Many consider bodybuilding as a hobby, sport, or as an art. It takes a lot of months to become strong and even more to look the part. It involves hours of training a week and indescribable levels of discipline when it comes to sleep and nutrition.

For most bodybuilders, the only way to go is up. However, sometimes people also think of going down, specifically when they see the weighing scale. Because let’s face it: Most bodybuilders are so concerned in bulking they don’t realize they’re growing too big and need to cut back.

There are many good reasons to lose a few pounds, some of them affecting our health. The problem is, most big bodybuilders are afraid to lose weight because they fear losing muscle.

If you’re a bodybuilder looking to cut back more than a few pounds, but afraid of losing muscle then read along.

How do muscles grow?

Before we get on the topic of losing weight without losing muscle, let’s first review the science of muscle growth.

Regardless of the type of fitness group - bodybuilding, Crossfit, strength training, gymnastics - the aim of the exercise is to lower fat and increase lean muscle. We all know increasing muscle size involves a lot of heavy lifting and just as much of the right nutrition.

What happens after training?

Generally speaking, muscles increase in volume and mass after long-term strength training. This “long-term” can be from as short as two weeks or as long as two years, depending on the type of growth you’re after.

After a tough workout, your body goes into full recovery mode mostly to replenish lost vitamin and mineral stores from the food you eat and to repair or replace damaged muscle fibers. After the repairs are done, the muscles are thicker than when you first used them. This general muscle growth is known as muscle hypertrophy or simply hypertrophy.

Technically speaking, the individual fibers that make our muscles grow because of two things: hyperplasia or the increase in the number of muscle fiber and fiber hypertrophy or the increase in the volume of muscle fiber. These two processes, while different, do accomplish one thing and that is increasing the total protein content of the whole muscle through protein synthesis (1).

To keep things simple: Muscle growth happens when the rate of muscle protein breakdown is lower than the rate of protein synthesis. It should be noted that protein synthesis doesn’t happen during training but during rest.

This is where nutrition and proper sleep come in.

  • If you have proper nutrition, the more efficient your body will be at repairing and increasing muscle size. You cannot grow muscle if you’re undernourished or lack the necessary nutrients. And no, “eating a lot” doesn’t guarantee proper nutrition. In fact, eating too much food without really looking into what you’re eating can do more harm than good from a general health perspective.
    • The most important is of course protein, but other nutrients help muscles grow bigger like zinc, iron, potassium, B vitamins, branched chain amino acids, and even carbohydrates (2).picture of meat, eggs, salmon, and dumbbells
  • If you have proper sleep, the more your body will be in sync in terms of the hormones especially melatonin. Melatonin is more than just a sleep hormone. It’s actually in charge of everything related to recovery while you sleep (4).a man sleeping next to a barbell
    • Generally speaking, the better quality sleep you get, the more melatonin can help restore and repair your muscles which leads to not just muscle hypertrophy, but also an increase in testosterone - a hormone that plays a huge factor in determining just how big your muscles can get.
    • More than hormonal imbalances, lack of sleep can actually reverse the muscle-growing process (anabolism) and put your body into a muscle-breaking state (catabolism).

Other than rest and nutrition, another factor in muscle growth is genetics. Depending on the genes you’ve inherited, you either grow muscles fast or slow.

Most people don’t see real results despite a month or two months worth of training while others see development in as little as two weeks. Genetics also play a role in how much testosterone you’re producing, which muscle fiber grows first, as well as overall metabolism.

The cycle of exercise - repair/rest - exercise should also be sustained if you want to fully grow your muscles. However, after the first year of consistency, everything that follows is often easier and simpler for “maintenance” mode.

Lose the fat, not the muscle

So you have big muscles, but because of improper nutrition and lifestyle choices, you also have quite the belly or simply more flab than you’d care to like. Don’t worry; you’re not alone.

The fitness models you see aren’t the usual gym goers. More often than not, people actually struggle with getting bulky without having to worry about gaining unnecessary weight. This usually works itself out as you train properly and maintain a steady diet.

But then there are those who really can’t find the fine line between getting big muscles and just getting big in general. They could be training really hard and still can’t see a six-pack or be doing curls all day and still feel flabs around your arms.

You worry that if you start cutting, you end up losing muscle too. Fret not. We got you covered. We’ve compiled a list of 10 ways to lose weight without losing muscle.

10 Ways to Lose Weight Without Losing Muscle

1. Combine strength training with hypertrophy.

Going for pure strength training such as heavy singles, doubles, or triples is great when it comes to hitting your max but not so optimal for burning fat or maintaining muscle during a cutting phase.

What you want to do is do a combination of strength and hypertrophy training. Instead of going for one, two, or three max lifts under a short period of time, lift that same weight once, rest, and lift again. What you’re basically doing is lifting the heaviest weight you can, but focusing on volume instead of intensity. This lets your body adjust to the energy deficit while still activating muscle hypertrophy.

2. Go slow and long.

The myth that cardio will make you lose all your hard-earned muscles has been debunked not just by fitness coaches, but also by actual scientists.

Running is still a good way to train the whole body, but it’s best if you limit it to not more than 30 minutes a run. Frequent long-distance running (those that last for more than one or two hours) can actually force your body to reduce muscle size to make you lighter and to make running easier.

If you’re not into running like most lifters are, you can still use cardio that promotes muscle growth like rowing, walking on an incline, or even swimming.

3. Eat just enough protein.

One of the many mistakes lifters make is eating too much protein. While growing muscle does need a lot of protein, you won’t need to eat so many during the first few weeks. You should aim for a protein intake of around 1-1.2 g per pound of bodyweight. If you’re obese or haven’t really been working out for a long time, use the bodyweight you want to have as a reference.

4. Give yourself some BCAAs.

BCAASupplementing with BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids) help replenish protein stores inside the muscles. These can also be used as energy during exercise which is really handy when you’re on a cutting phase given that they’re practically calorie-free.

5. Don’t cut carbs out.

Carbs are not bad for you. Really, the human body couldn’t have survived in the wild if not for carbs. Your muscles in particular actually really need them in the form of glycogen. Without carbs, you will find it difficult not just to lift weights, but also last long enough to actually get good training (3).

For those trying to lose weight, the optimal time to eat carbs is post-workout. This is because after your workout, your body’s metabolic rate is through the roof and your insulin sensitivity - your body’s ability to properly metabolize carbs - is at its peak.

Don’t just go for any carbs, though. Choose complex carbs or carbs that take a long time to digest. Not only are they nutrient dense, but they also make you have a feeling of fullness for longer periods. Fewer hunger pangs mean lower eating frequencies and lower cravings. Lower cravings lead to weight loss.

6. Have proper sleep.

Sleep is the most underrated way to stay healthy and grow muscle. While you can still grow big even with poor sleep, it won’t be anywhere near as good as when you do get consistent good sleep. You see, training isn’t just all about what you do inside the gym, but also what you do outside with emphasis on sleep and nutrition. Growth hormones peak at night while you sleep and is at its best when you’re in deep sleep (4).

Putting your body through tremendous stress requires you to put it to at least an equal amount of sleep. Also, stress promotes cortisol production (the stress hormone) which can have a tendency to also kill your precious testosterone.

7. Count the calories.

At the end of the day, you’re going to have to count your calories. No one likes doing it, but if you’re going to cut then you’re going to have to count. However, don’t focus too much on the numbers as much as the nutrients you’re ingesting. If you’re hungry and you know that 200 calorie fruit will give you what you need then, by all means, go for it. Oftentimes, hunger is a sign that you lack some nutrients and the best way to address this is to eat nutritious food.

8. Reduce some training time.

So you’re now counting calories and are likely at least cutting out 500 calories a day. The next step is to limit training time. Why? Because your body has yet to adjust to a decrease in energy intake. You can train with the same intensity, but you’ll need to either add more rest in between sets or simply cut the training in half if you need to.

A lack of energy can lead to gym accidents and injuries which are definitely not worth it. Then there’s also the fact that training beyond fatigue can make your body eat its own muscle for sustenance. You definitely don’t want that.

9. Intermittent fasting.

You may have heard of intermittent fasting or IF and if you were bulking then, there’s a good chance you laughed at the idea. Now that you’re cutting, though, now would be a good time to actually try this.

Intermittent fasting is a form of disciplined eating rather than a weight loss protocol. It involves mainly eating only when you’re hungry, consuming all the calories you need in one or two meals, and literally not eating anything until the next eating schedule the next day. The period between your last meal and the next meal is when you fast (5).

The science is actually sound and is actually rooted in how our ancestors used to eat. Studies also confirm that you don’t really lose muscle during IF if you do it right, and that you won’t get hungry too.

However, there are some details to make IF optimal. Ideally, you wake up when the sun rises, workout, go to work, and have your first meal afterward. Your next meal (or the last meal for the day) should be within six hours after your first meal. Let’s say you had breakfast at 9:00 am, your last meal should be at 3:00 pm. You then let your body burn fat for energy until the following day.

Some people go for one meal a day, some even try 24 hours without eating. What matters is you know what you’re doing and the best way to do that is to have someone coach you.

10. Take breaks every now and then.

Just like taking a much-needed vacation, taking diet breaks is a good thing every now and then. It’s a way to reward yourself after shedding a lot of weight. This also helps you look forward to something with every milestone you achieve and keeps you from being stressed out or depressed.

You can take a break depending on time or weight loss. You can reward yourself every two weeks or every 5 lbs. Just make sure you don’t overdo it to a point where you’ll end up in square one.

References:

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8941522

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9023466

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905295/

(4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21550729

(5) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4733124/

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