Luke Zocchi stands shirtless in front of a squat rack.
Luke Zocchi

Can you lose fat & gain muscle at the same time?

Luke Zocchi

Can you build muscle in a calorie deficit?

This is a question I get asked a lot, although everyone seems to have a different name for it: shredding, cutting, body recomp, recomping (because who has the time to say “body recomposition”?)

Whatever you call it, gaining muscle while losing body fat IS possible. It’s a challenge I’ve taken on myself and coached other people through plenty of times. But there are a few things you need to know to make it happen effectively and safely.

Wondering if this advice will work for you? Maybe you're getting on in years, or you've never lifted weight before. Don't worry, all will be revealed – just keep reading.

The basics of muscle building don’t change just because you’re shredding rather than bulking…

1. Keep lifting heavy weights

A lot of people think a shred should involve mainly cardio workouts, or lifting light weights with a high rep count.

But the basics of muscle building don’t change just because you’re shredding instead of bulking. You still need to challenge your muscles and push yourself with the weights if you want them to grow.

With Power Shred we’ve created a cutting program where the majority of your results – as far as training is concerned – will come from building or maintaining muscle, which means keeping the volume and intensity of your lifting high.

Luke Zocchi performs a chest press using heavy dumbells.

Lifting heavy weights is essential for a successful shred.

2. Use a (super small) calorie deficit

To lose body fat, you need to burn more energy than you take in. This is called a calorie deficit and it’s the one rule of weight loss you can count on. But to give yourself the best chance of gaining muscle while you lose that fat, you need to keep this calorie deficit small.

I’m talking a few hundred calories less per day than what you need to maintain your current weight. If you drop your calories too low, your body will start burning muscle for energy and then you’re going backwards.

I know all this calorie talk can be a head spinner, so we’ve included all the steps you need to estimate your intake – along with a calculator – in the Power Shred Nutrition Handbook.

3. Be smart about your cardio

Okay, earlier I said the majority of your body recomp results will come from building muscle. That doesn’t mean you can’t bump up your fat burn with cardio – you just have to be smart about it.

Doing challenging steady-state cardio like long-distance running won’t give you the ‘shredded’ definition you’re looking for. Too much cardio can also tire you out, which might mean worse overall recovery and less energy to bring to your lifting sessions.

Here’s how I do it: set aside one day each week for a cardio session that lasts for 30–40 minutes. And stack some short strength-based HIRT finishers onto the end of your lifting workouts. By doing your cardio at the end of a session, your lifting form won’t suffer.

Ingrid Clay doing cardio on an assault bike.

We’ve covered all your cardio needs in Power Shred to help you dial up fat burn without burning out or losing muscle.

4. Recover as hard as you train

When you’re shredding, there are no shortcuts with recovery. You need to put the same intensity into your rest and refueling as you bring to your training.

That doesn’t mean you have to have a masseuse on standby. The big three things to focus on are:

  • Sleepit’s crucial for muscle growth and for balancing the hormones that keep your hunger levels and body fat in check.
  • Nutrition – quality food will help restore your energy levels and build muscle.
  • Cold and heat – I love incorporating saunas and ice baths to my routine. Even if you only have access to a cold shower or a hot bath, it can give your recovery an edge and help keep you performing at your best.

If you want more advice on building a great recovery routine, check out our total recovery guide.

Recovery meals from the Centr meal plan.

Try these recovery meals to restore energy levels and grow lean muscle.

5. Be patient

This will not happen overnight. It’s when people try to take shortcuts in a shred that things can get unhealthy.

Sticking with your training and a calorie deficit is going to be a mental battle. For me, it’s the first two weeks that are usually the toughest, but everyone’s journey will look different.

If you’re patient and trust the process, the results will come.

FAQ: How to lose fat & build muscle

Not sure if your situation is covered by the information above? With some help from nutrition expert Angie Asche and my Power Shred training buddy Ingrid Clay, I’m here to answer your most frequently asked questions about cutting.

Can I get shredded if I am a beginner?
As a beginner, you’re in the best possible position to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.

Ever heard of newbie gains? Because your body isn’t used to training with weights, it will adapt faster and stack on muscle fast. And if you have a fair amount of fat to lose, your body can use this stored fat as fuel – that means you can eat in a calorie deficit without your body burning muscle for energy.

As well as having more potential muscle to gain than someone who has been lifting for years, your body composition changes will be a lot easier to see – so that should give you the confidence to keep going.

What if I’m super fit already?
If you’ve been training consistently for years, and you’re already fit and strong with good muscle definition, it’s going to be harder to achieve a dramatic body recomp.

For you, maintaining muscle – rather than gaining it – while you lose fat is a more realistic goal. To do this with Power Shred, choose the smaller calorie deficit option. It’s all explained in the Nutrition Handbook.

Do women need to use different methods to get shredded?
Shredding is definitely not ‘one size fits all’, so I asked Ingrid and Angie for their expert opinions on what women need to know before they get started.

“Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can only shred by doing cardio every day or lifting light weights for high reps,” says Ingrid. “If you open up the Power Shred program you’ll see I’m training exactly the same way Luke is. The best way to get a lean, shredded physique is to lift heavy, mix in some clever cardio and nail your nutrition.”

While you don’t need to train differently, Angie points out that women can face different obstacles when it comes to body recomposition.

“Women naturally have greater amounts of body fat and less muscle mass than men. To put some numbers to that, the American College of Sports Medicine defines ideal body fat percentages at around 8-21 percent for men and 21-33 percent for women, depending on your age. So you definitely shouldn’t be comparing yourself to the guys on that basis,” Angie explains.

“Women also have lower calorie needs overall, so will not need to consume as much as men during Power Shred – but we’ll help you lock that down with the program’s Nutrition Handbook.”

If you want more info on women’s fitness, check out our cycle-based training and nutrition guide or perimenopause and menopause guide.

Can I get shredded if I’m over 40?
Ingrid, Angie and I talked about this and there’s one thing we all agreed on: it is slightly tougher to get results in your 40s and beyond, but it’s not impossible.

“You just have to be more strategic about it,” says Angie. “For example, when women are going through menopause, our estrogen and progesterone levels decline, making muscle growth more difficult and cortisol (the stress hormone that can eat away at muscle gains) levels more difficult to manage.”

“Men face a similar challenge with testosterone levels declining as they age. And both men and women are going to experience a decline in muscle protein synthesis and an increase in protein breakdown. So we need to find outside ways to manage this, like making sure we’re prioritizing protein intake with our nutrition.”

Ingrid’s advice? “You might need to adjust your approach to recovery and be more patient than you were in your 20s.”

“We often equate ‘youthfulness’ with our ‘peak’ when in fact, our peak is more about our overall health. Honestly, I didn’t hit my physical peak until I was in my mid-30s. I look better now in my 40s than I ever did at 20 – from the inside out!”

Ingrid’s got some great training tips for the over-40s to get you ready for the journey ahead.

What are the signs I’m gaining muscle and losing fat?
The scale can’t tell the difference between body fat and muscle tissue, so tracking your results is going to require some new tactics.

Keep an eye on:

  • Your measurements. Use a tape measure to track key areas – like your biceps, chest and waist – for body composition changes.
  • Your clothes. Are they fitting differently? Is your outfit feeling looser around the waist and tighter around the biceps? This can be a sign you’re losing fat and gaining muscle.
  • Your strength. If you're lifting heavier or getting through more reps, that’s a good sign you’re gaining muscle.
  • Photos. Take some shots before you start, then use the same light and poses to track your progress over time.
  • Your energy. Losing excess body fat can give your energy levels a boost.

Want more expert advice on movement and meals?

Luke Zocchi

Chris Hemsworth may wield the hammer, but it’s his personal trainer Luke Zocchi who cracks the whip. A certified personal trainer, Luke is renowned for his fast and efficient training methods, using weights and bodyweight to get maximum results in minimum time. He’ll also show you how to fuel your training with quick, easy and healthy recipes.

Luke Zocchi

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