So you’ve managed to build a decent amount of muscle, but you’ve put on too much fat in the process. Or maybe you always were a bit fat, and you’ve now decided to do something about it. Either way, you now want to lose all that excess body fat, and get a lean, defined look. But how do you do it without losing some of your hard earned muscle?
Well, as I’ve said before, the main requirement for losing body fat is a calorie deficit. That is, you need to consume fewer calories than you expend. When you do that, your body has to find an alternative source of energy in order to meet its requirements. This can come from stored glycogen, body fat – or muscle tissue. And normally it will come from a combination of all of these.
So that means, under normal circumstances, when you lose weight, you will lose both fat and muscle. But there are ways that you can signal your body to keep hold of its muscle mass, and just use your body fat for energy instead. How do you do that? Well, in this article, I’ll describe the eight best ways to ensure you lose fat without losing muscle.
1. Set Your Calorie Deficit to the Right Level
In order to lose weight, you need to reduce your calorie intake to below maintenance level. But when you do that, it affects your tolerance to exercise, and your ability to recover from it. And the more you reduce your calories, the less able you are to tolerate and recover from exercise. So if you try to lose body fat too fast, by cutting your calories too much, you will inevitably lose muscle tissue.
On the other hand, if you don’t reduce your calories enough, you will only lose fat very slowly. So you need to set your calorie deficit to the right level in order to get the best results.
I normally suggest starting with a calorie intake of about 12 times your body weight (in pounds) per day, and adjusting it from there. But the more overweight you are, the more of a calorie deficit you’ll be able to sustain. And if you are already quite lean, and looking to get very lean, you’ll need a smaller deficit in order to hold on to all your muscle tissue.
2. Eat Enough Protein
Getting sufficient protein on a daily basis is the single most important dietary requirement for maintaining muscle while losing fat. But what is sufficient? Well, I always suggest you aim for about one gram per pound of body weight per day. And, although most people don’t actually need quite this much to preserve (or build) muscle, there are other advantages to keeping your protein intake high.
Chief amongst these is the fact that protein is more satiating than either carbohydrates or fats, so you tend to feel fuller for longer when you eat more of it. And this helps you to stick to your diet. Also, protein burns more calories during the digestive process than carbs or fats, which lessens the impact of your total calorie intake even more.
3. Maintain Your Strength/Weight on the Bar
And the single most important training requirement for maintaining muscle while losing fat is to maintain your current levels of strength. So that means you still need to be doing the big compound exercises, with the same weight on the bar, as you were using to build muscle.
Don’t make the mistake that many people do of using lighter weights for higher reps when trying to lose body fat, as this will only make you weaker. And if you get weaker, you will lose muscle tissue.
So, if you can bench press 225lb for five reps now, you should still be able to bench press 225lb for five at the end of your fat loss program – or more if possible. And the same goes for all the other exercises in your routine.
Yes, you can continue to try to get stronger while you are losing fat. And, if you are a beginner and/or very overweight, you should be able to do so. But if you are more advanced, and leaner, it will be much more difficult – if not impossible. But that’s OK, as simply maintaining your strength is the key to losing fat without losing muscle.
4. Reduce Weight Training Volume and/or Frequency
As I said earlier, when you are in a calorie deficit, your tolerance to exercise, and your ability to recover from it, are reduced. So, if you continue training in the same way as you were doing to build muscle and strength, it will be too much for you, and you won’t be able to recover from it properly. And that will lead to a loss of strength – which in turn will lead to a loss of muscle.
So, you need to adjust your program to compensate for this. And that means reducing your training volume (total sets, reps and/or exercises), or your frequency (total workouts per week and per muscle group), or possibly both.
5. Limit Your Cardio
Cardio is completely optional for fat loss – at least in the early stages. And as it also cuts into your limited recovery ability, you don’t want to be doing too much of it.
In fact, if you are very overweight, I wouldn’t do any at all to start with, as you’ll easily be able to bring your weight down with diet alone. Later on, however, it might be a good idea to do a brief high intensity cardio session a couple of times per week, to accelerate the fat loss process, as well as to improve your fitness.
But apart from that, the only other cardio I would recommend is walking. You can walk for 30–60 minutes every day if you wish. And, because you can do it so frequently, it can make a significant difference to your fat loss efforts, whilst having only a minimal effect on your recovery.
6. Get Your Pre & Post Workout Nutrition Right
The purpose of proper pre and post workout nutrition is to improve your performance in your workouts, and your recovery after your workouts. And, as these are both compromised when in a calorie deficit, it’s just as important to get this right when trying to lose fat without losing muscle, as it is when trying to build muscle.
So, ensure you eat a good amount of protein and some carbohydrate about 1.5–2 hours before training, and again within an hour or so of finishing your workout.
7. Incorporate Carb/Calorie Cycling
Rather than consuming the same amount of calories and nutrients each day, as you would on a typical fat loss diet, with carb/calorie cycling, you eat more carbs and calories on certain days (your training days), and less on other days (your rest days).
This means that you will be in more of a deficit on your rest days, and less of a deficit (or even no deficit) on your training days. So you are providing your body with more calories and nutrients when it has more need of them, and less when it has less need of them. By doing this you can improve performance, recovery, calorie partitioning, and much more, so you’ll be better able to maintain your strength and muscle size while you are losing fat.
There are a number of ways you can approach carb/calorie cycling, but the simplest is just to keep your protein and fat intake about the same every day, and have twice the amount of carbohydrates on training days as you have on rest days.
8. Take a Break Occasionally
You can’t maintain a calorie deficit for too long without running into problems – both physiological and psychological. At some point your metabolism will start to slow down, your hormones will go out of balance, and you will start to lose muscle tissue too.
So you need to take a break from it once in a while. That means, for a period of 1–2 weeks, you’ll bring your calorie consumption back up to maintenance level, or just above. This will allow your body to “get back to normal”, so you’ll be able to resume your fat loss efforts with more success – and hold onto your muscle tissue too.
So there you have it – the eight best ways to ensure you lose fat without losing muscle. Maintaining your strength is by far the most important, but all the other points will help you to do that. Best of luck.
Photo credit: Jose Febrillet (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0