Phil Learney is a performance coach specialising in strength, conditioning and nutrition. He is based in London.
Some bodybuilders still adhere to the Arnold school of thought by bulking up in the off-season then drastically cutting for competitions. But for many of you I imagine that trying to stay relatively lean all year round while still adding muscle mass is your priority. So how easy is to add muscle whilst still chipping away at fat stores? It can be done, but it requires a careful and considered manipulation of macronutrient intake to give your body what it needs, and when, to build muscle as well as creating the right environment, at the right time, to burn fat.
The manipulation of macronutrients certainly has a role to play for advanced trainees, but the more complex something is, the harder it becomes to be consistent. For many compliance is the biggest issue needing addressing. Once you have consistency with a nutritional strategy you can build from there towards more advanced manipulations to keep your progress moving in the direction you want.
Breaking the balance
Your body is like everything in the natural world in that it craves homeostasis, or an internal balance where conditions are stable. But this balance is based upon constant feedback and so requires a constant state of change. Your endocrine, digestive, circulatory, immune, nervous, lymphatic and muscular systems all constantly communicating with, and adapting to, one another. These adaptations occur by our altering environment, external stimulus, stressors and one major factor: the nutrients we ingest.
A fluctuation of macronutrients and/or calories on a daily basis is something we would expect from any regular diet, but a strategic fluctuation can be used for advantageous body-composition benefits.
When your body has a surplus of energy you are in a state of constructive metabolism (anabolism), which means that there is adequate fuel to repair and fuel the body beyond its normal requirements (hypercaloric). There is also a rise in both anabolic and metabolic hormones. Spending too long in a constructive state will result in new muscle mass, but with the addition of surplus body fat.
In a caloric deficit state you are in a destructive metabolism (hypocaloric) state, with an associated rise in catabolic hormones, so your body will break down fat stores to for energy. That’s all relatively straightforward, and a system that evolved to ensure survival. Too long in a destructive state will reduce body-fat levels, but also reduced lean muscle mass.
You first need to work out your daily maintenance calorie needs so you can then make the necessary macronutrient adjustments. I’ve found the easiest way is to log your daily calories and macronutrient intake over a few weeks and note any fluctuations in total body mass. It’s very simple and useful and it also gets you into the habit of logging and acknowledging macronutrients better.
Once you know your base needs you need to consider your top priority. Yes, you can build muscle and burn fat at the same time, but what is your most urgent need? That will help dictate your starting point and how long you will need to stay in one state before moving to the other. You also need to be honest with yourself and acknowledge whether you add muscle easily or have a hard time doing so. And whether fat loss comes easy or requires Herculean efforts.
For example, someone with a genetic disposition to a higher level of androgens and growth hormone – the ‘athletic’ type – may be able to sit in destructive metabolism for longer periods without the inevitable ‘cost’ to muscle tissue. They can lose fat faster whilst preserving muscle better, largely because of better protein synthesis. Whereas someone with a tendency to store body fat might need to stay in a catabolic state for longer to kick-start fat loss before turning attention to pure muscle mass gains. Like everything in training and nutrition, the individual is the key to everything.
Trial and error
Now you know whether you need to start with a surplus or a deficit, and for how long before starting to fluctuate between the two over a longer period of time. There are no absolutes with this, only an educated start point followed by some meticulous trial, error, and adjustments. Say you want to start with a deficit over the course of seven days. You can then strategically place higher calorie days when regeneration needs prioritising, thus offsetting the negative adaptive metabolic changes. This brings us to the pursuit of building mass whilst concurrently – over time – losing body fat.
Part of the process of macronutrient manipulation is to allow more metabolic flexibility, which is your body’s ability to switch between insulin and glucagon mediated pathways. Having established a caloric basepoint the next goal is to place different demands on these different physiological states. Because each is predominantly determined by glucose and lipid oxidation, the two variables we would tend to fluctuate to establish the desired caloric levels are carbohydrates and dietary fats. This is where finding your ‘sweet spot’ of carbohydrate intake may take some time.
People with more body fat to lose would typically resonate towards a higher amount of time in lipid oxidation, so carbohydrate intake would be low. As they get leaner this number would go up. Again as an average of intake until that ‘sweet spot’ is found. Too many people stay in the low carb regime way too long, and there they experience the law of diminishing returns.
This leads us to carb cycling. It’s a relatively simple concept that allows us to stimulate higher levels of lipid oxidation whilst fueling and protecting tissue through the glucose mediated pathways in a wave-type pattern. The elevation of dietary fats also serve to support various other metabolically important systems.
There are dozens of variations on the structure of carb cycling but here’s a simple three-day cycle protocol I’ve found effective.
• A high-carb day would be reflected with a moderate intake of fats and protein. Most would position these around workouts where you hit your weak-spots or larger muscle groups.
• A moderate-carb day would also have a moderate intake of fats and protein.
• A low-carb day, or even zero-carb diet, would have a higher intake of fats and protein.