At first, losing fat while gaining muscle appears to be an impossible task, like baking a homemade kale chip that isn't soggy. After all, the two goals are seemingly contradictory: fat loss is decreasing your body mass, while gaining muscle is doing the opposite. But, as it turns out, it is possible to achieve these goals simultaneously. In fact, increasing your muscle mass can actually help you lose more fat in the long run.
Oftentimes we will focus solely on losing body fat without considering the import role muscle plays in our overall metabolism and the calories we can eat daily to maintain our weight," says Julie Lohre, women's fitness expert, IFBB Fitness Pro, certified personal trainer, and nutrition specialist. "Losing fat is good and might leave you smaller, but without definition . . . and if you do it wrong, you could lose a lot of muscle in the process. If you want to really reshape your body and get defined, then adding muscle as you trim body fat makes all the difference."
That doesn't mean it's easy, though. Doing both at the same time requires making specific changes to your diet and exercise routine. We got the experts to break down exactly how to optimize each of these areas to maximum fat-burning/muscle-gaining results.
Balance Cardio and Strength Training
The notion that women will get bulky from lifting heavy weights is so outdated. It's not like you're going to pick up a 35-pound dumbbell and wake up the next morning looking like The Rock (it takes a lot of cod — and testosterone — for that to happen).
"Remember that in order to build muscle, you need to let those muscle fibers work. Focus on large movements that require multiple muscle groups to work at the same time like squats, deadlifting, rowing, and bench pressing," James Shapiro, an NYC-based independent trainer with a master's degree in exercise science and NASM CPT, CES, and PES certifications, says.
Lohre recommends functional movements like barbell thrusters. "[These] engage your entire body and burn more calories as more muscle fibers are recruited. Additionally, as you move through the reps quickly, your heart rate elevates and you burn more calories," she explains.
"As for cardio, focus on intervals for a higher intensity with a cooldown period for recovery. You want to minimize the amount of cardio you perform to about 20 minutes. The more cardio you perform, the less muscle synthesis promotion is triggered physiologically in your body," Shapiro adds.
That's where something like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) comes in. HIIT has been scientifically proven to help burn fat.
Eat Enough Protein
This cannot be stressed enough. "It can be hard to consume enough protein, especially if you are a plant-forward woman like I am," says Darby Jackson, cofounder of Après. "If you're trying to lose weight and tone up, I suggest consuming at least 10-15 grams of protein immediately following your workout to help your body recover. The hour following a workout is when your muscles are taking in as many nutrients as possible, so timing is key here," she says.
Her pro tip: make sure you choose a protein that gives you a full amino acid blend. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, but some protein supplements — particularly plant-based ones — need to be combined in order for you to get all nine amino acids. Jackson likes a blend of pea, chia, cacao, and hemp.
Don't Cut Calories Too Much
It seems like a universal truth that if you want to lose weight, you need to cut your calories. But when your goal is to also build muscle, you need to make sure you don't cut your calories too much. When you do that, you end up losing both fat and muscle, says Ashley Koff, RD and nutritionist for Espira by Avon.
"If you're regularly consuming 1,800 calories, think about first reducing your total intake by 200-300 calories. You want to be whipping up a nutrition plan that avoids a lot of processed foods that have a lot of sodium and sugar," Shapiro explains. Basically, focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods, add more protein, and be moderate if you choose to cut your calories.
While there's no one-size-fits-all plan, it can be beneficial to up your protein and time your consumption of carbs predominately after you work out. When you work out, it depletes your glycogen stores. Eating carbs post-workout can help replenish them. Your body then converts these carbs into energy.
Hack Your Pre- and Post-Workout Routine
For maximum results, you want to optimize your nutrition before and after you work out. "I'm a big fan of fasted workouts. If you can get your workout done in the morning and let that help you extend your fast, it's a great way to help get your body into that fat-burning zone while also promoting muscle gain," says Jackson. "In the morning, glycogen is normally depleted, which makes it easier for your body to turn to fat for energy instead. A fasted workout can also improve insulin sensitivity." This doesn't necessarily mean eating less overall, she stresses. It's all about timing. "Recent studies have also shown that a fasted workout can help increase the body's growth hormone, which helps you build muscle and burn fat," she explains.
After your workout, make sure you replenish your body. "Giving back to your body with the right balance of nutrition post-workout helps your muscles recover and rebuild, which in turn boosts your metabolism. The best post-workout snacks are packed with 10-15 grams of protein and have a balance of healthy fats and electrolytes. This balance will help repair muscle, keep you fuller longer, and rehydrate your body post sweat," Jackson says.
Improve Your Sleep
"Two things that can hamper your success are cortisol levels and growth hormone," Shapiro explains. "The first, cortisol, is a natural stress chemical that is produced in your body as an internal response. We need it for survival, but many have high levels that start to affect water retention in our bodies. The latter, growth hormone, is a trigger that promotes muscle synthesis and is at its highest during sleep. We can lower cortisol levels and improve growth hormone function by improving on the quality and quantity of sleep we get," he says.
However, improving your sleep isn't as easy as getting into bed earlier. Here are our best tips for better sleep.
Look at Your Digestion
"The most important thing is you've got to make sure your digestive system is working. I always say you are not what you eat, you're what you absorb," Koff says. When you work out, it's stressful on your body (as it should be). "Because you're stressed, so digestion and absorption aren't happening as easily," says Koff. Supplements like probiotics can help you have better digestion.
Remember That It's a Process
Lastly, it's important to keep things in perspective. Koff recommends foregoing your scale when you're assessing your results. "When you're looking at body composition, you're not necessarily going to see results reflecting in the scale," she explains. Instead, use how your clothing fits or body measurements to track your progress.
Another thing to keep in mind: "everyone reacts differently as to where that fat is burned off first," says Shapiro. "As a survival mechanism, we lose fat last around the midline because it is [there to provide energy] around the organs. As for the first spots we tend to recognize, it can differ between inner thighs, arms, back, or hips," Shapiro explains.
Lastly, trust the process. "You did not get to where you are at now overnight, and if you are wanting long-term, lasting results, this will be a slow process," Lohre says. "Listen to your body, and celebrate small victories along the way. If you stay the course, you will indeed make significant changes."