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Ten Mistakes to Avoid When Building Muscle and Losing Fat

Learn the Secrets of Adding Muscle and Losing Fat at the Same Time

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Updated June 26, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Women lifting weights
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Everyone wants to build muscle and lose fat: that's pretty much the Holy Grail of weight training and physical conditioning. But can it be done? The body does not like to perform two contradictory physiological processes at the same time. Your body has evolved to either increase fat, muscle (and bone) in times of plenty, and, as you might imagine, do just the opposite in scarce times when food availability is low.

To get a nice looking body, say six-pack abs, you need to hold onto or increase muscle while shedding loads of fat. That's the problem targeted in this list of ten mistakes to avoid when trying to accomplish this.

1. Not Eating Enough

You can't pack on muscle if you don't create an anabolic environment, which means you must eat enough to maintain ideal body weight. It does not have to be huge amounts of protein. See the Bodybuilding Diet for more information.

2. Eating Too Much (Not knowing how much to eat and how much you do eat)

This relates to item 1. In calorimetric scientific tests (double-labeled water), many people under-estimate how much they eat. Very low-calorie diets are not necessary, but you do have to count calories at some level to cut your total energy intake to lose fat. See the Calorie Count site for good information.

3. Eating Too Much of Refined Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates per se are not your enemy, but you do have to restrict consumption of foods that are enticing and easy to consume and snack on, and have less than ideal effect on your appetite. Biscuits, cakes, muffins, candies, puddings, potato chips and crisps, crackers, sugary drinks etc -- these items need to be curtailed substantially. Eat healthy.

4. Eating Too Much Fat (Of any kind)

Nutritionally, you may know about good fats and bad fats, but to lose weight (fat weight) getting your fat intake between 20 and 30 per cent is a useful approach. Fat has 9 calories per gram and it doesn't matter what fat it is.

6. Eating Insufficient Protein

You don't have to go crazy about this and consume protein drinks day in day out, but replacing some of those refined carbohydrates and fat with a modest increase in protein should help maintain or enhance your muscle while you're losing fat. Don't make it all animal protein though: dairy and vegetable protein are good options. And you still need to exercise those muscles.

6. Insufficient Weight Training (Three days each week please)

As you lose fat, the only way to protect that muscle and bone from going down with it is to place stimulatory stress on that muscle and bone. That means relatively intense weight training workouts at least three days each week.

7. Weight Training with Insufficient Intensity (Train at 65%+ of 1RM)

You won't gain much value from spending fifty minutes at the gym lifting light weights with a lot of repetitions. You need to lift relatively heavy (even if not to failure) for each set that you do. Ideally this should be at least around 65% of your maximum lift possible. If you can squat 130 pounds (60 kilograms) maximum, then you should look at training with 85 pounds (38 kilos). If you don't or cannot measure your maximums, then make sure the final repetition in any set is hard work to complete. Eight to twelve repetitions and three to four sets for each exercise is a good basic program.

8. Not Doing Any Cardio (But don't overdo it)

Aerobic exercise helps you burn off those calories. Steady-state cardio at moderate pace, in conjunction with a good weights program, will get you in a good place for fat loss. If you do cardio for longer than about an hour you risk breaking down muscle for fuel, and you need to hang onto as much muscle as you can in this scenario.

9. Exercising on an Empty Stomach (And not refueling after exercise)

When your body is fuel hungry, either during intense exercise or when your metabolism has been revved up for the few hours after you exercise and you have not eaten, unless you give it some fuel, your muscle may be broken apart for glucose by the hormone cortisol. The trick is to provide just enough carbohydrate to prevent cortisol performing this negative task, but not enough to cause your body to slip into positive energy balance (too much energy input). A piece of toast and honey or a small sports drink or chocolate milk or equivalent, before and after exercise should achieve this.

10. Insufficient Precision and Application

This may seem obvious, but what we are attempting to achieve here is not trivial. For most successful weight losers, the net loss includes fat and muscle and often some bone as well. This is the result of catabolism, the breaking down of body tissue that defines weight loss. To achieve our muscle maintenance (or enhancement) and fat loss goals, you have to have a clearly documented program and goals, and you have to apply it with precision, which means taking the time to apply each step accurately, logging those steps in a diary and recording energy inputs and outputs in the form of food and physical activity.

In conclusion, one last point concerns overtraining. Don't be afraid to take a week off or reduce your training by 50% for one week if you feel your body is not coping with the volume and intensity. Cycling volume and rest may even be important for healthy muscle growth. Go to it!

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