Many moons ago, when l was 17 years old, there was a body fat percentage measuring booth at one of the local malls in my town. I was about 6’@150lbs and decided to test my body fat. I thought that it will be extremely low because I was skinny, but I measured at 17%. I was shocked but didn’t really care at the time.
To this day, I have never met a natural guy who hasn’t underestimated his body fat percentage at least once. A good example would be Rippetoe’s followers who bulk to insane bodyweight levels in the quest to rival powerlifting legends on steroids. It’s not uncommon to be called skinny on Rip’s forum if you weigh less than 200-220lbs. Most of the guys on there don’t realize that in order for a natural to be 220lbs and lean, he must be over 6’3″ tall.
The real pain sets in when you start losing weight. Seeing all your “mass” evaporate feels worse than a heartbreak. The reality is even harder to accept if you have a history of permabulking (bulking without a planned end). It’s not uncommon for somebody who is supposedly 220lbs @ 10-15% to downgrade to 160lbs in order to reach a lean state. Very often the people that bitch the most about cutting are those overestimating their body fat levels by a long shot.
Why do we lose muscle mass on a cut?
When the body is burning fat, it’s essentially transforming or more precisely decomposing. Every organ is affected by the loss of weight – fat or not. The hormonal profile of the individual also changes. It would be extremely naive to believe that your muscle mass will not be affected in the process.
Put in a state of deprivation a.k.a. caloric deficit, the body has no choice but to activate the lard reactors during the initial phase. However, as the fat stores shrink, it becomes harder to burn only fat. That’s why people do all kinds of magic to get below 10% BF without losing muscle.
If you are fired, or your salary is reduced, the first thing that you will probably do is spend your saved money on necessities. However, if you don’t find a new source of income, you will eventually start selling your belongings to live another day. The same principles hold true when you’re on a diet – at first, you burn fat, but sooner or later, the knife reaches the meat.
The whole process is heavily dependent on nutrition and training. Those are the two main factors that naturals get to play with in their quest for muscle mass preservation on a diet.
Training When Dieting
When you’re on a diet, you have less energy. Therefore, the training volume should be relatively low. If you are on a low-calorie diet, doing crazy high volume programs is not sustainable for a very long time. It’s harder to recover and get stronger. As a result, you’re risking regression in the form of muscle mass and strength decrease.
However, since our goal is to keep all the muscle, the intensity of your training must be maintained. This means that you have to keep lifting heavy to preserve your strength.
For instance, you can reduce your working sets from 3 to 1 while keeping the weight the same for as long as possible. Obviously, if you are losing a ton of weight, eventually your maximal strength will suffer regardless of your training regimen.
You may also have to reduce all supplementary exercises. For example, if you are doing leg extensions as one of your leg lifts, you can remove the exercise during your diet. The whole point is to keep the essentials and remove the fancy stuff. If we go back to the money analogy, this would mean that you have to stop buying junk while you’re still unemployed. Save the cash for your main needs.
Eating When Dieting
Make sure to take at least 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. This means that if you weigh 180lbs, you will have to consume about 145 grams of protein every day.
When you’re on a diet, your protein needs go higher because the overall calories are low. Conversely, when you are not dieting, you can consume less protein because the rest of the macronutrients are protein sparing.
The Less Fat There Is, The Harder It Is to Lose It
If you are 30% BF, you can safely drop to 15% BF without losing muscle mass. It’s not very hard. Truth be told, going from 15% to 10% BF is not super hard either but will require more effort.
When you get to 10% BF, going down to 5-8% BF would be the hardest of them all. Whether you want it or not, some muscle mass will be lost. The principle, however, is the same – keep the intensity high.
Cheat Days – The Only Way to Avoid Going Insane
Technically, the fastest way to lose fat is to follow a strict diet consisting of clean foods. However, this rarely works in practice.
A cheat day represents a series of “whatever you want” meals eaten a few times a month. If you do everything correctly, the cheat days won’t do you any harm. The goal is to keep your mental state stable instead of craving foods all the time.
Ultimately, losing fat while preserving muscle mass is simple and can be summarized in a few sentences:
1. Reduce the volume, but keep the intensity high. Stop doing stupid exercises.
2. Reduce your caloric intake.
3. Don’t waste your time with low-intensity cardio. High-intensity cardio like sprints is fine, but the volume must be low.
4. Keep your protein high.
5. Consume some cheat meals from time to time to minimize cravings.