With all the focus on fat loss, it's rare to hear someone talk about trying to lose muscle. But for athletes or people with certain body types who pack on muscle easily, the struggle is real. While muscular legs are strong and powerful, they can also be big and bulky. If lumberjack is not the look you're going for, you can slim down by making changes to your exercise routine and diet.
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Why Lose Muscle Mass?
Generally, losing muscle mass is not a good thing. Muscle makes you strong and healthy, it increases your metabolism, helping you stay at a healthy weight, and it looks good on men and women alike.
For men, sometimes training too hard in the gym makes the muscle creep on -- and on, and on -- until the next thing you know, you've got tree trunks for legs. This is especially true if you have a genetic makeup that makes you put on muscle easily.
The same is true for women. Although most women aren't physiologically able to get massive legs, women who are predisposed to packing on muscle can, particularly if they've been active in sports such as soccer, bodybuilding or Olympic lifting.
Perhaps you've decided to compete in a new sport, such as long-distance running or triathlon, which requires you to lean up and shed some mass.
Whatever your reason, the goal is not to lose muscle and replace it with fat. The goal is to reduce muscle size, while staying fit and lean. You may also lose some strength at the same time, but your cardiovascular fitness will increase.
Read more: How to Lose Weight and Not Gain Muscle
Increase Your Cardio
Cardio-lovers, you're in luck. Upping the amount of cardio you do will help you trim those tree trunks. The key is to do longer bouts of cardio lasting 45 to 60 minutes at a moderate to high intensity. This type of endurance cardio causes physiological adaptations in size and strength in your leg muscles. Just think about a marathoner's lean, toned legs.
What type of cardio is best? Really, any type of endurance training is not going to lead to hypertrophy (muscle growth) like strength training or short explosive movements needed for sports like sprinting or soccer. But running is your best option, according to research. Again, take a look at a marathoner's legs. To cover those long distances by foot, a marathoner needs to be light and lean.
Cycling, on the other hand is not your best choice. Cycling causes more hypertrophy compared to running, according to the research. Still, if cycling appeals to you more than running, and you can log more time cycling than running, then peddle away. Long-duration cardio will help you lose muscle mass, no matter the activity.
Rowing and swimming are also good options. Choose an activity, or a few activities, you like to do and aim to get in three to five sessions a week.
Decrease Your Weight Training
For you gym rats, this might be the hardest part. You need to take some time off from heavy lifting. That's the kind of lifting -- in the 1- to 6-rep range -- that causes the greatest hypertrophy.
Even reps in the 8- to 12-range -- pretty standard -- can also cause you to put on mass, depending on your body type. If you're going to continue to lift weights, your best bet is to lower the weight and increase the reps to 15 to 20.
Calisthenics, which is training with just your bodyweight, is another effective option for maintaining functional strength while avoiding putting on mass. Your workout could be as simple as doing any variation of lunges, air squats, push-ups, pull-ups, and core exercises such as planks, Supermans and crunches.
Aim to do a light to moderate full-body strength training routine two to three times per week. With your free time, do more cardio!
Switch Up Your Diet
Your diet plays a critical role in gaining and losing muscle mass. To gain muscle mass, you have to train hard and eat a lot of calories and protein to support muscle growth. So it makes sense that to lose muscle mass, you want to decrease your calories and protein.
Here are a few basics:
- Staying in a caloric deficit, meaning you eat fewer calories than you burn in a day, will help reduce muscle mass.
- Decreasing your carb intake, while increasing your cardio sessions, will help you lose muscle mass.
- Lowering your protein intake -- if you've increased protein intake for muscle gain -- will aid muscle loss.
Nutrition for muscle gain and loss is a complicated science. On an individual level, it's best to consult with a sports nutritionist, your doctor, or a sports trainer knowledgeable about sports nutrition. You have to be careful to get the right balance of calories and macros.
Read more: Does Running Make You Lose Muscle Mass?