You're putting in the work at the gym, but your body's not showing it. You've stopped gaining muscle and started putting on an extra layer of fat. What gives? If you're hitting the weights, doing cardio and eating right, you might be wondering why it's so hard to get lean. A lot of guys want to be lean and muscular but this can be a difficult task to accomplish, especially as you get older and your hormones and metabolism start working against these goals.
But wait! It's not impossible to maintain muscle while leaning out — as long as you're not expecting bodybuilder-style results overnight. Instead, think more along the lines of the lean guys you see at the gym. So if you're an average guy who wants to stay fit as you age, it just takes some effort, patience and a solid understanding of how your body changes over time to keep you looking lean.
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The Role of Testosterone
As you may already know, testosterone plays a major role in your ability to maintain muscle and a lean physique. It helps preserve lean muscle mass and helps balance your body fat percentage.
However, testosterone decreases by about 1 percent each year after men turn 30, says Steven Wilson, M.D., of Redlands Community Hospital. And that results in physical changes that include decreased muscle mass and strength along with increased body fat, decreased bone density and a slower metabolism.
Plus, many guys also experience emotional changes like lack of motivation and lower self-confidence when their testosterone levels start to decline, which can get in the way of your workout mojo.
The good news is that there are several things you can do to maximize your testosterone levels, regardless of age.
Get Your Protein on Point
Though a strong body is made in the gym, lean guys are made in the kitchen. Exercise strengthens your bones and muscles (especially your heart), boosts your metabolism and improves your mood, but, unfortunately, that's not enough to maintain lean muscle mass.
"Sugary foods, high-fat diets and significant alcohol consumption all blunt testosterone production, even when your levels are normal," says David Greuner, M.D., surgical director of NYC Surgical Associates. That's why sticking to a diet that's high in protein and low in sugar and consuming a low to moderate amount of alcohol can help you lessen the natural decrease of your testosterone levels.
You might be wondering just how much protein you should be aiming for. But Dr. Paul Arciero, exercise physiologist and professor at the Health and Exercise Sciences Department of Skidmore College, has a better question for you: When should you be consuming protein?
He developed a scientifically tested protocol called PRISE that has a focus on protein pacing. In a February 2017 study published in Growth Hormone and IGF Research, participants who followed the protocol for 12 weeks or more showed improved fitness, decreased total and abdominal fat, increased lean body mass and optimal metabolic and heart health.
And just what is protein pacing? Arciero recommends four to six high-quality protein meals distributed evenly throughout the day, with each meal containing 20 to 40 grams of protein per serving.
The first meal, called the "morning muscle maximizer," needs to be consumed within an hour of waking. Think smoothies or shakes made with either protein and/or plant-based protein (pea, brown rice, hemp), protein pancakes made with eggs and protein powder or a protein-pacing bowl made with dairy or dairy-free yogurt with quinoa, oatmeal, nuts or seeds.
The last meal — called the "bedtime belly-fat burner" — should be eaten within two hours of going to bed. This can be the same as the morning meal, but with a focus on convenience. For example, protein shakes or smoothies or a homemade protein bar.
Lower Your Stress Levels
Cortisol, the stress hormone, can also significantly impair testosterone production. In order to get lean, Dr. Greuner says guys need to manage their stress levels because this causes lower levels of cortisol. Lower cortisol means higher testosterone levels.
But keeping your stress at a manageable level is often easier said than done. In order to combat high levels of cortisol, Arciero recommends focusing on quality sleep — at least seven to nine hours each night.
He's also a big fan of mindfulness and meditation for reducing stress. In fact, Arciero says even 10 minutes of breathing exercises each day is a good place to start. He recommends diaphragmatic breathing, which is intended to help you use the diaphragm correctly while breathing.
To do this, lie down with one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen just below your ribs. Breathe in through your nose. You should feel it pushing against your bottom hand, but the hand on your chest should remain in place.
Exhale through pursed lips, allowing your abdominal muscles to sort of cave inward and contract as you empty yourself of air. Do this for a few minutes at a time, working up to longer bouts as needed.
Hit the Weights
If you're not lifting weights at least two to three days a week, you might want to make it a priority. And if you're hitting the gym this much already, you might want to kick up the intensity and focus on the moves you're doing.
"Testosterone level is stimulated with significant, short-duration muscle effort, such as weightlifting intensely, but for less than an hour," says Dr. Greuner. Keeping a solid amount of weights in your training regimen can help you maintain and even build muscle.
It's especially important to target the larger muscles of the legs (hamstrings, quads, hips) and gluteals, says Arciero. Include double- and single-leg squats and deadlifts (see the video above) using stable surfaces. For more advanced moves, use a BOSU ball. Front, back and lateral lunges are also great exercises to include in a lean body men workout.
Four Mistakes Holding You Back
You can have the best intentions, but if you're making any of these mistakes you might find it nearly impossible to get lean and stay lean as you age.
- Too much endurance exercise. Arciero advises guys to tone it down on cardio; endurance exercise breaks down muscle too quickly. Stick to two to three days of cardio per week, and focus on shorter, high-intensity sessions when you can.
- Overtraining with weights. If you don't give yourself enough recovery time between workouts, your muscles never fully repair, rebuild and grow, says Arciero. Make sure you're giving your body adequate rest between sessions as well as one to two days of complete rest each week. You may even want to do one de-loading week once every three months, which means taking a short, planned period of recovery where you decrease the amount and/or intensity of your training sessions.
- Not enough calories and protein. Wilson says not eating enough of the right type of calories and protein results in muscle mass loss, fatigue and weakness. "Ideally, doing a metabolism test is the best way to figure out your calorie expenditure, although there are many formulas online that can be used to give estimations on calorie expenditures," he says.
- Letting your weight fluctuate drastically. Greuner recommends staying relatively lean all year long because it allows you to build and, most importantly, maintain muscle at a healthy level. He explains that "bulking" and "cutting" schedules are often counterproductive and only work in those that micromanage their dietary intake, such as competitive bodybuilders. "Build muscle slowly and it will endure."
- President's Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition: "Importance of Physical Activity"
- Redlands Community Hospital: "Personal Interview, Steven Wilson, MD"
- Frontiers in Psychology: "The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Adults"
- Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition"
- Journal of Growth Hormone and IGF Research: "Multi-Modal Exercise Training and Protein-Pacing Enhances Physical Performance Adaptations Independent of Growth Hormone and BDNF but May Be Dependent on IGF-1 in Exercise-Trained Men"