Gain Fat and Lose Muscle? Yes!
Body recomposition is one way to refer to the idea of losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time. For many guys in particular this is a huge goal.
It’s tough but you can definitely do it. How fast? What’s a realistic timeframe?
Answer: It depends.
Here’s one person’s recomposition story. A 14-year-old spent a summer doing swimming lessons and baling hay for a local farmer. Each day he ate at the farmer’s table. Simple foods. He gained thirty pounds of body weight between end of June and end of August.
He’s a big strong kid thanks to the farm work and swimming. But he wants to lose fat and gain more muscle. He wants the Holy Grail of body recomposition.
He learns about training. He learns about nutrition. He does the best he can.
Sometimes he makes mistakes. Injuries happen. Progress isn’t linear. Technique improves. Strength improves over the baseline. He gains muscle. He gets some coaching. He loses fat.
He’s done it! Eureka!
But how long did it take? There’s the rub.
The problem is this process took from age 16 to age 42. I know because I’m the hay-baling-swimmer in this equation.
At age 14 I was 196 lbs and 15% body fat, as measured by skinfold calipers. Age 42 I was 190 lbs and 7% body fat, again measured by skinfold calipers.
It took me 28 years to learn how to gain muscle and lose fat. And it didn’t happen at the same time. I gained muscle and weight. Then I lost fat. The end result is the same.
But that timeframe tho. A little on the glacial side!
One reason it took so long: At the start I didn’t know what I was doing. I made a lot of mistakes. I had no coaching.
The other reason? It’s a really tough goal.
Not impossible, but tough. In most cases it’s slow going.
But there are a couple of exceptions.
– An untrained and overweight person who follows a bad diet makes a 180 degree turn. They follow a good exercise program and a good diet for the first time in their lives. Quick changes occur: They lose fat and gain muscle rapidly.
– A person who was once big and muscular regains size and strength after a period of detraining or illness (eg. Bodybuilder Casey Viator in the famed Colorado Experiment – https://www.t-nation.com/workouts/the-colorado-experiment-fact-or-fiction).
In those cases, very fast body recomposition can occur.
Casey Viator ended up gaining more than 60 lbs in just 28 days during the Colorado Experiment. Yikes! He lost fat at the same time, dropping from nearly 14% to less than 3%.
It sounds pretty unbelievable.
But before the experiment, Casey hadn’t trained for a long time.
A serious accident amputated most of a finger. He got a tetanus shot as a result. That tetanus shot almost killed him with an allergic reaction. He lost a lot of muscle.
However he had great genetics for gaining lean muscle (1971 AAU Mr. America). And his starting weight was very low (for him).
So here’s his winning combo:
– A long time out of the gym, letting him get completely de-trained and out of shape.
– 1% genetics – an extreme genetic outlier.
– Starting off scrawny relative to his body’s natural size preference.
That combination allowed for a very startling recomposition result when he got healthy and attacked training again.
There is of course a wild card in this game. Adding steroids to the above scenarios will enhance the results. It’s not my personal choice. But steroids work for muscle gain. There’s no point in pretending otherwise.
So then let’s look at our first example, an average person who’s untrained and has a lot of body fat. What do they have in common with Viator?
They’re completely de-trained and out of shape. This means that any training stimulus (in other words, starting an exercise program) will give them big results, because it’s so new for their body.
For most people gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time is a little like trying to build a house while limiting the number of bricks used. Difficult.
My goals when I began training were simple.
It didn’t take too long to gain some size. I just learned certain habits. Like eating past full 4 to 6 times per day. (Ugh.)
Losing fat means unlearning old habits and learning new habits. That also takes time.
Eating until you are past full works for muscle gain. But you need to eat below maintenance levels to lose fat.
Changing your mind/habits can be hard. Dialling your intake up and down to suit your goal is harder than it sounds. And it’s all too easy to get used to that dopamine hit you get from eating like it’s Thanksgiving.
Training is hard enough. But adopting different eating habits to suit the occasion is tougher than it sounds. We are all slaves to our habits, especially the ones we like.
Gaining a pound or two of muscle won’t burn off 30 pounds of fat.
Lots of people subscribe to the idea that building muscle will help to lose fat.
In theory this makes sense. Muscle tissue is metabolically active and burns calories. The more muscle you have the more calories you burn. This study from McMaster University backs that up. But note, researcher Stuart Phillips calls the process “gruelling”, and “not something that is sustainable”. Also note the test group: overweight untrained young men (one of the groups that is well suited to a body recomposition goal): https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160127132741.htm
In practice, the fat burning effect of gaining muscle is pretty negligible. To make it more clear – it is unlikely you will exercise your way to big muscles and a small waistline. Dietary manipulation, as in the above mentioned study, will definitely be necessary. Most people can NOT outrun a poor diet.
Goals take time. Forget the 6, 12, or 16 week fixes.
Nothing worth doing is quick and easy!
Could I have done it faster? Yes. But in a way it’s amazing I did it at all. Most people don’t. Not can’t – don’t.
One thing that would have shortened the time it took to reach the goal? Coaching.
When I started out, I didn’t know what I was doing. Coaching would have helped me make much faster progress!
If you’d like help reaching your own body composition goals, Iron Lion Training can help!
Maybe you’ve tried eating low fat or low carb. Maybe you tried a detox that made you feel worse. Maybe you’ve tried going to the big box gym as often as you can stand it, only to discover you can’t stand it. Many people feel like they’ve literally tried everything. If that’s you, and you still haven’t succeeded, it’s not because you suck! Coaching and environment makes a big difference. And sometimes when people try to make big changes, it’s easy to miss the small steps. That’s where your Coach comes in.
Want to gain muscle and lose fat? Take time and do it right! It’s not easy. But you can do it!
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