To effectively build lean muscle, your body needs a caloric surplus, to take in more energy per day than it burns. To lose fat, your body needs a caloric deficit, to burn more energy per day than it takes in. Think of it as laying or taking away bricks to either build or downsize a house.
However, the best exercises for building muscle in a caloric surplus are also the best exercises for losing fat, explains Anna Swisher, USA Weightlifting coach education and sport science manager.
That’s because, put simply, they work multiple and major muscle groups. That allows them to help you build the most muscle (granted you’re in a caloric surplus) or burn the most calories to lose fat (if you’re in a deficit). “Why do five exercises when you could do one and get the same bang for your buck?” Swisher asks.
Exercising to Build Muscle and Burn Fat at the Same Time
Traditionally, coaches have ended things there. But the reality is that most exercisers don’t want to work toward one goal at a time.
That’s why increasingly more trainers are discussing a third option: reproportioning. Through long-term training with those same dynamic, major compound exercises, it involves building muscle while also decreasing overall body fat, says Illinois-based personal trainer Roger Earle, co-author of “Weight Training: Steps to Success.” The only real difference is that, instead of eating and training for a caloric surplus or deficit, exercisers maintain a caloric balance. When the body is in caloric balance, it consumes and expends equal amounts of energy per day. Fortunately, most people naturally live in or very close to caloric balance.
It’s important to realize that, by training this way, it will take longer to build muscle than if you worked toward that exclusive goal. And the same goes for weight or fat loss, he says. But training this way does allow you to progress simultaneously toward both goals. That way, you don’t have to spend months training to gain weight only to spend more months working to lose fat.
Reproportioning, like the name implies, does not necessarily involve changes in total body weight, but in how much of that weight comes from muscle versus fat. “We know that the scale isn’t truly representative of body composition, so while you increase muscle mass and lose body fat, total weight can remain relatively steady,” Earle says. A pound of lean muscle is more compact than a pound of fat.
So what are these best exercises for muscle gain, fat loss or even reproportioning? Any high-intensity exercises that work much, if not all, of your body at once. Here, experts share four of many favorites, along with advice on how to perform them for the greatest benefits:
- Push presses.
“Squats are the exercise equivalent of the base of the food pyramid,” Swisher says. They work some of the body’s largest muscle groups, namely the glutes and quads, to a high degree. And, when performed correctly with total-body tension, strengthen the lats, shoulders and core.
Strategies for Muscle Gain and Fat Loss: Try to incorporate some type of squat variation into your workouts two to four times per week, she recommends, ideally performing squats no more than two days in a row. Remember, it’s as your body recovers between workouts that you build lean muscle. With squats, do three to five sets of eight to 12 reps. Push your body to fatigue, when you feel like you could barely perform another rep with excellent form.
Great options for variations include goblets, holding a single weight at your chest; dumbbell, gripping a weight in each hand by your sides; back, with a barbell across your upper back; Zercher, resting a weight in the crooks of your elbows against your torso; and overhead, with weights extended straight up toward the ceiling. Choose those that are challenging but still comfortable on your joints.
With each rep, deadlifts – which amount to picking a “dead weight” up off of the floor – work virtually every muscle in your body for both muscle gain and caloric burn, Swisher says. They work the glutes, hamstrings, quads, core, back and shoulders while also isometrically training the arms.
Strategies for Muscle Gain and Fat Loss: Deadlifts look simple, but they are actually very technical. So, to make sure that you are always performing them with proper form, it’s generally advised to stick with sets of six or fewer reps. Between sets, focus on taking long rests of two minutes or more to ensure not just proper form, that you are able to give the exercise your all.
Many people equate deadlifts with barbell deadlifts, but it’s important to realize that those are only one of many variations, and they aren’t right for everybody. And they are never the variation to perform when you’re first getting started with deadlifts. Opt for kettlebell or dumbbell deadlifts and, especially if you have long legs or tight hamstrings, deadlifts using a trap bar (a hexagon-shaped bar that you stand in the center of). Integrate the best deadlift variations for you into your workout routine two to four times per week, and ideally perform them near the beginning of your workouts before you’re fatigued from other exercises.
Cleans are, more or less, deadlifts performed quickly – quickly enough to drive the weight to rest against the front of your shoulders. That means they get even more muscles involved while also stoking your heart rate.
Strategies for Muscle Gain and Fat Loss: While cleans will get your heart pumping, they’re best used to train muscular power rather than muscular endurance. Translation: Don’t rush or try to perform endless reps. Perform three sets of as little as four reps to ensure that you maintain optimal form and power, Swisher recommends, noting that high-power exercises should be performed soon after your warmup when you’re feeling fresh. Of course, like with the other exercises listed here, that’s assuming that you’re challenging yourself with the loads you lift. Those loads can be dumbbells, kettlebells or barbells; only start integrating them into your routine once you feel confident with deadlifts.