How To Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle – Burn Fat, NOT Muscle

Not too long ago, I covered how to lose fat. The thing is, there’s a second important topic that always needs to be covered right along with it. 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. It’s happened to me and countless others plenty of times, and it can definitely happen to you.

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.

As I’ve explained 1000 times before (for example: Calories In vs Calories Out), 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. Additional details and specifics are covered here: How Much Protein Per Day

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 (aka the progressive overload principle) 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 200lbs, your goal throughout the duration of your fat loss phase is to end up bench pressing that same 200lbs (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.

This is something that I and so many others have learned the hard way. 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 phase) ends with you having lost way more muscle and strength than you should have.

Been there, done that.

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.

My brand new guide to The Best Workout Routines actually contains the full details of a routine I like to call The Fat Loss + Muscle Maintenance Solution, as it incorporates ALL of these adjustments for this very purpose.

It has become my go-to routine for maintaining muscle while I lose fat, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to do the same. You can download it all right here: The Best Workout Routines

I should also note that the possible exception to this are beginners, as they should ALREADY be using an intelligently designed lower volume beginner routine.

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.

As for what to eat during these meals, I cover the full details right here: The PRE & POST Workout Meal

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 (which I explain here: The Caloric Deficit), a moderate deficit of about 20% below maintenance level is what ends up being most ideal in most cases.

That’s why it’s what I most often recommend: How Many Calories Per Day To Lose Weight?

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.

Does it actually work? Well, this is something I’ve been experimenting with a lot over the last few years, and I’ve become a HUGE fan of it.

Not just for maintaining muscle while losing fat (which I’ve found it works great for), but also for diet adherence, controlling your appetite, and keeping you happy and satisfied. And on the other side of the goal spectrum, I like it equally well for gaining muscle without gaining excess fat.

It’s definitely a subject you’ll be hearing a lot more about from me in the future.

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. (Once again, for more about adjusting weight training, see The Fat Loss + Muscle Maintenance Solution in The Best Workout Routines.)

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.

Here’s why…

  • 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.

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500 Comments

  1. Lance Price says

    Hello sir, i just read your article about cutting and it sounds fantastic, i cant wait to try it! There is one problem though sir. I am shipping off to the United States Marine Corps boot camp in a few months. I need to lose fat, but i also need to have endurance and performance muscles at the ready. 20 pullups, 100 crunches in two minutes, and an 18:00 3 mile run.

    Your article describes a calorie deficit will illicit an energy deficit as well? Being a prospective Marine, i need all the energy i can get, so that my performance will improve rather than stay the same or decrease. Therefore sir, i am in a rut.

    I need your help sir, and any helpful comments are welcome as well. Thank you for the article, and have a nice day!

    • Lance Price says

      The above mentioned exercises are the perfect scores for a Marine. Sorry i forgot to mention. As of right now i am nowhere near those goals, but i have passed the bare minimum. I just need to lose fat and up my performance before i ship.

    • says

      A caloric deficit is certainly not the ideal state to be in for performance, with one major exception… when performance suffers as a result of being fat.

      So if a deficit is needed to get you leaner, and being leaner will improve your performance in and of itself, it’s likely worth it.

  2. nate says

    Sir, i wonder with your progamme that you wrote in this article, normally how long it will take to make the abs visible in stomach area

  3. Nash says

    What if you built all your muscle from only body weight calisthenic exercises, would you remain to do only calisthenics during your cut to maintain muscle mass?

      • Nash says

        Well it kind of makes no sense because to maintain your muscle mass while on a cut your goal is to maintain your strength but how is It possible to do that with calisthenics when there isn’t a heavy enough resistance to train for strength you would be training for endurance

        • says

          In your scenario the calisthenics were apparently heavy enough to cause muscle growth in the first place in which case it would be heavy enough to cause muscle maintenance in a deficit.

          Weighted pull-ups, weighted push-ups, weighted dips, etc… plenty of ways to take calisthenics beyond just body weight alone.

          • Nash says

            Great point on the weighted calisthenics but how would just body weight calisthenics still be heavy enough resistance on a cut if i can do 20+ repetitions?

  4. Nash says

    What I’m basically trying to say is calisthenics are considered light weight to me since I have to do many repetitions to fatigue.

    • says

      My point is that if it was heavy enough to build the muscle in the first place, it will be heavy enough to maintain it.

      Now if you’re saying you used some heavier form of training to build the muscle, then you will need something equally heavy to maintain it.

  5. Fernando Sá says

    Hi. Great article. I was wondering if I can do a Functional Training Workout, or KickBoxing class once a week, while following this programme?

    thanks

  6. says

    Hi there, i’ve been on a caloric deficit for about 3 weeks now, it’s been going well, but I also do cardio as well. My caloric maintenance level is about 2500 (roughly), so I consume 2000 calories a day. However, I also workout 3 times a week – mainly weight training, but also cardio at the end of every session. I’ve actually been able to maintain and in some cases increase the weight of what I lift. I assume my deficits would be much higher on my workout days, It doesn’t seem to be having much effect on my muscle just yet, but how many calories would you recommend I consume on my workout days?

  7. Sean says

    I agree with every single thing you said. These are things I’ve learned through a ton of experimenting with my own body. everything you pointed out is exactly what I’ve seen to be most effective, and this is how I keep my body looking exactly how I want it.

  8. Adnan says

    Hi Jay,

    I just found your site and i’ve been going through the articles. Really great work I must say :), thanks. In this article you have mentioned about cardio being a catalyst for losing muscle, I just wanted to clear this out. I’m a big fan of cardio, in fact I love it. But I am on a fat loss regime since 4 weeks now. I’m eating everything (but as clean as possible + protein shakes & fish oil as a supplement). I know this will take me at least 12 weeks before I hit my 6 pack which is what im aiming for. Well, coming to the point, I do strength training everyday but not heavy weight, around 8 Kg dumb bells (all various exercises) + push ups ( around 70 in one workout session) and body weight squats (around 100 per session). But i want to keep up my daily cardio around 40 mins to 1 hr everyday.

    BTW i regularly take rest days whenever I feel my body needs rest, so its for e.g. I workout and run 3 days then 1 day full rest maybe 2 if I think my body needs it. then workout maybe 4 or 5 days then rest again.

    Now my question is that 1) Am I giving my body enough stimulus to maintain my muscles? 2) While I am giving this stimulus to will cardio still eat up on my muscles ?

    Thanks in Advance :)

    • says

      1. Well, I’d describe the weight training stimulus needed to maintain muscle as “heavy.” You described what you’re doing as “light.” I think that answers your question. ;)

      2. Read this one, especially the second half.

      • Adnan says

        Thanks for replying Jay :). Well, I dunno if I should call my training light, moderate would be more appropriate as I do push myself with even the 8Kg dumbbells so I would expect that my muscles mass should at least stay constant if not increase.

        For the cardio part, I’ll surely read up on it and get back if I have any questions :)

  9. Sharon says

    This article is great !! But I’m just wondering if you think I’d be a bad idea to do the whole 16/8 intermittent fasting thing while doing this calorie deficit/maintaining muscle thing?

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