The term ‘weight loss’ can often be found at the top of a New Years resolution list, it’s referenced in at least 233 million Google search hits and sells billions of dollars worth of products and services every single year. It also happens to be arguably one of the most misleading statements in the fitness industry.
Our obsession with the number on the scale has given way to the notion that good health and well being is represented by a standalone metric – how much we weigh. Traditionally a goal to lose weight is followed with an all out assault to ensure the number on the scale shifts at any cost. This often means following very shrewd training and nutrition guidelines that might drop weight fast, but at the expense of losing lean muscle.
It might seem counter-intuitive for me – a fitness professional – to be questioning the term and theory of weight loss. But while some would argue that ‘it doesn’t matter, as long as the weight shifts’, muscle tissue is more energy expensive than fat tissue and plays a major role in long term weight management. For example, one pound (0.45 kg) of muscle burns approximately six calories each day, while a pound of fat burns approximately two calories.
So if we aren’t chasing weight loss, what should we be aiming for?
Long considered the Holy Grail of exercise is the focus on maintaining or increasing muscle mass while reducing body fat (fat loss). And unfortunately, it’s not an easy feat. It’s thought that to increase muscle mass you need to be in a calorie surplus; that is you need to consume more calories than you expend. At the other end, to achieve fat loss you need to be in a calorie deficit, expending more energy than you consume. With these opposing scenarios, it’s easy to feel confused.
So is it actually possible for someone to achieve fat loss while maintaining muscle mass?
Some recent research conducted by Stuart M Phillips of McMaster University has taken this concept a step further. Thankfully the study found that both can be achieved simultaneously, but it comes with some fairly strict and scientific guidelines.
It was no great surprise to discover that eating less and moving more led to participants dropping weight. But the more surprising results came from those that reduced calorie consumption by approximately 40% and trained six times per week with a combination of resistance training and high intensity interval workouts. This group were not only successful at losing fat but also managed to increase lean muscle mass, despite a significant reduction in calories.
This particular study was conducted with men, but similar results have also been found with women in earlier studies.
There’s no doubt that as a training goal, losing fat and building muscle will take some commitment, so here’s a few practical considerations if you’re thinking of taking on the challenge:
PROTEIN IS KEY
The men in this study who significantly increased muscle mass consumed almost 2.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, which is a lot!
UP THE INTENSITY
Training at high intensity and focusing on the large compound movements is a sure fire way to maximise your time in the gym.
PREPARE FOR HANGRY
That’s hungry-angry, the endearingly titled condition that results from reducing intake and increasing expenditure.