This study showed 11 lbs of fat lost and 3 lbs of muscle gained in 1 month. Despite its title, this is NOT just because of high protein and high intensity training.
A recent study showed that it is possible to lose substantial amounts of fat and gain muscle on a massive calorie deficit.
The phenomenon of “muscle memory” was likely a contributing factor, however the results are still astonishing and cannot be attributed to this concept alone.
The researchers stacked the deck in favor of both muscle gain and fat loss incorporating some of the most advanced strategies known today: HIT, strength training, proper exercise programming, choosing low fat rather than low carb, controlling NEAT and optimal protein timing, quality and dosage.
The caloric deficit would likely be too large and too difficult for the average Joe to maintain. There is also a risk of high levels of hunger and metabolic compensation after the exercise program and diet are over which could leading to gaining more back than what you started with.
Although the program used in this study may not be suitable for many, the synergism of the right combination of advanced techniques should not be overlooked.
This could be the verge of proof in the ability to both gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, even for the most advanced weight lifters.
A recently published study by Dr. Stu Phillips, Thomas Longland and colleagues at McMaster University showed that if you add up small advanced strategies and do them consistently you can achieve outstanding results.
This study showed that by doing high intensity training coupled with a high protein diet, you could gain significant muscle and strength while in a (massive) 40% calorie deficit.
There were 2 groups, one consuming 1.2 g of protein per kg body weight per day and one consuming 2.4 g/kg/day over 4 weeks and here were some of their fascinating results:
Both groups lost fat (2.4g/kg group lost 11 lbs; 1.2g/kg group lost 7.7 lbs)
Neither group lost muscle
The 2.4 g/kg group gained muscle (2.6 lbs)
Both groups gained strength
But What About…?
Since this was all over the media, I’ve seen the criticisms of this study across the internet. Here are my answers to those criticisms:
Criticism #1: “These subjects were untrained and that’s why it was easier for them to put on muscle.”
This immediately jumped into my mind when I read the paper for the first time as well. It caused me to dismiss some of the practicality of the study until I listened to this interview with Dr. Stu Phillips. What they wanted to label the subjects as was “trained not training”. Meaning, these guys had resistance trained before, they just hadn’t been recently leading up to the study. However, the journal reviewers didn’t see this as an acceptable label due to its lack of clarity. All it takes is one look at their baseline performance tests to show that these guys had some experience in the weight room (eg. An average 1RM Bench Press of 225 lbs).
Criticism #2: “These subjects had a lot of fat to lose so it would be easier for them to lose weight.”
Sure, by BMI these guys were in the overweight category and pushing into the obese class 1 category. However, even your average intermediate male physique athlete is considered overweight by BMI standards on show day (at <10% body fat). Remember, BMI only takes into account weight, not where that weight is coming from. Looking at the subjects’ body fat percentage (average = ~24%), they wouldn’t be considered lean by any means, but they are below the average North American male (28%). With this body fat percentage and an average weight of 216 lbs, they certainly had some muscle on them as well.
Criticism #3: “Some of these gains are from ‘muscle memory’.”
Muscle memory is a term used to describe the phenomenon of a muscle that has previously been large, but subsequently lost its mass, can regain mass faster than if it had not been that size before. There is substantial evidence that this does occur in humans and that this ‘memory’ can last up to 15 years or longer(1). With these subjects being ‘trained not training’, indeed I agree that this was a contributor to the results.
With criticisms 1 and 2 out of the way and even with the true nature of criticism 3, these results were still mind blowing to me. However, they certainly cannot be attributed to a higher protein intake and high intensity training (HIT) alone. In fact, they stacked the deck and added many of the most advanced strategies science knows to date for both gaining/maintaining muscle and strength and for losing fat.
How they did it: The Synergistic Effect
#1 HIT – High intensity training has trumped steady state cardio over and over again both for its effectiveness for fat loss and maintaining muscle mass (2). It allows for more stimulation of the muscle fibers and for more calorie burning away from exercise while you recover from this hard work.
#2 Strength Training – Want to keep your muscle around or gain more? You’re going to have to lift, push and pull heavy things. This the most potent stimulus known for signaling your body to keep and build muscle.
#3 Volume and volitional failure – 2 key components to gaining muscle. Volume = sets x reps x weight and has a strong correlation with gains in strength and muscle size. Going to failure is also important, however by the researchers instructing the subjects not to go to failure until the last set of their exercise they ensured that they weren’t interrupting the effects of volume. Meaning, if they went to failure on their first set, they likely wouldn’t have been able to lift as much in their remaining sets resulting in less volume.
#4 Lowering fat more substantially than carbohydrates - When it comes to losing fat, some people choose lowering fat more than carbs others choose lowering carbs more than fat. They are equally effective as long as the caloric deficit created is equal (3), so it’s usually a matter of preference of whatever keeps hunger levels at bay if your primary goal is fat loss.
However, when it comes to keeping muscle, low fat interventions that maintain carbohydrate levels (4,5) are more effective at preventing muscle loss than lower carbohydrate, higher fat approaches (6,7).
A full-blown ketogenic diet (very low carb, low protein, very high fat) may also be very effective at preserving muscle in a calorie deficit (8), but considering there are very few people who can adhere to this, I’m not going to get to deep into this topic in this post. When it comes to just low carb (~50-150g/day for most) it is not as effective for muscle preservation as low fat because your body will go to your muscle to convert some of those precious proteins into carbohydrates to use for energy instead. In this study, the researchers chose for most of their calorie deficit to come from fat intake for this reason.
#5 Protein timing and dosage – By spreading their protein out into spaced meals throughout the day they took advantage of spiking muscle growth/building (ie. protein synthesis) as frequently as possible.
#6 Protein quality – They used milk as they’re main source of protein. As discussed in my protein dosage and timing article, high leucine foods like dairy have the ability to maximize rates of protein synthesis (muscle gains) after they are consumed. Not to mention that dairy seems to both aid in weight loss and prevent weight gain when compared to other foods of the same caloric density (9).
For more info on numbers 5 and 6, check out my protein timing, dosage and quality post here.
#7 NEAT – Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (exercise away from the gym). Large reductions in calories can cause people to (in simple terms) become lazier. In other words, when your body senses a large reduction in calories it convinces the brain to conserve energy wherever possible, such as by taking the elevator instead of the stairs, not going for that extra block with the dog or by waiting in the grocery store parking lot until one of the closest spots to the door becomes available. By having the subjects wear a pedometer and maintain a step count of 10 000 steps, they helped ensure that these subjects weren’t making up for their energy burned in the gym and the large calorie deficit from the diet by conserving calories over the rest of the day.
As demonstrated in past studies most people can expect to lose 20-30% of lean body mass (muscle) when they lose weight. This study shows that if you use the most contemporary science we have, not only can you preserve muscle in a large calorie deficit (with low protein), but you can potentially gain muscle (with high protein).
Should you try this diet and exercise program?
Who should take the protocol in this study and implement it into their own life? Likely not most people. If you look at the ghrelin levels (hormone that stimulates hunger) in the participants you’ll see that they nearly doubled by the end of the study.
In my opinion this study has implications for highly motivated individuals whose careers depend more so on their body composition, such as:
High level athletes – who may have put a little bit of extra weight on in the off season and need to drop it quickly
Military personnel – before going into heavy training or being sent out into the field
EMS – coming back to an ‘infield’ position after some time sitting at a desk in the office
The common theme among those who it may be suitable for is they are going from a less active lifestyle into a highly active lifestyle with little transition time in between. They have little likelihood of stopping their activity (as their positions force them to be active) and only have a small to moderate amount of fat to lose.
For Joe Shmoe who juggles a regular day job and family life, the stress of this program would likely be too great. #1 because of the incessant hunger levels, refraining from eating your child’s leftovers or the doughnuts your colleague brought to work would be too difficult. Remember that, if you’ve read my other articles, these hunger levels are going to be there to hang out for a while; even after the ‘diet’ is over. Also, with the risk you run of metabolic adaptation, going back to your usual diet the next day after the 4 weeks of this extreme program is likely to lead to rapid regain.
I can’t say I would be surprised if the people who were part of the study being discussed are back to their pre-study weight or possibly even heavier.
Side note: I also want to point out the drastic reduction in their testosterone levels (~500 down to ~100 ng/dL). Not only does this show the harsh effects very low calorie diets can have on your hormones, but I actually want to take this opportunity to point out that testosterone is not the be all end all of muscle gains. These guys were able to build muscle even with being at about 1/5th of their usual T levels.
In fact, within the physiological (or normal) range it has been demonstrated times over that there’s no effect on muscle gains (10). Anabolic steroid users are well past this range and often achieve more than 10x the levels of an average man. I recommend throwing out your testosterone boosting supplements and disregard the testosterone boosting ‘tricks’ that, if at all, only achieve a small increase in testosterone that is still within the normal range. This is, of course, unless your blood biochem results show you are below this range.
What you can do
Incorporate as many of the strategies discussed as you can that easily fit into your lifestyle, such as: HIT: sprints, intervals, circuits, bootcamps, etc. Strength training Proper training periodization: workout programming that doesn’t result in overtraining and takes volume into account. Gradually increase your volume over time and don't go to failure on every set. Protein timing, quality and dosage: 4-6 meals per day providing ≥0.3 g/kg body weight mainly made up of high quality protein. NEAT: using a pedometer, Fitbit or scheduled short bouts of activity throughout the day.
Take into account your individual preferences and goals. This goes for many things exercise and nutrition related, but in this example, I'd particularly like to point out when considering a lower carb or lower fat approach for fat loss. If fat loss is your primary goal, do whichever one is easiest for you to stick to. If you are a strength athlete or physique athlete and you are able to stick to lower fat over lower carb, do so to best preserve your muscle. This should also be considered for the multiple meals per day. If fat loss is your primary goal and it is easier for you to stick to less meals (such as intermittent fasting by skipping breakfast) then by all means do what works for your health and fitness.
To ensure long term success, most people should consider a more conservative calorie deficit than that used in this study unless your situation is similar to those discussed above. It is easy to commit future self to something such as promising not to give in after an extreme diet, but it will likely be a different story under the allurement of intense physiological hunger hormones. Most people only need a few swaps of calorie dense foods for more nutrient dense foods. If you feel like you've tried this along with everything else out there you thought would work, get yourself a coach.
This may not be the one diet and exercise program to rule them all, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, through the combination of the right techniques, we are on the verge of proving the ability to both gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, even for more advanced lifters.
The key to success when you feel like nothing else is working
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