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When you ask gym-goers what their training goals are, "I want to lose weight" is one of the most common answers out there. And for good reason. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 70% of Americans 20 years and older are now overweight.(1)
But when most people say they want to lose weight, of course, what they most likely mean is that they want to shed body fat, not muscle mass. However, the issue is that when you lose weight by heavily restricting your calories, you tend to lose comparable amounts of muscle and fat along the way, which is certainly not ideal when it comes to improving your body composition.(2)
So then how do you actually lose fat without losing muscle if you're on a weight-loss program? To answer this very question, w
How to Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle
Maintaining your muscle mass (whether during a weight cut or not) is a relatively complex process physiologically speaking; to understand how it works, you really need to have a basic understanding of what's going on at a cellular level.
Our muscles are made up of proteins, which are, in turn, made up of amino acids. These amino acids are always in a state of flux, constantly being broken down by the physical activities we partake in throughout our daily lives.
Activities ranging from intense exercise to a leisurely walk can all cause microscopic damage to the proteins that make up your muscles. In order to repair and rebuild damage, your body needs an ample supply of calories, particularly in the form of protein.
When your body lacks the nutrients it needs, however, it can't adequately maintain or repair damaged muscle proteins. Over time, this can lead to reductions in the size and strength of your muscles, especially strength and overall muscle size.
While this might not be music to your ears, don’t fear! There are several things you can do to minimize muscle loss during your weight loss program.
1. Maintain a Caloric Deficit
When it comes to shedding body fat, nothing is more important than a calorie deficit. A calorie deficit occurs when you take in fewer calories than your body burns off in a day.
When your body is in a caloric deficit, it ultimately has to turn to itself to meet its energy needs -- this is precisely the reason your body stores fat in the first place. When you don’t have enough energy coming in through your diets, your body ultimately ends up converting stored fat into energy in order to compensate.
The only issue is, when you're in a caloric deficit, your body isn’t picky; it will take any energy source it can get. While it may wind up meeting some of its energy needs through converting stored fat, your body s just as happy cannibalizing lean muscle tissue.
How to combat muscle loss with a caloric deficit
in order to avoid losing muscle mass during a weight cut, make sure that you're not restricting your calories too much. When your calories are severely restricted, your body tends to target more muscle tissue compared to when they're only moderately restricted.
While imposing a larger restriction on your calorie intake will indeed produce more rapid weight loss, research has consistently found that rapid weight loss is closely associated with greater losses in lean muscle mass.
For example, A 2017 study compared the effects of a 2-week moderate calorie deficit (30% reduction) to a 3-day rapid weight loss fasting program.(3)
The researchers ultimately found that similar amounts of weight were lost in both test groups; however, the group involved in the rapid weight loss program lost similar amounts of muscle and fat. The gradual weight loss group, on the other hand, almost exclusively lost fat, not muscle.
Another study compared the effects of a moderate calorie deficit (30% reduction) to a severe deficit (60% reduction) on 30 overweight participants.(4) Over the course of 6 months, the researchers found that the severe restriction group lost more overall weight (15 kgs vs 10 kgs) but also lost significantly more fat-free muscle mass (2.8 kgs vs 1.8 kgs) in comparison to the moderately restricted group.
Use TDEE to identify your calorie goals
Research suggests that a calorie restriction between 25% - 35% is the sweet spot for shedding fat while maintaining muscle mass.
In other words, in order to limit muscle loss during a weight loss program, you should be taking in 25% - 35% fewer calories than your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Your TDEE is the total amount of calories your body needs per day to maintain your current weight.
You can easily estimate your TDEE using a TDEE calculator, which will give you an estimate of how many calories your body burns per day based on your height, weight, age, sex, and level of activity.
2. Increase Your Protein Intake
While moderately restricting your calories will help you to maintain more muscle mass during a fat loss program, you also want to make sure that you're consuming enough protein each day.
Protein is one of the three macronutrients featured in our daily diets. It's your body's central tool for building and repairing muscle tissue. Without enough protein, your body won't be able to maintain muscle mass, no matter how much you workout.
Protein consumption becomes especially important when we are talking about a calorie-restricted diet. Like we mentioned earlier, when you're in a caloric deficit, your body turns to itself to get the extra energy it needs.
having an adequate daily intake of dietary protein helps to assure that your body has the supplies it needs to maintain your muscle mass, which during a weight cut, can help to assure that most of the weight you lose ultimately comes from fat, not muscle.
How much protein do you need per day?
One 2017 study concluded that somewhere around 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight was the ideal daily intake for preserving muscle during weight loss.(5)
Other research, however, has gone even further. A 2017 study, for example, found that a daily protein intake closer to 1.2g of protein per pound of body weight was the ideal range for maintaining muscle mass while losing fat.(6)
Some research has even demonstrated that a protein intake as high as 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight may still be beneficial for maintaining muscle while losing fat -- especially for athletes.(7)
In short, somewhere between 0.8 - 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight should be sufficient to minimize muscle loss during a calorie-restricted diet for most people.
What types of protein should you consume?
When you’re eating in a calorie deficit, lean sources of protein like chicken and fish will help you get your protein in without all of the fat often found in things like beef and pork.
We’re not suggesting that you can’t consume fat... you can. But because fat is more calorically dense, it can add up pretty quickly when you’re trying to restrict your calories. Fat has 9 calories per gram, compared to protein and carbs, which only contain 4.
For example, let’s say you weigh 185 pounds. If you were to take in as many grams of fat per day as we’re recommending you take in for protein (185 x 1.2 = 222 grams) that would be 1,998 calories from fat! (222 x 9 = 1,998). Compare that to only 888 calories from the same amount of protein (222 x 4 = 888).
You may be thinking, “How the heck am I going to eat that much protein every day?” And you’re right. If you weigh 185 lbs, that's 222g of protein per day if you’re going for 1.2g per lb of bodyweight!
Supplements like whey protein powder, however, can make hitting your daily protein goal much more feasible. Incorporating a few scoops of whey protein into your daily diet can add an additional 50+g of protein.
3. Incorporate resistance training in your fitness routine
Resistance training is an effective means of maintaining fat-free-muscle mass during a calorie-restricted diet. Maintaining your strength when you are losing weight is one of the best ways to assure that you are shedding fat, not muscle, during your weight loss program.
A 2008 study compared the effects of resistance training, aerobic training, and no training on 94 overweight adults eating a calorie-restricted diet.(8)
The researchers found that each group lost significant amounts of weight; however, in the aerobic training and no training groups, both lost fat-free muscle mass over the course of dieting (both groups lost over a kg of lean muscle over 21 weeks).
The resistance training group, on the other hand, lost no muscle at all. In fact... on average, participants who did resistance training actually gained 0.3 kgs of muscle over the course of the study.
Why is resistance training effective for maintaining muscle mass?
Your muscles are made up of tiny fibers, which in turn are made up of proteins. Stimuli like weightlifting can overload your muscles, causing proteins to break down.
After an intensive bout of resistance training, a series of signaling events -- called muscle protein synthesis -- take place in the body to repair and rebuild damaged muscle fibers. As a result of these internal processes, our bodies fluctuate between states of muscle protein breakdown (MPB) and synthesis (MPS).
This fluctuation can have three different effects:
- When MPS is greater than MPB, you build muscle.
- When MPS and MPB are equal, you maintain muscle.
- When MPS is less than MPB, you lose muscle.
Resistance training and a high-protein diet both increase muscle synthesis within the body. This will help to assure that your levels of MPS are at or above your levels of MPB during a calorie-restricted diet. The end result is a better ability to maintain muscle mass during a weight loss program.
4. Do the right amount of reps and sets
Researchers have found that as little as 3 days a week of intense resistance training was sufficient for maintaining muscle mass while losing weight.(9)
However, it’s important to note that you should be performing both lower body and upper body exercises throughout your training. Splitting up your training across 4-5 days that shift between upper and lower body workouts seems to be ideal for maintaining strength and muscle mass during a calorie-restricted diet.
We want to focus on maintaining our strength while cutting weight. In order to do so, make sure that you're performing exercises at challenging weights -- somewhere at or above 65% of your one-rep max.
Aim for a rep range of 3 - 10 reps per set. Focus on fewer reps for heavy compound movements, like the squat and bench press. Do more reps for isolation exercises like arm and hamstring curls.
Alter your workout routine when in a caloric deficit
When you’re in a calorie deficit, your body has significantly less energy. This ultimately means that performing the same type of routine you would be doing to build muscle is going to be extremely taxing on your body.
For example, progressive overload training won’t help you build muscle if you don’t have enough energy. Instead, it can negatively impact your ability to perform and recover from your exercises.
What should you do instead?
Keep your training volume and frequency at a moderate level. Instead of focusing on a high-volume bodybuilding style of training, focus on maintaining your strength. You don’t need to be doing hundreds of reps at the gym every day in order to maintain muscle. In fact, doing so can actually cause muscle loss during a caloric deficit.
5. Strategically use cardio to burn calories
Also known as aerobic training, cardio has become synonymous with fat loss. Aerobic training such as cycling and jogging are pretty effective means of burning calories and can be helpful for getting your body into a calorie deficit.
To illustrate this, take an exercise like jogging. Jogging at 5 mph for 30 minutes burns around 350 calories for a person weighing 185 pounds (the number of calories burned increases as body weight increase).
However, you don’t need to do cardio to lose weight. Don’t get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with cardio. It’s simply that there's only one thing that's absolutely necessary when it comes to losing fat -- a calorie deficit. As long as you are taking in fewer calories than your body requires per day, you will lose body fat even if you don't do cardio.
That doesn't mean that you can’t or shouldn’t do cardio during a weight loss program; however, there are some things that you'll need to consider when it comes to avoiding muscle loss during a weight cut.
Split up your cardio and resistance training
A 2006 study tracked the developments of a group of participants performing a 10-week concurrent strength and endurance training program. Each group member performed resistance exercises for 30 minutes per day, 5 days a week, and endurance exercises for 40 minutes per day, 6 days a week.(10)
The researchers found that participants continued to show improvements in aerobic performance throughout the whole training program. Strength-related performance, however, only increased during the first 6-7 weeks of training, followed by a plateau and eventual decrease in strength by week 10.
The findings in this study help to illustrate how cardio can potentially interfere with your ability to build muscle. So what can you do to prevent this from happening?
If you’re going to do cardio, make sure that you do it at a different time than your resistance training. Ideally, you should do them on different days. At the very least, they should be done in separate sessions multiple hours apart.
Allowing your muscles to react and adapt to each type of training at different times will help to reduce the amount of interference between aerobic and strength-related adaptations. Splitting up your aerobic and resistance training across different days will help you to attenuate muscle loss during a calorie-restricted diet.
6. Do high-intensity interval training (HIIT)
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is also a handy tool to have in your toolbox when it comes to weight loss. Compared to steady-state cardio, HIIT features shorter durations -- often as little as 30-45 seconds at a time -- at much higher rates of intensity.
Why is this better for weight loss?
According to Justin Roethlingshoefer, a strength and conditioning coach with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, steady-state cardio, like riding a stationary bike for 30 minutes, “Takes much longer for your central nervous system and muscle fibers to recover from.”
Performing this style of cardio, in turn, makes it more likely that your strength will be negatively impacted during your training.
On the other hand, performing exercises like sprints and other high-intensity, short-duration movements with 1-2 minute rest intervals in between sets is far less taxing on your nervous system and muscle fibers.
Compared to steady-state cardio, HIIT is just as effective for burning calories and better yet, it's far more beneficial when it comes to preserving lean muscle mass during weight loss.
7. Take supplements
Taking supplements like branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) can also be an easy way to attenuate muscle loss during a weight loss program. One of the most popular reasons people take BCAAs is for building muscle.
Amino acids are the building blocks of muscle. About one-third of our muscle proteins are actually made up of BCAAs.
Your body uses BCAAs (along with other types of amino acids) to repair and rebuild muscle tissue. Supplementing them in your diet is an easy way to assure that your muscles are getting an adequate supply of the nutrients they need to rebuild and repair during a caloric deficit.
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A 2012 study demonstrated that even in small amounts, BCAAs taken before, during, or after a workout had significant effects on muscle size and strength.(11)
BCAAs have also been shown to delay fatigue and improve performance during training. Taking BCAAs before and during your workout can help you to perform at your best even when you're low on energy.
8. Prioritize fuel and recovery
A caloric deficit can negatively impact both your performance during training and your recovery afterward. Taking in carbs before your workout, however, will help to fuel your body during intense exercise, reducing the likelihood of subpar performance.
Some researchers have also argued that consuming protein shortly before a workout can be advantageous for maintaining strength and reducing recovery time.(12)
Other studies have found that consuming protein immediately following your training may also help to increase muscle protein synthesis after intense exercise.(13)
the role of sleep
Sleep also plays an important role in your ability to maintain muscle mass while you're cutting weight. Amongst other things, your body utilizes the time you sleep to rebuild damaged muscle tissue.
During sleep, muscle protein synthesis, as well as levels of certain hormones, are elevated in the body. Both of these play central roles in the rebuilding and recovery processes.
A chronic lack of sleep ultimately means that your body won’t be able to properly react to and recover from your workouts. Over time, this can lead to breakdowns in muscle tissue and an overall loss of muscle mass.
In order to mitigate muscle loss during a weight loss program, there are three crucial things you need to do:
- Only moderately restrict your calories. A large reduction in calories may lead to more rapid weight loss, but it is also associated with greater amounts of muscle loss.
- Eat a high-protein diet. Consuming 1 - 1.2+ grams of protein per pound of body-weight will help you to maintain muscle and burn more fat during a calorie-restricted diet.
- Include 3+ days per week of resistance training in your weekly routine. Stimulating the muscles in your upper and lower body through consistent exercise will help your body to burn fat and attenuate muscle loss.
Prioritize these steps (as well as some of the other suggestions we've shared) to maximize your ability to shed fat without losing muscle.