How To Lose Body Fat Without Losing Muscle
Building muscle takes time.
It’s the most difficult goal to accomplish in all of fitness.
Growing muscle happens a lot more slowly and gradually than losing fat does.
And if you’ve built up any considerable amount of lean muscle, you’ll want to do everything in your power to protect every last ounce of muscle that you’ve gained.
Nobody wants to blow all of their hard work, time, and effort — for the small prize of a little extra definition.
And there’s no sense in stripping away all the fat if you’re going to lose muscle along with it. Because then you won’t get the sharp and defined look.
How Should You Structure Your Training and Nutritional Approach When You Want to Lose Fat, But Not Muscle?
If you want to maintain your lean muscle while shedding body fat, there are a few basic principles you must follow.
1) Keep Training Intensity High.
The primary training stimulus responsible for maintaining your muscle is maintaining your current levels of strength.
When training for fat loss, this is your first priority — maintain your intensity in the gym, which means maintaining your strength and amount of weight loaded on the bar.
If you lose a lot of strength, you’re going to lose muscle. It’s really quite simple.
You lift a weight to get stronger and build muscle, and you continually lift the weight to maintain muscle mass.
Put it this way…
If you’re squatting 275 lbs for 6 reps at the beginning of your fat loss phase, and 8 weeks later your strength has dropped to the point where you can only squat 225 lbs for 6 reps, then you’ve not only lost strength — but also muscle, in the process.
When you start lifting lighter, you’re basically letting your body know that the muscle you’ve built is no longer needed.
Just like the age old saying…Use it or lose it.
Some people get the idea that they need to do higher reps, fancy circuits, supersets, or drop sets, etc. in order to burn more calories or develop more muscle definition.
This is another one of those classic myths…
High reps + light weight = “toned”….
…which is completely false.
There is no such thing as toning a muscle.
You either make your muscles bigger, or you make them smaller.
People who want to “tone” really want to reduce fat on a specific part of their body.
They want definition from a specific muscle to show through their skin.
Performing high repetition sets with light weight does not accomplish this goal.
How Do You Make A Muscle Appear Leaner or More Toned?
Well first off… there’s no way to target fat loss on specific areas of your body by training them with weights. You train the specific muscles involved in the movement, but it has no direct effect on fat stores in that specific area.
Fat loss occurs on a total body scale when you maintain a caloric deficit over time.
For example, you can’t only target fat loss on your biceps by doing lots of curls.
If you want “toned” biceps, you need to reduce total body fat.
When you reduce total body fat, you’ll increase muscle definition all over your body and appear leaner.
While higher rep work, including methods like supersets and dropsets may be worked in to your program on occasion, the weight needs to stay heavy and the focus should still be on maintaining as much strength in the gym as possible.
You should approach your training during a fat loss phase the same way you would as if you were trying to gain muscle.
Altering your weight training program so that intensity (amount of weight on the bar) is decreased, will only increase the chances of you losing muscle mass during a fat loss phase.
Is it Possible to Get Stronger And Build Muscle While Losing Fat?
Gaining strength and/or muscle during a fat loss phase is possible under certain circumstances — if you are a beginner lifter, or coming back after a layoff, but most of the time it is very difficult.
While a caloric deficit (more on this shortly) is required for fat loss, it sucks for training.
When you eat less than what your body needs, workout performance tends to drop due to decreased energy and less fuel supply — therefore making it far more difficult to train with high intensity and provide enough stress to grow muscle.
Performance, recovery and work capacity are all negatively affected.
On Managing Your Expectations
When your recovery goes down because of the caloric deficit, it makes no sense to increase training volume or workload.
And for this reason, you shouldn’t expect to gain much — if any muscle when you’re eating in a caloric deficit (unless you are a beginner lifter, or have never trained properly before).
Instead, the focus should be shifted to maintain as much strength as possible to retain lean mass.
2) Choose The Right Size Energy Deficit.
We know that in order for you to lose body fat, you must create a consistent energy deficit (expend more calories for energy than what you intake each day).
This is the single most important requirement for fat loss.
Ignore this requirement, and you mine as well forget about being lean.
The size of your caloric deficit is dictated by two things:
1. Energy intake (how many calories you consume)
2. Energy output (how many calories you burn for energy)
We must manage this equation so that we are consistently taking in less calories than what is being burned.
If you want to increase the size of your caloric deficit, you have two options:
- Eat less food (fewer calories)
- Continue to eat the same number of calories and increase your level of activity to burn more calories
Avoid Dropping Calories Too Low
It’s common for people to want to drop calories super low right away in hopes of progressing faster.
However, a moderate caloric deficit is usually best.
An excessively low calorie diet (particularly one implemented for an extended period of time), is rarely a good idea.
Sure, it can work for some people in the short term. And if you’re focused on losing weight aggressively, it may be a viable option for you.
But be prepared for the negative effects that come along with doing this:
- Reduced metabolism speed
- Lower energy levels
- Decreased training performance (which means decreased energy output)
- Hormonal imbalance
- Decreased sex drive
- Fatigue, tiredness and irritability
- A tendency to gain excess body fat when you increase calories to normal levels afterwards
- A tendency to be more likely of binge eating during the diet period
These effects will tend to persist and be increasingly more noticeable the longer you maintain a very low caloric intake.
Enter -- The Moderate Caloric Deficit.
There is a general rule that it takes 3500 calories to burn one pound of fat, and while it’s not completely accurate (due to individual circumstances and variances), it is a good guideline to use.
Based off of this guideline, if you want to lose one pound per week, you’re going to need approximately a 3500 calorie deficit for the week.
Divide that by 7 days (3500/7) to spread across the week and you get a 500 calorie daily deficit.
This is a great starting point. One pound of weight loss per week is the rate of progress that I recommend most people shoot for, depending on how much fat they have to lose.
If you are someone who has significantly higher body fat (20-30%+), you can aim for a faster rate of fat loss, without risking muscle loss. Somewhere closer to two pounds per week may be a better range. In this case, you can be slightly more aggressive with your caloric deficit.
3) Eat Your Protein.
An adequate protein intake is critical for the rebuilding and maintenance of muscle tissue during a fat loss phase. It's critical all the time really -- but especially when you reduce calories below maintenance level.
If you consume too little protein during the period of a caloric deficit, you'll lose lean muscle mass.
Simple as that.
How Many Grams of Protein Per Day?
For someone with goals of maximizing the retaining of lean muscle mass and strength, I like to see protein between 1g – 1.5g/lb of lean body mass (per day).
I like calculations based off of lean body mass (LBM) as opposed to just body weight because if you go simply off of body weight, you’re likely to give a fatter person too much protein.
As a baseline level, I start most coaching clients at 1.3 grams of protein per lb of LBM.
Going any higher with protein than the range above is unnecessary and doesn't provide any added benefit.
Any excess protein will simply be used for energy. And since protein is an inefficient energy source, it makes much more sense to stick to the main energy sources your body was designed to use for energy — carbohydrates and fat.
4) Maintain A Balance of Carbohydrates & Fats In Your Diet.
Fat intake is inversely correlated with carbohydrate intake.
If you are consuming more carbs in your diet, fat intake has to be lower.
Consume lower carbs, and your fat intake can be higher.
I don’t see going to the extreme on one end – whether it be a super low fat or low carb, as a good option.
- Consume too little carbs and your training performance is likely to suffer.
- Too little fats and you’ll negatively affect hormonal balance and testosterone levels.
Finding the right balance where you have enough fats to keep hormonal balance in check, as well as enough carbs to fuel training performance and recovery is critical for maximum the retainment of lean mass when dieting.
Where Should Your Carbohydrate & Fat Intake Be?
Athletes with higher training demands will do better with a moderate to high carbohydrate intake to aid with training performance and recovery.
This means fat needs to be set at a low-moderate level to allow for enough carbs without pushing calories too high.
In this case, set fats at 0.3-0.45 grams per pound of bodyweight.
After your protein and fat is set, you can get the rest of your calories from carbs.
On the other hand, if you aren't super active and have more body fat to lose, then you won't need as many carbs.
Set fat at a moderate level -- 0.45-0.6 grams per pound of bodyweight. Get the rest of your calories from carbs.
What About Calorie/Nutrient Cycling?
With a simple and straight-forward fat loss diet, you would consume the same amount of calories and macronutrients each day. This works great for the majority of people.
But as you progress in experience and become more of advanced trainee, it can be beneficial to incorporate some sort of calorie/nutrient cycling.
Basically all this means is that you will eat more calories on some days (training days) and less calories on some days (rest days). The manipulation in calories typically comes from carbohydrates and/or fat -- with protein remaining constant.
At the end of the week, overall calories will still be the same -- with the same weekly deficit. However, you may be in a slightly smaller deficit on some days, and larger deficit on others.
When utilizing this approach with coaching clients, it looks something like this:
- Protein: normal intake
- Carbohydrate: higher intake
- Fat: normal or slightly lower intake
- Protein: normal intake
- Carbohydrate: lower intake
- Fat: normal or slightly higher intake
The calorie differential between the two days could be anywhere between 10-30%.
5) Avoid Excessive Cardio.
Cardio burns more calories.
When you burn more calories, you increase the size of your energy deficit.
For this reason alone, it may seem like a great idea to go ahead and jump into some daily cardio to start burning more calories.
When you’re creating a proper caloric deficit through your diet, and following a proper weight training program, there really is no need to perform massive amounts of cardio to drop body fat and get lean.
Instead, look at cardio this way...
It’s a tool to have in our toolbox when you need to burn a few extra calories. Not something you solely rely on to produce fat loss.
Cardio, done too much, will actually impair your workout recovery and cause your training performance to suffer. If workout intensity starts to drop as the result of too much cardio, you can bet it will lead to muscle wasting and muscle loss.
So When You Should Incorporate Cardio?
While you shouldn't be dependent on cardio as your primary method of fat loss, there are certain circumstances when it does make sense to include some form of cardio in your program.
When you find yourself stuck in a plateau – striving to produce further fat loss, and you are already...
- Performing a resistance training program that includes adequate volume, intensity, and frequency
- Eating in a caloric deficit with a proper balance of macronutrients
...then it may be a wise decision to incorporate cardio to increase the size of your caloric deficit.
Cardio can be especially useful when you don’t want to lose any more food from your diet or decrease calories any further. You can simply increase the size of your caloric deficit by increasing energy output through a bit of cardiovascular activity.
A Starting Point Recommendation For Cardio
As a starting point, I usually have clients perform 2-3 cardio sessions per week, roughly 20-30 minutes in length.
Keep in mind that some people will need more (or less) than others depending on individual body type, lean muscle mass, metabolism, among other factors.