When people are looking to shed some body fat, they often ask if gaining muscle and losing body fat is possible at the same time. No matter the reason for getting rid of some extra body fat, most people would probably prefer to maintain their lean muscle throughout this process. Not only will this enhance your figure, but it should improve your quality of life, performance in the gym, and might even help you burn more calories during exercise.
When aiming to lose fat, most people typically start off by restricting calories in their diet. This can certainly help, but this step can also make it tougher to maintain muscle mass, especially if you don’t keep certain guidelines in mind.
So what’s the fix when it comes to body recomposition? Is it possible to lose fat without losing muscle?
How Does Weight Loss Work?First, let’s talk about general weight loss. While most people know that consistently burning more calories than you consume results in losing weight, the actual process for achieving this can be far more complex than a simple calculation.
In short, the food we eat contains energy in the form of calories. We use this energy to support our daily activities, normal physiological functioning, and any kind of exercise. When we don’t use as much energy as we take in, we store the excess energy as body fat for later use.
If we end up not eating enough food to support our daily activity or exercise, our bodies can mobilize this stored fat tissue to provide energy. However, our bodies can also utilize skeletal muscle to provide energy and can even break down skeletal muscle to provide amino acids for the protein synthesis process in other parts of the body. Since dieting often involves reducing caloric intake, oftentimes people get trapped by not consuming enough protein during their diet. Accordingly, this can result in muscle loss.
In addition, consistently consuming a low-calorie diet and losing weight can result in a hormonal environment that is not particularly suited for maintaining or even building muscle (as these two studies show here and here). In fact, almost all weight-loss studies involve subjects losing both muscle and fat during a diet. And the primary culprits for this outcome include people not consuming enough protein or not performing any resistance training during their diet.
Is Body Recomp Possible?
Given the mechanisms of weight loss described above, you may wonder if body recomp is realistic. While some fitness pros may tell you it’s impossible, that’s not the full story.
Multiple studies show that body recomposition is possible. In addition, some research indicates that nutrition-only interventions without any physical training can lead to body recomposition.
While these handful of studies certainly arem't overwhelming evidence, it’s important to highlight that most research studies utilize pretty weak training programs. Oftentimes they don’t control for dietary intake, either.
Key takeaway: We do have some evidence for body recomp. Now, a look at how it works.
Can I Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle?
It’s possible to lose fat without losing muscle. If you’re trying to body recomp, do the following to give yourself a better shot at success.
1. Pack In The ProteinRemember, you need the dietary protein intake in order to maintain muscle during fat loss—let alone gain muscle.
Virtually every study that resulted in body recomposition had subjects consume a high-protein diet. A recent review on protein intake recommended an intake of 1.62g/kg/day to “optimize” muscle gains. Therefore, to recomp, you might be looking at an additional 58 percent protein intake compared to that recommendation, so about 2.6 grams per kilogram or 1.2 grams per pound daily.
2. Train Hard!Some studies in which subjects were able to recomp also included serious training programs. If you’re looking for savvy ways to pack on muscle, heavy compound exercises, maintaining a calorie surplus, and these other tips may prove key.
Keep giving your body a mechanical stimulus that forces it to maintain muscle. The minute you drop to lighter weights, you stop giving the body a reason to stay jacked.
3. Prioritize SleepTry to get eight hours of sleep every night. Short naps are okay if needed, but at least 80 percent of your sleep should take place overnight. Shoot for at least 80-90 percent of this sleep overnight, and then add brief naps during the day, if needed.
One seminal study found that subjects sleeping 8.5 hours per night lost more fat than a group sleeping 5.5 hours per night. Interestingly, both groups lost the same total amount of weight, but the 5.5-hour/night group lost a greater chunk of their weight as muscle (80 percent versus 48 percent in the 8.5-hour group). Subjects in this study only consumed 1.18g/kg/day of protein and they didn’t exercise. Hence the significant loss in muscle in both groups.
A similar study reduced sleep an hour five nights per week in one group of overweight adults, while a control group maintained their normal sleeping schedule. The results? Both groups lost the same amount of weight (3.2kg), but the sleep-restricted group lost proportionally more muscle mass than the normal sleep group.
A third study examined two groups of subjects performing a resistance training protocol, but one group also received a sleep education program designed to improve sleep habits and outcomes Both groups ended up gaining similar amounts of muscle from the training program (1.7kg vs. 1.3kg), but the sleep education group also lost a significant amount of body fat (-1.8kg vs. +0.8kg).