There are several mysteries of the universe that continue to baffle us: the infinite nature of time and space, the popularity of Justin Bieber, and—more relevant to readers like you—whether it's possible to build muscle and lose body fat at the same time.
When it comes to getting in shape, most people opt for choosing a singular goal: Either they go on the see-food diet (that is, see it and eat it) for mass gaining, or a calorie-restricted plan that saps their strength, size, and energy in an effort to lose fat.
"I think it's inaccurate to say that it's impossible to build muscle and lose body fat at the same time, which is, in my opinion, a true transformation," says Stephen Adele, fitness coach, best-selling author, and owner of Colorado-based iSatori, a maker of nutritional products. "I've coached hundreds and thousands of people over the years and I've seen it firsthand—individuals who can gain muscle mass and lose body fat at the same time.
"It presents unique challenges, but it mainly comes down to your approach. I've come to realize there are five rules that I have lived and coached people by on how to transform—encompassing eating, supplementation, training, and mindset—that allow individuals to undergo a transformation in which they can accomplish both goals."
It's truly hard work, but Adele maps out a plan that's worked for thousands of people.
1. Cycle Carbs While Remaining Nitrogen-Positive
Gaining muscle requires a calorie surplus, while cutting fat requires a caloric deficit, so the plan here is to cycle each phase short-term. That's achieved mainly by cycling carbohydrate intake. "I'm a big proponent of carb cycling because it allows your body to burn body fat and build muscle at the same time," says Adele, who has decades of experience taking individuals through transformation programs aimed at reducing body fat while simultaneously increasing muscle size.
Adele recommends you first determine how many calories your body needs each day. This can be estimated with a calculator or by multiplying your bodyweight x 15. Using this formula, a 200-pound lifter would require 3,000 calories daily.
From there, Adele recommends you get 40 percent of your calories from protein, 40 percent from carbs, and 20 percent from fats (40/40/20). Hence, the 200-pound individual would consume 1,200 calories from protein (300 grams), 1,200 calories from carbs (300 grams), and 600 calories from fats (67 grams).
The carbohydrate rotation comes into play like this (shown over 10 days) for a 200-pound lifter:
Remember, protein and fats don't cycle, so they remain consistent over the course of the entire program: 300 grams of protein and 67 grams of dietary fat per day, which is usually naturally occuring.
With carbs and calories cycling down and then up, your body enters short-term periods of caloric deficit in which body-fat stores can be tapped for energy, and higher-carb and higher-calorie periods in which the body's energy stores are restocked and muscle-building is emphasized.
What's important to remember, says Adele, is that you always remain in a state of positive nitrogen balance, meaning your protein intake is stable and high throughout: "You're taking your body through calorie-positive and calorie-negative phases, but not long enough for it to become catabolic," which would initiate the burning of lean muscle mass for energy.
He warns against staying on a low-carb diet for too long, saying it compromises the body's ability to build and maintain lean body mass. "You just can't do it sufficiently without adequate carbohydrates," Adele says.
Adele doesn't recommend anything beyond your standard bodybuilding fare: lean protein sources, complex and starchy carbs over simple sugars (except post-workout), and healthy fats in addition to the saturated ones you naturally consume when eating animal protein. He also realizes that not everyone's going to count calories, but you'll want to learn how to eyeball foods—especially what 35-40 grams of protein looks like—and read labels. What you really need to keep your eye on, he insists, is carbohydrate intake.
For many of us, dieting means cravings. "I'm not a big believer in just giving up on certain kinds of foods," he says. "You have to be creative and not totally give up on something, but rather find ways to satisfy your sweet tooth, which for most people is the hardest part of dieting. Maybe you can turn your BCAA drink into popsicles; we also have a chocolate-flavored Eat-Smart MRP that tastes like a Jell-O pudding dessert."
2. Train Antagonist Muscle Groupd While Incuding Active Rest + HIIT Cardio
"When you're on a calorie-restricted diet (as part of this program is), it can be easy to start losing your strength along the way, and when you start losing your strength, you can start losing potential muscle mass," says Adele. "There's some research to support the idea that a muscle is stronger when its antagonist is immediately contracted beforehand, which is the basis of this training program."
Doing opposing muscle groups—think biceps/triceps, quads/hamstrings, chest/back—back-to-back is called supersetting. You rest only after you've completed a movement for each body part.
Supersets are intense, but Adele has upped the intensity even more. By engaging in active rest—not to be confused with sitting on a bench and texting between sets—you follow your superset with 30-60 seconds of work, whether it's jumping rope, box squats, step-ups, or any activity that keeps your body moving. Only after this bout of active rest can you take a minute of full rest.
"[The active rest] doesn't have to be extremely intense by any means; it's just to get your heart rate up, the intensity of the workouts maximized, and should be done at a comfortable pace," Adele says. "After completing all three exercises, rest for a minute and repeat the cycle for the prescribed number of sets. So you get strength, volume training, and cardio work done over the course of your workout.
"The idea here is that active rest during weight training can deplete most—if not all—of your glycogen (stored form of carbohydrate) levels in the body. So when you do your cardio session after your workout, you've completely depleted almost all of your glycogen and are now burning mostly body fat."
The training split Adele prescribes follows a two-on/one-off approach, so you'll be in the weight room two out of every three days. But you'll be doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) 6-7 days a week to help strip off fat.
The week breaks down like this:
Admits Adele: "Yeah, [this program is] intense. These workouts aren't easy, but they are extremely efficient and rewarding. They take a couple of weeks for your body to get adjusted to, but you'll find you get a lot done and you feel good when you're done."
Each superset follows a pyramid structure—sets of 12, 10, 8, or 6 reps to failure. Ultimately, the number of sets and reps ensures there's a high volume of work done, which provides an important anabolic stimulus, says Adele. "The high volume is important, but it's not so much work that you get too exhausted and can't recover sufficiently between sets."
All that movement during your hour-long weight workout is meant to exhaust your muscle glycogen, so the ensuing HIIT cardio goes right into tapping body fat for fuel. HIIT training, as you probably know, alternates all-out cardio with periods of slow recovery, whether done on the treadmill, stair-climber, or other cardio equipment.
"The research says you're going to burn more calories over a longer time period using HIIT over steady state," explains Adele. "By the time you get to cardio, you're going to burn body fat as fuel right away."
Adele warns that anyone who's not used to doing cardio on zero glycogen is going to be challenged: "When you first start this workout, you're going to be sucking wind. You're going to feel like you can't do it because you don't have enough oxygen. It's going to take a little time to build up those red blood cells and get yourself to the point where you don't feel as winded. That means at first you're going to sacrifice a little bit of strength. That's where a good pre-workout supplement with caffeine and beta-alanine can help, delaying muscle fatigue and helping you push through it.
"You may start at only 10-15 minutes of cardio HIIT, but work your way up over time. I like going to 25-30 minutes; it hits that sweet spot. And you're definitely going to notice the difference because your body is pretty depleted."
3. Make Big Improvements the Backbone of Your Training
While Adele has provided a companion superset workout that he gives to individuals whose transformation he oversees, the one critical factor he says every lifter must do is include "the big three" exercises: squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. These compound movements are irreplaceable because they produce results in extremely efficient fashion.
But there's one caveat: You don't want to attempt any of these movements on a low-carb (25-percent) day. You need enough energy to fuel a hard workout and give it your best shot. Adele's recommendation: Manipulate your workout just enough so that these big moves fall on other days in your training schedule.
"You've got to do them, but plan them on higher-carb days," he says. "It really goes without saying, but it's important to get your technique right before you start moving the weight up. When you do get the technique right, your weight just goes up quickly with consistency of doing the exercise."
4. Stimulate then Maximize Protein Synthesis
When you're cycling carbs and your daily calories are already running a deficit, it's incredibly important to ensure you're getting your daily protein requirements.
While eating whole-food meals six times per day is a challenge even for someone who works from home, supplements can conveniently fill in the missing spaces between meals. Now it's just a matter of making sure you get the right supplements at the right times.
To ensure you're getting adequate protein, two scoops of whey protein isolate or hydrolysate typically provides 40 grams of quickly digested protein. Besides a good protein powder, additional BCAA mixtures like Amino-Amp are useful when you're in a caloric deficit to ensure the body doesn't strip amino acids away from building muscle to be used to fuel your body's energy needs.
Adele lists one additional supplement as necessary for success in a transformation program: bioactive peptides. "Bioactive peptides are cleaved protein fragments that contain growth factors that are essentially bioactive. These growth factors are what's doing the heavy lifting in the muscle cells, the signaling for amino acids to be used to accelerate the rate of protein synthesis. The faster the rate of the protein synthesis, the faster the muscle repairs and rebuilds itself—bigger, stronger, or faster [depending on your training goals.]" Adele says they're especially important for individuals who are also on a calorie-restricted diet because they can help you at least maintain and develop new lean body mass.
5. Make Your Lifestyle Fit Your Goals
You've no doubt heard that success doesn't happen by accident. Adele sums it up this way: "Success comes from following a disciplined approach. That means timing your meals, timing your supplementation, timing your sleep, and planning, planning, planning. If you take that kind of disciplined approach to this program, you're guaranteed a much higher level of success."
Success requires purpose and discipline, traits many of us have difficulty mustering on a daily basis. That's why Adele suggests following an intense program like this for just eight weeks.
"During the first four weeks, you won't see a lot of changes," he says, "but takes pics about every two weeks anyway. By the end of the second four weeks, you're going to see some huge differences. At that point you're seeing your hard work and you're really motivated. If you can make it through another four weeks, you're going to see incredible results—cuts you never knew you had."
Adele also recommends you put your transformation on the calendar. "Having a deadline is important," he says, "whether it's doing a contest or just wanting to look your best for a vacation or photo shoot. Set that deadline date and lay your plan out and work toward that date. That's probably the most powerful tool to motivate you in that direction."
The 8-Week Transformation Workouts By Stephen Adele
Follow this six-day split using a two-days-on/one-day-off format. You'll repeat workouts every seventh day.
Choose a weight that lets you reach muscle failure by the target rep. If necessary, add warm-up (w/u) sets, but those don't count as part of your working sets.
Superset all antagonist muscle groups, completing one exercise and immediately doing the other without resting.
Neither squats nor deadlifts are supersetted; use straight sets for each.
Engage in "active rest" (step-ups, jump rope, burpees etc.) after you complete each superset. You'll perform active rest for this amount of time:
Weeks 1-2: 30 seconds Weeks 3-6: 40-45 seconds Weeks 7-8: 60 seconds
Rest one minute after completing all three components, and repeat for the prescribed number of sets listed.
After all weight-training sessions (and on days in which you're not lifting weights), do HIIT cardio according to this schedule:
Weeks 1-2: 20 minutes Weeks 3-4: 25 minutes Weeks 5-6: 30 minutes Weeks 7-8: 40 minutes
Workout 1: Chest/Back—Repeat workout from Weeks 3-4
Workout 2: Shoulders/Traps/Abs—Repeat workout from Weeks 3-4
Workout 3: Biceps/Triceps—Repeat workout from Weeks 1-2
Workout 4: Quads/Hamstrings—Repeat workout from Weeks 1-2
Workout 1: Chest/Back—Repeat workout from Weeks 1-2
Workout 2: Shoulders/Traps/Abs—Repeat workout from Weeks 1-2
Workout 3: Biceps/Triceps—Repeat workout from Weeks 3-4
Workout 4: Quads/Hamstrings—Repeat workout from Weeks 3-4