Avoid Losing Muscle Mass while on a Weight Loss Program

In general, weight loss is a good thing. As the CDC notes, even losing 5–10% of your total body weight can lower blood pressure, bad cholesterol and blood sugar.

However, one downside to weight loss is it often means losing muscle tissue, which not only burns more calories at rest than fat, but also helps give your body shape and functional ability. In fact, you can expect a whopping 20–30% of the weight you lose by cutting calories will come from muscle, according to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

That is, unless you take steps to prevent muscle loss. Here’s what to do to hold onto muscle tissue:

EAT MORE PROTEIN

One of the first things you should do if you’re trying to lose fat without compromising existing muscle is boost your daily protein intake.

According to a paper from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), increasing your protein intake from the recommended 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day (g/kg/day) to 1.2–2.4g/kg/day, while also restricting calories (30–40% reduction), can maximize fat loss while maintaining existing muscle.

As an example, this means a 185-pound person who consumes roughly 101–202 grams of protein per day can theoretically maintain muscle even when cutting overall caloric intake by 30–40%. (Divide your bodyweight by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms, then multiply by 1.2 and 2.4 to get your daily protein range in grams.)

In fact, increasing protein intake may even help you gain muscle while following a calorie-restricted diet — that is, so long as you’re also lifting weights (more on this shortly).

In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers had 40 overweight young men follow a diet that was either lower in protein (1.2g/kg/day) or higher in protein (2.4g/kg/day), and perform a combination of strength training and HIIT six days per week. Though the two groups consumed different amounts of protein, both followed a hypocaloric (low-calorie) diet that reduced their estimated caloric needs by 40%.

By the end of four weeks, the higher-protein group not only lost more fat than the lower-protein group (10.6 pounds versus 7.7), but they also gained roughly 2.6 pounds of muscle, whereas the lower-protein group added none.

So, how do you go about increasing your protein intake? As with any macronutrient, you’ll want to look to whole-food sources first, and turn to protein supplements if you have trouble meeting your needs. “I’m a fan of supplementation to enhance a fundamentally-sound diet,” says Michael D. Roberts, PhD, associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and director of the Molecular and Applied Sciences Laboratory at Auburn University. As he notes, protein supplements aren’t any better at creating an anabolic (muscle-building) response than other protein sources with a similar amino acid profile (amino acids make up protein), but they may be a more practical option for people who struggle to get adequate protein.

Great whole-food sources of protein include eggs, nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews), beans (edamame, black, pinto), Greek yogurt, seeds (sunflower, pumpkin), cottage cheese, lentils and meat and seafood (tuna, salmon, beef, turkey).

The ISSN recommends spreading protein intake evenly throughout your day, and aiming to replenish every 3–4 hours.

LIFT WEIGHTS

In addition to boosting your daily protein intake, performing regular resistance exercise can help you maintain — and even gain — muscle while you shed fat.

“[Weight training] is crucial,” Roberts says. “There is plenty of evidence supporting the notion that weight training can preserve muscle during dieting.”

Resistance training breaks your muscles down, which stimulates a process known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS) or the repair of muscles. Provided you have enough protein, this repair process helps your muscles heal — and grow back bigger and stronger.

Research published in the American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism even shows performing resistance exercise after following a low-calorie diet for five days can stimulate MPS to reach pre-diet levels. And when subjects also ingested 15–30 grams of protein post-exercise, their MPS levels were 16 and 34% greater than their resting level before they started their diet.

A recent review reveals strength training helped elderly obese subjects maintain muscle while following a calorie-restricted diet and losing the same amount of fat as those who didn’t strength train.

If you’re new to strength training, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends starting with 2–3 sessions per week. After six months of consistent work, you have the option to add another weekly session. Prioritise compound movements like squats, deadlifts, chest presses, bent-over rows and shoulder presses.

DON’T OVERDO CARDIO

Cardio exercise (running, cycling, swimming) can certainly help you lose fat (alongside a healthy diet, of course). In fact, according to the authors of a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, aerobic training appears to be the best exercise method for losing fat.

Not to mention, cardio activity offers a variety of other health benefits to make it worth your time. Running, for example, may lower your risk of death from heart disease by 45%, according to a long-term study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Where cardio might get you into trouble is if you take it to the extreme, all in the hopes of shedding fat: “Many folks’ go-to for losing weight is drastically cutting calories and running miles upon miles every day of the week,” Roberts says.

Instead of running yourself ragged — and risking muscle loss in the process — stick to a combined cardio and strength-training approach. Roberts suggests doing cardio and strength training on separate days.

You might also consider doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in place of traditional moderate-intensity cardio, as HIIT likely takes less time.

Ways To Push Past a Muscle-Building Plateau

Few things are more frustrating to a dedicated weightlifter than stalled muscle growth. Even if you don’t plan on becoming a bodybuilder, it’s nice to see (and flex) the results of all your hard work in the gym.

Thankfully, there are a few simple training tweaks you can make that will get you back on your muscle-building path.

INCREASE YOUR VOLUME

One of the best ways to encourage muscle growth is to add training volume (also known as workload), as shown by a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Sports Sciences. The authors found that as training volume increased, muscle gains increased as well.

You can increase volume by adding more sets and reps of an exercise, and/or adding an entirely new exercise. Just make sure the increases are gradual to ensure safety and confidence, says Chris Ryan, certified strength and conditioning specialist, former Division I athlete and owner of Chris Ryan Fitness. Try adding one set to every exercise in your workout; see how you do at that volume for at least two weeks before increasing again. Or, add an entirely new exercise, and wait at least two weeks before adding sets or reps.

Finally, keep in mind you can’t continue adding reps, sets and exercises forever. (Otherwise, you’d never leave the gym.) You should also add weight as you feel able, and look to additional training methods (below) to challenge your body.

CHANGE YOUR EXERCISES

If you’ve been doing the same routine for months, consider switching things up. “If it’s the same boring stuff, your body’s going to get bored physically,” Ryan says. Give your muscles (and your brain) a new stimulus to pay attention to, and you may encourage new muscle growth.

That said, don’t think this means making drastic changes to your training plan. If you usually do Bulgarian split squats, for example, you could simply swap these for another single-leg squat variation, like skater squats or even deficit Bulgarian split squats (front foot elevated roughly 2–4 inches). If you’ve been doing bent-over dumbbell rows, use a barbell instead, or try seated cable rows.

SLOW YOUR REPS

Another important component of muscle growth is time under tension or how long your muscles resist weight during a given rep or set.

Research published in The Journal of Physiology suggests slowing your reps — thereby increasing time under tension — leads to greater increases in muscle protein synthesis (the process of building and repairing muscle fibers) after a workout than lifting at a normal pace.

This is because lifting at a slower tempo is more challenging and creates more damage to the muscle tissues: “Ten reps done fast, versus 10 reps done slowly with the same amount of weight, is a totally different ball game,” says Mike Clancy, a certified strength and conditioning specialist. “The more tension you put into a muscle, and the more that you continue to rip the fibers, that’s when they continue to grow and build in strength and size.” (Provided you’re refueling with the proper nutrition, of course.)

Slow your reps by lowering the weight on a two- or three-count and raising it on a two- or three-count. If you’re doing a back squat, for example, take 2–3 seconds to lower into the bottom position and 2–3 seconds to stand back up. Don’t be surprised if you find you need to reduce the weight.

INCREASE YOUR CALORIES

“One of the main principles of putting on muscle is you have to have a surplus of calories,” Clancy says. The reasoning: You need not only enough calories to fuel the lean muscle tissue you already have, but a little bit leftover to fuel the growth of new tissue.

In general, consuming 250–500 additional calories per day should be sufficient, Clancy says. The only trick here is ensuring those extra calories don’t go to your waistline, so make sure they’re coming from quality food sources — not cupcakes and pizza. “Think healthy foods with a concentration of healthy fats and proteins like nuts, meats, avocados, lentils and assorted beans,” Ryan says.

TRY DROP SETS

Drop sets (where you drop the weight as you perform an exercise to failure) are a common bodybuilder strategy for fatiguing target muscles more completely than a standard, or straight set, thereby encouraging greater muscle growth during recovery. That said, a recent paper in the Strength & Conditioning Journal suggests any muscle-building benefits provided by drop sets may simply be due to the fact they add volume to a training session. In other words, you may see the same muscle-building benefits if you add more straight sets to your routine, though drop sets can save you time.

To do a drop set, complete one set of a given exercise to the point of muscular failure, or the point where you can’t do another rep with good form. Then, immediately reduce the weight (typically by 20–25%) and perform as many additional reps as you can with good form. It’s usually best to limit this technique to isolation exercises (e.g., biceps curls, triceps extensions, leg curls) to reduce the risk of injury — especially if you don’t have a training partner.

For example, if you typically use 20-pound dumbbells for 12 reps of biceps curls, you’ll stick to that weight for 12 reps, then immediately reduce it by 4–5 pounds; continue curling with the lighter dumbbells until you can’t complete another rep with good form.

Don’t over-rely on drop sets, however. The authors of the recent paper warn that while you can incorporate this technique into your routine multiple times a week, continuous use increases your risk of overtraining.

3 Functional Health Tests You Should Try

There are many ways to approach your nutrition to help you achieve athletic success and improve overall health. It’s easy to endlessly dive into new food trends, recipes, diets and supplements only to be frustrated and not see any results. Nutrition is a very personalised field, and we’re learning that blindly following someone else’s approach rarely works. The best way to zero in on what may help you progress toward your goals is to get a baseline understanding of your health information so you have a starting point to customise dietary changes suited to your athletic and health goals.

As nutritional science and medical testing advance, there are more ways to analyse personal health, but these three tests are easy to do and provide you with great insight to get started.

 

BLOOD WORK

Getting blood work done is the most effective way to know how your body is currently functioning. It is crucial to go beyond the typical CBC (complete blood count) for usable data. Ask your physician to test for all vitamins, minerals, ferritin, blood glucose, cholesterol profile and endocrine (hormone) markers. Knowing if your cortisol is elevated, HDL is low, B12 is depleted, etc., is the best and most personalised health information you can gather. This information provides indications of mood, fatigue, energy levels and chronic disease risk. Once you have this data, you will be able to proceed toward your goals in a more targeted way.

 

STOOL TESTS

Your microbiome shows the health of your gut, which relates to overall health status. Having your stool analysed can show how well you digest foods (even indicating which foods you can and cannot handle), which bacteria are present and what they’re doing, and if you suffer from leaky gut or other forms of indigestion and malabsorption. Athletes are especially known for having high amounts of GI stress due to restrictive diets, high simple sugar consumption and stress of frequent training. Research into the world of gut health is relatively new, so these tests are still gaining validity and progressing. However, even in their infancy, they can provide essential personalised health data.

 

BODY FAT

BMI tests and the scale alone provide insufficient data to base your health and body composition off. BMI, or body mass index, scoring can show standard ranges for how your weight correlates to your height. It is a simple clinical test used to define under- and overweight status but is mostly useless for athletes. The number on the scale can be useful to see how your body fluctuates, understand hydration levels and trends over time.

However, both fail to show the whole picture of body composition by neglecting to breakdown weight into lean and fatty tissue mass. Body fat testing can provide this insight by understanding how much fat tissue you have. There are several body fat testing methods that are readily available such as the bodpod, caliper measurement and bioelectrical impedance. The bodpod is the most accurate of these and consists of sitting in a small chamber and breathing into a tube for a few minutes. This test is available at many universities, training centers and some physician’s offices for a relatively inexpensive fee. Caliper testing involves someone taking measurements of skinfolds at various points. This test is accurate, but only when repeated several times and completed by a very skilled person as human error can be high. Bioelectrical impedance is a function of handheld devices or advanced scales that is easy to do at home and repeat often. The accuracy might be off by 2–3% compared to the bodpod, but the ability to test often allows you to see instant results and trackable trends.

 

THE BOTTOM LINE

Respiratory quotient, bone density and metabolic assessments are other ways to glean useful information. However, there are many tests to be skeptical of. Consulting a physician and registered dietitian and doing some of your own research is the best way to select which tests are for you and how to put your test results into action toward meeting your health and performance goals.

7 Exercise You Should Avoid

The next time you go to the gym, take a look around: you’ll probably see all kinds of exercises, some good and some not-so-good.

The unfortunate truth is that not all exercises are created equal. Some are incredibly effective at building muscle and melting fat; others are ineffective and can even do more harm than good. (Worse, the bad ones are sometimes very popular.)

Read on for our list of the worst exercises — the ones you should avoid at all costs. If you currently have them in your exercise routine, try our alternatives, which are far more effective and take your body to the next level.

1. SITUPS AND CRUNCHES

Situps and crunches are as old-school as it gets: You see them in PE class, boot camps and military training around the world. But get ready for some big news because these tummy exercises aren’t effective or good for you.

Your core — which consists of your rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques, transverse abdominis, pelvic floor, etc. — is designed to help your body stabilize and brace against twisting and bending (not generate it).

Situps and crunches, however, eliminate the bracing and put your body into bad positions: You pull your neck forward, round your shoulders, flex your spine and put a lot of stress on your lower back. (It also goes without saying that you should avoid the situp machine too for those reasons.)

Instead, choose ab exercises that help you maintain a good posture throughout the exercise. If you want to take your core strength to the next level and get washboard abs, try our super effective 14-day plank challenge: It uses many different variations to blast your midsection from different angles to test your muscles (and your mind).

2. SMITH MACHINE EXERCISES

With the exception of the inverted row, avoid all exercises on the Smith machine. It seems safe because the bar has a lock that activates when you let go, but it puts your body in unnatural positions because the bar only moves in a straight, rigid line, which is not how you move in real life.

Also, because the bar follows a straight path, you don’t get to improve your stability or balance and you won’t get the same muscle gains you’d like. Researchers found that free-weight squatsand free-weight bench presses activated more muscles than doing the same exercise on a Smith machine.

Stick to the free-weight version of your exercise: barbell squat, dumbbell bench press, etc. You’ll get more overall benefits and build more muscle and strength.

 

3. SEATED TWIST MACHINE

Remember what we said about how the core is supposed to move? Well, the vertebrae of your spine at your lower back can only twist 13 degrees in each direction, which is tinier than one hour on a clock. But the seated twist machines actually crank your body well beyond that range-of-motion.

If you want to improve your rotational strength, try the kneeling Palloff press. Get on both knees and set a cable handle to chest height. Facing perpendicular to the cable, bring the handle to your chest, and push it straight forward. Do it facing both ways. You have to brace your trunk to resist twisting and turning, which fires your core and keeps your spine in a safe position.

 

4. SUPERMANS

You might see these done in gyms or even physical therapy centers in an effort to “strengthen” your lower back. But the problem is it cranks your lower back into hyperextension while putting tremendous load and compression onto your lumbar spine. (Most people have a lower back that’s already too extended, which creates something called “lordosis.”)

Substitute supermans with another exercise if it’s a part of your current fitness program. Instead of directly targeting your lower back, focus on strengthening your entire trunk — back, abs, obliques, etc. — with core exercises where you maintain great posture throughout.

Try the single-arm farmers carry: Grab a heavy dumbbell in one hand, keep your chest up and shoulder blades squeezed, then walk. Maintain a neutral lower back and don’t arch excessively.

 

5. BACK EXTENSIONS

The back extension machine tries to strengthen your lower back by repeatedly flexing and extending it, which can cause problems. Worse, a lot of people hold a weight plate behind their head or at their chest, which further increases the stress on your spine.

 

6. UPRIGHT ROW

This popular exercise targets your shoulders and traps. Unfortunately, it’s one of the worst exercises you can do for your shoulders because it impinges your shoulder joints. The upright row actually forces you to internally rotate your shoulders and pull a heavy weight while in a poor position, which can lead to all kinds of problems.

Instead, to build strong and wide shoulders, replace upright rows with the dumbbell overhead press. It targets your upper body without adding unnecessary (and impinging) stress to your shoulder joint.

 

7. BEHIND-THE-NECK LAT PULLDOWNS OR BEHIND-THE-NECK PRESSES

Avoid any upper-body exercise where you pull or push from behind your neck because it puts tremendous strain on your shoulders. In a behind-the-neck position, your shoulders are almost at their maximal limit on extension in those positions — throwing weight on top of it just adds more strain to a fragile area.

Always do lat pulldowns, chin-ups, pullups, etc. toward your collar bones; if you’re going to press a weight overhead, start with the barbell at your collar bone or use dumbbells or kettlebells.

5 Ways to Keep the Treadmill Interesting

Treadmill walking is a great low-impact cardio workout that can help with weight loss and help improve your mood. However, it can be easy to get in a rut if you spend too much time on the machine without changing up your routine.

To keep things interesting and prevent your treadmill walking from becoming mundane, use these 5 tips to make the time fly:

 

LISTEN TO MUSIC

Walking on the treadmill doesn’t require you to pay as much attention to your surroundings compared to walking outdoors. Because you can zone out without worrying about things like cars and crosswalks, music is a great way to add some energy to your workout. Create a playlist or two with your favorite tunes and your 30-minute workout will be over before you know it. If music doesn’t seem to hold your attention, you can also try a podcast or audiobook instead.

 

INCREASE SPEED DURING COMMERCIALS

Catching up on your favorite shows while walking can be another great option to burn calories while partaking in an otherwise sedentary pastime. To get more bang for your buck, use the commercials breaks to speed things ups.

For the 2–3 minutes you’re away from your show, crank up the speed or incline. Try to get your heart rate up as much as possible and walk as fast as you can tolerate. When the show comes back on, dial it back down to a moderate pace.

 

ALTERNATE MACHINES

For every 10 minutes you walk, hop off and choose one of the other cardio machines available. It could be the stationary bicycle, the rowing machine or the elliptical.

Start out with 5 minutes on one of these machines before you get back on the treadmill. After the next 10 minutes of walking, choose a different machine. This will not only help to fight off boredom, but it’ll also work a larger variety of muscle groups and force you to step outside your comfort zone.

 

GRAB A FRIEND

A training partner can be an excellent way to distract yourself and motivate you to push through a tough workout. In some ways walking with a friend on the treadmill is even better than it is outdoors. You won’t have to worry about working out at the same pace, and the controlled environment with less distractions will make it easier to communicate and catch up.

 

CONCENTRATE ON FORM

Changes in terrain and obstacles can make it difficult to put full concentration on form when walking outdoors. When you are forced inside, take advantage of the treadmill by putting more effort into perfecting your technique. Here are some things you can work on:

  • Posture; Engaging your core, standing tall, rotating your hips forward and keeping your head up are all key to good walking posture.
  • Arm swing; Concentrate on bending your elbows to 90 degrees, keeping the arms close to the body as they swing and not letting the hand cross the midline of the body.
  • Foot placement; Strike the ground with your heel first, rolling through from heel to toe. Emphasise pushing off your toes for power before lifting the leg.
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