When the new year rolls around, lots of people will have “lose weight” at the top of their resolution list (especially after a long holiday season of overindulging). But don’t fall in with the masses – this shouldn’t be your goal! You don’t just want to lose weight – you want to lose fat but maintain muscle for a better overall body composition. After all, nobody wants to be “skinny fat”.
So let’s look at the secrets to cutting fat without losing muscle.
It’s important to note that genetics do play a role here. But you can’t control your genetics, so let’s focus on what you can control - your diet and your training routine.
The only rule to losing weight is to put your body in a caloric deficit (eating fewer calories than you burn). Really, this is all it takes.
When your body doesn’t have the fuel it needs coming in, it starts looking for an alternative – ideally, that alternative is the excess fat you have stored. However, your body may also think about breaking down your precious muscle tissue, and you don’t want that.
So to make sure you’re cutting fat and not muscle, follow these tips.
A crash diet is never a good idea! Yes, you need to cut calories to lose weight, but an extreme restriction of calories will cause muscle loss and other issues – like feeling really crappy during training sessions.
So start slow. Cut around 20 percent of your maintenance calories (calculate your maintenance calories here) when you’re starting out on a calorie deficit. This will help jumpstart fat loss without sacrificing muscle.
Also, don’t skip any meals to try to cut down on calories. Your body needs consistent fuel throughout the day, so spread out your meals and get them all in.
How do you build muscle? PROTEIN. This macronutrient is the building block of muscle.
Make sure to work a lean protein source into every meal and add extra protein in your meals immediately around training to repair and regrow your muscle fibers.
How much protein is enough protein? According to a recent study, every meal should include around a half a gram of protein for every kilogram of body weight.
Mmmmm, carbs. Even when cutting fat, you should still include carbs in your diet, especially when doing heavy lifting. Starving your body of carbs after a strength training session will have a negative effect on your recovery and make it harder for your body to repair muscle fibers.
Pound down some carbs within 1 to 2 hours before and after your training (and get some protein in around that time as well).
Training is the other key factor in successfully cutting fat without losing muscle. No matter what type of training you do, you’ll burn some calories. But that shouldn’t really be your emphasis – training is all about the muscle. Maintain your caloric deficit through your diet and maintain your muscle through your training.
If you want to maintain your strength and muscle mass, hit the weights. While you won’t be building muscle in a caloric deficit, you can still signal to the body that those muscles are important, and you want to keep them. Try to get in the gym for strength training at least 3 days a week (although 4 to 5 days would be even better).
What type of strength training should you focus on? Stick to what you know – the training you did to get the muscle is probably the best training to do to keep the muscle. However, keep in mind that you may need to make some tweaks to your programming because your body is working with less fuel when you’re in a caloric deficit.
One note: don’t expect to make any extreme strength gains while cutting calories. If you’re a beginner, you might see your PRs go up a little. But for most lifters, your goal is simply to maintain strength while cutting, not to increase it.
Cardio is a great tool to help you drop weight, but it can also have a negative impact on your muscle mass. When you’re in a caloric deficit, recovery from training is already slowed down. Adding cardio on top of that can make it even harder to bounce back, which may lead to muscle loss.
If you just can’t let go of cardio, focus on low intensity steady state (LISS) workouts. For example, hop on a treadmill for incline walking at a slow pace (easy enough that you can read a book while walking). LISS burns some calories but has only a minor negative impact (if any) on your muscles.
If you want to combine some resistance training with cardio (aka a HIIT workout), that’s fine, but limit it to a couple of times per week. And keep those HIIT sessions fairly short (30 minutes or less). Again, you don’t want to fatigue your body – save your big effort for the weights.
Rest days are essential for your body to recover and rebuild muscle, so make sure to pencil in at least one day of complete rest every week. Your body will be stressed out from cutting calories, so you need to give it every opportunity to recuperate.
You can also use active recovery days 1-2 times per week. This is where you do low intensity exercise, like a stroll or bike ride around the neighborhood. But remember to keep it leisurely, as the overall goal on these days is still recovery.
Wrapping It Up
The main thing to remember is that losing weight doesn’t necessarily mean losing fat. You lose weight by eating fewer calories than you burn, but you also need to pay attention to your macros and your meal timing to keep from breaking down muscle. Keep lifting weights and give your body plenty of recovery time.
Applying these nutrition and training tips, along with consistency and patience, will get you the body composition results you want.