Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A practical guide to losing fat and gaining lean muscle mass

Since I joined Quora I've noticed so many questions that either ask “How do I lose weight?” or “How do I gain weight?” I've attempted to answer many of these but still more and more questions on these topics pop up every day. I also notice that the answer to these questions are among the most read of all. I’m really thrilled that there are so many people who want to improve their health or gain mass and, in an attempt to answer all of them, I give you this guide. In this guide you may find practical tips on how to achieve both fat loss and lean muscle gain and also tips for vegans or vegetarians to do the same.

Before we get started on the specifics, a few definitions and concepts are in order. This will help you to understand why each of the steps explained below are necessary for weight gain or loss. The first, and most important, concept we need to address is the concept of the balance of energy.

The balance of energy:

Our bodies are energy systems in balance at all times. Energy comes into the system when it is produced from food and drink and energy goes out when it is used, such as when we exercise and move, during maintenance of homeostasis and when we excrete wastes.
If we use more energy than what we consume, in other words, when the energy going out of the system is more than the energy coming in, there will be a net negative gain in energy. The other way around, when there is more energy coming into the system than what is going out, results in a net positive gain in energy.

In more practical terms this means that if we take in more energy from food and drink and expend less energy from moving and exercising we’ll gain an amount of fat proportional to the net gain in energy. If we expend more energy than what we take in from food, we’ll lose an amount of fat proportional to the negative gain. If we balance the amount of energy coming in from food and drink and going out via exercise and movement, there’ll be no net negative or positive gain, and no fat will be gained, nor lost.

Let’s look at the energy system as a barrel filled with water, with a tap at the bottom. The barrel represents our bodies, and the water the energy in the system. The tap at the bottom can be seen as energy expended, like if we were to do some exercises, and water into the barrel would be energy in, like in the foods and drinks we take in. If we open the tap at the bottom, and start adding water to the barrel at exactly the same rate as what it flows out at the bottom, then the amount of water in the barrel will remain exactly the same. This corresponds with the scenario where energy in is the same as energy out and there is no net gain nor loss. If we start adding more water, at a rate larger than what is flowing out at the bottom, then the amount of water in the barrel will increase. If we open up the tap and let out more water than what we add, then the water in the barrel will become less. In the same way these two scenarios correspond to net energy gain and net energy lost. It works exactly the same with food and exercise. More food in, less exercise and movement equals fat gain. Less food in, more exercise and movement equals fat loss.

It is because of the balance of energy that we may reason that all weight loss or weight gain activities result from the way in which we manipulate the balance of energy inside our bodies. With this concept in mind, let’s move on to three other concepts that governs the entire process of losing or gaining weight: nutrition, training and supplementation.


As far as it concerns the balance of energy, nutrition involves the intake of food and drink, and thus the intake of energy. But nutrition is more than just eating and drinking stuff. In addition to delivering energy to our systems, nutrition must also be manipulated in such a manner as to deliver all the necessary macro and micro nutrients our bodies need for optimal health and function. These include protein, carbohydrates, fats, water, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and a host of other beneficial compounds that keep us healthy.


Training concerns the expenditure of energy, in other words, the energy going out of our systems. Training and energy out is brought about by movement. Movement requires energy and so results in energy out. But training is not only about moving around. No, training involves specific movements that help us to build new muscle tissue and cause growth of existing tissues. Training is also the manipulation of movement to make large energy expenditures possible for fat loss. Training is beneficial for the upkeep and maintenance of our healthy bodies.


Supplementation plays a small role in the energy balance. It’s main benefit is in the delivery of compounds that make other functions in our bodies more efficient and pronounced. Supplements can improve fat loss or promote the development of lean muscle mass and are thus powerful weapons in our arsenal against fat loss and muscle gain. Please note, supplements in this context are not anabolic steroids, injectables or any other form of illegal performance enhancing drug that may have detrimental consequences to our health and well-being.


Now that we know what the balance of energy is, and we know about nutrition, training and supplementation, the next question becomes: “How do we use this information to lose fat, build muscles or gain weight?” There are three parts in the answer to this question, depending on what your goal/s are. The first part concerns itself with losing fat and is therefore suited for those who want to become slimmer and leaner, with less regard for developing muscle tissue. The second part is about developing muscle, in addition to losing fat and is intended for those who want to build powerful lean physiques. The third part of this answer is for those who want to gain pure mass, with less regard to slimming down. The question is therefore not one question only, but three different questions. Each answer will see improvements in your health and well-being as well, so one should really select the question that best fits their goals from the following:

1. How can I get leaner/slimmer and improve my health?
2. How can I build lean, strong muscles, lose fat and improve my health?
3. How can I gain mass?

Let’s delve into each question separately.

1. How can I get leaner/slimmer and improve my health?

Like we mentioned, this question is for those who want to lose fat to become slimmer or leaner, with lesser regard to developing muscle tissue. I would say this question is mainly for women who want to slim down to look good in a swimsuit or perhaps new mothers who want to lose the baby fat but who do not necessarily want an increase in lean muscle mass. But guys, it does not mean that this type of goal is not for you. There may some guys out there who also want to lose fat, without a massive increase in muscle mass.

In order to get leaner/slimmer, we need to manipulate our nutritional plans to deliver enough protein to maintain our current levels of muscle mass, enough carbohydrates to provide just enough energy to sustain an adequate energy level during the day and enough healthy fats for optimal function. The gist of the nutritional plan should thus be centered on lean, fat free and sugar free foods, in quantities that ensure a net negative energy gain for fat loss.

Food quantities in this category are extremely easy to measure and one doesn't need fancy scales or calculators to do so. You can measure all the portions of your food with your bare hands in the following manner: a portion of protein is as large as the palm of your hand, and as thick as your index finger, a portion of carbohydrate is as large as your tightly clenched fist, a portion of vegetables is as much as you can grab with one hand in one go and a portion of fats is as large as the first joint of your thumb.

To ensure that you put the right amount of food on your plate, foods that provide enough protein, carbohydrates and fats, you need only select a protein food, a carbohydrate food, a vegetable food and a healthy fat food in the proportions described above and you’re good to go. No counting of calories or grams or whatnot required. This is the amount of food to eat regardless of whether you’re 200 pounds overweight or 20 pounds overweight. The portion sizes will see you eating the right amount of food and will eventually bring you to your ideal, healthy weight so long as you make healthy choices.

On the subject of the ideal, healthy weight, if you’re underweight, this nutritional plan will cause you to gain healthy weight, up to what your ideal healthy weight is supposed to be. Being underweight is just as unhealthy as being overweight, and this type of diet is going to get you closer to a normal, healthy weight.

So what would a typical diet look like for a person in this category? The following table describes but one type of plan for one day in the week. I've chosen foods that many of us eat on a daily basis. You’ll also note that there are no quantities given. That’s because it’s already covered by the portion sizes as described above.

A person eating a diet like this, sticking to the portion sizes will most likely see a reduction in fat. Remember the foods must be fat free, lean and otherwise contain little sugar. This is just one day in the week and one way of eating. There are a million and one other ways of designing a diet for this category and the choice really is up to you. The important points are that you must have a protein, a carb, a vegetable and a healthy fat in your meal and you must include a glas of water as well. To make things really easy, look for the meal construction tables on and construct your very own healthy meals.

Sauces, fruit juices and other hidden calorie foods must be avoided as far as possible. See this post on hidden calories to learn how to watch out for them and avoid them.

As far as training is concerned, if your plan is to slim down, I suggest participating in a training program that places some of the focus on firming and toning of muscle tissue, while giving more attention to cardiovascular types of training. Great programs include pilates, calisthenics, aerobics, spinning classes or circuit training. These types of programs will see you burning mountains of calories, while at the same time firming up muscle tone. In no time you should be able to see fat melt from your body, leaving you with those sexy defined lines and voluptuous curves.

I always recommend that you include a multivitamin in your diet no matter what type of diet you follow. A multivitamin will give you all the nutrients you need, where your diet may be lacking and it’ll ensure your good health and optimal function. Another supplement which will also help you in your fat loss efforts is a thermogenic fat ripper. These types of supplements help to suppress your appetite, boost your metabolism and burn more calories during the day. If used correctly, they can boost your fat loss efforts considerably. If you decide to take them, make sure that you follow the dosage as described on the container to the letter and remember to drink lots of water. Never exceed the dosage and if the supplement makes you feel unwell or ill, discontinue use of it immediately.

Other than that, there is no more to losing fat and maintaining your lean muscle mass. Make sure you construct healthy meals from the meal construction tables, by making use of your own hands to gauge portion sizes, drink lots of water, participate in a cardio focused training program and take a multivitamin and fat ripper if you feel inclined to do so.

There are other ways in which you can lose more fat, even before stepping one foot in the gym. Find out more about these tips and tricks here.

But what if I’m vegan or vegetarian?

If you’re a lacto-ovo vegetarian, you should not have any problems in constructing your meals from the meal construction tables. Just follow the portion size measurements of your hands and select the appropriate foods from the meal construction tables. If you’re a vegan or lacto vegetarian, you need to make sure you construct meals to include enough protein, carbohydrates and fats for your requirements during the day. This may be done by combining protein sources and eating a large variety of foods. To see how my wife and I lived like vegans for one month, with actual meal plans and healthy recipes see this post.

2. How can I build lean, strong muscles, lose fat and improve my health?

If your goal is to develop lean muscle mass, lose fat and improve your health and well-being at the same time then this guide is for you. Gaining muscle mass and losing fat at the same time is indeed possible but it requires much, much more intricate planning and execution. I explain below.

To build muscle and lose fat at the same time, you need to control your food intake precisely to ensure that you achieve a caloric surplus of around 500 to 700 calories per day. Why 500 to 700 calories? Because this amount ensures a steady gain in muscle mass, while minimizing fat formation. It allows one to grow while staying lean.

In addition to this caloric increase you need to train like a beast, in order to ensure that that 500 to 700 calorie surplus is used to fuel muscle development and not fat formation. But then you must also ensure that you train hard enough to lose fat in the process as well. You need to boost your efforts with great supplements and you have to bring it all together to ensure that it all runs smoothly and effectively.

As the preceding paragraph suggests, quite a bit of calorie counting and food portion calculations need to be performed in order to build muscle and lose fat at the same time. I’ll show you how to do this just now, but before that I need to mention that your food intake should still be lean, fat free and sugar free. Other than in the first section above, your food quantities will be calculated and will not be a simple measurement by means of your hands.

So let’s assume that you weigh 132 pounds (60 kg), you’re about 5”9 (1.77 m tall), you’re 27 years old and you’d really like to lose fat and replace it with lean muscle. How should you go about to achieve that? The first thing you need to know is your metabolic rate and how many calories you use during a day, assuming that you participate in a strenuous training regime. This is relatively easy to do by finding a metabolic calculator online. A good one may be found here: If you pump these properties into the calculator, you should find that your base metabolic rate (BMR) is 1581.06. Now use the Harris Benedict Equation to determine your daily caloric requirement for maintenance of your current state. This can be found at By using this equation you should find that your daily caloric intake should be around 2727 calories per day (BMR x 1.725).

OK so now you know that in order to stay the same, you need 2727 calories per day. But you want to build some muscle and lose fat, so add 500 to 700 calories to this number to see what you really need per day for awesome gains. You should find that you need to consume 3327 calories per day (2727 + 600) for lean muscle development.

For a good, steady gain in muscle mass, I recommend that your healthy fat foods not be more than 30% of your daily caloric requirement. Therefore 998 calories should come from foods that deliver healthy fats alone. For adequate muscle development I also recommend 1.5 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass. For a 132 pound frame, you therefore need to get about 118 grams of protein per day (59 x 2) for lean muscular development. The rest of your calories should be filled with carbohydrates. If you feel you need more muscles, then add more protein to this plan.

With this information, it’s time to sit down and plan your diet. But you’re going to need a calculator (or an Excel spreadsheet) and lots of nutritional information in order to make sure you balance your caloric equations.

Here I’ve shown what a typical day’s diet may look like for our 132 pound, 27 year old. I’ll explain the calculations below:

In order to calculate the protein, carbs and fats delivered by the foods we eat, we need to calculate from the nutritional data of the food how much is contained in a serving size. Take the oats in the example above for instance. The nutritional data for oats is as follows:

(obtained from Google by typing “Oats nutritional value” in the search box

Thus, for 200 grams of oats, the calculation for the amount of protein would be 200g / 100g x 17 g of protein. That gives 34 grams of protein. The same calculation is followed for carbs, 200 / 100 x 66, to deliver 132 grams of carbs. This formula is followed for all foods, for protein, carbs, fats and calories to determine how much is delivered by a certain amount of food. I have set up a spread sheet in Excel with the most basic of foods, which you can download at On it you can perform your own calculations in order to get a feel for how to develop your own unique diet.

If there are any foods you like that are not on the nutritional data list, send me a message at, and I’ll update the list and the calculations. Otherwise, if you know a little bit of Excel yourself, download the sheet and make you own changes as you see fit.

Great! So for the diet above for our 132 pounder, we can see the foods he/she needs to eat in order to ensure that his/her fat, carbohydrate, protein and caloric intake is just right for lean muscle gain while staying lean. There is no hard and fast formula here. You need to play around with the numbers in order to ensure that you hit the targets more or less. Also keep in mind that this is not an exact science, so don’t attempt to be exactly correct to the nearest decimal, you can give or take 100 calories or a couple of grams here and there.

You may eat as much vegetables as you like in this diet, as long as they’re green and fibrous. That means that you may as much as you like of the following: Green beans, green peas, broccoli or spinach. Those will be the best.

You can also easily spike your protein intake with a whey protein supplement, or a soy protein supplement, if you prefer going the vegetarian or vegan route.

This takes care or the nutrition part, so now we can go ahead and focus on the training portion. In order to make the most of the increased calories you will take in on this diet, an intense training regimen must be followed. You need to use all that calories to build muscle and gain mass, otherwise it’ll just become fat.

What I recommend you include in your training program, are both compound exercises as well as isolation exercises. Compound exercises are movements that involve multiple muscle groups at once. This makes it possible to lift heavier weights for more growth and development. Isolation exercises are those that isolate one specific muscle group. They are not so much geared to strength and size, but more towards proportion and shape. Compound and isolation exercises are to be used in this manner: build size and strength with compound exercises first, then add shape and definition with isolation exercises. So during every training session, you first exercise will always be a compound exercise, followed by a number of isolation exercises.

I recommend a training program like the one shown below:

Day1: Legs
Squats or leg press
Lying hamstring curls
Standing calf raises

Day2: Shoulders
Seated or standing military press/dumbbell shoulder press
Lateral raises
Rear delt flyes

Day 3: Rest

Day 4: Arms
Standing bicep barbell curls
Hammer curls
Standing tricep cable pushdown
Tricep overhead extension

Day 5: Chest
Bench press
Chest flyes
Dumbbell pullovers

Day 6: Back
Pull ups or lat pulldown machine
T-bar row
Straight legged deadlifts

Day 7: Rest

Day 8: Start the whole sequence from the beginning again

A table of exercises may also be downloaded at I recommend that you always train to failure in every set. See more about training to failure here.

Cardio is to be performed for no more than 20 minutes after each training session. My recommendations are brisk walking on a treadmill, use of the elliptical trainer, stepping machine, rowing machine or something like the Jacob’s ladder or stationary bike. Cardio should not be too intense, otherwise your body will start using carbohydrates and sugars for fuel. At a low intensity, the body mobilizes fat reserves for energy which is what we want instead. To keep you cardio low intensity, attempt to keep you heart rate between 100 and 120 beats per minute (BPM).

It is very important that you follow this program to the letter, especially in conjunction with an increased calorie diet. Eating like this and training like this will see you gain mountains of new muscle tissue, while at the same time remaining lean and slim.

There are a number of supplements you can use to boost your efforts tremendously. Paramount are a protein supplement, either whey or soy (for those vegan or vegetarian inclined), and a creatine supplement. Creatine will help you to build lots of size and strength in a short amount of time. Then off course, also invest in a multivitamin supplement and a fat ripper. These 4 supplements will help you in many ways to build large, strong muscles.

What about our vegetarian and vegan cousins?

For vegetarians there should not be any problems in developing the right type of diet for muscle development and fat loss. And I dare say for vegans also. All you need to do, is select from the table the foods you want to eat, adjust the quantities and make sure your totals are close to what is required for growth and fat loss. Just remember that each meal should contain a protein type of food, a carbohydrate type of food, a healthy fat and lots of green vegetables like broccoli, green peas, green beans or spinach.

Vegans need to make sure that they eat a variety of foods to ensure adequate intake of all 9 essential amino acids and must take a multivitamin as well.

3. How can I gain mass?

This part of the answer are for those with pure mass gain on their minds. There really isn't much to this, all you need to do is ensure you eat a ton of food every day. Ok not really a ton, but you need to spike caloric intake massively in order to give the body the calories it needs for growth.

As in the section above, ensure that you eat enough protein for adequate muscle growth. 1.5 to 2 g per kg of body mass should do the trick nicely, but you can easily go up to 3 g per kg of body mass. If your protein requirements are met, there is no limit to the amount of fat or carbs you should eat. All that’s important is that you eat many more calories than what is required for daily maintenance.

To do this calculate your daily caloric requirement as was described above, then use the spread sheet on to select foods that will fill your protein requirement and finally eat boatloads of carbohydrates and healthy fats to ensure a caloric surplus. Try to increase your caloric intake to 1000+ calories over your daily requirement and always remember to include green vegetables in your diet as well.

With this plan, expect that you will gain some fatty tissue as well as muscle tissue. With a huge caloric surplus like this, there is no other way than to gain some fat, but this type of plan will see you gain the most muscle and bulk as when compared to the other two types of plans.

As far as training is concerned, my recommendation is that you stick to compound movements throughout this plan. See the training split in the table below.

Day 1: Legs and shoulders
Leg press
Standing military press
Clean and jerk

Day 2: Rest

Day 3: Chest and back
Bench press
Pullups or lat pulldown machine

Day 4: Rest

Day 5: Arms
Barbell curls
Bench dips
Tricep cable pushdown

Day 6: Rest

Day 7: Start with Day 1 again and repeat

Don’t worry too much about sets or reps or training to failure. Your goal here should be to lift heavier weights with each new training session, whilst maintaining proper form and technique. If you’re unsure about how to perform an exercise properly, consult with a personal trainer in your gym, or go online and find advice on the millions of training sites out there today.

You’ll also not be required to do any cardio on this plan. It may be hard, but refrain from all cardio activities while you’re bulking up.

Finally, make use of the same supplements as was described above.

You can see, there’s not much to this type of plan, designed to gain mass. Eat a lot, train hard and heavy and use proper form and technique.

Vegans and vegetarians:

Like before, both vegans and vegetarians can easily design their programs by using the spread sheet on Make sure you meet your protein requirements, and then fill in the empty spaces with carbs and fats.

For vegans this may be a tad more difficult than for vegetarians. Vegans must make sure a variety of foods are eaten while at the same time meeting their protein requirements. Careful planning is necessary, but it may still be possible.


The great thing is that you can use all three programs in sequence to create the exact results you’re looking for. Say for instance you find yourself to be a little bit scrawny, and you’d like to add some mass to your frame. But you also want to be lean and sexy. One way you can go about to achieve this is go all out and for the first 12 to 16 weeks focus on pure mass gain. Follow the guidelines in the third section, which is about gaining mass to the letter and don’t worry about losing fat for this period. After 12 to 16 weeks, when you've gained some mass, start following the principles in the second part of this guide, the one which concerns itself with losing fat and building quality lean muscle tissue. Follow this guide for 12 to 16 weeks, then go back on to building mass and after than back onto cutting fat again. In this manner you’ll find that you can add tons of lean muscle mass and maintain a good physique in a short amount of time.

This is but one example and there are many other configurations of these guidelines that you can follow to achieve the exact goals that you would like to have one day.

To sum it all up:

1. The balance of energy governs all weight loss/weight gain activities.
2. Nutrition, training and supplementation is ever present in every weight loss/weight gain situation. You must give each the attention it deserves to make the goal you desire a reality.
3. In order to slim down with lesser focus on muscular development, make sure you follow a lean, fat free and sugar free diet. Use the meal construction tables together with your own exact portion measurements to design a weight loss diet for yourself. Make sure you include a glass of water in each meal. Take a multivitamin supplement and a fat ripper if you so desire to aid your fat loss efforts. When you exercise try to participate in activities with a slightly more pronounced focus on cardio activities and a lesser focus on toning and firming of muscle tissues.
4. To build muscle and lose fat at the same time, calculate your metabolic rate and daily caloric requirements. 30% of your daily requirement should come from fats, you should eat between 1.5 to 2 grams of protein per kg of body mass for adequate muscle growth and the rest should be carbohydrates. Use the spread sheet on to plan your meals and make sure your protein and calorie intake is on par with your requirements. Follow a training plan with both compound and isolation movements and finish with 20 minutes of cardio. A protein supplement, a creatine supplement, multivitamins and a fat ripper will aid your endeavors.
5. To gain pure mass, calculate your caloric requirement as above. Then plan a diet that gives you 1.5 to 3 grams of protein per kg of body mass and make sure you spike your caloric intake to 1000+ calories, over what is required daily for maintenance. Perform an all-out compound movement training regimen and aim for increases in the amount of weights used, while maintaining proper form and technique. Do not do any cardio. Use the same supplements as mentioned above.

And there you have it friends, three ways to losing or gaining, as you want it or see it. There really isn't much more to it than that. Small tweaks here and there may produce small differences in the results, but the principles remain the same for all three. I hope with this info you may reach your goals and even surpass them!

Until next time friends, STAY TRUE AND TRAIN HARD!

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