Losing Fat—Not Muscle
Q: I know I’m carrying more fat than I should around my midsection. However, whenever I cut calories, I always lose size in my arms, which scares the hell out of me! I don’t want all of the hard work I’ve done to build up my muscles over years to disappear just because I want to lose a few pounds of fat. How can I lose fat and not lose muscle at the same time?
A: You can reduce bodyfat safely (without losing muscle), simply, methodically and predictably—even to the point of achieving your goal on a predetermined date. As Mike Mentzer explained, the process begins by establishing your present maintenance level of calories. There are several ways to do this. At my fitness center, Nautilus North, we use a Bod-Pod body-composition-testing machine, which provides a printout of an individual’s RMR (resting metabolic rate) based on height, weight, age, gender, body composition and predicted lung volume. We then factor in voluntary activity levels to raise the number by various percentages. Mike used an even simpler method:
“Simply keep a five-day food diary wherein you record everything you eat, including the quantity, for that period. At the end of each day sit down with a good calorie-counting book and tally the total calories for that day. On the fifth day take the five daily totals, add them up for a grand total, divide by five, and you’ll have your daily average calorie intake. If you didn’t gain or lose weight over that five-day period, your daily average calorie intake will also represent your daily maintenance level of calories.
“To lose bodyfat once you’ve established that level, reduce your food intake so that you’re 500 calories below maintenance. Since there are 3,500 calories in a pound of fat, a 500-calorie daily deficit will lead invariably to a loss of one pound of fat a week. Over a period of time, as you continue to lose weight, your maintenance level of calories will go down, and weight loss will slow down or come to a halt. When that happens, reduce your calories another 500 or so, and the fat loss will proceed.”
To answer your dilemma directly, however, there’s another variable to address: the intensity of your workouts. Your body won’t expend energy on building or preserving tissue that it doesn’t think it needs. If you’re training at 90 percent of a muscle’s potential, then you might well lose 10 percent of its size, whereas if you train at 100 percent of its capacity, the body will have no reason to reduce its size. Much as a bigger room requires more energy to heat than a smaller room does, a bigger muscle requires more energy—that is, calories—to maintain than does a smaller muscle. As energy is a precious resource, your body won’t squander it recklessly to preserve a bigger muscle than it perceives to be necessary for survival. That’s one reason light weights, mild effort and easy workouts do not produce muscle growth and can in fact result in loss of muscle tissue.
I recall that Mike once had a phone consultation client lose exactly 12 pounds in 12 weeks. Did he lose any muscle? Let’s hear from Mike:
“Considering that his strength skyrocketed during that period, not to mention that he gained one-half inch on his arms, it’s safe to conclude that he didn’t lose any muscle. Monitoring strength levels during periods of weight loss is almost a surefire method for determining whether or not one is losing muscle. One cannot lose muscle if he is growing stronger during a weight-loss program. I emphasize that because clients complain that they’re losing muscle while following the training and nutritional program (involving a calorie-deficit diet) I put them on. In every case, when I ask if they’re still gaining in strength, they say they are, whereupon I explain that they can’t be losing the contractile protein element in the muscle if they’re gaining strength while losing weight. What they perceive as muscle loss is actually water loss.
“You see, after several days of calorie-deficit dieting, the muscles lose all or some of their stored glycogen. It just so happens that glycogen chemically bonds with and holds water in the muscle, with three grams of water bonded to each gram of glycogen. Since the glycogen isn’t fully restored during periods of heavy training and calorie-deficit dieting, the water isn’t replaced, and the muscle dehydrates somewhat, causing it to lose fluid pressure and to feel flaccid; i.e., softer and smaller. And remember, muscle is not mostly protein but water—72 percent, in fact. So, although muscle is mostly water, it can lose a lot of its stored water and, thus, appear smaller. The important thing, of course, is that you don’t lose the contractile protein element of the muscle, as it can be readily rehydrated by increasing calories—primarily from carbohydrates—above maintenance level.
“The first symptom indicating protein loss is a significant reduction in strength, or functional capacity. A slight reduction in functional capacity, such as being able to perform one or two fewer reps, in a given workout may not be cause for concern, as it could be from greater glycogen depletion that day. A significant reduction in functional capacity over a period of time, however, and you almost certainly are losing protein from the muscle. When that happens, there will also be a dramatic increase in the rate of weight loss, for whereas a pound of fat contains 3,500 calories, a pound of muscle contains only about 600 calories. The point here is that you must burn, or use, approximately six times as much muscle to obtain the same energy yield you’d get from burning one pound of fat. People who overtrain and overdiet—and thus lose muscle—often report as much as six to 10 pounds of weight loss a week!
“With a modest deficit of 500 to 750 calories, you’ll sufficiently starve the adiposity and lose fat on a continual basis yet obtain sufficient nutrients to feed the lean mass so that you grow stronger and larger.”
It doesn’t matter whether you reduce carbs or fats, so long as you reduce calories to below maintenance level. While all weight-loss diets are calorie-deficit diets, the best reduce total calories while roughly conforming to a diet composition of 60 percent carbohydrates, 25 percent protein and 15 percent fats, as the world’s top nutritional scientists agree.
Q: I love the feel of working out: the soreness, the pump, etc. I don’t understand why, if workouts produce such great effects such as more muscle—and I like working out so much—I shouldn’t do it every day.
A: You must understand that the workout doesn’t actually produce muscular growth. The workout is merely a trigger that sets the body’s growth mechanism into motion. The body produces growth but only during a sufficient rest period. Mike explained it more clearly:
“Perhaps you have heard of the concept S-R, or stimulus-response. It is used in a variety of contexts and has application in bodybuilding. The workout is merely a stimulus that causes a response in the body that consists of two aspects—recovery and growth production. Of crucial importance here is that the recovery response itself may take up to several days or longer to be completed. Only once the recovery process has been completed does the growth production process begin. If you stimulate your body again with another workout before it has a chance to respond with recovery and growth, you short-circuit the response process before it’s completed, compromising results short of 100 possible units.
“That’s what the vast majority of bodybuilders do: Hyper-obsessed with chronically overstimulating the body, they never give it a sufficient rest period to fully respond to the stimulus. In short, they’re ‘stimulus freaks,’ moved by some notion that the more often they’re in the gym working out, the more they must be doing something for themselves. What they don’t understand is that they should be in the gym only long and often enough to trigger a recovery-growth response, not to satisfy a mindless addiction to training. A successful bodybuilder is aware that the rest period between workouts is just as important as the workout, for that’s when the most important thing of all has a chance to happen—namely, the completion of growth, which is what prompted him to work out in the first place.”
If you accept the premise that the rest period between workouts is just as important as the workout itself, it follows logically that there has to be a perfect, or optimum, number of days of rest. During the studies we’ve conducted at our facility in Bracebridge, Ontario, coupled with dialogues with personal trainers who have a very large client base and what Mike discovered during his well-documented years as a trainer, we’ve found that once-a-week workouts are just about perfect for the average trainee. If that frequency seems hard to wrap your mind around, then simply go by your progress. Start out with a once-every-four-days frequency. Once progress, or strength increases, cease, you’ll find that the only way to get them to return will be by inserting additional rest and recovery days into your schedule. At that point you’ll be training just once every seven days. Mike covered that issue years ago:
“One workout every four to seven days is miraculous compared to any other protocol. Four to seven days—and longer in some cases—is how long it takes the body to fully complete the recovery-growth process.
“To quell any fear about the progressive reduction of training frequency, consider this: An individual making progress training once every fourth day—whose body is overcompensating, or growing stronger and larger—can’t lose anything by taking a further day or two of rest. If his body is still overcompensating on day four, how is it that he’d suddenly decompensate on day five or six? While there’s no risk of a negative, no threat of a loss, by inserting an extra day or two of rest, the extra rest day(s) give you that much greater certainty that enough time has elapsed between workouts for the body to complete both recovery and growth processes. The implication here is that if you train again before your body completes the growth process, it will be short-circuited, and you’ll realize less than 100 units of possible progress.”
For the individual training once every seven days, Mike suggested a reduction in the volume of training as outlined in his books The Wisdom of Mike Mentzer and High Intensity Training The Mike Mentzer Way (McGraw-Hill). The reduction in volume ensures that you’re training with maximum intensity (a requisite for continued growth stimulation) and that your workouts aren’t so long that you recklessly squander energy that could be used during the growth stage—rather than merely prolonging the recovery period. Reduced volume will necessitate switching from the ideal routine suggested in Mike’s books to his consolidation routine:
“With a consolidation routine there’s a decided shift in emphasis to predominately compound exercises; i.e., ones that involve multiple muscle groups, such as squats, dips and deadlifts. A workout program consisting of compound exercises still works all of the major muscle groups but with fewer total sets, making for a minimal inroad into recovery ability.” (Ideally, growth would be stimulated with zero sets; then none of the body’s limited recovery ability would be used for recovery. It would all be used for growth production, and you’d grow so fast as to stagger the imagination. At this juncture, however, no one knows how to stimulate growth with zero sets.)
Editor’s note: For a complete presentation of Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty training system, consult his books Heavy Duty II, High Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way and the newest book, The Wisdom of Mike Mentzer, all of which are available from Mentzer’s official Web site, www.MikeMentzer
John Little is available for phone consultation on Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty training system. For rates and information, contact Joanne Sharkey at (310) 316-4519 or at www.MikeMentzer.com, or see the ad on the opposite page.
Article copyright © 2006, John Little. All rights reserved. Mike Mentzer quotations provided courtesy of Joanne Sharkey and used with permission. IM