Monday, March 5, 2012

Gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time: Various issues and two key requirements

In my previous post (), I mentioned that the idea of gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time seems impossible to most people 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.

The scenario used to illustrate what I see as a non-traumatic move from obese or seriously overweight to lean is one in which weight loss and fat loss go hand in hand until a relatively lean level is reached, beyond which weight is maintained constant (as illustrated in the schematic graph below). If you are departing from an obese or seriously overweight level, it may be advisable to lose weight until you reach a body fat level of around 21-24 percent for women or 14-17 percent for men. Once you reach that level, it may be best to stop losing weight, and instead slowly gain muscle and lose fat, in equal amounts. I will discuss the rationale for this in more detail in my next post; this post will focus on addressing the misconceptions above.


Before I address the misconceptions, let me first clarify that, when I say “gaining muscle” I do not mean only increasing the amount of protein stored in muscle tissue. Muscle tissue is mostly water, by far. An important component of muscle tissue is muscle glycogen, which increases dramatically with strength training, and also tends to increase the amount of water stored in muscle. So, when you gain muscle, you gain a significant amount of water.

Now let us take a look at the misconceptions. The first misconception, that to gain muscle you need a calorie surplus, was dispelled in a previous post featuring a study by Ballor and colleagues (). In that study, obese subjects combined strength training with a mild calorie deficit, and gained muscle. They also lost fat, but ended up a bit heavier than at the beginning of the intervention. Another study along the same lines was linked by Clint (thanks) in the comments section under the last post ().

The second misconception, that to lose fat you need a calorie deficit; is related to the third, that you cannot achieve a calorie surplus and deficit at the same time. In part these misconceptions are about semantics, as most people understand “calorie deficit” to mean “constant calorie deficit”. One can easily vary calorie intake every other day, generating various calorie deficits and surpluses over a week, but with no overall calorie deficit or surplus for the entire week. This is why I say that one can achieve a calorie surplus and deficit “at the same time”. But let us make a point very clear, most of the evidence that I have seen so far suggests that you do not need a calorie deficit to lose fat, but you do need a calorie deficit to lose structural weight (i.e., non-water weight). With a few exceptions, not many people will want to lose structural weight by shedding anything other than body fat. One exception would be professional athletes who are already very lean and yet are very big for the weight class in which they compete, being unable to "make weight" through dehydration.

Perhaps the most surprising to some people is that, based on my own experience and that of several HCE () users, you don’t even need to vary your calorie intake that much to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. You can achieve that by eating enough to maintain your body weight. In fact, you can even slowly increase your calorie intake over time, as muscle growth progresses beyond the body fat lost. And here I mean increasing your calorie intake very slowly, proportionally to the amount of muscle you gain; which also means that the incremental increase in calorie intake will vary from person to person. If you are already relatively lean, at around 21-24 percent of body fat for women and 14-17 percent for men, gaining muscle and losing fat in equal amounts will lead to a visible change in body composition over time () ().

Two key requirements seem to be common denominators for most people. You must eat protein regularly; not because muscle tissue is mostly protein, but because protein seems to act as a hormone, signaling to muscle tissue that it should repair itself. (Many hormones are proteins, actually peptides, and also bind to receptor proteins.) And you also must conduct strength training to the point that you are regularly hitting the supercompensation window (). This takes a lot of individual customization (). You can achieve that with body weight exercises, although free weights and machines seem to be generally more effective. Keep in mind that individual customization will allow you to reach your "sweet spots", but that still results will vary across individuals, in some cases dramatically.

If you regularly hit the supercompensation window, you will be progressively spending slightly more energy in each exercise session, chiefly in the form of muscle glycogen, as you progress with your strength training program. You will also be creating a hormonal mix that will increase the body’s reliance on fat as a source of energy during recovery. As a compensatory adaptation (), your body will gradually increase the size of its glycogen stores, raising insulin sensitivity and making it progressively more difficult for glucose to become body fat.

Since you will be progressively spending slightly more energy over time due to regularly hitting the supercompensation window, that is another reason why you will need to increase your calorie intake. Again, very slowly, proportionally to your muscle gain. If you do not do that, you will provide a strong stimulus for autophagy () to occur, which I think is healthy and would even recommend from time to time. In fact, one of the most powerful stimuli to autophagy is doing strength training and fasting afterwards. If you do that only occasionally (e.g., once every few months), you will probably not experience muscle loss or gain, but you may experience health improvements as a result of autophagy.

The human body is very adaptable, so there are many variations of the general strategy above. In my next post, I will talk a bit more about a variation that seems to work well for many people. It involves a combination of strength training and calorie intake variation that may well be the most natural from an evolutionary perspective.

29 comments:

gallier2 said...

In my previous post (1), I mentioned that the idea of gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time seems impossible to most people 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.

This is only contradictory if you define incorrectly the inputs and the outputs. Body stores can be either energy sinks or energy providers. So they can either be counted to the inputs or the outputs depending on hormonal milieu. This is the point the common calorie-in/calorie-out people don't understand.

To write it down as a formula:

Food CI + Storage CI = Storage CO - muscle CO - Other bodily functions CO - excretion CO

The storage CI vs storage CO is what makes the whole difference between the Taubesians and the CI/CO proposers.
One can of course refine the equation above by adding futile cycles, thermogenesis. Even the storage components can be subdivided in glycogen, white fat, brown fat and lean tissue grow or shrink.

gallier2 said...

To add to that, I liked the terminology used by Prof.Lutz in his seminal work "Leben ohne Brot" (Life without bread) where he distinguishes between anabolic and catabolic hormones. By using his terms, it is obviously easy to see why certain things work the way they work and why stress + high-carb are a bad combo. Stress hormones, like cortisol are catabolic and insulin is anabolic, putting the body in an awkward state were it tries to mobilize glucose by gluco-neo-genesis and storing it simultaneously => cushing syndrome, dyslipidemia and so on. Similarly, it explains also why high-protein insulin response is no biggy, because it is accompagned with glucagon which is also anabolic, which means that the amino acids are pushed where they should be.
Of course, my description above is caricatural and simplified but I hope you get the idea.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Galliers. I wouldn’t call glucagon anabolic, as it drives the conversion of liver glycogen into glucose.

Since insulin does the opposite, you end up with no blood glucose variation when protein is consumed (under normal circumstances).

Ned Kock said...

The anabolic effect of protein is contingent on other stimuli being present. If one has an arm in a cast for months there will be muscle atrophy in that arm, even if a lot of protein is consumed.

gallier2 said...

Yes indeed, during my meeting the last hour, I was wondering if I was indeed wrong with the glucagon thing. I had read Lutz several years ago and shouldn't have given these examples so lightly, sorry for the confusion.

Ed said...

Ned, can you post a histogram of the supercompensation period? I'm curious what the range & distribution looks like. Have you found it to correlate with age, body weight, muscle mass?

Ned Kock said...

Hi Ed. I don’t think I have what you are looking for. Still, a histogram would be far less useful to an individual that is not part of the sample used to build the histogram than the results of a self-experiment like this:

http://bit.ly/tjPwuq

David Isaak said...

I've lost weight both ways--high-carb/low-fat (and relatively little protein) a few decades ago, and low-carb/high fat (relatively high-protein).

On high-carb I had to deliberately restrict calories, and even though I lost weight, I seemed to get flabbier. (Had no body-composition measurements made way back then.)

Oh low-carb, I lost fat and gained muscle, and did it apparently from day one. of course, at the end of a year my fat loss was higher than my weight gain by about 6:1, but my lean body mass steadily increased.

I think that most people experience an initial dip in lean body mass, as they tend to lose leg muscle as they become lighter. I was doing a lot of muscle-building leg work, which might be why I gained net lean mass from the start. (It also may say something about how sedentary one is. I had been so inactive that my leg muscles weren't getting much work in.)

As you mention, ample protein seems to be a key factor. For me, whey and eggs seem to spur lean mass gains, which lends some credence to what bodybuilders have been saying forever.

Age is certainly a factor, and I'm sure that I would have gained more muscle more quickly when I was younger (I'm 58). But I don't think age per se matters; I think its probably the hormonal changes that tend to be correlated with age that are the culprit.

I had some blood work done, and I still have a rather high level of testosterone for my age. The downside is that more of that testosterone is now being converted to female hormones, which makes it easy to gain fat if I'm not careful about what I eat.

Unfortunately, I didn't have hormone bloodwork done before I started my current dietary and exercise regime, so I can't tell whether my practices increased my testosterone, or if my testosterone was already pretty high and my practices simply allowed me to respond to what was already there.

I'm guessing it's a combination of the two, with lots of feedback between hormones and diet/exercise. In any case, that's my operating hypothesis--that proper diet and exercise increase anabolic hormones, and anabolic hormones amp up the effects proper diet and exercise.

daveizmir said...

Ned
As the abdominal fat decreases in men would there be a corresponding increase in free T that would/could lead to muscle gain while losing weight?
Thanks

Anonymous said...

Ned, I'm wondering if there is some correlation between the supercompensation window and muscle soreness. It seems like more rest than people think is better - 2-4 days is probably not optimal, 6-12 probably is. If that's true, then somewhere in that 6-12 period is the minimum amount of rest where one is likely to feel sore after working out a particular muscle group. So, I'm guessing right before or right after one would experience soreness correlates well with the supercompensation window. And if so, this gives people an easy intuitive way to calculate their window. Any thoughts?

Ned Kock said...

Thanks for sharing so much of your experience David. That is very interesting. Also, thanks for bringing up the conversion of testosterone to estradiol – a mechanism of testosterone action that many people are unaware of.

Ned Kock said...

Hi daveizmir. I’d expect visceral fat reduction would to contribute to increasing GH and T in circulation. But a prolonged calorie deficit may have the opposite effect, even as fat levels go down, as the “antagonists” may rise in revolt – e.g., too much cortisol and norepinephrine.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Anon. Anecdotally, DOMS appears to be a good thing, but exercise physiology research suggests that it is a poor measure to use in the context of muscle gain maximization.

If you are going to self-experiment, I’d include it as one of many measures. A much better one is whether you are being able to achieve progressive overload as time goes by.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ned,

Great post! You have been an inspiration to me personally. I like your zen-like down to earth approach to blogging and also encouraging a healthy scientific discussion in the comments section.

I noticed that you mention increasing the glycogen stores of your body and how beneficial that is. I also read in your previous posts where you talked about "Intermittent LC". Could you please elaborate on that? What do you mean by intermittent LC and can you please provide an example?

Thanks!

Ned Kock said...

Hi Anon, thanks. One example of intermittent LC would be a two-day cycle with consumption of fruits and starchy tubers (e.g., sweet potatoes, potatoes) on the first day, and only non-starchy vegetables on the second day, with the following throughout: meat, seafood, cheese and eggs.

This would deplete glycogen stores every other day, and also replenish them regularly. The body’s compensatory adaptation would be to increase the size of the glycogen stores. Add exercise to the days of replenishment, and you should theoretically be doing something very good for your health.

Kindke said...

Ned, a bit off topic but a new study came out recently where the authors are suggesting that adiponectin is the mediator for the beneficial affects associated with calorie restriction.

I just thought you might be interested since you done alot of work on adiponectin in the past.

Overall, our results point to adiponectin as a key serological factor involved in acute cellular responses altered by CR, and suggest that this hormone may be a central regulator of mitochondrial biogenesis and other processes involving NO• signaling.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22319612

Anonymous said...

Hi Ned,

Thanks for the detailed explanation. I have some questions which I would like to ask before your next post comes in.
1) Is the time between the "supercompensation peaks" different for every individual?
2)Also lets say that one learns to identify his/her supercompenstation period, so should one increase the repetitions during the strength training or increase the weight?

3) If one goes to workout believing that it is the super-compensation period and realizes after few sets that he is not able to increase the repetitions or weights (basically his timing was wrong) then what should he do in this scenario? Stop the workout and try to hit the next super-compensation peak or startover fresh as Day 0?

4)I am a bit confused about the graph you discuss in this post. For example , lets say I have about 25-28% body fat so do you mean that one should start the intermittent LC and wait until the body fot drops to 14-17% before starting the strength training ?

5) Also what kind of workouts you recommend and do we need to vary it for every workout?

Sorry for asking so many questions

Ned Kock said...

Hi Kindke, thanks. They might have concluded that when you control for the effect of adiponectin, CR’s effect disappears. That would be consistent with the China Study II data:

http://bit.ly/bFat8O

Ned Kock said...

Hi Anon. Several of those questions would fall into the “it depends” category, and might be better answered by a personal trainer. Having said that, strength training should in my view be done throughout the body re-composition process – from the obese level all the way down to a low BF level.

Razwell R said...

I LOVE your work, Ned. Your blog is fabulous.

Sean said...

Ned - Could you define what you mean by 'Eating protein regularly'? Some folks will take that to mean the common bodybuilder recommendation of every 2-3 hours. It's not clear to me from the posts. Apologies if I've overlooked this.

Ned Kock said...

Oops, I think I answered your question under a different post Sean:

http://bit.ly/ypLe2j

Kyle said...

Few dispute that it's possible for overfat individuals to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. Losing fat requires a caloric deficit, gaining muscle a surplus; the person has a dietary deficit which provides the fat loss while the excess bodyfat supplies the surplus which drives the muscle gain.

This seems to get people from overfat (30+% for men, 40+% for women) to a healthy bodyfat (15-20% for men, 25-30% for women), but they stall about there, and from there have to choose between bulking (gain muscle and fat both) and cutting (hold onto or lose minimal muscle while losing bodyfat).

Ned's posted pictures show an overfat individual, so I'm not surprised he was able to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.

If Ned or any others know of any individuals who at a healthy bodyfat (mid-teens for males, 10% higher for females) lost fat and gained muscle, I would be interested to hear of it.

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