Should you cut or bulk?
That’s a tough question, but one that you might not have to answer.
Fat loss and muscle gain are very different goals with different requirements, so doing both at the same time sounds impossible at first. However, theoretically it might work if you know what you’re doing.
In this podcast, you’re going to learn whether or not it’s possible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, and if so, how you might be able to do it. You’ll also learn the pros and cons of this approach versus more traditional diets.
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The Ultimate Diet 2.0 by Lyle McDonald
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Do you think it’s possible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
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**Armi Legge:** To cut or to bulk? That is the question. It’s the question that pretty much every athlete, bodybuilder and person who wants to build their body composition will probably have to answer at some point– or not. Most people want to avoid that decision so the obvious next question becomes: “Why not do both at the same time?”
Fat loss and muscle gain are very different goals with different requirements so doing both at the same time sounds impossible at first. However, theoretically it might work if you know what you’re doing.
In this podcast, you’re going to learn whether or not it’s possible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time and, if so, how you might be able to do it.
My name is Armi Legge and you are listening to Impruvism Radio, the podcast that gives you simple, science-based tips to improve your health, fitness, and productivity.
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If you want to get leaner, you need to either lose fat, gain muscle, or do both. If you’re really skinny, you’re probably better off gaining muscle. If you’re overweight, you’re probably better off losing fat. However, what if you want to do both at the same time?
Maybe you have a decent amount of muscle mass and aren’t very overweight but you’d like to add some more muscle and lose some fat at the same time. You’d like to attack the problem of getting lean from both angles.
If you’re untrained, meaning you haven’t been consistently lifting weights or doing any kind of exercise for at least around 6 months, then losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time is often pretty easy.
If you’re a complete beginner, your muscles are generally far more responsive to any kind of training stimulus. Even if you’re in a caloric deficit, you can sometimes gain a little muscle because your body is so far from your genetic potential. More of the food that you eat is used to fuel muscle growth despite the fact your body is also losing fat at the same time. However, this only lasts for a few weeks or maybe months at most. After that, you usually stop gaining muscle or stop losing fat.
It’s people who are leaner than average to begin with who are usually most interested in gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time. Maybe you’ve got a bodybuilding contest, a photo shoot, a race, or just a personal deadline that’s coming up. You have more body fat than you’d like but you’d also like to add some muscle mass without getting “freaking huge,” as they sometimes say.
Maybe you also just like to diet but still be able to keep adding weight to your lifts at the gym. Technically, it’s not possible to lose fat and gain muscle at the exact same time. To lose fat, you need to be in a caloric deficit, and vice versa if you want to gain muscle.
Throughout the day, you switch between periods where you’re in a caloric deficit and periods where you’re in a caloric surplus. You usually gain a little fat during the former period and lose a little in the latter period.
If you’re eating at maintenance over time, then everything evens out over a longer time frame and you will maintain your weight. From this prescriptive, every diet is a cyclical diet since you always transition between catabolic and anabolic phases. Think of them like mini cut and bulk cycles.
The real question is not if you can lose fat and gain muscle at the exact same time but if you can shorten the length of the cutting and bulking cycles to a much shorter time frame, say days rather than weeks or months. That is the probably possible.
If you’re careful about your calorie and macronutrient intake and your training, then you can probably gain muscle and lose fat over a few weeks or months without traditional cutting and bulking cycle (i.e., losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time).
Lyle McDonald wrote a book about this called “The Ultimate Diet 2.0,” which was designed to allow you to gain muscle and lose fat using much shorter, cyclical periods of over and under feeding. It used a detailed combination of different kinds of training, calorie, and macronutrient cycling to help you lose fat on 4 days of the week and gain muscle on the other 3 days.
The diet is an extremely hard one from an adherence point of view and it’s not designed to be maintained over long periods of time. However, if you’re willing to follow it, then it does tend to work pretty well. I suggest you follow a slightly different and less extreme approach if simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain is your goal.
To lose fat, you need to be in a caloric deficit for some period of time. To gain muscle, you need to be in a caloric surplus in some period of time. With the method you’re going to learn about, you’ll cycle calories and macronutrients on a daily basis in accordance with your training. This is assuming that you’re strength training (e.g., lifting progressively heavier weights on a regular basis and maybe doing some cardio or HITT on the side).
If you’re a performance athlete and/or you’re doing a ton of volume, then it’s best if you stick to longer dieting cycles like I’ll describe in a later podcast. The general idea of this approach is to provide enough calories to support muscle growth on the days you lift weights and to create a caloric deficit on non-training days to help you lose fat.
To keep fat gain to a minimum on the days you eat extra calories, you want to eat just enough to help you progress from workout to workout. In general, 15% – 20% over your maintenance calorie needs is a good starting place depending on how often you train.
If you want to learn how to estimate your calorie needs, then you can go to impruvism.com/calorie-needs.
On the other hand, to make sure you keep losing fat throughout this diet, you also need to be in caloric deficit on the other days of the weeks. However, you don’t want the deficit to be too aggressive or you won’t be able to recover between workouts.
Protein synthesis stays elevated for about 24 – 48 hours after a strength workout, so your body is still actively repairing and building muscle tissues the next day after a hard workout. A small deficit shouldn’t interfere with this process too much but a large one definitely will.
I think this kind of diet works best if you’re training no more than about 3 – 4 times per week. In general, you could start with about 15% – 20% of calories above maintenance on training days and about the same amount below maintenance on non-training days. Again, I mean strength training days.
If you train more than about 3 – 4 times per week, you’ll probably have to spend some of your training days at a deficit or at maintenance. I generally think it’s best to keep the deficit on these days small, to the tune of around 10% – 20% below maintenance. If you train often enough that you need to be in a caloric deficit on some training days, then I suggest still eating above maintenance on the days where you train the body parts you’re trying to improve most, AKA on the days you have your most important workouts.
For example, if you’re mostly trying to increase your squat strength, then make sure you’re in a caloric surplus on the days or day you squat and maybe plan on being in a deficit on the other day or days of the week. You should also be trying to lift heavier weights every time you go to the gym in all of your workouts.
Now that we’ve discussed calorie cycling and training, let’s talk about macronutrients.
The majority of the extra calories you eat on training days should come from carbs and maybe some protein depending on your typical protein intake. In general, it’s a good idea to shoot for about 2g – 3g of protein per 1kg of lean body mass when you’re trying to lose fat. If you’re typically eating around 2.5g of protein per 1kg of lean mass, then keep eating that much every day. If you’re eating 2g per 1kg on rest days, it might be wise to increase that to 2.25g or 2.5g per 1kg on the days you train to help support muscle growth.
In general, it’s a better idea to keep protein high pretty much every day, at least in my opinion. The rest of the extra calories you eat should mostly come from carbs for three reasons:
1) Carbohydrates are essential for restocking your glycogen levels to support the heavier resisting training you should be doing in conjunction with this diet.
2) As you learned in the podcast for how to do a diet refeed, dietary fat is more easily converted to body fat during short-term overfeeding than carbohydrate.
If you eat over your maintenance calorie needs in the form of carbohydrate rather than fat, theoretically you won’t gain quite as much body fat in the short-term.
3) Carbs tend to do a better job of preventing the negative adaptations to dieting, like a drop in thyroid and leptin levels, which we discussed in a podcast on starvation mode.
In general, try to keep your fat intake to around 20% of your calories on training days. You can eat proportionally more fat on the days you’re in a caloric deficit so long as you eat enough protein and carbohydrate and stay within your calorie goals. It’s a good idea to track your average calorie intake over the course of one week as well as your daily calorie intake for this system to work.
If you feel that you aren’t losing fat at an acceptable rate, then you’ll need to decrease your average calorie intake.
Your first move should probably be to create a larger deficit on non-training days, assuming you’re eating about 20% below maintenance already.
If you’re training more than 3 days per week, you might also make one of your training days a caloric maintenance day or even in a deficit, knowing that you won’t keep gaining muscle on those body parts, or at least that progress will slow.
You can also slightly decrease your calorie intake on all days so that you have a larger deficit on rest days and a slightly lower surplus on training days.
If you aren’t gaining muscle, then you’ll need to increase your calories on training days by maybe 100 – 200 calories from carbs.
You can also slightly increase your calories on rest days, but make sure you’re still in about a 15% – 20% deficit at least.
Theoretically, that is how you could gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. The combination of extra calories, carbs, and resistance training on some days should cause a net increase in muscle growth and the caloric deficit on the other days should allow you to lose fat. Basically, you’re going through cutting and bulking cycles of about 12 – 24 hours instead of several months.
In most cases, you should plan on this method taking about twice as long as typical cutting and bulking cycles since you’re combining both into the same time frame. You generally won’t gain muscle or lose fat as fast if you try to do both at the same time like this method. However, the plus side is you always get to stay leaner throughout the entire process.
If you want to emphasize fat loss over muscle growth or vice versa, then you can also adjust your calorie intake to make that happen as well.
So now the question becomes: “Is this method optimal or better than other approaches to body recomposition?”
As usual, it depends, but my knee-jerk reaction is probably no.
Most research indicates that it’s your average calorie intake over time that’s most important for body composition. It’s entirely possible that the extra calories you consume on some days could cancel out your caloric deficit on other days.
Despite the strength training, you still might not lose fat. Likewise, the caloric deficit might stymie your muscle gains despite the fact you’re cycling things. Basically, everything could kind of average out in the end and it’s your total calorie intake over time that really ends up being the main determinant of your body composition.
Personally, I think trying to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time is more trouble than it’s worth for most people. You have to be very strict about your calorie and macronutrient intake and about your training. If you’re also doing a lot of volume or other sports, this can be hard to implement.
From a behavioral perspective, it’s also generally easier to get in the habit of losing fat or gaining muscle (i.e., eating more or less).
It’s also very easy to get stuck in a rut where you’re not losing fat or gaining muscle because, at the end of the week, you’re really just eating at maintenance.
That said, if you’re determined to stay extremely lean year-round while still making some gains, or you just want to try something new, this is a smart way to do it.
If you’re focused on gaining more muscle or losing more fat on a longer time frame, then you’ll probably want to use a different approach. In a later podcast, we’ll talk about a different method of gaining fat and losing muscle that probably works better for most bodybuilders and athletes.
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Thank you for listening and I will see you next week.
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