Thursday, September 2, 2010

How to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time? Strength training plus a mild caloric deficit

Ballor et al. (1996) conducted a classic and interesting study on body composition changes induced by aerobic and strength training. This study gets cited a lot, but apparently for the wrong reasons. One of these reasons can be gleaned from this sentence in the abstract:

    “During the exercise training period, the aerobic training group … had a significant … reduction in body weight … as compared with the [strength] training group ...

That is, one of the key conclusions of this study was that aerobic training was more effective than strength training as far as weight loss is concerned. (The authors refer to the strength training group as the “weight training group”.)

Prior to starting the exercise programs, the 18 participants had lost a significant amount of weight through dieting, for a period of 11 weeks. The authors do not provide details on the diet, other than that it was based on “healthy” food choices. What this means exactly I am not sure, but my guess is that it was probably not particularly high or low in carbs/fat, included a reasonable amount of protein, and led to a caloric deficit.

The participants were older adults (mean age of 61; range, 56 to 70), who were also obese (mean body fat of 45 percent), but otherwise healthy. They managed to lose an average of 9 kg (about 20 lbs) during that 11-week period.

Following the weight loss period, the participants were randomly assigned to either a 12-week aerobic training (four men, five women) or weight training (four men, five women) exercise program. They exercised 3 days per week. These were whole-body workouts, with emphasis on compound (i.e., multiple-muscle) exercises. The figure below shows what actually happened with the participants.

As you can see, the strength training group (WT) gained about 1.5 kg of lean mass, lost 1.2 kg of fat, and thus gained some weight. The aerobic training group (AT) lost about 0.6 kg of lean mass and 1.8 kg of fat, and thus lost some weight.

Which group fared better? In terms of body composition changes, clearly the strength training group fared better. But my guess is that the participants in the strength training group did not like seeing their weight going up after losing a significant amount of weight through dieting. (An analysis of the possible psychological effects of this would be interesting; a discussion for another blog post.)

The changes in the aerobic training group were predictable, and were the result of compensatory adaptation. Their bodies changed to become better adapted to aerobic exercise, for which a lot of lean mass is a burden, as is a lot of fat mass.

So, essentially the participants in the strength training group lost fat and gained muscle at the same time. The authors say that the participants generally stuck with their weight-loss diet during the 12-week exercise period, but not a very strict away. It is reasonable to conclude that this induced a mild caloric deficit in the participants.

Exercise probably induced hunger, and possibly a caloric surplus on exercise days. If that happened, the caloric deficit must have occurred on non-exercise days. Without some caloric deficit there would not have been fat loss, as extra calories are stored as fat.

There are many self-help books and programs online whose main claim is to have a “revolutionary” prescription for concurrent fat loss and muscle gain – the “holy grail” of body composition change.

Well, it may be as simple as combining strength training with a mild caloric deficit, in the context of a nutritious diet focused on unprocessed foods.


Ballor, D.L., Harvey-Berino, J.R., Ades, P.A., Cryan, J., & Calles-Escandon, J. (1996). Contrasting effects of resistance and aerobic training on body composition and metabolism after diet-induced weight loss. Metabolism, 45(2), 179-183.


John said...

I wonder how the results would differ if the participants were experienced athletes.

Personally, I (I compete in 100m) lift heavy 4 days (on one of the days I do sprints/plyos too) per week and have trouble maintaing weight unless I consciously eat more than to appetite.

I think using beginners is a big downfall in may exercise studies.

John said...

...Regarding that study though, I would say that my personal observations led me to think training for strength (and size) leads to the best body composition changes.

I would be very interested to see a comparison of HIIT and a powerlifting-type program.

Pål Jåbekk said...

Interesting observation Ned!

One can find many similar if one has the time and it is easy to be fooled by measures of weight.

In this article, , the conclusion tells us that the two diets differing in glycemic load induce comparable weight loss. However the groups differed a lot in %body fat lost, especially at 6 months (table 4).

And by the way, if a low carbohydrate diet, without an imposed energy restriction, is combined with resistance exercise you can also get great body composition results.

Anonymous said...

i agree with john, theres a bi diference between obese people losing weight who have never exercised and people who just want to tone up while not becoming insulin resistant, screwing teir cortisol/adrenals and keeping hormones favorably balanced

Ned Kock said...

Hi John.

Yes, once people reach their natural max/min muscle/fat possibilities, then they have to resort to less natural. Protein powders and creatine supplementation and unnatural, but relatively benign compared with steroids.

Ned Kock said...

Btw, many people have unreasonable expectations regarding their natural muscular potential. After reaching that, or being close to doing so, one would probably look more like the hunter-gatherers on the post below than like a modern bodybuilder.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Pal.

If I recall it properly you blogged about one of your own studies comparing LC with no-LC in the context of strength training. LC came out as best for fat loss, but w/o muscle gain, correct?

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

Hi Mal.

Obese folks tend to respond in a particular way to interventions like this, especially if they have a preexisting condition (e.g., diabetes).

The folks in this study were obese, but otherwise healthy.

This, in fact, might have biased the results a bit. Obese seniors who are healthy tend to have cooperative genes.

chris said...

Hi Ned, Isn't "weight" training a more precise term. "Strength" training could refer to body weight exercises, plyometrics, etc. "Weight" means, well weights. Just nit-picking 'cause I don't have anything insightful to add...

Ned Kock said...

Hi chris.

"Weight" training, in this case, is a more correct term. I avoided it because I was talking about "weight" gain/loss in the post, and at points it got a bit confusing.

> Just nit-picking 'cause I don't have anything insightful to add...

This is funny!

Kindke said...

I can see the advocation of resistence training really taking off in the near future there is just so much benefits to it.

The increased insulin sensitivity really helps massively as people eventually stall on ketogenic diets, resistence training is the answer to breaking that stall.

Ned i think you are spot on about unrealistic expectations aswell, ive recently come to learn that most gymrat's do actually take steroids, and all those images you see on front covers models are photoshoped, not to mention the models usually severely dehydrate themselves before the photoshoot to increase muscular appearance.

GOATGamer said...

i doubt you would see these results in more experienced individuals. when someone is untrained, it's possible to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, but for people with experience, you have to pick one or the other.

Pål Jåbekk said...

That's right, Ned.

We did a study combining a ketogenic diet with 10wk resitance exercise.
In the low carb group four subjects gained lean body mass while four lost some. Looking at the individual results it is possible to achieve fat loss and muscle gain. Our study was small and we did not encourage high protein intake. Volek has also reported fat loss and muscle gain with a similar strategy so it is very likely achievable if conditions are optimized.

Pål Jåbekk said...

This one also has some interesting results:

Ned Kock said...

Hi Kindke.

Not to mention those before and after photos you see everywhere. Often the dates are misleading. Also, while the "before" photos are taken at rest and not posing, the "after" photos are taken after a pump session and posing.

Ned Kock said...

Hi GOATGamer.

Beginners do tend gain more easily, but I must say I was a bit surprised by the results of this Ballor et al. study. The average age was 61, and these folks gained over 3 lbs of lean mass in less than 4 months, while losing fat. This is not very common.

Experienced folks who reach their natural potential are one thing. But many experienced folks don't realize that their supercompensation curves change as they adapt to strength training. Hitting the supercompensation window regularly is not easy:

Ned Kock said...

Hi Pål, thanks for the link.

There have been commenters here talking about Volek's recommendations. I also checked some sites that seem to be associated with him.

My understanding is that he suggests a low-carb approach with carb-cycling, with at least one carb-loading period every week. Correct?

Pål Jåbekk said...

Yes, Volek offers several strategies depending on your goals in the TNT diet written by Adam Campbell:

Most strategies are based on strategic intakes of carbohydrates before and after resistance exercise. From a physiological standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to use carbohydrates in this way, although I haven't found any clear data on this.

Anonymous said...

This is difficult. I try hard though. I lean gain but fat retain. Maybe I do lose, but it's imperceivable.

I suspect my 100lbs+ teen obesity has after-effects. High fat cell count? I lost much lean mass losing that weight. I've gain much of it back. Fat loss is becoming more important.

Maybe I do it wrong. Is it possible it doesn't work for me?

Ned Kock said...

Hi Jack.

Once you get down to the fit level, 21-24% BF for women and 14-17% for men, a lot of the remaining fat is localized. In men it is usually around the waist. People say it is hard to lose it, and that may be true. But I’ve recently lost a noticeable amount of fat around the waist. Based on strength gains, and some other indicators, I believe I lost no muscle. And I was already at around 13.7% BF. I think I am now a bit over 12%, and still going down.

How is that possible? In short, cycling of nutrients over 2 days; leading to a small calorie deficit over those 2 days. As I said on the post: a caloric surplus on one day, and a deficit on the other.

I have exercise and rest days. On the days that I exercise, I eat high everything, particularly protein and natural carbs (fruits and sweet potatoes), in two meals after my exercise. The first about 40 minutes after the 30 min exercise session, around 1.30 pm. The other meal is around 9 pm. Among other things, I eat 6 eggs and 6-7 ounces of aged cheese on exercise days.

Then on the next day I skip breakfast and have 2 meals that are low carb and low calorie; mostly seafood and vegetables. This is a rest day. (I rest on Sunday as well.)

In the morning of exercise days I have about 2 ounces of lean meat, some veggies, and occasionally berries, for breakfast.

All of this without feeling very hungry, with exception of the meal after the exercise – at that time I am usually ravenous. I eat 2 bananas right away, then meat, eggs, sweet potato, cheese, some more fruit, and I still feel that I have space for more.

I am almost 47, never have been this lean in my life (that I can remember), tend put on body fat very easily, and have a hard time gaining muscle. If I can do it, anyone can. I don’t look like a bodybuilder. I look like a thin guy who does some manual labor.

Anonymous said...

Appreciate the thorough response, Ned. Great story. Thanks. I'll definitely adopt those things.

My routine:
2x StrongLifts, 1 sprint session, and 2 rest days. But I walk 6hrs+ a week too. Also I fast 18hrs before lifts. I used sprint several time weekly and lift 3 days, it's hard to tell when more is better or worse. That's my main trouble.

Diet: As primal as possible. Get 200g protein more or less. I do better on diet. Money is the killer here.

My fat is all around; more subcutaneous than visceral. High bodyfat %. That's my main concern. I'm mixed background, 24 and 6'4" maybe 245.

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

Hi Jack.

Having said all that I said, I still think that optimal BF% varies widely across different people, as I discussed in this post: I don’t know how exactly people can figure out their optimal, but I suspect the threshold is where folks start losing lean body mass.

In my case BF% keeps going down, and I am feeling fine and apparently gaining some muscle, so I’m thinking that my optimal BF% is a bit lower than it is now. I’ll stop at any sign of muscle loss. Strength training helps monitor that because one sign of muscle loss is loss in strength. In absolute beginners this may be distorted a bit because they may get stronger as they lose muscle mass, given the massive effect of neural adaptation. But this applies only to folks who have not done any strength training in years, and have just started working out, which I don’t think is your case.

You are obviously doing several things right, but I think that the cycling is critical, with caloric surpluses on exercise days and deficits on rest days. Fasting is healthy but without an overall calorie deficit it will not work by itself; there is no magic. And in my experience the best way of inducing a calorie deficit on rest days is to go low carb and low calorie. That is vegetables, seafood, and very lean meats. If you eat 200 g of lean protein on rest days, and some vegetables, you total calorie intake will be around 1,000 calories. From your stats I suspect you burn (or should burn) around 3,500 calories on any given day, so the calorie deficit would be dramatic. And you may feel satiated because protein is satiating.

Keep in mind that one of your favorite foods, cheese, has a lot of fat. So that would be something to leave for exercise days.

On rest days the exercise from the day before will still be giving your body the message that it needs to build muscle. At the same time, the low carb and low calorie state will tell your body that it needs to more body fat reserves than normal, because calories are scarce and glycogen is going down. The body’s response is a ramping up of free fatty acids and ketones in circulation. When the body is about to start getting the message that calories and carbs are scarce forever (which is not good), you give it a flood of calories and carbs, on the exercise day. The result is optimal or quasi-optimal nutrient partitioning on exercise days, and no reduction in metabolic rate.

One thing to keep in mind is that once you start cycling you’ll see major swings in water retention, and also water weight. This seems to help with fat loss, but it is not clear to me why. People seem to store water in body fat cells, and that appears to make the waist “fat” bulge out a bit more in tight pants because water is denser than fat. That happens even as they lose body fat. The water weight swings seem to help flush that water out, over several days, giving you an increasingly leaner appearance over several weeks.

Evan said...

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