It’s time for a reader’s request! I love getting post requests, because they’re often topics that we’ve all wondered about at one point or another. Here’s one that I recently received about building muscle and burning fat at the same time:
I’m a long-time reader of your blog, and I’m struggling with finding the right balance of eating enough to fuel my workouts (I do crossfit, lighter-weight circuit training classes, and corepower yoga), while also leaning out. I have read your book and your post from years back about how you damaged your metabolism, and I may have incurred the same thing.
Based on my research, it’s quite difficult to build muscle and lose fat at the same time. Do you believe that is the case? Any insight you have on accomplishing both goals simultaneously, if at all possible, would be wonderful!
I certainly think it’s possible to build muscle and burn fat simultaneously, but it can be a little tricky to find the balance. In the fitness world, a popular concept is “Build, then Shred, ” where dietary and fitness considerations comprise a muscle-building phase (high weight, low reps, little cardio, higher cal/carb/protein intake) followed by a fat-burning phase to show off the new muscle (moderate weight, circuit training, intervals and increased cardio time, lower cal/carb/fat). You can do a mix of these two strategies concurrently, but it involves a bit of strategic planning.
Here are some of my tips for building muscle and burning fat at the same time:
1) Watch the cardio. Too much cardio can cause the muscles to catabolize, which is a bummer if you’re trying to build lean muscle. Avoid too many long steady state days. Instead, add in a mix of interval-style training, short tempo workouts, and one (maybe two) longer cardio days. On the long cardio days, don’t go longer than one hour unless you’re training for an event.
2) Don’t be afraid to lift heavy weights. In order to initiate muscle growth and change, your weights/resistance should feel challenging. This means that you are working hard to finish the last couple of reps in each set. If you could easily finish a set, it’s time to up the weights. (Also, don’t sacrifice form for a heavier weight. Even if it’s more challenging, you should be able to safely move through the range of motion for the exercise. If anything, move a little more slowly and take deep breaths. If you find your form is failing, go back down. It’s not worth injuring yourself.)
3) Change up your strength training split regularly, and experiment with different modes. I noticed the biggest difference in my lean muscle definition when I was combing strength training methods within my weekly strength plan: BODYPUMP (endurance training with lower weights and high reps), Orangetheory (interval cardio with heavy weights and strength circuits), and barre workouts (very low weight, high reps, working to fatigue). Make sure that you’re not doing the same thing week after week -every 4-6 weeks is an ideal time to change up your plan- and that you include a mix of endurance training, circuits, and heavy strength work. Also, experiment with different tools: barbells, dumbbells, TRX, kettlebells, medicine balls, etc.
4) REST. Results occur during rest. It’s SO easy to get sucked into the “more is more” mentality and skimp on rest days. Don’t let this happen! Muscles cannot repair themselves if we’ve consistently breaking them down. Give your body time to recover and repair: at least 1-2 full days off each week.
5) Get nutrition in check. Nutrition has a significant impact on how you feel, how your body performs, and its capacity to build muscle and burn fat. If you suspect that you may have damaged your metabolism (as I did, way back in the day), I highly recommend meeting with a Registered Dietitian to safely increase your intake back to a healthy range for your fitness level, age, body composition, etc. For me, I found that gradually increasing my calorie intake helped dramatically, as well as focusing on clean, whole foods (protein and produce in every meal).
Here’s a sample weekly plan if you’re looking to build muscle and burn fat at the same time:
(As always, check with a doctor before making any fitness changes)
Sunday: Long steady state (45-60 minutes)
Monday: Heavy strength workout (total body; or do upper today and lower on Wednesday)
Tuesday: Short cardio, moderate intensity (30 minutes)
Wednesday: Endurance strength workout (like BODYPUMP or Barre)
Friday: HIIT workout (max 20 minutes)
Saturday: Total body circuit (moderate reps, 10-12, and moderate weights), no cardio
I hope this helps a little!