In order to lose body fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit. This is generally achieved through eating less calories and incorporating some cardiovascular work to aid in the deficit. Many people understand and accept what it takes to diet and to lose body fat. While the process is nuanced, it’s also fairly straightforward. What is less straightforward is the process of building muscle to actually create the physique you want.
Too many people think that they’re simply not lean enough. While this is true in many cases, the people with the best physiques are not just leaner than you, they also have more muscle than you. Genetics reign supreme with how muscle looks on each individual. This means that someone with different insertions and shape to their muscle can actually have less but look more jacked. However, in more cases than not, our clients who want to improve their physique simply need more time building quality muscle mass. And guess where you don’t build a lot of muscle mass? In a calorie deficit.
Lifting won’t make you bulky
Building muscle takes time and effort. I don’t think I need to continue to beat the proverbial dead horse by saying that lifting won’t make you bulky, but in case someone needs to hear it: Lifting doesn’t make you bulky. Most men aren’t worried about that, but many women still find themselves saying that. Sure, some people build muscle faster than others but the majority of people do not add slabs of muscle to their frame to the point of looking bulky. In particular, natural females who resistance train a few times per week.
What happens is that most people do not have a solid base before they diet so that when they do crush themselves with diet and cardio, they end up getting leaner but not achieving the physique they were working towards. They’ll be a skinnier version of themselves without the shape they desire. In order to get the best of both worlds [ build muscle and have a leaner physique ], you don’t need a miracle, but you do need a strategic plan.
Proper planning to build muscle
Like anything in life, if you want to be successful you must have a plan. That means having the proper plan to build muscle is also essential. Whether I’m coaching a lifestyle client or a competitive physique client, the process is the same. What is different is the timeline and the severity of both the diet and the offseason. For example, for competitive physique clients, we are going to have to swing the pendulum farther on the dieting perspective and also farther on the building perspective. Every pound matters to a competitor. With lifestyle clients, the process is the same just less extreme. Yes, lifestyle clients are still dieting hard during a diet and are training hard and pushing during their building phase, but the two don’t fluctuate as much in severity in either direction.
In an offseason, non-dieting phase, clients have to be consuming adequate protein, adequate total daily calories, training hard and also prioritizing recovery, as recovery is really where the growth happens. I’m a big proponent of reversing up protein fairly high flor clients in an offseason period. The research is still new in this area (very high protein diets), but it’s fairly promising from a lean body mass (LBM) perspective. In practice, I’ve simply seen clients maintain a bit leaner and also grow a bit better with higher protein (think 1-1.2g/pound). Overall total calories must also still be high enough to solicit growth. It’s not enough to eat at maintenance if you’re looking to build. Then it wouldn’t be your maintenance! Too many people are afraid to eat enough to actually create growth. But by perpetually not eating enough you are not making any changes and will continue to have the same physique year after year.
Training is a really important piece to this puzzle that many people overlook. While it seems intuitive that training would be important, not enough emphasis is truly put on hard ass training during the offseason when you actually have the calories to perform and recover. All the rage online is circuit workouts, group classes, EMOM style lifts, etc. These are great forms of exercise and can substantially improve your health so I am not here to knock this style of training whatsoever. This style of training is also great to maintain the base that you do currently have, but less of a way to build upon that base.
What is frustrating from a coaching perspective though is that clients or potential clients see Becky with a great butt or Sam with great abs doing these kinds of workouts, even though they did a more traditional progressive overload type split for years beforehand, and think they’ll get the same results. Again, it’s far easier to maintain than it is to build. If someone has a solid training base and switches to this type of training, they will maintain their physique fairly well but not necessarily continue to build. The caveat here is if someone is very new to training and/or is overweight or obese without much training experience, great gains can be seen from this style of training! Once again, my goal isn’t to knock circuits or EMOM’s but instead to focus on principles such as progressive overload for long term progression of hypertrophy and strength gains. A great review of literature on the mechanisms of muscular hypertrophy can be read here.
But what about recomp?
You might hear people saying that the best option is what is known as body recomposition, or recomp for short. This is when someone gains muscle mass and loses body fat at the same time. For lack of a better term, this sounds straight up magical, right? And while I don’t know much I do know that if things sound too good be true, they often are.
Here’s the deal with body recomp: Generally speaking, the people who see this will be those are very new to training. We call this “newbie gains.” This can also happen very slowly over time with better training, more attention to recovery and a more meticulous diet to name a few. But any sort of body recomp you will see will be fairly small and very slow. I am all about the long game with clients and focus primarily on long term goals, but to a point. Through years of experience, I find that in order to get the most bang for your buck as far as gains go, you need to go through periods where you’re training very hard AND fueling growth and recovery with enough calories. That’s where the body recomp argument fails in my opinion because it makes it seem like you can get leaner and more muscular without pushing the envelope. I’ve never seen that to be the most effective option for clients.
To sum it up, if you’re looking to build and maintain a lean and muscular physique, you’re going to have to eat more and train harder than you might have thought. Your muscles are revealed when dieting, but the real gains are made when you’ve spent time away from dieting and can actually recover from hard training sessions. Don’t be afraid to eat or train y’all. I promise you’ll build the physique you truly want by actually building versus always cutting.