How to get rid of Muscle

by Brad Pilon

How do I get rid of muscle?

It’s an odd question I know, and one I have tackled before, but it seems people are still confused about what makes them gain and lose muscle.

We all know that people who are bedridden and on a low calorie diet lose muscle.

When I first starting writing Eat Stop Eat, and was running the idea past several dietitians for input, they all brought up stories of muscle loss in their patients who were bedridden and on a low calorie diet.

And since I am constantly saying that simple caloric restriction does NOT cause you to lose muscle if you are working out, then that leaves being ‘bedridden’ (or ‘disuse’ as they say in research) as the cause of muscle loss.

And this is exactly what research suggests as well.

Ever break your arm and have to wear a cast, or know someone who did?

Do you remember how skinny that arm was when the cast finally came off?

The arm in the cast got the EXACT same nutrition as the arm that wasn’t in the cast. The only change was in the amount that the muscles were used.

In fact, ‘casting’ is so effective at causing muscle loss that it has been used in research to study something called ‘disuse atrophy’ or muscle loss from lack of use.

In a study conducted at the University of Nottingham, 22 male and female studies had casts put on their right leg for two weeks. Their diets didn’t change, yet after only two weeks the cross sectional area of their quadriceps (the big muscles in your thigh) decreased by 10%.

NO CHANGE IN DIET…but the muscle still decreases in size by 10%.

And the decrease was across ALL muscle fiber types. From slow twitch to fast twitch, they all decreased in diameter when they were not being used.

In other words – Your muscles are not ‘storage units’ like fat cells, they are contractile units.

So while your fat cells respond to what (or more correctly- how much) you eat by storing or releasing energy in the form of fat. Muscle responds to stress and challenge.

Your muscles will always try to match the challenge that is placed on them.

No challenge = no increase in muscle size.

No challenge for a long enough time = decreases in muscle size.

This is why as long as you are working out, and meeting some sort of caloric minimum (studies have gone as low as 80 grams of protein and 800 Kcals a day for several weeks), you won’t lose muscle.

However, if you don’t use the muscle, then it really doesn’t matter what you are eating, the muscle is going to shrink.

Bottom Line – Forget those people who push multiple meals and protein at every meal as the secret to ‘not losing muscle’ the best way to prevent yourself from losing muscle is to exercise that muscle.

Or, if you are trying to lose muscle (not something I suggest) simple stop using it.

BP

{ 56 comments }

Brad Pilon May 12, 2009 at 12:08 am

Hespel P. Journal of Physiology (2001), 536.2, pp.625–633

APPELL, H. J. (1990). Sports Medicine 10, 42–58.

Mike May 12, 2009 at 12:37 am

Brad,

Great article & I completely agree. ESE has been one of the easiest ways for me to lose fat without losing muscle and it is because I’ve restricted my calories by fasting once or twice per week but I continue to train hard.

Now if only ‘casting’ destroyed fat and not muscle!

Mike T Nelson May 12, 2009 at 12:45 am

Ah yes, the old “use it or loose it” is correct once again!

I love this quote, “Living systems are build up through USE and atrophy from disuse” this is in contrast to everything else.

If I build a bridge and put it in a vacuum, it would last forever. If I put Brad in a space ship and chuck him into outer space, he will loose muscle (and bone) at a very fast rate since the STIMULUS of just gravity is removed now.

Give the body a reason to hold on to muscle (weight training).

Rock on!
Mike T Nelson
PhD(c), CSCS

PS
Just saw Testament live last night here in concert—friggin awesome!

Rusty - Fitness Black Book May 12, 2009 at 1:02 am

Brad,

That has been my experience as well. I have gone on strict diets for up to 3-4 weeks that “should have” resulted in muscle loss…according to most fitness experts. I simply went to the gym 4 times per week and worked each muscle group twice per week and didn’t lose any muscle whatsoever.

The great thing is that once you understand this principle you can get pretty darn lean without being paranoid about muscle loss. Obviously people shouldn’t starve themselves over a long period of time, but on the other hand they don’t need to stress about getting a shake before bed or eating right after working out, etc.

Great Info,

Rusty

Dr. J. Kyle Howard May 12, 2009 at 1:07 am

Use it or lose! Where have I heard that before? Our bodies are remarkable at adapting to our environment. The problem most of us have is not listening to what our body needs are.

Your system has proven that it’s unnecessary to consume multiple meals in a day. With our “sit at the desk”, “drive-thru” culture it much more important now change the way we eat. Fewer calories burned + calories stored = fat. It’s that simple.

Simon May 12, 2009 at 1:08 am

Hi Brad: I find this very persuasive, but what about the argument that if you stop eating your body will start to store fat as a defense against future hunger. In Eat Stop Eat you show that fasting doesn’t change your metabolic rate. Is that the same as saying that it doesn’t cause you to store extra fat? Or does your chapter on insulin, growth hormone, etc. address this? If you are right (and I’m convinced you are), why does this idea that you can’t stop eating or you’ll store fat keep getting repeated? Thanks for all your hard work. Simon

Anna May 12, 2009 at 2:07 am

Nicely put, Brad! You do a great job of explaining the intricacies of muscle development or muscle loss (in this case). This is also a great comeback for those people who think that intermittent fasting will make them lose muscle.

Grok May 12, 2009 at 3:13 am

Brad, I feel this is your best post ever!

Having a motocross background, I’ve had many casts. This post hit home like an A bomb!

Beautiful man, just beautiful!

Lani Muelrath May 12, 2009 at 3:35 am

Brad,

It seems to be a theme – refresher courses of the basics. And you know what, that’s really all we need, right?

“Your muscles will always try to match the challenge that is placed on them.”

I rest my case!

Thanks for another great upload,
Lani

LJG May 12, 2009 at 4:02 am

Hey there. I’m a big fan of ESE, and my experience has shown that fasting once or twice a week while still weight training doesn’t lead to muscle loss. However, I’ve also found that I deffinately need to eat quite a big amount of food on all non fasting days to keep or build muscle. Everytime time I drop calories to say 2000 cals per day or less, I start to lose muscle – very quickly. I personally don’t think just weight training lets you build or maintain muscle mass. Calories are key for my body. Just my experience.

Billy May 12, 2009 at 4:25 am

I wonder what the threshold of disuse is? Myself for example, I haven’t been working out regularly for at least a month. I’m still relatively active (I don’t have a car so I walk or bike everywhere). Of course, when I do get into the gym, I find that I can’t lift as heavy or as much as I once could. What are the correlations in strength vs. size? I wonder if not training much is actually causing me to lose muscle?

Claire May 12, 2009 at 4:36 am

I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart, because it does get so confusing at times. I think even the professionals give conflicting info.

Tanya May 12, 2009 at 4:45 am

Great article Brad. It’s so obvious when you think about it. Thanks!

Jenny May 12, 2009 at 6:28 am

So, putting casts on my huge calves is the only way I can slim them down???

Jack May 12, 2009 at 6:54 am

Brad,

In terms of lower calorie intake and especially lower protein intake, is there a particular muscular size relative to what you might call your “natural” baseline build above which the lower intakes would possibly cause some muscle loss even if a sufficient stimulus was being provided to cause the body to want to hold on to the muscle?

i.e. a competitive bodybuilder with significant size(though not a professional relying on plenty of chemical assistance) versus a relatively lean individual carrying some muscle from training but nothing that would qualify as particularly noteworthy in terms of visual impact

I definitely believe that the fear of muscle loss is greatly overblown, but I’m wondering if there is a distinction that needs to be made between someone seeking the maximum amount of muscle possible and someone who simply wants to look somewhat athletic.

Thank you for being an excellent resource and someone who constantly challenges conventional thinking. I very much enjoy your approach, especially on account of it questioning a lot of what I formerly would have accepted at face value.

Chris May 12, 2009 at 10:35 am

Jenny, reduce your weight and the challenge faced by your calves will also reduce – thus reducing the calves themselves.

Often people forget that the overweight have big challenges already. this is one reason that on a serious diet people lose muscle – the resistance needed to move their bodies in basic ways is reduced. this is why weight training is so important throughout the process of losing weight.

http://fattobeanpole.blogspot.com/

Rodger Dewing May 12, 2009 at 11:26 am

trueness!! and not being brainwashed is the freedm to exercise when ever and kno that we cant kill our muscles so easily. Loads of bullshiut out out there right? It uised to affect me alot, and I wouldnt workout if i didnt have a protien shake or sometihng, now i gohard and since i bought the book, i break records on my fast days! That is power, becasue im not controlled by fear nomore.

Nicky May 12, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Great article! I totally agree. The main reason we are bombarded with all this diet rubbish about not eating making you fatter is that big diet companies cannot make a profit out of us simply NOT eating for a few days a week. Thus they loose the most valuable thing of all to them- consumers! You cannot be a consumer if you do not consume! Don’t be a sheep, follow eat stop eat and forget all the rubbish u have heard. I have never looked back and have lost 3 stone and kept it off for over a year. I’m in the best shape of my life with EST and exercise.

fion May 12, 2009 at 3:33 pm

A good example of people looking lean and mean are the folks on ‘Survivor ‘ chanllenges. They get leaner, defined, their not eating much but they get through their challenge. Some of them look better towards the end. A few get a drawn face if they never get a win, rice or fish but it does prove that the body wont let go of it needs most to survive ….muscle to get you moving and surviving it’ll eat up the fat.

Nas May 12, 2009 at 5:25 pm

thanks alot Brad for the post. But what about genetics here? i mean shouldn’t they play a major role here at keeping the amount of muscles you have at par? in other words,gaining back muscles that u’ve always had by genetics is one case and gaining new muscles through exercise is another according to what i read, can u clear this up for me?

Scott May 12, 2009 at 8:13 pm

Brad,

Does the opposite apply here as well?

IE: Is muscle cross-section directly related to the loads (and volume) they are forced to contract against? Scientifically, wouldn’t this negate the “excess calories to build muscle” idea?

Thanks,

Scott

Lani Muelrath May 12, 2009 at 9:44 pm

Jenny,

You’ve got a handle on my first rule of fitness – a sense of humor!

Lani

Brad Pilon May 12, 2009 at 10:12 pm

@Scott

Scott 100%. And thank you for pointing that out.

With the exception of normal human growth (up to age 25ish) and people using anabolic steroids, I don’t believe excess calories are needed to build muscle.

Muscle growth is a slow process, and while it does take some energy and building blocks, it is not massive amounts.

Research that involves refeeding malnourished children found that they could catch up to their proper growth curve by only adding an additional 500 Calories PER WEEK.

And this is for children putting on large amounts of lean tissue as they grow.

BP

Brad Pilon May 12, 2009 at 10:46 pm

@Mike

Wouldn’t that be awesome…a nice vacation laying on a beach and bam..shredded!

B

Brad Pilon May 12, 2009 at 10:48 pm

@Mike T Nelson

Great point…especially for the people asking about genetics. Even the largest genetic freak…if shot up into space for months, would come back down with much less muscle mass.

I’m jealous of the bands that seem to always visit Minny, but never T.O.!

B

Brad Pilon May 12, 2009 at 10:49 pm

@Rusty – Fitness Black Book

It’s totally a case of muscle anxiety. This is what keeps so many guys from ever really getting lean is they get paranoid about losing muscle.

I put Muscle Anxiety right up their with Protein Guilt as something that is keeping people from getting really lean.

B

Brad Pilon May 12, 2009 at 10:50 pm

@Dr. J. Kyle Howard

Exactly..use it or lose it..this goes for your mind and your body.

B

Brad Pilon May 12, 2009 at 10:53 pm

@Simon

The ONLY way you can store extra fat is if you are eating in a caloric surplus. The idea that healthy people are forced store increasing amounts of fat while fasting is ridiculous.

Simple diet and health Scare mongering.

B

Brad Pilon May 12, 2009 at 10:54 pm

@Anna
Thanks Anna!

B

Brad Pilon May 12, 2009 at 10:54 pm

@Grok

Thanks Grok! (great pic BTW)

B

Brad Pilon May 12, 2009 at 10:55 pm

@Lani Muelrath

Hi Lani,

Yep, if we spent more time on the basics, we wouldn’t be constantly trying to confuse ourselves with advanced (and usually meaningless) diet-theory.

B

Brad Pilon May 12, 2009 at 10:56 pm

@LJG

How did you measure your muscle loss?

B

Brad Pilon May 12, 2009 at 11:04 pm

@Billy
It’s all relative.

If you were an elite power lifter and you decided to give it up for lighter work less often, you would lose muscle.

Then if you gave up this work for a sedentary life, you would again lose muscle.

So it’s all relative to where you were and where you are going.

B

Brad Pilon May 12, 2009 at 11:05 pm

@Claire
Hi Claire,

Thank you!

B

Brad Pilon May 12, 2009 at 11:06 pm

@Tanya
Thanks Tanya

B

Brad Pilon May 12, 2009 at 11:08 pm

@Jenny

Hi Jenny, unfortunately..yep. We will always have genetically bigger and smaller muscles..compared to other people.

So this change will always be relative to your individual starting point.

Unless you have extra weight you can lose (remember, carrying extra weight is a challenge, especially for your calves)

B

Brad Pilon May 13, 2009 at 12:21 am

@Jack
Hi Jack,

For sure. It is all relative to your current training and the current amount of muscle you are carrying.

B

Brad Pilon May 13, 2009 at 12:26 am

@Nicky
Nicky,

Glad to hear ESE is treating you so well. And you are right – In my opinion you can pick out profit-minded marketing by looking for scaremongering.

If they are trying to scare you into eating a certain way, their looking out for their profits.

B

Brad Pilon May 13, 2009 at 12:27 am

@fion
The more athletic ones, the contestants who do the best or try the hardest in the contests are usually the ones who maintain muscle through the month on the island..go figure.

B

Tim May 13, 2009 at 12:57 am

Brad,

So if you were going on the show Survivor how would you prepare beforehand? Would you load up on calories to gain fat? Or focus on building muscle mass? Or even both?

Cindy May 13, 2009 at 1:02 am

I agree with the article. However, judging from my experience I think there are exceptions. A year ago I used to not eat enough and I saw for myself that you CAN loose muscle even if you workout and train consistently. I think it’s because your body ends up breaking down your muscles. So I guess there is a limit on how low you can go with calories and the amount of time that you restrict them. At the beginning I was gettin very lean and toned and then became more “skinny fat”.

Brad Pilon May 13, 2009 at 3:35 am

@Tim

AWESOME QUESTION!

hmmm…OK let’s assume they keep those people pretty active during the day…so they’re burning a decent amount of calories.

Let’s also assume they get a small amount of calories..maybe going a day or two without food…but I bet they have some sort of legal responsibility to feed them a bit…so lets guess 1,200 calories per day must the average of 7 days.

I think I would actually try to up my fat mass SLIGHTLY…just to make sure I some extra energy in case I need it, AND because if you show up on that show looking strong an athletic, you get voted off pretty quickly..

Although, considering I enjoying pointing out when people are lying, tricking, misleading, or otherwise spreading nonsense, I think I would probably be the first person voted off!

B

Omar May 13, 2009 at 4:22 am

I like these posts best, Brad. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and challenging convention.

Omar May 13, 2009 at 4:33 am

Rodger Dewing :
trueness!! and not being brainwashed is the freedm to exercise when ever and kno that we cant kill our muscles so easily. Loads of bullshiut out out there right? It uised to affect me alot, and I wouldnt workout if i didnt have a protien shake or sometihng, now i gohard and since i bought the book, i break records on my fast days! That is power, becasue im not controlled by fear nomore.

I second Roger’s comments. I am also enjoying the freedom to workout when convenient instead of around meal times. I also feel liberated not having to rely on frequent meals or supplements. My gym performance and physique are still getting better and better.

Chris May 13, 2009 at 7:12 am

Hey Brad,
Quick question: (I don’t know if it was covered in the post or maybe I just misread) what are we basing the break down/losing of muscle on concerning exercise, or more to the point, exactly “what” kind of exercise we are talking about being performed?
For instance, long distance endurance runners, cyclists, triathletes, etc, are very soft looking, muscle wasting over calorie consuming machines.
I know you promote resistance training (thank god) but these studies that were brought up in your post, what type exercise was being followed. I’ve worked in gyms for sometime now and have seen people “waste” muscle by under consuming and spending “hours” (or just way too long) in the oxidative pathway. In fact, despite being over fed or underfed being in the oxidative pathway for too long WILL waste muscle. This is based off of the anaerobic vs. aerobic argument. Ultimately this only supports your program of being able to use short bouts of intense exercise and fasting to obtain increases across domains.

Brad Pilon May 13, 2009 at 8:52 am

Hi Chris,

Good point it was weight training. So the muscle response is specific to the challenge. Excellent point.

B

Abid Hussain May 15, 2009 at 4:54 pm

It is an excellent idea and I am fully agreed with the point. We can lose muscle only if we are not using it.

Chris May 15, 2009 at 8:32 pm

Hi Brad,

these are all great comments, clearly the subject has interested us all. in many ways this flies in the face of the stuff we read and hear about diet and starvation. Your book makes clear that skipping a meal here and there will not result in loss of muscle or slowed BMR. My experinence doing fasts twice a week proves it to me.

However with this constant reinforcement of the ‘don’t eat too little or your BMR will drop’ i cannot help but ask if there is any scientific proof that consuming a low calorie diet short term or long term will result in a lower BMR.

The example i am using to people it this. i have lived in islamic countries before. during the month of ramahadan they fast during the day and consume large amounts of calories at night and early morning – often in high carb/fat comfort foods. this is exactly what we are told will result in weight gain – however i have never seen anyone gain weight in the holy month (some regain weight in the festivities after but all end the month down).

is this myth completely busted or is there some truth to it. sorry for the long post.

Brad Pilon May 15, 2009 at 9:26 pm

@Chris

From my review of the evidence 72 hour without food will not change BMR. Not in men or women, obese or lean.

Starvation for long periods of time that result in significant loses of body fat, then eventually muscle and organ mass will result in decreases in BMR beyond that which you would expect from a simple mathematical equation relating BMR to muscle.

This is believed to be due to the wasting of actual organ tissue resulting in altered organ performance.

This is why I like to refer to this phenomena as ‘wasting” and not ‘starvation mode’

To get to this level of wasting, we would need to examine concentration camp victims or end-stage periods of prolonged and drastic weight loss from eating disorders.

B

Shayna May 18, 2009 at 2:46 am

Hi Brad, Ive been reading a lot about eat stop eat and reading a lot of your blog going back almost a year (I love to read and am a pretty quick reader) I am 99.9% sure I am going to try ESE coming up soon. I just have a question as a former rugby and soccer player during my teen years I built up a lot of now unwanted muscle in basically all of my legs and even in my arms. I want to loose it, I went to be as lean-slim as my physical body structure will allow. Short of casting your entire body is there anyway to loose muscle on purpose? Is it just a matter of not working that muscle group?

Hasnain Patel May 18, 2009 at 2:59 pm

This article is a good read for anyone trying to get in shape. But what would be the reason for losing muscle? Why would anyone want to do that is the question?
But I did notice that in the previous two years the exertion on my muscles has affected its mass from time to time but not due to any body building as such.

John May 20, 2009 at 10:37 am

Shayna,

I actually coached a girl who was a two sport varisty athlete and had the same issue as you so we worked out a simple exercise program for shrinking some big muscles. She wanted to make her thighs arms and back smaller.

As Brad correctly states disuse is a sure fire way to make a muscle get smaller. However long duration low intensity use is another way of forcing a muscle to get smaller.

You’re muscles do have an overiding theme of adaptation for efficiency. In other words, if you take up long duration low intensity activites like jogging you might actually be able to shrink down the big muscles of your legs.

This is an adaptation response your body has to the constant low level intensity use. Your body is trying to feed the muscle with blood, and since it doesn’t need the muscles to be so big and strong any more it learns to bring down the total size of the muscle so it can adequately feed it with oxygen and blood. hence why distance runners have that “skinny fat look”. but in most of their cases they never had the muscle mass you currently have. In your case you’ll just look nice and lean, and toned as you bring down your muscle size.

I basically put this girl on a program of ESE with moderate calories on her eat days, and then she stopped all of her heavy weight training and started running 3-4 times per week and only did 1-2 upper body only weight workouts. We cut all of her sets back by about 40% and dropped the amount of weight she used during each set by about 50%, and upped her reps into the 15-20 rep range.

She took regular mesurements of the muscles she wanted to make smaller and by the end of the summer she had lost a couple inches off her thighs, and an inch off of her arms, and a few inches off her back, everthing! So its definitely possible.

John

Titanius Anglesmith of Cornwood May 24, 2009 at 5:41 am

Mr. Pilon:

If I wanted to lose leg muscle in the shortest time possible, what would be fastest?

a) Your way (sit in a wheelchair), or
b) Rusty’s way–
http://fitnessblackbook.com/muscle-building/how-to-lose-muscle-mass-on-purpose/

I really need to lose leg muscle for a variety of reasons but don’t want to go down the wrong path for too long.
Thanks in advance,
–TBG

Brad Pilon May 26, 2009 at 12:32 am

@Titanius Anglesmith of Cornwood

I think both methods are essentially the same, decrease the amount the muscles are challenged and they will react by shrinking in size until they are the appropriate size to sufficiently meet the challenge placed upon them.

While that could be the worst sentence I have ever typed, I hope you get the idea.

The less of a strength challenge that is chronically place on the muscle, the less that muscle needs to be ‘big’

B

nathan September 11, 2009 at 8:06 pm

@John

So John, if i was doing lots of sprinting, and jogging aswell. Would that mean my legs would be smaller than if i were just sprinting?

Wilson September 26, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Brad, if for example I keep an arm in a cast for lets say 5 days a week, that leaves us with two days of using that arm for just daily essential things (no training). Would the arm keep shrinking in muscle mass until that kind of life style is changed, or would it shrink to a level where it would just stay stationary to cope with that amount of challenge placed on the muscle group? If this is the case, and the person wants to lose more muscle, then this person must extend the days in a row in which he/she must put their arm in a cast, right?

Also, does casting someone’s arm, lets say 5 days, irregularly (for example, casting every second day adding up to 5 days)
create the same shrinking effect as someone casting their arm for 5 days in a row? Which is more effective for muscle loss in your opinion?

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