Sometimes, adding a few calories to build muscle is a solid strategy, even if you want to become leaner and harder.
Kaplifestyle readers are a passionate group. They reflect the energy of the blog beautifully with their comments and questions. This one came in on Facebook and sparked a mind-fire for me.
Kap, what advice can you give to us “skinny fat” guys? Up until 6 months ago I spent most of my adult life at 6’0” and 155 lbs. No muscle tone and a bit of a pot belly. Then 6 months ago I wanted to change that into a fit and toned guy with a bit of a six pack. I started with cutting calories and lifting weights with a bit of cardio mixed in and I lost a lot of weight (20 lbs) and most of my pot belly was gone. The problem is though that there was still a layer of fat around my stomach and I was losing muscle in my upper body. People were asking me if I was anorexic…..not really what I wanted. So I changed it up. I read that in order to build muscle I would need a lot of calories, so I ditched the calorie count and went with eating a meat, green veggie and a carb, usually rice or quinoa 5 times a day. I also ditched the cardio and went with free weights in the typical bodybuilder 5 day a week thing, which I have followed religiously. I definitely am getting stronger and notice growth in muscle tone. But now my stomach is coming back and maybe faster than my muscle growth. So what am I doing wrong? Too many calories? Should I not worry about how much my stomach grows until I have decent muscle throughout the rest of me?
You said skinny fat guys, and I perked up. Lead with humor; I’m putty in your hands.
Funny (see what I did?), but I can relate in this very moment. A few months back, I was at my strongest since my twenties. My squat was at 475, my deadlift 510 and my bench 315. I was lean and hard at about 195. Life was good. Then my hip started acting funny (it still is). I had to back off on my squats, and my mental and physical outlook changed substantially. Over the course of the last three months, I’ve lost weight, but gained body fat. I certainly don’t feel as solid. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still strong and lean, but it’s all relative. I don’t feel that razor sharp edge that I did back in March.
I’ve been down this road before. The solution is simple, albeit unintuitive. If I want the lost power and muscle to return, I may need to pack on some fat at first. Now, like you, this doesn’t sound the least bit appealing to me, but the truth is harsh. We begin to naturally lose mass in our twenties. From the Mayo Clinic:
The process of losing muscle mass as we grow older is called aging sarcopenia. It begins around the age of 25, but it becomes much more noticeable after age 65.
Starting in our mid-twenties, before most of us are thinking about these issues, we have to make sure we’re losing the right kind of weight, not shedding muscle. Sometimes, we inadvertently blow this. We wear our bodies down with too much cardio, not enough rest and recovery time, injuries or failure to consume enough calories to adequately accompany our weight training sessions. From bodybuilding.com:
You can lift weights until you’re blue in the face, but without excess calories, resistance training won’t affect your muscle mass.
So now what do we do? The answer is a bit scary and easier said than done. Every time I’ve sought to get leaner, I’ve lost some degree of muscle mass. I don’t want to do that this time. In order to support my compound lift workouts, I’m willing to add a few calories. If I’m currently training hard but still losing weight, I’m not getting enough to eat.
In order to compensate, I’ll add a little at a time, then readjust. Perhaps I’ll include a larger yam, an extra egg, a larger salmon filet or an extra apple. It’s similar to cooking; I’ll add and subtract spices until the flavor is exquisite. I’m not in a hurry.
Brace yourself – you’ll look in the mirror and feel sloppier. Our clothes may fit a bit tighter. The abs may begin to disappear. I have never been comfortable with this process, but damn if it isn’t necessary and, more importantly, temporary.
After the initial phase, leaning out will feel better. In the long run, it will be easier, because our muscle mass will act as an aid. From WebMD:
Muscle tissue burns more calories — even when you’re at rest — than body fat. According to Wharton, 10 pounds of muscle would burn 50 calories in a day spent at rest, while 10 pounds of fat would burn 20 calories.
The takeaway is simple. To avoid becoming “skinny fat,” build lean muscle tissue by lifting incrementally heavier weights and adding calories to build muscle, then maintain it while shedding the extra crap you acquired during the foundation phase.
Stop looking for the shortcut. There isn’t (a natural) one.