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How to Cut Without Losing Muscle (Natural)

Hi Christian,

I’m trying to cut and struggling to do so without losing considerable muscle. I weigh about 75kg at present and have found that about 2050 kcals (45%P / 30%C / 25%F) results in ~0.25kg weight loss a week. Unfortunately i seem to be losing equal parts muscle and fat which is not really doing me any good.

Initially I thought I was training too much (15 sets x 5 sessions per week) because that was making me feel very fatigued, so i’ve progressively dropped sets down to just 8 per session (which feels good), but the results have not changed. My sessions focus around 1 big lift (Deads/squats/bench/military) with a few support exercises. I have still been trying to keep the intensity high, i.e. maintain close to max lifts, which I seem to be able to do.
Supplements are creatine and beta.

What can I do differently to halt the muscle loss?

How tall are you?

173cm

Ok let’s examine the losing muscle part. Unless you are already at under 10% body fat, it is very much unlikely that you are losing muscle if you are still training and eating sufficient protein (1 - 1.25g per pound). Even in a caloric deficit.

You might FEEL like you are losing muscle. You might look smaller, deflated. But that comes from storing less glycogen and water inside your muscles. Glycogen is how your body stores carbs inside the muscles It is a combination of glucose (broken down carbs) and water.

If you are cutting calories (and likely carbs) you will store less glycogen in your muscles, because you don’t have “extra energy” to store since you are pretty much using it all.

If you store less glycogen and water inside your muscles they become flat, deflated, smaller LOOKING. A muscle with less glycogen/water is like a balloon with less air.

It can mess up with your mind, but it’s not muscle loss.

To build (or maintain) muscle you need a growth stimulus, protein for muscle repair and energy to fuel the building process.

If you are still training hard and eating sufficient protein you should at least maintain muscle.

“What about energy?” if I’m in a caloric deficit don’t I lack the energy to build muscle?

Not if you are over 8-9% body fat. Above that level your body has plenty of stored energy to fuel the process without risking running out of stored fuel.

Once you get down to low body fat levels, it can be possible to be unable to fuel the repair process as the body might want to preserve the little energy store it has, for “survival”.

But until you are really lean, unless you REALLY consume an idiotic amount of calories, you should not lose muscle.

“Yeah, but I’m also losing strength, doesn’t that indicate muscle loss?”

Not necessarily.

It is true that a lot of people lose some strength when they diet down. But it is rarely due to muscle loss. There are other reasons.

First, notice that the strength loss is mostly on multi-joint exercises. The bench press, military press and squats are especially affected. This loss in “strength” (really more like a performance drop on a few lifts) doesn’t happen on isolation exercises, machine movements and often doesn’t affect pulling movements.

It is typical to maintain or even increase strength on triceps extensions, pec deck and DB lateral raises… yet have the bench press (which uses the same muscles) go down.

Clearly this is not due to muscle loss otherwise the isolation exercises would go down too.

In fact, oftentimes the free-weight bench press will go down but pressing on a machine or smith machine will stay up or even increase.

The reason for that is a decrease in passive stability. Passive stability is when non-contractile elements stabilize a joint by increasing pressure. For example, if you blow up a muscle by storing more water, glycogen and fat, that muscle becomes inflated and “pack” the joint more. This creates pressure which makes the joint more stable. Even body fat can contribute to passive stabilization and water retention too.

Why is that important? Because if a joint is less stable, the body will protect itself by inhibiting force production (not allowing you to use all of your strength potential to avoid injuries). The more stable the body feels, the more of your strength it will allow you to use. That’s why it is common for powerlifters to “bloat up” before a meet: they will eat a boatload of salty high carb food and drink tons of water to increase both glycogen and water retention. This increases passive stability and allows them to lift more weight.

Pressing movements are more affected because they are more “dangerous” for the shoulder joint, which is the less stable joint in the body.

Another reason why you can be losing strength while dieting down is due to beta-adrenergic desensitization.

The beta-adrenergic receptors are the ones that interact with adrenaline. At the muscle level, beta-receptors, when activated by adrenaline, increase muscle contraction strength and speed. At the brain/nervous system level, when activated they will increase coordination, drive, willpower, confidence, etc.

In other words, when your beta-adrenergic receptors respond well to adrenaline your chance of a optimal physical performance is much higher.

By opposition, if they are not responding well to adrenaline (that’s what happen when they are desensitized, or downregulated) then strength/speed goes down. You also find yourself in a worse mental state to perform at a high level.

Why is that relevant to dieting? You desensitize the beta adrenergic receptors by overproducing adrenaline. Either bursts that are excessive or adrenaline levels that stay high for too long.

Adrenaline is increased in large part by cortisol. Cortisol increases the conversion of noradrenaline to adrenaline.

One of the functions of cortisol is to mobilize stored energy. And, obviously, when you are dieting down you need to mobilize more energy so cortisol production goes up… and so does adrenaline (that’s the reason why a lot of people have a hard time sleeping properly when dieting down).

In that regard, dieting can lead to a decrease in physical (and mental) performance by making you less responsive to adrenaline. When that happens, strength will go down more across the board. But it normally takes longer to occur than the strength loss from lowered passive stability.

Another reason for a loss of strength is your mental state. If you feel small and don’t sleep as well it will be much harder to get amped up to lift big weights. It’s like you program yourself to believe that you are losing muscle and getting weaker. Self full-filling prophecy.

Really, you are likely not losing muscle.

FURTHERMORE, in your case, strength isn’t even going down! That is a clear sign that you are not losing muscle.

What I think is that you had expectations about being at a certain weight when you get to the leanness level you want. But when you approach that weight and don’t yet look lean you assume that it is because you are losing muscle along with the fat. But the reality is that you are not losing muscle, you just have more fat to lose than you thought and also carry less muscle than you assumed. Not fun to hear, but it’s the truth.In all fairness you CAN lose muscle when dieting down. But this normally occurs only…

*When you are under 9-10% body fat… and even then it’s not automatic, just more likely to occur

*When you have been dieting down for a very long time

*If the level of caloric restriction is excessive (e.g. losing more than 1.5kg/3lbs per week after the first week)

There are factors that can make it harder to build muscle or retain it while in a deficit. The main ones are the higher cortisol levels, lowered mTOR and IGF-1 levels.

The former (cortisol levels) will occur when cutting calories, that’s just a fact. But cortisol can also be released due to life stress and the training session. A lot of people who actually lose muscle when dieting down LOSE MUSCLE BECAUSE THEY ARE AFRAID OF LOSING MUSCLE.

What?! When you are afraid of losing muscle you might. dramatically increase your training volume in hope to prevent the loss of muscle. “I’m gonna kill do a lot more training that way I won’t lose muscles”… or because since you feel flatter/more deflated or because it’s harder to get a pump (not only because of reduced carbs, but mostly because of a reduction of sodium intake). When you don’t get a pump, you feel like you are losing your muscles so you do a stupid amount of volume just to get a feel.

That excessive volume will lead to too much cortisol, which can lead to muscle loss. And it can also lead to causing too much muscle damage for your body to recover from. You CAN’T maintain or even add muscle when dieting down. But your capacity to repair and build muscle is much lower… if you cause too much muscle damage in that state you can lose tissue.

The moral of the story is this:

  1. Use an appropriate caloric intake (aim for losing 1kg/2lbs per week, after the first week, where you will lose more. At least until you are around a true 10-11%. At which point if you which to get leaner you should shoot for morel like a 0.5kg/1lbs loss per week).

  2. Keep protein high (1.25g per pound of starting bodyweight, do not lower that as body weight goes down).

  3. Keep carbs around the workout this is to decrease the cortisol response, maintain glycogen stores and perform better. I would also consume sodium around the workout. Of course, PLAZMA is the perfect formula for this, as it contains other electrolytes.

  4. Don’t be stupid with volume, it won’t be helpful as much as intensity. Do fewer sets, but push them to the limit or close to it.

  5. It’s all about mindset. You WILL feel flat. You WILL feel smaller in your clothes. And for a good number of weeks you will NOT look any better because you look smaller but are not yet lean enough to look defined. This period is super hard mentally. Heck, some people might tell you that you look smaller or ask you if you stopped training. This can be demoralizing. Know that you are not losing muscle… and if you endure, you will look better.

  6. Keep sodium high… it will help keep you fuller looking and get pumps.

One thing I want to mention though, and it is your decision. You are only 75kg on 173cm. That is not very big (this is not a critique). What I mean is that you need to understand that, depending on how lean you are at the moment, you might need to get much much smaller than you think to get ripped. You might end up at 62kg to get the leanness level that you want.

I’m saying this because it will influence your perception… for. example let’s say that you go from 75kg to 70kg and you still don’t look lean. If in your mind, dieting would take you to a shredded 70kg and you are not yet ripped when you reach 70kg the first reaction will be to think that you are losing muscle instead of fat. Whereas the reality is that you need to lose more fat than you thought to get to the leanness level you want.

Here is an example. When I was still working with bodybuilders, a guy approached me for coaching. He wanted to do a bodybuilding show. He was 175cm and around 100kg. He told me that he thought he could be at the bottom of the heavyweight or top of the lightheavy class (so 90-94kg). I told him that on contest day he would be 80kg. He looked like he saw a ghost.

The guy was not fat, mind you. Just the typical bro physique level. Muscular but not defined.

Fast forward to contest day. He ended up being EXACTLY 80kg! He won his class and the overall.

Case in point he needed to lose 20kg to look like what he wanted whereas he initially believed that he needed to drop 10kg.

Looking at your post you are doing everything right. You just had an erroneous perception of how much muscle you carried and how much fat you have to lose.

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I cant like this post enough. Great stuff!

I posted this into my log so I could find it again and for some reason it has linked my log into the thread. Can this be unlinked please mods? @Chris_Colucci

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Christian,

You are such a great coach and such a wonderful person.
Thank you so much for all your effort and generosity.
Man, I have so much respect for you.

Slaven

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Wow!!! That was an amazing explanation! I especially appreciated the reasoning on the strength loss on the compounds vs. isolations. Never heard that explained that way. Thanks for such a detailed answer! Just wow!

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Thanks Christian, really appreciate your feedback and such a detailed response. A few other things…

The muscle loss i’m quoting is from DEXA scan. I actually was pretty happy with how i was going based on look, but my most recent scan shows ~1kg of muscle loss (that goes with the 1kg fat loss) and i’ve also lost muscle on most scans I’ve had during the cutting period. Are your comments bout glycogen / water still valid for DEXA scan muscle, i.e. will that trick the machine into saying your lean muscle mass has gone down?

  • How many sets per session and days of training do you recommend for cutting, or is this more down to the individual and how it feels in terms of your energy levels?

  • Obviously my overall goal is to gain more muscle but also be leaner… Is it better to cut down below your target body fat % knowing that some fat will be put on whilst you are trying to gain muscle? Or is better to just do multiple cycles of cutting/gaining to get to your target?

  • When transitioning from cutting phase into a muscle building phase, how do you adjust the calories - i.e. is it a slow increase week on week or do you just increase by large amounts in 1-2 weeks?

Thanks again so much!

Can you share your base results, times between scans, etc? Be interested to get a better understanding.

While a DEXA scan is the gold standard among more easily available body composition methods, it is still not perfect.

It is what we call a 3 compartment model (3C) when it comes to body composition.

Look at the image below:

“Different types of body composition models. 1C, one-compartment; 2C, two-compartment; 3C, three-compartment; 4C, four-compartment; MC, mineral content; NEL, non-essential lipid; EL, essential lipid; BM, bone mineral; SM, soft-tissue mineral; GLY, glycogen.eaning that it gives precise info about fat mass, fat-free mass and mineral content.”

Note that fat-free mass includes lots of stuff besides muscle tissue.

Only the multicompartment model can provide info about glycogen stores and the actual amount of muscle tissue. Methods are in that model are rarely available to the public. The DEXA is the most reliable among the more easily available method but it still doesn’t give the whole picture. Since glycogen will be counted as lean body mass, decreasing muscle glycogen stores can give the reading that you are losing muscle even though you aren’t.

In your case, it gave the reading that you lost some muscle, but it wasn’t the case. It was a combination of lowered glycogen stores, intramuscular water, intramuscular triglycerides and intramuscular minerals.

By the way, the image above is from a scientific review of all the body composition evaluation methods:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6366261/

Once you lowered your volume, what you were doing was perfect. You were not losing muscles at all and you only thought you were doing something wrong because the test showed that you lost lean mass (NOT muscle).

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Hi Coach,

I guess what I was interested in from the OP was how he ended up going for another DEXA (“my most recent scan”) when he had apparently only dropped 2kg total weight, which was half fat, half LBM.

I’ve probably repeated this anecdote, but when I got my first scan the operator told me he had performed around 2,000 scans. And, in that time, he could not recall a single case where a repeat client who had lost fat hadn’t lost LBM also. He said women were worse than men, especially figure athletes.

Again, refer to my post above. “Lean mass” in the DEXA includes muscle glycogen, intramuscular fatty acids, minerals, etc. A loss in LBM on the DEXA doesn’t mean a loss of muscle.

But as you likely implied, your post illustrates that point even better. It is impossible that every single person tested lost muscle, especially if fitness competitors were involved.

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Christian, thanks so much for taking the time to explain all of this - by far the most insightful explanation i’ve ever received!