BLOG

Build lean muscle

EXPLAINED: WHY IT’S DIFFICULT TO GAIN MUSCLE AND GET LEANER

JAMES GRAGE

- 18 August

Renowned nutrition and exercise science researcher Dr. Jose Antonio discusses this common question.

One thing I get asked a lot is, “James, why am I having such a hard time putting on muscle and losing body fat?”

The first point kind of goes without saying, but I’m compelled to say it anyway;  Changing your physique obviously requires a certain level of commitment to proper nutrition and a consistent exercise routine (particularly resistance training). Being sporadic with one or both is sure to leave you frustrated with your results, no matter what your goal or program.  In my book, consistency trumps all. 

Now, if you’ve got consistency nailed down then we can move on…

Before we dig into the basic science, I want you to know that if you’re struggling to put on muscle or drop body fat it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.  

We all have a tendency to beat ourselves up when we aren’t achieving our goals as fast as we think we should be.  Now don’t start thinking this is some sort of pep talk…

Sure, we all slip up from time to time with our diets and miss workouts here and there, but generally speaking, the difficulty you’re having in getting muscular and shredded is by design – literally. There’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, your body is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do from an evolutionary standpoint.

If that doesn’t quite make sense yet, don’t worry, I brought my good friend Jose “Joey” Antonio, PhD, to explain,  in this second installment of this series. 

Besides being a good friend (always important to have those) Dr. Antonio is also the CEO and Co-Founder of the (ISSN) International Society for Sports Nutrition and director of the Exercise and Sports Science program at Nova Southeastern University in South Florida. He knows training and nutrition inside and out from a scientific perspective, and he knows how the human body works – Which is why he’s the perfect person to answer this question… 

Why is it so hard to lose fat?

Because thousands of years ago, holding onto body fat was a means of survival for humans. Starvation was a serious threat back then.

“Before the agricultural revolution around 10,000 years ago, humans were nomadic,” says Antonio. “You hunt something, you kill it, you eat it. If you find stuff on the ground, around a tree, you eat it. It’s feast or famine. Now, imagine you’re a prehistoric human and you haven’t eaten in a day, which probably is quite normal.”

Your body doesn’t want to be super lean.

When humans didn’t know when their meal was going to be (many hours away, if not days), they wanted to eat as much as they could to fuel themselves, and then store the rest as fat. 

“The best strategy for survival is to put on as much body fat as possible, because you could live off it,” says Antonio.

Carbs and fat are more readily stored as fat than protein.

“Meat was probably the most calorically dense food you could consume because there’s fat there,” says Antonio. “So, if you’re a starving human being, you’re going to consume as much as possible. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that you should be able to consume a large amount of protein.”

Compare this situation with today, where we now have processed foods that are convenient, often inexpensive, and highly addictive.

“When you overeat, it’s not so much protein that ends up being stored as fat,” says Antonio. “It’s the carbs and fat that go with the protein. That makes evolutionary sense, where your body’s like, ‘Wow, this is very palatable. It’s a lot of sugar, a lot of fat, a lot of calories. I want to store it as fat.’”

Your body doesn’t want to carry muscle, either.

“Not only does your body not want to be really lean all the time; it doesn’t want to be really muscular all the time,” says Antonio. “Both are really poor strategies for survival.”

Why? Because the more muscle you carry, the more you need to eat to feed that extra body mass. And with food scarce all those years ago, the last thing your body wanted to be was big and muscular, especially considering that muscle is a dense, metabolically active tissue – meaning, heavier to carry around and making you hungrier.

“Say you weigh 175 pounds and you’re walking around because you’ve got to hunt for food at that weight, versus 140,” says Antonio. “You could walk forever at 140. But at 175, you’re like, ‘I need to stop and eat or drink because I can’t carry this weight for miles and miles.

“It’s so difficult to put on muscle mass and keep it because it’s not a good survival strategy per se. That’s not what the human body’s built for. The human body doesn’t want you to gain a lot of weight.”

So there you have it.  Our bodies are focused on survival.   When we don’t know when our next meal is, our body does it’s best to slow down the burning of calories.  This means shedding excess muscle, as well as any other means of slowing the metabolism.   

It also wants to create energy reserves in the form of stored body fat.  So in the end we store more fat and burn less calories. Well that sure sucks.

So how do we trick our body’s natural instincts? Here’s two simple tips:

Now, here’s the cool part:  It gets easier as we go!  As we gradually build lean muscle that muscle mass becomes our calorie-burning “metabolic engine”.   The more lean muscle you have, the more calories you can burn in a day – and the easier it is to lose body fat.

Obviously there’s a lot that goes into “the science” of building muscle and burning fat, but as much as I like to nerd out on topics like this, it doesn’t need to be that complicated.  At the end of the day, if you work out consistently, with enough effort, eat less processed foods and more whole foods and don’t consume more calories than you burn in a day, then not only will you be healthy, fit and energetic – but you’ll also be able to enjoy life a whole lot more without having to fret over the intricate details of muscle building science.