When you ask gym goers what their training goals are, ‘I want to lose weight’ is one of the most common answers. This is for good reason – the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately 71% of adults 20 years and older are overweight.
When most people say they want to lose weight, what they probably mean is that they want to shed body fat… and maintain muscle.
According to a number of studies, when a person loses weight through severely restricting their calories, they tend to lose comparable amounts of muscle and fat along the way. The ideal situation for many is to lose body fat without compromising muscle. There are steps you need to take in order to do this successfully.
Table of Contents
- Losing fat vs. muscle: Which factors impact muscle loss?
- Maintain a caloric defecit
- Increase your protein intake
- Incorporate resistance training into your fitness routine
- Do the correct frequency of reps and sets
- Strategically use cardio to burn calories
- Do high-intensity interval training (HIIT)
- Take supplements
- Prioritize fuel and recovery
Losing Fat vs. Muscle: Which factors impact muscle loss?
Building muscle is a relatively complex physiological process. Our muscles are made up of proteins, which are in turn made up of amino acids. These amino acids are 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 actually cause microscopic damage to the proteins within our muscles. In order to repair and rebuild damaged muscle fibers, our bodies need an ample supply of calories — particularly in the form of protein.
When the body does not have enough nutrients, it cannot adequately maintain or repair damaged muscle proteins. Over time, this can lead to reductions in 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.
We’re sharing eight important tips to help you lose fat without losing muscle.
1. Maintain a caloric deficit
A calorie deficit is an absolute must if you want to shed body fat. A calorie deficit occurs when you take in fewer calories than your body requires to operate throughout the day.
When your body is in a caloric deficit, it must look to itself to find the energy it needs to properly function. This is precisely the reason your body stores fat! When we don’t have enough energy coming in from our diet, our bodies convert stored fat into energy to compensate.
When you are in a caloric deficit, your body isn’t picky; it will take any energy source it can get. While it may get some of the needed energy from converting stored fat, it is just as happy converting lean muscle tissue into calories.
How to combat muscle loss with caloric deficit
To use a caloric deficit to maintain muscle and lose fat, make sure that you are not restricting your calories too much. When your calories are severely restricted, your body tends to target more muscle tissue for energy compared to a smaller deficit.
A larger deficit will indeed produce more rapid weight loss, but research has consistently found that rapid weight loss is associated with greater losses in lean muscle mass.
A 2017 studycompared the effects of a 2-week moderate calorie deficit (30% reduction) with a 3-day rapid weight loss fasting program. They found that similar amounts of weight were lost in both test groups; however, the group that did the rapid weight loss program lost similar amounts of muscle and fat. The slow weight loss group almost exclusively lost fat and retained muscle.
Another study compared the effects of a moderate calorie deficit (30% reduction) to a severe deficit (60% reduction) on 30 overweight participants. 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 ideal caloric range
Research suggests that between a 25% and 30% calorie restriction is the sweet spot for shedding fat while maintaining muscle mass.
In order to limit muscle loss during a weight loss program, you should be taking in 25%-30% 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.
Don’t know what your TDEE is? You can easily figure it out using our TDEE calculator, which will be live in the next few weeks. Our calculator gives you an estimate of how many calories you need to maintain your current weight 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 are consuming enough protein each day.
Protein is one of the three macronutrients featured in our daily diets. It is our bodies’ central tool for building and repairing muscle tissue. Without enough protein, our bodies will not be able to maintain muscle mass.
Protein consumption becomes especially important when we are talking about a calorie restricted diet. Like we mentioned earlier, when you are in caloric deficit, your body turns to itself to get the extra energy it needs. A high protein diet during a weight cut will help your body to better maintain muscle mass. This, in turn, will increase your overall ratio of weight lost from fat.
How much protein do you need per day?
A 2017 study concluded that somewhere around 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight was an ideal intake for preserving muscle during weight loss. Many studies have gone even further. A 2010 study 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.
Some researchers have even discovered that protein intakes as high as 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight were beneficial for maintaining muscle while losing fat. Especially for athletes.
In short, somewhere between 1.0 and 1.2 grams per pound of body weight should be more than enough protein to minimize muscle loss during a calorie restricted diet.
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 that sources like beef and pork typically have.
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. This substantial compared to protein and carbs, which only contain 4 calories per gram.
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 body weight!
Supplements like whey protein powder can be very helpful for consuming some quality protein without the hassle of choking down large quantities of meat every day. Incorporating a few scoops of whey protein per day gives you over 50g of protein with nearly no fat or carbs.
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3. Incorporate resistance training into 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. They found 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?
Our muscles are made up of tiny fibers, which in turn are made up of proteins. Stimuli like weightlifting can overload our muscles, causing proteins to break down.
After intensive resistance training, a series of signaling events take place in the body to repair and rebuild damaged muscle fibers. This is called muscle protein synthesis. 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 our levels of MPS are at or above our 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 correct frequency of reps and sets
Researchers have found that as little 3 days a week of intense resistance training was sufficient for maintaining muscle mass while losing weight.
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 calorie restricted dieting.
We want to focus on maintaining our strength while cutting weight. In order to do so, make sure that you are performing exercises at challenging weights — somewhere at or above 75% of your one rep max.
Aim for a rep range of 3-8 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 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 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 very effective means of burning calories and can be helpful in getting our bodies 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, I have nothing against cardio. It’s simply that there is only one thing that is absolutely necessary to lose fat and it is a calorie deficit. As long as you are taking in fewer calories than your body requires per day, you will lose fat.
I am not saying that you can’t or shouldn’t do cardio during a weight loss program; however, there are some things that you will have to consider if you don’t want to lose muscle while shedding fat.
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.
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.
This study illustrates how cardio can interfere with our ability to build muscle. Is there any way to avoid building strength if you want to include cardio in your fat loss program?
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 session 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 good tool to have in your toolbox for weight cutting. Compared to steady state cardio, HIIT features shorter durations (often as little as 30-45 seconds) at much higher rates of intensity.
Why is this better for weight loss?
I recently spoke to Justin Roethlingshoefer, a strength and conditioning coach with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks and the San Diego Gulls of the AHL. According to Justin, steady state cardio, like riding a stationary bike for 30 minutes, “takes much longer for your central nervous system (CNS) 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 our CNS and muscle fibers. This is just as effective for burning calories and is far more beneficial for preserving 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 it needs to maintain muscle mass during a caloric deficit.
A 2012 study demonstrated that even in small amounts, BCAAs taken before, during or after a workout showed significant effects on muscle size and strength.
BCAAs have also been shown to delay fatigue and improve performance during training. Taking BCAAs before and during your workout will help you to perform at your best even when you are low on energy from your calorie restricted diet.
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8. Prioritize fuel and recovery
A caloric deficit can negatively impact both our performance during training and our recovery afterward. Taking in carbs before your workout 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.
That’s not the only potentially advantageous time to take in protein. Other studies have found that consuming protein immediately following your training may also help to increase muscle protein synthesis after intense exercise.
How does sleep impact this process?
Sleep also plays an important role in our ability to maintain muscle mass while we are cutting weight. Amongst other things, our bodies utilize the time we sleep to actively rebuild damaged muscle tissue. During sleep, levels of certain hormones, as well as, muscle protein synthesis are elevated in the body, helping us to repair the damage that has been done to our muscles.
A chronic lack of sleep ultimately means that our bodies won’t able to properly react to and recover from exercise-induced muscle stimulation. Over time, this can lead to breakdowns in muscle tissue and an overall loss of muscle mass.
If you want to minimize muscle loss during a fat 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 and use any of the other suggestions we’ve shared to successfully lose fat without losing muscle.