Protein Supplements Might Help Maintain Muscle

Athletes often go through a strength or bulking phase, followed by a weight loss or cutting phase. The question is how to keep muscle while losing fat. Science looks at one strategy.

Many people often go through phases in their training. Sometimes they will use part of the year to put on some muscle, usually called a “bulking” phase. The bulking phase typically goes hand in hand with eating a lot of food to promote anabolism (a state in which muscle grows). Afterward they will lose the fat they took on during the excess caloric consumption of bulking in a weight loss or “cutting” phase. One common concern when losing weight is maintaining the muscle put on while bulking. There may be a few strategies you can use to preserve your hard-earned muscle.

One such strategy was recently published in a study by the Nutrition Journal. They sought to determine if the consumption of extra proteins and amino acids in a liquid shake would have a muscle sparing effect on people who were losing weight through dieting. The study subjects had even more tricky needs than that, however. The researchers studied elderly obese people, who not only wanted to keep their muscle, but needed to for health reasons. People with low ability to build or maintain muscle tissue might actually have more negative impacts from muscle loss than they would have positive impacts from fat loss. For them it was a critical issue, and they were likely to have less pronounced benefits than the average person.

The researchers used whey protein and essential amino acid supplements for this study. One thing that occurred was those taking the protein supplement actually lost more fat than those who didn’t. This is likely due to greater caloric deficit from the increased protein. Protein requires the greatest caloric cost for digestion of the three macronutrients, and so the greater protein consumption notably assisted in weight loss. Unfortunately they did not note a significant muscle sparing effect from the extra protein. However the researchers noted they may have seen a significant effect with a larger group of participants.

One other interesting result was an increase in Fractional Synthesis Rate (FSR) in the muscle of those consuming the protein. Although in this study, the researchers were not able to find a significant muscle sparing effect, I can’t help but wonder what the effects would be if the increased FSR was combined with exercise. I have a feeling that not only would these subjects have lost more weight, but they would have maintained or even put on some lean body mass, which was their goal.

For those looking to maintain their muscle mass during a cutting phase, it seems that keeping your protein intake high – even though it means taking in more calories – is a beneficial part of the weight loss process for exercisers. Not only will it assist in the preferential use of fat for fuel, but might also help maintain muscle when combined with exercise.


1. Robert H Coker, et. al., “Whey protein and essential amino acids promote the reduction of adipose tissueand increased muscle protein synthesis during caloric restriction-induced weight loss in elderly, obese individuals,” Nutrition Journal, 11:105 (2012)

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