“You are cutting? You are going to lose all that muscle that you just worked so hard to gain man.”
“Really? You mean if I try and lean out I am going to get weak and scrawny?”
“Yeah man, that is why I live in the perpetual bulk!”
Conversations just like this one are heard around gyms all across the world. It stems from the notion that when you try and lose fat or go on a cutting cycle you lose a lot of the lean muscle tissue you have worked so hard to build.
While it is true that during periods of sever calorie restriction your muscle mass goes pretty quickly, there are ways to maintain virtually all of your muscle when you are trying to get lean.
Here are 4 things you can do to maintain as much lean muscle tissue as possible while trying to get those abs beach ready or those glutes striated for a competition.
1. Keep Your Protein Intake High
During a “cut” you have to restrict calories which ultimately means lowering your macros. It is important that you remove fat macros and carbohydrate macros and try and spare as much protein as you can.
Why? Because it is clear that ingestion of protein elicits muscle protein synthesis in humans1,2. Now there are good arguments for what type of protein/amino acids are the biggest inducers of muscle protein synthesis but that is superfluous to the point at hand.
It is enough for this argument that as a nutrient, protein elicits an anabolic signal of muscle protein accretion in humans. This effect is robust and reproducible in various populations.
Lets take a look at one of the more recent high protein calorie restriction studies done in the lab of Dr. Stuart Phillips. In this study, the researchers recruited 40 overweight (BMI >25) young men (mean age 23 years old) for this single-blind, prospective trial.3
The participants were randomly assigned to either a high protein (2.4 gkg/day) or control protein (1.2g/kg.day) diet that was energy restricted by approximately 40%.
The participants also began a 6 days/week exercise program for the duration of the study (4 weeks).
When we look at the results of the study, we see, as expected in a 40% calorie restricted diet, that both groups lost body weight with similar weight losses between groups but the lean body mass stayed the same in the control group but increased in the high protein group. Meaning the high protein group lost fat and simultaneously increased lean body mass.
This shows us the possibility of higher protein intakes during periods of calorie restriction.
2. Lift Weights at High Volume
If you want to keep as much muscle as possible during your cut you need to lift weights and you need to do it at high volume. One of the things we have learned a great deal about in the past decade is that your training volume is the biggest dictator of muscle hypertrophy.
To elicit the greatest growth signal from your training you need to maximize your volume through a combination of weight, sets, and reps. Now there does appear to be a U shaped curve where too much stimulus may actually be detrimental and cause more muscle damage than can be repaired during a cut.
This is where the art comes in. Find a volume of training that is heavy enough to elicit some growth (likely 60-85%) and a combination of sets and reps to get a sufficient volume in.
3. Utilize Nutrient Timing
Here is the deal. Nutrient timing isn’t a huge deal when you are in a caloric surplus or bulking. In fact, I would guess it contributes maybe 2.5% at most to your success or failure during most of your training life. During a cut it probably is a bigger factor. I would give it a 5% contributing factor to maintaining muscle mass.
Why would nutrient timing during a cut be more important? Because you want to minimize your loses and maximize any possible muscle building that is going on. If you have a specific allotment of calories during the day you want to make sure they are going towards your main focus: maintaining lean muscle tissue.
While the post-workout window has been shown to be much longer than the old broscience advice of 60 minutes in terms of muscle growth, there is still good reason to try and utilized that post workout environment to get calories in and begin the recovery process faster.
From my perspective it boils down to this central idea. During a cut I am going to do anything I can to spare my lean muscle tissue. If there are any minor tricks or tools I can use to possibly get a little bit better results from my cut I am going to use them. Smart nutrient timing may help reduce the post workout catabolic environment.
Better safe than sorry. Your quads were hard earned, don’t let them slip away.
4. Sleep, Sleep, Sleep
To remix up a phrase from Donny Shankle, “Ya gotta sleep”. Sleep is one of the most important aspects of recovery, no “ifs”, “ands”, or “buts” about it. During a cut your reduced caloric state reduces your recovery capacity, especially the repair and maintenance of muscle tissue.
On average, athletes get significantly less sleep than their non-athletic counterparts and research indicates that by increasing sleep from 6.0-7.2 hours/night to 8 hours/night or more can significantly improve athletic prowess.
Having adequate sleep is going to pay monster dividends to maintaining those 16 inch biceps you curled and ate your way to over the last 12 months.
Here are two tips and tricks to help you improve your sleep:
1) Establish a Routine
Have a set time you go to bed every night. Your body will begin to adapt to the time you go to bed, and the time you awake. This will help keep your sleep stable throughout the week. Even when the weekend rolls around, I highly recommend trying to practice the same sleep patterns as you do during the week (although this can be hard with late night festivities).
2) Establish a sleep friendly environment
This is a crucial point to address. Sleeping in a cool, quite and very dark room is ideal for sleep because any form of blue-light (even from your lighted clock) or sound can affect your sleep.
Most people notice a drastic changes in their sleep when they eliminate those two simple things.
The Wrap Up
Cutting cycles don’t have to result in losing muscle mass. If you are smart and follow this principles you can get shredded while keeping those hard earned biceps and quads.
- Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men.
- Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men.
- Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial