including ingestion of whey protein supplements, have been shown to be helpful in weight loss studies in preserving lean mass. This can also be very well achieved through a well planned diet with whole foods.
Just as with building muscle your need to have an adequate stimulus, to optimally stimulate fat loss you must engage in an effective exercise program. For fat loss, increasing aerobic training (aka cardio) or engaging in HIIT (high intensity interval training) are recommended. While some studies favor HIIT for burning fat, the overall consensus has been that both are relatively just as effective as the other. Therefore what you choose is based on personal preference and what works best for you and your body. In addition, engaging is resistance training is almost essential to minimize losses of muscle mass.
Even if I am maintaining muscle or minimizing its loss, can I get strong? Building strength and increasing muscle size (hypertrophy) generally exist in a positive relationship. A larger, hypertrophied, muscle with greater muscle fibers will improve strength gains, mostly for trained individuals. In novice strength trainers, most gains in strength come from neurological adaptations. As training advances, an interplay of hypertrophic and neurological systems play a role in building or maintaining strength. Therefore, you may still be catabolic (burning fat and some lean tissue) while maintaining or slowly building strength. Staying calorically deficient and catabolic for an extended period of time can diminish strength.
So can you be strong, muscular and cut all at the same time? Yes but you most likely won’t be optimal in all those categories at one time. It all depends on your fitness, athletic and body composition goals and where you would be most happy and most importantly healthy. It also depends on the time, dedication and motivation you have to putting in the work in the gym and in the kitchen. Determining what your ultimate goal is for you and your body should be based on what is best for you, not based on what society, your sport or what Instagram tells you to be.