Colette's Blog

December 17, 2008

How Men Can Lose Weight While Building Muscle Through Exercise and Smart Nutrition

Atkins interviewed Jeff Volek, PhD, RD, exercise and nutrition researcher, fitness expert and co-author of the recently released Men's Health TNT Diet: The Explosive New Plan to Blast Fat, Build Muscle and Get Healthy in 12 Weeks.<>The book contends that, with the right diet and the right exercise program, men can simultaneously lose weight and build muscle mass--without spending 15 hours a week in the gym. We chatted with Jeff about the TNT program, its applicability to women and some of his findings over a decade's worth of research on diet and exercise.

Can you describe the key tenets of the book?

In the book, we're not just promoting weight loss. We're promoting the idea of trading your fat for muscle; of actually shifting the tissues around. To achieve this, we took the two most potent lifestyle modifications for fat loss and muscle building and combined them. We also tweaked the program based on our prior research and personal experience to achieve maximal benefit. The two core tenets we address are low carbohydrate eating to stimulate fat burning and resistance training to stimulate muscle growth. I have studied each of these lifestyle approaches independently over the last 10 years, but never together. In brief, we have shown that low carbohydrate diets consistently result in greater fat loss than any other diet program, and that resistance exercise results in greater muscle growth than any other exercise program.

There is a lot of emphasis on weight loss, however, if you look at most weight loss diets it's very difficult to simultaneously lose significant amounts of body fat and gain lean body mass at the same time. Why? Because you're breaking down one tissue and building another. That's a rather difficult physiological effect to achieve.

So, we thought, the way to prevent that is to combine low carb with weight training. To prove this, we performed a study combining a low-carbohydrate diet with weight training. The hypothesis was that restricting carbohydrates in combination with resistance training would promote the greatest fat loss while actually building muscle tissue. And that's exactly what we found. In fact the results exceeded my expectations. We had multiple subjects lose 15-20 pounds of fat while gaining 5-10 pounds of lean body mass.

What mechanism makes it possible for the body to build mass and lose mass at the same time?

There's a concept called nutrient partitioning. Basically, it's the process of diverting nutrients away from fat storage and toward muscle building. Historically, it's been used in animal research. For example, in the agricultural context, you want to efficiently grow cattle and to make them leaner and make them have less fat while feeding them less food. If you can partition nutrients away from fat and toward lean muscle, you could simultaneously lose body fat and preserve and even build muscle. For most guys, that's sort of the Holy Grail in terms of what they're trying to achieve with their body composition.

The idea that we're interested in studying is, "How can we do this through normal lifestyle modification--through dietary means and exercise?" In fact, that's what my research has focused on for the last decade: Trying to optimize body composition--and health as well.

Your book is addressed to men. Do these concepts apply to women as well?

Certainly women can benefit from doing what we're proposing in this book, which is mainly following a low-carbohydrate diet and performing weight training. For example, if they can preserve and tone muscle while losing fat they will look and feel better and, pound for pound, they'll be burning more calories.

There's a lot of mythology that women will build big muscles and look manly if they lift weights, but it really doesn't happen at all. They don't have the hormonal systems that men do--mainly testosterone--so even if they train like body builders, they just will not build large muscles through natural means.

Why focus on weight training rather than aerobic exercise?

They're really two very different stimuli. The body adapts to these two modes of exercise very differently. That's why you don't see really muscular runners, because running isn't a really potent stimulus to cause muscle growth, whereas weight lifters tend to have bigger muscles.

Aerobic and endurance training really focus more on the heart and the circulation and the respiratory systems. Basically, you're improving your cardio-respiratory capacity. By contrast, strength training is really focused on skeletal muscle, and not so much on the heart and your vasculature. Resistance exercise provides a potent stimulus for the muscles to grow, called muscle hypertrophy. The whole basis of weight training is to overload the muscles--to expose them to loads that you don't experience in a normal day's activity. As a result, they adapt and get stronger. Our book focuses on the latest science of resistance training for building muscle tissue, which surprisingly does not take much time at all. In fact training too much can result in the opposite effect you are after.

What's the idea behind total body training?

Most people don't have endless time to work out. So the overriding philosophy we had in designing the training program was to make it efficient. We assumed that most people could only work out for a limited time each week, so we wanted them to get the most bang for their buck in terms of time in the gym. The way to do that is to do whole body workouts. It shouldn't take more than 45 minutes for a workout. And training the most amount of muscle you can in a given workout has been shown to be the most efficient way to create a muscle-building stimulus.

You've already mentioned the importance of a low-carbohydrate diet to the weight loss part of the program. How do proteins contribute to the plan?

One critical concept that's important is protein synthesis. In order to maintain your protein status in your body--mainly your skeletal muscle--you need to be in a positive protein balance. At all times you're constantly breaking down and synthesizing protein. So if you're breaking down protein at the same rate you're building protein, you'll be in protein balance.

But if you exercise and measure protein balance after you work out, you'll be in negative protein balance unless you eat some protein. So, in order to build muscle mass, we recommend eating a little protein after exercise.

There's also evidence that consuming protein before exercise has an even greater effect. The idea is that you eat protein to get some of the amino acids into your body and your bloodstream before exercise. When you work out, a good portion of your blood volume goes toward the active muscles that are engaged in the exercise, and more of the amino acids you ingested will be delivered to where you want them to go.

Based on several research studies that have investigated timing of nutrients with regards to workouts, we recommend that you eat high-quality protein before and after your workout. It doesn't take a lot of protein to get an effect on protein synthesis, so we're not providing an excess amount of protein. Ten to 20 grams seems to be the optimal amount.

High-quality proteinshave all the essential amino acids--the ones your body doesn't make. Lower-quality protein sources generally come from plants and are lacking in one of the essential amino acids. Most proteins from animal sources, including dairy and most meats--beef, chicken and fish--all have the essential amino acids, so they're generally fairly high quality proteins.

One of the key ideas in your book is time zone eating. Can you talk a little about that?

We tried to create a pr ogram that's flexible for people depending on their goals--whether they want to emphasize more fat loss or muscle building or somewhere in between. So while we recommend a low-carbohydrate diet as a core principle, we went a little bit further to refine that.

If your goal is really fat loss and not much muscle building, we say stay on the low- carbohydrate diet--the fat burning zone--the entire time. But to meet other goals, we're allowing some carbohydrate days within the low-carbohydrate diet. We're really showing people how to cycle back and forth between a low-carbohydrate and higher-carbohydrate diet.

Say you're someone who's already reached his ideal body weight and really wants to focus on muscle building. You may opt to carbohydrate load for two days versus one day or no days. This is the muscle-building zone, which is really the carbohydrate zone where you're getting the short-term insulin surge. What you're doing is creating a unique situation where you can actually handle more carbohydrates for a day or two if you precede that with a low-carbohydrate diet. This lets you take advantage of some of the anabolic effects of carbohydrates without seeing some of the adverse effects. So in short, it's really cycling back and forth between primarily a low-carbohydrate diet with some carbohydrate days interspersed where you're getting an anabolic burst or boost, so to speak.

Then there're the targeted zones around your workout, which are also unique periods where you need to focus particularly on high-quality protein sources where you're getting your essential amino acids.

Eating a high-carbohydrate diet even for a day seems counterintuitive. Why recommend it to anyone?

As long as you've reached your goal weight and keep the carb surge short-term, you won't necessarily see the negative effects of higher carbohydrate. In fact, the inclusion of one or two higher carbohydrate days a week can create a benefit by stimulating a short-term insulin response that promotes protein synthesis. We don’t encourage people to gorge, but simply eat a normal amount of calories emphasizing some of their favorite carbohydrate foods they were restricting on a low carbohydrate diet.

Basically, on a low-carbohydrate diet, glycogen levels will be lower. So when you consume carbohydrates, they will be diverted toward muscle glycogen and not toward the liver, where they can contribute to the formation of fat in the body and some of the other problems that you see with excess carbohydrates.

It is hard to put an exact number on how much carbohydrate you can eat before the glycogen tank fills up. That’s because you will be burning some of the carbs you eat as energy and some will go toward filling the partially emptied glycogen tank. Muscle and liver glycogen together can store about 500 grams of glycgogen. After exercise on a low carbohydrate diet your liver will be pretty much depleted of glycogen and the muscle will be at about 15-50% of capacity. We’d rather you not be forced to counting grams of carbs anyway. If you eat a normal amount of calories and don’t exceed two days of high carb eating, then there should be no metabolic problems associated with the increased glucose and insulin that accompany this short-term diet phase.

How do you address people who see the TNT plan as just another fad?

We're not putting this forth as a short-term solution for their body composition or their health. This is a lifestyle approach that we want people to adopt. The goal is to get people to change their behaviors and adapt this as a lifestyle.

About Jeff Volek

Jeff Volek, PhD, RD is an associate professor of kinesiology and a registered dietitian at the University of Connecticut. He is the couathor, along with Adam Campbell, of Men's Health TNT Diet: The Explosive New Plan to Blast Fat, Build Muscle, and Get Healthy in 12 Weeks (Rodale, 2007). He is a regular contributor and advisor to Men's Health and is a coauthor ofThe Testosterone Advantage Plan.

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