The short truth of the matter is that except for very specific conditions, it’s not possible to gain muscle without gaining fat. That being said, there are plenty of ways to reduce the amount of fat you take on when you build muscle. You just have to get enough calories from the right types of food. Many focus on protein intake when they build muscle, but that’s not the only thing your body needs.
To gain muscle without fat, you have to carefully triangulate your caloric intake and align it with the resistance training and strength training you use to build muscle. It also depends on your body composition when you begin your strength training to build muscle. People who have never done any weight lifting or weight training before will most likely be able to build muscle at a faster rate than people who have lifted before or have been on a strength training program consistently for a year or more.
If fat loss and muscle growth are both fitness goals of yours, then you have to concentrate on the fat loss first. That’s because the two have opposite caloric intakes. Building muscle requires a caloric surplus, that is, energy over what your body needs. Fat loss requires dieting, that is, a caloric intake a few hundred calories beneath your body’s maintenance calories.
Once you do get your body fat where you want it, you can proceed to resistance training with various muscle groups to build mass. For more detailed information on this whole process, read through this helpful guide to gain muscle without fat.
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How Does the Body Build Muscle?
Your body builds and strengthens muscle through a process called muscle hypertrophy. During this process, individual muscle fibers grow, causing an increase in muscle mass. All it takes to initiate this process is an overload on the targeted muscles, for instance slightly more weight than they can hold. This will cause damage to the muscles. When the muscles repair themselves, they are better able to handle the overload. That’s when muscle mass increases.
One method of facilitating muscle growth that’s based on muscle hypertrophy is something called progressive overload. The principle is the same in that the muscle or muscle groups are overloaded, but progressive overload also calls for you to vary the amount of weight, forcing your muscles to adapt, which they can do by increasing the size of contractile proteins as two scientists explain here.
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What Hormones Promote Muscle Growth?
Many hormones help your body with the muscle-building process at a cellular level. The main hormone is testosterone, which is widely known for being the male sex hormone. While it does promote muscle growth, it’s far from the only hormone that does so. Here are some others:
As the name implies, growth hormone helps with muscle growth. Studies are still being done to understand exactly in what way growth hormone promotes muscle hypertrophy. Some research suggests that the benefits of growth hormone have more to do with fluid retention than directly causing hypertrophy.
Insulin-Like Growth Factor:
Also referred to as IGF, this hormone is a secretion by skeletal muscles. IGF stimulates protein synthesis and regulates insulin metabolism. There are two kinds of IGF and their levels are elevated in response to progressive overload resistance exercises. They lead to the proliferation of satellite cells, which are the ones responsible for moving in and repairing damaged skeletal muscle after a hard workout.
Unlike IGF, it’s actually the absence of cortisol that promotes muscle growth. Cortisol is produced by the kidney when the body is under lots of stress. It blocks the use of glucose by many of the body’s cells. Cortisol breaks down muscle proteins and frees amino acids to do other things, which means if there’s too much of it your body won’t be able to make new muscle proteins.
What Causes Weight Gain During Strength Training
So, what part of this process causes weight gain? Strictly speaking, it all does. Muscle has weight, although contrary to popular belief it doesn’t weigh more than body fat. It’s much denser than body fat which means a pound of muscle will take up less room than a pound of fat. Either way, gaining weight is generally a good sign during a muscle-building program. But that’s only the case if the pound of bodyweight you put on is a pound of lean muscle and not body fat.
The main reason you’re gaining fat when you want to be building muscle is a calorie imbalance. If it’s not due to calorie overload, it could be because you’re fulfilling your maintenance calories or caloric surplus with fatty nutrients. Believe it or not, some people just try to cram in as many calories as they can to build muscle. Most of the time you can attribute this tactic to a misreading of bodybuilding professionals’ dieting regimes.
When you weight train, you should get enough calories to give you a caloric surplus of about 500 calories. That’s at the maximum end for men. Many women might need only half that number of calories and many people may find that they only need a surplus of a few hundred calories to keep building muscle without putting on additional bodyweight.
Maintaining a Proper Caloric Surplus
Try not to focus on protein intake or cramming calories when you’re trying to build muscle. It’s essential to consume the right macronutrients in the right quantities so your body will have the material it needs to build muscle.
While protein is important for building muscle, there’s only so much you need. If your protein intake is too high, you could increase your risk of kidney stones. Many preferred sources of protein like red meat and dairy products have high levels of cholesterol and saturated fats that can lead to heart disease and colon cancer. Plus, they can wreck your calorie count.
If you want to know how to gain muscle without gaining fat, the answer more than likely has something to do with your caloric surplus. So how many calories should you be consuming in a day if you’re trying to build muscle?
There’s a formula called the Katch-McArdle formula that can help you get an idea of how much energy your body needs. It all depends on how many maintenance calories you need just to keep your normal bodily processes running. This is described by your Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR. Once you know that number, you can build in a caloric surplus very easily.
The Katch-McArdle formula looks like this:
BMR = 370 + (21.6 * Lean Body Mass in kg)
If you don’t know your lean body mass, you can figure it out with this formula:
LBM (men) = 0.407 * weight in kg + 0.267 * height in cm – 19.2
LBM (women) = 0.252 * weight in kg + 0.473 * height in cm – 48.3
Once you know your BMR, you can add in the caloric surplus. If you aren’t sure how many extra calories you need, start with a low number like 100 or 150 and see if your weight goes down after about 10 days. If it does, add more calories. If it goes up, reduce your calorie intake.
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How to Build Muscle Without Gaining Fat Using Cardio
You might not like to hear it, but one really good way to keep body fat from building up when you’re trying to build muscle is by throwing in some cardio. We don’t mean you should get up from a bench press and run a mile, but if you can do a solid half-hour to 45 minutes of fast-action cardio on the days when you aren’t at the gym, it will stop you gaining fat. You’ll also find that it bolsters your ability to complete your strength training when you are at the gym.
The fact is, those reps that build muscle don’t burn that many calories. By that we mean, you can definitely build muscle at the gym, but if weight loss is one of your fitness goals, nutrition is the real key. It’s also not wise to do long-distance runs. What you should be doing are high-intensity interval training, explosive cardio action that will do more to boost your cardiovascular system and melt away any unwanted body fat.
Don’t overdo the cardio. If you find that you really need to focus on cardio, then it may not be the right time for you to start strength training to build muscle. Go through 10 weeks or more of dieting and weight loss exercises before you start trying to build muscle. Keeping body fat off when you’re getting gains is easier than trying to achieve weight loss and muscle building goals at the same time. If you don’t do anything else, the least you could do is take 10,000 steps per day.
Dieting to Gain Muscle Without Fat
Your dieting plan will be different if you need to lose lots of weight versus if you are at a fine starting body weight and just want to build muscle. You should already have some idea about the amount of maintenance calories your body needs from the Katch-McArdle formula. But how do you organize a dieting plan to promote muscle gains? There are a few necessary macronutrients you must make sure to include.
Your body needs carbohydrates for energy. Actually, your body loves carbs. It’s the preferred energy source because they are faster and easier for your body to convert than body fat. Carbs have been demonized for decades, ever since low-carb dieting took off, because the body will convert them to glucose and store them as fat. However, and this goes double when you’re weightlifting, your body will be desperate for carbs if you hit the gym often.
Around 50% of your macronutrients should be carbs, especially if you are a very active person. The trick is not to binge carbs. Eating a big bowl of pasta in the evening may be relaxing after a long day, but it can also cause weight fluctuations that are annoying and discouraging. Eat a small amount of carbs at each meal to equal your total daily requirement.
Most folks understand how critical protein is to building muscle, but the majority of people overdo it, especially once they get the thrill of their first significant muscle gain. There’s a certain limit above which consuming more protein is useless and potentially even damaging. About 25% of your total calorie intake should come from protein.
If you want to gain muscle without gaining fat, you have to know the difference between lean protein and fat protein. Lean protein can be found in lentils, peas, skinless chicken breast, beans, low-fat cottage cheese, and greek yogurt, shrimp, white fish, egg whites, and lean meat like bison and pork loin. Use these sources to get your protein for the day without all the fat found in other protein sources like red meat.
There’s plenty of fat in fast food hamburgers and potato chips, but they’re different from the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats that your body needs as a macronutrient. In addition to other various uses within the body, these healthy fats help reduce bad cholesterol levels and lower your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Avocado and olive oil are two of the easiest and tastiest ways to get healthy fat macronutrients into your diet. You can also try nuts such as peanuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, or hazelnuts, just make sure they aren’t covered in salt. Tofu, soymilk, flaxseed, and fatty fish are also great sources of healthy fats.
A typical dieting program will aim for some balance between these three macronutrients, like 40-30-30, meaning 40% lean protein and 30% each of healthy fats and carbs.
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Best Weight Training Exercises to Gain Muscle Without Fat
There’s no way to build muscle without that muscle hypertrophy we were talking about earlier, so you’re going to need to know the best strength training and resistance training exercises to put a progressive overload on the muscle groups you’re targeting. Here’s a shortlist, although there are many more:
Perhaps the most classic weight lifting exercise, the bench press works the triceps, anterior deltoids, and the pecs. Lying down and pumping iron with a barbell is almost the stereotypical image of a weight training exercise, but that’s because it works.
The deadlift is a standing exercise where the barbell is on the ground in front of you and you have to lift it above your head. This is typically done in two stages. Learning the proper deadlift form is essential to build muscle without injuring yourself.
Rather than lifting the dumbbell over your head, in this exercise you simply curl them in toward your chest and back out again.
Definitely a must-have for any muscle-building routine that’s targeting the shoulders, lateral raises are very simple to execute. All you have to do is hold a small weight in each hand roughly at your body’s center line. Extend your arms out to the sides until they are straight out, then move them back inward.
You can do rows with a rowing machine or a dumbbell, as long as you have the right movement. You should support your weight on a bench with the shin and hand of the opposite side of your body from the one you’re working out. In your other hand, hold a dumbbell. Then, with your back parallel to the ground, lift the dumbbell to your chest.
Knowing how to gain muscle without gaining fat can be difficult. Bodybuilder diet plans tend to highlight bulking, but that’s not the proper methodology for the vast majority of people. If you don’t want to gain fat while you’re building muscle, you have to monitor your calorie surplus very carefully. To calculate this calorie surplus, you have to know your body fat percentage and how many maintenance calories your body needs.
One of the most common problems for people who are trying to build muscle mass is the simultaneous build-up of body fat. Sometimes the reason for this fat gain is the pervasive myth that anyone building muscle should also be bulking, or consuming many calories more than their body needs. Other faulty recommendations such as drinking a gallon of milk a day to give your muscles enough calories to build more mass are not only ineffective but often send people into a spiral that can erase muscle gains and diminish the muscle that was there in the first place.
If you haven’t fallen victim to these kinds of myths about building muscle and you’re still experiencing some fat gain when you’re bulking up, your diet is the likely culprit. There are a host of other causes that can’t be helped like genetics that dictate how your body deals with calories and partitions them to different cells.
This study from 2018 demonstrates that calorie partitioning is based on competition between cells with different competitive advantages and overall caloric intake which can stop the body from creating muscle tissue if consistently under the level your body needs for maintenance calories.
Consuming the right amount of macronutrients will also help you make gains. Low carb dieting won’t work if you want to build muscle. You have to balance your carb intake and consume the right amount of protein and healthy fats. The best way to do this is with a macronutrient-focused dieting plan.
Doing the right strength training exercise will also help you get the muscle size you want, but it will take time. The important thing is that you’re developing lean mass and not muscle gains paired with an increase in body fat. If you know what to look for, it’s easy to formulate a plan to gain muscle without fat.
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