Cutting Fat and Building Muscle…Is It Possible?

Regardless of your fitness ability, both individual goals of stripping down body fat and adding muscle to your frame is hard work.  It may come easier for some given their genetic disposition, but both are tough tasks that should not be taken lightly.  For new exercisers who have a great deal of body fat to lose, the reduction in weight may seem to come almost effortlessly.  However, for your intermediate to advanced fitness people out there, losing those last stubborn pounds of body fat can be tough.  Similarily, adding muscle to a frame that is already fairly built up, is harder than adding muscle to a frame that lacks muscle to begin with.  

Now, we already know each is tough in its own right, but how tough does it get when you combine the two?  This article is geared towards the intermediate and advanced individuals out there who need to take extra lengths to keep making progress.  If you are newer to exercise, continue with your standard cardio routine and mix in basic strength training exercises a couple times a week.  Now that we have that out of the way, let’s take a physiological look at what is going on inside our body.

When we burn calories, we lose weight.  Our body has less excess energy to burn and thus turns to cells inside our body to provide the fuel.  This energy will largely come from fat cells, when they are in great quantity, but what happens when we have just a little fat that we want to lose?  Our body will burn the fat along with muscle to create energy.  On the flip side, when we lift weights with the goal of building muscle, we are actually breaking down the muscle in the hopes that it will repair itself and come back bigger and stronger.  How do we ensure that a muscle repairs itself properly?  We ensure this by taking in a sufficient number of calories, especially protein, through our diet.  It always amazes me when people (typically guys) think they can lift extremely heavy weights, but ignore their diet, and expect to grow.  Muscle doesn’t grow because you lift weights.  Muscle grows because you lift weights and give the muscle adequate fuel (a healthy diet).

So think about that for a minute.  We need to burn more calories to lose the fat, but take in more calories to add muscle.  It doesn’t take a genius to realize a lot of people are simply spinning their wheels and getting no where.  The purpose of this article is to give you a basic idea of how to accomplish your goals of stripping down body fat while gaining and/or retaining muscle.  Something to keep in mind; no cut/bulk plan will ever give you the same results as a strictly bulk plan.  You simply cannot eat the calories necessary to add pounds and pounds of muscle to your frame and expect to cut fat.  What you can do however, is get on a plan that will continually add muscle to your frame while allowing you to strip fat and increase your cardiovascular ability, thus, giving you healthier heart and lung function.

The key to this type of plan is to keep a strict document of everything you are doing.  In order to be successful with a cut/bulk plan, sticking to schedule is key.  Another key point to remember; having a healthy looking body, inside and out, is 60% diet and 40% exercise.  Diet is vital to your success on this plan.  Do not ignore or diminish the power of a good, clean diet.  More on this in a minute.

The exercise aspect of this routine should involve heavy, complex lifts that are designed to push your muscles to extreme fatigue.  I’m not talking about overtraining.  I’m talking about training to the point that your muscles simply cannot give you another rep.  Aim to keep repetitions per set in the 6-10 range.  Great compound movements such as deadlifts, military presses, bench presses, squats, wide-grip pullups, etc should make up the bulk of your routine.  This doesn’t mean you should ignore more isolation based exercises.  Just be sure to include the big, power moves, and be sure to go heavy on them.  Now, this is only one piece of the puzzle.  Another piece is your cardio.  Since you are trying to lose fat, you are going to need to get some cardio in there.  Scale cardio back to 20-30(max) minute intervals.  Keep your heart rate in the “fat burning zone” by using a heart rate monitor or other device on MOST (not all) cardio training days.  A sample 7-day routine would look something like this:

  • Monday: Chest, Tris, Shoulders 18-21 sets total
  • Tuesday: 25 minutes on the stationary bike
  • Wednesday: Biceps, Back, Abs 18-21 sets total
  • Thursday: Run 4 miles using HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)
  • Friday: Legs 12-15 total sets
  • Saturday: REST
  • Sunday: REST

Now, every body type is different, so it’s tough to give generalized advice like this.  That said, the above plan is a great starting point.  Continue to tweak it as you progress.  Maybe you need to add a little more cardio to keep up steady fat loss.  Maybe you need to add a few extra sets to legs.  Whatever you think you need, play around with it and see how it works for you.

On to the biggest piece of this equation; diet.  Diet has the potential to make or break any exercise routine.  It is no different in this scenario.  Since your body needs fuel to build muscle, you cannot severely cut your caloric intake in an effort to lose fat.  You’re muscle growth will slow to a standstill.  What you need to do is make an especially strong attempt at eating clean.  Eating clean means avoiding the foods you already know you shouldn’t be eating, i.e. fast food, high fat, simple carbs, etc.  Place a greater emphasis on upping your protein intake and make the most of the timing of your meals.  Take in some complex carbs mixed with protein first thing in the morning.  Try to evenly space your meals out over the remainder of the day.  You should know by now that a protein shake, mixed with a simple carb (this is really the only time to consume simple carbs) should be taken within 30 minutes of your workout.  To take that a step further, you should now be consuming a slow-digesting protein like greek yogurt, or cheese, right before bed.  This will further help your muscles repair themselves while you sleep.  The little things make all the difference when you are on such a tight regimen as the cut/bulk routine. 

Aim to take in about 1.25-1.50 grams of protein per pound of body weight.  If you are 200 lbs, aim to take in roughly 250-300 grams of protein each day.  When taking in that much protein, be sure to get adequate water intake as not to over stress your kidneys and liver.  Eat a lot of complex carbs that will take longer to break down, and thus, cause your body to have less insulin spikes.  Insulin spikes in your body will indirectly cause you to retain fat; exactly what you don’t want.  Total caloric intake varies greatly and is largely dependent upon your height and weight.  As a general rule of thumb, a standard 2,000 calorie diet, with a heavy emphasis on protein intake will be sufficient for you to experience fat loss, while continue to make muscular gains. 

This type of routine is great for short periods of time, i.e. 8-12 weeks.  After that time is up, continue with the healthy diet, but up or cut the calories based upon your current goals.  In addition, increase or decrease the weight training/cardio ratio to fall in line with those goals.  Best of luck and let us know how all this works out for you!


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