Here’s an important topic that always needs to be covered when losing weight. And that is: how to lose fat WITHOUT losing muscle.
Wait… what?!?!?! Did I just imply that you can lose your pretty hard-earned lean muscle mass while only trying to lose your ugly body fat??? Yup, I sure did.
To understand why and how this is possible and (more importantly) how to prevent it from happening, you first need to understand an important fact…
Weight Loss vs Fat Loss: It’s NOT The Same Thing!
People often say they want to lose weight. This is sort of a dumb statement, because “weight” can be a few different things. For example… water, glycogen, muscle or fat. Hell, you can cut off a leg and you’ll lose “weight” just fine.
In reality however, what most of us want to lose is fat, NOT muscle.
Now, despite some of the crazy things you may have heard before about how to lose fat, the truth is that there is just one major requirement… a caloric deficit.
A caloric deficit is what happens when you consume less calories than your body needs to burn for energy performing all of the tasks it needs to perform over the course of the day (move, breathe, pump blood, digest food, etc.).
When that caloric deficit is present, your body is forced to find some alternative source of energy on your body to burn instead. Ideally, this would ONLY be your ugly stored body fat. However, it can also be your pretty lean muscle tissue.
Sure, you might want your body to just burn body fat and not muscle, but your body doesn’t really give a crap about what you want. It just knows that in order for it to survive and function under the current conditions, it will need to pull stored energy from somewhere. And that can mean fat, muscle or a combination of both.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to do everything you can to improve the fat:muscle loss ratio as much as possible and basically signal your body to maintain ALL of your muscle and ONLY burn body fat. But the question is… how? I thought you’d never ask.
Here now are what I’d consider to be the 8 best ways to lose fat WITHOUT losing muscle…
1. Eat Enough Protein
A sufficient daily protein intake is the single most important dietary requirement for maintaining muscle. It’s not meal timing, or supplements, or the exact size of your caloric deficit, or the quality of the foods you eat (more on that nonsense later), or anything else diet related.
Nutritionally speaking, losing fat without losing muscle is all about eating enough protein every day. Numerous studies have proven this to be true. Even in the absence of a proper weight training routine, more of the weight you lose will be body fat rather than muscle mass just as a result of an increased protein intake.
So, the first step of any muscle-preserving diet is always getting your ideal amount of protein for the day. Just what is “ideal?” Well, the good old “1 gram of protein per pound of body weight” recommendation still remains a perfectly fine starting point for most people with this goal in mind.
2. Maintain Strength/Intensity/Weight On The Bar
And now here is the single most important training requirement for anyone who wants to lose fat without losing muscle. Simply put, the primary training stimulus required for maintaining muscle is maintaining your current levels of strength.
You know how gradually getting stronger is what signals your body to begin the muscle building process? Well, on a fat loss diet, just maintaining your current levels of strength (aka intensity, aka the weight on the bar) is what now signals your body to maintain muscle.
If that signal goes away, your body’s need to keep your pretty muscle tissue around goes away right along with it.
That’s why the insanely stupid myth of lifting heavier weights to build muscle but then lifting lighter weights (for higher reps) when you want to lose fat, get lean and get toned is the absolute WORST thing you could possibly believe when you’re trying to avoid losing muscle. In reality, you lift heavy weight to build muscle, and then lift that same heavy weight if you want to actually maintain that muscle.
If you start purposely lifting lighter weights while in a caloric deficit, your body essentially thinks: “Hmmm, it looks like we only need to lift lighter weights now. I guess all of that muscle I built for the purpose of being able to lift heavy weight is no longer needed. Time to start burning it for energy instead of body fat!”
Not too good, huh? This means that your primary weight training goal is to, at the very least, NOT lose strength. This in turn will allow you to NOT lose muscle.
For example, if you currently bench press 120kgs, your goal throughout the duration of your fat loss phase is to end up bench pressing that same 120kgs (or more if possible) when you’re done and all of the fat has been lost. The same goes for every other exercise in your routine.
Sure, you can continue trying to get stronger and continue trying to make progressive overload happen while losing fat. It can and does happen (especially for beginners, who should still be progressing consistently even in a deficit).
But, if you’re past the beginner’s stage, don’t be surprised if it’s MUCH harder to do (if not borderline impossible in some cases) and the best you can do is just maintain strength rather than increase it.
This is fine of course, as just maintaining the amount of weight you currently lift on every exercise is the key weight training requirement for losing fat WITHOUT losing muscle.
3. Reduce Weight Training Volume and/or Frequency
A caloric deficit is really an energy deficit, and while this is fantastic (and required) for losing any amount of body fat, it kinda sucks for all things training related (recovery, work capacity, volume tolerance, performance, etc.).
What that means is, the workout routine you were (or would be) using with great success to build muscle, increase strength or make whatever other positive improvements to your body under normal circumstances (where there is no deficit present) will often be TOO MUCH for your body to tolerate and optimally recover from in the energy deficient state it is currently in.
And do you know what this scenario will ALWAYS lead to? One in which you’re not recovering properly from your workouts? A loss of strength.
And do you know what a loss of strength will ALWAYS lead to, especially while in a caloric deficit? A loss of muscle.
Like I explained a minute ago (#2 on this list), the key training requirement for maintaining muscle is simply maintaining strength. The problem is, if you’re using a workout routine that you aren’t properly recovering from, the opposite of this is going to happen.
The workout routine that seemed perfect before when those beneficial extra calories were present is now the reason your workouts are getting harder, you’re getting weaker, reps are decreasing, weight on the bar needs to be reduced, and your fat loss phase (aka the cutting phrases) ends with you having lost way more muscle and strength than you should have.
Luckily, It Can Be Prevented
How do you avoid all of this? Simple. By adjusting your weight training program to compensate for the drop in recovery that always comes with being in a caloric deficit. That means reducing training volume (the total amount of sets, reps and/or exercises being done), reducing training frequency (the total amount of workouts being done per week and per muscle group), or a combination of both.
4. Get Pre & Post Workout Nutrition Right… Still
I once read an article on some diet/training website that tried to make the point that pre and post workout nutrition become LESS important when your goal is fat loss rather than muscle growth. I don’t remember the exact reasoning for this (if I did, I’d be making fun of it right now), but whatever it was… it couldn’t be more wrong.
As mentioned, recovery, work capacity, volume tolerance and overall training performance in general go to crap as a result of being in a caloric deficit. And if you haven’t heard, the entire concept of pre and post workout nutrition is practically built around improving these very aspects of training and recovery.
That makes the meals you eat before and after your workouts JUST as important (arguably even more MORE SO) when your goal is losing fat without losing muscle as opposed to just building that muscle in the first place.
5. Don’t Reduce Calories By TOO Much
As we hopefully all understand by now, in order to lose any amount of body fat, you need to create a caloric deficit (I figure if I repeat it enough times, it will sink in). And that means you’re going to need to reduce your calorie intake below maintenance level so stored body fat can be burned for energy instead.
The thing is, that deficit can be classified as small, moderate or large based on how far below maintenance you go and how much you reduce your daily calorie intake by. Now, while each degree of deficit has its own PROS and CONS, a moderate deficit of about 20% below maintenance level is what ends up being most ideal in most cases.
Why not a larger deficit? Why not reduce calories by even more and make fat loss happen even faster? Well, aside from being harder to actually sustain, the other major downside of a large caloric deficit is that it will have the largest negative impact on training and recovery.
And that means that reducing your calorie intake by TOO much will increase the potential for strength and muscle loss. For that reason, I’d recommend most people stick with no more than a moderate deficit. Those who are already quite lean and looking to get REALLY lean may do better with an even smaller deficit.
6. Incorporate Calorie/Carb/Nutrient Cycling
I can never decide if I want to refer to it as cycling calories, carbs or nutrients (they sound different but it’s all the same thing), so give me a second while I “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” this.[8 seconds later…]
Alright, calorie cycling it is.
And what it refers to is eating more calories on certain days (typically training days) and less calories on other days (typically rest days). This is done primarily by manipulating carbs and/or fat, as protein is something we want to be high every day… especially when our goal is to lose fat, NOT muscle.
Now, with a more simple and straight forward fat loss diet, you’d consume about the same amount of calories and nutrients every day and be in a similar sized deficit each day of the week.
But with calorie cycling, you’d be in a larger deficit on certain days, but then a smaller deficit (or possibly even NO deficit at all) on the other days. However, at the end of the week, the total amount of calories consumed would still be the same. It’s just the method of getting there (eating less on certain days, more on others) is different.
The theoretical purpose for doing this is to improve everything from recovery to calorie partitioning by providing our bodies with more calories/nutrients when it’s most likely to need and benefit from them (training days), and less calories/nutrients when it isn’t (rest days). This would then potentially allow us to, among other things, better maintain muscle and strength while we lose fat.
7. Take Diet Breaks When Needed
Can we all be honest for a second? Regardless of how you go about making fat loss occur, the simple fact is that it kinda sucks either way. Your body doesn’t really like being in a caloric deficit, and as anyone who has ever tried to lose any amount of fat already knows, your mind sure as hell doesn’t like it either.
The truth is, there are a ton of physiological and psychological aspects of being in the energy deficient state required for fat loss to take place that just plain suck. From the aforementioned drop in recovery and performance to the changes in insulin, leptin, thyroid hormones and overall metabolic rate, the human body (and mind) just run a whole lot better with no deficit present.
And that brings us to the concept of the diet break.
The exact definition of what a diet break is will vary based on who you ask, but I think of it as a 1-2 week period where you come out of the deficit and back up to maintenance level for the purpose of briefly allowing all of the things that suck about fat loss to recover and go back normal for a little while.
There are dozens of potential benefits (some physical, some mental) that come from taking diet breaks like this, but the reason I’m mentioning it here are for its performance and recovery related benefits. Why? Because any improvement there will help with our goal of maintaining muscle and strength while we lose fat.
The specifics of when and how often a diet break should be taken would require its own article (consider it added to my to-do list), but the basic point is that while people with LESS fat left to lose will generally need/benefit from a diet break more than someone in the early stages of losing a lot of fat, the fact remains that it can be quite beneficial for many reasons… one of which is preserving muscle.
8. Avoid Excessive Amounts Of Cardio (Or Just Don’t Do ANY At All)
This all goes back to what I mentioned 100 times already about recovery being reduced as a result of calories being reduced. For this reason, ALL of the exercise you’re doing (not just weight training, cardio too) needs to be reduced or adjusted to some extent to compensate for this and help prevent muscle loss.
Now, weight training obviously still needs to be kept around as it provides the primary signal that tells our bodies to maintain muscle and only burn body fat. But cardio? That’s completely optional.
And honestly, I feel there is no more overrated and over-given-a-shit-about aspect of fat loss or muscle growth than cardio. Obviously if your goal is endurance or performance related, my opinion would change. But strictly in terms of just improving the way your body looks? I hate cardio.
In fact, I rarely do any myself and my default recommendation for most people with body composition related goals is to do little or even NO cardio whatsoever. I’d much rather see people create their deficit via diet alone, use weight training to build/maintain muscle, and use cardio as a last resort tool for when you reach a point where lowering calories any further becomes too difficult and you’d rather burn those calories off instead.
- HIIT (or really any high intensity cardio) will cut into the recovery of both your nervous system AND muscle fibers almost in the same way an additional weight training workout would.
- Typical steady state cardio (30 minutes of jogging, for example) will also cut into recovery, albeit not as much as HIIT can.
- And excessive amounts of steady state cardio (like 30-60+ minutes of jogging and/or just doing it too frequently) is often viewed as the ultimate killer of muscle.
When you weigh these CONS against the PROS of cardio (it burns some calories… yay!), you begin to realize that it may not be worth doing for the purpose of losing fat… specifically for people whose primary goal is to lose that fat without losing muscle.
Don’t get me wrong here… both HIIT and steady state cardio are useful fat loss tools for sure and I’m definitely not against doing them. It’s just that, considering cardio is IN NO WAY required for losing fat and that doing it could potentially hurt your ability to maintain muscle (plus it’s boring as hell)… I don’t really see the point.
Obviously personal preferences and individual differences play an important role here too, but generally speaking… I rarely recommend cardio by default or do much of it myself. And when I do, my first choice is always 30-60 minutes of low intensity walking. Still burns a nice amount of calories and won’t cut into recovery. Win-win.
What About Eating Only Healthy & “Clean” Foods?
After looking over this list of what I’d consider to be the most important/effective ways to maintain muscle while losing fat, some people might be wondering if I forgot to mention one final tip.
The “tip” I’m referring to is to eat healthier, cleaner, natural foods instead of unhealthy, dirty, processed foods. Why? Because doing so will supposedly make a significant difference in terms of getting the “weight” you lose to be fat instead of muscle.
As nice as that theory sounds, the truth is that with all else being equal (total calorie and macronutrient intake, strength being maintained, etc.), clean vs dirty, healthy vs unhealthy, processed vs unprocessed really doesn’t matter at all in terms of calorie partitioning and whether the “weight” you lose ends up being fat (good) or muscle (bad).
Now obviously in terms of things like overall health, appetite control and diet adherence there are some big differences, which is why I’d always recommend getting most of your calories from higher quality foods rather than junky garbage. But the common thought that changes in body composition are directly influenced by a food being “clean” or “dirty” is total bullshit.
So no, while it’s still a great idea, it’s not an idea that will (in and of itself) improve your ability to maintain muscle while losing fat. Which means, it doesn’t belong on this list.
Goodbye Fat, Hello Muscle!
There you have it… the 8 best ways to ensure you lose fat without losing muscle in the process. The first 2 items (sufficient protein intake and maintaining strength) are BY FAR the most important. It just so happens that the majority of the other items on this list are proven to significantly help make those things (specifically strength maintenance) actually happen.
So, if you’ve ever lost any muscle or strength while trying to lose fat or are just concerned it might happen to you in the future… this is how you can prevent it.