One of the most contested issues is the involvement of muscle in fat burning.
Generally, most people are looking to improving their aesthetic appearance, and to do so by losing weight.
This is where we encounter our first problem.
Muscle, the most active tissue in the human body, where an infinite number of chemical reactions, regulation and hormone production takes place, without a doubt, plays the most important role not only in terms of gaining muscle mass, but when losing fat too.
Studies on increased muscle volume and increased calorie burning
When it comes to gaining muscle mass and losing fat, it’s not the scales but body composition that we should be looking at to measure the evolution and track the process.
That number that appears on the scale is much more than a simple numerical interpretation.
The important thing is, then, what is our percentage of muscle mass compared to fat?
Modifying this should be the main objective.
The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published an article last October reviewing body composition, a phenomenon more or less evident in people just starting out with their training, where adequate training leads to an improvement in muscle mass and a decrease in adipose tissue; but there are still doubts as to whether this is possible in people who are already well-trained.
It seems that highly trained athletes have more difficulty in achieving body recomposition, which is why periods are often used to prioritise each stage, especially when reducing body fat percentage prior to a competition, for example.
However, it does note some interesting strategies for recomposition:
- Emphasising strength training (minimum 3 sessions/week), with good results in concurrent training as indicated below.
- Maintaining a high-protein diet (even above 2.5g/Kg),
- Avoiding aggressive calorie deficits
- Never losing sight of the quality of rest, which is related to hormonal behaviour.
Is it possible to burn more calories with a greater muscle mass?
Muscle, as living tissue in which endless metabolic and endocrine activities are carried out, requires a greater energy expenditure to ensure the correct operation of all these functions and reactions. As such, the greater muscle mass, the greater the caloric consumption.
But increasing our muscle mass is not the only way to lose fat.
In the process of gaining muscle and losing fat, of course, training is key to gaining muscle mass alongside losing fat mass in favour of lean mass.
Muscle is an active tissue and requires energy to perform all its functions at the metabolic, endocrine level… hence the greater the muscle mass, the greater the energy expenditure necessary for optimal maintenance of all functions.
But it’s not the only thing. As we know, the body is governed by the hormonal system, and this is affected (positively and/or negatively), not only by the type of training we do, but by the lifestyle we lead.
That’s to say, alongside the type of training we’re carrying out, we need to focus on healthy habits, including: stress control (which negatively affects weight loss), rest and hours of sleep, daily nutrition, etc…
Therefore, the process of gaining muscle and losing fat will be much easier if we understand that it’s a process with different variables at play.
We’ll focus on 2 of the most relevant:
- On the one hand, training as a fundamental basis for increasing and improving muscle mass;
- On the other, our diet and eating habits.
Generally, nutritional and healthy lifestyle changes are usually the first port of call in order to lose fat first, before focusing on training afterwards.
Slimming down by strengthening muscle
By slimming down, in this context, we’re talking about improving our body composition.
But we can’t forget about our nutrition and protein intake:
- Firstly, because protein is the main component of our body, and muscle is made up of protein;
- And second, because it participates in almost all cellular processes.
In the process of burning fat, protein has a big role to play:
- Creating a feeling of satiety.
- Making it easier to maintain calorie deficits.
- Preventing muscle loss.
- Raising thermogenesis (the digestion of the protein, which requires more energy expenditure than other nutrients).
How to train to lose fat and gain muscle
A very common mistake in those seeking to lose fat and weight is to perform only cardiovascular training (in addition, extensively long sessions, without varying stimuli or types of cardiovascular training).
This is particularly prevalent amongst women.
Leaving this aside, the most important part of this process of losing fat is gaining muscle.
Therefore, strength training, with your own body weight and load progression, and well programmed (intensity, volume, frequency), is vital if we want to also lose fat and improve our body composition.
In a study carried out with 2 groups of people with the same low calorie diet program, one carrying out only cardiovascular training and the second, strength training, the results were as follows:
- The group that only carried out cardiovascular training lost more weight, measured on a scale (the number).
- But, as we’ve already said, what is relevant is the change in body composition, and in this case, they did lose fat, but also muscle mass, which is why, on the scales, the number-weight was lower than in the group that only carried out strength training.
In both groups, fat mass loss was similar.
Muscle is not only an active element, but it forms a fundamental part of the hormonal system – hence the importance of strength training – due to the metabolic and hormonal adaptations it provokes in our body: testosterone production, protein synthesis, growth hormone, and an endless number of chemical and metabolic reactions that affect the behaviour of the rest of our body’s systems…
What Exercises and Routines should you do?
Given the above, the training we should carry out to gain muscle and lose fat should prioritise strength training in combination with cardiovascular training sessions at different intensities.
The selection of exercises plays an important role, and those that involve greater muscle mass in each movement will involve a greater energy cost, and therefore an increase in the calories used to perform these exercises.
Multi-joint exercises such as: squats, deadlifts, rowing and pull-ups (inverted, traditional pull-ups), push-ups, lunges, combined movements such as the squat jump… will all help us to improve and gain muscle mass while at the same time increase the energy expenditure during execution of the exercise.
Rest times, as well as the total volume of training, will also be key to the process of hormonal and metabolic change that occurs with strength training and the building and/or improvement of muscle mass.
Full Body routines are a good strategy to include exercises of different muscle groups in the same session, optimising the total time of the session. In addition to being a more varied and less boring training; which is great for people just starting out training.
What about cardio?
On the other hand, cardiovascular training must also be taken into account in order to generate other types of adaptations, not only at the level of improvement in cardio-respiratory capacity, pulmonary ventilation, etc, but also to train the metabolic pathways (energy substrates depending on the type of exercise and intensity).
Combine longer light-moderate cardio sessions with shorter, more intense cardiovascular work sessions (e.g., HIIT).
Exercise routine to gain muscle and lose fat
A simple programme would be, for example:
- 3 days of strength training per week on non-consecutive days: one Full Body session, one lower body training session, one upper body training session.
- 2-3 days of cardiovascular training: alternating longer sessions (30-60 minutes) with a low-moderate intensity, 1 day of training in shorter high-intensity intervals.
On our Youtube channel, you’ll find different training sessions oriented towards either strength training or cardiovascular training.
According to the basic scheme above, you can alternate between one type of session and another.
Remember that rest is another of the main actors in the fat loss process.
- Barakat, Christopher MS, ATC, CISSN1; Pearson, Jeremy MS1; Escalante, Guillermo DSc, MBA, ATC, CSCS, CISSN2; Campbell, Bill PhD, CSCS, FISSN3; De Souza, Eduardo O. PhD1 (2020). Body Recomposition: Can Trained Individuals Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time?
- Bryner RW, Ullrich IH, Sauers J, Donley D, Hornsby G, Kolar M, Yeater R. (1999). Effects of resistance vs. aerobic training combined with an 800 calorie liquid diet on lean body mass and resting metabolic rate.
- Gregory Haff, G; Travis Tripplet, N; Principios del Entrenamiento de Fuerza ay del Acondicionamiento Físico.Pags.65-87, 2018, Paidotribo.
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- All about Strength Training for beginners, click here.