"I'm eating clean and exercising - so why has my butt gone 'floppy'?"
"I'm training hard (and in a calorie deficit to 'lean out',) but my performance is declining!"
"My muscles are being replaced with cellulite... even though I've cut carbs!"
You may have heard that strength training is a great way to speed up your metabolism. That lifting weights is fantastic for weight loss, and specifically fat loss. Perhaps you've even started strength training, but still find yourself in one of these pickles:
- You've been strength training for a while, but you're still not seeing "results"
- You've plateaued and can't lift any heavier despite continuing to train consistently... in fact your performance is starting to decline
- You've noticed your muscles have gone flat, floppy, and deflated (a phenomenon called sarcopenia), and you don't like the look of it
- Perhaps you've even observed there's more cellulite or fat deposited on your belly or on the backs of your arms - even though you're eating "clean"
- You're lifting and you're in a perpetual calorie deficit to "lean out", but the scales aren't budging
- Despite strength training you're not building or even maintaining muscle
- You're getting injured frequently
- You're not recovering well from your workouts. In fact, being sore and tired for days after every workout is the norm...
The problem is not that you need to train harder, restrict calories, or cut carbs even more.There is a good chance that you're not actually eating ENOUGH to build or maintain your muscle mass.
The problem: You are Undernourished
In this article I'm talking to those health conscious people who are trying to build muscle, get fit, and eat a certain way they've been convinced is healthy... yet are finding their bodies are not responding the way they predicted.
For these folks, 99 out of 100 times the problem is that they're not fuelling properly. Specifically, they aren't eating regularly or adequately enough to build or maintain the muscle they so badly wish for.
I see this happen in a few different ways:
- You're on a "health journey". Many folks trying to build muscle - a goal known as hypertrophy - are also eating clean, keto, carnivore, paleo, or are otherwise generally restricting their calories. You might be a normal person just trying to get healthy and you've heard that adopting one of these diets, or just cutting back on food overall, is a good idea. You see, we all live in diet culture. And most of us can’t help but get sucked into restricting, which is what happens when many of us embark on a "health journey".
- You're "too busy" to eat. You might not even be intentionally restricting, but your busy work schedule, family or other commitments keep you from eating regular, balanced, satisfying meals and snacks throughout the day. You skip breakfast, eat only 1-2 meals a day, and there are long gaps between eating episodes. When you eat sporadically, your body never really knows when it's going to be fuelled next (which is stressful!)
- You're not eating enough for your training load. Finally, you might be a weekend warrior or amateur athlete competing in a weight-class sports such as rowing or weightlifting. You may even be peaking or doing cuts for competition... and finding that your performance and hard earned muscle mass is declining.
In all of these cases, one of the most common problems I see is that we are just not eating enough. You are underfed, under fuelled, and undernourished.
How Restriction Breaks Muscle Down
Instead, it's going to prioritise survival functions: keeping your heart beating, supplying energy to your brain, and getting oxygen to your cells. When you're under fuelling your body still needs to go on carrying out all these survival functions. And that energy doesn't just come out of thin air!
If you're not getting enough nourishment from your diet, your body will begin to eat itself. Instead of building yourself up, a process called anabolism, your body will enter a state of breaking itself down, or catabolism. It will literally break down muscle and other body tissues and organs to make its own fuel.
Obviously, when you're trying to build or maintain muscle mass this is the last thing you want!
Going for long stretches of time without eating places significant stress on the HPA axis, especially your adrenal glands. If you're regularly under eating, your adrenals pump out a hormone called cortisol to tell the body that food is scarce, and that it needs to break down protein from your muscles and liver to keep your blood sugar levels steady.
Other things that tell your body to secrete more cortisol besides not eating regularly or adequately enough include:
- not getting enough sleep
- over-training or other intense and ongoing physical stressors
- long term emotional or mental stress
- trauma (ongoing or one-off)
- higher circulating oestrogen levels (e.g. in pregnancy, some medical conditions, and if you're exposed to a high level of environmental xeno-oestrogens), and
- side effects of some medications (prednisone, hormone therapy).
When cortisol is continually high it places enormous stress on the liver to make more sugar via gluconeogenesis, an inflammatory and stressful process.
And over time, cortisol dominance suppresses our thyroid function by slowing down metabolism.
This all leads to weight gain, muscle loss and ageing. All the things most people - especially women - are trying to prevent by eating less.
can I build lean muscle whilst burning fat?
Sorry, but NO. This is not how the body works.
The problem is that you can't exclusively burn fat. No matter what that fitness magazine or Instagram influencer says!
When your body is in an energy deficit, at least some muscle will be sacrificed to make fuel as well as fat.
A starving body will break down whatever tissues it can to make its own fuel - it doesn't discriminate between muscle, fat and even organs like your brain and your digestive tract!
Over time, even bone mass will be lowered by undernutrition and altered muscle strength, which can predispose you to osteopenia or osteoporosis and resultant fractures.
Body fat is fuel stored for later. It's like the underground cellar where the triple sealed emergency food stores are kept. When your body is starving, opening up fat cells is a more energy intensive process compared to breaking down muscle.
The glucose stored as glycogen in your muscles is "easier" to access than the energy in your fat cells. And once that's gone, the body begins to break down that muscle into amino acids to turn into glucose in your liver - a more intensive process than using up pre-existing glycogen stores, but still not as intensive as forcing fat cells open under duress.
Think of what would happen if you suddenly went into an extended lockdown (not hard to imagine given the pandemic landscape of late!) First you would eat all the fresh, perishable food in your kitchen. That's the glycogen in muscle and then the muscle tissue itself. Only once that immediate supply is gone, would you truly tap into the pantry: canned, pickled, preserved foods. That's your fat.
When your body is stressed out it prepares for the worst. It likes to store fuel for later - not burn it! And fat deposition is how it stores fuel. So rather than burning fat, starving your body is initially more likely to tell your body to store even more fat, whilst it breaks down the easier to access muscle for immediate energy. Not what you idealise when you think about fat loss!
But how do the Instagram influencers do it?
Instagram fitness influencers have a certain lean, chiselled look that we have been conditioned to associate with health. But ironically for so many of these folks, fitness has come at the sacrifice of their overall health.
Disordered eating, hormonal imbalances, and chronic fatigue are commonplace in the fitness and wellness industry. Especially in those who are under pressure to look a certain way in order to make a living. I have worked alongside fitness models, bikini competitors, and even some of the strength coaches who train these athletes and also compete themselves. And I can tell you with full confidence that NONE of them are having a good time in the lead up to competition. They are starving, tired, moody, and have no sex drive.
I go into more detail about what goes on behind the scenes for social media fitness influencers in this article. But rest assured, all is not what it seems.
What to do instead
But all I have to offer is this down to earth, physiology-respecting advice:
Get the energy your body needs on a consistent basis, and eat in a way that lowers your body's stress levels and regulates your blood sugar levels. I call this eating to nourish.
I am a big fan of the "Rule of Threes" to help people start eating regularly, and adequately again. Every day aim to:
- Eat three main meals, with all three macronutrients at each meal (carbohydrates, protein and fat),
- plus up to three snacks in between meals as you require,
- with no more than 3-4 hours between eating episodes.
If you are strength training, I would add to that a fourth guideline:
4. ensure you're getting a snack or meal containing carbohydrates and protein at a minimum (fat is great too), within an hour or so after a training session.
Providing your body with steady, regular nourishment every day, over time, will signal to your body that it is no longer in a famine, and there is no need to store extra body fat to survive, and to break down precious muscle and organ tissue to make sure it has a steady supply of blood sugar.
Eating to nourish is also the best way to ensure you get the energy you need to put all that strength training to good use and actually build some muscle mass!
If you're severely nutritionally depleted, I recommend strength training only once you're receiving adequate, regular fuel. And if you suspect you have any form of disordered eating or eating disorder, I strongly suggest working with a practitioner/s who specialises in eating disorders to ensure that any exercise you're doing isn't just compensating for an increase in calories. I am such a person!
Finally, be prepared for your body composition to change on its own terms, if it changes at all. When people start strength training they often expect massive increases in lean muscle mass and decreases in fat percentage. And they are frequently disappointed.
Often when we start strength training we will experience some weight GAIN - we may be putting on muscle as well as fat. And can we just normalise fat gain for a second?! Gaining fat does NOT mean you are less healthy. In fact, it might be exactly what your body needs to do to regain health.
If someone has not eaten enough carbohydrate for a while, they also may gain water weight when they begin eating carbohydrate again and those sugars are stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver again (water is stored along with glycogen).
Keep your eyes on the prize, and that prize is HEALTH. There are SO many other reasons to strength train besides changing how you look, or aiming to hit some impossible body composition.