When you've battled through tough weight training sessions and built some impressive lean muscle mass, it's nice to be able to show it off by reducing your body fat. One way you can do this is to switch to a low-carb diet, which can ramp up your fat-burning progress. Be warned, though: If you go about a low-carb diet the wrong way, you could lose some of that precious muscle you worked so hard for.
Low-carb Dieting Issues
The main issue with low-carb dieting and keeping your muscle is that your levels of glycogen, the stored form of carbohydrate in your body, drop as soon as you lower your carb intake. Glycogen is your main energy source when you're lifting weights, so the lower your levels, the harder you'll find your workouts. By lifting lighter weights for fewer reps, your muscles don't get the same stimulation as when your carbs were higher, which can lead to a decrease in strength and size.
Along with physical decreases in strength and performance, you may not feel quite as mentally motivated to hit the weights when following a low carb plan. You might experience brain fog, in the first few days of going low carb, warns trainer Shannon Clark. This leads to increased irritability and a general lack of energy for some people. It's hard to set personal records in the gym and really push your muscles to their limit when all you want to do is raid the cookie jar or demolish a bowl of pasta.
Carbs aren't the only thing that matter when dieting -- your calorie intake is critical too. Consuming too few can result in muscle loss. Very low calorie diets will result in not only fat loss, but muscle loss too, notes trainer Hara Hagikalfa of CalorieSecrets.net. When you reduce your carb intake, you may need to increase your protein and fat consumption so your calories don't drop too low.
Plan your low-carb diet carefully. You might be able to drop the pounds quickly by cutting out bread, rice and fruit, but you risk losing muscle and looking weak and scrawny if you don't replace these with other foods. Add more low-carb vegetables and fruits such as broccoli, asparagus, mushrooms, cauliflower, spinach, blackberries and strawberries to your diet. Replace grains and high-sugar fruits with healthy fats from nuts, avocados and oils, along with more protein from meat, fish, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt and eggs. It may seem counterproductive, but reducing your training volume can also help -- focus on maintaining strength with fewer repetitions but using heavier weights rather than hammering your muscles into oblivion with lighter weights and higher reps.
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