Monday, February 27, 2012

Gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time: If I can do it, anyone can

The idea of gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time seems impossible because of three widely held misconceptions: (a) to gain muscle you need a calorie surplus; (b) to lose fat you need a calorie deficit; and (c) you cannot achieve a calorie surplus and deficit at the same time.

Not too long ago, unfortunately I was in the right position to do some self-experiments in order to try to gain muscle and concurrently lose fat, without steroids, keeping my weight essentially constant (within a range of a few lbs). This was because I was obese, and then reached a point in the fat loss stage where I could stop losing weight while attempting to lose fat. This is indeed difficult and slow, as muscle gain itself is slow, and it apparently becomes slower as one tries to restrict fat gain. Compounding that is the fact that self-experimentation invariably leads to some mistakes.

The photos below show how I looked toward the end of my transformation from obese to relatively lean (right), and then about 1.5 years after that (left). During this time I gained muscle and lost fat, in equal amounts. How do I know that? It is because my weight is the same in both photos, even though on the left my body fat percentage is approximately 5 points lower. I estimate it to be slightly over 12 percent (on the left). This translates into a difference of about 7.5 lbs, of “fat turning into muscle”, so to speak.


A previous post on my transformation from obese to relatively lean has more measurement details (). Interestingly, I am very close to being overweight, technically speaking, in both photos above! That is, in both photos I have a body mass index that is close to 25. In fact, after putting on even a small amount of muscle, like I did, it is very easy for someone to reach a body mass index of 25. See the table below, from the body mass index article on Wikipedia ().


As someone gains more muscle and remains lean, approaching his or her maximum natural muscular potential, that person will approach the limit between the overweight and obese areas on the figure above. This will happen even though the person may be fairly lean, say with a body fat percentage in the single digits for men and around 14-18 percent for women. This applies primarily to the 5’7’’ – 5’11’’ range; things get somewhat distorted toward the extremes.

Contrast this with true obesity, as in the photo below. This photo was taken when I was obese, at the beach. If I recall it properly, it was taken on the Atlantic City seashore, or a beach nearby. I was holding a bottle of regular soda, which is emblematic of the situation in which many people find themselves in today’s urban societies. It reminds me of a passage in Gary Taubes’s book “Good Calories, Bad Calories” (), where someone who had recently discovered the deliciousness of water sweetened with sugar wondered why anyone “of means” would drink plain water ever again.


Now, you may rightfully say that a body composition change of about 7.5 lbs in 1.5 years is pitiful. Indeed, there are some people, typically young men, who will achieve this in a few months without steroids. But they are relatively rare; Scooby has a good summary of muscle gain expectations (). As for me, I am almost 50 years old, an age where muscle gain is not supposed to happen at all. I tend to gain fat very easily, but not muscle. And I was obese not too long ago. My results should be at the very low end of the scale of accomplishment for most people doing the right things.

By the way, the idea that muscle gain cannot happen after 40 years of age or so is another misconception; even though aging seems to promote muscle loss and fat gain, in part due to natural hormonal changes. There is evidence that many men may experience of low point (i.e., a trough) in their growth hormone and testosterone levels in their mid-40s, possibly due to a combination of modern diet and lifestyle factors. Still, many men in their 50s and 60s have higher levels ().

And what are the right things to do if one wants to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time? In my next post I will discuss the misconceptions mentioned at the beginning of this post, and a simple approach for concurrently gaining muscle and losing fat. The discussion will be based on my own experience and that of several HCE () users. The approach relies heavily on individual customization; so it will probably be easier to understand than to implement. Strength training is part of this simple strategy.

One puzzling aspect of strength training, from an evolutionary perspective, is that people tend to be able to do a lot more of it than is optimal for them. And, when they do even a bit more than they should, muscle gain stalls or even regresses. The minimalists frequently have the best results.

39 comments:

Blake said...

I really appreciate posts like these. I actually find examples such as yours much more motivating than other before/after stories from the 18-35 demographic if only because it sets realistic expectations for gains for the gray hairs in the group. I can look at my gains over a year and not beat myself over the fact that my chest went from cavernous to just concave. ; ) Looking forward to next post...

Gretchen said...

This post confirms the observation that there's been an epidemic of headless people in the US.

But seriously, congrats on persisting in your quest for the Ideal.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Blake, thanks. Scooby seems to be one of the most realistic folks on the web regarding muscle gain expectations.

Ned Kock said...

Something worth adding is that the variability in gains across individuals probably has a good natural reason, like autogenic inhibition. For the hardgainers, it may well be protective – as opposed to a “curse”, which is how most see it.

When we look at photos of hunter-gatherers who are lean and muscular, we need to keep in mind that they did not sculpt their bodies in a few months.

Rick said...

I'm looking forward to the next installment! Keep up the good work, as a male in the same age bracket I get a lot of useful insight from your writing.

Ned Kock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Nice post and I really enjoy your work. However, I get mildly annoyed at the expression "If I can do it, anyone can". Many people seem to think this is true, but it is a logical fallacy along the lines of "If I can do advanced theoretical physics, then anyone can." It is not a valid logical statement.

Dave S.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Gretchen, thanks. To be frank, I am not sure what my ideal is. This is more of an experiment. My ideal may well be 13 percent body fat or so; higher for some, lower for others:

http://bit.ly/fWdsPC

Leticia said...

It may take so long for you to achieve any result, but at the same time it is so natural and healthy....
right food vs strength training. Looking forward for your next post Ned!

Zbig said...

Ned,
you are one of really few people who noticed how BMI is skewed (not talking here of fat vs. lean mass but how BMI is 2D and people are 3D creatures).
Say an "oscar" statue is 200cm high (6'7") and weighs at 100kg (220 lbs). Its BMI is then 25 and you will call it "borderline overweight".

Now let's make a similar statue, from the same material, but 25% smaller (150cm = 4'11" and 42.2 kg = 92.8 lbs). The mini - oscar will have a BMI of 18.8 (borderline underweight) and the only difference is in the scale not in the proportions

Ned Kock said...

Hi Zbig. A couple of my graduate students are in the 6’8” – 6’11” range; former basketball players. That graph doesn’t even include their height range; they would have to become walking skeletons to fit in the extrapolated normal BMI range.

Anonymous said...

Confirms my own experience. Late 40's and went LC about 8 months ago. Dropped about 30lbs of fat and gained around 10lbs of lean. First 4 months I didn't train too much at all (Karate 2x wk) to keep appetite in check. Lost most of the fat and put on about 5lbs of lean. Last couple of months I have upped training and put on a bit more lean. Never too late to make a change for the better.

Anonymous said...

Great job! Looking forward to your next post Ned! -Abhi (an avid reader from across the continent in Singapore)

js290 said...

For the genetically average, 1.5-2lbs of lean tissue per year is about what we can expect.

Dose-Response relationship of exercise.

Ned Kock said...

Thanks js290! Nice article by Skyler Tanner.

Clint said...

First time posting here. Anyway, yeah, the idea that you can't lose fat and gain muscle is absurd. I've done it with ease a couple of times. My lifts have gone up 60-80% across the board in the past 6 months and I have concurrently managed to lose about 40 lbs of fat. I definitely have more muscle mass. I've lost 6" in my waist and gained 2" in my arms. If you're overweight/obese and you haven't previously trained/have previously trained but lost muscle due to atrophy, it's very easy to pack on muscle with ease (even moreso for a young male) while losing fat, albeit it's important to have a reasonable diet a high amount of the right protein, a decent amount of fat (especially saturated) to promote testosterone and a decent amount of carbs on training days.

Here's a good study demonstrating that it is quite possible to lose fat and gain lean mass on a high protein hypocaloric diet:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10838463

Skyler Tanner said...

Ned,

I'd like to point your attention to Casey Butt and his book on maximum muscular gain. He's done a lot of math, interpreted from a lot of studies, to come up with his formulas for determining not only total possible muscle based on structure but also rate of gain.

http://weightrainer.net/

Also, fantastic job on your progress!

Best,
Skyler

Ned Kock said...

Thanks Clint. I’ll be making reference to that link in my next post.

Ned Kock said...

Thanks Skyler!

nutrivore said...

looking forward to your next post. congratulations! those are excellent results. thank you for being so open about your own journey.

Anonymous said...

Your after and before pic is just wonderful Ned, so inspiring, make it your top intro pic. There's nothing so awesome as being a comfortable, pain free, fit well nourished, supple bod, makes the mind effortlessly happy. I so wish this for every nation in the world.

Skye

Evelyn aka CarbSane said...

Congrats on your "recomposing"! Awesome Ned. For all of 2009 and 2010 I weighed within +/- 2 to 3 lbs of my "true weight" ... yet winter 2010 I wore one size smaller tops than winter 2009 and "1/2 size smaller" pants. I can only believe a lot of recomposing went on for that. FWIW that was with no formal resistance training but a lot of strength activity. And for several months in 2009 good old fashioned cardio (brisk walking/hills and cycling).

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Harold said...

Congratulations on your progress! Always remember to stay focus and be consistent on your plan. Good luck and all the best :)

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