Physique training is more popular than ever. At the same time, misconceptions about how to get maximally lean and fit are widespread. These myths are such a problem that “broscience” is a popular term in the training world to identify the many pseudoscience-based nutrition practices that have taken on a life of their own.
A recent review solves this, providing evidence-based recommendations for getting lean, strong, and cut without compromising your health or well being. This article will highlight the most worthwhile points, while calling your attention to pitfalls that can cause more metabolic trouble than they are worth.
#1: Adjust for “Starvation Mode”
Competitive bodybuilders traditionally follow 2 to 4 month diets in which calories are decreased and energy expenditure is increased to become as lean as possible. Although fat loss is generally the top priority, muscle maintenance is a primary concern.
A 500-calorie daily deficit theoretically results in fat loss of one pound per week if the weight loss comes entirely from body fat. However, this mathematical model does not accurately represent the complexity of metabolic function when dieting.
The body adapts metabolically and down regulates the amount of energy that is burned daily by as much as 504 calories a day, according to research studies of the overweight.
A study of non-overweight men who cut calories by 50 percent for 24 weeks to lose a quarter of their body mass had a 40 percent reduction in energy expenditure. Of that 40 percent reduction, 25 percent was due to weight loss, while 15 percent was due to metabolic adaptation.
Take Away: The calorie intake at which one begins a diet will likely need to be reduced over time as body mass decreases and metabolic adaptation occurs.
#2: Use A Longer, Slower Fat Loss Phase To Retain More Muscle
The muscle mass lost when dieting is influenced by the size of the energy deficit. Greater deficits yield greater weight loss, but the percentage of weight loss from lean mass is much greater too.
For example, among athletes, those in a moderate deficit group (about 450 calories a day) had a weekly weight loss rate of 0.7 percent and lost a total of 31 percent body fat while gaining 2.1 percent lean mass, but it took them 9 weeks to lose the weight. A faster weight loss group had a severe deficit (about 900 calories a day), and lost a small amount of lean mass and less fat (21 percent body fat reduction) in 5 weeks.
A second study found that weekly weight loss of 1 kg compared to 0.5 kg over 4 weeks resulted in a 5 percent decrease in bench press strength and a 30 percent reduction in testosterone levels in trained women.
Therefore, weight loss rates that are more gradual are generally superior for muscle mass retention.
Take Away: Longer dieting periods (closer to 4 months) that produce 0.5 to 1 percent weekly bodyweight loss are better for preserving muscle than more aggressive diets.
#3: Go High In Protein—2.3 to 3.1 g/kg/ Lean Body Mass
A number of factors increase protein needs for leaner athletes:
- The amount of energy deficit
- Extra cardio in addition to lifting
- Leanness—the leaner you are the more protein you need
- The need to reduce hunger and improve satiety
Put together, these factors increase protein needs beyond current recommendations of 1.2 to 2.2 g/kg required when calories are adequate.
Take Away: Though not definitive due to many different factors, a protein intake of 2.3 to 3.1 g/kg is recommended when cutting calories.
#4: Adjust Carbs To Avoid Reduced Performance, Low Hormones, Etc.
Higher protein-to-carb ratios tend to improve satiety and fat loss. However there are some drawbacks to going too low in carbs:
- A low carb intake can lead to reduced performance since muscle glycogen can become depleted.
- Lower carb intakes may lead to a loss of lean mass when dieting. A study that provided 51 percent of the diet from carbs and 2.3 g/kg/bw of protein lost an average of 0.3 kg of lean mass, whereas a diet that provided 27 percent of the diet from carbs and 2.4 g/kg/bw of protein lost 0.9 kg.
- Lack of carbs may contribute to metabolic slowdown and negative hormonal adaptations.
Take Away: Adjust macros based on priorities. High-protein intake improves satiety for fat loss, whereas adequate carbs can prevent metabolic and hormonal slowdown. For carb-sensitive trainees, cycling carbs can prevent the negative effects of a lower carb intake.
#5: Keep Fat Intake As High As Possible When Restricting Calories
A low fat intake appears to lead to lower testosterone. If a reduction in fat intake is used when dieting, maintaining adequate consumption of saturated fat may minimize the drop in testosterone.
Take Away: If you choose to cut calories by reducing fat intake when dieting, minimize any ill effects by getting adequate saturated fat to reduce the drop in T.
#6: Ketogenic Diets May Be Useful For Insulin Resistant Trainees
Research on the use of low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diets among bodybuilders is sparse, however, the evidence that exists challenges the belief that carbs are necessary to maintain performance.
Ketogenic diets require an adaptation period for the body to develop the metabolic machinery necessary for fat burning. Once this happens, intramuscular triglycerides are used during exercise and are able to supply energy at a rate sufficient to power a weight training workout.
Take Away: Make the effort to get fat adapted. By increasing fat burning and decreasing insulin resistance, it gives you the freedom to go low in carbs without compromising performance.
#7: Distribute Protein Evenly At Meals & Reach Daily Intake Goals
Most important for the maintenance of lean muscle mass is to achieve a high total protein intake daily and distribute that intake as evenly as possible throughout the day—generally with 3 to 6 meals.
Don’t worry about having 10 meals a day! The popular belief that smaller, more frequent meals will raise metabolism is not based on the evidence. In fact, research suggests that extreme lows (with long periods of fasting) or extreme highs (more than 6 meals day) may jeopardize body composition.
Take Away: Most important is to reach protein totals daily. Specifically, get the 20-gram threshold dose of protein containing at least 3 grams of leucine with meals spaced every 3 to 4 hours throughout the day. Avoid fasting and very high meal frequencies.
#8: Worthwhile Supplements: Creatine, HMB, BCAAs
Creatine has been called the most ergogenic and safe supplement that is legally available. Studies consistently show lean mass and performance gains when taking creatine when weight training.
HMB is a metabolite of the amino acid leucine and it may be particularly effective for bodybuilders during planned over-reaching phases because it decreases catabolism and increases muscle protein synthesis. It may also be useful in dieting phases, although this hasn’t been investigated in a long-term study yet.
BCAAs are comprised of leucine, valine, and isoleucine. Leucine has been found to “kickstart” muscle protein synthesis, however ingestion of leucine alone can lead to depletion of plasma valine and isoleucine so all three should be consumed together.
Take Away: Supplements can be useful in certain situations to preserve lean mass and support body composition when energy intake is restricted.
#9: Make Your Diet Robust To Faults
Micronutrients such as vitamin D, zinc, calcium, magnesium, and iron are essential to for hormonal health. Studies show that bodybuilders tend to be deficient in these micronutrients, likely due to elimination of food groups, but current research is lacking.
Take Away: Get a blood test to identify individual micronutrient deficiencies and supplement accordingly.
#10: Use Extreme Caution With Dehydration
It’s common to reduce water and electrolyte intake in order to enhance muscle definition. Whether this practice “works” hasn’t been studied, but it may be dangerous, leading to extreme dehydration and low sodium levels.
Furthermore, dehydration could actually degrade appearance considering that a large percentage of muscle tissue mass is water and dehydration could lead to reduced muscle size.
In addition, extracellular water is not only present in the subcutaneous layer but also in the vascular system. Therefore, dehydration could compromise the “muscle pump” that is achieved by light, repetitive weight lifting.
Take Away: Dehydration and electrolyte manipulation are certainly dangerous and have the potential to worsen appearance. Avoid these practices.