All the best advice on how to lose fat without losing muscle is stuff 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, and they’re probably right.
“That’s all old news,” 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 go about losing fat without losing muscle.
No, there’s nothing in here that’s new or revolutionary.
But a nutrition and exercise program based on these three simple rules will work for most people.
Chances are it will work for you too.
The Difference Between Weight Loss and Fat Loss
Since you’re reading about how to lose fat without losing muscle, I’ll assume a few things are true about you.
First, you want to lose weight.
But you also know the difference between losing weight and losing fat. That’s why you want to do more than just lose weight. You want to lose fat.
And, at the very least, you want to do so while holding on to the muscle you have right now. Ideally, you’d like to gain a little bit more.
Most people focus solely on the amount of weight they lose, and don’t care too much about where that lost weight comes from.
Losing weight is faster and easier than losing fat, partly because your weight is comprised of many things, including:
- Undigested food
When you lose a lot of weight in the first week or two of dieting, for example, not all of that lost weight comes from fat.
Some of it’s going to come from glycogen (the name given to carbohydrate stored in your body) and water, as well as a reduction in the amount of food working its way through your system.
Why Muscle Loss = Faster Weight Loss
When you lose muscle, you will end up losing weight more quickly.
That’s because one pound of muscle contains just 600 calories, compared to around 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.
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.
Is It Even Possible to Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle?
If you’ve spent some time trying to put on weight and gain muscle, making the decision to shift gears and cut some fat can be a scary thing to do.
If you’ve gone from weak and skinny to strong and bulky, it’s easy to become psychologically attached to being a certain weight. It may have taken years of hard work to reach that weight, and much of your self worth and esteem is tied into that number.
You feel a sense of panic when you weigh yourself and see the number on the scale going down. You’re scared of going back to your former skinny self.
You want to look better, which is why you want to get rid of the fat. But you don’t want to see months, if not years of hard work go down the pan and lose the muscle you’ve worked so hard to build.
Is it even possible to lose fat without losing muscle? Can muscle be maintained, or even gained, at the same time fat is being lost?
Here’s the good news:
In most cases, you can lose fat without losing muscle. Some people will be able to go one step further and actually gain muscle at the same time as losing fat.
However, while both things can be done at the same time, it’s extremely rare to do both at the same speed. That is, you won’t gain 10 pounds of muscle at the same time as losing 10 pounds of fat.
It’s also going to be harder to apply the overload principle to your training, and add weight or reps to your lifts on a regular basis.
Unless you’re a beginner, it’s extremely difficult to improve your performance in the gym at the same time as losing fat. In many cases, simply maintaining your current strength while you lean out is a far more realistic goal to aim for.
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Building muscle is a slow process, even if your diet and training program are set up for the sole purpose of making your muscles bigger. Don’t expect to see large gains in muscle size at the same time fat is being lost.
What Losing Muscle Really Means
Before you go any further, I want to clarify 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. 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.
All that’s happened is your muscles have flattened out a bit because there’s not as much stuff in there as there was before.
When this happens, don’t panic. 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.
What it Takes to Lose Fat
To lose fat, the only thing you need is a calorie deficit.
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 fat 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 a mismatch exists 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 large pool of chemical energy you have stored in your body known as fat. But your body will pull stored energy from any place it likes, including the muscle tissue you’ve grown particularly fond of over the years.
How to Maintain Muscle Mass While Cutting
So, how do you stop that from happening? How do you adjust your diet and training program in such a way so that your body is less likely to burn muscle tissue and more likely to burn body fat?
To maintain muscle mass, you need two things. First, make sure you’re doing some form of resistance training somewhere between 2 and 4 times a week.
I’ll go into more detail about what that resistance training program should look like in a moment.
Second, you need to make sure you’re eating 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.
How to Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle
To summarize and review, getting rid of fat requires a calorie deficit. Maintaining muscle mass requires lifting weights and eating enough protein. Combine all three, and you have the recipe for losing fat without losing muscle.
If you’ve ever lost muscle while trying to lose fat, or even if you’re just worried it might happen to you in future, those three simple steps will go a long way towards preventing it.
Let’s take a closer look at each one in more detail…
Cut Calories, But Not Too Much
A calorie deficit can be defined as small, medium or large depending on how much food you eat and how active you are.
There are benefits and drawbacks to small, medium and large deficits. Each one has its place at different times and for different people.
- If your calorie deficit is too large, which means you’re eating too little, you increase the risk of losing muscle as well as fat.
- If your calorie deficit is too small, you’ll experience a slower rate of fat loss and a longer diet.
In most cases, setting your deficit at around 20-25% below your maintenance requirements is about right.
For example, let’s say 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.
Don’t Try to Lose Weight Too Quickly
One of the things that increases your risk of muscle loss is aggressively cutting calories and trying to lose weight too quickly.
If you have a large amount of fat to get rid of, losing fat without losing muscle is relatively easy. But if you’re someone who’s already lean, and trying to get even leaner, holding on to the muscle you have becomes progressively more difficult .
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.
In short, people who are very overweight or obese can lose fat quickly without running into problems with muscle loss. As you get leaner, the risk of losing muscle is increased.
Train for Hypertrophy
If you want to lose fat without losing muscle, you also need to be doing some kind of resistance training, whether that resistance comes in the form of dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells or your own bodyweight.
Lifting weights isn’t just for people who want to gain muscle. If you don’t do some form of resistance training while you diet, a good deal of the weight you lose will come from muscle as well as fat.
A good example of how important resistance training is when you’re dieting 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. However, the source of that lost weight was very different:
- The cardio group lost 27 pounds (12 kilograms) of fat and 9 pounds (4.1 kilograms) of lean tissue.
- 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 weight 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 lean tissue as the weight-training group.
How much weight training should you be doing?
As a minimum, I’d suggest lifting weights at least twice a week. If you’re willing to work hard and push yourself, a full-body workout performed twice every seven days will, at the very least, be enough to maintain the muscle you have at the moment.
Is there an upper limit on the amount of weight training you can do while in a calorie deficit?
Four days a week 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 properly.
However, for most people most of the time, four days of hard weight training each week is plenty. That gives you plenty of possible training programs to choose from, including:
- 4-day upper/lower split
- 4-day push/pull split
- 4-day push/pull/legs split
- 3-day full-body workout
- 2-day full-body workout
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 weight training in a calorie deficit is a slightly different story to weight training in a calorie surplus.
While a 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.
A given amount of training that’s about right when you’re in a calorie surplus can quickly become too much when you’re in a calorie deficit, and will need to be adjusted accordingly.
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.
Higher training volumes have been shown to accelerate muscle growth when you’re not dieting .
However, research to look at changes in muscle mass during periods of caloric restriction shows that both high and moderate training volumes have a similar effect on lean mass preservation .
RELATED: Do You Lose Strength When Cutting?
Eat Enough Protein
When it comes to cutting the fat while keeping the 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 .
Other than lifting weights, getting a sufficient amount of protein in your diet is probably the single most important thing you can do to gain muscle while losing fat.
Researchers at McMaster University discovered as much in a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition .
They rounded up a group of young men and put them on a month-long diet, where they ate just 60% of what they’d normally need to maintain their weight. Alongside the diet, the men also trained hard six days a week, lifting weights and doing intervals, as well as various other forms of intense exercise.
Half the men ate a protein-rich diet, getting around one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. The rest of the group received just half that amount.
As you’d expect, both groups lost fat. However, men in the high protein group were the only ones to gain muscle, finishing the study with an extra 2.5 pounds of muscle mass. While the low protein group didn’t lose muscle, they didn’t gain any either.
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) 
How much protein do you need when cutting?
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.
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 muscle while you strip away the fat.
What About 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 your gains, 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 weight 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.
So, there you have it. If you want to lose fat without losing muscle, put yourself in a calorie deficit, do some form of weight training several times a week, and make sure you’re eating enough protein.
While there are a few other dietary tweaks that can help you along the way, those three steps alone are going to be responsible for the vast majority of your results.
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