I get it, almost all of us want to lose weight.
But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
We don’t necessarily want to lose weight, we want to lose fat, ideally without losing any muscle. Hell, a lot of us want to burn fat and build muscle at the same time (also known as body recomposition). That’s really tricky though, so we’ll leave that topic for another day.
The best most of us can hope for is maximum fat loss and minimum muscle loss.
If you lose fat, that’s great, but if you lose muscle as well you’ll end up looking ‘skinny fat’, i.e. pretty similar to what you did before, just a smaller version. If you couldn’t see any shape of definition in your muscles, you still won’t be able to.
The solution is to ensure you retain as much muscle as you possibly can while losing as much fat as possible.
So why would you want to keep the muscle you have?
WHY IS MUSCLE BENEFICIAL?
When I say muscle, let me guess what your first thought is…
I bet it’s a jacked 250lb bodybuilder with 4% body fat.
And yes, these people do obviously have a lot of muscle. You might think it looks good, you might think it looks hideous, it really doesn’t matter.
What does matter is all the benefits that muscle has for YOU.
I genuinely believe that EVERYONE regardless of whether you’re a 21-year-old gym newbie, or a 86 year old grandma should be trying to build or at the very least, maintain as much muscle tissue as possible.
You hear the word strength and you think of an Olympic weightlifter hosting hundreds of kilos above his or her head.
You don’t think of an old man struggling to get out of his chair or walk to the local shops.
Well, having strength benefits both of those functional movements, whether it’s a clean and jerk, or simply standing up.
If you don’t do at least some sort of resistance training (training with weights), at best you’ll fail to maximise your muscle mass, and at worse, you’ll gradually start to lose what muscle mass you have.
This study states that after the age of 30, muscle mass declines by 3-8% per decade and that this process accelerates after the age of 60. This process of muscle loss is called sarcopenia.
The good news is that resistance training can be used to stave off sarcopenia, and any muscle loss bought about by inactivity (which often increases with age), in fact, this study found that muscle protein synthesis (the process of creating new muscle from dietary protein) was greater when moderate resistance training was carried out
Muscle loss will make EVERYTHING harder, so yes, you want as much of it as possible.
Poor posture makes you look weird and has the potential to cause back pain. Unfortunately, your posture and any pain caused by that posture is largely dictated by your day job. If you’re hunched over all day, you’re likely to experience some sort of pain.
The good news is that pain usually experienced in the back, neck, and shoulders can be counteracted with resistance exercise. This study showed that a 12-week resistance training program improved chronic back pain in a group of nineteen women
If you have more muscle tissue, your metabolism will be higher at rest.
If your metabolism is higher you’ll burn more calories while you’re just sitting around doing nothing.
This means you can eat a bit more than you otherwise would have without putting on weight.
A pound of muscle burns tissue burns around 6 calories per day, while a pound of fat only burns around 2 calories per day. This might sound like a small difference, but scaling this up, if you have 20lbs of fat, and you lose that and replace it with 20lbs of muscle, you’ll be burning 120 calories vs 40 calories. Over the long term, that’s a lot of extra calories you’ll burn.
Muscle just makes you look better.
I don’t have any studies to justify this one but if you take two people of the same weight, the one with more muscle mass and less fat will almost always look better.
You’ll also look a lot better in your clothes, filling them out in the right places.
If most of us are being honest, this is the main reason we started lifting weights in the first place.
HOW TO LOSE FAT
The mechanics of fat loss are pretty simple.
You need to be eating fewer calories than you eat over a long enough period of time to lose the weight you want to lose, i.e. you need to be in a calorie deficit.
Losing fat is slightly different from losing weight.
Weight loss can be achieved relatively quickly by cutting the amount of carbs you eat which will decrease the amount of water you retain and the amount of glycogen stored in your muscles.
This looks great on the scales but doesn’t actually translate into fat loss (which will make you look better).
But in order to ensure as much of the weight loss as possible is fat, you need to tell your body you want to keep the muscle you have, by training like you’re trying to gain muscle…
HOW TO GAIN MUSCLE
In order to gain muscle, you need to exert mechanical stress on the target muscle consistently and progressively.
So, if you want to grow your chest, you need to ensure that you perform exercises targeting that muscle group on a regular basis (I recommend 2-5 times per week) using progressive overload.
Progressive overload means that each time you train the muscle, you put more volume load through it. This could take the form of more reps, more sets or more weight.
The volume load should be up slowly over time for each muscle group you want to grow.
THE KEY THINGS YOU NEED TO DO
So, we know that we need a calorie deficit to lose fat and we need training with progressive overload to gain muscle, but let’s look at the four other key things we need to focus on when trying to lose body fat without losing muscle
1. HAVE A HIGH PROTEIN INTAKE
Protein intake should already be high if you’re trying to gain muscle. If you’re not to lose muscle, it should be kept at a similar level.
I recommend 1.5g of protein per lb of body fat, which means that if you weigh 80kg, you should be eating 120g of protein per day.
This study from the American College of Sports Medicine confirms that protein intakes for people attempting to gain muscle should be ‘1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, or 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight.’
Protein Makes up the building blocks of muscle so it is just as vital to consume protein when you’re trying to hold on to muscle as it is when you’re trying to gain it.
2. CONTINUE RESISTANCE TRAINING
This is probably the most important tip of all.
If you don’t use your muscles or don’t use them in the same way, you’re giving your body a signal that it’s not essential to keep that muscle.
By continuing to resistance train with progressive overload, your utilizing the muscle and giving the body a strong signal that those muscles need to stay the same size.
When people that are already training decide to lose fat, for some reason they totally change their program to one with lower weight and higher reps, in the false belief that it will help them lose more fat and ‘tone’ the muscles.
This simply isn’t true, you should continue to train as intensely and heavy as possible, if not more, than you were before. Of course, you may not have much energy or strength due to being on lower calories, but the intention should be there.
It’s unlikely you’ll build muscle in a calorie deficit, but you should train like you’re trying to.
3. LOSE FAT QUICKLY
Being in a calorie deficit for too long isn’t a good idea for all sorts of reasons.
Firstly, the longer you’re in a deficit, the less time you’re spending building muscle. Given that fat can be lost rapidly and muscle takes years to build, this really isn’t a good use of your time.
Also, when you’re in a calorie deficit your body, by definition, is not going to have a surplus of energy, so training hard is going to get tricky unless you’re losing weight really slowly.
My recommendation is to attempt to lose around 2% of your body weight per week during a cutting phase.
This means that if you weigh 80kg, you should look to lose roughly 1.6kg per week. This means that in 8 weeks you could lose almost 13Kg. It’s a tough ask but in the long term, this approach is much better than being in a mild deficit for months on end.
Slow results and less time to build muscle is not what you want. Get in, hit it hard, and get out and back into a muscle-building phase.
4. DON’T LET GLYCOGEN AND FAT FOOL YOU
Fat loss can be tough psychologically, especially if you really value the muscle you have.
Fat loss can make it feel like you’re losing muscle tissue; you’ll feel a little less full because your glycogen stores (the carbohydrate stores within the muscle) will be depleated, meaning the muscle is a bit like a deflated balloon; technically the same size but with less ‘air’ in it.
This study states that people generally store around 500g of glycogen within the muscle tissue. This might not sound a lot, but if you translate that into food; that’s a big plate! Another way to think about it is that if you weigh 80kg, glycogen (well fully topped up) can make up almost 1% of your body weight. Depleted glycogen stores can make a big difference to the way you look and feel.
The amount of fat around each muscle will also gradually be reduced. Of course, this is what you want and it’ll certainly give the defined look you’re after, but it can mean that you don’t fill your t-shirts out as much, making it feel like you’ve lost muscle when actually you’ve just lost some of the ‘padding’ around it.
HOW DO I KNOW I HAVEN’T LOST ANY MUSCLE?
If you’re really keen to be absolutely certain about muscle loss, you can always invest in a DEXA scan. These scans cost around £150 in the UK and will give you a detailed summary of the ratio of muscle and fat you have.
If you do a scan at the beginning and end of your diet you should have a good idea about how much fat you’ve lost and how much muscle you’ve maintained.
What I would say however is that DEXA scans, like any other body composition measurements, won’t be perfect and you can’t treat it as gospel truth.
My personal acid tests for muscle loss are;
- How do you clothes feel? Yes they might be a little looser due to the fat loss but they should still be tight-ish in all the right places and a lot looser around the belly and lower back
- How do you look in the mirror; if you look the same or better, who cares!
- How is your gym performance? If you’re as trsong as you were before in the gym, that’s great news, you probably havemt lost muscle!
Losing fat is difficult at the best of times, but losing fat while maintaining muscle can be really tricky.\
Luckily, there are a few simple measures you can put in place to drastically reduce the chances of any muscle loss occurring.
It is important to accept however that when weight is lost, some of that will inevitably be muscle and the goal should be to minimize muscle loss rather than prevent it altogether.
Muscle tissue changes with aging: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804956/
Effects of functional resistance training on fitness and quality of life in females with chronic nonspecific low-back pain: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28826168/
PROTEIN INTAKE FOR OPTIMAL MUSCLE MAINTENANCE: https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/files-for-resource-library/protein-intake-for-optimal-muscle-maintenance.pdf
Joe is an online weight loss coach and qualified personal trainer of 15 years who helps busy, professional men and women lose fat and build muscle.
Having a 9-5 desk-job, Joe understands the struggles of juggling a hectic life with trying to maintain a good physique.