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5 steps to prevent muscle loss while losing fat fast

So you have been weight lifting for a while now and you have put on some size. Your big three lifts (bench press, squats and deadlifts) increased significantly and you have never been this strong in your life! But lets say you have been bulking for more than 6 months and you increased your weight by 10 kg. Out of these 10 kg, at least 40% (4kg) would be pure fat since the weight gain rate was too high. For anybody except pure beginner, I would call this a dirty bulk, which should be avoided entirely for the reasons that I will state later in this article.

As a result, you are quite happy the way you look with clothes, however, without the clothes there seems to be problem with lack of muscular definition, as the body fat percentage is too high. Indeed, all that fat mass is covering all your progress that you have made over the period of 6 months. Continuing the bulk would not make sense as the nutrient partitioning gets worse with higher body fat percentages. You basically end up being more fat over time.

At this point you need to go on a cut and lose all that fat. The way you do it will determine how much muscle mass you will retain and the way you will look when you lean down.

Step 1: Optimize your energy intake

The effect of energy balance on muscle mass depends on the training level of an individual. The more advanced you are, the more effect it has. For beginners, energy balance has minimal effect for muscle growth / loss. However, for advanced trainees, excessive caloric deficit can easily lead to muscle loss during a cutting period.

The way energy balance affects lean mass is through mTOR and AMPK pathways. These two enzymes compete with each other for anabolism and catabolism. mTOR is responsible for muscle growth while AMPK is responsible for muscle loss. Low energy intake activates AMPK while high energy intake activates mTOR. This is why many advanced trainees find it really hard to gain any muscle when they are in an energy deficit. It becomes really hard to signal muscles to grow once you are close to your ceiling.

However, same rule does not apply for beginners, as they can build a substantial amount of muscle mass even in a caloric deficit. For example Hector et al. (2017) found that 20% caloric deficit reduced muscle protein synthesis by only 14%, as long as the protein intake is at least 1.8 g / kg. Reducing this to a sub par level of 1.2 g / kg reduced muscle protein synthesis by another 26%.

When setting up a caloric deficit you have to make a few considerations first. Going very low on calories, even though it can get you really quick fat loss results, is not an ideal option. For example we have research on very low caloric diets comparing 800 kcal a day with 400 kcal a day showing not difference in fat loss over a 6 month period! That is 50% difference in calories! This shows you how efficient your body can be in saving energy through NEAT. NEAT is basically your spontaneous activity like fidgeting, hand gesturing and movement throughout the day.

To preserve muscle, or even gain muscle for some, there is an optimal range for a caloric deficit.

As a general rule of thumb, the higher the body fat percentage the higher the caloric deficit. If your body fat is above 30%, a very high caloric deficit of around 40% would be a good idea to get rid of the fat as soon as possible. However, for an average male, with around 20% body fat, I would recommend 20-25% caloric deficit initially.

For leaner individuals that are sub 15%, a caloric deficit of 10% would suffice. Basically the leaner you are the higher the risk of muscle loss you have, and therefore your caloric deficit should be adjusted according to that.

Step 2: Optimize your protein intake

We all know that protein is awesome for muscle growth. Everyone loves protein and you should consume as much as you can, as it can only help you build more muscle, right? Wrong. There is a certain threshold above which you are just consuming extra energy that can end up as storage. We have so much research on protein that this case can be easily closed.

Walberg et al (1988) found that 0.73 g / lb was enough to maintain positive nitrogen balance during the fat loss period.

Tarnopolsky et al. (1992) found no differences in muscle protein synthesis in groups consuming 0.64 g/lb and 1.1 g/lb over a 2 week period.

Hoffman et al. (2006) found no change in body composition and strength between groups consuming 0.77 g/lb and 0.91g/lb over a 3 month period.

These are just a few studies, there there are many others that draw similar conclusions. In general, consuming more than 0.73g/lb or 1.6g/kg does not result in any additional benefits. This tells us that most strength athletes are most likely consuming more protein than they should. Since protein in energy (1 g of protein equals 4 kcal), this is can be allocated in a better way if we use it for carbohydrates or fats.

What about people are are working out seriously and push themselves to their limits every time they are in the gym?

Lemon et al. (1992) studied bodybuilders that were training 1.5 hours a day 6 times a week. No difference was found in consuming more than 0.75 g/lb of protein.

What if you are advanced? For sure you must need more protein to keep all those muscles?

Tarnopolsky et al (1988) researched elite bodybuilders and found that actually less protein was needed compared to novice bodybuilders!

This actually makes sense, since the more advanced you are the less muscles you build and the muscle protein synthesis decreases. Your body also get used to workouts, and your protein breakdown decreases as well. That is why you do not get sore as much anymore.

All of this results in lower protein requirements for more advanced trainees compared to beginners and intermediates.

If you generally like to consume more protein an upper limit should be 2.7 g/kg with an extraordinary genetics, while most people will fall in the range of 1.8 - 2.2 g/kg. Generally, complete beginners need more protein while experienced trainees can get away will less.

Step 3: Increase your fat intake

Dietary fats often get forgotten and underestimated while most attention gets shifted to carbohydrates instead. This is actually a mistake. Unless you are on gear (steroids), you are missing out on a lot of benefits dietary fats can provide you with.

Main benefits of optimized fat intake is increased anabolic hormone production and direct anabolic effects of certain fatty acids.

To be more precise, testosterone, estrogen, growth hormone and IGF1 are all linked to fat intake. This, in turn, helps you gain more strength and muscle.

Not all fats have the same effect, some are more anabolic than the others, which is why we will now analyze all fatty acids starting with the most anabolic.

Omega 3

This fatty acid directly increases muscle protein synthesis through several ways:

Omega 3 can lower chronic inflammation and increase acute inflammation as a result of resistance exercise. This can help with muscle repair and growth due to a better signal.

  1. Omega 3 protects against excessive muscle damage.

  2. Omega 3 can lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels.

  3. Omega 3 can increase testosterone production

  4. Omega 3 can increase muscle anabolic signaling and protein synthesis after meals.

  5. Omega 3 increases thermic effect of a meal by 50%.

  6. Omega 3 increases fat oxidation rates making you leaner.

  7. Omega 3 increases your metabolism by increasing protein synthesis and lean body mass.

Recommended intake for omega 3 is 3 g of EPA and DHA combined either through supplementation or fatty fish like salmon.

Omega 6 Studies show that omega 6 also has anabolic benefits. Few studies showed up to 3 times more muscle growth compared to consuming only saturated fats. However, because omega 6 is pro inflammatory, a ratio of up to 1:4 of omega 3 to omega 6 should be the maximal limit. This means that you should also include other types of fats.

Mono-unsaturated fats

Similarly, reasearch shows that mono-unsaturated fats can also decrease chronic inflammation levels which can lead to better anabolic signaling and more muscle growth. A study done by Noakes et al (2006) comparing fat loss with 3 different types of diets. One of them was a high unsaturated fat diet, where participants had a significantly less lean body mass loss over the course of the diet.

Saturated fat

Saturated fat (SF) does not have a direct anabolic effect like omega 3 and omega 6, but it does increase testosterone levels over time simply by increasing your fat intake. The main concern with saturated fats is, of course, health. It is believed that SF increases your cholesterol levels and clogs up your arteries, but is this really true?

This is a theory that originated all the way back from 1952 when Ancel Benjamin Keys developed a hypothesis saturated fats increase cholesterol levels, specifically worsen the cholesterol profile by increasing LDL cholesterol, which eventually clogs up your arteries. However, this hypothesis was never supported by direct controlled research in humans.

The vast majority of the research does not support that SF does increase cholesterol levels. Some research even finds positive effects of SF on blood cholesterol levels, increasing the level of HDL (good cholesterol) without any effects on LDL (bad cholesterol).

In 2015, a meta-analysis showed that replacing saturated fats with carbs or protein offered no health advantages.

What matters with saturated fats is food source, and staying away from heavily processed foods will minimize any potential risk. Overall, saturated fats have a neutral effect on your overall health, and should be incorporated in your overall diet.

How much fat should we consume exactly for optimal anabolic effect? It differs between men and women. For men, recommended fat intake starts at 20% of total caloric intake as a minimum, and goes up to 40% of BMR (basal metabolic rate) as a maximum. If going all the way up to 40% causes you to decrease carbohydrates to a very low level, lower the fat intake by 10-15%.

For women, the upper limit is 40% of REE (resting energy expenditure) as they have a glycogen sparing metabolism and can burn fat more efficiently. Other hormones like estrogen can also benefit from a higher fat diet.

The exact ratios of the type of fats are not as important as long as you consume 3 g of omega 3, and a mix of different unsaturated fats. The rest can be filled with some great saturated fat sources like dark chocolate, dairy, coconut and meat.

Step 4: Lift heavy weights

Muscle growth is achieved by providing continuous stress to your muscles in order to trigger adaptations. In other words, you need to give your muscles a reason to grow. This principle does not change when you are losing weight. While in a caloric deficit, muscle loss is very likely without sufficient training stimulus.

The way we can stimulate our muscles in the gym is by manipulating 3 main factors: intensity, volume, and frequency. Intensity is the weight on the bar that you are using, volume is the amount of sets and repetitions that you are doing, and frequency is the amount of workouts you have in a week.

For optimal results it is recommeded to have an intensity between 60 and 75% of 1RM (your maximum weight that you can lift for one rep) for beginners and intermediate lifters, and 80 - 90% 1RM for advanced lifters. You can generally aim for higher intensity for compound lifts and lower intensity for isolation exercises to have a mix of both.

Volume is generally affected by your energy balance. As a rule of thumb, volume generally needs to be reduced by 20-30% while on a cut for optimal progression. When you are in a caloric deficit, your tolerance for volume decreases. For beginners and intermediate lifters, 12-14 sets per muscle group per week should be enough to maintain or even build more muscle during a cut, while for advanced this number is often above 16 sets.

By now we have a lot of research showing that frequency of 2 per muscle group per week is better than 1. This means that classical bro splits where you train each body part separately each day is not optimal for muscle growth. Instead, increasing it to 2 or even more is better for hypertrophy. You can tweak your split to push, pull, legs or upper, lower, or even full body workouts to increase your frequency for more muscle growth.

Step 5: Have the right mindset

Getting to your fitness goal simply takes time. If you are expecting a full transformation in 2-4 weeks you already lost the battle. The first step to mental strength is to set your expectations correctly. Studies show that the higher you set your goal for fat loss the more likely you are to give up at certain point. Instead, stop comparing yourself to others and try to be a better version of yourself each day. Remember, we are talking about small increments here, not huge leaps. These small increments quickly add and over a period of 2-3 months you realized that your body has completely changed!

Another important element is creating habits and enjoying the process. While this is easier said than done, you need to introduce new habits gradually, especially if new habits require a big lifestyle change. Instead of changing everything at once, try changing food options one by one. For example the first week you try to focus on getting enough high quality protein. That would be the only thing you need to focus. Once you master this, you move on to fats, and carbs. After that, fiber and micro-nutrients and so on. This can take weeks, but as long as you are working on it its good.

This way you will ease yourself into the new program instead of jumping into it. When there is a temperature difference in pool water you usually slowly go into it as there is less of a shock. Same applies here. Remember, its a long game that we are playing here, and you need to have a sustainable program that you can follow easily for months.

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