Maximum Wellness, Episode 122: Losing Body Fat While Increasing Muscle Can Pose Unique Challenges

by Mackie Shilstone.

In August of 1985, I designed and implemented the performance nutrition and conditioning plan that transformed the former undisputed World Light Heavyweight Champion Michael Spinks from his light heavyweight weigh-in weight of 175 pounds to 200 pounds.

On September 21st, Spinks won a 15-round historic victory over the reining, undisputed World Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes. Previously, no light heavyweight boxer had ever successfully moved up and beaten the world heavyweight champion. Both Spinks and I made history on that night.

Losing scale weight, while preserving or increasing fat free mass (FFM), can be quite challenging, as any bodybuilder can attest to.

Researchers from the University of Alicante in Spain and California State University in Northridge, California published research – Achieving an Optimal Fat Loss Phase in Resistance-Trained Athletes: A Narrative Review – in the September 2021 issue of the journal Nutrients.

The researchers used a literature review to develop an evidence-based overview of dietary-nutritional strategies for the loss of fat mass (FM) and maintenance of FFM in resistance-trained athletes.

The first area of concern is caloric intake, which for resistance athletes, “should be set based on a target BW (body weight) loss of 0.5–1.0%/week, in order to maximize retention of FFM.” The researchers point out that athletes with an initial lower percentage of body fat should take a more conservative approach to caloric restriction (CR).

As for protein intake, 2.2–3.0 grams/kilogram of body weight per day (g/kg BW/day) should be distributed throughout the day in three–six meals and ensuring in each of them an adequate amount of protein (0.40–0.55 g/kg BW/intake), note the investigators.

Relative to integrating protein intake around resistance training, “an intake 2-3 hours before training and another 2-3 hours post-training is preferable.”

Carbohydrate consumptions needs to be adapted to the athlete’s activity level, in order to support the energy demands of the training (2–5 g/kg BW/day). “Individuals, who wish to engage in more severe CHO restriction (e.g., ketogenic conditions),” comment the researchers, “may increase the risk of FFM loss, despite a similar capacity to preserve strength.”

The fat macro-nutrient intake should ensure a minimum of greater than or equal to 0.5 grams per kilogram of BW per day.

From a micronutrient standpoint, the researchers point out that there is a need to overcome any potential deficiencies in vitamin B1, B3, B6, vitamin D, and the minerals magnesium, calcium, zinc, and iron.

A good starting point is to use a multivitamin/mineral formula containing, note the researchers, 10 or more vitamins and minerals at recommended daily intake levels in healthy people.

Creatine – produced naturally in the body from the amino acids glycine, methionine and arginine – is used in the phosphocreatine energy system in explosive activities lasting 0–10 seconds.

The researchers comment that, “athletes may benefit from creatine supplementation indirectly, since it has been observed that creatine supplementation in combination with strength training could increase the training-induced proliferation of satellite cells and myonuclei in skeletal muscle, resulting in increased muscle fiber growth.”

For more information about developing a creatine muscle gain protocol in conjunction with your physician, I refer you to my book, Lean & Hard, the body you’ve always wanted in 24 workouts (John Wiley & Sons).

Lastly, the researchers reference caffeine and the conflicting views on its ability to increase maximum strength and power. The recommended dose to reduce fatigue is 1–3 mg/kg BW/day] and to improve performance in strength training it is 3–6 mg/kg BW/day, 30–60 min prior to exercise,” note the researchers.

However, “recent studies show the great inter-individual variability in the response to different doses of caffeine, mediated by genetic and non-genetic factors; therefore, both the dose and the timing should be individualized for each athlete.”

Before you attempt to adjust your body composition in favor of the development of lean muscle at the expense of body fat, it’s always best to check with your primary care physician.