We’ve all been there. Months into a diet, eating 5 meals a day that barely fills you and doing as much cardio as you are lifting. This is a very difficult routine to stick to especially if you take it all the way and choose to compete in a bodybuilding competition.
Of course that is quite extreme, as most are simply interested in leaning down to show their abs or veins. No matter what your fitness goals are there is one issue that constantly plagues natural dieters that is almost impossible to avoid. That’s right, I’m talking about the dreaded muscle loss as a result of a calorie deficit (also known as catabolism). In this case, when you lose a decent amount of body weight (for example 10% or more at a rate of 1 pound/half a kilo per week) it’s inevitable that some of this weight loss will come from lean muscle mass along with body fat.
With that being said, there is a right way to diet and minimize the amount of muscle you lose compared to the amount of fat you lose at any time throughout your cutting phase. In this article we will be discussing some the strategies that you should be using to keep as much of your hard-earned strength and size to look your best at the end of your weight cut.
The Strategy For Your Lifting Routine
Hopefully at the beginning of a cut you are not taking a huge leap off on January 1st from a 1000 calorie daily surplus to a 1000 calorie daily deficit… because this is most definitely the first mistake you can make.
When your body is so used to having excess calories and that daily amount is suddenly cut in half, a few things happen. Your body will shed pounds of weight in the first few days… from water weight. To put it simply, as you use up your stored energy in the form of glycogen (which is most definitely full after your Christmas and New Years parties) it releases water that is molecularly attached to that stored energy.
For maybe the first week you will see the scale drop dramatically which is good for morale, but once all your stored energy is used up, of course your energy levels will plummet to a dismal amount (especially on a low carb diet). You will not want to speak to anybody, do any exercise, and your hunger will be through the roof at all times. This is what usually cuts most diets short and while it doesn’t have to do with muscle loss, it is important to include in this article to set a base. It’s best to begin your diet slowly, moving from a daily calorie surplus into a deficit conservatively. This will allow you to keep your carbohydrate intake high enough to let you perform at the same level in the gym and not let it affect your mood.
This leads us to our first real tip: how you should be lifting. It has been a long-standing bodybuilding ideal that when you begin dieting you should move away from lifting heavy since you won’t be building much more muscle anyways, and transition to lighter weights in the high rep ranges (15-20 or even higher). While is it true that your muscle building will be severely hampered by a calorie deficit, you should not stop lifting heavy. You are going to have to face the reality that you will get weaker, especially months into a cut.
Lifting in the low rep ranges with the same intensity no matter how much you can move off the ground or your chest is crucial to helping you maintain your muscle mass. If you give your muscles reason to stick around and not get weaker, they are more likely to do so compared to if you suddenly don’t go above 60% of your max for less than 15 reps on a lift. As a minimum, your compound movements should not change in rep ranges or weight for as long as you can possibly manage until you have no choice to maybe drop 10 pounds or 5 kilos at a time for the same amount of reps at the same intensity.
With the rest of your lifting routine (i.e. accessory lifts), you can definitely up the rep ranges or add more super/drop sets to your workouts to help you feel the pump more or burn a few extra calories. However I wouldn’t recommend changing your routine drastically throughout the duration of your diet.
The Strategy For Your Diet
As we discussed earlier, you want to enter a calorie deficit slowly and gradually as to not shock your body or cause any drastic changes to your energy levels or mood.
For muscle gains in a calorie surplus the best recommendation that most fitness and nutrition professionals endorse is around a gram of protein a day per pound (or 0.45kg) of your body weight. So if you weigh 180 pounds you should consume 180 grams of protein per day. To calculate this in kilograms, you multiply your weight in kg by 2.2 to find the amount of protein you need in grams.
Here is the biggest tip you need to know to preserve muscle in a deficit in terms of your diet: your daily protein intake should stay consistent with your weight if not a bit higher no matter what. What this means is if you drop five pounds in the first month of your diet, you should consume five grams less of protein at the most (no matter how much you needed to drop your calories to lose those pounds). If you want to be safe you can eat more than a gram per pound, but going below this number is where you might start to burn more muscle than you want.
As for carbs and fat, it is really up to you how you want to shift your remaining calories around, assuming you count your calories accurately (which you should be doing for your best results). Some can function on 40 grams of fat a day, leaving you with a larger amount of carbs you can eat to give you more energy for your workouts, while others can function well on low carbs and fit a whole avocado and some olive oil to their salad. It’s all about working out what works best for you.
What About Supplements?
The last tip we will talk about is supplementation to help minimize muscle loss. No matter how much you spend on nutritional supplements, they don’t compare to a proper diet and exercise routine for fat loss and muscle retention. With that being said, once those aspects of your fitness regimen are solid, supplements can provide a small benefit.
For muscle retention (especially during times of fasting or hard training during a low carb diet), leucine is very important to prevent catabolism as it is the main amino acid found in protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. You can find leucine in BCAA/EAA supplements, or as a stand-alone supplement. If you want to mainstream and intensify leucines anti-catabolic benefit though you should try HMB, a metabolite of leucine that is 10-20 times more effective at sparing muscle.
Whichever one you choose to try, make sure to take the recommended dose 30 minutes before you train fasted or right when you wake up if you intend to intermittent fast for a number of hours.
Take Home Message
Wow, that was a lot of information. But the truth is, this subject can be expanded tenfold with more strategies and tips. While this article provides the main points on minimising muscle loss when cutting, I would still suggest that you continue to look into this topic in even more depth for the best results.
It’s important to remember that slowly building up to a calorie deficit is the best way to keep your energy levels up as well as your mood. You will lose strength and muscle size as a natural lifter in a big calorie deficit, but continuing to lift heavy will give your muscles a reason to not catabolize themselves. As for your diet, keeping protein at a gram per pound of bodyweight is the sweet spot for minimizing muscle loss. Finally, supplements can provide a small boost especially during fasted training or periods of intermittent fasting.
Remember, there is so much more to learn on this topic, so if this article interested you don’t be afraid to keep looking and learning as you can never know too much!