ISSA SN Chapter 18: Fat Loss and Muscle Gain for Athletes

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Chapter Goals:

  • Describe and define the terms for athletes’ fat loss and weight gain. 
  • Understand the method known as ZIGZAG.
  • Know about the effective fat loss and muscle gain methods for athletes.
  • Find the best programs to manage weight for healthy adult athletes.


For athletes, there may be a time in their career when they want to modify their body composition by losing or gaining weight. And this is going to be targeted in the form of gaining muscle and losing fat. The way that athletes achieve this goal will be the same as the way a healthy adult would achieve it. The nation spends billions and billions of dollars on losing weight and gaining weight when most people actually waste their time and money with these processes they choose to do. This chapter will examine the subjects of losing fat and gaining muscle together due to that need for athletes. 

Athlete Body Composition Challenges

Changing these will potentially bring on unwanted performance decrements as we find the right strategy. Thus, to prevent them in times we don’t want, we should actually plan them in certain stages of our training. This should definitely occur in times like off season or early preseason to get right for the competitive times. 

It could take several months to achieve the right fat loss and muscle gain level for athletes since time is needed to change to whatever level they desire. It also needs to be done safely to minimize the poor effects on anatomy and physiology. 

We will need to regularly measure the body weight, circumferences, skinfolds, and body composition, as discussed in the composition chapter. These will be ideal for making sure we are getting the right changes. The ability to lose weight and gain muscle also depends on the person. Losing as much as 1 pound of fat may be possible while building muscle, but it is a dynamic response and might not work for all. 

Some athlete goals could be:

  • Reducing the amount of body fat and maintaining lean body mass.
  • Reducing the amount of body fat and increasing the lean body mass at the same time.
  • Increasing the lean body mass while keeping the body fat level the same. 
  • Increasing the lean body mass while also gaining in body fat.
  • It is rarely ever to see an athlete want to decrease both fat and lean body mass due to the negative effects on performance this would have. 

The Weight Loss Misnomer

There are three main ways we lose weight. This is through dehydration, lean weight loss, and fat loss. Dehydration is not recommended, but it is used for making weight in last minute situations like making a weigh-in. 

Lean body mass and muscle mass weight loss may result from knocking back the calorie intake, losing weight too fast, and not eating the right levels of macronutrients or exercising appropriately. 

For many athletes, increasing the lean body mass ratio will accompany a good fat loss program. 

First, stop the weight gain

Athletes and other clients that have excess levels of body fat should plan to stop their gaining of weight first before losing fat begins. 

Targeted fat loss approach

Athletes need to plan to change body composition in the off season times. The pre-season and the in season nutrition should focus on performance maximization. 

The strategies should begin with finding the athlete’s goals for body composition and then referring to the next few tables in the book. 

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Fat loss off-season and preseason

In the off season, it is recommended to follow the sport’s guidelines. One example would be reducing the total intake of daily calories by 3 – 4 calories per every pound of lean body mass. 

Fat contains 3,500 calories per pound. So, it should take around six days usually to lose one pound of fat. Losing at a rate faster than that could result in more muscle mass being lost. In total, the fat loss is usually around 4 – 5 pounds per month. 

Jump starting the fat loss program

The fat loss rate is determined by the person’s genetics, their body type, metabolism, nutrition, and the exercise program. 

Ectomorphs are the ones that have the easiest time losing fat, but it is going to be harder for them to gain muscle. Mesomorphs are also able to lose the fat easily, but they are also able to put on muscle mass the easiest. Endomorphs are the ones that carry the most body fat, they can lose fat quickly, and they likely need to stick to a low fat program for their nutrition. 

Fat loss tips

  • Do not skip meals
  • Make sure to get some form of exercise each day.
  • Max out the thermogenic effect by keeping the level of proteins up, increasing your activity, and taking some form of supplementation for thermogenic effect increases. 
  • Vigorous levels of resistance training can keep the lean body mass. More muscle burns more calories, which means that with each pound of muscle gained, you will burn more calories, which causes more fat loss.
  • You should not drastically reduce your total intake of calories. 
  • Reduce the fat intake to lower than 25% of your daily intake of calories. 
  • Increase the foods that are high in fiber and lower GI complex carbs to satisfy hunger. 
  • Avoid foods that are higher in sodium and fat. These are mostly things that are highly processed and the snack foods.
  • Eat fresher foods when possible and organic.
  • Do not fry your foods when you can or use oils or fats in cooking. You should try to bake broil, grill, or microwave instead.
  • Avoid using the heavier sauces on foods.
  • Read the nutrition labels on your foods and look for those with lower than 2 grams of fat per 100 cals.
  • Eat foods that are fat free, have proteins lower in fat, and make use of low fat protein supplementation for the meeting of your daily protein intake. 
  • Eat egg whites as a snack to reduce hunger pangs occurring at night.
  • Do not eat out every day, and avoid the fast food places. These are more processed and found to have high levels of fat, salt, and calories in general.
  • Eat many low starch veggies. 
  • Do not eat an excess of calories in any one meal due to the promotion of enzymes that store fats and the metabolism storing excess calories as body fat.

Fat loss during the athletic season

This is not the preferred time to lose weight. It is going to be at a much slower rate than the off season. We do this by reducing by 2 calories for every pound of your lean body mass. 

Important Rules for Making Performance Nutrition Work for an Athlete’s Fat-Loss Program

Rule one: you should always eat a minimum of five meals per day. This ensures muscles are not cannibalized for energy to survive. 

Rule two: the 1 – 2 – 3 rule is to be used. 1 part fat, 2 parts protein, and 3 parts carbs is ideal for the makeup of meals. 

Rule three: you should ask yourself what you are doing the next three hours, and then if that involves a nap or some rest, you should eat a little less. 

Rule four: the ZIGZAG calorie intake of reducing the body fat mass or increasing the lean body mass is used. We discussed that in previous chapters. 

Rule five: is the final rule of thumb for the most serious athletes. You should make use of supplements to fill in the gaps in nutrition that may occur. 

Muscle Gain Approach

Some tips for gaining muscle:

  • Add 2 calories for every pound of your body weight to the daily calorie intake for 4 – 5 days, then lower your calorie intake to normal weight maintenance levels for 2 – 3 days. 
  • When the body fat levels increase too rapidly, you should try for a week or more to see if the gaining happens. 
  • Some athletes might be able to add greater than 2 calories for every pound of weight to their daily intake. This should be experimented with. 
  • The calories added should be from protein and complex carbs. 
  • Spread the added calories across a minimum of five meals in the day.
  • Follow most of the other nutrition tips for eating healthy.
ISSA SN Chapter 18: Fat Loss and Muscle Gain for Athletes 4
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Tyler Read - Certified Personal Trainer with PTPioneer

Tyler Read

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