Unquestionably the most important objective when planning and implementing a physical transformation plan is the gradual gaining of lean muscle tissue and the corresponding loss of body fat. It is also the most difficult.
Many experts feel that a loss of muscle tissue is an inevitable consequence of the high levels of cardio, intense resistance work and low calorie diets necessary to achieving a lean and muscular look, but with the right approach we need not experience a declining of lean mass as we ‘rip-up’. By following the strategies outlined below you can retain your hard-fought size gains while gradually revealing the definition needed to make your muscularity more visible.
Let’s get one thing straight: retaining lean muscle gains while shredding is no easy task. In fact, most of us will sacrifice a fair percentage of our muscle tissue to achieve the kind of separation that distinguishes the best from the rest. However, whether it is due to the lower energy levels that are often associated with getting in shape, appetite suppression, or improper meal planning (a plethora of reasons may be provided), many shredders do not consume nearly enough protein, an important prerequisite for offsetting muscle degradation. To preserve lean muscle as we strip the fat, it is essential that we take in at least one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day (in most cases up to 1.5g is even better).
Protein also does a great job of filling us up; the more lean proteins we eat, the greater the appetite suppressant effect. This is important when leaning up, as we want to keep our intake of harmful calories down. Indeed, the wrong nutritional choices may not only further flesh out our fat cells, but can also negatively impact the muscle building process. When we eat junk our clean, beneficial caloric intake must compete with this deleterious fare. Result: less muscle-building nutrition is available to engage the healing process and fewer muscle gains are likely to be experienced.
Muscle building in the off-season is a relatively easy proposition; here we have greater energy reserves to draw upon and, crucially, our cardio output is significantly less. On the other hand, when shrink-wrapping skin to muscle (drug-free of course) the best we can often hope for is muscle maintenance (though muscle can be built naturally during this time if diet, training, supplementation, and recovery are perfectly on point: this comes with experience and much monitoring of progress). One variable that may strip muscle faster than any other factor is cardio or, more precisely, excessive cardio (in both duration and intensity).
Necessary in both the off-season and when shaping up, cardio can aid the muscle building process and is, for most people, an essential fat burning component. However, there is an ultra fine line between doing just enough cardio to encourage its lean muscle building benefits and a level that may seriously deplete your muscle reserves. To ensure cardio does not diminish your muscle gains, begin your transformation with 3-4 short (10-15 minute) steady state low impact (SSLI) sessions per week and gradually increase the duration until you are doing around 45 minutes per session. Closely monitor your muscle gains and if at any time you detect a size deficit, scale back the cardio by five minutes per session. Drug-free fitness and bodybuilding folk may substitute 2-3 of these SSLI sessions for an equal number of 20-minute High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) sessions. Though, generally speaking, the more intense the cardio, the more muscle losses we are likely to experience, so for the most part we may, at least initially, look to incorporate the steady state option (ideally before breakfast on an empty stomach).
Without a spark there can be no flame; without optimal training intensity spread across 3-4 weekly resistance sessions our muscle gains will likely diminish. Training with regular intensity promotes super-compensation and, ultimately, growth. You can eat all the protein you want, sleep 10 hours each night, and supplement with the best products on the market, but without sufficient resistance work any mass gains you hope to experience will remain but a pleasant dream. Without sufficient muscle to boost caloric expenditure, our metabolic rate will become ever more sluggish and our fat stores may continue to grow; the exact opposite effect we are trying to create.
Lose fat while building muscle. With the vast amount of information and number case studies of successful, albeit in most instances vastly more experienced, physical transformation candidates at our disposal, one might be led to believe that this goal may be achieved with relative ease. Nothing could be further from the truth. Achieving a shredded appearance is one of the hardest tasks we will ever encounter, but is can be done. The good news is, the more we complete the shredding process, the easier it becomes. Finding what works best for our individual requirements takes time, but through diligent efforts and careful observation we may hit on a solution that allows us to carve the adipose while increasing our lean mass – to achieve the best of both worlds.
This post was written by David Robson in conjunction with Gym and Fitness Australia. David is a specialist health and fitness writer who has written professionally for such publications as Muscle & Fitness magazine, FLEX, bodybuilding.com, New Zealand Fitness, Inside Fitness, ALLMAX Nutrition, and Status Fitness magazine. As Founder and Managing Director of the New Zealand Wheelchair Body Building Federation (NZWBBF), Fit Futures Charitable Trust (both not for profit organisations set up to provide sporting and exercise options for people with physical disabilities), and Advanced Personal Training, David also doubles as a trainer, health and fitness educator and mentor to both established elite athletes and novice trainees alike. A competitive bodybuilder, David believes in leading by example.