First up, I wanted to say is that it's so good to see more and more women approach muscle building phases the right way and actually wanting to spend time getting stronger and focus on building muscle - versus always focusing on losing weight.
The reason this is so important is because if we're constantly driving for fat loss, we're actually constantly putting our bodies in a metabolically taxing place.
If we are always in a calorie deficit, we are constantly targeting metabolic adaptation, and stay in a catabolic state. Catabolic simply means we are breaking down molecules into smaller units that are either oxidized to release energy or used in other anabolic reactions. So the longer we are in a calorie deficit, the longer we are breaking down our body.
Now this isn't to create fear or scare you, as a calorie deficit is needed in order to lose fat and lean up. And fat loss can be a good thing for many people, it can be confidence-boosting. It can make you healthier in some cases. It can help you perform better in other cases. So I am not here to say you should NEVER go into a deficit.
But what I am here to say is that there should be periods of time throughout the year where you get out of the deficit and you focus on maintaining your weight or even trying to build muscle - which sometimes means going into a surplus.
The truth is, I've worked with countless women, hundreds and hundreds by now, who chase weight loss over and over again because they are fixated on seeing a certain number on the scale and as soon as they get to this "goal weight" they think they're going to be happy with their body
...but they are not.
The reason they're not is because when they finally get to their "goal weight" they still don't like what they see. They don't look lean, athletic or have the type of physique they are striving for -- which is one that actually has a good amount of muscle, it has what I call density and shape, which is basically what a lot of people refer to as "tone". (Us trainers know that "toned" isn't technically a word, but we know exactly what you mean when you're chasing that "toned look". You're looking for firmness & density - a physique that is athletic and lean.)
And #truthbomb: The only way to get there is to spend time at maintenance and in surpluses, targeting muscle gains so that when you do cut, you look lean and athletic, not just skinny and soft.
Which brings me to...
Back in the day when I first started nutriton coaching I used to give out 8 or 12 week meal plans, and that was it. There was no long-term plan, no plan for after the diet. It was literally "do this, get this result and you'll be sweet".
Now, thanks to years of experience & learning, I use a much smarter method.
It's called nutritional periodization.
What I do with my clients is I start by spending time building up their calories as well as optimising the body first, before going into a fat loss phase. Pretty much every single woman I have worked with has done years of yoyo dieting, focusing only on "losing weight" and it's crazy how much they benefit from this first phase. They've never focused on building up their calories & metabolism and optimising health.
So that is normally the first periodized "phase", because this primes us for building an athletic body - and just makes the fat loss phase and the muscle building phase a lot more effective.
This can be hard for women to accept though, as they will normally reach out to a coach with the intention of wanting to "lose weight" right away. This is where having a bit more patience and trusting the process will actually deliver better quality resutls.
If you start a cut from extremely low calories (and a history of dieting/living in a deficit) where do you go from there? You can't cut ALL your calories (for obvious reasons)? And how do you think the body will respond to something like that? Well I can tell you right now your body doesn't like being forced, and it doesn't like living on low energy.
Once you have optimised health and increased your maintenance calories, you can go through the fat loss phase without losing more muscle in the process.
Then next we can go into a fat loss phase - which is pretty straightforward and works extremely well especially once we have optimised the body first.
After completing the fat loss phase, I like to spend anywhere from 3-8 weeks maintaining the new bodyweight/physique before possibly going into a very small surplus to slowly gain muscle (only if needed as I have found many women can gain muscle eating at maintenance if they are optimizing all the other areas of their life - see below).
The key is slow and steady.
Once you are at that maintenance caloric intake, you want to spend time at that maintenance caloric intake, not trying to immediately go into a surplus because the metabolism is very adaptive and if we jump too quickly and go forward too quickly or raise calories too quickly, we can end up gaining body fat instead of muscle.
And during this phase where the goal is to maintain your weight, we want to give our body the best shot possible of gaining muscle (because we know it's going to be a "recomp" or "lean muscle). So I focus on optimising other things in your life - like sleep, stress, lifestyle, micronutrients, vitamins, minerals. This is all about balancing the hormones and optimising the body now so that it's primed to gain muscle and not fat when we go into a small surplus.
During this time I also put a huge focus on doing the right kind of training, things like swapping up and intensity or volume and making sure you're tracking your main lifts and ENSURING progressive overload is happening - i.e. checking that you are actually getting stronger and adding weight week to week.
I also add other intensification techniques, drops sets, EDTs, quarter reps pause reps and basically things that extend time under tension or added intensities into your training to literally just get more out of each session -- so you're doing more work & more volume each session. That's going to contribute to more growth and even though you're at a maintenance caloric intake, and not in a surplus, you will still gain muscle if we optimise all the other lifestyle layers.
Then last but not least this is where I'll say it can be helpful to focus on the 2% extras. Things like supplementing with creatine, a highly branched cyclic dextrin, even adding intra workout carbohydrates, little tiny things like that that might only make a 1-2% difference, but they do make a difference and we do all these things in a compound manner.
After this compound effect of all these little 1% & 2% things, we've created more muscle growth without adding calories. THAT my friend, is the secret and the first step in gaining muscle without gaining fat. We do this while we're at maintenance caloric intake. And we milk this phase for ALL WE CAN.
Then only once you've hit a plateau, do we even think about increasing your calories by a very small amount - just a 5-10% surplus. You don't need to make a significant jump in calories because even that little bit is going to add to your muscle growth per month.
As a female (especially if you are an advanced lifter) you really should be only striving for around 250g in weight gain per month, along with a high quality progressive training program, which doesn't seem like much, but even for myself (I've been training for eight to nine years now) if I can get that much pure muscle per month, I am so pumped.
Gaining muscle without adding fat is a slow process, but if you look at doing that over the course of six months you'll have some visible results. You'll have gotten a pretty nice body recomp. And it will be a change in your body - not just a smaller version of the same body. Adding muscle to the right places will add density and shape to your body and as opposed to fat. It looks a lot leaner. It adds to your appearance and it creates more density in your muscles.
What I do not ever recommend for women is to do a traditional "bulk" where you increase your calories a lot. What happens with this is - is that you end up eating too many calories and accumulating fat in the process - because your body really only has a limit to how much muscle it can put on each month. Consistent excess food will be stored as fat -- which will then take away from the body you are trying to build - and just mean you will have to go further fat loss phases down the track to lose the fat.
So remember ladies! It is important to build muscle. And in order to do that without adding fat you need to periodize your diet and your training and your nutrition over the course of a year.
Spend time burning fat, spend time maintaining, and then spend time strategically and slowly adding muscle - so that when you come back to this fat loss phase and you lose weight again, you're not at your lowest weight, but you're at your lowest body fat set point with your highest muscle mass set point and that's going to finally give you that lean but athletic look that you want.
In a nutshell, the best way to do add muscle without gaining fat is go through that periodization process, -- and when you are in the maintenance phase this is where you need to be very structured in your training and add those 1-2 percenters. Get a handle on stress management and add different intensification to your training while at that maintenance caloric intake so you can double down on muscle growth without adding calories. Then ONLY after you hit a plateau add about 5 to 10% calorie increase via carbohydrates and just slowly, patiently watch muscle growth happen while really focusing on progressive overload inside your strength training.
That is going to be the best way for a female lifter to gain muscle mass without gaining fat.
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