Are you ready to discover the formula for losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time ? Wait, is it in fact possible? Good news! Recent research has proved it right. But be aware, it’s a tough path, not meant for those looking for a quick and easy fix.
In this article we are going to share the approach on how to build muscle and lose fat for female athletes based on research. However, a person’s capacity to build muscle and lose fat depend largely on genetic factors and other individual conditions. This is why we suggest talking to your doctor or nutritionist to make sure that this tactic is healthy and appropriate for you and your fitness goals.
The natural muscular potential of women
Before we dig into the specifics of building muscle and losing fat in a simultaneous way, we have good news for you.
Research1 has shown that there is no difference in muscle volume gain between men and women during strength training. Actually, there is no difference in age or race either. The only difference is that men’s natural body composition has more muscle mass, they already have more muscular mass than us at the start point.
Also, men have higher amounts of testosterone than women. Testosterone helps enhance muscle mass by increasing muscle protein synthesis, that’s why it’s logical to think that men would have higher rates of muscle protein synthesis than women. However, this study2 found that given the same level of muscle mass, women have a higher rate of muscle protein synthesis than men.
Speaking of testosterone, research3 in mice proved that androgens (testosterone is the most common) are not required for building muscle mass in females. Moreover, it seems4 that growth factors (growth hormone and IGF-1) take over the process of building mass in women. Women make as much IGF-1 as men but women overpass the production of growth hormone (up to 3 times more than men). In fact, growth hormone is tightly connected to estrogen levels—the more estrogen a woman has, the more growth hormones she produces.
So yes, women aren’t at a hormonal disadvantage, quite the opposite actually. But there are other factors that affect the capacity of gaining muscle and losing fat like your metabolism, anatomy, neurology and physiology. Depending on these factors and when done in a smart, healthful way, your body can show the results you are looking for. In this article we will share the general principles that apply to both gaining muscle and losing weight. For a more accurate and personalized approach we recommend talking to your physician.
What about body recomposition?
Body recomposition is a common way to define the process of building muscle and losing fat at the same time. It was thought for a long time that this process only occurred in untrained and overweight people. Luckily for us, there is enough evidence that demonstrates that body recomposition also happens in athletes following resistance training methods.
A common goal among athletes is to improve their body composition by increasing muscle mass and decreasing fat mass. This mix obviously has several health benefits but it also improves athletic performance and can be of major importance if you want to succeed in your fitness journey.
How To Build Muscle And Lose Fat
For the body recomposition to happen there must be 2 key factors involved. One is progressive resistance training coupled with endurance exercises, and evidence-based nutritional strategies. There is also a big component of sleep/rest, body composition and metabolism that play in this process. For the sake of this article, we are going to explore the 2 key factors aforementioned.
Resistance Training and Endurance
As you might already know, resistance training (strength training or weight training) is the use of resistance to muscular contraction to build strength, anaerobic endurance and size of the muscles. Plus, resistance training has a direct impact9 on the level of muscle mass accumulation. The beauty of resistance training programs is that the workouts can be developed in terms of intensity, volume, movement, targeted group muscles, etc. All with the objective of improving the increase in muscle mass and strength.
Resistance training programs are efficient to build and accumulate muscle mass but they also have unique benefits for fat loss. This study10 shows we can lose around 1.4 percent of our entire body fat through strength training alone, which is similar to how much we might lose through cardio or aerobics. Even when strength training is done on its own, it still causes a favorable loss of body fat without changing your food intake or adding cardio to your workouts. When we lift weights, we motivate muscle cells to release specific particles that give fat cells instructions to enter a fat-burning mode. These particles eliminate proteins, lipids and RNA improving fat metabolism.
Endurance exercises are also called aerobic exercises, they include activities that increase your breathing and heart rate and help you improve energy and stamina. The primary purpose of endurance training is to improve heart and lung function (cardiorespiratory fitness). However, aerobic exercise is commonly implemented within training regimens to decrease body fat. As part of a weight-loss or weight-maintenance program, endurance training not only burns calories but also increases the efficiency of aerobic energy production and enables the body to burn a higher percentage of fat for fuel.
Training for specific sports requires fitness regimens that are different in intensity, duration, and/or frequency, depending on the effects that an athlete wants to get. In this case we are going to focus on High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).
HIIT involves short periods of intense exercise alternated with low intensity recovery periods. You are probably familiar with “Tabata” which is a HIIT but at a higher level of intensity, more demanding effort in a shorter time. Either way, HIIT is perhaps the most time-efficient way to exercise when burning calories is the goal (25–30% more calories5 than the other forms of exercise).
Interestingly, HIIT helps you burn calories not during physical activity but actually after, when you finish working out. This can be explained by the fact that HIIT has the magical ability to increase your metabolic rate6 (energy expended) for hours after working out. This same study also found that HIIT could shift the body’s metabolism toward using fat for energy rather than carbs.
One more thing, even if resistance training continues to be the gold standard form of exercise to increase muscle mass, high intensity intervals could also support a small amount of muscle growth7.
Should I lose fat before building muscle ?
What to do first, strength training or endurance? The answer is simple, both are the way to go! Research11 has shown that the combination of both resistance training and HIIT (a.k.a. concurrent training) can be an effective approach to optimize body recomposition. Actually it’s highly recommended8 by specialists for athletes who are looking to gain muscle and lose fat. Even for experienced athletes for whom it’s more difficult to gain muscle mass and lose fat simultaneously, there is tons of research conducted in resistance-trained individuals that have demonstrated body recomposition.
There has been a lot of work in trying to find the right amount of intensity and volume of effort, exercise order, number of repetitions and sets, duration of the movement, and rest periods between sets; to maximize muscle growth. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends 1−3 sets per movement of 8−12 repetitions with 70−85% of one repetition maximum (1RM) for beginners and 3−6 sets of 1−12 repetitions with 70−100% 1RM for advanced athletes. The ACSM indicates that significant muscle growth occurs when the majority of training sets are performed with ~3–4 repetitions with moderate to high-loads.
So if you want to maximize muscle growth, you should look for higher volume (repetitions x sets) and intensity (loads), in addition to a 15-20 minute HIIT workout. You can add to your resistance training a full 20-minute of work-and-rest cycles such as 4 rounds of 4 minutes work and 1 minute of rest.
What should a woman eat to lose weight and gain muscle?
Building muscle and losing fat means more than going to the gym and to the grocery store. It means lifting the right way, eating the right way, and resting the right way.
Muscle hypertrophy (increase in size) occurs when muscle protein synthesis exceeds muscle protein breakdown and results in positive net protein balance. Muscle protein synthesis is stimulated by resistance training and also by protein consumption. Dietary proteins have amino acids that are used to build body tissues, that’s why eating protein influences directly the gain in muscle mass.
There are plenty of protein sources to choose from. Plant based proteins, like pea or sprouted rice and beans, are highly recommended because, besides being a good option for restrictive diets, they don’t stress the kidneys. But if you eat meat and fish, lean meats like chicken and turkey or wild fish are your best option.
Whey protein is one of the most nutritionally dense supplements and has science based facts that show that it helps to get greater muscle gains and fat loss. It helps to rebuild muscle breakdown and build new muscle mass. This makes whey protein an excellent option for pre/post workout intake.
A practical case
Over 8 weeks, this study12 followed 17 healthy, young, female athletes who had been doing resistance training for the previous three months or longer and could also deadlift 1.5x bodyweight, in order to analyze the effects of higher versus lower protein intakes in muscle growth and fat loss.
In terms of training, women in the study began a resistance training program coupled with a HIIT for 8 weeks. The resistance training program consisted of two upper-body and two lower body focused days per week. The high intensity interval training program consisted of a progressive increase in the number of sets of 30-second, maximal intensity sprints.
For dietary consumption, women were assigned in 2 groups, high and low protein intake. The women in the high protein (HP) group had to eat at least 2.4 grams of protein/kg body mass per day and women in the low protein (LP) group no more than 1.2 grams of protein/kg body mass per day. Interestingly there were no restrictions on carbs or fat consumption.
Pre-workout and post-workout protein intake was 25 grams of whey protein for the HP group and 5 grams for the LP group.
Guess what, the results shocked even the researchers. A high protein diet significantly increased fat-free mass compared to a lower protein diet. 2.1 kg to 0.6 kg in the HP and LP groups, respectively. This study was not long enough to show the relationship between protein intake and muscle mass. However, a study with 1,863 participants found that protein supplementation in conjunction with prolonged resistance training significantly increased measures of muscle hypertrophy when protein intakes were more than 1.6 grams per kg/bw per day.
To sum up, the differences in fat loss between groups may be explained by the extra protein that the HP got. This extra amount is used for building lean tissue instead of fat accumulation, as well as reinforcing the ability for higher levels of protein intake to burn calories (energy expenditure). So, if you’re trying to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, you’re going to want to increase your protein intake.
In addition to increasing protein intake, a healthy diet and enough rest between sets and workouts, lifting weights and HIIT training are your best options to build lean muscle and reduce body fat at the same time. Don’t underestimate the power of resting; ou can’t build muscle if your body is not recovered. And be perseverant, results take time and effort. It’s the work you put in that makes it worth it!
Giuliana is a yoga instructor and Crossfitter from Peru who is currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand with her Crossfit Coach (and husband) Tim.