Gain Weight to Lose Weight: The Science-y Stuff of Hypertrophy and Fat Loss
Allow me be controversial here.
One of the most underused secrets to losing fat and improving your physique starts with gaining weight: building quality muscle and prioritizing your long-term goals over your short-term ego.
Confused? Stick around. Right here in this post you’re going to learn how focusing on gaining weight can actually mean carrying around less fat in the long term, and what you need to do to get there.
What is Fat Loss?
The first thing to remember is that ‘fat loss’ and ‘weight loss’ aren’t always the same thing. Weight represents the total of everything in your body: organs, skin, bones, muscle, fat and all of your big, beautiful unicorn ideas. Gaining weight will help you achieve a lean, healthy physique, so long as the weight you’re gaining is muscle.
Fat loss is exactly as it sounds: burning fat for energy when you’re in a calorie shortfall. You can achieve a calorie shortfall by lowering your calorie consumption, increasing your exercise expenditure, or both. Being in a calorie deficit will contribute to weight loss, but it isn’t the only factor – your scale may fluctuate but that isn’t necessarily because you’re gaining or losing fat! The difference between "weight gain" and "fat gain" is supremely important. Everyone has their own goals, but I suspect you’re more worried by your body fat % than your weight. For that reason, it’s important to remember that the number on the scale isn’t always the best marker of progress. You can read more about my testy relationship with the scale here.
Gaining Weight by Building Muscle
When I say you need to "gain weight" to lose weight, I’m specifically talking about gaining muscle. Unless you’ve got a keen interest in regressing your health markers, you’re going to want your gains to come from muscle, and the loss to come from fat. This is the basic approach you’ll need for getting lean and mean as they say. It might seem like the preserve of bodybuilders or physique athletes, but building more muscle is a fantastic way for anyone to improve their metabolism whether a total beginner or an Olympic athlete.
An increase in lean mass (aka: muscle) will boost your resting metabolism, meaning that you’re going to experience more fat loss even when eating the same amount of food. Muscle is far more calorie-expensive than fat, therefore having more of it on your frame is going to mean you'll burn more calories – whether you’re on a treadmill or napping on the sofa.
A person's resting metabolism is a result of their genetics and their lifestyle – you can't really manipulate the genetics part, but adding some muscle to your frame is an easy way to improve body composition over time. So, onto the next question: How do I gain muscle in order to lose fat?
How To: Gaining Muscle to Burn Fat
While a muscular physique is great for increasing your metabolic rate and leaning out, putting on muscle can be tricky and take time. The process of growing muscle is slow and requires a boatload of patience, but if you give it time and follow through on the next steps, I guarantee you’ll see success.
Muscle Hypertrophy is all about a 3-step process:
If you can lock this down and get your basics sorted, you’re golden. You don’t need the latest supplement or magic potion filled with crap, you just need to get your shit together, and do the work.
Stress: How Building Muscle Works
Stress is another word for the work that you put your body through – it’s the stimulus that tells your body that it needs to get stronger and more efficient. Exercise is the best example of a stressor to force this adaptation, and heavy resistance training is best for building lean muscle tissue. That means your dumbbells should actually be at least a bit of a challenge to lift of the rack.
Weight training is where you should start: basic movements with resistance from weights create stress on the muscles. The more weight and the more repetitions you perform, the more micro trauma there will be to the muscle. With recovery and repair (that’s also where the energy from fat stores gets used), the more muscle you’re going to build. A good training program will balance weight (intensity) and repetitions (volume) to promote the best development – but if you’re adding either at one time or another, you’ll be well on your way to building muscle!
If you’re entering the process of building muscle for the first time, your focus should be on compound, multi-joint movements. Examples are squats, deadlifts (my favourite), pull-ups, vertical (overhead) and horizontal (bench) pressing. These target several muscle groups at once and are great for improving basic movement patterns like sitting, running, climbing, carrying or stacking heavy boxes of secret treasure in your closet. Having said this, it’ll be important to make sure you have healthy movement patterns and mechanics before you start tossing heavy weight around.
Multi-joint exercises are also much more metabolically-demanding than bicep curls and isolation exercises which only target a single muscle group. A good mixture of the pair will help, but developing the compound movements gets you more bang for your buck: more muscle recruitment without having to perform 15 different exercises. Plus, you’ll be able to move larger weights with compound exercises, which leaves you looking and feeling strong AF.
Recovery: Do Nothing, Get Stronger
While it isn’t as glamorous as ‘pumping iron’ or dripping in sweat, recovery is a key part of the process and it gets overlooked far too often. Once you’ve stressed your body, your strength and muscle gains happen when you rest and recover. But that's not all... you also need to eat! A diet that is rich in protein, vitamins and minerals with an ample amount of calories, will provide your body with the raw materials for your system to build muscle, maintain your joints and repair itself. So in the early stages of your muscle building journey, it is entirely possible that you will need to gain some weight as you increase your calorie intake. Don't let the scale frighten you. Stay the course and over time things will settle as your body adapts to the new calorie load.
Diet and sleep make up 90% of your recovery. Being highly stressed, underfed or sleep-deprived will waste your hard effort. If you’re looking to lose weight, starving yourself and overtraining isn’t the answer: your workouts will tank, your cortisol will skyrocket, your metabolism will adapt to a lower calorie intake and you will start chewing through muscle in your workouts rather than burning fat. Sleep, take time out from the gym, and for the sake of your sanity EAT!
Adaptation: Why Build Muscle?
So, now you know that building muscle can add some serious calorie burning power – but maybe you’re still not buying into the benefit of a higher number on the scale. There are dozens of benefits that more muscle mass brings that should still motivate you to get after it. Let’s dig in.
Joint and Bone Health
When you train with resistance, you can add serious stability to your joints and strengthen your bones. You might not be able to flex these like six pack abs or throw them up like massive guns for your Instagram page, but they’re going to mean a better quality of life and more healthy, independent movement as you age. With 80% of people suffering with a debilitating back injury at some point in life, and even more complaining of joint pain (knees, hips, or shoulders anyone?), resistance training is a great way of insulating yourself against these common problems.
Osteoporosis is a real buzzkill, and worryingly common among women. Strength training builds larger muscles, but it also forces your body to increase the mineral density of your bones, resulting in better long-term protection and reduced chance of fractures as you age.
Your heart is pretty important – at least if you want to “not-die”.
It’s the most important muscle in your body even if you can’t flex it or show it off at the beach. Resistance training will improve your heart health without spending oodles of painfully boring hours doing cardio. It is also (IM humble O) waaaaaay more fun and makes you feel like a freaking beast. But perhaps that's just me.
You can boost your heart health with as little as 3 hours a week of resistance training – or any combination of resistance and cardio training. You’re going to see positive improvements in things like "stroke length" which is the amount of blood you pump in a single beat, and the strength/thickness of the heart muscle. Not only will those things help you actually stay alive, they’ll make you better at climbing stairs, running for the bus, or piggybacking your kid to school.
It’s actually sorta-kinda fun!
The reason most people fail with their fitness goals is because exercise becomes a chore. For those of us who have struggled with endurance exercise and can’t bear the thought of another step on a treadmill, resistance training is a great way to mix things up and it is a fast track to helping you feel strong and empowered. Do not under estimate the power of strength on your psyche, it is really and truly a game changer when it comes to your confidence moving through this world. We know it’s good for body, but very few people talk about how enjoyable and empowering it can be to feel bigger, stronger and more capable in your day-to-day life. Lifting weights builds oodles of confidence and allows you to recognize progress that can be easily measured in reps, sets or poundage rather than obsessing over your pant size.
The more often you increase your lifting capacity, the more empowered you’ll be to keep coming back. It’s exercise without the burning lungs, blistered feet, and hours carved out for repetitive and often boring work. Plus, you can go back to the office with little more than a swipe of mascara and some deodorant to boot. Unless your like me… #puddlesofsweateveninmywarmup
Muscle building isn’t everybody’s bag: it’s misunderstood, and many women in particular are worried about getting bulky or being unable to master it. But once you dig in, it’s an awesome tool to burn more fat and improve your health, regardless of age, gender or experience. And frankly, being a bigger, better functioning version of your awesome self is always something to strive for in my book.
Investing a few hours a week into a mixture of resistance training and endurance exercise means sculpted muscles, a better health profile and the ability to burn way more calories. You might surprise yourself with how much you enjoy getting under some iron, and how much you can achieve in a short space of time!
Lemme know what your favourite strength training exercise is and go get your beastmode on!