I'm feeling that it's time to make a change in my exercise program. For the last bunch of years I've been doing lots of barbell weight training, primarily back squats, dead lifts, and bench presses. I've got a good amount of muscle mass but I'm getting burned out on the hard work and reaching the point of diminishing returns and I'd like to explore bodyweight exercises, MovNat kinds of movements, mobility work, ways of becoming more flexible with more flowing movements (e.g. Prasara Yoga), getting back into running and maybe exploring gymnastic movements (yes, they'll be very hard too but at least it'll be a change).
My question: Can I cut down my weight training to, say, 75% of my current level and maintain muscle mass? Can I go down to 75% and drop from 3x/week to 2x/week and still maintain the muscle mass I've gained?
I'm 48 and I guess I'm going through a mid-life-exercise-crisis. While the weight lifting has made me strong, and given me a decent amount of muscle, the longer I do it the harder it is to stay lean. I was once upon a time 10% body fat, doing a zone diet and lots of cardio. A few months ago I was 15.5% body fat and now, suddenly, I'm at 17.5% and I think the heavy weight training is making it very difficult to eat less so the fat packs on with the muscle.
I'd rather be lean than muscled and I've been influenced by the writings of Mark Sisson and others that less is more and that more natural movements can be good for fitness. Plus, I wouldn't mind spending much less time in the gym.
I suggest you read Body by Science by Doug McGuff. I've been following his protocol for 6 months and I can attest to the fact that it works. He recommends about 12 mins a week. I'm not as quick as him. I can be in the gym for 20, sometimes even 25 mins a week!
If you think he's fibbing, try Skyler Tanner. He suggests a variation on a theme.
Another vote for high intensity training. The key to muscle mass is ironically tearing down muscle fibers and giving them time to repair. I would surmise that since you're looking to reduce your time at the gym, going less often and working out harder when you do go, would be the best strategy. As you go less you'll have more time to recover, but raising the WEIGHT intensity of your workouts to lower your repetitions to a reasonable limit will require your body to utilize more days to recover.
Check out this presentation by Doug McGuff on weight training with high intensity. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PdJFbjWHEU
He also has a great book called Body by Science that goes into depth about rest and recovery cycles. He's actually a huge advocate of not working out much more than once a week.
I understand another one of your goals is to reduce FAT weight gain. I'll qualify what I have said to be strictly for maintaining and gaining muscle mass. HOWEVER, if it is true that you said the increased amount of exercise is requiring you to eat more, and consequently gain weight, then HIT may help you with both goals. Best of luck.
I agree with JayJay as to the High Intensity Training protocol, but would prescribe working out more frequently. I too am 48 years old and I spend less than an hour per week exercising. The following works for me:
Every morning - out of bed, urinate, glass of water, 20 deep knee bends, 20 push ups (to maintain muscular endurance).
Sunday: Wind Sprints - I do a modified Tabata Protocol. Run 150 yds, count 10 breaths, Run back, count 10 breaths, etc. for 8 repetitions (the only cardio I do and I love it!).
Tuesday: Deadlifts - 1 warm up set, 1 heavy set to failure, 4 to 7 reps usually (I do DLs about every 10 days. Lat Pull Downs (underhanded) - 1 warm up set, 1 heavy set to failure, 6 to 10 reps (Do LPDs every 7 days).
Friday: Squats - 1 Warm up set, 1 heavy set to failure, 12 to 15 reps (Do squats every 10 days). Weighted Dips - 1 Warm up set, 1 heavy set to failure, 6 to 10 reps (Every 7 days).
As you can see, the workouts are short. On those days that I don't have legs, I am in the gym for a few minutes to do the upper body - extremely short. I don't really worry about gains or being stuck on a certain number of reps at a certain weight. This routine is something I intend to maintain until I drop dead. So, I have the rest of my life to go up in weight...if I ever do. Being there, moving heavy things, is what matters.
As to on which days you do what, I kind of just tweaked it to my preferences, but this is what Mike Mentzer called The Consolidated Routine (I think). I got it from his book, The Wisdom of Mike Mentzer.
I've been doing some n=1 over the past month trying out some "minimal" exercises and testing the results. My time constraint has been 60 minutes a week divided into 3 full body workouts utilizing a JungleGym XT (suspension trainer) connected to a pullup bar. The emphasis of the program has been to increase core and bodyweight strength. I've been utilizing ring dips (and other forms of front/back levers, l-sits, etc), some static holds, pistol squats, and other bodyweight movements. Afterward, I have noticed strength gains and some favorable body comp changes. For me, four weeks is a big enough break from the heavy lifts to focus on more "gymnastic" types of movements.
So I am just coming back from an injury that had me sit out for 12 weeks with 0 weightlifting (all I have been able to do is walk). Two weeks back into my workouts and I am back to the weights I left off on except for deadlift (down about 20 lbs).
And that's with zero workouts for 3+ months. I feel like I do not have the definition I had before, but my strength is essentially where it was, and my weight is the same, so I could not have loss that much muscle mass...