Losing Muscle Mass? Here’s Why

Are you trying to lose body fat, but it seems like you’re only losing muscle mass?

There are a few reasons for this, one being that you have lost a significant amount of weight (more than 10% of your starting bodyweight). When this happens, your body is moving less weight around in your everyday activities, so there is usually a drop in some muscle mass, but it’s temporary if you continue progressing in the gym.

Another reason is that you’re getting down to very low body fat levels (under 8% in men, under 15% in women). Generally, your calories have to be very low to reach these levels, so you are going to lose some muscle mass here. 

The other reason could be that your diet and/or training aren’t allowing you to make progress. 

If you’re not training hard enough, progressing, or you’re overtraining, you can see muscle mass go down, even if you’re in the gym everyday. 

If your calories or protein are too low, you will see a decrease in muscle mass, even if you are getting stronger. 

Regardless of the reason, chances are you’re pretty frustrated seeing a decrease in muscle mass. That’s understandable, I would be too. But it’s also a sign that you need to change up what you’re doing so you can get the progress that you want to see. 

Before I continue, I want to note that this email isn’t about getting massive amounts of muscle to look like you’re going to compete in the Arnold Classic. This is about getting and maintaining a normal or above-average level of muscle mass to decrease your risk of injuries and improve your quality of life. 

There are two things we need to focus on, the two biggest things that lead us to progress in whatever our 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 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: 8 oz chicken breast- 50 grams protein

Dinner: 8 oz beef- 45 grams protein

Snack: 1 scoop protein powder- 25 grams

Snack: 1 single serving greek yogurt – 15 grams

Total protein: 153 grams

This is just including sources high in protein. If you have two cups of broccoli with your lunch, that’s an additional 4 grams of protein. Other foods you eat may contain small amounts of protein to help you reach your goal.

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. 

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 enough energy (calories) and building blocks (protein) for it to do so. 

If you’re new to lifting, you can build some muscle mass eating under 14 calories per pound bodyweight, but if you’ve been working out consistently, you won’t build muscle mass very quick unless you’re eating 16 calories per pound or more (that’s 2,160 calories for a 135 lbs person and 2,880 for a 180 lbs person).

If you are eating less than 12 calories per pound of bodyweight, 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. 

(Note: the one exception to this rule is if you already had more muscle mass from exercise in the past, took time off and lost the muscle you built, and then started working out again. This has to do with satellite cells, but that’s an email for another time.)

Okay, so what about training? 

To start off, if you’re not training hard enough, you’re 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 400lbs, but there is a very basic concept called progressive overload that you must follow. What this means is you gradually increase intensity overtime. A common example would be if you can squat 30 pounds for 10 reps this week, next week you should either increase the weight for the same number of reps (35lbs for 10 reps) or do more reps at the same weight (30lbs 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 200lbs 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 pounds lifted). Ben Pukulski, a coach I hold in high regard, said it best: “You’re either growing or you’re dying.” Personally, I’ll pick growth. 

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 really hard workouts per week, with the rest of the workouts being a little lighter to facilitate recovery. 

In terms of training, you need to push yourself 2-3 times per week 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. 

Again, this email isn’t about gaining lots of muscle mass or building the strength to bench press 300 pounds, 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. 

If you’re afraid of going heavier in your workouts, try doing more reps with the same weight. A method I like using is the 8-12-8 method. Pick a weight you can do for 8 reps and stick with that weight until you can do 12 reps with it. This might take one week or it might take four weeks, but after you hit 12 reps, find a new weight that is a struggle for eight reps. Increase that weight and repeat. This is just one method; there are tons of others we use at GST, but it’s an easy one for you to follow since we stick with the 8-12 rep range for many of our exercises. 

Between keeping track of your protein/calorie intake and monitoring how and how much you’re training, you’ll be able to reach your goals and keep building or maintaining your muscle mass.