Thursday, September 2, 2010

How to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time? Strength training plus a mild caloric deficit

Ballor et al. (1996) conducted a classic and interesting study on body composition changes induced by aerobic and strength training. This study gets cited a lot, but apparently for the wrong reasons. One of these reasons can be gleaned from this sentence in the abstract:

    “During the exercise training period, the aerobic training group … had a significant … reduction in body weight … as compared with the [strength] training group ...

That is, one of the key conclusions of this study was that aerobic training was more effective than strength training as far as weight loss is concerned. (The authors refer to the strength training group as the “weight training group”.)

Prior to starting the exercise programs, the 18 participants had lost a significant amount of weight through dieting, for a period of 11 weeks. The authors do not provide details on the diet, other than that it was based on “healthy” food choices. What this means exactly I am not sure, but my guess is that it was probably not particularly high or low in carbs/fat, included a reasonable amount of protein, and led to a caloric deficit.

The participants were older adults (mean age of 61; range, 56 to 70), who were also obese (mean body fat of 45 percent), but otherwise healthy. They managed to lose an average of 9 kg (about 20 lbs) during that 11-week period.

Following the weight loss period, the participants were randomly assigned to either a 12-week aerobic training (four men, five women) or weight training (four men, five women) exercise program. They exercised 3 days per week. These were whole-body workouts, with emphasis on compound (i.e., multiple-muscle) exercises. The figure below shows what actually happened with the participants.

As you can see, the strength training group (WT) gained about 1.5 kg of lean mass, lost 1.2 kg of fat, and thus gained some weight. The aerobic training group (AT) lost about 0.6 kg of lean mass and 1.8 kg of fat, and thus lost some weight.

Which group fared better? In terms of body composition changes, clearly the strength training group fared better. But my guess is that the participants in the strength training group did not like seeing their weight going up after losing a significant amount of weight through dieting. (An analysis of the possible psychological effects of this would be interesting; a discussion for another blog post.)

The changes in the aerobic training group were predictable, and were the result of compensatory adaptation. Their bodies changed to become better adapted to aerobic exercise, for which a lot of lean mass is a burden, as is a lot of fat mass.

So, essentially the participants in the strength training group lost fat and gained muscle at the same time. The authors say that the participants generally stuck with their weight-loss diet during the 12-week exercise period, but not a very strict away. It is reasonable to conclude that this induced a mild caloric deficit in the participants.

Exercise probably induced hunger, and possibly a caloric surplus on exercise days. If that happened, the caloric deficit must have occurred on non-exercise days. Without some caloric deficit there would not have been fat loss, as extra calories are stored as fat.

There are many self-help books and programs online whose main claim is to have a “revolutionary” prescription for concurrent fat loss and muscle gain – the “holy grail” of body composition change.

Well, it may be as simple as combining strength training with a mild caloric deficit, in the context of a nutritious diet focused on unprocessed foods.


Ballor, D.L., Harvey-Berino, J.R., Ades, P.A., Cryan, J., & Calles-Escandon, J. (1996). Contrasting effects of resistance and aerobic training on body composition and metabolism after diet-induced weight loss. Metabolism, 45(2), 179-183.