Muscle and fat – your two power players for a strong, healthy shape. As scientists are discovering, their roles expand way beyond creating curves, though.
Understand the latest research, and you can maximise their building and burning potential.
FIRST, THE BASICS
Everyone has two different types of muscle: type-1 (slow-twitch) fibres and type-2 (fast-twitch) fibres. “Slow-twitch fibres control endurance. They’re what you use for activities like running long distances and low-impact aerobic workouts like Zumba,” says Michele Olson, professor of exercise science at Auburn University.
Fast-twitch fibres are used for shorter, explosive movements like squat jumps or sprints. They fatigue more quickly and require more recovery time. While type-1 fibres remain about the same size even after you tone, type-2s get larger as they get stronger, so working them is key if you want muscle definition. “If you only focus on training one type, you’re missing out on half the perks,” Michele says.
Fat is a little more complicated. You have white fat, which includes subcutaneous and visceral kinds, and brown fat. Subcutaneous fat is the pinchable stuff around your hips, breasts, butt, belly and thighs that gives you curves. And, yes, it has functional benefits: “Subcutaneous fat is your largest energy reserve,” says Labros Sidossis, a professor of kinesiology and health at Rutgers University. “It also helps regulate body temperature and cushions your internal organs.” This type of fat is so essential that your body is wired to hang onto it, which can make it tough to lose.
Visceral fat hides out under the white fat in your midsection. “Its purpose is to protect organs like your liver and intestines,” Michele says.
“But too much visceral fat increases inflammation, raising your risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure,” she adds. Any woman with a waist circumference of more than 89cm likely has an unhealthy amount of visceral fat.
Finally, there’s brown fat – the kind you actually want more of. “It burns calories instead of storing them,” Labros says. Exercise may help the body make more brown fat by producing a hormone called irisin, which activates it, according to research published in the American Journal of Physiology: Endocrinology and Metabolism. And vigorous workouts may even prompt white fat to temporarily turn into a type of brown fat known as beige fat, which also burns calories.
THE MUSCLE-FAT CONNECTION
Like a car engine, your muscles need fuel to move. In fact, the majority of the energy you use during the day is for powering your muscles, which have hundreds of essential purposes besides helping you crush it at the gym, like keeping your heart pumping and maintaining your balance.
One of the best sources of that energy is fat. It contains nine calories per gram, while carbohydrate, another top fuel source, contains just four.
But your body is fickle. It likes to pick and choose its gas. “You tap fat for energy when you do low-intensity activities like typing on your computer or going for a walk,” says Keith Baar, a professor in the department of physiology and membrane biology at the University of California Davis. “But as you increase physical intensity and your muscles start demanding fuel faster, your body switches to burning carbs, which are quicker to break down into energy.”
WHEN YOU BRING IN A WORKOUT
You’ve heard of the “fat-burning zone” – an exercise intensity of about 50 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate, thought to be below the threshold where your body will start burning carbs. It turns out, though, that cranking up the intensity can lead to more fat loss in the end.
“You want to burn as many calories overall as possible during your workout so that afterwards, your body will be forced to use fat to help your muscles recover,” Keith says. “That’s how you get the biggest burn.”
Intensity is only part of the equation, however. These six strategies will help you build muscle and torch fat more effectively.
Get moving early.
You can blast up to 20 per cent more body fat by exercising in the morning. The key: Eat breakfast after your workout, research in the British Journal of Nutrition suggests. “Your body has less glycogen [also known as energy] from carbs if you don’t eat, so it will have no choice but to turn to fat,” explains Dr Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician in New York City and the author of Running Strong.
Sleep more. Aim for at least seven hours a night. Less than that keeps your levels of the stress hormone cortisol elevated, which may sabotage the results of your workout. “Cortisol slows muscle growth,” Keith says. It may also cause the body to hold onto fat. “Stress is seen as a threat, so your body begins hoarding fat so it has energy stores, particularly in the abdomen,” Michele says.
One hour, three times a week. People who stuck to that workout schedule for six months experienced a change in their gene expression that encouraged their bodies to remove fat from the blood stream. They also had significantly smaller waists, according to research from Lund University. The study authors say the genetic changes may lower the risk of heart disease, too.
The best way to build lean muscle mass is by lifting weights or doing body-weight exercises until you’re tapped out. “When you lift to failure – the point where you physically can’t do it any more – all your muscle fibres get the signal that they need to grow,” Keith says. “It could be five reps with a heavy weight or 15 with a lighter weight. Whatever it takes to get you to failure.” And don’t worry about bulking up: Women are naturally less muscular than men.
If you do feel your muscles looking bigger than you’d like, though, lift heavier weights, but don’t push yourself to failure every time, Keith suggests. “This helps your muscles grow stronger without getting as big.” Change your routine to let your muscles rest. “Switching from moderate- to highintensity workouts gives your body different challenges to adapt to, and prevents overtraining,” says Polly de Mille, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. And recovery is essential: That’s when your muscles are able to build themselves back up stronger, and your body dips into your fat stores to replenish your drained energy.
Eat a combo of carbohydrate and protein within two hours of your workout. “The carbs replenish glycogen stores, while the amino acids from the protein help repair wear and tear on your muscles so you’re stronger the next time you exercise,” says Dr Douglas Kalman, a sports nutritionist and co-founder of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Aim for a 2-to-1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein (or if you’re exercising for longer than 75 minutes, a 3- or 4-to-1 ratio), like a smoothie with a scoop of protein powder (go for 20g to 40g), a quarter cup of oats and a banana.