Monday, 29 September 2014

Bodybuilding for Fat Loss - Analysis

Bodybuilding for Fat Loss - Analysis


Many books, websites and Personal Trainers (PTs) try to convince people that the best way to loose/burn body fat is to add muscle by training like a body builder. This is isolating muscle(s) and training to, or near failure with perhaps 3-4 sets of 12-16 reps per set.

The wisdom is that each lb of muscle burns 50 calories at rest per day, yet there is no scientific research to back this up.  The reality and science is that we all burn calories off at different rates, when we are at rest this is ‘independent of body size and composition’. It is therefore difficult to actually put a figure on how many calories muscle burns per lb per day but most experts, if pushed, will state just 6 calories, fat burns 2 calories per lb per day. The difference is minimal and not significant enough to base your training regime on.

So how much muscle can we gain in a year, this could still work?

Again this is not set in stone, but some experts have tried to present this date in figures.

Lyle McDonald Model – Based on a Adult Male

Year of Proper Training
Potential Rate of Muscle Gain per Year
20-25 lbs (2lbs per month)
10-12 lbs (1lb per month)
5-6 lbs (0.5 lbs per month)
2-3 lbs (not worth calculating)

Females would gain about half that muscle in the first year so 10-12 lbs.

Alan Aragon Model - Based on a Adult Male

Rate of Muscle Gain
1-1.5% total body weight per month
0.5-1% total body weight per month
0.25-0.5% total body weight per month

Again we are looking at about a half the gains for females.

If we use those figures and assume a both a make and female training work hard and gain maximum potential muscle in 12 months then the increased calorie burn would be:

Muscle Gained lbs
Calorie at rest burn increase
25 lbs
150 cal
12.5 lbs
75 cal

BUT in that time, if this system of training works, then a trainee would have also lost lots of body fat and as we have learnt earlier body fat also burn calories at rest so there could be little of no net calorie burn gained.

Reality Check

So when looking at the science and a couple of calculations we can see that the net calorie burn at rest from muscle is only a minor improvement, at best. Also, in order to gain anything like the amount of muscle used in those calculation an individual would have to train extremely hard AND have a very clean, yet high calorie diet in order to feed that training and growth. If that individual had the discipline to eat clean and train hard than they would most likely not need to lose body fat in the first place.

Looking Beyond Body Fat Reduction - Bodybuilding Training

Caveat -Some one who has never trained before will always gain strength, muscle mass and cardiovascular fitness just from training regularly.  Simply, they can only get better.

While isolation training, in general does lead to better muscle growth it is important not to confuse having bigger muscles with having strength, and that big or strong muscles mean you have a strong body.

The first priority when starting any form of physical training program is to ensure your whole body moves correctly. Typically, western culture ensures most human spend most of the day sat down which leads to a variety of mobility (muscle weakening, shorting, lengthening etc) issues typically centred around the hips and lower back.  A 2000 survey showed 49% of people in the UK suffer from lower back pain and that is likely to have increased in the last 14 years.  Bodybuilding typically uses lots of machines (the majority in which you sit on/at) or seated dumbbell training with only small parts of the body working at any one time.  This will only serve to worsen any mobility issues with many trainees unaware they have issues in the first place.  Getting stronger or increasing muscle mass before (re)learning how to move the body properly will only lead to further, often worse, issues later.

Total isolation of a muscle, or part of a muscle is a myth. All a good bodybuilder can do is limit any other muscles involvement in the lift. A beginner trainee will most likely not be able to isolate the muscle any where near enough to get the full benefits and will often (accidently) cheat and use the wrong muscles even if training with a competent PT. Even more experienced trainees suffer from this and it is one of the most common mistakes seen the weights room in any gym. It can take weeks, months, even years to learn how to isolate properly and unless the trainees goal is to compete as a bodybuilder this is at best inefficient, at worst a waste of valuable training time. Isolation training also relies on the training plan being written, and accurately followed, were no muscles are missed out. This is difficult as muscles do not develop evenly and most people will over-train muscles such as chest, biceps and abs while under-training muscles such as hamstrings and rear delts. Any muscle imbalances can lead to injuries and poor posture.

Another common characteristic of bodybuilding is training close to, or until failure. That is lifting a weight repetitively until the muscle no longer wants to move it. While when used correctly this is an effective form of training it could be argued that this is not wise for inexperienced trainees. As mentioned above, a new trainee will often accidently (the body will always try to cheat) use additionally, or even the wrong muscles. By training to failure the body will learn to not use the correct muscle(s) in this instance. A beginner is unlikely to know just how hard to push themselves when training to failure so could easily over-exert themselves causing injury, or under-exert themselves making the training ineffective.


Although, at first bodybuilding for fat loss does appear to make sense when we look at the science the maths just does not add up. The small increase in calorie burn from added muscle is insignificant, especially when off set by any potential fat loss. The increased calories and clean and controlled diet needed to maximise muscle loss is most likely beyond the beginner trainee who has most likely been eating poorly for a long time. 

The analysis of bodybuilding training shows that it often fails to address fundamental movement/mobility issues that are common in the population. Instead, it teaches the body to isolate muscles that are designed to work in partnership with other muscles. Any mobility issues prior to starting training will be exasperated by bodybuilding.

The average person joining a gym is unlikely to be able to isolate their muscles effectively nor be able to gauge intensity such that optimum training stimulation occurs. It is more likely that they will over exert themselves causing stress to other muscles, joints, ligaments or tendons, which will lead to injury. This is not helped by the ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality that is pushed by some PTs, website and books.

While improving fitness including increasing muscle mass and strength is beneficial there are other, better, ways to do this. The analysis of bodybuilding for fat loss shows that it is inefficient and more likely to cause injury that reduced body fat. It would be far easier, more beneficial and more scientifically sound too simple reduce overall calorie consumption by 100-200 cal a day and eat a clean diet in order to loose fat.