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Maintaining Muscle on a Low-Carb Diet

Low-carb diets have been getting a lot of press lately. Yet, this "trend" in bodybuilding is nothing new three-time Mr. Olympia (1977-79) Frank Zane was into low-carb dieting 40 years ago.

I'm not about to reinvent the wheel, but I will shed light on this subject by giving you eight practical and effective ways to maintain muscle mass when you go the low-carb route to get lean.

This type of dieting may sound easy, but it's risky. When you deprive your body of carbs, insulin levels decline and the body relies on fat for fuel. The drawback is that the body, when faced with insufficient glycogen (which is derived from carb intake), will also turn to its protein stores for fuel. The trick is to reduce curbs, burn fat and maintain protein supplies for muscle-building purposes.

Here is an easy-to-use guide for following a low-carb diet without turning into a Pee-Wee Herman clone. Stay consistent with these tips and you will maintain muscle while increasing your metabolism, making it easier to lose fat and achieve your dial-it-in-to-the-max objectives.


A low-carb diet dictates limiting your carbs in proportion to your bodyweight: Bodybuilders who weigh 190 pounds or more should restrict carbs to 56-75 grams (g) per day; bodybuilders under 190 pounds should restrict carbs to 40-55 g per day. When you cut carbs to fewer than 75 g per day, your body needs more protein to use for fuel. So increase protein to two grams per pound of bodyweight while you're on low carbs. A great way to increase your protein intake is by taking a protein powder like BSN Syntha-6.


The beauty of whey is that it contains a considerable amount of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which can substitute for carbs as fuel during your workout. Use 40-60 g of whey mixed with water before training to prevent your body from burning muscle tissue for fuel; use another 40-60 g of whey immediately after training to rebuild muscle tissue. Consume 50% of your daily carb allotment (as determined in the first tip) after your training session.


Red meat provides the body with fat to burn as fuel, protecting protein from being hacked away with impunity. Red meat is also packed with alanine, an anticatabotic amino that can be used as fuel without triggering an increase in insulin.

Eat at least 50 g of protein per day from lean red meat sources (eye of round and flank steak are my two favorites). Split it between two meals: 25 g at breakfast (serve it with scrambled egg whites) and 25 g at another meal. Dividing it this way helps to keep a steady supply of alanine in your body, preventing the burning of protein for energy.


Energizers will help you train with high intensity while in low-carb mode.


Commonly known as MCTs, these "fatless" fats can fuel your workout during low-carb periods. Medium-chain triglycerides are converted into ketones, sparing muscle tissue while providing energy for balls-to-the-wall training. Take one to three tablespoons before a workout.


This fat burner spares muscle tissue, preventing it from being wasted as fuel when carbs are low. Take six to nine grams per day in two equal doses: the first before training so your body can use it as fuel in lieu of burning muscle tissue; the second when your blood-sugar levels wane and you need an energy boost. The exact timing is a personal matter.


Stay on the low-carb diet for two weeks. On the 15th day, increase carb consumption to two or three grams per pound of bodyweight and decrease protein to one gram per pound of bodyweight. You can follow a low-carb diet for eight or nine weeks as long as you take a break from it for one day every two weeks. It's important to give your body a mental and physical vacation from the low-carb grind, but a day of packing in more carbs also seems to stimulate better results.


Low-carb diets are effective because they deplete muscle-glycogen levels to trigger the body to rely on fat for fuel. High-intensity aerobics 30 minutes, three or four times per week further depletes glycogen levels to whack away more unwanted fat. For best results, do cardio before you eat. That's when glycogen levels are low anyway.

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