Over the years, I’ve written quite a bit about how to lose fat. The thing is, if that’s your goal, there’s something else you also need to know.
And that is: how to lose fat without losing muscle.
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 it happens, how it’s possible, and how to prevent it from happening, you first need to understand an important fact…
Weight Loss vs Fat Loss: It’s Not The Same
People often say they want to lose weight. This thing is, “weight” can be a few different things. For example:
- Stomach content (i.e. food waiting to be digested).
So, if all you care about is losing weight, you could potentially sit in a sauna and sweat a lot, or get food poisoning and poop your brains out. Hell, you could cut off a leg and you’ll lose “weight” just fine. (Disclaimer: please don’t actually do that.)
But if you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you don’t want to lose any of this other stuff. Rather, what you specifically want to do here is lose fat, NOT muscle.
How Fat Loss Happens
Fat loss has just one major requirement: a caloric deficit.
A caloric deficit is the state you’re in when you consume fewer calories than your body burns for energy.
When this happens, it forces your body to find an alternative source of energy to burn for fuel instead, and that will primarily end up being your stored body fat.
How Muscle Loss Happens
In a perfect world, the ONLY thing your body would burn while in a caloric deficit is your stored body fat.
However, it turns out there’s a second energy source available: your muscle tissue.
And while you may want your body to only burn fat and not burn any muscle whatsoever, the reality is that your body doesn’t really give a crap about what you want.
All it cares about is keeping you alive (fun fact: your body can’t tell if you’re in a caloric deficit because you’re trying to lose some fat, or because you’re in danger of starving to death), and in order to make that happen, it will need to pull stored energy from somewhere.
And that can mean fat, muscle, or a combination of both.
How To Prevent It
What you need to do here is adjust your diet and workout in ways that will make your body less likely to burn muscle, and more likely to burn body fat.
How do you do this, you ask?
Here are the 8 best ways to lose fat without losing muscle:
- Eat A Sufficient Amount Of Protein
- Maintain Or Increase Strength Levels
- Don’t Reduce Calories By Too Much
- Reduce Weight Training Volume And/Or Frequency
- Get Pre And Post Workout Nutrition Right
- Incorporate Refeeds Or Calorie Cycling
- Take Diet Breaks When Needed
- Avoid Excessive Amounts Of Cardio (Or Don’t Do Any At All)
Let’s take a look at each right now…
1. Eat A Sufficient Amount Of Protein
When it comes to maintaining muscle, your total daily protein intake is the single most important dietary factor of them all.
It’s not specific food choices, or when you eat, or how often you eat, or carbs, or supplements, or even the exact size of your caloric deficit (more on that later).
Nutritionally speaking, the biggest key to losing fat without losing muscle is eating a sufficient amount of protein each day. This is supported by numerous studies on a wide range of people (sources here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).
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 a higher protein intake.
So, the first step to any muscle-preserving diet will be eating an ideal amount of protein every day. How much is that exactly? Well, based on the available research…
(Note: those who are very overweight should use their goal body weight instead of their current body weight when doing this calculation.)
Additional details here: How Much Protein Do I Need A Day
2. Maintain Or Increase Strength Levels
Would you be surprised if I told you that using a well-designed weight training program is crucial for maintaining muscle while losing fat?
No? I didn’t think so.
What may surprise you, though, is that it’s more than just “using a workout program” or “doing strength training” that provides the muscle-retaining benefits we want.
For example, if you lift the same weights for the same number of reps for the next 20 years, your body will have no reason to build additional muscle. However, if you gradually lift more weight, or lift the same weight for more reps, your body would then have a reason to build more muscle.
And this same concept applies for maintaining muscle as well (source). Your goal is to give your body a reason to keep the muscle mass it currently has.
How do you do that?
Aim to (at least) maintain your current strength levels throughout the duration of the weight loss process, or, if possible, increase them. Doing so provides a “muscle maintenance” signal that tells your body it needs to keep the muscle it has (or build more of it).
Think of it like this. When your body is looking for an alternative fuel source to burn for energy, and it can choose body fat or muscle mass for that purpose, it will be less likely to choose muscle (and more likely to choose fat) if it sees there’s a reason for keeping the muscle around.
Without that signal, the potential for burning muscle increases.
Silly Myths About Weight Training
That’s why the silly myth of “lifting heavier weights” to build muscle and then “lifting lighter weights” to lose fat, get lean, and get “toned” is one of the worst things you can believe when you’re trying to avoid muscle loss.
In reality, you lift heavy weight to build muscle, and then lift that same heavy weight if you want to actually maintain that muscle.
Purposely reducing the intensity by lifting lighter weights while in a caloric deficit essentially makes your body think: “Hmmm, it looks like we only need to lift lighter weights now. I guess all of the muscle that was built for the purpose of lifting heavier weights is no longer needed. That must mean it’s safe to start burning it for energy instead of body fat.”
You want to avoid that scenario.
This is why your primary weight training goal is to, at the very least, NOT lose strength. This will, in turn, allow you to NOT lose muscle.
How To Do It
Let’s pretend you currently lift 100lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps on some exercise. Your goal throughout the duration of the fat loss process is to end up lifting as close to that same 100lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps as you can… or more if possible.
The same goes for every other exercise in your workout routine.
And the reason I say “or more if possible” is because it’s a lot harder – though certainly not impossible – to gain strength (and muscle) while in a caloric deficit than it is when you’re at maintenance or in a caloric surplus.
This isn’t the case for beginners, as someone in the earlier stages of intelligent progressive weight training will be able to progress quite well regardless of whether they are in a deficit.
But for intermediate and advanced trainees, don’t be surprised if it’s a lot harder to do, or if progression happens a lot slower, or if you find the best you can do on certain exercises is just maintain strength rather than increase it.
This is fine, of course, as that is the main part of the weight training stimulus you need to avoid losing muscle.
3. Don’t Reduce Calories By Too Much
As I explained earlier, a caloric deficit needs to be present in order for you to lose any amount of body fat, and that means you’re going to need to reduce your calorie intake by some degree.
The thing is, that degree of deficit can be all kinds of different sizes ranging from unnecessarily small to excessively large.
And while different deficit sizes can suit certain people in certain situations more so than others, research and real-world experience lean toward a moderate deficit being ideal for many reasons, including preserving muscle (sources here and here).
The ideal caloric deficit for most people is between 15-25% below their maintenance level, with an even 20% often being a good starting point.
So, for example, if your maintenance level happened to be 2500 calories and you wanted to create a 20% deficit, you’d aim to eat about 2000 calories per day.
I explain this in detail, along with how to calculate your maintenance level, right here: How Many Calories Should I Eat A Day
Why Not Use A Larger Deficit?
This is the point when you may be wondering why a larger deficit isn’t being used. After all, wouldn’t reducing your calories by more than this make weight loss happen even faster?
Yup, it certainly would.
But remember, this isn’t just about “weight loss.” Our goal is more specific than that. We want to lose fat… and do it without losing muscle.
And for that purpose, large deficits, low calorie diets, and “fast” weight loss are going to be bad ideas for most people.
In fact, this sort of thing is a bad idea for many reasons, as it can worsen:
- Metabolic slowdown.
- Hormonal adaptations.
- Performance and recovery.
- Water retention.
- Sleep quality.
- Libido and reproductive function.
- Lethargy and fatigue.
- Adherence and sustainability.
- Disordered eating habits.
- And a whole lot more. (Additional details here: Why Very Low Calorie Diets Don’t Work)
For all of these reasons and more, a moderate deficit will be best for most people.
4. 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’s not exactly ideal for maximizing weight training performance and recovery.
This is something we just talked about a second ago in terms of larger deficits having a larger negative impact in this regard.
However, even with just a moderate deficit in place, there is likely to still be some drop-off in performance/recovery compared to when you’re at maintenance or in a surplus.
Why does this matter, you ask?
Because the workout routine you were (or would be) using with great success for a goal like building muscle under non-deficit conditions now has the potential to be too much for your body to handle in the energy-deficient state it is currently in.
And that kind of scenario? That’s what causes strength to be lost. And when strength is lost in a deficit, muscle loss is what typically follows.
So, if you’re using a workout routine that involves more volume (sets, reps, and exercises) and/or frequency (workouts per week) than you can presently handle, you may notice things getting harder for you, or see that you’re getting weaker, or that reps are decreasing, or that progress is regressing, or that weight on the bar needs to be reduced, and eventually… that muscle is being lost.
How To Prevent It
How do you avoid all of this?
Adjust your weight training program to compensate for the drop in performance and recovery that comes with being in a caloric deficit.
This could mean reducing training volume (e.g. doing slightly fewer sets), reducing training frequency (e.g. using a 3-day workout routine instead of a 5-day workout routine), or a combination of both.
Of course, the exact adjustments you should make (or whether any adjustments truly need to be made at this stage) depends on the specific workout routine you’re using and your own individual recovery capabilities.
But if you need any help figuring this out, my Superior Fat Loss program lays out exactly how to turn any effective workout routine for building muscle into one that is ideal for maintaining it while losing fat.
I also include a workout routine I call The Fat Loss + Muscle Maintenance Solution, which is the workout that I’ve already adjusted for this purpose and most often recommend to those looking to maintain muscle during fat loss. You can learn more about it right here: Superior Fat Loss
(Also note that one possible exception to the above advice would be beginners, as they should already be using a fairly lower volume beginner routine and therefore would be unlikely to need any further adjustments.)
5. Get Pre And Post Workout Nutrition Right
Your pre and post workout meals, aka the meals you eat before and after your workout, are not quite as super important or hugely significant as most people make them out to be.
They are just one of many factors of your diet that are secondary to your total calorie and macronutrient intake (i.e. protein, fat, and carbs), which is always what matters most when it comes to losing fat or building/maintaining muscle (source).
No, they aren’t capable of making or breaking your success, but they are capable of providing benefits that can improve your performance during a workout, and enhance recovery related training adaptations after a workout.
And since we know that 1) performance and recovery are reduced to some extent while we’re in a deficit, and 2) this can increase the risk of muscle loss… it’s pretty safe to say that these are benefits we want to get.
So, what do you need to do to get them?
Simple as that. Additional details here: What To Eat Before And After A Workout
6. Incorporate Refeeds Or Calorie Cycling
As I’ve explained throughout this article, the simple act of being in a prolonged caloric deficit causes a variety of changes to occur that increase the risk of muscle loss.
From hormonal adaptations, to increased lethargy and fatigue, to a reduction in performance and recovery… it all just makes losing muscle more likely to happen.
Fortunately for us, there are methods we can use to help minimize these effects or potentially even reverse them.
These methods include:
- Calorie Cycling
- Diet Breaks
We’ll cover diet breaks in a second, but for right now…
Refeeds and calorie cycling allow us to temporarily pause our deficit by strategically eating more calories – specifically from carbs, as carbs have the biggest positive impact on a hormone called leptin (sources here and here) – for the purpose of getting back up to our maintenance level or into a surplus.
In addition to being useful from the standpoint of making your diet more sustainable, these methods will also serve to replenish muscle glycogen stores (which helps with strength and performance) and have positive effects on various physiological and psychological factors that are negatively affected during a deficit.
How To Do It
Refeeds can be done a few different ways, but in most cases, it’s a 24 hour period of being out of your deficit and eating somewhere between your maintenance level and 500 calories above it (with the increase in calories coming primarily via carbs). I’ve found one refeed day per week to be a good frequency for those with an average amount of fat to lose, and once every other week being good for those with an above-average amount to lose.
- Calorie Cycling
Calorie cycling is essentially multiple refeed days (i.e. 2-3) over the span of a week, often arranged so that you’re consuming more calories on your workout days, and fewer calories on your rest days, with the specific daily amounts adjusted as needed to still have the intended total weekly net deficit in place in the end.
Refeeds and calorie cycling change this by inserting non-deficit days to help lessen the negative effects a prolonged deficit can have, and make us more likely to retain muscle while losing fat (sources here and here).
I’ve personally found each approach to be beneficial, which is why they are a big part of my Superior Fat Loss program. Feel free to check it out for additional details and my specific recommendations.
7. Take Diet Breaks When Needed
Now take what we just discussed about refeeds and calorie cycling, but imagine their positive benefits being more significant.
In fact, imagine that instead of lessening the negative effects of a prolonged deficit, we could actually reverse those effects to some degree.
That, my friends, is the full diet break.
A diet break is typically a 1-2 week period where you come out of the deficit and back up to your maintenance level for the purpose of briefly allowing many of the things that suck about fat loss (i.e. hormonal and metabolic adaptations) to recover a bit and go back to normal (or at least, closer to normal).
How To Do It
To take a diet break, increase your calorie intake (primarily via additional carbs) so that you are at your maintenance level every day for a period of 1-2 weeks.
Diet break frequency should be dependent on personal needs/preferences, and how much fat you have to lose. Generally speaking, though, once every 6-16 weeks tends to be ideal for most (perhaps every 6-12 weeks if you have less to lose, and every 10-16 weeks if you have more to lose).
Just like with refeeds and calorie cycling, diet breaks are also a big part of my Superior Fat Loss program, so feel free to check it out for additional details and my specific recommendations.
8. Avoid Excessive Amounts Of Cardio (Or Don’t Do Any At All)
Cardio is additional exercise… and additional exercise requires additional recovery.
While this has the potential to be problematic at any time and under any condition, we know the potential is higher when we’re in the energy-deficient (and recovery-impaired) state we need to be in for fat loss to occur. Which we are.
Which means, the more exercise we do, the more risk we pose to our ability to adequately recover, both in terms of the body parts being used the most (typically the legs with most forms of cardio), as well as the central nervous system (CNS)… which affects everything.
And if recovery begins to suffer, strength and performance will suffer. And when strength and performance suffer, so will your ability to build or maintain muscle while losing fat.
Now, exactly how much of an impact cardio has in this regard is hard to say, as it depends on the exact frequency, duration, and intensity of the activity being done.
- 3 cardio sessions per week will have less of an impact than 5-7 sessions.
- 30 minutes of cardio will have less of an impact than 60-120 minutes.
- A low intensity activity – like walking – would have little to no impact compared to a more moderate intensity activity… such as jogging.
- And neither would have nearly as much of an impact as something with a high intensity – like HIIT (high intensity interval training… such as sprinting) – which can almost be like adding an extra weight training workout in terms of the stress it places on your body and how recovery-intensive it is.
Here’s What I Recommend
Weight training is a requirement for building/maintaining muscle. We need that.
But cardio? It’s unnecessary for those goals, and purely optional for fat loss in general.
This fact, combined with the potential downsides that come with cardio activity (e.g. it cuts into recovery, it’s an inefficient way to create a deficit, it burns fewer calories than most people assume, it’s a common cause of overuse injuries, most people find it boring, etc. etc. etc.), is why my default recommendation is simply this:
Do the least amount of cardio needed.
What does this mean exactly? It’s pretty simple:
- If you have no real need or preference for doing cardio, you can feel free to do none.
- But if you do, or you find that you didn’t at first but that eventually changed at some point during the weight loss process, you can certainly feel free to do some cardio. Just be sure to avoid doing any more than you truly need to be doing.
Additional details here: How Much Cardio Should I Do To Lose Weight
As for me, my preference is to have people create their deficit via diet alone, use weight training to build/maintain muscle while they lose fat, and save cardio as a secondary tool to consider using if a point is reached when lowering calories any further becomes too difficult and they’d rather burn those calories off instead.
And my preference for the cardio activity itself? 30-90 minutes of walking. It still burns a decent amount of calories, and it won’t have any real meaningful impact on recovery.
Goodbye Fat, Hello Muscle!
There you have it… the 8 best things you can do to ensure you lose fat without losing muscle in the process.
While the first two items (sufficient protein intake and maintaining/increasing strength) are the most important, most scientifically-supported, and most beneficial in this regard, I’ve found that implementing all of the recommendations in this article is what produces the best results.
And if you need any help with any of this, I’d highly recommend checking out my Superior Fat Loss program. It’s designed from top-to-bottom for the specific purpose of preventing muscle loss.
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