Bodybuilding and fitness articles geared toward men often say you need to bulk up when you want to increase muscle tissue. But many women have no desire to get bulky while increasing lean mass. In fact, that might be the understatement of the year.
Adding muscle while burning fat is a tricky proposition; you have to eat enough to feed muscle growth while making smart nutrition choices to help your body preferentially tap into fat stores over muscle tissue. Diet on its own isn’t enough. To maximize my recommendations, perform a combination of resistance training and high-intensity cardio as well.
Here are my six most effective tricks to help you walk the fine line between muscle building and fat loss.
1. Bump up Your Protein Consumption
Don’t be afraid to push protein consumption. Consider increasing your daily protein to 1.5 or even 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Yup. You read that right. Throughout my 17 years of bodybuilding, I have refused to consume less than that on any diet.
Getting in plenty of protein, spread fairly evenly throughout the day, helps protect your muscle tissue from breakdown. When amino acids are floating around in your system, your body senses that it doesn’t need to break down muscle tissue to harvest them. How much is “plenty”? That would be up to 300 grams for a healthy 150-pound woman.
Before you freak out, that’s only 1,200 or so calories, a far cry from your daily total under the plan I lay out below. Plus, recent research has shown that eating five times the current daily protein recommendation (0. 36 grams per pound of body weight) has shown no adverse impact on body-fat stores.
Furthermore, a high-protein diet has been shown to positively impact the number of calories you burn throughout the day. This manifests as an increase in the amount of calories burned through the process of digestion, absorption, and distribution of nutrients, referred to as the thermic effect of food (TEF).
2. Train For Muscle Gain, Not Fat Loss
Spending time doing endless circuit training using light weight for high reps isn’t the best recipe for muscle gain. Instead, focus on integrating compound movements, such as squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows. These moves allow you to lift the most weight and stimulate the most total muscle mass possible, which is why they should be the foundation of each workout. Focus on increasing the weight you’re able to use over time while aiming for 5-8 reps per set.
You can still incorporate higher-rep training, but it should be with a weight that is challenging to complete 15-20 reps with. Incorporating a combination of heavy resistance training alongside high-repetition training is ideal for muscle growth.
3. Cut Your Carbs
You knew this one was coming, didn’t you? Yeah, you’ve got to cut carbs—not completely, but to a point where they’re efficiently used. Many of us have a real problem when it comes to tackling this, which is why the obesity epidemic is worsening as you read this.
Consume most of your carbs when they benefit you the most: two hours before your workout and right after your workout. The rest of your carbohydrates throughout the day should come from high-fiber vegetables. Vegetables will help keep your energy in check and work to stave off hunger.
A good starting place is to aim for 1.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight throughout the day (or 1 gram per pound if you’re overweight). Of course, the amount of exercise you do in a given day will affect this. On nontraining days, consider dropping your carbs to 0.75-1.0 gram per pound.
4. Eat Healthy Fats
Too many women outrageously slash their fat intake in an attempt to reduce body fat. As a result, not only do they lose weight, but they begin losing their hair, as well as their once-beautiful skin and nails. Fats play an integral role in maintaining optimal cell structure and hormone levels, each of which are crucial for supporting a muscle-building environment. They also play a role in keeping you feeling full.
Strive to consume about 0.5 grams of fat for every pound of body weight each day. That means a 150-pound woman should consume about 75 grams of fat each day. Make sure you include a variety of sources to reap the many benefits various types of fat (omega-3s and 6s, monounsaturated and saturated fats) have to offer.
Examples of healthy fats include salmon, sardines, walnuts, flax, chia seeds, macadamia nuts, avocado, olive oil, hemp oil, egg yolks, and coconut oil.
5. Consume a Moderate Number of Calories
To walk the fine line of building muscle while burning fat, it’s imperative you find your caloric “sweet spot.” You need to eat enough calories to fuel muscle building while encouraging release of fat from storage.
Let’s review my recommendations for each of the macronutrients to see how they work together:
Remember, you’re not on a diet! You’re trying to increase muscle tissue while preferentially burning stored fat. A woman who is going all-out in the gym needs the proper balance of macronutrients and enough calories to fuel her efforts to build muscle and lose fat. That’s what my recommendations are designed to do.
6. Use Cardio to Burn Fat, Not Calories
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they’re trying to burn body fat is performing lengthy sessions of steady-state cardio. This works for burning calories, but it can also spin you into a caloric deficit where your body begins to preferentially burn muscle tissue over body fat. Instead, use high-intensity interval training (HIIT) as your primary form of cardio. Why? HIIT has been shown to preserve muscle mass, and even enhance fat use as fuel.[4,5] That’s a winning combination!
After a warm-up of 3-5 minutes, perform your first interval by going all-out for 60 seconds. Then allow yourself to recover by backing off until your heart rate returns to a comfortable rate, which should take 2-4 minutes. At that point, you are ready to go all-out again. The key with HIIT is to go full-force like a bat of out hell on those work intervals. Otherwise, your results will be disappointing.
HIIT is very taxing for your body, so don’t attempt it every day. Do 1-3 sessions per week, with 3 as the absolute max. If you feel like HIIT is draining your energy in the weights department, scale back.