Preventing Muscle Loss While Dieting

by Brad Pilon

I review a lot of fat loss programs.

From the most underground e-books, to the latest best seller on Amazon, I’ve read through stacks of them.

Actually, I USED TO.

I avoid reading that kinda stuff these days because, well most of the time, once I finished reading a diet book, I feel like I need to take a shower.

They are just that sleazy.

Sure, they’re some of the greatest examples of marketing this side of beer commercials, but the actual information in them is a combination of basic good nutritional practices (you should eat more fruits and vegetables) and make-believe (never eat carbohydrates past 6:45 pm when in combination with fats).

Most of the time the marketing story starts like this… “My special ‘melt the lard’ program guarantees you will lose fat fast without losing any muscle”.

The part I have a trouble with is the “without losing any muscle”.

It seems losing muscle is something everyone is deathly afraid of doing…

And that it’s somehow something that typically happens when dieting.

Here’s my issue with this:

Most of the bodybuilders, athletes and fitness models I’ve talked with are convinced that they lose muscle when they are dieting.

But they are exactly the people who probably shouldn’t worry.

At all.

Here’s the truth about losing muscle mass while dieting. I don’t believe it. Not at all.

I have taken over one hundred body fat measurements on amateur body builders and fitness models.

None of them lost any more than 1 or 2 pounds of lean mass while dieting for a competition!

They drop anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds of fat, but lose almost no muscle!

My measurements were taken with a BodPod, and validated with both skin fold calipers and limb circumference measurements, so I’m sure they were accurate.

And, these are the same findings that are being published in peer reviewed research papers (so it’s not just me).

All of these athletes were on different types of low calorie diets and loads of different supplements or no supplements at all; however, none of them were losing muscle.

This is for one reason and one reason only.

People who are weight training while dieting (within reason) WILL NOT LOSE MUSCLE.

I believe this is for one main reason.

In MASSIVELY over-simplified terms: By lifting weights, you are telling your body you need that muscle.

Your body recognizes that need, and thinks:

“Whoa. Looks like I’m dieting again. I need to burn something for some extra energy but if I get rid of some of this muscle, it’ll make this whole lifting weights thing even harder. I better keep this muscle and burn something else, maybe this fat over here…”

So as long as your diet doesn’t consist of “eat nothing for 6 months straight” the number one way to ensure you don’t lose any muscle while you are dieting is by lifting weights.

Protein may play a role on in this (almost all of the people I was tracking were eating a high protein diet), and even I’m a fan of slightly higher than average protein intake (not daily, but as a running average) but other than that, no fancy diet program works better than weight training for preventing you from losing muscle while you are dieting.

So here’s the issue.

In food marketing, you can’t do this.

You can’t put “Fat Free” on an apple…because it’s obvious that it is fat free and implies that other apples may not be fat free.

You can’t put “Calorie Free” on a bottle of water..because again, its obvious and it implies that other water isnt’ fat free (real water, not sports water or any of that nonsense)

BUT..

It gets even trickier…

Since most diets IMPLY that muscle loss is a GIANT risk, it almost becomes a necessity that you advertise that muscle loss won’t happen (I state this with Eat Stop Eat all the time, mostly because, whether right or wrong, it is something people are now extremely worried about).

So bottome line:

Misleading advertising creates bad public perception and public beliefs.

In other words, it’s because of Misleading advertising that I almost have to say…Eat Stop Eat won’t make you lose muscle as long as you are resistance training, nor will most other diets.

BP

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{ 13 comments }

yannick April 1, 2010 at 4:14 am

I met GSP a few times i live in Montreal and he was part of the organization TKO MMA, where he started there.

I met him before is big fight against Frank Trigg at UFC54, he is a very humble class act guy, frendly and down to earth.

He is very passionate about the sport of MMA and he will never shy away from the fans.

I was 210 pounds when i met him, he was starting is cut so he was around 190 pounds, is shoulder width where has large as mine, he is one freak of nature beleive me, and now he is training with the power lifting team in Montreal, no surprise he took down Dan Hardy that easy.

My only wish now is that he steps up one weight class to 185 pounds and get a fight going with Anderson Silva that would be amazing.

Cooper April 1, 2010 at 4:51 am

Brad,

When you say 1 – 2 lbs lean mass, are we even talking about muscle tissue? My experience with dieting is that everyone would lose at least that in water, which comes under the banner of lean mass.

Do we know if they lost any muscle at all? I would think tracking strength would be even better because lean mass is just too vague.

Cooper

Yannick April 1, 2010 at 7:05 am

Great article, most of the time when i dieted down i made the mistake of slacking on the weight lifting and getting tone for cardio in with very low calorie meals. I usually went from 204 to 175 pounds in no time but was very skinny.

This time around i am older 37 and find the weight loss is really slow, i just started eat stop eat about 2 weeks ago, 24h fasting is very easy, and i also eat when i am hungry, i mix P90X circuit training with cardio.

Has you said in a previous article even if you weight 220 pounds of muscles its still 220 pounds, this is what i have been telling my sport doctor, i am 220 pounds and my bodyfat is 22% he says that its all ok because i am massive, but to be honest at 37 years old who cares about being massive, i rather be light and have a beach body, low bodyfat % and feel better about myself, then look big in a shirt.

I am giving myself a bit more time to lose weight and just enjoying myself, i set a realistic goal of 20 pounds in 3 months and after that i will re-evaluate my diet, of course the book eat stop eat as changed my life forever and i am doing it for the rest of my life.

Guess i can give a bit more feedback on a couple of months if all i will have lost was fat, bodyweight and muscles.

The sport doctor as a cellular test which is very acurate.

Mendy April 1, 2010 at 9:14 am

I have begun to believe that most “fitness professionals” and consumers of their products have lost touch with common sense. If our body consumed muscle BEFORE fat when food supply was low, the human race would have died out long ago. Our ancestors would have been too weak to go out in search of food. We are told over and over that fat is our body’s energy storage system for times of famine… and then told that the same body will start canobalizing it’s muscle if we miss a meal. I don’t get it!

Rob Difilipo April 1, 2010 at 9:28 am

Brad,

I think some of this unfounded muscle loss fear stems from people who also tended to favor rather high volume training approaches and the “higher reps get you cut” mentality while tending to forgo loading at a higher intensity level and also consuming ridiculously low caloric intakes.

As noted, anyone following a sensible plan should not be losing any real-world significant amount of LBM. But then again, it’s taken a while for voices like yours to begin making a dent into the myth that you’ll lose muscle if you go without food for even a rather short period, so it’s no surprise that major muscle loss when dieting gets portrayed as some ever=present bogeyman for dieters.

Clay April 1, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Brad what you wrote about today is so true. When I was trying to get really lean for Spring Break 10′, I ate in a very low calorie range for about 3 weeks and got really cut. I was weight lifting 4 times a week and switched to very low reps with heavy weight, so I was lifting all for strength. Even while I was dieting all my lifts went up. I got my bench to 240lb and my military press to 135lb and my dumbbell row up to 100 lbs. How could I do this if I was losing muscle?

This answer is: I did not lose any muscle when dieting and in fact got really strong.

This comment is to you and John Barban and Brad Horward. After I lost some fat and got really cut for spring break, people kept telling me how huge and muscular I looked, and I would kind of laugh when I would tell them that I actually just lost 5-10lbs. They couldn’t believe it. This just goes to back what you guys are saying with AI, If you lose some weight in the right places and maybe gain some weight in the right places, it could look like you just packed on 20lbs of muscle. Thanks each of you for all your hard work.

Clay

ryan April 1, 2010 at 7:03 pm

i’ll join my 3rd competition next week. I still do ESE , n no muscle lose, and the best thing is my sixpack still ready for the show :)

i agree with u brad, cause i’ve proved it with my body. I still eat candies, chocolates or anything that i want but still lean n no losing muscle

thx ESE

Orlan Tuñgol April 1, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Brad, you really are so true. I am a personalized bodybuilding and aerobics instructor. Losing weight is easier to me than gain weight. My body is genetically built that way, maybe. But I found it through a lot of researches and my experiences also as a health enthusiast for almost two decades already, that weight training could help “not to lose muscles” while doing a lot of aero. Now I am 45, and it’s harder to lose weight without dieting, but with no fear of losing muscles. Just apply your concept—weight training while dieting…you wouldn’t believe, at my age, and being 5’6″ tall only at 145 lbs….I could hear a lot of people complimenting, “You’ve got a beautriful body, what’s the secret?” Some would even surprise me with a pinch on my bicep or tricep…and very eager to see my ab packs

Alexander April 1, 2010 at 9:56 pm

This is so refreshing to hear. Im a personal trainer and practically every person I train has the half baked idea that if they dont eat enough, their body will burn off their muscle.

It seems to me that so much of what people believe about muscle and fat loss is driven by the bodybuilding and supplement industry.

Im a bodybuilding fan, and I see now that the whole “bulking cycle” and “cutting” cycle is just a huge joke. No one seems to understand the fallacies of it. Guys will gain 30,40,50,60,70 plus pounds in the off-season of bodybuilding.

Yet come competition when they burn off as much fat as possible, they will weigh ONE TO FIVE POUNDS MORE compared to the previous contest. Even the top IFBB pros, after so many years, their actual lean mass gains start to level off. Most of them contest to contest are always within a few pounds of whatever their shredded weight is.

If you are not getting weaker while leaning out, how could you possibly be burning off muscle? Its just fat and excess water weight

Dave F April 1, 2010 at 10:18 pm

I had some light discussion with a friend on some of this and a thought came to mind. (I say light because I tend to stop talking about physiology when it gets overly nerded out. Exercise physiology classes in college was more than enough. But I digress.)

Could this idea that the body burns muscle before fat be correlated to the fact that the body tends to take a longer time to digest fat than it takes to digest protein (muscle)?
Hence, “logically”, the body will burn muscle and then fat during metabolism.
And people that know a little (the most dangerous kind) play onto this.

But of course, digestion and metabolism are slightly different processes.

Curious to see what you guys think.

Anthony April 25, 2010 at 9:36 pm

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Matt April 26, 2010 at 3:19 pm

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Personal Trainer Mumbai November 3, 2011 at 2:57 am

Excellent article. Thanks, this is real genuine stuff.

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