Keeping your muscle mass while trying to lose weight has been a challenge for athletes for decades. It seems almost impossible to do both, as you need to consume just enough calories and protein to get lean. Meeting your goals is possible, you just have to know how to train and eat properly. Now, let’s go over the causes of muscle loss and four ways you can prevent it when dieting.

Causes of Muscle Loss on a Diet

Whether you gain or lose muscle is dictated by the balance between muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown. If you synthesize more muscle than you breakdown, you will gain muscle, but if you breakdown more muscle than you synthesize, you will lose muscle. You can think of your muscles as a brick wall. As the wall gets higher, you are adding more bricks. These bricks are your muscle proteins. Here are some causes of muscle loss when dieting:

Suppressed rate of protein synthesis

You are synthesizing more muscle protein and you are breaking it down. In other words, you may not be adding to your brick wall as quickly as you used to.

Greater rate of protein breakdown

You are breaking down muscle more quickly, removing your muscle protein. So, you are taking away bricks at a faster rate than you were before.

Using protein as fuel

The more protein you burn off as energy, the less you have available to help build your muscles. You are using up the valuable protein that is needed to build muscles as fuel for energy.

Losing strength as you get leaner

deficit, you can lose your muscle strength. If you are handling heavier weights, you are causing more tension on the muscle and vice versa for lighter weights. You can think of weight training as the construction boss to build the brick wall. With them there giving orders, the wall probably will not be built.

How to Prevent Muscle Loss When Dieting

Losing strength as you get leaner

The second strategy is to diet more slowly. In one study by Garthe and colleagues, they took 30 elite athletes and put them in two groups. The first group was the slow weight loss group where they cut 469 calories per day for nine weeks, and the second group, which was for fast weight loss, cut 791 calories per day for five weeks. Both groups lost the same amount of weight, but the slow weight loss group lost more fat and gained more muscle. Based on this research, it may be a better decision to cut weight more slowly. This does not mean you should take an excessive amount of time to lose weight, but you should not feel rushed.

In another study by Gilbert B. Forbes, it was revealed that there are two factors at play when it comes to weight loss. The first is the initial body fat content in the body, and the magnitude of energy deficit. At the beginning of the diet, where you have more body fat to lose, you can be more aggressive with the caloric deficit. As you get leaner, you should start to lose more slowly. Another study recommends losing 0.5% to 1.5% of bodyweight per week in order to retain muscle. A good 12 week diet plan is to lose 1.5% of body weight per week over the first four weeks, 1% per week over weeks five to eight, and 0.5% per week over weeks nine to 12.

Increase your protein intake

In a 2018 study, researchers found that 2.4 grams of protein per kilogram, or about one gram per pound of body weight is able to preserve lean body mass on a 40% energy deficient when combined with resistance exercises. Another study recommends 4.4 grams of protein per kilogram, or two grams per pound of body weight. However, this data has not been replicated. Most studies recommend staying between 0.8 to one gram per pound of bodyweight to retain muscle.

Avoid excessive cardio

In 2014, Eric R. Helms and colleagues concluded that natural bodybuilders should perform the lowest number and duration of cardio sessions possible, while still meeting their need to reduce body fat, in order to reduce interference with muscle gains. Try to limit yourself to one or two HIIT (high-intensity interval training) sessions per week and a maximum of four or five LISS (low intensity state sessions) only as needed to remain in a caloric deficit.

Avoiding Muscle Loss While Dieting

If you are trying to keep your muscle, but lose fat, try out the tips above. It is possible to maintain your hard earned muscle and still lose body fat if you do it properly. Some of these tips may seem counterintuitive at first, but they will help you reach your goals.


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