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Feb. 29 2024

A blueprint for preserving and gaining muscle mass


When it comes to promoting the overall health and longevity of our clients, preserving and maintaining muscle mass should be a top priority. Lately, I've been working with numerous clients who have encountered muscle loss, because of natural aging or due to intensive weight loss regimens. This muscle loss significantly affected their physical functionality and led to a lack of balance and strength.

We begin losing muscle mass in our 30s. That’s pretty early in our current-day lifespan. But then this process accelerates after age 50. Muscle loss rates vary for different people. But we can lose as much as 8% of our muscle mass each decade. Most people lose about 30% of their muscle mass during their lifetimes. This phenomenon is also called sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is caused by an imbalance between muscle cell growth and muscle breakdown signals or anabolism and catabolism. Although it is a natural part of aging, but we can take steps to preserve our client's muscle mass.

The second most common reason behind muscle loss is weight loss. Any weight loss intervention leads to the loss of lean muscle, especially during the initial phases and if significant weight is lost in a short period leads to muscle loss.

Muscle mass makes up 50% of our body’s mass. Our muscles are an essential metabolic organ. They help regulate our glucose levels, provide glucose as fuel and play an important role in avoiding insulin resistance. Loss of muscle mass contributes to metabolic diseases, increases the risk of falls and leads to disability.

There are many ways to protect and preserve our client's muscle mass. The top three ways are:
  1. Eating a protein-rich diet
  2. Progressive resistance training
  3. Maintaining a healthy weight
Protein-Rich Diet: To prioritize the most impactful approach, we’ll begin with dietary changes as they play a vital role in both muscle gain and preservation. It's worth noting that only about 20.8% of the population exercises regularly* whereas 100% of the people consume food in the U.S. By focusing on our clients' existing habits, we can improve their overall muscle mass and overall health.

So, let's talk protein. It is an essential nutrient to prevent muscle loss and maintain muscle. Here’s a quick refresher on protein as a macronutrient; proteins are made up of a total of 20 amino acids, with eleven of them being naturally produced by the body. The remaining nine amino acids are referred to as "essential," as they must be obtained through our diet. Research suggests that amino acids are vital for repairing and building new muscle fibers.

It is crucial to ensure an adequate intake of each amino acid for your clients to maintain optimal bodily functions.

When we eat enough dietary protein, it reduces the activity of cells responsible for breaking down protein inside the muscle cells. A higher protein diet blocks the activity of cells that break down protein inside muscles. It also helps us gain more muscle mass by stimulating the muscle to function efficiently. This process is called muscle protein synthesis. This mechanism becomes less efficient as we age, so we need to eat more protein to maintain the same rate of muscle protein synthesis. Consuming 20 grams to 30 grams of high-quality protein within one hour after exercise increases muscle protein synthesis.

The amount of protein needed depends on your client’s life stage and health goals. As a rule of thumb aim for 0.8 grams to 1 gram per pound of their body weight. If they are in an energy deficit like from exercising or eating less for weight loss, then aim for the higher end of the range. If your client is an athlete and has a high training load, then the recommended protein range increases to 1.0 grams – 1.5 grams per pound of their body weight**. Spacing out protein intake evenly over the day helps preserve muscle mass while losing body fat.

Some of the top-notch protein sources that deliver an impressive protein punch for your clients are:
  • Chicken and turkey breast, lean cuts of beef, and fish are great options packed with protein and important nutrients like iron and vitamin B12.
  • Greek yogurt boasts a higher protein content compared to regular yogurt.
  • Eggs are a powerhouse of nutrients. With all nine essential amino acids, they are a complete protein source.
  • Quinoa is a great plant-based protein-packed grain that offers dietary fiber and essential minerals.
Progressive Resistance Training: Resistance training is another way to preserve and maintain muscle mass. And this is where you can help your clients with progressive programming. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed resistance training helps to preserve lean body mass during periods of calorie restriction and avoid the slowing down of metabolic rate.

To help your clients gain muscle mass, resistance training programs should be tailored to your clients with appropriate progression and improvement. Some of the elements to consider for training are exercises for all muscle groups, load, repetitions, and rest periods. An ideal training program is challenging but doable for maximum strength gain.

For a client just starting with you a typical training program can include:
  • 6 to 8 exercises that target all the major muscle groups.
  • Sets of 12 to 15 reps, performed at a rate of perceived exertion of 5-8 on a scale of 0-10.
  • Three to five workouts per week.
After you established a routine with your client for 8 weeks then consider progressing their routine by:
  • Adding an extra set of exercises to build more endurance.
  • Decrease the number of reps per set and increase the weight.
Maintain A Healthy Weight: A healthy weight, where one is free from metabolic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, is intimately connected to healthy muscle mass. As we age, our lifestyle becomes increasingly sedentary, our diets become unbalanced, and our stress levels increase. All these factors contribute to the infiltration of adipose tissue into the abdominal area and other skeletal muscles, a condition now referred to as sarcopenic obesity. To provide context, just two to three weeks of inactivity can result in a decrease in muscle mass, and simultaneously following a low-calorie and low-protein diet can further contribute to muscle loss. Coaching your clients to prioritize movement throughout the day and to consume a healthy, protein-rich diet can assist them in maintaining a healthy weight and preserving muscle mass. It’s also a good idea to counsel them on regulating their stress levels.

Prevention Is Key: Sarcopenia affects the quality of life for many individuals. While it is never too late to start, when it comes to your clients' muscle health, it is more effective to adopt strategies that prevent or slow the progression of muscle loss, rather than attempting to treat it once they have already become frail. Recommending dietary modifications, engaging in resistance exercises, and maintaining a healthy weight can all contribute to combating the decline in muscle mass.

*According to the Centers of Disease Control (CDC)
**Dietary recommendations according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition

Aesha Tahir is an exercise physiologist and a wellness coach who helps corporate professionals embrace wellbeing through better posture and healthy weight. Through her coaching programs, podcast, workshops, and speaking engagements, Aesha has helped many clients discover pain free living and higher confidence. She is an award-winning author of the international best seller, Unhunched: Discover Wellness Through Posture. As a wellness writer, she passionately writes about nutrition, fitness programming, and entrepreneurship! You can learn more about her at