Losing Fat While Gaining Muscle

      44 Comments on Losing Fat While Gaining Muscle

If you’re a long-time reader, you may remember a post in which I recounted how a YouTube commenter I nicknamed “Cliffy” kept insisting that kids get fat because their parents feed them too much, period.  No amount of evidence or reason would budge Cliffy from this position.  Cliffy was (according to Cliffy) a lean, muscular gym rat — and therefore knew everything there is to know about the biochemistry of body composition.

I didn’t mention it in that post, but in another series of exchanges, Cliffy also insisted I did not (contrary to what my mirror and scale were telling me) become both leaner and more muscular after I tightened up my diet and switched to Fred Hahn’s Slow Burn workout method.  Cliffy explained that it’s physiologically impossible to gain muscle mass while losing fat mass, and in fact pretty much everyone who loses weight loses some muscle mass.  He knew this because some body-building guru he worships said as much.

I tried telling him that I did indeed put on muscle even while losing weight, that my arms and chest and thighs had become noticeably thicker while my waist shrank, but Cliffy explained that I’m an idiot (and a fat, lazy old man) and only thought I’d gained muscle because the weight loss gave me more definition.

So I looked up a clinical study in which women lost body fat while gaining muscle mass and posted the reference.  (YouTube won’t take links in comments.)  Cliffy read the study and replied that it’s sometimes possible for people who’ve never worked out and are therefore “untrained” to gain muscle while losing weight, but not for anyone who’s been regularly lifting weights – which I had been.  When I asked how being “untrained” makes the physiologically impossible become possible, he explained that I’m an idiot (and a fat, lazy old man) and must not have been “trained” even though I’d been lifting weights regularly before switching to Slow Burn.

I thought about Cliffy when Jimmy Moore posted the results of his nutritional ketosis experiment earlier this week.  When Jimmy started losing weight again after cutting back on protein and adding more fat to his diet, I was happy he’d reversed the creeping weight gain that had baffled him, but I wondered if the lower protein intake would lead to muscle loss.  That fear was put to rest when Jimmy and Christine visited us last week.  His arms looked thicker than when I saw him in July, not thinner. But of course Cliffy would insist that was just better definition creating the illusion of extra muscle mass.

Wrong once again, Cliffy.

If haven’t read Jimmy’s post, here’s the quick summary:  Two months ago he underwent a very accurate body-composition test called a DXA scan.  He had another DXA scan on Monday before leaving for Australia.  The test showed that during those two months, Jimmy shed just over 16 pounds of additional body fat while gaining just over six pounds of muscle.  He gained two pounds of muscle in his arms alone.  If that doesn’t sound like much, try this little thought experiment:  picture a one-pound lean steak.  That’s how much meat Jimmy put on each arm.  So yes, his arms are definitely thicker, not just better defined.

Cliffy would jump in at this point to insist that Jimmy was clearly “untrained” until recently.  Hogwash.  Jimmy’s been lifting weights for at least a couple of years, maybe longer.  I worked out with him on the low-carb cruise in May.  He was impressively strong.  “Untrained” muscles don’t push that much weight.  He may have been training harder lately, but he wasn’t “untrained” in May.

One of the speakers on the same low-carb cruise was Dr. Jeff Volek, who has conducted much of his research on athletes.  (It was Dr. Volek , along with Dr. Steve Phinney, who convinced Jimmy to try getting into nutritional ketosis to reverse his weight gain.)  I mentioned Cliffy’s theories to Dr. Volek one night and asked if it’s physiologically impossible to get leaner and more muscular over the same time period.  It’s not impossible at all, Dr. Volek replied; we’ve seen it happen over and over, even in athletes.  (Here’s a study in which athletes lost fat and gained lean body mass.)

So the bottom line:  don’t believe the myth that if you lose weight, you’re inevitably going to lose both muscle and fat.  If you work out and eat right, you can actually gain muscle.  I lost fat and gained muscle.  Jimmy lost fat and gained muscle, despite eating less protein than he did previously.  Athletes have lost fat while gaining muscle.

And Cliffy’s still an idiot, even if he’s not a fat, lazy old man.


44 thoughts on “Losing Fat While Gaining Muscle

  1. Bullinachinashop

    Ah yes, the eccentric exercise Jonathan Bailor also insists fat people should do. I’m really torn. I should give it a shot but I’m loving powerlifting. Last week I back squatted 405 and I was psyched, it’s so fun! The problem is I’ve seen powerlifters’ physiques and its clear as crystal that power lifting does nothing to burn fat, probably does the opposite.

    I’m sure there are some lean powerlifters out there, but the top competitors are more interested in strength than leanness. Kind of like NFL lineman who have big bellies but are strong as orangutans.

  2. DJ

    There are guys like “Cliffy” all over the internet, unfortunately. Did this Cliffy also happen to be a mailman? 😉

    Most body builders and runners are still under the impression that they absolutely MUST load up on carbs either before or after their workouts… so it doesn’t surprise me that a body builder would believe it’s impossible to lose fat and gain muscle. As long as you’re giving your body the nutrition and energy it needs (by eating enough of the right foods in sufficient quantities) there’s absolutely no reason that you can’t gain muscle while losing fat.

    I’m sure that it all stems from the belief that to lose weight, you have to cut your calories. So if you’re not feeding your body sufficiently while working out, it makes perfect sense that you’d lose muscle as well as fat.

    That was part of his (ahem) logic: gaining muscle means calorie surplus, losing weight means calorie deficit, you can’t do both at the same time. I tried to explain that perhaps my muscles were taking up more protein calories as my fat cells were releasing more fat calories, but he refused to consider the idea.

  3. AndreaLynnette

    I love how this jackass thinks that his opinion somehow negates reality. If my calves have gotten an inch in circumference bigger over the last four months, and are harder, not squishier, then I did not lose muscle in my calves. If I have, during the same time period, lost 15lbs, then I must have, somehow, lost fat while gaining muscle. Unless Cliff’s theory is that I lost weight a few ounces of fat on Monday, then gained an ounce or two of muscle on Tuesday…. I guess then that would fit his theory. His precious, precious theory.

    Here’s what really gets me: I’m having success, you’re having success, and rather than applaud our efforts, people like Cliffy have to stomp all over us because their pet theory is more important than our actual reality of getting better! Shame on him, and everyone else like him, who is so wedded to theory that they can’t see the actual, honest-to-goodness truth!

    Also, I have seen your recent pictures, Tom. You may not be a bronzed god, but you’re not fat! If this guy thinks you are, then he has a problem that I don’t think even good anti-psychotics will correct.

    Cliffy and others who disagree with me like to point to pictures of me from years ago and then call me fat. Well, yeah … back then.

  4. Daniel Kirsner

    You should talk to A. Scott Connelly about this. He’s difficult to track down, but well worth the effort.

    The mistake the “Cliffys” of the world make is equating “weight” with “energy”…along with a few other related errors…

    They assume that because your dietary energy is below maintenance, causing a net loss of energy from your body, this means that all tissues in your body are subject to the same catabolism. The big goof is failing to understand that fat contains far more energy per unit of weight than muscle, other tissues, and water. In your example, and that of others, you were “robbing” energy from bodyfat to “pay” for additional muscle. Thus speeding the fat loss process as an added benefit.

    For the same reasons, it is possible to gain weight while on a below maintenance diet (Casey Viator in The Colorado Experiment [google] is the classic example) and to (briefly) lose weight while eating above maintenance….

    I tried to make that argument with him: my body was tapping fat to make up for the fuel shortage while directing dietary protein to muscle. He couldn’t bring himself to accept the possibility.

  5. Bob Johnston

    My experience is that you don’t even need to be lifting weights to gain lean tissue. I was already low carb when I gave up Diet Pepsi (my addiction, I drank a LOT) and lost 14 lbs of fat and gained 6 lbs of lean muscle mass (according to my scale and calipers) without making any other changes during a period when I wasn’t lifting weights.

    I haven’t touched anything with Aspartame since.

    Interesting result.

  6. b-nasty

    It’s overly simplistic to say that a caloric surplus is required to add even an ounce of muscle. I think what is commonly known, but misrepresented by fools, is that to gain a ton of mass quickly, it is only really done on a massive caloric surplus (of any diet.) It makes sense, muscle tissue is expensive (metabolically), and your body won’t go jacking you up if it thinks food is scarce.

    However, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a huge gray area where one can add a decent (but not Arnold-esque) amount of muscle at or slightly below one’s energy needs.

    Unfortunately, the research just hasn’t been done or done with athletes that are actually well-adapted to a LC diet. Interesting to note, however, is that bodybuilders do frequently use a low-carb diet (Cyclic Ketogenic, Targeted Ketogenic) to drop body fat gained during a bulk (massive calories) while keeping most of the muscle gains. This shows that at worst, a LC diet isn’t as catabolic as a regular low-cal diet.

    For the record, I’ve been weight lifting for over a decade and switching to a very low carb diet hasn’t hurt my progress in any way. In fact, the increase in protein (I don’t do low protein LC) seems to have helped a good deal. Exercising where I hit my glyoclytic pathway has suffered, but with low rep-high load, I don’t notice it.

  7. Brian

    I always thought it must have been something simple with Jimmy’s stall. Good for him!

    Now I’m off to make a sandwich out of two slices of lard, pasted together with butter! Yum.

  8. lantenec

    I love it when someone tries to argue that I didn’t see what I saw with my very own eyes. That’s when, in the words of Arthur Jones the inventor of Nautilus, it’s time to “smile and walk away: you’re talking to a fool.”

    In fact, I violated my “arguing with idiots” rule when debating Cliffy … but heck, it was kind of fun.

  9. Liz

    Cliffy can’t bring himself to agree with you because his workouts, diet, and genetics look favorably on him. I can find plenty of guys who “eat cleaner” and work out as hard and don’t look like Maxim-reading fratboys. A lot depends on genetics, age, etc.

    Yup, if you’re not born with a certain proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers, you’ll never develop big popping muscles.

  10. Daniel Kirsner

    Bullinachinashop–fat powerlifters are almost exclusively found in the unrestricted (superheavyweight) weight classes. In the lower weight classes powerlifters tend to be very lean–because they have to be. A good parallel can be found with boxing and the heavyweight vs. other divisions. While resistance training, whether for bodybuilding, powerlifting, or shits ‘n’ giggles helps a bit with staying lean, diet is of course vastly more important.

  11. Buy wartrol

    Building muscle requires eating more calories than you burn while losing fat requires eating fewer calories than you burn.

    So you’re denying the existence of the many controlled clinical studies in which people lost fat while putting on muscle?

  12. Nabla

    Bullinachinashop: Konstantin Konstantinovs is an absolute beast, and lean as hell. Jamie Lewis is another lean top-level powerlifter, and I’m quite sure there are several others.

    Powerlifting in itself doesn’t make anyone fat, it’s the diets they are eating. Many believe that being a fat blob makes you a bit stronger – which may very well be the case in squat and bench (due to decreased range of motion and things like that) but generally not in the deadlift – and use that as an excuse.

    If you like powerlifting, you certainly shouldn’t give it up just because someone else recommends an another type of training. If you are worried about fat gain, keep your diet in check and supplement with some fat-loss-oriented assistance work if necessary (uphill sprints would be my first choice, but find what works for you). Congrats on your squat, keep up the good work!

    The muscle gain vs. energy balance discussion seems to have grown into a stalemate due to different backgrounds. Losing weight while gaining muscle certainly is possible, but the increases in muscle mass tend to be small. When truly maximizing muscle gain, a certain amount of increase in fat mass is generally unavoidable. However, for the more healt-and-not-being-a-fat-fuck-oriented recreational trainer, fat loss with maybe some minor-ish gains is probably the optimal solution.

    The same goes for the debate about the necessity of carbs for training. For someone serious about bodybuilding, higher carbohydrate intakes are often advisable. (I don’t know about any top-level bodybuilder who got there eating strictly low-carb. If someone can prove me wrong, go ahead). For someone looking to lose fat or just to stay lean, a lower-carb approach will work fine.

    Finally, the bigger (as in more muscular) and more advanced an individual becomes with respect to strength training, the slower and more difficult muscle gains become, whether losing weight or not. I think most readers here fall in the less-advanced category (yours truly included), who can still make gains rather easily. So, what is quite easy for you, may be much more difficult for some debatically challenged individual mentioned in the post.

    Just like with losing fat. The more you lose, the more the rate of loss tends to slow down.

  13. Claude Benshaul

    So basically losing fat while gaining muscle doesn’t work, except when it does, but if it does work then you are lying and if you are still telling the truth then it’s not the right way and may possibly kill you in the long term.

    Doesn’t it sound pretty much like what we are hearing from the nutritionist or diabetes doctors community regarding low carbing and glucose/insulin control?

    Pretty much, yes.

  14. Stipetic

    That was part of his (ahem) logic: gaining muscle means calorie surplus, losing weight means calorie deficit, you can’t do both at the same time. I tried to explain that perhaps my muscles were taking up more protein calories as my fat cells were releasing more fat calories, but he refused to consider the idea.

    I believe both of you are correct on this issue, but arguing from different vantage points. At any given moment, these two processes can’t go on together. Either the flux of constituents is going into cells or coming out at any point in time. However, after a meal both the direction of movement of fat and protein is into cells (think insulin). Once insulin falls back to normal levels post-prandially, then the fat starts leaking out of fat cells to get burned off, while the protein stays inside the muscle tissue. So, for the few hours that insulin is high due to feeding, the flux is into muscle and fat tissue. The majority of the day, the flux is out of fat cells, which supports that both processes can happen separately. I see no reason why at the end of the day both fat efflux and protein influx could have occurred.

    Pretty much what I tried to tell Cliffy. I may not be able to lose fat and gain muscle at the same moment, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t do both within the same month. He still denied it was possible.

  15. Jake

    When I switched to a Paleo diet while doing high intensity weight training, I simultaneously lost 30 lbs of fat and gained 12 lbs of muscle.

  16. Andy

    To be fair, there are differences in those brand new to lifting versus those who have been lifting for a while, mainly as far as neuromuscular adaptations go. Most notably is inhibition of the golgi tendon organ. Regardless, the human body is constantly involved in anabolic and catabolic reactions, all day every day.

    I wasn’t new to lifting, but when I adopted Slow Burn, I was lifting much heavier weights for single sets. My muscles were strained in new ways.

  17. Firebird

    There are plenty of examples of lean power lifters. In fact, most of the competitive bodybuilders back in the early 1900s through the mid-50s (when steroids creeped in to the industry) were also competitive powerlifters…Steve Reeves, John Grimek, and this guy who looks fantastic, Tommy Kono:


  18. eddie watts

    it is silly but based upon truth of sorts, as always context is everything.
    a 250 pound bodybuilder with around 8% body fat may well struggle to lose more bodyfat without losing some muscle mass
    but another 250 pound guy who is say 20-40% bodyfat will find it considerably easier to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.
    but not many really knowledgable lifters are going to say stupid crap like he is.

    i think this is one of those situations where the idiots are the ones you usually encounter in any given field more so than the reasoned individuals.

    Sure, if you’re already quite lean and quite muscled, it will be difficult to get both leaner and more muscular at the same time. But Cliffy was insisting I couldn’t be losing fat from my not-so-lean body while gaining muscle.

  19. Devon

    This myth is going to die hard. I’m a bodybuilder and from personal experience i can tell you that i have put muscle on while dieting. I also know several other people who have noticed this as well. I would wager that people think this because after a certain point of starving yourself to get in competition shape you will begin to lose muscle.

    It just amazes me that people like Cliffy try to tell me that what I experienced personally is impossible.

  20. Tom Welsh

    Almost everyone likes to feel they understand the world better than other people. The Web has made that easier for them, as they can engage in the kind of empty “yes-it-does/no-it-doesn’t” argument you describe, without ever having to adduce evidence or provide convincing logic.

    I sometimes participate in discussions on Slashdot, a forum read mostly by a self-selected bunch of programmers and other geeks. The average standard of debate is quite high, but when it comes to subjects like diet, exercise, and weight loss most of them react just like “Cliffy”. I gave up the fifth or sixth time I was confronted by a blank wall of denial – “Laws of Thermodynamics, calories in minus calories out, END OF STORY”. (People like that really love to claim there is nothing to say after they have delivered their half-baked opinions).

    Yup, it’s like talking to a wall sometimes.

  21. Richard

    Cliffies of the E-world annoy me.

    They just can’t accept that everything they think they know about food is wrong, even when one day their eating catches them and they get fat or worse.

    Cliffy may never get fat, which will only convince him all the more that he knows what makes others fat.

  22. NM

    To believe one can’t burn fat while building muscle, you’d have to believe something that makes no evolutionary sense.

    Look at it this way:

    Grok put on some fat over the winter. Good thing. Hunting was tough. So he lay about more, conserving his heat and energy. He may well lose some (metabolically expensive) and put on some fat to burn during this period.

    Then spring comes. Gazelles are leaping about. Grok needs to sprint to catch them. He needs to drag them back to his shelter. All requiring stronger muscles.

    Fortunately, evolution isn’t an IDIOT, so he gets them. His exertions are largely fuelled by his body-fat and ketones, which makes him lighted, so he can catch more animals, which brings more protein, which strengthens more muscle, which means, in turn, he can catch more animals still.

    In a time of plenty like this, there’s no reason to store lots of body fat, but plenty of reason to optimise musculature.

    If you thus believe burning fat whilst building muscle is impossible, you’re forced to believe that we evolved some bizarre and counter-productive endocrine system that was cussedly opposed to seasonal adaptive survival!

    Good points.

  23. Paul B.

    Interesing post–a few thoughts:

    It is certainly possible to gain muscle and simultaneously lose fat under some circumstances–1) when one first starts training, 2) when one resumes after a layoff, 3) if one is taking steriods/GH/testosterone, or 4) if one makes dramatic changes to one’s training routine. Regarding the last–the body adapts to any stimulus–if there is a dramatic change to one’s routine e.g. increased intensity or volume, it may be enough of a shock to stimulate further growth.

    I competed in powerlifting in the 80s before all of the supportive gear got way out of hand, and before the judging standards went out the window (esp. with the smaller/newer PL organizations). Back then one had to rely more on muscle than supportive gear and technique. Some of the top lifters back then (Jim Cash, Roger Estep, Jay Rosciglione) had physiques as good as any bodybuilder I’ve seen.

    One last thought–I have noticed that if I go very low in carbs my muscles tend to “flatten out” and get stringy–I suppose because more carbs = more glycogen = more fullness in the muscle tissue.

    Cliffy started by insisting it’s physiologically impossible to gain muscle and lose fat because gaining muscle requires a calorie surplus and losing fat requires a calorie deficit. His “untrained” explanation doesn’t change anything in that supposed equation.

  24. Paul B.

    Always enjoy your blog, Tom. However, posts like this are even more enjoyable to me. I started exercising last summer, and through about eight or nine months of self education I began weight lifting. I read forums on a certain body building website fairly often, and almost every poster there is anti-low carb. Just yesterday I found an interview of Dr. Ellis on that site, was going to mention the interview and his blog here, but saw that he’s at the top of your blog roll!

    If any of the other readers here have good web-sites/sources for low-carb weightlifting (I’m not looking to be a pro BBer or Strongman competitor), please provide that info.

    One of the BIGGEST victories for me on a low carb diet is that before I went low carb and (especially) no wheat… I never had the drive to get my butt up and do ANY exercise. Once I got my diet in check with high-fat, no wheat, low carb, I actually felt good enough to actively desire to go to the gym. The Fat-Head movie was the catalyst that started it for me, and I know I’ve said thanks at least once before… but thanks again!

    I’m happy to hear that. Same goes for me. I no longer have to whip myself into exercising because I feel energetic and want to use my body.

  25. Jason B.

    Regarding Bob Johnston’s experience with artificial sweeteners, the research seems to back him up:

    Now, of course, to be properly scientific, we have to remember that correlation doesn’t mean causation… somebody might say, “Duh, of course there’s a link between people gaining weight and drinking diet soda–because only people who are struggling with weight gain would drink diet soda!”

    That’s right. Let’s not jump to conclusions just yet.

  26. Bullinachinashop

    Daniel @ Nabla: I suppose you’re right, I’m just going by the YouTube videos where I see obese-looking guys squat huuuge loads.

    As for the supplements, I think you’re right. I’ve been thinking about replacing the assistance exercises with circuits; also, an overpass near my house was rebuilt with a sidewalk and a steep stairway on the side. I think I’ll be crossing that highway a lot in the near future 🙂

  27. Ricardo

    Hey do you happen do classify your self with one of these terms in the video?

    Hmmm … let me get back to you on that.

  28. Firebird

    The Casey Viator study is a bit flawed. He was in a motorcycle accident and atrophied from his time off during recovery and rehabilitation. First, muscle lost is muscle regained and second, he was using steroids at the time.

  29. K

    Hi Tom,

    Incredible. Idiots abound, eh? My weight has been pretty stable around 114 lbs (5’4″) for a few years. A couple of years ago I got an over-the-doorframe chin-up bar, and while I cannot do ANY from a dead hang, I do lots of variations of chin ups, hanging crunches, etc, even just doing a few while I wait for the kettle to boil. My arms have bulked a tad and are definitely more defined – so much so that you can even see it through the sleeve of a thin sweater. So….if you have to lose muscle mass when you lose weight, the converse then is true, according to Cliffy? Well, then, how did I maintain a steady weight and gain mass, meaning I had to lose a bit of fat and gain a bit of muscle? Huh. Puzzling. 😉

    Not sure where else to post this or if you have already seen it, but here is a link to a new article by Gary Taubes on sugar and the industry. There is a video interview in the article, where it sounds like he might be working on a new book on sugar. I look forward to reading it, but I feel it might be preaching to the choir. I wish more people would be exposed to it – and I know his many articles in the NY Times helps with that – but I fear most people who read the new book are folks such as us who already know the issues.


    My apologies if you have already seen this or someone else already sent it.

    Please keep fighting the good fight. I so enjoy your posts, especially the politically-inclined ones. 🙂


    I did see it, but no apologies necessary. I’d rather 20 people alert me to a good article or video than miss it.

  30. Live Free or Diet

    “Building muscle requires eating more calories than you burn while losing fat requires eating fewer calories than you burn.”

    What if you burn fat to build muscle? Science has repeatedly shown the body does not differentiate between exogenous and endogenous sources of fuels and nutrients.

    That’s what I tried to tell Cliffy. Since I know darned good and well I gained muscle while losing fat, I figure my body diverted dietary protein to building muscle and tapped the fat stores for energy.

  31. Ari Mendelson

    Inspired by Jimmy, tried upping my fat intake and dropping my protein intake to see what would happen. I did lose weight. But my strength did decrease slightly but noticeably. I bumped up the meat consumption and the strength returned immediately.

    I’ve been training for years and have experimented with dozens of exercise protocols and a few different eating plans, including some sophisticated “nutrient timing.” Plain old low carb works for me. But too much fat without a good helping of protein doesn’t seem to. I guess it’s different for different hormonal/chemical makeups.

    P.S. I once mentioned to Jimmy that I always figured that if you’re interested in fitness, you should become a student of it just as you (and he) are students of nutrition. Another perspective on fitness, and one that has helped me tremendously over the past few months has been Dan John. His book and his “Intervention” DVD series are excellent. Since putting some of his ideas into practice, I increased my pullup strength noticeably. Yesterday, I attached 105 lbs. to a weight belt and did two dead-hang pullups. (I can supply video if you’re seriously curious and don’t believe it).

    I’ve done well with Slow Burn and I’m happy with the muscles I have at age 54, but I’d take a look.

  32. Andre Chimene

    Tom, here is the explanation for why this works. I have been with Dr. Ron Rosedale for over 3 years now and here is what he told me long ago.

    Your cells need to eat 24 hours a day. When you are fasting, either asleep or inbetween meals, your body is still eating. If you are a sugar burner, your body is used to eating glucose and through metabolic momentum, looks for glucose while you are not eating. It finds it thru gluconeogenisis. Your body goes into your muscles and bones looking for amino acids to break down into glucose.
    So you are eating in, between meals and while you are asleep, those hard earned gains in muscle and bones from your workouts. 2 steps forward, 1 step back.

    If you are a ketone burner, thru metabolic momentum, your body prefers ketones while you fast. So now it goes to your fat stores for fuel and preserves your hard gained muscle and bones. 2 steps forward, 0 steps back.

    I am 54 now, bodybuilding all my life. I am more muscular now, working out 30 minutes per day than when I was 24 or 34 working out 2 hours per day. I am also Type 1 Diabetic thanks to a bodybuilders high protein/high carb diet. I can see my abs without reading glasses.

    You would dig Dr. Rosedale. He would dig you.

    That all makes sense. I’m familiar with Dr. Rosedale and was sorry he had to cancel his lecture for the previous low-carb cruise.

  33. BA

    I think that the main reason that people still have these misconceptions about nutrition and fitness is because of extrapolating conclusions to a sample to which it does not apply.

    If you eat a large amount of carbohydrates, there is no way you’re going to burn fat and gain muscle at the same time, because the missing link in that equation is that the metabolic “switch” to burn bodyfat has to happen to compensate for decreasing carbohydate intake. We all know from personal experience, that simply doesn’t happen, and you just get hungry and irritable.

    Insulin has a powerful anabolic effect when it comes to muscle recovery. So much so, that it can become a factor in how you would train to maximize recovery in the face of a very intense strength training schedule. But this is only really relevant to someone on the level of a professional bodybuilder, who is doing multiple hour workouts of many many sets to complete failure every single day in preparation for the competitive

    For a normal person, I think there are three point that I’ve noticed anecdotally that bear some consideration —

    1) If you are training 2-3 times a week, that is plenty of downtime for the modest insulinogenic properties of protein to give you all the stimulus to push nutrients into the muscles that you need.

    2) Muscle growth is not 100% insulin / IGF-1 dependent. Muscles produce their own growth factors internally, and have multiple redundant pathways to accomplish what they need to do. The scientific literature is replete with this information.

    3) Carbohydrate restriction, by putting your body in a configuration that is more glucose-sparing, inhibits muscle catabolism (oddly this might be part of the evolutionary picture, carbohydrates cause you to break down muscle at a greater rate so insulin fights that tendency)

    4) If you are going to experiment with adding carbohydrates specifically for strength training, it should only be in your directly post-workout mean, PERIOD. The only time that adding carbohydrates in makes any sense whatsoever is during the window in which GLUT4 is upregulated in the muscle cell membranes. In which case, you want to combine a sizeable (~30g+) amount of protein with an amount of carbohydrate that is able to spike insulin (this will vary tremendously from person to person). Even then, this is not mandatory whatsoever for making size/strength gains under a low-carb regimen. Keep in mind, what I’m talking about here is not “carb cycling”, this has nothing to do with topping off glycogen, that whole idea is complete nonsense (as though your small baseline insulin level on low carb isn’t constantly topping off your glycogen stores from siphoning off small amounts of blood sugar all the time!)

  34. lantenec

    You know, this is kinda-sorta related to something I’ve been thinking about for a while. That being how on traditional calorie restriction diets you inevitably lose muscle. Sometimes quite a bit of muscle. (And, as I’m beginning to suspect, those supporting muscles you can’t see and even bone mass possibly.) Like once, about ten years ago I lost 50 pounds in a year on extremely calorie restrictive diet. (1200 calories a day for a 6′ 200 male! Mostly carbs too. Never again….) My thighs are usually filled out and muscular but after that they looked like toothpicks. As a friend of mine says, on those kind of diets you weigh less but you’re just smaller all over, muscles, fat, etc.

    I’ve been dealing with a minor back problem (nothing major, just 1-3 out 10 on the pain scale, very ignorable most of the time) for a long time now. That’s what I’ve been wondering about. I get the recommendation to lose weight, and how being overweight makes it worse. In other words I get the physics/mechanics of that; the torque on the spine and how losing that weight would help with that. But I was thinking if, in that situation, you lose weight through traditional methods you’re going to end up losing muscle from the big muscles, and the little spinal muscles and the whole nine yards. Possibly making things worse?

    From my own experience, when I was in college from about 2005 to 2011 I was routinely eating about 1600 calories a day. Just out of habit really. I just bought the same stuff at the grocery store every week. I had even started the low carb thing when I came across your movie about 2010-11, but was still eating 1600/day. (Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t be surprised if it starting getting bad in the first place because of all those years of calorie restrictive diets. ) And of course through all those years my back pain was coming and going, sometimes fairly bad. In 2011 it was getting so bad, finally I got the clue and upped my calories over 2000 LCHF and the general trend seems to be less pain on average.

    I would think eating low carb would have certain advantages in regard to this kind of thing over traditional calorie restrictive diets. I would think you really don’t have to restrict by very many calories to lose fat on a low carb diet? (a few calories sufficient maybe?) I’ve actually been doing hardcore weight lifting (HIT/heavy duty) since I stopped restricting calories and gained a lot of weight, mostly muscle I think. Hopefully I haven’t gained too much fat; can’t tell visually but again, I suspect I’ve been gaining back some of those supporting muscles and bone mass too. (I know I’ve heard of studies regarding people who are overweight and people who lift weights having more bone mass. )

    Anybody have any thoughts on this stuff?

    I don’t count my calories, but I suspect I consume fewer of them now. The difference is that I’m never hungry because I have easier access to stored body fat. When I lost weight on calorie-restricted but high-carb diets, I was hungry most of the time and seemed to lose muscle too. The one time I semi-starved myself below 170 pounds, I know I lost muscle. My arms and chest started to look thin.

  35. Rae

    Always entertaining how the people like Cliffy resort to insults and name calling when they can’t back their argument with science.

    I like it when people I’m debating resort to name-calling. Then I know they’re out of ammunition.

  36. Nick S

    Bro-science is always good for a laugh. “Bro, you totally gotta be on a bulk/cut cycle to get big.”

    A lot of bodybuilders and powerlifters correctly believe that the *optimal* way to add muscle mass is on a significant calorie surplus, but some of them take that one step further and start thinking that it’s the *only* way, which is patently wrong.

  37. Rebecca

    Hi! I love your movie – and I’ve just started a low carb diet! I’ve been eating a low calorie diet for more than 10 months now, and have had very little success, so I’m hoping this works out. But after learning about the science behind it, I’m pretty confident! So glad you have a blog too – you’re definitely going in my feed!! 🙂

  38. Mike G

    Here is how I know for sure that I am gaining muscle while losing fat: my wife is becoming jealous of my physique. I started Slow Burn back in June. Then I read Jonathan Bailor’s book “Smarter Science of Slim” and tried his routine. It started to work really well for about two weeks, but then I started feeling pain in my lower back. Not good for me. So I went back to Slow Burn after taking two weeks off, and I have slowly seen gains in my arms, chest, legs – everywhere. My wife says I’m looking “buff.” At age 47 – that is the first time in my life I’ve ever been called “buff.” So Cliffy is wrong on multiple levels – the science level and my wife’s observational level.
    And thanks again Tom for making “Fat Head.” I am showing it to my high school students – and they are starting to “get it.” I’ll be teaching them the details of ATP production after the Thanksgiving break, and then I’ll tie those concepts together with low-carb nutrition. Young minds are so much easier to reach than adults – especially adults like Cliffy..

    That was a big advantage of Slow Burn for me: I stopped injuring myself, despite working out pretty hard. No time off to nurse an injury meant steadier progress.

    I’m delighted you’re showing Fat Head to students.

  39. Nick

    Finally, an article that says meat has some value. In this case, they say it’s good for the brain. However, the end of this article may not be good for the brain, because you’re going to be pounding your head on your desk because they repeat the arterycloggingsaturatedfat crap. Also, this is the longest link I’ve ever seen. Here it is:

    That was amazingly long. I’ve substituted a TinyURL:


    The article reminds me of points made in the excellent book “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.” We developed big brains first because of eating meat, then by cooking our food.

  40. truckerzero

    I lifted weights once a while back my arms went from 13 inches to 15 inches in 6. Months at the same time my weight went from 220 to 185 I was eating lots of steak and a gallon og milk a day and was not trying to lose weight just gain muscle but lost it any way

  41. Phillip

    I think that you are right.You can lose weight and gain muscle at the same time.Depends on your purposes and your ambition.The diet is the most important factor in my opinion also for losing weight and for gaining muscle too.


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