How do you lower body fat and gain muscle?

I’m 38, 5’6″ and 138 lbs. I’m doing P90X regularly and running/training for a marathon in May. My diet consists mostly of vegetables, fruit, nuts and the occasional lean meat. For the most part I avoid processed foods, fried foods, sugar, saturated fats, etc., basically “bad” foods.

Since I’ve been monitoring my diet the past few weeks I average below the 65g RDA for fat. My main goal is to be fit and healthy, but I’m also looking to become lean, more muscular and lower my body fat. Right now I’m aiming for 500 (or more) calories less than I am burning so I can lose my body fat. For the past two weeks my daily average is 2081 calories of food and 2500 burned.

Am I doing the right thing to achieve my goal of lowering my body fat and increasing my lean muscle mass? I wonder if I should worry as much about keeping my calorie count well below what I am burning. Thank you!

Hi Tim, thanks for the question. First off good luck in your marathon, that is quite a challenge you’ve set for yourself. I’ve never done one, but I do have several triathlons under my belt. It may be possible that the goals you’ve set may interfere with each other.

Generally, the body can be in one of three states: anabolic (building up), catabolic (breaking down), or maintenance. This is why bodybuilders (and other athletes) usually have an offseason period where they are bulking up, and then other training periods when they are cutting fat. Also, you are training for a marathon; this requires a lot of running, which, consequently, requires a lot of energy (calculator here). It is going to be extremely difficult to train for a marathon and do P90X (high intensity circuit, similar to crossfit) regularly while cutting calories. It would be near impossible to do your routine and gain muscle mass at the same time.

Therefore, I suggest, periodizing your training. Periodization is simply having different stages of training, all with a specific purpose, which may be different from other periods.

Since your marathon is in May, let’s tackle that goal first. I’ve not sure exactly which training program you are on (there are many available online), but I’m assuming you are running 3-4 days a week, with a long run thrown somewhere in there. Most people like to do their long run during the weekend in order to make sure they have enough time. During marathon training, you can continue to do P90X if it does not interfere with your running. However, if you start becoming sore after P90X, or just feel tired and worn out, I would advise to quit the P90X for a couple of weeks and focus solely on marathon training. If you feel that you can bring it back into your routine, be my guest. Also, while marathon training, it will be very important to maintain your caloric intake, especially of carbohydrates. As explained in an earlier answer, carbohydrates replenish your glycogen, which you will lose a lot of running for as long as you are going to be.

Once your marathon is complete, and you have a while between marathons, then you can attempt an anabolic stage of your routine. P90X is great for this. Do your workouts and eat plenty of food. You can use this calorie calculator as a guideline. If you find you are putting on too much fat, decrease calories by 100-200 and try it out for a week. Keep doing this until you find a caloric level that allows you to complete your workouts, and puts on the amount of weight that you are comfortable with. P90X is actually kind of unique in that it may allow you to gain some muscle, while losing some fat. However, keep in mind that trying to do this will not put on as much muscle as a purely anabolic stage, nor lose as much fat as a purely catabolic stage.

Therefore, to sum everything up simply, you must choose whether you want to gain muscle or lose fat. Eat more if you want to gain muscle (you will also gain some fat), eat less if you want to lose fat (you will also lose some muscle).

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