Every day, millions of people ask Google some of life’s most pressing questions, big and small. And I’ve taken it upon myself to provide you with the answers.
Today, I tackle nine of the most popular questions on the subject of how to lose fat without losing muscle.
1. Can You Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle?
Yes, you can lose fat without losing muscle. In fact, some people will be able to go one step further and actually gain muscle at the same time as losing fat.
But it’s a phenomenon that’s generally limited to people who are very overweight and have never lifted weights before, or those returning to exercise after a layoff, where muscle memory comes into play.
If you have a large amount of fat to get rid of, losing fat without losing muscle is relatively easy. But if you’re very lean and trying to get even leaner, then holding on to the muscle you have becomes progressively more difficult.
Put differently, if we took two people, one with high levels of body fat, and one with low levels of body fat, and fed them the same low-calorie diet, a greater proportion of the total weight lost in the leaner individual would come from muscle .
In other words, take a group of obese individuals with 40-50% body fat, put them on a severely restrictive diet, and get them to lift weights three times a week. They’ll be able to drop fat with little in the way of muscle loss.
In fact, that was exactly what happened in a West Virginia University study, where a group of 20 obese men and women lost over 30 pounds (14.5 kilograms) of fat and almost no muscle after three months on a diet providing just 800 calories per day .
Give that exact same diet to someone with a body fat of just 15%, and their risk of muscle loss will be greatly increased.
Here’s something else that’s very important.
Your ability to lose fat without losing muscle is heavily influenced by two things that are under your direct control – namely, the type of exercise you do and the food you eat.
But there are also genetic factors outside your control that will affect how much of the lost weight comes from fat and how much comes from muscle.
No two people respond in the same way to an identical program of diet and exercise.
An individual with “good” genetics will automatically retain more muscle and lose more fat, while someone with “not so good” genetics will lose more muscle and less fat.
In other words, put two people on the same diet and exercise program, and one person will usually see better results than the other.
And, short of taking drugs, or having your genes tinkered with by a rogue scientist, there’s not a great deal you can do about it.
2. How Do I Know If I’m Losing Fat Rather Than Muscle?
First, I need to be clear what the term “losing muscle” actually means.
When they talk about losing muscle, most people are referring to the loss of muscle protein. But there’s a lot more than just protein inside your muscles.
Take a close look at a slice of muscle tissue under a microscope. You’ll see stored carbohydrate in the form of glycogen, fat stored both in and between muscle fibers, as well as water.
When you go on a diet, the amount of glycogen and water stored in your muscles is going to drop. In the first week or so of dieting, you’ll often lose muscle glycogen and water a lot more quickly than you drop fat.
Given the fact that some of the material stored in your muscles has been lost, we could say that you’ve lost muscle, particularly as they may take on a slightly “deflated” appearance.
What’s happened is that your muscles have flattened out a bit because there’s not as much “stuff” in there as there was before.
Remember, you haven’t lost actual muscle protein. Rather, you’ve just lost some of the substances stored around those proteins, which can be replaced very quickly.
When I talk about losing muscle, I’m referring to the ongoing loss of muscle protein over a period of weeks and months, rather than the initial loss of glycogen and water.
A quick Google search will reveal numerous methods claiming to measure your body composition, giving you valuable feedback about well your diet and training program is (or isn’t) working.
However, the only way to measure your body fat is to have all of it stripped out, placed on a scale, and weighed. This method is highly accurate. The only downside is that you have be dead for it to happen.
Even “high tech” devices like DEXA and the Bod Pod can’t be trusted.
So, what are you supposed to do?
I suggest using two simple metrics — your weight on the scales and your performance in the gym.
The argument against using the scales to track your progress is that any loss in fat will be offset by a gain in muscle. That is, if you lose 5 pounds of fat and gain 4 pounds of muscle, the scales will show that you’ve lost only 1 pound in weight.
While the theory sounds good, it doesn’t always work that way in practice. Once you’ve moved past the “overweight beginner” stages of training, you won’t be building muscle at anything like the same speed at which you’re losing fat.
While you can lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, you won’t do so at the same rate.
The best that most people can hope for is to gain a relatively small amount of muscle while losing a much larger amount of fat.
For example, you might lose 6 pounds in weight over the course of a month. In reality, you might have lost 7 pounds of fat and gained 1 pound of muscle. While the scales aren’t a completely accurate way to track your progress, they will tell you if you’re moving in the right direction.
I also recommend that you weigh yourself every day, rather than every week or every month. Then, take an average at the end of the week.
That way, any daily fluctuation in weight will be averaged out over time. Over a period of several weeks, you’ll be able to see a trend. If the trend isn’t downwards, you’ll know that some aspect of your diet and training program needs to change.
Provided your training program is set up properly, your performance in the gym is also a good way to gauge your progress.
When you cut back on your carbohydrate intake, it’s not unusual to see a decline in performance during certain types of exercise. Your performance in this “lowered glycogen” state then serves as a benchmark against which to track your results.
If your performance in the gym is improving, there’s a good chance — at the very least — that you’re holding on to the muscle you have. And by an improvement in performance, I’m talking about doing more reps with the same weight, or lifting a heavier weight for the same number of reps.
Someone who is very overweight and new to lifting weights will find it relatively easy to gain strength while dropping fat. As you get leaner, the rate at which you gain strength will slow down.
Eventually you’ll reach the point where the best you can hope for is to maintain your strength. It’s not uncommon for competitive bodybuilders to lose strength in preparation for a contest.
What this means is that you’ll need to modify your expectations as your body composition changes. All other things being equal, you’ll find it easier to gain strength while losing fat when you’re going from “overweight” to “lean” than you will going from “lean” to “ripped.”
That doesn’t mean you should stop trying to get stronger. But it’s not something you should necessarily expect, especially once you’ve moved past the beginner stages of training.
Muscle size and strength are not 100% correlated, and there are other factors (such as your nervous system doing a better job of using the available fibers in a given muscle) that contribute to gains in strength.
But for our purposes, the link is strong enough. If you’re gaining strength, you’re on the right track. Even just maintaining your performance in the gym while losing weight is a good sign that what you’re doing is working.
Tracking your waist measurement, or even just making a subjective assessment of how well your clothes fit or how lean you look in the mirror, can also be useful.
None of these methods will help you quantify actual changes in body composition. But they will tell you if you’re moving in the right direction. Most of the time, that’s all you really need to know.
3. What Should I Eat To Lose Fat And Not Muscle?
To lose fat and not muscle, you need two things. First, make sure that your diet puts you in a calorie deficit. Second, you need to eat enough protein, which plays a key role in the retention of muscle mass. Without adequate amounts of protein, you’ll end up losing muscle as well as fat.
To lose fat, the only thing you need is a calorie deficit.
You don’t need to eat clean, go on a so-called “lazy keto” diet, take coconut oil, do intermittent fasting, or eat 5-6 small meals a day.
Nor do you need to cut out sugar, carbs, wheat, gluten, milk or [INSERT WHATEVER THE FOOD POLICE SAY IS BAD FOR YOU THIS WEEK].
No matter what type of diet you’re following, a calorie deficit is the only required condition for weight loss.
So, what exactly is a calorie deficit?
You’re said to be in a “calorie deficit” when there is less energy coming from the food you eat than your body needs to move, pump blood around your body and all the other stuff involved in keeping you alive.
What this means is that there’s a mismatch between the amount of fuel your body needs and the amount it gets from food. So, it starts looking for an alternative.
In an ideal world, that alternative source of fuel would be the fat you have stored in your body. But your body will pull stored energy from any place it likes, including the muscle tissue that you’ve grown particularly fond of over the years.
If your deficit is too large, which means you’re eating too little, you increase the risk of losing muscle as well as fat.
But, if your calorie deficit is too small, you’ll experience a slower rate of fat loss and a longer diet.
A deficit can be defined as small, medium or large depending on the extent to which you restrict your daily intake of calories.
There are benefits and drawbacks to small, medium and large deficits. Each one has its place at different times and for different people.
Factors such as your starting level of body fat, the speed at which you want to lose fat, and how well you deal with a highly restrictive diet are all going to affect the size of the deficit you decide to use.
In most cases, setting your deficit at around 20-25% below your maintenance requirements is about right.
For example, let’s say that you’re currently burning a total of 2500 calories per day.
You set your deficit at 20%, which is 500 calories (20% of 2500 = 500). This means your daily calorie intake would be 2000 calories per day (2500 – 500 = 2000).
In other words, you’re going to consume 500 fewer calories each day than your body needs. And it’s going to pull the energy from your fat stores to make up the difference.
As a side note, when you lose muscle, you will end up losing weight more quickly.
That’s because one pound of muscle contains around 600 calories, compared to 3500 calories in one pound of fat.
For example, let’s say that you create a daily calorie deficit of 500 calories. In other words, every day you burn 500 calories more than you get from your diet. That comes to 3,500 calories per week (500 x 7 = 3,500).
If all those calories came from fat, you’d lose just one pound in weight. But if all those calories came from muscle (which is an unlikely scenario, but I’ll use it just to illustrate the point), you’d lose almost six pounds in weight.
To put it another way, 100% fat loss is the equivalent of one pound of weight lost, while 100% muscle loss is the equivalent of six pounds of weight lost.
This in no way means that the composition of your diet doesn’t matter, because it does.
A chocolate bar (mainly carbs and fat) and a chicken breast (mainly protein) might have the same number of calories. But your body will use up more energy digesting and metabolizing the chicken than it does the chocolate bar.
When they’re sat on a plate in front of you, a handful of nuts might contain the same number of calories as half a dozen sugar cubes.
But, unlike the sugar, your body doesn’t absorb all the energy in the nuts . Some of the calories will literally go in one end and straight out the other.
The effect that a given diet has on hormone levels, appetite, and energy expenditure will affect how fast you lose weight, where that lost weight comes from (i.e. muscle or fat), as well as your ability to stick with the diet.
In other words, you can’t ignore the macronutrient content of a diet and expect to see an identical change in body composition based on calorie values alone.
4. Can You Lose Body Fat Without Cardio?
Yes, you can lose fat without cardio. As far as improving body composition is concerned, I think of cardio like air conditioning in your car. It’s nice to have, especially if you live in a hot country. But it’s certainly not essential.
The only caveat I’d add is that if you want to get really lean (and by really lean, I’m talking about the washboard abs look), then cardio is going to come in extremely useful.
But for everyone else, it’s possible to lose fat without spending a single minute on a treadmill, exercise bike or elliptical machine.
Cardio is NOT going to make you fat, kill you or any of the other nonsense that you may come across. But for anyone whose definition of “lean” means losing enough weight to fit into their favorite clothes again, then strength training plus diet is going to be enough.
If you do want to add some cardio, I’d suggest that most of it is of the low-intensity steady-state (LISS) variety.
My personal favorite is 30-60 minutes of walking first thing in the morning. Not only does it burn extra calories, a brisk morning walk in the fresh air is a great way to clear your mind and set you up for the day.
The benefit of LISS is that it burns additional calories while having only a minor impact on your muscle-building efforts in the gym.
You can’t train “all out” every day, mainly because your body will need time to recover. This is particularly true if you’re over the age of 40, where your ability to recover is not what it once was.
But low-intensity activity, such as walking or cycling, doesn’t make such a large withdrawal from your recovery account, and can be done on a much more regular basis.
5. Can I Lose Fat By Lifting Weights Only?
Yes, you can lose fat by lifting weights only. In fact, if you want to lose fat without losing muscle, lifting weights is essential. Without it, you’ll end up looking like a smaller version of your current self, with many of the flabby bits still intact.
Some evidence for the importance of resistance training over cardio comes from a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition .
For the study, two groups of obese subjects were put on identical low calorie diets. One group jogged, walked, or cycled four times each week. The other group lifted weights three times a week and did no cardiovascular exercise.
After three months, both groups lost weight. The cardio group lost 27 pounds (12 kilograms) of fat and 9 pounds (4.1 kilograms) of lean tissue. But the strength-training group lost 32 pounds (14.5 kilograms) of fat and almost no lean tissue.
In a similar study that compared diet plus strength training, diet plus cardio, or diet alone, all three groups lost roughly the same amount of fat . But the cardio and diet-only groups lost twice as much muscle as the strength-training group.
The fact that you’re strength training may mean that you lose less weight. This is especially true if you’re new to lifting weights.
Take someone who is untrained and overweight, and they’ll often drop relatively large amounts of fat while gaining muscle simultaneously.
This means that your weight on the scales may not drop as much as it otherwise would.
However, the amount of weight you lose is a lot less important than where that lost weight comes from.
If you lose 10 pounds of fat while gaining 3 pounds of muscle, your weight on the scales will only drop by 7 pounds. But you’ll look 13 pounds different.
How much strength training should you be doing?
That depends a lot on you and how much time you have available to train.
As a minimum, I’d suggest lifting weights twice a week. If you’re willing to work hard and push yourself, you can lose fat without losing muscle with a full body workout performed twice every seven days.
I know that lifting weights twice a week might not sound like enough. But there’s plenty of research out there to show that it is.
So, 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.
Remember, your main goal while you drop fat is to keep the muscle that you have right now. And studies show that you can maintain any given component of fitness, be it muscular size, strength or aerobic power, with a lot less work than it took to develop it.
Is there an upper limit on the amount of strength training you can do while in a calorie deficit?
Four days per week of strength training is about right. That’s not to say you can’t do more. In fact, there’s no good reason why you can’t lift weights 5-6 days a week, just as long as your training program is set up right.
However, for most people most of the time, four days of hard strength training each week is plenty.
The terms “strength training” and “resistance training” are often used interchangeably. But they’re not the same thing.
Resistance training is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of set and rep protocols.
I’ve seen people in the gym do 20-30 minutes of cardio, then tack on a few light sets of lateral raises, front raises and tricep kickbacks. You could, if you were being very generous, label that “resistance training.”
Strength training can only really be called strength training if it’s making you strong.
The type of training that helps maintain muscle mass will be much the same as the training you did to build that muscle in the first place.
However, much the same doesn’t mean exactly the same, and strength training in a calorie deficit is a slightly different story to strength training in a calorie surplus.
While a calorie deficit is essential for fat loss, it can also have a knock-on effect on the quality of your workouts, as well as your ability to recover from those workouts.
In other words, a training program that works just fine when you’re in a small calorie surplus may not work as well when you’re in a calorie deficit.
So, you’ll need to tweak your training program to compensate.
I can’t tell you exactly how to change your workout because I don’t know what you’re doing right now. And the extent to which your training program requires adjusting will depend a lot on you and what shape you’re currently in.
However, I would suggest cutting back on your training volume, which I’m going to define here as the total number of sets you do for each muscle group per week.
You can do this by doing fewer exercises per muscle group, fewer sets per exercise, reducing your training frequency (the number of times you train each muscle group per week), or some combination of all three.
6. How Much Protein Do You Need To Maintain Muscle While Losing Weight?
If you want a simple number to aim for that doesn’t involve estimating your body fat percentage, go for 0.7 grams per pound, or 1.6 grams per kilogram, of bodyweight . For someone weighing 180 pounds (82 kilograms), that gives you a daily protein intake of around 126 grams per day.
To go from “lean” to “very lean,” there may be a benefit to going a little higher. For example, if you’re currently around 12-13% body fat, and you want to get down to single digits, aim for around 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight (0.9 grams per pound).
Going higher still isn’t going to do you any harm, but I don’t think you’re going to see much of a benefit either. Eating large amounts of protein can be expensive, as well as impractical, so you don’t want to eat more than is strictly necessary.
When it comes to losing fat without losing muscle, protein plays a couple of very important roles.
Firstly, protein has a “muscle sparing” effect. If you don’t get enough protein while you’re on a diet, you’ll end up dropping muscle as well as fat .
Protein also does a better job at filling you up than carbohydrate or fat .
In one study, Italian researchers found that subjects stopped eating after consuming 50 grams of protein and 411 calories from a high-protein omelette . But with a low-protein omelette containing 25 grams of protein, they consumed 713 calories – a 73% increase.
In another trial, test subjects were fed lunch, followed four hours later by a snack high in protein, fat, or carbohydrate . On the control day, when no snack was given, subjects asked for dinner roughly six hours after starting lunch.
Dinner requests were delayed by 35 minutes following the high carbohydrate snack, and by 25 minutes after the high-fat snack was eaten.
But on the day the high-protein snack was eaten, dinner requests were delayed by a full 60 minutes.
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.
However, there is a ceiling to the satiating effect of protein. Once you go beyond that point, simply eating more of the stuff isn’t going to help. In one study, a protein intake of 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight per day was just as satiating as a protein intake that was 50% higher (1.3 grams per pound of bodyweight per day) 
To lose fat without losing muscle, you’re better off spreading your protein intake across 3-4 smaller meals, rather than one or two big ones.
Distributing protein intake evenly throughout the day does a better job at increasing muscle protein synthesis – a key driving force behind muscle growth – compared to the same amount of protein squeezed into a smaller number of larger meals [12, 13].
More frequent meals (six versus two) have also been shown to increase the preservation of muscle mass during weight loss . While meal frequency doesn’t have much of an impact on your rate of weight loss, protein frequency may well affect your ability to maintain (or even gain) muscle while you strip away the fat.
7. Can You Lose Body Fat without Losing Weight?
It is possible, in theory at least, to lose fat but not lose weight. But it will involve gaining muscle at the exact same rate as you lose fat. That’s not a realistic goal for most people, most of the time.
With very few exceptions, you won’t build muscle at anything like the same speed at which you lose fat.
There are numerous calorie cycling methods that claim to be able to get around this problem, but even then you’re not going to replace every pound of fat lost with one pound of muscle. The best that most people can hope for is to generate a small muscle gain while losing a much larger amount of fat.
What you can do is separate your training and diet into cycles, with some focused on fat loss and some on muscle growth. Over a period of months and years, it may be possible to end up at the exact same weight you are right now, having replaced the fat you’ve lost with muscle mass.
However, a lot of this depends on the amount of fat you want to lose in the first place. If you’ve got 50 pounds of fat to get rid of, gaining 50 pounds of muscle may, depending on your genetics, be out of reach. But if you only want to drop 10-20 pounds of fat, replacing all of it with muscle is far more realistic goal.
8. Why Am I Losing Muscle While Working Out?
If you’re losing muscle as well as fat, chances are you’re not doing enough of the right type of resistance training, you’re not eating enough protein, you’re trying to lose weight too quickly (i.e. your calorie deficit is too big), or a combination of all three.
9. How Can I Do Cardio Without Losing Muscle?
Doing cardio doesn’t make it inevitable that you’ll lose muscle, and your muscles will still get bigger and stronger if your training program includes both strength training and cardio.
That said, cardio does have the potential to interfere with your progress. It can do this by compromising the “quality” of your workouts, which in turn reduces the strength of the muscle-building stimulus generated by a given training session. It can also interfere with the “make me bigger” signal sent to muscle fibers in the hours and days after training.
However, the degree of interference will depend on the proximity of the cardio to your lifting sessions, the type of cardio you’re doing, how often it’s done, how hard it is, how long you do it for, and how well you recover from it.
Provided you don’t go overboard on the volume, frequency and intensity, you don’t need to worry about cardio putting the brakes on muscle growth.
In fact, some types of cardio may help recovery by promoting blood flow to the muscles without causing further damage.
Cycling at a low-to-moderate intensity for 20-30 minutes the day after a heavy leg workout, for example, will often reduce post-exercise muscle soreness, and may accelerate the rate at which muscle damage is repaired.
There are no rules that lay out exactly how much cardio you should do and when you should do it. But I do have some general guidelines, based on the research that’s been done on the subject, designed to minimize the extent to which cardio interferes with your gains .
First, cap the amount of moderate- to high-intensity cardio you do to a maximum of 40 minutes, three days a week. Ideally, cardio will be done on a separate day to strength training. But if you are pushed for time, do your cardio straight after lifting weights. Finally, opt for low-impact cardio, such as cycling, swimming, rowing or even incline treadmill walking, rather than running.
SEE ALSO: THE FLAT BELLY CHEAT SHEET
If you want less flab and more muscle when you look down at your abs (or where they should be), check out The Flat Belly Cheat Sheet.
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