The Best Way to Gain Muscle is to Lose Fat?


Today we have a killer guest post from my friend and colleague, John Alvino.

Check it out and let me know what you think in the comments section below…

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When Andy came into my training center, he was very clear on what his goals were.  He wanted to gain size and strength, and he made it abundantly clear that he was willing to do whatever it took to achieve his goals.

After our initial consultation, I learned that he had been trying to get bigger and stronger for the last four years.  He was very serious about accomplishing his goals and I admired his dedication, determination and his stick-to-itiveness.

Andy’s four years of consistent efforts had, unfortunately, resulted in one year of gains followed by three years of stagnation and frustration.  This is exactly why he chose to come see me.  I had the job of figuring out why, despite all of his hard work, Andy had been spinning his wheels for the past three years.

One thing was for certain: Andy was well read and was using some very effective muscle building protocols.  He was training properly, getting adequate recovery and eating a sufficient amount of clean food.

So why was he stuck?  Well, Andy was stuck in a classic muscle building plateau.  He certainly did his best to bust through this plateau by using different techniques, but in the end, they were all to no avail.

When he tried to increase his calories, he would gain unwanted fat.  When he tried training heavier and harder. he burned out.

He even tried backing off of his training program to reverse any potential overtraining.  When he did this, he would lose some of his previous gains; then, when he would resume training, he would gain back what he had lost — but no more.

Although he was completely bewildered by his predicament, it was no shock to me. I have seen this frustrating scenario play out time and time again.

When I told Andy that I had seen people in his situation countless times before, he just kept saying, “Please don’t tell me I’ve reached my genetic potential, I’ll do anything, just tell me what I need to do!”

Although he seemed ready to hear anything, my suggestion to him almost made him fall off his chair.  Very calmly I looked him dead in the eyes and said, “In order to gain muscle, you need to lose body fat first.”

Andy was shocked.  He said, “I don’t want to lose anything, I want to gain!”  Then I told him, “After you get ripped, you will gain muscle quickly — perhaps faster than ever!”

This very suggestion happens to be one of my best kept secrets.

I originally came up with this theory after I had competed in my first bodybuilding competition.  You see, before I did my contest prep, I too had been stuck in the same dreaded plateau that Andy was stuck in.

And like Andy, I did everything in my power to gain as much muscle as possible before dieting down to contest shape.  But for a full year I couldn’t gain an additional ounce of muscle or add a pound of weight to the bar.  This was beyond frustrating, as you can imagine!

Then the day came — 12 weeks before my contest.  I now had to focus on losing fat and instead of gaining size.  For 12 weeks, I dieted and trained my butt off until I had lost close to 30 pounds and I was totally ripped.  I actually won my weight class and felt great!

But after losing 30 pounds, I was definitely ready to get back to the gym and start putting some size back on.

I was back in the gym on Monday morning, but on a whim, I did something dramatically different from anything I had ever done before: I decided to see if I could stay lean while I gained my size back.  So I increased my calories, backed off my cardio  and hit the weights hard.

I certainly deserved (and expected) some nice gains.  But what happened left me totally stunned.  In just three short weeks, I had gained 21 pounds of muscle and had broken my personal best in my main lifts.

This was crazy to me.  I continued to gain over the next several months until I had gained 33 rock solid pounds.  I was now leaner and eight pounds heavier than before I started dieting!

Why was I able to gain this muscle so quickly?  Back then, I thought it was just dumb luck, or some kind of weird coincidence.  But that “coincidence” started to become very predictable reality when all of my clients who got ripped also experienced their best muscle building gains right after their contests.

After many years of research and experimentation, I actually discovered that there are several reasons for this phenomenon, but there is one factor that is most significant.

You see, following a properly executed fat loss phase, your body becomes considerably more sensitive to the MOST anabolic hormone — insulin.

For those of you who don’t know, insulin is a storage hormone.  It can shuttle glucose (blood sugar) and proteins into muscle cells.  This is great for anyone who wants to build muscle.

So an effective muscle building diet will encourage the release of insulin.  Initially, when you start a diet like this, you will definitely see gains in your lean muscle mass.

But before long, your insulin receptors will become saturated and get resistant to insulin.  In other words, the same amount of insulin that was effective at shuttling nutrients into your muscles at the start of the diet will not be enough after a couple short months.

Your body will respond to this by releasing more and more insulin.  More insulin equals more muscle, right?  Wrong!
Unfortunately, there is a flip side to insulin.  Remember, insulin is a storage hormone.  Sadly, it is just as effective at storing fat as it is at storing muscle!

You see, once your muscles (and liver) are full of glucose, and your receptors are getting resistant, insulin will dump glucose into fat cells. So you will be getting fatter and your body will get more and more efficient at shuttling nutrients towards fat cells.

And this, my friends, is the beginning of the classic muscle building plateau.  The bad news is that this phenomenon is extremely frustrating.  The good news, however, is that it is completely avoidable!  All it takes is a temporary shift in your short-term goals.

For 8-12 weeks, you should focus on losing body fat.  The fat loss plan you should follow MUST be one that maintains ALL of your hard earned muscle while INCREASING insulin sensitivity.

To best accomplish this, your plan must include:

1) Heavy training- If you switch from heavy lifting to light circuit training, you will lose a significant amount of muscle mass and strength, guaranteed.

2) Carbohydrate cycling- Eat carbs on your heavy training days and more specifically around your workout.  This will provide energy and necessary muscle glycogen for optimal recover.

On non-training days, reduce the amount of carbs to allow for more fat burning and increase insulin sensitivity.

3) Calorie waving- In order to lose fat, you must burn more calories than you intake.  But if your calories stay low for too long, you will risk losing muscle and slowing your metabolism.  So be sure to increase your calories to maintenance level at least two times per week.

4) Control your cardio- High intensity interval training (HIIT) definitely burns more fat than slower steady state cardio does.  But doing too much of it can have a negative effect on your recovery abilities and lead to muscle loss.  Therefore, you should only do HIIT in small doses.

*** Note from Jason- Where have you read that before? Now you see why I like John’s advice so much.***

I recommend limiting it to 2-3 sessions per week with each session lasting no more than 12 minutes.  If any additional cardio is necessary, it should be done with much lower intensity while using steady state parameters.

Are you curious how Andy made out while following this plan?  Well after 12 weeks, he lost 19 pounds of fat and saw his abs for the first time in his life.  We are now 7 weeks into his muscle building phase, and he has already gained 16 pounds of pure muscle and just hit new personal records on his squat, deadlift and military press!

His physique looks completely transformed.  He looks bigger and leaner and he is stronger than ever.  Congrats, Andy!

I highly suggest you follow the same protocol and I’m confident that you’ll experience the same great results.  I look forward to hearing about YOUR success story!

John Alvino

For more fat loss information from John and to grab a copy of his FREE report, Ninja Strategies for Lightning Fast Fat Loss visit JohnAlvino.com.

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16 Responses to The Best Way to Gain Muscle is to Lose Fat?

  1. Raymond - ZenMyFitness October 16, 2010 at 8:19 am #

    Excellent post – I only learn’t recently that this very true like in the last couple of months prior to that (for 2 years) I was wondering how come I’m training like a machine but looking like a kiddies Tonka toy.
    I have found low volume, heavy lifting and keeping cardio under control ( I’m finding minimal cardio is the best) I’m getting better lifting gains and the bottom line I’m looking how I always wanted to look like.
    (Now not sounding too lame) I am using Muscle Gaining Secrets that’s pointed me in that direction.
    Raymond

  2. meghan October 16, 2010 at 9:21 am #

    Awesome post! I’m so glad you spelled this out so clearly. I thought something was wrong with my body. Every time I switch over to one of those “fat loss routines”, I just get weak and lose my muscle tone! I can’t wait to try this! Thanks Jason and John for this great information, keep up the great work

  3. Dave - Not Your Average Fitness Tips October 16, 2010 at 12:52 pm #

    This is fantastic information. Very well laid out plan similar to what I’m trying to do now. Lose some fat and then start gaining muscle again. Thanks!

  4. Sean Hyson October 16, 2010 at 12:56 pm #

    Great point, and one we all seem to learn the hard way. What’s the magic body fat % number you and John say you have to be below before you can gain muscle without fat? Was it 15%?
    Most people probably need to lean down before they can mass up.

  5. Travis October 17, 2010 at 4:22 am #

    Good info and excellent training points!

    The secret to the points you give is to have it all line up in the right ways.

    Many people follow these tips but go overboard in each one.

    While they are lifting heavy to add strength and mass, they are in turn doing way too much HIIT and possibly not getting in enough calories or vice versa.

    What truly works is doing the right amount of EVERYTHING you hit on.

    That takes time to figure out but once you do, it’s magic!

    Good stuff!

  6. Marc October 17, 2010 at 1:48 pm #

    Why would you cut back on the cardio when trying to decrease bf % ? Jason, you usually advise 3-6 sessions per week of low intensity fasted cardio in the morning!? :S Brilliant post though, awesome info that’ll certainly help me a lot in the future, I’m sure!

  7. Jason - CoreRoutine Workouts October 17, 2010 at 9:05 pm #

    Thanks, great post. I had been thinking about dieting down but I did not want to lose too much size or strength. I do not have much fat to burn but I though of taking some pictures and wanted to get into the low single digits.

    Because I a have to work hard for my muscle gains I had always been afraid to diet. But I think I will give this method a try. I do not have too far to go so the dieting cycle does not have to be all that long.

    Thanks, look forward to see what happens

  8. John October 18, 2010 at 3:49 pm #

    It sounds good on paper but what about all the powerlifters and oly. weightlifters who are fat, strong, and eat like crap in order to gain weight and lift more? They seem to be able to add muscle and pounds to their lifts without getting lean. Obviously for health reasons it’s better to have bodyfat below 10% or 15% but anecdotal evidence doesn’t completely support the idea that it’s necessary to gain muscle or strength.

  9. Brandon Cook October 19, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    Good article John and thanks for posting Jason. I ran into this when I got my BF over 15% and it seemed like the more I ate the fatter I continued to get despite my training. I guess this has to do with the nutrient partitioning effects of increased insulin resistance as you mentioned. I am also curious about what percentage you think is best for being in a mass phase. Does one need to diet down well below 10% first or can you still get great results at the 10-12% range? I’m currently at 12%.

  10. marcus October 20, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

    Awesome.

    This is some of the most cutting edge and immediately useful info that I’ve ever read on the subject. Definitely “goes against the grain” of the mainstream advice. But it makes far more practical sense.

  11. josh October 22, 2010 at 8:12 pm #

    Thanks Jay and John for the great post! It was very informative. i’ve always had trouble losing fat, and after reading this, I really think it’s because I give myself too few carbs for too long. I never knew that before. hopefully this will help. Thanks again!

  12. Wade MCMaster October 24, 2010 at 12:21 am #

    It’s surpising how the body reacts! I mean it is built to adapt so it makes perfect sense once you rad the facts. I’ve been in the opposite dilemma where I’ve been trying for years to burn fat and my results have been getting less and less. So I’m looking forward to hitting the weights with the goal of getting bigger for a period of time. Cheers!

  13. wrestler strength October 25, 2010 at 9:36 am #

    Thanks for sharing one of your top secrets with us Jason. I never have heard a suggestion like this, but the way you break it down makes perfect sense.

  14. Anthony F November 1, 2010 at 10:32 pm #

    I see a number of “what is the body fat percentage that I need to get down to for this to work” questions. It’s not about body fat percentage, it’s about insulin resistance. Basically it comes down to reducing your carbs and upping your fat metabolism for long enough to allow your muscle cells to regain a significant amount of insulin sensitivity.

    Thus, it depends on how well you watch your carbs, particularly at any one sitting. When you flood your body with carbs, the excess insulin desensitizes your cells so that they respond more poorly, and it takes more insulin each time to have the same effect.

    So in this phase you want to eat meals with small amounts of slow digesting carbs, with plenty of protein and slightly higher levels of fat. This will effectively decrease the glycemic index of the carbs you eat and limit the insluin response [however, you can and need to eat more carbs right around the workout].

    Additionally, keep in mind that insulin and growth hormone tend to oppose each other. Higher insulin levels cause growth hormone to drop. However, insulin does blunt the rise of cortisol and adrenaline.

    Last side note, insulin resistance caused by excessive carbs is generally the culprit in most heart related conditions. Lifting weights plays a major role in decreasing insulin resistance, so to look good AND have good health, cycle through phases of low carbs, and keep lifting!

  15. SportMashina.com November 11, 2010 at 6:48 am #

    Interesting and detailed article, but I think that the muscles can be trained with little fat, which can be lost later

  16. Sam October 20, 2013 at 7:16 am #

    First, Jason thanks for positing this and John congrats on winning that contest.

    I really appreciate the information. I was stuck at 30% body fat doing a 4 day split routine lifting and long slow cardio (bike). I was neither gaining muscle nor losing fat. I switched the cardio to HITT type workouts, backed off on the lifting and lost fat (about 25lbs) but also a couple of pounds of muscle. I was glad to lose the fat but obviously I’d prefer the results you describe here.

    Thanks for the clarifying comment about. I’ll focus on controling carbs rather than percent body fat. Withe regards to lifting, do you think working a body part one day a week would work with this calorie cycling approach?