Friday, August 24, 2012

Reader Questions: "Can't I Have It All?"

A very good friend and long time training partner (martial arts days) wrote about a clip she saw in a blog, and asked:
Wait, something in this blog caught my attention regarding fat loss and muscle building he says:

"The bottom line is if you're in a positive caloric balance you've created an environment that's conducive to building muscle, while if you're in a negative caloric balance you've created an environment that's conducive to fat loss."

So does that mean that I can only do one or the other? Burn fat or build muscle?

Yes.  And no.  Next question?

Kidding, of course, but the actual answer to the question is most likely "yes and no" depending upon the athlete's needs.

Here's why - most of us cannot or don't want to gain muscle mass.  That is to say, for females, and most males with training experience (and thus probably having already achieved the amount of hypertrophy that is "normal" for them when actively training), gains in muscle mass are not common unless a specific mass gain approach is used.  Muscle hypertrophy results from specific set/rep schemes, which maximize the fluid volume in a muscle.  This is termed "sarcoplasmic hypertrophy."  More information on that term is easily obtained via "google", but the short version is that once you hit a certain amount of SH that results from the type of training that you do, greater gains in mass are a matter of months and years.  

As Louie Simmons says, "big is not strong, strong is strong."  That is to say, bigger muscles are neither required or desired for strength gains.  As Mark Rippetoe observed in his excellent book "Practical Programming", body builders (obsessed on mass) have softer, puffier muscles, whereas power lifters and Olympic weightlifters have noticeably more density and hardness in their muscles.  This is not good or bad, but is part of the explanation for why body builders rarely have the same strength levels as powerlifters, or the same explosiveness and athleticism as Olympic lifters.  

What most people and many athletes need is stronger muscles, not bigger muscles.  Sprinters, climbers, CrossFitters, cyclists, endurance athletes - each needs strength, but not mass.  These athletes gain and maintain strength using heavy weights and low reps; for example, pulling heavy weights for 5-12 sets, with 5 or fewer reps per set.  5 reps per set is on the high side if you do not want to gain any extra weight.  

Any degree of specialization can result in sub-optimization of fitness.  Just like you should not run long and slow all the time if you want to have speed and explosive power, you should not train for muscle mass all the time if you want to optimize fitness.  

Competence in endurance is not hard to get - train six to 12 weeks and voila, you can exert low power for long durations.  Power and speed on the other hand are truly hard won, the gains are relatively small, and these can be easily compromised.  

The CrossFit model of fitness is a compromise position.  Train like a sprinter, a gymnast, and Olympic weightlifter, and fill in around the edges with a few long runs/rows/rides/swims, skill work, and incorporate these diverse modalities to maintain a degree of training novelty.  Routine is the enemy.  This sort of training allows an athlete to improve in many arenas, by choosing not to maximize any single attribute.

Back to the original question about mass gains, diet, and fat loss.  For each human and each training approach, there's a minimal amount of protein that is required to support muscle recovery and continued gains in performance.  This number is not precisely known, but even the USDA says we need 60g of protein per day, so you can bet that a healthy, active athlete will need more in order to thrive.  However, even 100g of protein per day will only provide 330-400 kcal.  Thus, you should be able to ingest all the protein you may need, and still restrict carbohydrate intake enough to maintain fat loss.

If on the other hand you are trying to gain the most possible muscle mass, and look HUGE, it becomes problematic to try and maintain a calorie deficit and ingest optimal protein levels.

If your goal is to use training to better your quality of life, sustain mobility as you age, and look and feel better, don't sweat these issues.  Eat good quality protein, shoot for 60-100g per day.  Eat high quality carbohydrate sources, and reduce carb intake to achieve fat loss.  Eat good quality fats to satiety.  Train hard, sleep well, and sleep long.  Measure your weight and abdominal circumference (weight alone tells you little) and adjust the diet, training and sleep according to your results.   This will not allow you to "have it all", but you can much or most of what you want.


  1. I really had a great time reading your post. Thank you for sharing this to us.

  2. Exactly the information I needed. Thank you.