I’m going to let you in on a secret.
All the best advice on how to lose fat without losing muscle is stuff that you probably know already.
It’s not particularly exciting or new. It’s not going to transform your body overnight.
In fact, some would say it’s pretty obvious.
But people are too quick to dismiss things that they think they already know.
“If it was that simple, everyone would be doing it,” they think to themselves. “Tell me something I don’t already know.”
However, knowing what to do and actually doing it are two very different things.
If you’ve made the mistake of drifting away from the basics, I’ve put together a simple guide that explains exactly how to burn fat without losing muscle.
1. Don’t let your calorie intake drop too much. To lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit.
No matter what type of diet you’re following, be it the Dukan Diet, Intermittent Fasting, the Paleo Diet or whatever else is popular this month, a calorie deficit is a required condition for weight loss.
While the composition of your diet does make a big difference to your results, the secret to success is still to consume fewer calories than you burn.
However, extremely large calorie deficits increase the risk of losing muscle as well as fat.
Although there is research to show that lean muscle mass can be preserved with very low calorie diets (800 calories per day) in obese individuals (40-50% bodyfat and a BMI of 35), this is not something I’d recommend for anyone who isn’t extremely fat.
If you’re not extremely overweight or obese, how low should you go?
I’d suggest a lower limit of 8 calories per pound of bodyweight. So an individual weighing 200 pounds would go no lower than 1600 calories per day. I have no research to support this figure, it’s just my “best guess” based on my own experience and that of the clients I’ve worked with over the years.
2. Eat enough protein. Why is protein important? Firstly, studies show that protein does a better job at filling you up than carbohydrate or fat. Eat a protein-rich breakfast, for example, and chances are that you won’t eat as much food for lunch.
The figure below is from a University of Washington study where dieters were told to eat roughly twice as much protein as normal. The circles at the top represent daily calorie intake, while the diamonds at the bottom represent body weight.
As you can see, eating more protein led to a spontaneous reduction in calorie intake that lasted for the length of the study. In fact, calorie intake dropped by an average of 441 calories per day.
After 12 weeks, the test subjects had lost about 5 kilograms (12 pounds). Considering they did no exercise, losing an average of 1 pound per week is a decent result.
Protein also has a “muscle sparing” effect during fat loss. In other words, it helps to preserve muscle while you lose fat. And if you don’t get enough protein while you’re on a diet, you’ll end up dropping muscle as well as fat.
Although losing muscle means that you’ll lose weight more quickly, you’ll just end up looking like a slightly smaller version of your current self, with many of the “flabby bits” still intact.
3. Lift weights 2-3 times a week. How much weight you lose is a lot less important than where that lost weight comes from. If you drop 10 pounds of fat while gaining 3 pounds of muscle, your weight on the scales will only have dropped by 7 pounds. But you’ll look 13 pounds different.
That’s one of the reasons why strength training is so important. It’s the best way to ensure that you don’t lose muscle while dieting.
Focus on pressing (overhead press and bench press), pulling (deadlifts, chin-ups and rows) and squatting movement using low repetitions (5-8 per set) and relatively heavy weights.
I know that lifting weights 2-3 times a week doesn’t sound like much. But this is the way the routines in How to Fight Fat and Win 2.0 are set up, and they’ve produced some great results for the people who’ve tried them.
In other words, even if you only have the time (or motivation) to go to the gym twice a week, it’s still possible to lose the love handles, flatten your stomach and improve your muscle definition, just as long as those two workouts are set up correctly.
4. Don’t overdo the cardio. With the current trend for high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and whole body workouts, there are plenty of people out there running into problems with fatigue.
Anyone trying to combine heavy strength training 2 or 3 times a week with 3-4 interval workouts AND a calorie-restricted diet is going to end up getting burned out very quickly.
If you’re just starting out, you can forget about cardio altogether and rely on diet and resistance training to create the calorie deficit needed for weight loss.
Then, when your rate of fat loss starts to slow down (which it will), add some low-intensity steady-state (LISS) cardio to your program, even if it’s just 30 minutes of brisk walking three or four mornings each week.
The benefit of LISS is that it burns additional calories while having only a minor impact on your muscle-building efforts in the gym.
“A personal favorite of mine is lower intensity and longer duration activities like walking in the 12-16 hour time interval of the fast,” writes nutritional consultant and personal trainer Martin Berkhan.
“Not only is this the ‘golden age’ of subcutaneous fat oxidation, but lower intensity activities selectively use fatty acids to fuel the activity. There are other reasons I favor low intensity over high intensity activities (such as HIIT). They interfere minimally with your performance in the gym and can be done on a daily basis, which is not the case with HIIT.”
There are supplements you can take and a few other dietary tweaks that will speed up your progress a little. But the steps above are going to be responsible for the vast majority of your results.
Yes I know there’s nothing you’ve just read that’s particularly new or exciting. But a nutrition and exercise program based on these simple principles will work for most people.
Chances are it will work for you too.