I am naturally on the skinny side, but I think I’m what is known as “skinny fat” because I don’t really have much muscle definition. Not only would I like to get more toned, but I really want to build muscle and size generally. However, I don’t want to gain a lot of belly fat in the process. How should I be eating and working out to do this?
— Ready to Build
Building muscle is an excellent goal! Not only will having more muscle give you the aesthetic you desire, but it comes with a whole host of health benefits like improved heart health and stronger bones.
If traditional bodybuilding tradition is to be followed, you should build muscle by “bulking” AKA eating in a calorie surplus which also comes with fat gain, and then go into a “cutting” phase to shed the fat. However, this doesn’t have to be the way.
Keep body fat low by playing the long game
As I’ve explained before, there is no such thing as “toning” — looking “toned” means having muscle and low enough body fat to see the definition.
It’s often said that if you want to look like you’ve gained 10 pounds of muscle, you should lose 10 pounds of fat. Indeed, when I lost fat and revealed the muscle I’d built underneath, everyone suddenly thought I’d just got into fitness and built muscle, which wasn’t true.
Building muscle is a slow process, and it takes a lot longer than gaining fat — if you jump into a huge calorie surplus thinking you’ll build more muscle, you’ll likely be disappointed.
It’s actually possible to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, which is a process known as body recomposition, so by taking your time with your muscle building process and doing it gradually, you’ll gain less fat and be able to maintain the “toned” look.
Niko Algieri is a personal trainer and TRX expert.
“You can reduce body fat and build muscle at the same time but it’s a slower process than doing one then the other, but it’s what I’d recommend for you,” personal trainer and TRX Live director Niko Algieri told Insider. “It’s smarter and easier to maintain than bulking and then stripping body fat with some crazy fad diet.”
Focus on compound exercises
When it comes to your workouts, weight-lifting is, of course, your best bet. Truth be told, your training shouldn’t change much regardless of whether your goal is muscle gain or fat loss.
“Prioritize heavy compound lifts that target several muscle groups at once (including your core), such as squats, deadlifts, push-ups, and rows, ” Danyele Wilson, Lead Trainer at Tone & Sculpt app, told Insider. “Focus on training 3-5 times a week, increasing the weight or intensity so that you’re consistently progressing.”
This is called progressive overload, and is an essential principle for making those all-important gains.
“This progressive approach increases the ‘time under tension,’ creating more stimulus for muscle growth over time,” Wilson said.
Traditionally, working in the 6-12 rep range is thought to lead to hypertrophy (muscle gain) — less than that is strength-focused, and more than that is endurance. However, the truth is that it’s not really as easy to break down as this, and actually, our bodies adapt best to whatever training style is new.
Algieri recommends keeping things simple by choosing 3-4 exercises per muscle group and performing 3-4 sets of each exercise for 8-12 reps.
“Choose weights that get difficult towards the end of each set, but not impossible,” he said. “Famous bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman always said: ‘Stimulate the muscle, don’t annihilate it.’ This allows for more consistent, regular training. Never overtrain.”
Eat to build muscle
Training is only one part of the puzzle — eating right is a key element in the muscle-building process, you want to support the growth of lean muscle mass.
Firstly, how much should you eat?
Dr. Mike Molloy, founder of nutrition coaching company M2 Performance Nutrition, said you need to ensure you’re eating enough food overall: “Simply put, gaining lean muscle mass is substantially harder when you’re in a calorie deficit,” he told Insider.
So yes, you want to be in a moderate calorie surplus, but the key word here is moderate — don’t go crazy.
Make sure you’re consuming enough protein
Protein is key, and Molloy says most people (particularly women) don’t consume enough to build muscle.
“You can do all the weight training you want, but if you don’t give your body the right building blocks to build new muscle, your results will be suboptimal,” he said. “With that in mind, I would recommend consuming somewhere between 1.6-2.2 grams of protein per kg of body weight.”
Focus on whole food sources like seafood, lean grass-fed meat, low-fat dairy, free-range eggs, nuts, and beans, and try to spread your daily intake out among all your meals. If you’re struggling to hit your target, you might want to consider adding a serving of protein powder to your diet — I like adding a scoop to oats, smoothies, and yogurt.
Dr. Mike Molloy is is the founder of nutrition coaching business M2 Performance Nutrition.
Dr Mike Molloy
It’s not all about protein though, you want to keep your diet balanced with plenty of good quality carbohydrates to give you energy for training.
Fats are important too, providing fuel and aiding in the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K. Focus on sources like avocado, nuts, and olive, canola, peanut, and sesame oils. “Fats also help maintain testosterone levels for increased muscle mass,” Algieri said.
Don’t stress about your diet being “perfect” though — the best diet is one you can stick to, so don’t cut out any of your favorite foods.
Don’t neglect your sleep
While diet and training are the most important elements in building muscle, recovery is also important. Our muscles repair when we rest and sleep, so don’t overdo your workouts.
“Sleep to grow,” Algieri said. “Between seven and nine hours of sleep is vital for the repair and growth of the muscles that you’ve effectively ‘damaged’ in your training.”
When you’re sleep-deprived you’re more likely to crave sugary foods too, according to research.
Ensure you’re staying hydrated, drinking enough water that your urine is a pale straw color.
Change the way you think about gaining fat
Consider trying to change your mindset around gaining fat, for two reasons.
“I understand that people don’t want to gain any fat while building muscle, but should that happen, it really is a temporary issue,” Molloy said. “The act of building lean muscle increases our total daily energy expenditure dramatically. This means that if and when the time comes where you do want to lean out, you’ll be able to do so on a higher calorie count. Losing weight while eating more food sounds like a win to me, and a very good reason to focus on making some new muscle.”
“Focus on fueling your muscle repair, recovery, and growth rather than being fearful of gaining body fat,” Wilson said. “These tips will lead to gradual results in appearance, but remember to set realistic expectations for yourself and focus on building strength first and foremost.”
Wishing you well,
As a senior lifestyle reporter at Insider and a self-described fitness fanatic with an Association for Nutrition certified nutrition course under her belt, Rachel Hosie is immersed in the wellness scene and here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you’re struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light versus heavy weights, or unsure whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.
Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips. She regularly speaks to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she’s always up to date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest and healthiest life.
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