Lose fat without losing muscle mass
Vast majority of gym-goers has a very simple training aim: maximize muscle mass and minimize the body fat.
While it is relatively simple (if hard and time-consuming) to achieve any one of these goals, combining the two can prove rather tricky.
The reason is that we are trying to grow and to cut in the same time. These are mutually contradictory aims and it takes a lot of very clever planning to achieve such a challenging target.
Under normal circumstances there is a balance between body fat and lean muscle mass. By bodybuilding we are trying to disrupt this balance and force our concept of ideal physique on our body.
Of course, it very much depends on your starting position – if you are seriously overweight and you try to achieve more-or-less “normal” shape your plan will be more simple than that of advanced bodybuilder trying to cut the last grams of fat while keeping as much muscle mass as possible.
How to begin
Before you start any kind of training program or diet you must find out what is approximately the caloric intake with which you will neither take on nor lose weight. This is quite individual and depends on your metabolic rate, your energy requirements and your height.
This will be probably somewhere around 2,500 Cal/day for an average man and around 1,800 Cal/day for average woman.
The second step is to get some basic idea about the caloric values for the food you currently eat and for the types of food you decide to eat during your diet.
Remember that 3,500 Cal equal about 1 pound of body fat – so if you cut 3,500 Cal from your weekly diet you are likely to lose 1 pound of fat/muscle mass a week (provided your diet was neutral – you were not getting fat or losing weight).
Some theory and scientific research
Since obesity is a serious health problem, almost all the scientific papers we can work with are describing trials with overweight individuals trying to lose body fat without losing muscle mass. There is almost no research in the other direction (bodybuilders trying to grow more muscle without gaining fat). Therefore we have to combine the known results of available studies with theory of muscle growth and of course with some anecdotal evidence from coaches and trainees.
High-protein low-caloric diet
The most natural strategy for cutting fat is to reduce the caloric intake (please no drastic cuts, 15% is usually enough) and increase the amount of protein in your diet.
M.M. Gordon & colleagues tried this approach in 2008. They compared two groups of obese women: while both groups reduced their weekly caloric intake by 2,800 Cal, the first group was given 30% protein diet and the second group was given 15% protein diet.
Women in the high-protein group lost less weight (average of 8.4 kg comparing to 11.4 kg from the low-protein group). From the total lost weight, the low protein group lost in average 37.5% of lean muscle; this number was only 17.3% for the high-protein group.
This is a very significant difference. By a relatively small change in the composition of your diet you can lose only 1.7 pounds of muscle mass for every 10 pounds of total weight loss instead of losing 3.75 pounds of lean muscle mass. Now, the subjects in this and other studies didn’t drink any protein/amino acid supplements that can surely change the balance further to lower total muscle loss.
Another very interesting study (K.A. Meckling, R. Sherfey; 2007) compared hypocaloric high-protein and low-protein diets with and without exercise.
Here the high-protein diet consisted of 1:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio while low-protein diet was closer to 3:1 ratio.
As you can guess, the high-protein/exercise group not only lost most weight but also had the best body composition (while improving the blood triglycerides as opposed to the other 3 groups).
One thing, however, is sure: you will always lose some muscle mass when dieting. Our aim is to minimize this loss as it can’t be completely avoided.
How much protein? (Read the full article here)
There are several different opinions on how much protein can we safely consume without either damaging one or more of our internal organs or simply not being able to process it.
The estimates range from 0.8 g per 1 kg of body weight (US RDA) to more than triple that amount according to some researchers.
We have three reasons to believe that for bodybuilders, the 2.5 g/kg-and-more theory seems to be more credible:
- According to a meta-study from 2008 (Brehm, D’Alessio) there is no evidence that high-protein diet negatively affects glucose metabolism (the main argument against such diets).
- According to several studies higher protein intake results in higher protein synthesis in the muscle.
- Majority of top bodybuilders follow high-protein diet (over 2 grams of protein per 1 kg of body weight) with good results. Arguably, very high protein intake is the main difference between pro bodybuilders and amateur gym-goers.
After attempting to follow a proper bodybuilding diet, most people will find out that they are unable to ingest the recommended amount of protein.
Think of it: the 2.4 g of protein per 1 kg of body weight a day recommendation means that an average man would have to eat for instance 32 whole large eggs daily. Most of us can’t do it not to speak about the daily steak and other protein sources.
This is where protein powders come in. Obviously, there are more advantages to protein powders than just replacing the dietary protein: unlike food, the supplements are designed with the only aim of increasing your lean muscle mass.
Depending on your enzymatic set up you may also require proteolytic enzymes and/or other supplements for best results.
The role of caffeine in weight loss is still not clear and most likely quite individual. Different people can have very different response to caffeine. Some may not tolerate it at all with side-effects from sleeplessness to chest pain; others may drink multiple cups of coffee without feeling a thing.
In some individuals caffeine may be helpful to induce increased thermogenesis (thus burn more calories), lower the appetite and induce dehydration.
Especially the last mentioned effect of caffeine can be very tricky so let’s discuss it in more depth.
Loosing water only is the most dangerous form of “cutting”. It can make sense for pro bodybuilders right before the competition but it should NEVER be applied by other trainees.
One reason for dehydration is use of anabolic steroids that are partly aromatized to estrogen which is in turn causing water retention (if you didn’t understand this sentence, good for you).
You are hopefully not using hormonal substances and most likely do not participate in competitions.
If you do, remember that you have to fully rehydrate immediately after the competition and be extremely cautious with any form of water loss.