The Muscle-Fat Balance
By Chris Manrodt 

Are you just getting started in Powerlifting? Have you heard about lifting but aren't sure what it really is? Are you interested in playing a sport, but need to get bigger, stronger, or both to crack the starting line-up? This section of the Strength On-line Page is devoted to helping the beginner. A lot of the lifting information out there is written for folks who compete regularly in Powerlifting meets, or who have a several years of lifting experience. I will attempt to make this column humorous and interesting as I try to shed light on the basics of successful, injury free lifting.

"Do I look fat to you?” I would rather bomb my squat opener than have my wife ask me that question. But, this time the tables were turned as I looked sidelong in the mirror. “No, seriously, do I look fat?” I continued to wonder. 

         “Well, you look heavier, but not necessarily fat.” My wife responded sheepishly. Great, that was vague. I knew I was heavier, by about 12 pounds in fact, but how much of it was muscle? 

         The subject of bodyweight and body composition is one of the most perplexing parts of the iron game. Most powerlifters, and weight trainers in general, love to attack the weight and sweat out those reps. They like to attack the challenge head-on. Unfortunately, the body weight game is not a problem best suited to a direct assault, unless your goal is to gain as much weight as quickly as possible, muscle, fat, whatever. If you spend anytime perusing the forums, you may have seen my confused inquiries on this subject. After some thought,
I have decided to collect my thoughts on this topic and write them out to see if I have actually learned anything. 

         The age old truth is that bigger is stronger. If you have ever watched Gilbert Brown of the Green Bay Packers, then you will know that there is no substitute for absolute bodyweight in the area of power. However, the powerlifter is separated from the football player, and the Strongman competitor by some simple math called the “Wilkes Formula.” This is the powerlifting response to Marxism. It is the great equalizer, which allows the achievements of the 114 lbs lifter to be compared to the 350-pound behemoth.

         So, for the competitive lifter, the goal is to increase muscle, lose fat, and train specifically for limit strength and starting strength. The problem is that losing fat and gaining muscle are somewhat contradictory events, in terms of the chemistry in the human body. Let me explain:

         The Human Body is a delicately precise collection of finely tuned hormonal and metabolic systems. Some psychologists say that stress is the body’s natural response to change. As powerlifters, we are always trying to change our bodies, to make them leaner, more explosive, and ultimately stronger. This is stressful on the body, and the built-in survival mechanisms in our body try to kick in. Some people curse the mechanisms that encourage fat storage, and prevent lean muscle development. But I am not so sure that these are a
curse, given that there are many more humans on this earth striving to get enough to eat than there are striving to increase their bench press. Perhaps a noble life goal would be to stay in the latter category, and do whatever possible to help those out of the first. But, I digress.

         There are some basic rules of biology and physics that have been applied to the iron game. It may be helpful to think of the human body for a moment like an automobile. Every time you stress your car (crash), and get it fixed at the shop, what do you pay for? “Parts and Labor.” In a way, your muscles are the same. They need protein parts to build with, and they need energy in order to get the parts put in place. Here are the golden rules:

  •    1)      The Parts: If you fail to eat enough protein, your body cannot build muscle. The primary building block of muscle tissue is protein. That’s the easy art. The hard part is, how much protein is  needed? The US RDA says about 65g. This number is intended as a cross-gender, cross-age-group average. In other words, it applies to lifters about as much as it does to infants, NOT AT ALL!! A better guideline is the 1g of protein per pound of body weight. A slight variation is 1g per pound of lean     bodyweight. Lean weight is your total bodyweight minus fat, using % bodyfat as the guideline. In a way, this makes sense because lets say Bob weighs 275lbs at 8% BF. Bob would kick ass at most powerlifting meets, so he needs to give his muscles about 260-275g of protein to keep them from degenerating due to lack of raw materials. Now, lets like at Puffy. Puffy is also 275 lbs, but at 40%BF. That means that Puffy’s lean bodymass is only 165lbs. Technically, Puffy is really only a very well insulated version of a 181 with 10% BF, so he only needs to eat 165-180g of protein to preserve and  gain muscle.
  •    2)      The Labor: Energy is calories, so if you ingest more calories that you burn, you will  gain weight. If you consume fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. Calories are actually a unit of heat. When your body’s natural chemical reactions occur, they release heat, which can be expressed in a number of calories. The biochemical process of building proteins one amino acid at a time inside each muscle cell is an energy consuming activity, and only occurs if there is a surplus of caloric energy in the body. The breaking down of proteins, fats and sugars into energy is what happens when the body runs a deficit of calories. When you exercise, your body actually will feel warmer because you are expending more calories. This does not mean that your temperature goes up, it means your body is producing more heat. The difference is that your body does things to maintain temperature in response to the increased heat energy, namely sweating and increased peripheral blood flow (more blood flows close to the skin in order to cool off, in a manner similar to antifreeze in a radiator, which will make your skin feel warmer even though your inner core     temperature is about the same.) 
         One advantage for me of living in the United States it that there is a label on just about everything you eat, telling you how many calories it has. With due diligence and a sturdy notebook, you can record and count up all the calories you ingest. This may seem like a lot of work, but this is actually the easy part. The trick here is that the amount of calories you expend in a day varies greatly. Obviously, if you exercise more frequently, you will burn more calories. However, the base number of calories that your body uses, sometimes referred to generically as metabolism, is also subject to change. Increasing lean muscle will cause your base metabolic rate to go up. Dieting will cause your base metabolic rate to go down. But, it gets more complicated. Certain foods require more energy for digestion that others. About 20% of the calories in protein are actually spent during digestion, but about 5% of calories are lost during digestion of fat. In fact, some foods like celery actually cause more calories to be burned during digestion than they actually contain. That’s why skinny
supermodels eat a lot of celery. They are starving themselves of energy while still eating.

         There are several ways to get a calculation of your basic metabolic rate, but in my opinion, none of them will be that accurate. The best thing to do is to keep track of your caloric intake over a two week period, and then weigh yourself at the same time everyday. If after two weeks, you are about the same weight, then you are eating close to your base number of calories.

         Here’s the other catch: you cannot gain muscle at more than about 1-2 pounds per week. If you are under 25 and male, it may be closer to 2 pounds, if you are older, or female, it is closer to 1 pound. So, you want to increase caloric intake by a small amount, maybe 300-500 calories above your basic caloric needs. If you gain weight any faster than that, and part of the new weight will be fat. It’s the same in the other direction.
Say you want to cut back on your bodyfat percentage. Then you need to restrict calories slightly, like 300-500 calories per day, and keep up your training. If you are losing more than a pound or two per week, then you are cutting into your muscle. If you are dieting while lifting, here are a few rules from experience:

  •  Always eat right after you train. If you stress your muscles and don’t let them nourish themselves,  you will end up over-trained or injured. It is important to ingest some simple carbs right after a  workout, and also ingest a large amount of protein (30-50g).
  • You have to sleep. For me, if I diet and exercise together but miss sleep, I almost always end up with a cold or a training injury.
  • Dietary supplements may help you burn more calories, but they may push you into that calorie deficit range of more than 300-500 calories. Then that expensive supplement will do nothing but cause you to lose muscle.
          You don’t have to force a radical change to lose weight. If you choose to try a supplement, then you probably don’t need to make huge cuts in your diet. If you increase your cardio to burn more calories, then don’t also cut a lot of food. The body adapts slowly over time, and patience over a six month period will yield a long term change, where as a big change will not necessarily help you. It is just like lifting. If you want to get stronger, use weights you can handle for sets and reps, and then increase the weight a little bit each week. You wouldn’t jump from 300x5 in the bench to 600x5 in one week, and yet people will double their caloric intake in a single week hoping to “Get Big FAST.” Or even worse, you might cut your calorie intake in half and then wonder why their lifts aren’t going up.

         Ok, I admit that nothing I have written here is radical stuff. I am trying to bring forward enough basics to help a lifter attempt to make a decision about lifting. More advanced diets have only limited benefit if you fail to follow the basics. 




For more information on getting started check out the archives section here on Strength Online or drop by the Q&A forums.

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        prohibited without written consent. Copyright 2000 Chris Manrodt.