Losing Fat Without Losing Muscle
By Tom Venuto Iron Magazine
I’m on a mission to get my body fat down. After a week on a 15%-20% calorie deficit, I’ve lost only 1 pound. The problem is, the calipers haven’t changed, leading me to believe it’s muscle I’ve lost.
Maybe I’m being impatient because it has only been a week, but I’m paranoid about losing muscle because I always felt that I was one of those “skinny fat people” you talk about and I’ve lost muscle before doing crash diets.
I bought your Burn the Fat, Feed the muscle program and I’m doing it right this time – all by the book.
I don’t think the workout is the problem either because I’m doing your T.N.B. training program 4 times a week and that includes lifting heavy. I’m doing cardio (some of which is HIIT) at least 4 times a week. Should I drop my calories further or does it sometimes take more than a week for things to start taking effect?
Yes, you are being a little bit impatient, BUT… your question brings up a HUGE problem that many people have when dieting: Losing lean body mass (aka Losing muscle)…
So, I will directly answer your question and then tell you exactly how to avoid muscle loss in the future as well… plus show you what to do immediately if your LBM does drop.
Generally you shouldn’t worry too much about one week’s results, even if there’s a significant fluctuation (in the wrong direction). Here’s why:
First, keep in mind it’s unlikely that you will lose a pound in a week and lose 0% fat, and therefore assume you lost 100% muscle. Usually you lose a combination of fat and lean tissue. It’s your goal to keep the fat loss maximized and lean tissue loss minimized.
Second, a pound week of fat loss is fine progress when you’ve got a small deficit. You could speed up fat loss with a larger deficit, but you’ll want to be sure your weight loss is fat before doing so.
There’s margin for error in calipers and your water weight can fluctuate greatly in either direction, masking body composition change.
Also, your results are showing 1 lb of lean body mass loss, not necessarily muscle loss. Lean body mass (LBM) is not one in the same with muscle. Muscle is simply a component of the LBM. LBM also includes water, organs, glycogen and all other fat free tissue. Even the contents of your digestive system will show up as lean body mass in some body composition tests, right?
One of the best new terms I’ve heard added to the body composition vernacular in recent years comes from Alan Aragon. On a Fitcast show podcast, he made a distinction between “essential lean body mass” and “nonessential lean body mass.” I thought that was a brilliant way to express this difference between muscle tissue and other miscellaneous lean body mass.
Given the fact that your bodyweight and your LBM can fluctuate up and down so much in the short term based on inconsequential changes, you should pay much more attention to the trend over time than short term dips or valleys.
This of course requires that you use the Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle technique of weekly progress charting (discussed in chapter 4). For example, if your progress chart shows two, three or more weeks in a row with loss of lean body mass you can feel fairly safe in assuming that some of that is loss of muscle and corrective action should be taken.
I am however, very much in favor of gathering weekly feedback and making quick course corrections. After just one week, you would still be prudent to ask yourself whether you think that measurement and assessment (lost lbm) is correct, based on everything else you see going on – such as how you look in the mirror, your strength level, etc.
If all signs point toward confirming muscle loss, you might make a program adjustment (nutrition and or training) after just one week even if it’s precautionary. I know trainers who insist that weekly body composition testing is too often because body composition doesn’t change that much in a week.
While I agree that we shouldn’t panic about temporary fluctuations, I disagree with that premise about body comp testing less frequently. I believe in getting frequent feedback and making frequent course corrections when necessary. That’s what keeps you on course.
On one hand, you don’t want to become paranoid or panicked when it’s a false alarm. On the other hand, I always like to keep in mind the analogy of the flight path of airplane…
Imagine the pilot who starts flying from Atlanta To LA. He checks his instrumentation constantly en route, and though he is actually veering off course all the time, he makes constant course corrections, eventually arriving in LA as if he went in a straight line (in reality he zig-zagged his way there, actually getting where he wanted to go as a result of going off course).
Then we have the hypothetical pilot who does not check his course often (he’s snoozin). Suppose the plane takes the tiniest errant turn off course. If not corrected, the course deviation would continue to widen, and just a few hours later, our pilot may wake up and find himself in Alaska! Sure, he could change course in Alaska, but he would have taken a time-consuming and costly detour.
Wouldn’t it have been easier to keep a close eye on progress more often and change course before getting too far off track? I hope you see the obvious relevance of this analogy to your body composition improving endeavors.
If you decide to take corrective actions in response to a drop in lean body mass, here are 10 of the top strategies for stopping and even reversing loss of muscle:
Top 10 Week-to Week Strategies to Prevent or STOP Muscle Loss
1. Check for adequate protein: Aim for a bare minimum 0.8 grams per pound of lean body mass.
2. Consider raising protein above average. Protein protects lean body mass in a deficit. Consider increasing protein to slightly above adequate to provide larger safety margin. (ie, if 0.8 grams per pound is adequate consider 1.0 to 1.2 grams. The typical level bodybuilders prefer begins at 1 gram.)
3. Consider a high protein diet. If caloric deficit is severe, and strength training is intense, consider higher protein intake (ie, 1.25 to 1.5 grams)
4. Check for adequate carb intake. Some people suffer higher losses of LBM when carbs are inadequate, particularly under 100 -150 grams per day for women / men respectively. Below 100 grams neuroendocrine abnormalities such as decreased thyroid conversion may occur. Training may also suffer with very low carb intake. If you’re weak as a kitten because you starved yourself on some insane close-to-zero carb diet, that makes muscle-building training awfully difficult.
5. Make sure you’re weight training consistently. Weight training should be a foregone conclusion regardless of your training goal. However some people – women in particular – avoid serious weight training and almost everyone misses workouts or just goes through the motions from time to time. If results aren’t forthcoming, you can’t afford to not get the most from every workout, let alone miss. Get serious, and make sure your training is progressive.
6. Check your strength levels during training. Make sure your weight training program is properly designed to help you get stronger and you are working on increasing your strength. Lean mass seldom drops while strength is going up. If you’re doing body weight exercise or non-progressive types of strength training (if you’re bopping around in your living room with a DVD “workout”), it’s time to step up your game. Join a serious gym, or put a power rack down in that dark, dingy basement of yours and start lifting some real iron.
7. Check your recovery levels from training. Be certain that (a) you are not overtraining in duration or intensity, (b) you are allowing adequate recovery time in between workouts (appropriate frequency of training), and (c) you are allowing appropriate recovery for your body (some people can thrive on higher volume, higher frequency training, others cannot).
8. Check your sleep. A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that for a given deficit and a given amount of weight loss, sleep curtailment decreased the proportion of weight lost as fat by 55% (at 5.5 hours of sleep versus 8.5 hours of sleep). The research also showed neuro-endocrine adaptation to calorie restriction and increased hunger which could indicate likelihood to eat ones way out of calorie deficit. If you’re getting healthier, leaner, stronger and more muscular consistently, with under 7 hours of sleep, god bless you. If not, then stop blowing off the most restorative and health promoting behavior of all.
9. Check your stress levels. Stress can have similar effects on neuro-endocrine markers as sleep deprivation, including increased cortisol, increased visceral fat deposition, impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia. Stress is killing people – if not literally, then it’s killing people’s muscle gains. If you’re stressed and you know it, escape the source of the stress or develop coping mechanisms fast or your training will be an uphill battle.
10. Check your cardio level. Studies on concurrent endurance and strength training show that cardio can interfere with strength at levels of more than 3 days a week especially if all the cardio you do is high in intensity. However, for maximum fat loss, it’s beneficial to include frequent cardio, so this is a conflict of opposing goals. One solution is to keep up the frequent cardio but keep some of it low to moderate in intensity and don’t overdo the duration (hours and hours of daily cardio are not needed. If you can’t lose fat with 45-60 minutes per day, there is something horribly wrong with your nutrition). Backing off high volume cardio when fat loss is a primary goal is counter-intuitive, but if there are confirmed losses in LBM, and you’ve been stressed and overtrained, sometimes it’s better to use moderate amounts of cardio and manipulate your nutrition to get the calorie deficit you need.
BONUS TIP #11: Take creatine. It is an inexpensive, legal, over the counter supplement. It has been shown not only to help improve performance during strength and anaerobic training, but also to help prevent muscle loss. It’s the most studied sports supplement in history. It’s safe and it works.
Train hard, get strong and good luck on your mission to get lean… and muscular!