Since you’re reading an article 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.
Most people focus solely on the amount of weight they lose. They don’t care too much about where that lost weight comes from.
That’s a mistake.
If you want to be in better shape than you are right now, your number one priority is to maintain (or even gain) muscle while you lose fat.
That’s exactly what this article is all about.
However, before I get into the specifics of how to lose fat without losing muscle, there are three things I want to cover first.
What Losing Muscle Means
What does the term “losing muscle” actually mean?
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.
Next up is the role of genetics.
The Role of Genetic Variation
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.
How to Tell if You’re Losing Muscle or Fat
How do you know if you’re losing fat rather than muscle?
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.
But, despite the numerous graphs, charts and diagrams churned out by these devices, all of which look very scientific and official, none of them measure how much fat you have.
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.
Body fat scales are largely a waste of time. Skinfold calipers can be useful in some circumstances, but even they have their problems.
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.
Now that’s out the way, let’s get to the specifics of exactly how to lose fat without losing muscle, starting with the calorie deficit.
STEP 1: The Calorie Deficit
There’s only one true requirement when it comes to losing fat.
It’s not a ketogenic diet.
It’s not the paleo diet.
It’s not intermittent fasting.
You don’t need to eat clean, take coconut oil, 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].
Nor do you need lots of cardio either. In fact, as I explain later, you don’t need to do any cardio at all.
To lose fat, the only thing you need is a calorie deficit.
No matter what type of diet you’re following, a calorie deficit is the only required condition for weight loss.
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.
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.
Setting the deficit – small, medium or large?
A deficit can be defined as small, medium or large depending on the extent to which you restrict your daily intake of calories.
When setting the deficit, one of the main things that affects your ability to lose fat without losing muscle is your starting level of body fat.
If you have a large amount of fat to lose, you can tolerate a larger deficit with minimal risk of muscle loss.
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 .
For example, one study shows almost no muscle loss despite a highly restrictive diet providing just 800 calories per day . However, the subjects taking part in the study were obese, with 40-50% body fat.
For someone with less fat to lose, starting a diet with such a large deficit will increase the risk of muscle loss.
In one case study, researchers followed a 21-year old male bodybuilder as he prepared for a contest .
Over a period of 14 weeks, he cut his body fat in half, dropping from 14% to 7.2% body fat.
However, almost half of the weight lost came from lean body mass. And the researchers think that the size of the calorie deficit was the main reason he lost so much muscle.
The negative impact that large calorie deficits can have on your results is one of several reasons why you need to be careful with 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 county. But it’s 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 a level of body fat that wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of a fitness magazine), 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.
With the current trend for high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and full-body workouts, there are plenty of people out there running into problems with fatigue. This is particularly true if you’re over the age of 40, where your ability to recover is not what it once was.
You can’t train “all out” every day, mainly because your body will need time to recover. 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. And, because you can do it more frequently, this type of exercise can end up making a significant contribution to fat loss.
If you want to do HIIT, keep it to a couple of short 20-minute workouts each week.
How big a deficit should you aim for?
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.
STEP 2: Get Enough Protein
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.
Some very interesting research in this area comes from a group led by Dr. Donald Layman, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois. Layman’s work shows the value of dietary protein when it comes to preserving muscle during a period of weight loss.
In a trial carried in the Journal of Nutrition, Layman’s research team assigned a group of overweight women to one of two diets for 10 weeks .
- The first group consumed a low-protein diet (68 grams of protein per day, or 16% of total calories).
- Group two followed a moderate-protein diet (125 grams of protein per day, or 30% of total calories).
- Both diets provided similar levels of both calories (1700 calories) and fat (50 grams per day).
When body composition was measured using DEXA, the loss of muscle was around 30% greater for women in the low-protein group compared with those in the moderate-protein group.
In other words, increasing daily protein intake from 68 to 125 grams per day with a reduction in carbohydrate intake helped to preserve muscle tissue.
For most people, a minimum of 1 gram of protein for every pound of your target body weight should be sufficient. In other words, if you want to weigh 170 pounds, aim for at least 170 grams of protein per day.
Protein also 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.
STEP 3: Lift Weights 2-4 Times Per Week
To lose fat without losing muscle, it’s important to do some form of strength training.
Lifting weights is essential when it comes to holding on to the muscle you already have. Without it, you’ll end up looking like a smaller version of your current self, with many of the flabby bits still intact. The “skinny fat” look is common in people who rely on diet and cardio, or even just diet alone, to lose weight.
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.
You’ll still be doing exercises like squats, deadlifts, rows, chin-ups (or pulldowns) and presses (bench presses and overhead press).
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.
One last point: If you have lost some muscle, don’t panic. You can get it back again quite easily. It’s not like it’s been lost forever.
In fact, re-building lost muscle usually happens a lot more quickly than gaining it in the first place.
That’s because the number of nuclei (which play a crucial role in building new muscle) in muscle cells increases when you lift weights, even before the muscle cell itself starts to grow.
But those nuclei aren’t lost when your muscles shrink. Instead, the extra nuclei remain in place, forming a type of “muscle memory” that allows lost muscle mass to grow back more quickly.
How to Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle: Summary
So, the main take home points for successfully losing fat without losing muscle: put yourself in a moderate calorie deficit (around 20% below maintenance), get enough protein in your diet, and lift weights 2-4 times a week.
A nutrition and exercise program based on these principles will work for most people.
Apply some hard work and patience, and chances are it will work for you too.
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.
It's a “cut the waffle and just tell me what to do” PDF that tells you exactly how to get rid of belly fat. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please click or tap here to enter your email address.
ABOUT CHRISTIAN FINNChristian Finn holds a master's degree with distinction in exercise science, is a former personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine.