With so many articles floating around the internet on how to build monster muscle mass or add pounds to a skinny frame, muscle loss is something most folk don’t even consider.
After all, preventing muscle loss seems kind of pathetic when we all just want to get bigger all the time, right?
Why concern ourselves simply with preventing losses in lean tissue when we could be focusing instead on getting hench and jacked?
Well, in an ideal world, we’d always be getting bigger and adding size, but this isn’t an ideal world, and there are two scenarios where actually, you’re far better off simply trying to preserve your gains and minimise losses in strength than actively looking to build.
Why You’ll Get Smaller
The two scenarios where minimising muscle loss should be your main concern are –
- When dieting
- When you’re injured
Looking at the first, you’re more likely to lose muscle when you diet, as you’ll be eating in a calorie deficit.
Unless you’re a newbie trainer who’s lifting weights for the first time, you’re coming back from a long lay-off, or you’re drastically increasing your training frequency and volume, you simply can’t build muscle in a deficit.
That’s not to say that you WILL lose muscle when dieting, just that it’s far more likely, especially if you don’t employ the methods used in this article.
Your body does like having muscle, but not as much as it likes being alive! So those calories you eat will be more likely to be used for essential functions, such as keeping your metabolism ticking over, fuelling your organs, and keeping digestion, respiration and circulation ticking over, hence, fewer will be given to muscle mass, putting you at a greater risk of atrophy.
As for the injury aspect, clearly, when you’re injured, you either won’t be able to train a body part (or parts) or, at best, you won’t be able to train them as hard. Without that stimulus, the muscle doesn’t really have as much need to stay around, giving rise to that phrase “use it or lose it.”
How Much Will You Lose?
Before you start freaking out, don’t worry.
The amount of muscle you’ll actually lose is pretty minimal, especially if you’ve been consistent in your training so far. It’s also relative to the length of your lay off.
In fact, if you’re going to be out of the gym for less than 3 weeks, I wouldn’t even be worried about losing mass. You might lose a little strength, as your nervous system becomes slightly deconditioned, yet this will be back to full force within a week of starting again. But as for muscle – it won’t leave you in such a short time frame.
If you’re going to be severely dieting, or completely off training for more than that, then worst case scenario would be around a pound or two of muscle loss per month. But that’s if you don’t take the steps to prevent it.
If you use the following 3 tips, you don’t need to stress over losing muscle. Heck – you might even build some!
Tip #1 – Keep Protein High
This is by far the most important factor.
A higher protein intake will guarantee muscle losses are kept to a minimum, and it’s why whenever I start myself or one of my clients off on a cutting phase, I automatically increase protein intake.
0.8-1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day is fine, but when you’re in a deficit, I’d make 1 gram per pound the absolute minimum you shoot for, even going as high as 1.2-1.5 grams per pound.
A recent study from Eric Helms found that 2.3-3.1 grams per kilogram per day (1.05-1.4 grams per pound) was optimal for bodybuilders in a deficit. (1)
Tip #2 – Keep Training (But Specialise)
If you can train … train!
Okay, your knee might be jacked up, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work your upper body.
Torn pec? Well chest exercises might be out of the question, and even squatting and deadlifting could be off the menu, but why can’t you carry on with a machine-based leg routine?
If one or two body parts are out of action, consider focusing on others for a while with a specialisation split.
This would involve training a muscle group three to four times a week, with a high volume and high frequency.
Your body will have more reserves to put into recovery for this area, and so even if you do lose some mass in your injured muscles, you can make up for it by building those uninjured ones you’re specialising on.
Tip #3 – Occlusion Training
Occlusion training (also known as blood flow restriction training) was designed for this very purpose.
Initially, researchers found that muscle loss was drastically slowed in bed-ridden patients who wore tourniquets to restrict blood flow to their lower limbs, and since then, it’s been shown to be beneficial in athletic populations too.
The beauty of BFR is that you can go seriously light, yet still preserve (and build) muscle. Hence why, even if a lower-body injury stops you from squatting and deadlifting heavy, then occluded leg extensions, curls, presses and calf work is a godsend.
You only need to use around 20-30% of your one-rep max, but this can shoot muscle growth through the roof.
Persevere to Preserve
Don’t see being injured or the dieting process as a death sentence in terms of losing mass – you really can preserve your gains pretty effectively, provided you use these 3 tips.
A last couple of pointers would be that whatever you do, stay consistent and don’t get too drastic. When dieting, you’ll keep more muscle by giving yourself more time and going slow, than enforcing some extreme calorie cut or embarking on a fad diet.
Play the long game, and realise that even if you do lose a few pounds of lean mass now, with a consistent approach and hard work, you’ll get those back in no time at all once you’re fully recovered.