Most females I work with as personal trainer want to lose fat and build muscle. And while many still want to avoid “looking like a bodybuilder,” most women who come to me know that building muscle is essential for achieving a lean, athletic look.
Like most of us, these women want results fast, so their goal is to lose excess body fat and build lean muscle simultaneously.
But can this be done, or do you need to lose the fat first and then focus on building muscle?
The answer is that losing body fat and building muscle simultaneously is totally doable, provided that you follow the five principles discussed in this article.
But first, let’s discuss why you can simultaneously lose body fat and gain muscle mass.
Two magic words: body recomposition
For a long time, scientists and fitness professionals have thought you can not lose body fat and gain muscle simultaneously. After all, to lose fat, you need to be in a caloric deficit, and to gain muscle, you need to be in a caloric surplus.
However, this does not mean that the energy you need to build muscle has to come from food.
Anyone with excess body fat has enough fuel on board to give their muscles energy to grow. That means your body uses its own energy stores to build muscle when you are in a calorie deficit. Pretty neat.
There’s even a word for the process of building muscle and losing body fat at the same time: body recomposition. These are technically 2 words, but you get the point 😉.
And scientific studies have confirmed the concept of body recomposition. For example, one study by Longland et al. (2016) showed that men who were eating a 40% calorie deficit could still gain lean body mass during 4 weeks. Similarly, a study by Campbell et al. (2018) showed that female athletes could gain muscle and lose significant body fat during an 8-week period.
Can everyone build muscle and lose fat at the same time?
You may wonder if everyone can lose fat and build muscle simultaneously. Is it possible for you? What if you are already too old or are severely overweight? What if you’ve “messed up your metabolism” because you have been trying so many different diets and got no results?
Fear not. If you are reading this article, you, too, can lose fat and build muscle at the same time. Provided you are either new to strength training or come back to it after a long break. If you have a lot of body fat to lose, you can also go through a body recomposition process.
That being said, you still need to adhere to the 5 main principles described in the next section if you want to achieve the results you’re looking for.
5 principles you must adhere to for body recomposition.
1. Eat sufficient protein
Eating sufficient protein is paramount.
In both studies I discussed above, the researchers divided the study participants into 2 groups. A high-protein group and a low-protein group. Both groups in each study followed the same exercise program. And in both studies, the high-protein groups achieved significantly more significant lean body mass gain and body fat reductions than the low-protein groups.
How much protein is “sufficient”?
If you are like most women I know, you are likely more than you are used to eating 🙃.
For reference, the study on females mentioned above used 2.5g per kilogram bodyweight in their high-protein group and 0.9g per kilogram of body weight in their low-protein group. To maximize fat loss and muscle gain simultaneously, you should eat between 1.6 and 2 g per kilogram of body weight.
It is also critical to spread your protein intake throughout the day since your body can not store protein as easily.
Generally speaking, you should aim to get 20-50g of protein at each meal. If you are highly active or eat relatively small meals, you should include one or two protein-rich snacks, especially on your workout days. This could be your post-workout shake, a cup of Greek yogurt, or soy pudding.
2. Follow a structured strength training program and apply the principle of progressive overload.
One of the most common mistakes women make in the gym is that they don’t follow a structured resistance training program. Instead, they pick workouts from Youtube or social media and do them randomly.
Likewise, their focus is not on building muscle but on working out.
If you want to change your body’s appearance, you must change your mindset.
The goal of your strength-focused gym sessions should not be to feel that you had a good workout but to build muscle. And for that, you need to follow a program.
Ideally, you focus on the big compound movements and include squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, and a carry in your program.
You also need to apply the principle of progressive overload. That means that you continuously increase the weight as you get stronger. If you keep lifting the same weights for the same number of sets and repetitions, your progress will stall sooner than later.
3. Practice patience.
We live in a society where patience has become a rare trait. Many people have become accustomed to instant gratification with the rise of instant messaging, instant food, and instant delivery of goods. As a result, they become easily discouraged and give up quickly.
However, if you want to succeed on your body recomposition journey, you need to practice patience.
Because building muscle is a slow process.
Even if you are a beginner and can use those newbie gains, expect to gain around one pound of muscle per month. Yes, per month. I told you it was a slow process, didn’t I 😁?
And that is if you pay attention to protein intake and follow a decent muscle-building program. Yes, some women can gain more muscle in a month. However, around a pound is the average.
4. Be consistent.
Any fat loss or muscle-building program is only effective when you stay consistent. When you rely on going to the gym “when you feel like it” or only stick to your insanely strict diet plan 5 days a week and completely blow it on the weekend because you have deprived your body of vital nutrients during the week, be prepared to be disappointed.
If you want to change your body composition and feel strong and sexy instead of weak and flabby, you must commit to your workouts and do them consistently.
Set fixed workout days and avoid skipping them because “you don’t feel like it.” Make those gym times non-negotiable.
Nourish your body well and get enough high-quality sleep.
Strive for being consistently good over being occasionally great.
5. Include cardio.
There, I said it. Do your cardio.
And don’t listen to those fitness influencers trying to sell you on the dangers of cardio 🙄.
There is nothing “damaging” or “metabolism destroying” about the cardiovascular activity. Cardio also won’t “kill all your gains.”
In fact, incorporating some cardiovascular exercise into your routine will make fat loss easier and improve your overall health.
Activities that fall under the category cardio, such as running, riding a bike, or swimming, generally burn more calories than strength training during a session of equal length and can thus help you achieve your fat loss goals by increasing the total amount of calories you expend each day.
However, that does not mean you must force yourself to go for a jog or bike ride if you hate those activities. Start by walking after dinner with your partner or a friend. Or how about going for a hike and enjoying the healing powers of nature on the weekend?
Include as much low-intensity activity as you can throughout your day.
Become your own hero.
Many women want to lose fat and gain muscle.
However, only a minority succeeds. They lack the knowledge or don’t really want the transformation they say they want. Many undereat protein and don’t follow a structured strength training program. Others become bored and give up quickly or jump from program to program, doing a different workout each time they set foot into the gym.
Most who fail to reach their goals start to make excuses and look for circumstances or people to blame. By doing that, they are giving away their power.
Don’t be that woman.
Instead, become your own superhero and commit to your goals.
It is up to you to do the work and make it happen.
If you need guidance and accountability, get a coach.
The right coach will answer all your questions about nutrition and training, give you a workout plan that maximizes muscle gain and fat loss, and keep you accountable. They will support you on your journey to becoming your own hero.