There is a massive difference between being massive and maintaining muscle mass. To illustrate, Joe Thomas, retired offensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns, was massive during his playing days at 315 pounds. Today he is more than fifty pounds lighter and looks great, with plenty of lean muscle.
Why are offensive linemen so massive – to block edge rushers, protect the quarterback’s blindside, and deal with players like Miles Garrett, also of the Cleveland Browns. Edge rushers focus on speed, agility, and strength and have considerable lean mass.
If your goals are to look more like Joe’s post-NFL self or Miles Garrett today, this article will detail the steps to gain and maintain lean muscle without the additional fifty pounds of mass. We can’t promise the amount of muscle these gentlemen have, they’re professional athletes, and your potential is determined by genetics, gender, and age. What we can do is help you optimize your diet, exercise program, and supplementation regimen to realize your best physique.
The Three Pillars of Lean Mass – Diet, Exercise, Supplementation
As we researched maintaining lean muscle, it became abundantly clear that industry experts have different methods and philosophies regarding diet/nutrition, training, and supplementation. There are varying macronutrient ratios and exercise programs with high (HFT) versus lower frequency training (LFT) and various rep/set/rest schemes. This article reinforces those concepts where there is agreement versus discord and presents differing points of view for your consideration. Each person is unique and will have slightly different responses to the stimuli presented here. Determining your ideal diet and training programs will require a bit of trial and error.
Our best advice as you start this journey – is to benchmark your starting point, set your goal (in writing), and monitor progress religiously, adjusting along the way to reach your true potential.
Those looking to gain and maintain lean muscle first need to dial in the diet, consuming adequate calories from quality nutrients in the correct ratio of macronutrients. Gaining mass will require a surplus of calories consumed versus calories expended. Maintaining mass means keeping a relative balance of calories in versus calories out, focusing on quality protein, healthy fats, and clean carbohydrates.
Your exercise program needs to be structured to maximize lean muscle, using compound movements in an appropriate rep range. Cardio work will help to keep it lean and prevent excess mass.
To speed your progress and maintain lean muscle, we provide a regimen of supplements, first to ensure there are no vitamin, mineral, or other nutrient deficiencies, and secondly, ergogenic aids to enhance energy, speed repair and recovery, and support muscular development.
Dialing in the Diet
Beyond stepping on the scale and looking in the mirror, you will need a bit more scientific approach to benchmarking your starting point. That said, a “before” picture strategically placed in your office or on the refrigerator can provide powerful motivation to maintain discipline and ensure you gain or maintain lean muscle.
To ensure calories in meet or slightly exceed calories out, you need to understand your current daily caloric expenditure. This is a combination of your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate), your energy expenditure from normal daily activities, exercise expenditure, and the thermic effect of food (TEF). An initial consultation with a certified trainer, nutritionist, or dietitian can help you set your targeted caloric intake. They can also advise you of your current BMI (Body Mass Index), which tells your weight in pounds of lean mass versus fat mass. Checking your BMI regularly will let you know if weight changes are achieving your lean mass goals or not. Note: Be sure to use a consistent method for measuring BMI, be it bioelectrical impedance, skinfold calipers, BodPod, or any other device. Your BMI will vary when using different methods; what you seek is a trend line, so continue using the same device.
We once monitored the body fat of a group of CrossFit athletes following the Paleo Diet for a sixty-day period. The CrossFit box owners were elated with the results at first blush, as virtually every participant lost weight. However, on closer examination, all but one athlete lost more muscle than body fat! The one athlete who lost weight and improved her BMI deviated from the diet by adding egg protein shakes twice daily. As you’ll see, if you want to maintain your lean muscle – protein is essential.
One area of consensus in a diet for maintaining lean mass is the need for quality protein. Especially when training intensely, you need to increase muscle protein synthesis and reduce muscle breakdown to build or maintain muscle. The RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of protein for an adult is .8 grams per kilogram of body weight or about .36 grams per pound. For someone training to maintain lean muscle, this is woefully inadequate. Experts suggest somewhere between one to one-and-a-half grams of protein per pound of bodyweight – some trainers suggest up to two grams per pound for those involved in extended training sessions.
Where expert opinions diverge regarding diet is the ratio of the macronutrients, protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Popular ratios for building lean mass range from 50% carbs, 30% protein, and 20% fats, to 40% protein, 30% carbs, and 30% fats. Still others, such as Keto proponents, restrict carbohydrate consumption even further. Our recommendation, start with 40% from quality protein, 20%-30% from healthy fats, and 30%-40% from carbohydrates – monitor results and vary the proportions as necessary.
Additional dietary considerations:
- Caloric intake to match or slightly exceed your daily expenditure of calories.
- Eat four to five smaller meals per day, spread every three to four hours.
- Have a slower digesting protein before bed.
- Eat healthy fats – avoid trans fats.
- Get your carbs from fruits, vegetables, and high fiber sources. High glycemic carbs are strictly post-workout.
- Have a post-workout whole-food meal about an hour after your post-workout shake.
There are ample suggestions of real-food sources of healthy proteins, fats, and carbohydrates available online.
Developing Your Workout Program for Maintaining Muscle Mass
As with nutrition, the experts have differing concepts of mass-building workout routines. Areas of broad consensus include the following:
- Compound movements such as deadlifts, squats, pull-ups/pull-downs, the bench, and shoulder presses stimulate growth more than isolation exercises.
- Free weights are superior to machines for range of motion and to activate stabilizers.
- Progressive overload. Continue to increase the amount of weight on working sets, always with good form – intensity is key.
- Allow muscles time to recover between workouts – get plenty of restful sleep.
- Consider working with a certified trainer – they can help you with proper form and developing a comprehensive routine.
Sets, reps, pyramiding, rest periods, high-frequency training versus less frequent, advanced techniques such as drop sets, supersets, time under tension, and rest-pause sets are all variables to consider in your program design. Our research vividly illustrates experts each have their preferences. Once again, a certified trainer can help you with design, but you will only benefit from their theory. So, we searched for scientific studies that compared techniques. Below is a summary of what the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) had to say.
What the Science Says about Maintaining Muscle Mass
First, like us, the NCBI acknowledges that there is a debate among coaches and fitness professionals about strength training variables and which are most responsible for improvements in lean mass. Their study focused on training frequency, one of the most widely debated aspects. To quote:
“Several studies have demonstrated that a lower frequency of training may be as effective as higher frequency training. While other research indicates that two or three training sessions per muscle per week may produce up to twice the increase in cross-sectional area of the quadriceps and elbow flexors, compared to one training session per week per muscle group.”
A study was conducted on a group of men and women with strength training experience to determine the effect training frequency had on lean mass and strength. Participants in the high-frequency group (HFT) trained each muscle group 3 times per week, 3 sets per session. The low-frequency group (LFT) trained each muscle group once per week, completing all 9 sets during one workout, using a typical split routine over three days, push/pull for the upper body, and a separate day for legs and abs.
We’ll spare you the specifics but suffice it to say the changes between the two approaches, HFT versus LFT, were not significant. What was notable was that both groups made excellent progress, increasing lean mass, with strength improvements on the bench press and hack squat. Our takeaway from this study – be disciplined, follow your plan, challenge yourself, and monitor your results.
Supplement Regimen for Maintaining Muscle Mass
We promised a supplement regimen to ensure no vitamin, mineral, or other nutrient deficiencies, enhance energy, speed repair, and recovery, and support muscular development. Not surprisingly, the first item on our list is protein.
Meeting one-and-a-half grams of protein per pound of bodyweight with real food can be challenging. Consider a lean two-hundred-pound athlete who needs approximately 300 grams of protein per day. Five meals a day would equal 60 grams per serving – an average chicken breast is about 38 grams, or you can have close to a dozen eggs (6 grams each) each meal. Whey, casein, egg, or plant-based, whatever your preference, can help supplement your whole food diet.
Some top protein supplement options include:
- Performance Inspired Plant-Based Protein
- Orgain Protein
- Designer Whey Protein
- Nuzest Clean Lean Protein
- Bulletproof Collagen Protein
- Ladder Whey Protein
A post-workout shake like 1st Phorm Ignition, perhaps even a pre-workout dose of protein, and casein before bed are easy ways to add 25, 50, 70 grams, or more each day. With that most important macronutrient addressed, let’s turn to several other insurance policies against deficiencies:
- Multivitamin/Mineral (MVM) – a quality multi from a reputable company is a great way to ensure you get all the required vitamins and minerals.
- Omega 3 Fish Oils – EPAs and DHAs for essential healthy fats.
- Pre- and Probiotics – for gut health.
Intense workouts require the appropriate nutrients to support your body. For those serious about optimizing their training results, a pre-workout, intra-workout, and post-workout should be considered.
- The pre-workout supplies the energy, focus, and ergogenic aids to enhance performance.
- An intra-workout, typically BCAAs (Branch Chain Amino Acids) or EAAs (Essential Amino Acids), reduce fatigue during the session and speed recovery.
- Your post-workout protein drink, with fast-acting carbs, replenishes glycogen stores and speeds nutrients for repair and recovery to your muscles.
The most important components of your supplement regimen are comprised of the following:
- Caffeine for energy
- Creatine – either monohydrate of HCL – size and strength
- BCAAs or EAAs
- Beta-Alanine for endurance
- Citrulline Malate, L-Arginine, or Beet Extract – nitric oxide (NO) precursors for vasodilation
- L-Glutamine – for repair, recovery, and to reduce muscle soreness
This list could go on for days. We prioritized what we considered the essentials. Huperzine A, Betaine, AAKG, Alpha GPC, Tyrosine, and Taurine receive honorable mention, as does BioPerine (Black Pepper Extract) for its ability to increase the absorption and bioavailability of other components.
You need not attempt to access the ergogenic aids listed separately, as most will be found in commercial pre-workouts, intra-workout products, or post-workout supplements.
Maintaining Muscle Mass as You Age
Perhaps the one group of people most concerned with maintaining muscle mass are the aged. Although we start to lose muscle in our forties, muscle-wasting, or Sarcopenia, typically begins in the mid-late sixties and accelerates into the seventies. So, how do you maintain muscle as you age? Rule number one, never stop moving. Never stop exercising – and do so with intensity. Aging is 25% a natural progression, 50% use it or lose it, and 25% intensity! Our mantra is “train for life” – with your healthcare professional’s permission, of course.
Through diet or supplementation, be sure to continue consuming sufficient protein. Seniors need more protein to maintain their lean muscle than their younger counterparts. The gram to one-and-a-half gram’s recommendation is still valid if you continue to train. A post-workout drink and a slow-digesting protein such as casein before bed are excellent strategies.
Maintain a healthy diet, adhering to our recommendations regarding calories in versus calories out. Ironically, many older people start consuming fewer calories than they’re expending, leading to weight loss and reduced muscle mass and bone density. Also, stay hydrated, as older people require more water than their younger selves.
Finally, pay attention to your sleep. Sleep is about rest, repair, and recovery – target at least seven to eight hours per night. Testosterone and GH (growth hormone) secrete at night to help rebuild and repair your body.
In Summary: Maintaining Muscle Mass
Gaining or maintaining muscle mass without the accompanying fat mass is challenging. We believe we’ve provided excellent strategies, the three pillars, to do so in this article. Consider yourself a laboratory of one. Set the benchmark and your goals, monitor your progress, and adjust your diet, training, and supplements until you find the optimum combination to achieve your results. There is no one right way, but with some trial and error, you will find your best way.