I am having a really difficult time putting into a few words for a blog post what I’ve learned over the past few years about losing weight, gaining muscle, and decreasing body fat. It can be a bit confusing to explain, so I know for the beginner, it is probably confusing to read. I’ll do my best! It’s a bit long, but please bare with me and hear me out til the end :o)
I was reading some posts today from the Facebook Fit Bitch page (kinda in your face but has lots of knowledge and still responds to posts even though she has lots of followers), and she explained that you can’t have fat loss and build muscle at the same time, which is why spot reduction is a big myth. I had always assumed you could do both, that it was a simultaneous thing. I knew spot reduction was bull, but I thought you could lose a few lbs while also gaining muscle. What finally clicked in my head is how Meg explained that there are two ways to get a really toned, beautiful body. You can lose weight/fat (cut), then add muscle (bulk) – and incidentally add back some fat, too, and then you have to lose weight/fat (cut) again OR you can bulk up by adding muscle and some fat and then cut by removing the fat to reveal the muscles, which makes so much more sense! Why? You’re cutting out a whole step (and months of work) AND when you build muscle first, those muscles burn calories at a faster rate, which makes the cut phase so much easier/faster. This is why so many of those Beachbody exercise programs work. Take P90X or Chalene Extreme, for instance. Both have you bulk up for the first month before doing any kind of cut/lean phase. I never really got why they wanted you to lift so heavy for the first phase until now.
Let me go back to her insistence that you can’t lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. You have to create a deficit in calories (and/or a deficit by doing lots of cardio) to lose fat and you have to create a surplus in calories (while strength training) to gain muscle. So the quickest way to get a fit physique would be to first create a surplus in calories while doing a strength training program. You may actually see a bit of an increase on the scale initially. Don’t FREAK OUT! Then, you work on adding in more cardio and decreasing calories to cut the fat so that the muscles you’ve created finally show.
Why does any of this matter for you? Here is why. Size matters! If you could be 135 lbs in a size 10 or 135 lbs in a size 4, which would you choose? You can technically have either, but it all depends on your body fat %. Look at the following picture, which I previously posted to my Facebook page. This girl shows how adding muscle and losing body fat (but she didn’t do it at the same time) makes her body look much different at the same weight. Had she just started out at that weight, not done much of any strength training, and decreased calories/increased cardio, she would have lost some more lbs, but she would NOT look this good., even if she was 8-10 lbs lighter! She’d just look like a scrawnier version of her old self, still very soft and probably still not fitting in those size 4‘s she wants to get into. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Eason’s Facebook fan page.)
Maybe you’re ok with that. Perhaps you have a lot of weight to lose as opposed to 10-20 lbs and would rather lose weight first and then work on adding muscle in before cutting around your goal weight. Fine, that’s up to you. Even if you are ok with just losing weight initially (body fat and muscle, too), you should still check you body fat %. Sometimes when the scale isn’t really changing much, your measurements can still be changing, which can be a powerful motivator to continue with your plan when your resolve is flagging. So what if the scale didn’t move this week if your waist measurement went down a half inch! :o) Checking your measurements regularly (I did it about every 2 weeks) will help you see that you are still making progress, even when you feel like you aren’t. Besides, if you are significantly overweight, even just losing a lot of lbs will make your body fat decrease, for a while anyway.
Here is how you check your body fat %. Grab one of those soft tape measure strips at the store. Go to the Body Fat Calculator. Click on the Female Body Calculator tab (or stay with male, guys!). Enter your age and weight. Click on the Tape tab. (Although the caliper tests are even more accurate than the tape measurement, I found that the tape test was easier for me and for beginners, too.) Enter your height in inches and take measurements of your neck, waist, and hips. Just for fun, I’d also take measurements of my bicep (about two inches below my armpit) and my thigh to track changes. Here’s an important point, though. Wherever you measure, you have to measure there every single time, or your numbers will be off. For instance, I may measure my waist an inch below my belly button this week, but if I measure my waist two inches below my belly button, I’d get two different measurements, even with no actual change. Ok I digress. Back to the calculating! Write these measurements down on a piece of paper with the date. Now, once you’ve plugged those numbers in, the calculator will give you a body fat %. This is the % of fat that is in your body as opposed to the rest of your “weight,” which consists of muscles, organs, fluid, bones, etc. There’s even a nifty little chart that tells you where you fall according to your body fat %.
If you are making good food choices and working out any (whether it’s only cardio or if you’re also adding in strength training), I commend you for working on your health. Any exercise will produce positive results, and you should feel really good about the changes you are making now for your health. Even if you aren’t focusing on losing body fat right now, adding in some strength training still gives you an added boost in calorie burn. If you decide not to check your body fat %, that’s ok, too. Maybe just try taking those measurements and writing them down somewhere a couple of times a month. Just remember that the scale is NOT the whole story and that you shouldn’t let it discourage you from trying to reach your goals.