Not exactly something you’d think you’d read about on a site with products such as SHREDDED-AF, PUMPED-AF, and AMPED-AF— eh?
While most of us are out there grinding, amped up to get shredded, there are those who’ve had enough—at least for the time being. And while it might sound crazy for most people who are pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into eking out some extra gains, there are several good reasons why you might want to lose some muscle mass.
But most workout programs out there are designed for building muscle, fat loss, or to gain weight. So, knowing what to do if you’re trying for weight loss (both muscle mass and fat) isn’t always clear.
At the most fundamental level, losing muscle mass comes down to doing the opposite of the things one would do for muscle growth—that much is clear. However, there are several ways you can make the process easier on yourself, so results come faster, and safety is kept in mind.
If you’ve stumbled onto this article and you’re still confused as to why someone would want to lose out on precious gains, this section is for you.
There are plenty of valid reasons for slimming down that make a lot of sense. For example, take sport requirements.
If you’ve been packing on the pounds and you’ve got a body type that grows muscle like nothing, you might be wanting to slim down for aerobic-based sports, such as cycling or running. Keeping too much weight on your body—whether that be muscle or fat—is detrimental to many activities. Even when it comes to Olympic style weightlifting, the size of one’s arms can get in the way of maintaining proper form.
This can either come in the form of decreasing the size of all (or most) of your muscle groups, or just some in particular. If, for example, your arms are too large, ignoring that muscle in training will let it atrophy and shrink. That doesn’t mean you have to ignore all muscles equally.
However, for someone who’s wanting to get into endurance-based sports, it can be super helpful to trim down from head to toe.
The other big thing is aesthetics.
The massive bodybuilder look is a vibe, but that doesn’t mean everyone is keen on it. Slim and cut is something a lot of people strive for, and it doesn’t necessarily have to translate to losing strength anyway.
It could just as well be an inclination to lose weight in one part of your body. For example, if you’ve got tree trunk legs and you’re tired of not being able to find jeans that fit and look good, some muscle loss in that department might do you good.
There are many different reasons why aiming for muscle loss can be a valid strategy for you, but it’s all about approaching it correctly.
So, you’ve decided to reel back the bulging muscle fibers in a certain part of your body or just in general—but how do you go about it, practically speaking?
Doing the opposite of what one would do when trying to gain muscle is pretty much what it comes down to. There are three, general aspects to focus on when trying to lose weight (or gain weight). It comes down to your dieting plan, your cardio routine, and your resistance (or bodyweight) training.
We’ll look into each of these down below.
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve probably heard it a million times: you can’t out-train a bad diet. And while that usually comes down to weight loss and losing that belly fat, the same can be said for muscle loss.
While there’s a lot of nitty-gritty details to go into and an ocean of bro-science to wade through, it fundamentally comes down to calories in, calories out, or CICO. Losing weight, whether that be fat or muscle, is going to necessitate eating at a calorie deficit so your body can’t build new muscle tissue or store fat.
While the quality of the proteins, carbs, and fats you’re eating does matter, it ultimately comes down to consuming fewer calories.
Each person has a level of calorie intake that sits right on maintenance levels—meaning, you’re not losing nor gaining any weight. Everything you eat through the day is being used for your body’s functioning. This depends on age, weight, sex, and activity level; but even if these variables are constant between different people, everyone is going to have unique idiosyncrasies. It’s therefore a good idea to become aware of what your body type is, and to build a dietary plan around it.
Online calculators can help you find a ballpark estimate of how much calories you need to eat in a day to maintain your current weight. They look at all the above variables to give you a number, but if you’re looking for weight loss then you’ll want to aim a few hundred calories below that, each day.
The problem for most people is not eating enough protein to gain lean muscle. While the caloric intake is what you want to be focusing on, also make sure you’re eating less of the right calories for your goals.
As much as you might love meat, you’ll be wanting to avoid a high protein diet. This definitely means avoiding protein powders, and you’ll probably want to lay off the mountain of meat on your dinner plate as well.
This comes down to several things, one of them being amino acids. When you eat protein, the body breaks it down into these amino acids, which in turn help to grow and repair muscle fibers. When eating enough (or a lot) of protein, your body enters what’s called a positive balance of nitrogen. Which, as the name suggests, essentially just means that you’re intaking more nitrogen than losing.
This positive balance is what signals to your body to get into a muscle-building state, also called anabolic.
This state of positive nitrogen is associated with children’s growth and even pregnancy, so it covers a wider swath than just working out. There are two caveats to keep in mind.
First is that more protein is not necessarily better. You cannot overclock your nitrogen state if you’re trying to build muscle, since there’s increasingly diminishing returns after about 1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. Second is that you also don’t want to completely cut off your intake of protein if you’re trying to lose muscle mass.
The recommended daily allowance for protein stands at 0.36 grams per pound of body weight, and it’s best to stay close to that number. It’s essential for a smoothly functioning body, and ignoring protein for the sake of slimming down will put your health at risk.
This point works well with our next topic of cardio, but timing your meals around workouts is just as important.
If you still decide to do weight training while trying to slim down, you’re not going to want to flood your body with muscle-building components around the time you workout. This is especially true when it comes to not eating before cardio as we’ll soon see, but the same can be applied to weightlifting.
At the same time, you don’t want to push yourself far enough where you’re putting your health at risk. Food is, after all, extremely important, and if you’re putting it on the backburner for the sake of aesthetic or athletic goals, you’re putting yourself at unnecessary risk.
Another piece of classic mass-gain advice is to avoid cardio, or at least limit it and make it high intensity. As you’ve probably guessed, you’ll want to be doing the opposite of that.
There are two key points to remember when it comes to cardio.
The first is that cardio burns a lot of calories. That’s why weight loss regimes always tend to place a major focus on getting the body moving. Some opt for long-distance, some for high-intensity interval training (HIIT), but both will do wonders for the body when it comes to burning calories.
These activities can range from walks to swims, to hikes—all terrific cardiovascular exercises. Anything that gets your heart pumping for a longer period of time will do you good when it comes to losing weight. There is, however, better and worse types of cardio.
We’ve all seen the differences in physique between athletes at the top of their level in different disciplines. Compare, for example, the body of a sprinter to the body of a marathon runner. Their composition is different, even though it’s technically the same activity. And as you might’ve noticed, the former has the leaner physique.
Long, steady-state cardio is ultimately where it’s at if you want to turbocharge your losses. Marathon running won’t just burn a lot of calories over a longer period of time, but it’ll also lead to a leaner physique. HIIT routines, while burning even more fat than steady-state cardio, can actually lead to the development of muscles and improve your lifts. It comes down to fast-twitch versus slow-twitch muscle fibers, and which ones you want to engage more.
So, if you’re looking for some help in slimming down, steady-state cardio is going to be an incredibly helpful tool to get you to your goals.
If you wanna lose it, don’t use it.
The process of your muscles atrophying is when they shrink due to not using them (or other, medical reasons)—something that happens from anywhere between 2 and 12 weeks, depending on the individual and the muscle.
If you’re trying to target a specific muscle, then it’s as easy as avoiding it in your training. If you’re looking to lose muscle mass in general, then you might want to lay off the weights for a hot minute. This also really comes down to avoiding, “The pump.”
The pump is one of the ingredients for muscle hypertrophy—aka, muscle growth. It’s what happens when there’s an increase of fluid to your muscles, usually due to a high-rep, mid-weight lifting scheme. Getting a bigger pump also comes down to the tempo you lift (faster is better), and the amount of rest you get between sets. Mix all these ingredients together, and you’ve got a solid pump—at least for those who want it.
If you’re looking to lose muscle mass, the pump is definitely something you want to avoid if you decide to keep lifting.
Avoiding the pump means stopping a few reps before you reach the point of failure, only using a rep range between 3 and 5, and taking plenty of time to rest in between sets. Furthermore, it provides the perfect segue into our next topic of discussion.
Okay, but what if you’re still into the strength that big muscles provide? Won’t limiting protein and working out completely wreck the strength gains?
While we want to avoid the pump, there’s still a certain type of training that can allow us to hit the iron without getting bulging muscles. Known as strength training, or “neural” training, this method can assist those looking to maintain their strength while shedding some muscle mass.
This type of training is all about keeping in the very low rep ranges—as in, anything from 1 to 5. And since you’ll be training for strength, the weights are intended to be proper heavy. This is often geared towards those in Olympic lifting or powerlifting, and it effectively limits hypertrophic growth in muscles.
By keeping the weight heavy and reps towards the lower end, your body is forced into more “tightness” and a greater focus. This utilizes more muscle fibers and also improves your body’s ability to turn off opposite muscle groups that work against each other. As the name “neural” suggests, this type of training is more draining on your nervous system.
However, it is important to keep in mind that hypertrophy and strength aren’t as removed from one another as the internet sometimes makes it seem. Especially for beginners, gains in both departments come fast. It depends how much you’re planning on slimming down because even if you stay within the strength training range you’re still going to be activating those muscles to a high degree.
If strength is still something you want, you might want to adopt the above approach while slowly changing your routine if you feel that you’re maintaining too much muscle mass.
This might be another avenue you want to try if you’re looking to slim down, and the benefit is that you’ll be able to slowly ease into the muscle burning route if that’s what you decide.
Losing fat without gaining muscle will come down to a balancing act between maintaining the muscle mass you already have, doing enough cardio to elicit fat loss, and eating appropriately to get your body fat in check.
It’s much easier to maintain than to build, so weightlifting should go on the back burner—but don’t completely forget about it either. Most of the fat loss gains will be found within your dietary plan and with the amount of cardio you get. You will want to eat at a caloric deficit once again, but you’ll also want to gauge your calories and protein intake in relation to how much you’re training. While you can set yourself up for success, it will probably take some tweaks to get right; something a personal trainer would be very useful for.
The benefit of taking this avenue is that you’ll be able to get a better grasp on what it takes to maintain your body composition. You’ll be walking the edge, in a sense, which will put you in a better position of judging how routine changes will affect your body.
This is also a goal that can greatly benefit from a high-quality fat burning supplement that can give you an edge. Of course, supplements are only part of the equation and they always must be backed up by the proper training and diet.
It’s apparent that muscle loss and muscle gain are two sides of the same coin; many of the strategies that work for one goal can be flipped for the other. The point is to maintain control of your routine, and therefore, your body—otherwise, you can fall down a slippery slope.
Just like it comes down to the gains, your diet and workout routine are what carry you to your goals.
But there’s plenty of other ways to lose muscle mass that we haven’t talked about—such as having a kid and settling down—but when it comes down to it, you want to keep a healthy relationship with your body.