Eat, Lift, and Condition to Lose Fat and Maintain Muscle
By Marc Lewis and Travis Pollen
With summer just around the corner, fat loss and concurrent muscle preservation is on just about everyone’s mind. The trouble is, there’s a whole lot of gimmicky — not to mention conflicting — information out there, especially when it comes to extreme diet and workout methods that supposedly yield lightning fast results.
The truth is that you don’t need to employ a bunch of hocus-pocus or fancy tricks to improve body composition (i.e. lose fat). In fact, just sticking to the tried-and-true basics the majority of the time will absolutely enable you to meet your beach body goals — no crazy diets or trickery needed.
Here are 10 nutrition and training tips to guide your beach body journey.
1. Increase energy expenditure through exercise BEFORE reducing calories.
Why: Energy balance is the main determinant of weight management. An energy surplus equates to an increase in body mass, and an energy deficit equates to a decrease in body mass. The most common mistake people make when attempting to shed fat is simultaneously reducing caloric intake and increasing exercise energy expenditure.
The problem with this strategy is twofold: (1) it creates a magnified energy deficit (i.e. caloric reduction plus increased energy expenditure) and (2) it reduces your “caloric bank.” If you’re in a magnified caloric deficit, you will lose body mass too fast to maintain your hard-earned lean body mass, which in turn will negatively affect your basal metabolic rate (i.e. the amount of energy your body uses for basic life function) (1).
In order to improve body composition, the main goal must be to decrease body fat while keeping caloric intake as high as possible. This will provide you with enough calories to minimize any loss of lean body mass and create a greater caloric bank to draw from to combat plateaus (1).
How: Using an app like MyFitnessPal, identify the number of calories you’re currently taking in. Obtain your body composition by whatever means is available to you (i.e. bioelectrical impedance, skinfold calipers, etc.). Using your body mass along with your body fat percentage, calculate your fat mass vs. fat-free mass. Additionally, identify the number of calories you are taking in to maintain your current body mass. Once you start implementing the training methods presented below, monitor your body composition while maintaining your current caloric intake and using your body mass and body fat as control variables.
2. Implement a small to moderate caloric deficit.
Why: Crash dieting or greatly reducing your daily caloric intake (i.e. >500 kcals per day) negatively impacts your metabolic rate, which ultimately makes it more difficult to reduce body fat and train effectively (2, 3). The magnitude of these negative adaptations are likely proportional to the size of the caloric deficit. Therefore, small to moderate caloric deficits are the way to go for short-term body composition change, as well as for long-term metabolic health (1).
How: When seeking to reduce caloric intake in order to improve body composition, focus on small-to-moderate caloric reductions of 300-500 kcals per day, which equates to a weekly caloric deficit of 2100-3500 kcals, and ultimately, a reduction in body mass by 0.6-1 pounds per week. This pattern of weight loss will assist you in reducing your body fat, while minimizing the loss of lean body mass. As suggested by Trexler et al. (2014), although this may decrease the rate of weight loss, it will attenuate negative adaptations that can challenge body fat reduction.
3. Get your protein.
Why: When attempting to reduce body fat through an energy deficit, increasing your protein intake has been suggested to attenuate losses in lean body mass (4, 5, 6). Additionally, high protein diets (i.e. >25% of your total macronutrients) have been shown to increase satiety and thermogenesis (heat production) (7). In addition, the pattern of protein intake outside of the immediate post-exercise recovery period appears to be important for maximizing myofibrillar protein synthesis (MPS), while inducing a more positive whole body protein balance (5).
How: Protein consumption of approximately 1.8-2.7 g/kg/day have been shown to preserve lean body mass when training in an energy deficit (4, 6). The consumption of approximately 20-25 grams of leucine-rich protein (i.e. chicken, beef, whey protein, eggs, etc) every 3 hours post-exercise has been suggested, along with consuming at least 20 grams prior to sleep (5). This practice will assist in maximizing MPS, which will promote recovery between training sessions by enhancing skeletal muscle remodelling and allowing you to maintain lean body mass.
4. Fuel to train.
Why: The ability to train effectively during each training session is really what builds lean muscle mass, cranks up your metabolic rate, and allows you to burn more calories during the other 23 hours of the day that you’re not training. To train effectively and truly maximize every session, you must be properly fueled. When attempting to reduce body fat, many people utilize calorically restrictive diets that interfere with their ability to maintain adequate training frequency, volume, and intensity. Strength training without the proper fuel blunts leucine uptake by the muscle, mTOR signaling, and ultimately, muscle protein synthesis (8).
How: It is suggested to consume at least 20 grams of leucine-rich protein (i.e. chicken, beef, cottage cheese, whey protein, etc.) at least 60 minutes prior to training, while consuming a mixed meal (i.e. fat, carbohydrate, protein) within 3-4 hours prior to strength training (8). A good rule of thumb is to consume approximately 20-30% of your daily carbohydrate intake (depending on gastrointestinal tolerance) within 3 hours prior to training, which provides adequate energy to train and recover. When performing conditioning early in the day and resistance training in the afternoon, it is vital to refuel fully in order to maximize the cellular signaling that facilitates muscle hypertrophy (8).
5. Condition fueled, not fasted.
Why: The concept of “fasted cardio” is based on the theory that low glycogen levels cause the body to shift energy utilization away from carbohydrates and increase lipolysis in order to mobilize stored fat for energy. Schoenfeld (2011) suggested that even the premise of this concept is flawed, since it considers only the energy utilized during the training session when determining the optimal method for fat loss. As Schoenfeld points out, energy utilization associated with fat burning must be considered over the course of several days, since substrate utilization is determined by multiple factors (9).
Additionally, when attempting to reduce body fat while preserving muscle mass, every bit of muscle tissue matters. It’s been shown that proteolysis (i.e. the breakdown of protein) is increased when performing aerobic exercise in a fasted state (9). Finally, performing any type of high-intensity training, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), in a fasted state will most likely impair performance, thereby blunting the positive effects of the training.
How: Eat before you condition! This doesn’t mean you have to eat for conditioning the same way you would for strength training; it just means that you need to consume at least some protein (i.e. 20-25 grams) and some carbohydrates prior to training. To lose body fat while preserving your hard-earned muscle, consume a mixture of BCAAs and dextrose prior to training.
1. Focus on big-bang-for-the-buck, full-body lifts with sufficient training volume.
Why: For the umpteenth time, spot reduction is a myth! All the sit-ups and curls in the world won’t shed that stubborn belly and arm fat. Sure, isolation exercises can help shape and define a particular muscle. However, they won’t burn calories and melt away the fat that’s hiding those muscles in the same way that full-body, compound movements will. Compound movements provide the hormonal, neural, and cellular adaptations needed to maintain lean body mass, while simultaneously ramping up caloric expenditure. Additionally, compound movements allow you to go heavy (in order to recruit the high threshold motor units that have the highest capacity for growth) and work multiple large muscle groups at once, which in-turn makes for more efficient training.
How: Make multi-joint lifts like the squat, deadlift, hip thrust, lunges, bench press, overhead press, dips, pull-up, and the row the foundation of your program. Perform two or three of these exercises for adequate volume at the beginning of every training session. When training with higher loads, about 25 total reps are optimal (i.e. 5 sets of 5, 4 sets of 6, 8 sets of 3). At lower loads, a total of about 50 reps is the magic number (i.e. 5 sets of 10, 4 sets of 12, 3 sets of 15).
2. Hit a variety of repetition ranges.
Why: One of the most common misconceptions, even among seasoned lifters, is that muscle is built only in the 6-12 repetition range. It is certainly true that a significant portion of hypertrophy (i.e. muscle growth) will occur within this window. However, in order to maximize muscle gains — and trigger each of the various mechanisms of hypertrophy (10) — both lower and higher repetition ranges should also be covered (11).
Moderate- and high-repetition sets will induce muscle damage and metabolic stress (also known as “the pump”), while maintaining the use of high-load, low repetition sets will facilitate the use of greater absolute loads at submaximal intensities. Only when all three strategies are employed in synchrony can we reach our full muscular potential.
How: Not surprisingly, the compound lifts discussed above are ideally suited for all three mechanisms of hypertrophy and repetition ranges. For an in-depth analysis of how to manipulate training variables (sets, reps, tempo, and rest) to invoke the various mechanisms, see Bret and Travis’s recent T-Nation article, “The 3 Essential Workout Methods for Muscle.”
3. Utilize undulating periodization.
Why: Undulating periodization is suggested to be superior to other forms of periodization when peaking for a specific event isn’t a concern (12, 13). To reduce body fat while minimizing losses in muscle, the training program must allow for somewhat frequent variations in training parameters like volume, intensity, rest period, and tempo. These fluctuations will allow for the maximizing all of the factors associated with muscle hypertrophy, while simultaneously giving you the freedom to “auto-regulate” your workout based on other stressors in your life. Undulating periodization also reduces the risk of progress stagnation, which tends to be associated with an overemphasis, or specialization in a certain volume and/or intensity.
How: There are a multitude of undulating periodization schemes. One simple and easy to implement example is daily undulating periodization, which elicits the desired response by cycling through training sessions emphasizing multiple loading schemes over the course of the week. It’s important to note that although the bulk of each session’s sets and reps should be consistent with that particular day’s emphasis, work can also be done in other ranges (i.e. one or two “back-off sets” following heavy strength work).
A sample week of daily undulating periodization might look like this:
4. Incorporate metabolic resistance training for its dual muscle-building and conditioning benefits.
Why: If anything over 5 reps is cardio, as some hardcore powerlifters will assure you, then why not take advantage? By metabolic resistance training (MRT), we’re referring to circuit-style workouts utilizing low-load, low-skill, high-rep compound movements and standard resistance training implements. Traditionalists might eschew this method of conditioning, preferring time-honored machines like fan bikes or even good old-fashioned hill sprints, but in truth — when programmed intelligently — metabolic resistance training has a slew of benefits.
MRT provides an adequate stimulus for maintaining muscle, while simultaneously ramping up the fat-burning furnace. It increases the metabolic cost of exercise (600-700 kcal/hour) by increasing excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) (14, 15, 16), or that feeling that you’re still burning fat well after the last rep, which you actually are! Due to the glycogen-depleting nature of high-intensity exercise, our body shifts its focus to replenishing those glycogen stores post-exercise, which in turn increases lipolysis and the utilization of free fatty acids as fuel (16). In fact, EPOC increases exponentially with high-intensity exercise (high intensity of load or effort), as opposed to the linear increase associated with submaximal intensities (16).
Moreover, MRT allows you to increase your work capacity through improving lactate clearance, thus enabling you to perform a greater volume of work at higher relative intensities (16). In sum, MRT is an ideal method for improving aerobic and anaerobic metabolism, while efficiently and effectively torching unwanted body fat.
How: MRT should involve compound exercises for the full body. It’s most easily carried out in supersets (two exercises performed back-to-back in alternating fashion) or circuit form. Some exercises to consider include squats, deadlifts, lunges, push-ups, bench press, push press, rows, and dips.
The work load should be approximately 60-65% of your 1-RM for 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps. The intensity of effort should be very high (i.e. RPE 8-10 on the 10-point scale). Rest should be no longer than 30 seconds between rounds of supersets and no longer than 2 minutes between rounds of a larger circuit (17). An example of an MRT circuit might be 3 rounds of 15 goblet squats, 15 repetitions on bench press, 15 ring rows, and 15 deadlifts. Push the pace, but rest as needed in order to maintain form.
5. Condition strategically with a mix of intensities (of both resistance and effort) and durations.
Why: Every minute of conditioning must serve a purpose. That is, spending mindless hours on the elliptical or stationary bike will not help you reach your body composition goals. Nor will having an “every-day-is-game-day” mentality and going balls to the wall session after session. In order to lose fat and preserve muscle when conditioning, the key is to strike an optimal balance between shorter, higher intensity efforts and longer, lower intensity bouts.
Cardiac output, or steady state, training at low-to-moderate intensity (i.e. 25-30 minutes cycling at 50-70% HRR) can be an extremely useful tool, as well. Cardiac output training assists in recovery by improving the clearance of metabolic byproducts, improving the quality of sleep, and improving the body’s ability to replenish glycogen stores. In addition, cardiac output training can improve autonomic nervous system control (i.e. sympathetic vs. parasympathetic balance), which directly impacts recovery and improves mood. Finally, as its name implies, cardiac output training is also great for the heart, thereby allowing you to keep a healthier engine.
How: Incorporate at least one day per week each of metabolic resistance training, high- or low-intensity interval/tempo training, and cardiac output training (i.e. 25-30 minutes cycling at 50-70% HRR). When incorporating interval training into your program, select an appropriate work-to-rest ratio based on the primary energy pathway you are utilizing.
If you’re performing high-intensity interval sessions involving a 30-second all-out sprint, then an appropriate rest period would be 3 minutes (1:6 work-rest ratio). This allows for the primary energy system being taxed — anaerobic glycolysis, in this case — to recover, which will allow you to perform the sprints as close to full capacity as possible. In contrast, if you’re doing aerobic intervals, such as 3 minutes of work, a rest period of 3 minutes will be adequate to recover in order to perform the interval near full capacity (1:1 work-rest ratio). Perform cardiac output training at least once a week for 25-35 minutes at 50-70% of your HRR.
Don’t Be a Stiff!
Remember, muscle growth and fat loss are a combination of the stress of training and the ability to recover from that stress. Sometimes life gets in the way — maybe the baby kept you up all night, or you were forced to grab a lower quality pre-workout meal than usual. When this occurs, it’s important to “auto-regulate,” or tweak training parameters to coincide with your current physiological and psychological states. Moreover, don’t feel guilty if you slip up every now and then on nutrition or if you have to skip a workout. It’s okay to live a little! Just be sure to jump right back on the wagon.
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About the Authors
Marc Lewis, M.S.(c), CSCS, TSAC-F, ACSM-EP-C, ACSM-CPT is the owner of Winston Salem Personal Training in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, while also serving as a graduate teaching/research assistant in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Personal Training: www.winstonsalempersonaltraining.com
Travis Pollen is an NPTI certified personal trainer and American record-holding Paralympic swimmer. He is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Biomechanics and Movement Science at the University of Delaware.