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.
This study showed that it is possible to lose substantial amounts of fat and gain muscle in 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 individual to maintain. There is also a risk of high levels of hunger and metabolic compensation after the exercise program and diet end, which could lead to regaining more than what you started with.
Although the program used in this study may not be suitable for many, the positive effect of combining the right techniques should not be overlooked.
This adds to the evidence that even advanced weight lifters can gain muscle and lose fat at the same time.
A study  from Dr. Stu Phillips' lab by 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.
Study title: Higher compared with lower dietary protein consumed during an energy deficit, and combined with intense exercise, promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss. —a randomized trial
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. Take a look at some of their impressive 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:
“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. Phillips. What they wanted to label the participants 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).
“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 (at <10% body fat). Remember, BMI only takes into account weight, not where that weight is coming from. Looking at their body fat percentage (average = ~24%), they wouldn’t be considered lean, 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.
“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 larger 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’ may last up to 15 years or longer . 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. 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 as well as for losing fat.
How they did it: The synergistic effect
High-intensity training has demonstrated to outperform moderate intensity steady-state cardio in effectiveness for fat loss and maintaining muscle mass . It allows for more stimulation of the muscle fibers while burning a similar number of total calories. The power and force needed for HIT is a signal to keep muscle around so the mass lost during caloric deficiency comes mainly (or entirely) from fat.
#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 at least close to failure in the number of reps someone does for each set 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 effect 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 accumulation.
#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 , 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 [5,6] can be more effective at preventing muscle loss than lower carbohydrate, higher fat approaches [7,8] mainly because carbs can support higher workout performance.
#5 Protein timing and dosage
By spreading their protein intake into 3-4 spaced meals they took advantage of spiking muscle growth/building (ie. protein synthesis) frequently throughout the day.
#6 Protein quality
They used dairy as their 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, dairy has demonstrated to both aid in weight loss and prevent weight gain when compared to other foods of the same caloric density .
For more info on numbers 5 and 6, check out my protein timing, dosage and quality post.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (exercise away from the gym such as walking and fidgeting). 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 by conserving calories through less activity over the rest of the day.
As demonstrated in past studies most people can expect to lose 20-30% of lean body mass (i.e. mostly muscle) when they lose weight. This study shows that if you use contemporary science, not only can you preserve muscle in a large calorie deficit (with low protein), but you can potentially gain muscle (with high protein and proper exercise programming).
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, mainly for the reasons that these are time consuming training demands and their caloric deficit was large (i.e. 40%). If you look at the ghrelin levels (a 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 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
before going into heavy training or being sent out into the field
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 to a highly active lifestyle with little transition time in between. They have little likelihood of stopping their activity (as their positions require 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 very 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 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.
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 of testosterone levels other research has demonstrated that there is no effect on muscle gains . 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. Even in this case, prescribed medication is the more effective route to take.
1. Consider incorporating the strategies discussed that easily fit into your lifestyle, such as:
HIT: Sprints, intervals, circuits, boot camps, etc.
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 of protein per kg body weight mainly made up of high-quality protein.
NEAT: Using a pedometer, Fitbit, or scheduled short bouts of light activity throughout the day.
2. 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. This will best maintain your exercise performance which will likely best preserve your muscle mass and strength.
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 fewer meals (such as intermittent fasting) then by all means do what works for your health and fitness.
3. Ensure long term success
Most people should consider a more conservative calorie deficit (20-30%) than what was used in this study (40%) 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, it is time to get yourself a coach. Unlocked can help you find the right nutrition for your body, activity levels, schedule and goals.
This may not be the one diet and exercise program to rule them all, but it adds to the evidence that both gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time is indeed possible when taking the right approach.
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