In the past, I’ve tended to cut too hard, too fast. I would be holding a decent amount of muscle, but because I was impatient and felt that more was better, I found myself depriving my body of calories and doing way too much cardio. Now – I’m not saying cardio is bad, but if you’re doing marathons every day with a low caloric intake, don’t expect to hold on to all of your muscle mass. Whether you achieve this caloric deficit through cardio, weight training, or harsh dieting – this is not the optimal way to lose body fat!
The General Rule
1.5-2 lbs per week is a slow enough pace that will allow you to lose body fat, but keep your lean muscle mass, for the most part. Fasting occasionally will not have too much of a negative impact on the preservation of muscle, as long as you generally are at a slight deficit in calories on a daily and weekly basis. If you’re going to be competing in a show and only have 16 or so weeks to prepare, expect to be no more than 30 lbs above your expected contest weight(this can change depending on how much you weigh/will compete at). Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to be somewhat lean before you even start preparing for a competition in order to save as much muscle as possible. Some people will even do a “pre-diet” diet, where they’ll follow a less severe diet to get the bodyfat levels down to 16-week-out condition, then proceed with the contest preparation.
Focus on a caloric deficit. First and foremost, and more important than consumption of certain macro nutrients, meal timing, etc, is the total amount of calories you’re consuming (or not consuming). If you calculate that you’re burning about 3,000 calories per day with weight training and cardio included, then aim to consume slightly less than that number. There is no ‘magic number’, so you’ll need to pay attention to how many calories, generally, that your body needs to maintain weight, and may need to adjust it and drop the calories more or less depending on progress.
As you continue to drop weight, you’ll most likely notice that while you may have set your caloric intake to 2,500 while your maintenance was at 3,000, that your progress has halted. If you’ve dropped a good deal of weight, your metabolism is most likely adjusting to what it currently needs to operate on. This is why a petite woman might only need 1,000-2,000 calories to maintain her bodyweight, while a 300 lb off-season bodybuilder might drop weight very quickly by consuming 5,000 calories per day. As mentioned earlier, you’ll need to adjust calories sometimes to re-vamp your progression, and might need to lower the calories a bit more. Alternatively, if you’re losing weight too quickly, you might want to increase the calories to slow down the process more. Remember, the main purpose of slow dieting is to preserve as much muscle as possible.
Keep your protein intake high. Protein is regarded as being the most important macronutrient in regards to preserving muscle, just as important as it is for gaining muscle. Protein helps increase protein synthesis and acts as a muscle sparing substrate, since it can be used for glucogensis, or the synthesis of glucose. Another important factor in keeping high protein intake is that the body prefers to store amino acids than oxidize them as protein oxidation. Protein oxidation has been shown to yield less ATP per amino acid when compared to fat or carbohydrates. In translation, dietary protein may have a thermogenic effect on the body. A good recommendation for the amount of protein intake for each body type is as follows, as stated by Natural Bodybuilder Layne Norton:
Mesomorphs – 1.2-1.4g/lb of bodyweight
Ectomorphs – 1.4-1.6g/lb of bodyweight
Endomorphs – 1.4g-1.5g/lb of bodyweight
The destruction of one’s metabolism is often seen by many contest prep coaches keeping their clients on an extremely large caloric deficit. Some may have their clients doing hours and hours of cardio per day, eating less than one thousand calories while doing so. It is important to keep your metabolism in check and to occasionally introduce ”re-feed” days into your program to restore a hormone called leptin, which is the most influential hormone for burning fat. Leptin levels drop as we diet as an attempt to spare fat, and occasionally re-feeding by taking a day to increase the total calories and carbohydrate consumption, these levels can be boosted to keep the metabolism up to speed.
Why Slow Dieting Will Yield The Best Results
Some may let small factors influence their decisions and become impatient, especially in regards to dieting. Factors such as one’s bodyweight, while may be an important guideline, is often overemphasized. Since the main goal in dieting is to preserve as much muscle as possible, when you tend to lose weight by dieting very slowly and systematically, you may become ancy when you’re only seeing a pound or two off the scale per week. But, have you ever seen how much mass 1-2 pounds of PURE body fat is? If you can successfully remove 10 lbs of pure body fat from your body by implementing an effective diet that is slow enough to preserve muscle, the results will be more dramatic than if you lost 20 lbs with a crash diet, due to the fact that you still have your muscle mass in tact. You will appear leaner, and will most likely have maintained a lot more strength on your gym lifts compared to the crash diet.
Keep Your Bodyfat Low While Bulking
It is natural that you’re going to gain a little bit of bodyfat while bulking, just like it’s expected to lose a little bit of muscle while dieting. To make the dieting process easier and more effective, remember not to let yourself get too high on body fat while attempting to bulk – or go through a phase where more calories are consumed to increase muscle mass. Keep your calories at a slight overhead, or pretty much opposite to how you would approach a dieting phase. Muscle and strength can sill be gained while keeping body fat levels low. As with slow dieting, these things take time. Bodybuilding is not a race, it’s a marathon.