You’ve just finished a mass phase and added 25 solid pounds to the scale, most of which is muscle. It was hell trying to get bigger, but you finally laid the smack-down on your body and forced it to pack on weight by lifting heavy and shoveling anything deemed edible into your face.
“Do you like this second-helping of potatoes? What about this huge glass of milk? That’ll teach you to defy me! I own you!”
Now it’s time to strip away the fat that’s covering your hard-earned muscle. But your body is one pissed off, vindictive beast who’s not ready to work with you. In fact, if you let it, it’s going to walk all over you, kick you in the balls, and take your precious muscle back with it.
You must tame the beast.
Losing muscle while dieting doesn’t have to happen. In fact, it can easily be avoided,if you take the right steps to counteract your body’s innate survival mechanism.
The Three Problems
Why-oh-why does your body break down muscle to use as fuel while dieting?
- Your body needs (or thinks it needs) the energy.
- Your body thinks it needs the amino acids in your muscles for more important things like making enzymes and repairing essential tissues. So it breaks down the muscle, harvests the amino acids, and uses them elsewhere in the body. How cruel.
- Your body wants to break down muscle for fuel because muscle is calorically expensive to keep around. Your body-fat, on the other hand, just sits there. When you’re dieting, your body sees all calories as very important (since they’re limited) and thus only wants to expend energy on things that are absolutely necessary like thinking, breathing, bowel movements, and searching for Internet porn.
Although you see your muscle as absolutely necessary, your body has a different opinion.
Time to Tame the Beast
So now that we’ve outlined the three problems, what can we do to make your body happy, keep your muscle mass, and shed the fat?
Let’s look back at the first set.
- Your body’s problem: Needs energy.
- Your solution: You want your body to specifically use stored fat to fill the energy void.
The truth is that you have enough stored energy in the form of body-fat to last a very long time. Lack of energy isn’t the issue. What we need to do is show your body how to access the energy that it has stored up. However, last time I checked, you can’t sit down and have a one-on-one conversation with your gut about how it needs to go away. Not without a few raised eyebrows and a trip to the local psychiatrist, at least. The only option is brute force.
By cutting carbs we force your body to find another fuel source. First up is fat. Once you cut your carbs down to 20-50 grams a day, keep them there. As soon as your body starts efficiently using fat as its primary fuel source, it will realize that you have an abundant amount of energy ready for utilization and will not as readily catabolize your muscle.
This protective effect of low carbohydrate diets is illustrated by the findings of soon-to-be published research from the University of Connecticut. In a 12-week weight-loss study, they compared a low-carb diet with a low-fat diet. Individuals on a low-fat diet lost more lean body mass during the course of the study.
- Your body’s problem: Needs enough amino acids to maintain important bodily functions.
- Your solution: You want the body to get amino acids from places other than your muscle.
Now that we have the fuel issue solved, we need to deal with your body’s next problem: getting enough amino acids to maintain important bodily functions. The truly important aminos your body cares about are the essential amino acids (EAA).
Studies from the University of Illinois by Dr. Donald Layman, one of the world’s leading protein researchers, have shown ample protein and essential amino acids (specifically leucine) are key when it comes to protecting lean tissues while dieting.
A 2008 study by Dr. Layman showed that doubling people’s protein intake from 0.8 grams per kilogram (the current RDA for protein) to 1.6 grams per kilogram led to greater reductions in body-fat percentage and improved insulin response without even having the subjects exercise. While this is an important concept, I feel safe in my assumption that everyone reading this article is eating 1.6 grams per kilogram of protein or more. So getting adequate protein shouldn’t be an issue.
But let’s take it one step further by supplementing your diet with BCAA between meals. This will not only hammer the point home to your body that there are ample amounts of precious amino acids, but the Leucine will start flipping anabolic switches throughout your muscle building system.
(If you haven’t already, you should read Dr. Lowery’s most recent article on protein.
Researcher Dr. Stephen Bird showed that supplementing with seven grams of EAA prior to weight training prevented muscle breakdown over the 48-hour post-workout period while the group that didn’t use any type of workout shake experienced a 56 percent increase in urinary 3-methly Histidine levels, which is a marker indicative of skeletal muscle breakdown.
- Your body’s problem: Energy is low so the body only wants to keep around essential parts that require calories.
- Your solution: You need to convince your body that lean muscle is essential.
Your body functions from an evolutionary perspective. We used to build muscle for survival reasons like moving stones, carrying trees, and snapping necks of wild boars. If your body needed muscle to do those things now, it wouldn’t even consider catabolizing it for fuel. Unfortunately for us, there aren’t too many necks to snap.
So how can we mimic that experience for our body? Alwyn Cosgrove had the answer for me:
Heavy lifting while dieting.
While sets of 8, 12, 15, and even 20 reps are perfect for eliciting a calorie burning metabolic stimulus, heavier sets of 4 to 6 reps give your body the message that if it doesn’t keep the muscle around, it’ll be crushed.
When you first get to the gym add 3 to 4 sets of squats, deadlifts, RDLs, bench presses, and bent-over rows in the 4 to 6 rep range before you move into your complexes, metabolic circuits, and supersets.
This will not only force your body to hold onto your muscle, but will accelerate your fat loss as well.
Losing Muscle is No Longer An Option
Let’s keep it simple and recap the key points to preventing muscle loss while dieting:
- Cut your carbs and keep them low.
- Increase your protein intake.
- Add supplemental amino acids (BCAA, EAA, or just Leucine) to your diet.
- Start each workout with 3 to 4 sets of 4 to 6 reps of a compound movement.
Do these four things and you’ll never have to worry about losing muscle while dieting, and the beast that is your body will work with you instead of against you.