Can You Build Muscle and Burn Body Fat?

3 Ways to Simultaneously Build Muscle and Burn off Body Fat

By: Brandon Rynka

This sounds like someone who wants to have their cake and eat it too. Is building muscle and burning fat simultaneously really possible? The short answer, yes it is. For more experienced lifters and seasoned athletes, this becomes more challenging, although not impossible. For less experienced individuals, the likelihood of this occurring is quite high with the right approach.
Regardless of which camp you fall into (experienced or relatively new trainee) choosing the right exercises is the key to having this reality come to fruition. Below are 3 methods that have worked extremely well for myself and my clients over the years, and am confident will work for you as well.

 

1. Sprinting

Sprinting is a lost art for many lifters. The idea of doing something “cardio” based is seen as blasphemy in many narrow-minded lifting circles. Where this “anti-fitness” ideology came from, I’m not sure, but regardless of where and when it started, the advice to avoid becoming fitter is head-scratching at best. I’m not saying you should go-out and run 5 miles every day, but improving how your body functions is only going to help your case for building muscle and burning off unwanted body fat. The key is to find the right equation, and of course, the right form of exercise.

Sprinting is far different from good old fashion low intensity steady state (LISS) cardio. LISS is on one end of the aerobic spectrum and sprinting is categorized as an anaerobic conditioning method, which excitingly gives us lots of the same benefits that traditional cardio does, but with the added bonus of building muscle and shredding body fat. LISS is based primarily around oxygen usage and relies predominantly on the oxidative energy system, whereas sprinting is far more dynamic and explosive by nature, and relies heavily on the phosphagen system and glycolytic system, depending on the sprint distance.

The oxidative energy system is low intensity, and relies on slow twitch muscle fibers to propel us through long bouts of activity, think long distance cycling or running. Sprinting, given its explosive, powerful nature is fast twitch dominant, meaning the muscle fibers contract very quickly and hard, but don’t contract at high levels for very long.

Activities and exercises that engage more of our fast twitch muscle fibers are the modalities that are going to give us the muscle building response we’re looking for. You won’t be gaining muscle engaging in modalities that are slow twitch dominant in nature, case in point, your neighbor Bill who jogs 3 x per week yet still can’t fill his sleeves out or bench press his own body weight.

A study out of Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism took a look at 15 recreationally active women and placed them on a 6 week Sprint Interval Training (SIT) program, which consisted of 4 to 6, 30 second “max-effort” sprints on a self-propelled treadmill, with 4 minutes of recovery between sets, 3 times per week. The results? Not surprising, were off the charts.

Training decreased body fat mass by 8.0% & waist circumference by 3.5%, while increasing fat-free mass by 1.3%, maximal oxygen consumption (V02 Max) by 8.7% and peak running speed by 4.8%.

Holy shit, that’s a lot of benefits. Not only did these women lose body fat, lower their waist size and put on muscle, but they also improved performance!

I know you don’t need it after that study, but want more proof? Look no further than the majority of Olympic Sprinters who spend the majority of their time, you guessed it, sprinting. They’re jacked, ripped and some of the greatest athletes on planet earth. That’s no coincidence.

2. Compound Movements like the Squat & Deadlift

The squat and deadlift are the kings of all exercises. They have the overall largest global impact on the body, meaning they engage an incredibly high degree of muscle fibers while sending the loudest signal to the central nervous system to adapt. Both of which contributes to a stronger muscular contraction and a heavy impact on metabolic functions that assist in fat burn and muscle gain.

The great thing about the deadlift and squat is you can't perform these movements properly without having the entire kinetic chain working in unison. When our body is forced into this level of full-body engagement and spiked motor-unit recruitment, not only do we send a very loud signal to build muscle and get stronger, but we activate all the mechanisms that come with that: faster metabolism, greater growth hormone production, higher levels of testosterone etc. all of which help us burn off body fat quite effectively.

It’s important to note that adaptation is king. When you properly apply progressive resistance training (PRT) and create an environment to grow, your body composition changes for the better. To be efficient, the louder the signal you send in the gym, the better.

In an 8 week study comparing Multi-Joint (MJ) exercises like the bench press, squat, deadlift etc.to Single Joint (SJ) exercises (think isolation movements: leg extensions, hamstring curls, dumbbell fly etc.) with total workout volume being equal, results showed that the multi joint group gained 3-5% more in maximal strength (10.9 to 8.1 in the bench press & 13.8% to 8.3% in the squat), but also showed higher levels of maximal oxygen consumption. Although both groups showed improvements in all markers being analyzed, multi-joint exercises demonstrated a far bigger bang for your buck.

In the long run, increases in performance (strength gains) will compound and create an environment for greater training volume (sets x reps x weight), compared to a group who built similar muscle in 8 weeks using isolation exercises, but far less strength. Over the long run (6-12 months) is where the significant performance gap separation will lead to far superior gains.

If this study hasn’t convinced you that you’re better off spending the majority of your time using multi-joint movements compared to isolation exercises then just try it yourself. I’ll take deadlifts and squats over 5-6 accessory exercises every day of the week.

3. Explosive Power Movements

Movements like the hang clean, power clean, snatch & clean and jerk are all amazing exercises to burn off body fat and get incredibly fit and sculpted. Just take a look at Cross Fitters. These athletes have some of the best physiques in the world - regardless of what you think about their sport - thanks to movements like the clean and snatch, among other factors. Sure, the training modality is a bit questionable due to the excessive volume and time based approach of very technical movements, but the movements themselves are some of the very best in the world, this goes without debate.

This is where Cross Fit deserves some real praise; they finally showed the ‘general pop’ that deadlifts, squats, thrusters, cleans, jerks and snatches - big multi-joint, power oriented movements – are not just for performance, but can and should be an addition to everyone’s training routine if an incredible physique and high standard of fitness is your goal.

Even though some people may argue that Olympic lifting and plyometrics aren’t great muscle builders, because they don’t accentuate the eccentric or negative phase, nor do they position the body under a ton of time under tension, there’s more to the story.

A deadlift is primarily concentric too, but guess what happens to our muscles when we deadlift? They grow big, really big, and we get Viking strong too. Why -- because the body is placed under a great deal of internal tension, with an exercise that is unmatched when loading is the conversation.

Mechanical tension is the primary mechanism to grow a muscle fiber. Yes, even more important than muscle damage, although both have their place of course. Tension on a muscle is key. When you perform a full body power movement like that of the Olympic lifts, you are requiring your body to be placed under a great deal of tension, and are dependent on your fast contracting Type II fibers (our muscle building fibers) to fire in order to complete a successful lift. Even ballistic movements like jumps (vertical, box, standing long jump & hurdles) will have a favourable physiological response towards muscle development.

Anybody who says that explosive power movements don’t make great muscle builders are almost certainly slow and un-athletic, and have never seen an Olympic weight lifter before. Explosive power training exerts the system more than people expect, making it a great tool to kick start the fat burning, muscle building process.

In a recent meta-analysis out of Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, experiments on power training and its efficacy on muscle hypertrophy with older adults were performed. “The meta-analysis showed that power training was superior for muscle hypertrophy compared with control condition, and resulted in similar hypertrophy compared with moderate-velocity resistance training.”

Let me remind you that this article isn’t about the best “pure muscle building movements”, it’s about the best simultaneous fat loss and muscle building exercises you can do. This is why explosive power movements made this list. Their fast twitch, high tension, high force production makes them the perfect exercise to look better naked. Period. Combine all 3 into your routine, and look like a million bucks, guaranteed.

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