Keeping Muscle While Losing Fat
Q: What’s the best routine for muscle preservation while dieting? Should you try to maintain strength and keep volume low, or focus on hypertrophy to pump the individual muscles?
A: First of all, losing muscle while dieting won’t be a real risk as long as you don’t get below a “real” 9 percent body fat or so.
I say “real” because most people who think they’re 9-10 percent are more like 13 or higher. Look at this photo of me:
Pretty lean, right? What do you think my body fat was there? 6 percent? 5 percent? Try 9.2 percent!
The point is, if you keep training hard and consume enough protein, there’s no reason for you to worry about muscle loss until you get THAT lean or close to it.
Now, you may have the impression that you’re losing muscle because you’ll feel and look smaller. You tend to lose water, fat, intramuscular triglycerides, glycogen, etc. when dieting. And unfortunately, until you’re really lean you won’t look that much better. So you’ll feel smaller in your clothes and you won’t look that much more muscular.
And because of the loss of water, your strength can actually decrease too, especially on big compound movements (mostly pressing exercises). So it’s easy to interpret that as muscle loss. But in most cases, it isn’t.
The Cortisol Factor
The only reason you may lose muscle while training hard is the overproduction of cortisol. Cortisol is known as a “stress hormone” because it’s released during periods of stress. Training is a stress. So is being underfed.
Two key roles of cortisol are:
- To mobilize stored energy (body fat, muscle glycogen, amino acids as muscle tissue) to fuel our workouts.
- To increase blood sugar levels when they dip down too low when we cut carbs and calories.
Chronic and excessive cortisol elevation is the main reason for losing muscle because it directly causes a breakdown of muscle tissue. It also slows down muscle repair/rebuilding by inhibiting the immune system (which is the driver of muscle growth) and limits how much muscle you can carry by increasing myostatin, a protein that acts as the governor for how much muscle your body allows you to carry (more myostatin means less muscle).
Cortisol’s function during the training session is to mobilize energy so that the muscles have enough fuel. So the more volume you do in your workout, the more cortisol you produce. That’s why if you’re a natural lifter, increasing training volume while trying to get lean (and reducing calories) is one of the things that can lead to muscle loss.
“Yeah, but bodybuilding gurus recommend doing a metric ton of volume to shred the fat.”
Well, yeah, if you’re on anabolics, it’ll work because steroids will protect you against the muscle-wasting effect of cortisol. But if you’re natural, trying to use the workout to burn more calories is one of the best ways to lose muscle!
Rep Ranges and Fat Loss
Now, I’m not against higher rep ranges for losing fat. Sets that last 40-70 seconds can be effective at preserving muscle mass while dieting. These lighter sets won’t cause as much muscle damage and are easier to recover from.
That’s also the set duration where you have the greatest release of lactic acid, which is, in itself, anabolic – it can help preserve muscle mass. So the inclusion of some lactic work along with some heavier work is the best combination to maintain muscle because both provide different growth stimuli which will make it easier to maintain or even gain muscle.
The key is to keep overall volume low and overall frequency high:
- Volume will increase cortisol, which increases the risk of losing muscle.
- Frequency will help maintain muscle mass by triggering protein synthesis (muscle growth) more often.
I recommend The Best Damn Workout Plan for Natural lifters because it’s designed to prevent the potential cortisol backlash and will allow the natural lifter to easily maintain or even increase muscle mass while dieting down.
Smashing an Overhead Press Plateau
Q: What’s the most common reason for a standing barbell press plateau, and how can you break through it?
A: The most obvious reason is that it’s undertrained compared to the bench press and other related pressing exercises.
You should be able to strict military press 60% of your max bench press – both in good form, of course. If you’re bench pressing the minimum macho poundage of 3 plates per side (315 pounds) it means that you should be able to strict overhead press at least 190 pounds.
Someone who’s considered a strong overhead presser is said to be able to lift at least his body weight in the military press. But few people can do that because this old standard was established when the military press – not the bench press – was the main upper body lift.
And what did people do when the military press was the main upper body lift? They did what most guys now do with the bench press: they trained it more often and harder than other lifts.
So my first recommendation if you want to increase your overhead press is to overhead press more often! Here’s a basic form tutorial:
Most people aren’t comfortable, nor technically efficient, pressing weights over their heads while standing up. As a result, they’re not good at displaying their full strength on that lift.
I’ll take a page from Pavel Tsatsouline and say, “To overhead press a lot, you must overhead press a lot.”
If you really want this lift to take off, train it three times a week. One of the workouts should be strictly for the overhead press and it would include training the overhead press heavy and doing your assistance work for that lift. The two other sessions should be technique work on the press (and then doing your regular workout). It’s also important that you reduce bench press work while you’re trying to jack up your overhead press.
Day 1 – Technique
A. Military Press
- Week 1: 5 x 5 at 70%
- Week 2: 4 x 5 at 70%, 2 x 3 at 80%
- Week 3: 3 x 5 at 70%, 3 x 3 at 80%
- Week 4: 2 x 5 at 70%, 4 x 3 at 80%
- Week 5: 5 x 3 at 80%, 1 x 5 at 70%
- Week 6: 6 x 3 at 80%, 1 x 1 at 85%
- Week 7: 5 x 3 at 80%, 2 x 1 at 85%
- Week 8: 4 x 3 at 80%, 3 x 1 at 85%
- Week 9: 3 x 3 at 80%, 4 x 1 at 85%
- Week 10: 2 x 3 at 80%, 5 x 1 at 85%
- Week 11: 6 x 1 at 85%, 1 x 3 at 80%
- Week 12: 7 x 1 at 85%
Do your regular workout after that.
Day 2 – Heavy
A. Military Press
- Week 1: 1 x 5 at 70%, 1 x 5 at 80% 1 x max reps at 85% (aim for 5)
- Week 2: 1 x 3 at 75%, 1 x 3 at 85%, 1 x max reps at 90% (aim for 3)
- Week 3: 1 x 3 at 75%, 1 x 3 at 85%, 1 x 1 at 90%, 1 x max reps at 95%
- Week 4: Work up to technically solid 1RM (use that weight to calculate the percentage for all the workouts for the next 4 weeks.)
- Week 5: 1 x 5 at 70%, 1 x 5 at 80% 1 x max reps at 85% (aim for 5)
- Week 6: 1 x 3 at 75%, 1 x 3 at 85%, 1 x max reps at 90% (aim for 3)
- Week 7: 1 x 3 at 75%, 1 x 3 at 85%, 1 x 1 at 90%, 1 x max reps at 95%
- Week 8: Work up to technically solid 1RM (use that weight to calculate the percentage for all the workouts for the next 4 weeks.)
- Week 9: 1 x 5 at 70%, 1 x 5 at 80% 1 x max reps at 85% (aim for 5)
- Week 10: 1 x 3 at 75%, 1 x 3 at 85%, 1 x max reps at 90% (aim for 3)
- Week 11: 1 x 3 at 75%, 1 x 3 at 85%, 1 x 1 at 90%, 1 x max reps at 95%
- Week 12: Work up to technically solid 1RM (use that weight to calculate the percentage for all the workouts for the next 4 weeks.)
B. Assistance Exercise for the Overhead Press
Here you’ll select one basic exercise to strengthen the weak point in your overhead press. Use this table to help you select the right exercise:
|Weak Point||Cause||Assistance Exercise Choices|
|Start from Clavicle||Anterior delt and/or clavicular head of the pecs||High Incline Bench Press (60-75 degrees)|
|Nose Level||External shoulder rotators||Cuban Press or Seated Dumbbell Clean & Press|
|At Forehead||Medial or posterior delt||Bradford Press or Arnold Press|
|Lockout||Long head of the triceps, shoulder instability, or lack of mobility||Overhead Top 1/3 Pin Press, Push Press, or Military Press with Hanging Band Technique (shoulder stability)|
Change the assistance exercise every 4 weeks. Train it in the 4-6 rep range. Yes, try to increase the weight, but not if form is sacrificed.
C. Vertical Pulling Exercise
Here you would do a vertical pulling movement trained for sets of 6-8 reps focusing on full range, control, and mind-muscle connection. Do 3-5 sets.
D. One Isolation Exercise for Lagging Muscle Group (see table)
Day 3 – Technique
A. Military Press
- Week 1: 8 x 3 at 65%
- Week 2: 10 x 2 at 70%
- Week 3: 12 x 1 at 75%
- Week 4: 3 x 3 at 65%
- Week 5: 8 x 3 at 65% (new weight based on 1RM of session 2)
- Week 6: 10 x 2 at 70%
- Week 7: 12 x 1 at 75%
- Week 8: 3 x 3 at 65%
- Week 9: 8 x 3 at 65% (new weight based on 1RM of session 2)
- Week 10: 10 x 2 at 70%
- Week 11: 12 x 1 at 75%
- Week 12: 3 x 3 at 65%
Do your regular workout after that.
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