This can be an all to common frustration for gym goers everywhere. You train regularly and think you’re doing everything right but you see your muscle mass has decreased slightly. That can be very frustrating and demotivating… if you let it.
You see, this trend could well be a blessing in disguise. It could well be that this is showing you that hey, something needs to change. So I wanted to run through the main reasons you could be losing muscle mass.
There are two things we need to focus on, the two biggest things that lead us to progress in whatever our health and fitness goals are: diet and training.
Let’s address diet first. The first thing you have to do is hit your protein goal. So, how much protein? I’m going to average it out and go on the high end of female clients and the low end of male clients and say 150 grams per day as an example. What does that look like?
Breakfast: 3 eggs – 18 grams protein
Lunch: 200g chicken breast – 50 grams protein
Dinner: 200g beef – 45 grams protein
Snack: 1 scoop protein powder – 25 grams
Snack: 1 single serving greek yogurt – 15 grams
Total protein: 153 grams
If you’re struggling with getting enough protein into your diet, start by looking at your breakfast and lunch. These two meals tend to be lower in protein. Then, start adjusting the rest of your diet. Now, in an ideal world you would be consuming a liquid protein immediately after your training. This is something I encourage every client to do. After training is when your muscles are most responsive to amino acid (broken down protein) absorption. There is research coming out stating that nutrient timing isn’t as essential as first thought, but every person I know and deal with, be it colleagues, friends or clients that maintain and regularly build quality, lean muscle, all follow this rule of thumb. So bring your protein powder to the gym and get it down!
The next area to look at is calories. Muscle mass uses a lot of energy (relative to other tissues), so your body only wants to build muscle mass if it absolutely has to AND you supply enough energy (calories) and building blocks (protein) for it to do so.
If you are eating less total calories than is required, you can forget about putting on muscle mass very fast, especially if you can’t hit your protein goal. You simply are not supplying the body with enough food to make progress. Now, if you hit your protein goal consistently, you should maintain your current muscle mass.
Okay, so what about training?
To start off, if you’re not training hard enough, you’re not going to see the results you want to see. I’m not telling you to kill yourself in the gym or that you have to squat 200kg, but there is a very basic concept called progressive overload that you must follow. What this means is you gradually increase intensity over time. A common example would be if you can squat 50kg for 10 reps this week, next week you should either increase the weight for the same number of reps (55kg for 10 reps) or do more reps at the same weight (50kg for 12 reps).
If you’ve been working out for a little while now, the same concept holds true. The only difference might be that you progress each month instead of each week. So, you might do 100kg on a trap bar deadlift for 10 reps this month, and it might take you a month to be able to beat that.
If you’re still lifting the same weights you were a few months ago, don’t expect any changes. You have to keep progressing in some fashion (doesn’t have to be total kilo’s lifted). Ben Pukulski, a coach I hold in high regard, said it best: “You’re either growing or you’re dying.” Quite profound.
Now to switch gears. Overtraining is another way to lose muscle mass. When you workout, you are breaking down the muscle tissue and you actually leave the gym weaker than when you first walked in. When you give the body adequate time, calories, and protein to recover, you end up recovering and becoming stronger.
But if you are working out hard all the time (5+ days a week), you might not give your body enough time to recover if you’re pushing every workout. You should only have two or three, at most four, really hard workouts per week, with the rest of the workouts being a little lighter to facilitate recovery. And that number would be determined by how optimally you recover. For me, with sleep being of a lesser quality right now, I will only push hard for three sessions per week. I know that will give me a chance to recover well enough for the next session.
In terms of training, you need to push yourself and make sure you are making progress by increasing your weights or reps. But don’t go overboard by doing way too much and setting yourself up for burnout or injury. Longevity is key.
Again, this isn’t about gaining lots of muscle mass or building the strength to bench press 300 kilograms, so following this advice won’t make you “bulky.” Building lots of muscle mass takes a lot of effort both inside and outside the gym, so unless you’re the genetic 0.01% who lack the myostatin gene plus have a few other genetic variations going for you, you’re not going to put on slabs of muscle unless you really want to.
Between keeping track of your protein/calorie intake and monitoring how and how much you’re training, and how well you’re recovering, you’ll be able to reach your goals and keep building or maintaining your muscle mass.