How To Maintain Strength And Muscle Mass While Losing Weight

Many competitive strength athletes and recreational lifters are under the impression that strength and muscle loss is inevitable when losing weight or undergoing a fat-shredding phase. This is often NOT the case, as strength can be easily maintained or even improved when proper dieting and training adjustments are made. Here are 2 nutrition and 2 training tips to implement the next time you plan on losing fat:

Conservative Calorie Deficit

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Whenever muscle and strength retention is of concern during periods of weight loss, a conservative calorie deficit should be used. The idea is that rapid bouts of weight loss created by large calorie-restrictions hinders our ability to perform hard training sessions and our ability to recovery from them. This may result in a loss in lean body mass and subsequently, decreased performance.

In 2011, a group of researchers studied the effects of 2 different weight-loss rates on male and female athletes' body composition and sporting performance. The slow weight loss group lost ~0.7% of their body weight per week while the fast weight loss group lost ~1.4% of their body weight per week.*  At the end of this weight loss period, it was found that the slow weight loss group retained more muscle mass and performed better on upper body strength tests compared to the fast weight loss group. This could have been from consuming more calories for muscle repair and recovery and lower mental stress from dieting more conservatively, which results in a smaller disruption to their bodies' homeostasis. 

Simply put: a slower weight loss rates helps maintain muscle and strength. 

Using the example study above (0.7% bw loss per week), most people will want to lose no more than 1lb of bodyweight per week to better maintain their fitness and performance.

*it should be noted that both weight loss groups lost the same amount of the weight. The slow weight loss group dieted for longer to achieve the same weight loss as the fast weight loss group.

Protein Timing and Distribution

Granted you're already consuming an adequate amount of protein to support recovery and muscle growth, implementing good protein timing and distribution practices is the cherry on top of the sundae. 

Effective protein timing and distribution practices revolve around the concept of the touted "anabolic window". The anabolic window concept states that there is an optimal time period where our muscles are more sensitive to protein intake, where protein consumption during this time will result in better recovery, and increased muscle growth. While the importance of the anabolic window is sometimes overhyped by the bodybuilding and supplement industry, it DOES exists. Hours following a hard training session, when our muscle's receptors are hypersensitive and there's a surge of hormones and growth factors. This hypersensitivity returns to baseline anywhere from 12-36 hours and is dependent on several variables:

  • Volume and intensity of training
  • Duration of the training session
  • Modality of training (resistance training will induce more micro-tearing of muscle fibers and a greater hormonal response vs. endurance training)
  • Training status of the individual

It's because of this anabolic window that many fitness professionals recommend drinking a protein shake immediately post-workout. While this is a good practice, many nutritionists and trainers forget or simply do not put enough emphasis on pre-workout nutrition.

Why worry about pre-workout nutrition if the anabolic window exists post-training? Protein transit and digestion time. 

A serving of protein consumed prior to training will still be in the process of digestion and absorption HOURS following a training session. In order to fully take advantage of the anabolic window, an adequate amount of protein (>25-40g, more if you're heavier or possess more muscle mass) must be consumed pre-workout in conjunction with a post-workout shake. 

Why does this matter and how does it affect muscle retention?

Our body is in a constant state of building, and destroying, anabolism and catabolism. During a calorie-deficit, its crucial to keep net positive muscle protein synthesis (where total protein synthesis > total protein degradation) in order to facilitate proper muscle repair and growth. Evenly distributing your protein intake around the clock helps increase protein synthesis. Think of it as stoking a fire, constantly feeding the fire fuel or wood. Again, none of this will be effective without consistently hitting your daily protein needs (total amount of protein per day).

Increase lifting frequency

Let's get into the the training side of things.

An unwanted side effect from losing weight (for strength athletes anyways) is a change in leverages and biomechanics. When you lose thickness in your thighs and hips, squats, cleans and lower body movements feel different. When you lose thickness in your lats or chest, bench pressing and overhead pressing feels a bit different. Whether its from an altered stretch-reflex or reduced proprioception, losing weight can negatively affect lifting technique, often resulting in a loss of strength.

To combat this problem, I recommend increasing your lifting frequency. Does your squat feel a bit different after losing 20lbs? Start squatting more frequently. Does your overhead press feel a bit iffy since your weight loss? Start overhead pressing more frequently. Much like the stoking the fire analogy used earlier, the more frequently you spend practicing a movement under your new biomechanical circumstances, the more improvements you'll make. Increased frequency and exposure to an exercise will do wonders in terms of motor learning and familiarity. 

stick to your training plan

Aside from increasing training and lift frequency, nothing else should really change.

Lifters often take unneeded preventative measures when dieting by overhauling their whole training plan. If you're losing weight via a conservative calorie-deficit, there is no good reason to significantly decrease volume or intensity of training. You should still be able to perform and progress on your training plan despite eating 200-300 calories less each day. 

For athletes looking to rapidly lose fat however, the best line of action would be to slightly reduce training volume by either reducing the total amount of sets and reps BUT maintain or even increase intensity. Lifting heavy (relative to your own strength levels) is crucial for stimulating your high-threshold muscle fibers responsible for maximal strength production. Many studies have shown that high intensity training can help maintain muscle mass and strength weeks and even months after detraining/periods of reduced volume.

Ultimately, have trust in your training plan and stay consistent. Don't let dieting stress prevent you from training and avoid the nocebo effect or any preconceived notions that you'll be weaker and smaller after your weight loss diet. Use these 4 tips, train hard, and train smart. Good luck!

 

Studies discussed:

"Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes." Garthe et al. (2011).

"Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?" Aragon & Schoenfeld (2013).

"Less Is More: The Physiological Basis for Tapering in Endurance, Strength, and Power Athletes." Murach, Kevin, and James Bagley. (2015) 

"Physiological and Performance Responses to a 6-Day Taper in Middle-Distance Runners: Influence of Training Frequency." Mujika, I., A. Goya, E. Ruiz, A. Grijalba, J. Santisteban, and S. Padilla. (2002)

"The Effects of Tapering on Power-Force-Velocity Profiling and Jump Performance in Professional Rugby League Players." Lacey, James De, Matt Brughelli, Michael Mcguigan, Keir Hansen, Pierre Samozino, and Jean-Benoit Morin.(2014)