Exercising regularly and eating well keeps us healthier, enjoying an injury-free, active lifestyle well into old age. But there’s another benefit to fitness and nutrition that drives many people, and that’s wanting to look better. These two objectives, health and good looks, are not mutually exclusive. Both entail improving body composition. But losing fat and building muscle doesn’t come easy. Learn how to improve body composition and what really, is the greatest contributor to the healthiest and most coveted chiseled look.
What Effects Body Composition
More physical strength and less body fat are associated with lower all-cause mortality rates.1 So, if you want to improve quality of life and length of life, it’s time to improve your body composition. Most people understand that what effects body composition is exercise and nutrition. So why then, aren’t we stronger and leaner? Despite our best intentions, we’re engaging in the wrong type of exercise and eating the wrong things.
When it comes to losing fat and building muscle, it’s long been assumed that we need to combine strength training with cardio. Absolutely, strength training is necessary for building muscle. But it turns out, it’s the best way to lose fat, too.
Cardiovascular exercise is not the fat burner most people think it is. In fact, cardio has a tendency to make body composition worse, not better. Why? Because cardio up-regulates cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol cues the body to hold on to fat, and promotes the breakdown of muscle.
Strength training, on the other hand, speeds up metabolism by increasing lean muscle mass. And it’s just not true that cardio is the only way to a healthy heart, research shows that strength training with bands improves cardiovascular profiles.2
If building muscle is the key to losing weight, the question then becomes, what nutrition protocol best supports our efforts to build muscle? Here too, there are many myths that just won’t go away.
It’s a myth that to build muscle, you need a surplus of calories. The ‘bulking and cutting’ strategy that has long been used by bodybuilders as an attempt to increase lean mass is inefficient and unnecessary.
It has been proven in multiple studies that a calorie surplus is not what enables muscle growth. Instead, the appropriate level of high quality protein does. Stated differently, a person can be at a caloric deficit and trigger body fat loss while at the same time growing muscle, given the proper level of protein.3, 4
In their research on how to improve body composition, Dr. Jaquish and his team were amazed to find that the role of hormones was not widely discussed or understood by people engaging in exercise, or even by many of the people acting as experts in the field.
In this context, ‘hormones’ doesn’t refer to Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). It’s simply not true that people who are in great shape were either born that way or took steroids to obtain their physiques. Hormones can be optimized with the right workouts and the right nutrition.
Importantly, natural exercise-induced hormonal changes do NOT carry the same dangers as illegal PED use. What’s more, the specific fitness routines that create the proper hormonal environment for weight loss and muscle gain are not excessively complicated.
How to Improve Body Composition
So, improving body composition is all about dialing in an exercise and nutrition plan that puts the right hormones to use for muscle gain and fat loss. Let’s take a closer look at how to do that.
Nutrition to Improve Body Composition
You’ve likely heard the adage, you can’t outtrain a bad diet, and it’s true. Improving body composition starts with what we eat. To maximize muscle growth without also storing fat, the research points to two core elements:
- Protein. We must consume enough protein for muscle protein synthesis
- Intermittent fasting. IF contributes to a hormonal environment that helps decrease body fat while maintaining muscle.
To meet your protein requirements while intermittent fasting, you have to eat a lot of protein per meal. So, how can we ingest enough protein to maximize muscle growth without overeating? We can eliminate calories from sources other than protein and fat (which is necessary to function). Basically, we can let go of carbs entirely.
The carnivore diet sounds extreme to most people, but research and real-world results speak for themselves. To build muscle while losing fat we need to hit our protein minimums in a calorie-efficient package. The easiest way to do this is to cut the carbs.
- Cut the Carbs
Cutting carbs starts with eliminating sugar and simple carbs. To change your body composition, this is a non-negotiable. Dietary sugar is the leading factor in obesity. In general, we don’t get fat from eating fat, we get fat from eating too much sugar, as well as other kinds of carbohydrates. So, start by eliminating all added sugars.
But we can go further. Most people don’t know that nutritionally, there are only two macronutrients: fat and protein. Carbohydrates, although easily converted into energy, are not essential to human life at all.5
There’s more on this in Dr. Jaquish’s book, Weight Lifting is a Waste of Time, but if improving body composition is your goal, carbs (in any amount) are only keeping you further from it.
- Get Enough Protein
With carbohydrates eliminated, we have more calories at our disposal with which to meet our protein needs. According to research from two separate studies, 2.4 grams per kilogram of body weight each day is the optimal level of protein intake.6 7 As long as we’re getting enough protein, and getting it from carb-free sources, there’s no reason to worry about overfeeding.
When faced with an excess of carbs, those carbs get stored as fat. When the body has excess protein, it will actually increase its metabolic rate to consume this protein.8 The body doesn’t have a way to turn protein into fat. So instead, body temperature increases as a means of burning calories, something called the thermogenic effect. In a 2014 study, weightlifters were able to maintain a hyper- caloric high-protein diet without gaining any body fat. This stands in stark contrast to research showing that conventional hyper-caloric diets lead to weight gain.9
- Get the Right Amino Acids
Protein, of course, is a great source of amino acids. And this is what’s really needed for muscle growth. When performing exercise, muscle can only be created if each essential amino acid is available in sufficient quantities. If just one is missing, or in short supply, this anabolic process cannot be completed.
This points to the importance of your protein source. If you cannot meet your protein needs with animal proteins alone, a supplement can provide the essential amino acids in the exact ratio your body needs to build muscle.
- Eat Enough Healthy Fat
Fat is not only an essential macro, alongside protein, but it’s the most satiating nutrient. Without enough fat it is much harder, and will require many more calories, to feel full. That’s why if you eat only lean chicken breasts, an hour later you’re hungry.
So, where should we get our fat from? Contrary to what many of us have been taught to believe, the healthiest kind of fat may be animal fat, aka saturated fat. You might be surprised to learn that a recent meta study found no evidence to support US dietary guidelines suggesting we limit fat consumption.10 Other studies have found that high-fat diets like Keto substantially lower blood triglyceride levels to under those of people eating lower fat meals.11
All this is to say, you might as well get your fat from the most efficient sources. And because steak and eggs already have enough fat in them, so there’s no need to add extra into your diet.
- Practice Time Restricted Eating
Research shows intermittent fasting is one of the healthiest things we can do for our body. It provides a total metabolic reset, autophagy, and regeneration of the immune system. Fasting effectively gives the body time to repair itself. There are also major hormonal benefits that come along with time-restricted eating.
- Growth hormone is produced when you fast for a certain amount of time a day.12
- Testosterone is upregulated by fasting, while eating, especially high carb meals, downregulates testosterone.13
- Insulin sensitivity improves. This naturally promotes increases in testosterone by reducing the amount of insulin the body needs to release.14 Improved insulin sensitivity is also associated with rapid metabolization of body fat, and lower levels of body fat are associated with higher levels of testosterone.
To change body composition, intermittent fasting is preferred over long-term calorie restriction not only because of the benefits mentioned above, like autophagy, but because restricting calories at each meal is just too hard, keeps you hungry, and is largely unsuccessful.
Exercises to Improve Body Composition
With nutrition dialed in, strength training is needed to build and maintain lean muscle mass. Most people strength train by lifting weights. But just as cutting calories isn’t the best weight loss method, lifting weights isn’t the best muscle-building method. The best exercises to improve body composition are based on variable resistance.
- Variable Resistance
When compared to weight lifting, studies show variable resistance (using bands) leads to measurable, improved gains in speed, strength, vertical jump, and lean mass.15 This is true for professional and collegiate athletes, but also for de-trained middle-aged people. Variable resistance reduces body fat and increases lean mass.16
Why? With traditional weight-lifting, resistance is static. So each lift is limited by the amount you can push or pull in your weakest position. Unfortunately, to trigger the hormones necessary for muscle growth, we need to lift heavy and lift to complete failure. To lift this heavy with weights is unsafe, puts joints at risk and is functionally unachievable for most people.
Training with a variable resistance device such as the X3 bar system is accessible to all, no matter your current strength. It’s safe on the joints, and lets users reach complete and total failure. X3 also maximizes the time a muscle is under tension, further boosting the hormones that promote growth.
Changing Body Composition: The Bottom Line
If changing body composition was easy, most people you see would be stronger and leaner. After all, a lean, strong body composition improves health and longevity and just makes us feel better.
What primarily effects body composition is how much muscle you have. Even women need muscle to achieve a toned look and avoid health challenges as they get older. More muscle also speeds metabolism, building a body that’s a more efficient fat-burning machine.
Growing muscle is best done with variable resistance, and a diet that includes sufficient protein combined with intermittent fasting. Many people try the slow way, with weights, cardio and a variety of ill-informed diets. Those who choose the X3 Bar method will confirm they have much better results.
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