If you ask a fitness enthusiast about his fitness goals, the answer you would probably receive is – “I would like to lose weight”.
However, what those people probably mean by that is to burn fat. Yet, far too many do the opposite and end up losing weight – fat and muscle, not just fat.
The most common reason for that is a wrong fat loss strategy – a highly restrictive diet and lots of cardio. Sure that helps with weight loss. However, most of the time, such a method leads to a “skinny fat” look. By that, I mean a person with normal body weight but a high percentage of body fat and a low amount of muscle mass.
So, how to lose fat without losing muscle mass?
Well, this guide covers all the principles you have to be aware of to lose body fat without losing muscle mass.
- Weight Loss vs Fat Loss
- How to Lose Body Fat
- Step 1: Be in a Calorie Deficit
- Step 2: Optimize Macros for Fat Loss
- Step 3: Follow a Meal Plan
- Step 4: Do Strength Training Workouts
- Step 5: Include Some Cardio
- Tips on Losing Fat Without Losing Muscle
- Frequently Asked Questions About Losing Fat
- Key Takeaways of Losing Fat Not Muscle
Weight Loss vs Fat Loss
Some might think that weight loss and fat loss are the same things, however, they are not.
Let me explain…
You see, the weight that you lose can be – muscle, fat, water weight, glycogen and the food in your digestive system. In case your goal is to lose weight you can simply eat nothing, do lots of cardio and go to the sauna to sweat a lot, which I don’t recommend doing.
However, when losing fat the only thing you want to get rid of is fat and not muscle, which takes a bit more knowledge and precision.
How to Lose Body Fat
So, how do you lose body fat…?
Well, you should not listen to the following advice about losing fat:
- Have a highly restrictive low-calorie, low-protein diet
- Do low-weight, high repetition resistance training to have defined muscles
- Do lots of cardio every day to lose fat faster
- Use special fat-burning supplements to lose stubborn fat
If you do follow the principles above, there is a high likelihood that you will lose muscle mass and end up looking skinny fat.
The best way to lose body fat without losing muscle is to:
- Be in a calorie deficit
- Optimize macros for
- Follow a meal plan
- Do strength training workouts
- Include some cardio
Keep reading to have a better understanding of each step to ensure that you lose fat without losing muscle mass.
Step 1: Be in a Calorie Deficit
You probably know that calorie is a unit of measure assigned to food. Your body spends a certain number of calories every day doing various activities.
Therefore, if you eat more calories than you expend day-to-day then that calorie surplus will be stored as body fat. However, if you consume fewer calories than you expend daily then your stored body fat will be used as energy. Simply put, if you eat less than you expend, you will lose fat and get leaner.
Find out How Many Calories Do You Burn in a Day
To get a rough estimate of how many calories you burn every day, total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), you can use a TDEE calculator.
Or use this simple formula:
Bodyweight (lb) X 15 or Bodyweight (kg) X 15 X 2.2
For example, 180 X 15 = 2700 (calories) or 180 X 15 X 2.2 = 2700
However, both measurements can be wrong, therefore the best way to find out your TDEE is to track the number of calories you consume daily. To make the process easier use an app like MyFitnessPal. In addition, you want to weigh yourself regularly to see if your body weight changes.
If you notice that you lose weight, it means that you are eating below your TDEE. If you are gaining weight, you are eating more than you expend daily. Lastly, if you maintain your body weight, then you are eating approximately at your TDEE level.
Create a Calorie Deficit to Lose Fat
The most important aspects of making a meal plan for fat loss is creating a calorie deficit. To lose weight gradually and preserve the most amount of muscle, you should decrease your calorie intake by 20-25%.
This will ensure that you lose weight at a recommended rate of 0.5-1 kg per week (1-2 lb/week). The more steady weight loss rate is better it is for muscle retention, thus aim to lose about 0.5 kg/week (1 lb/week).
It might be tempting to cut more calories, creating a larger calorie deficit to lose weight faster. However, doing so increases the chances of losing muscle mass. Moreover, aggressive calorie deficit leads to higher hunger levels, less energy, and worse experience of losing fat in general.
Step 2: Optimize Macros for Fat Loss
Every piece of food that you eat contains different amounts of macronutrients. These macronutrients, or “macros” for short, are protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
Macros make up calories, a gram of each macronutrient provides a certain amount of energy:
- 1 gram of protein – 4 calories
- 1 gram of carbohydrates – 4 calories
- And 1 gram of fats – 9 calories
To lose body fat without losing muscle mass you have to optimize your cutting diet in terms of macronutrients and have the right ratio of protein, carbs, fats and fiber.
Recommended Reading: How to Calculate Macros for Cutting
How Much Protein for Fat Loss?
To keep the most amount of muscle when losing fat, it’s advised to eat around 2 grams per kilogram of body weight (1 g/lb) of protein every day. For instance, 82 kg/180 lb individual should consume around 180 grams of protein daily.
It is worth knowing that higher protein consumption helps with satiety, which makes the whole dieting process more enjoyable. Moreover, a high-protein diet tends to help you preserve more muscle during the fat loss phase, as well as burn more calories and lose fat faster.
How Many Fats for Fat Loss?
Studies show that an appropriate amount of fat in the diet for most people is between 15% to 30% of the total daily calorie intake. When trying to burn fat without losing muscle, fats do not provide as many benefits as other macros when a specific intake is reached.
Therefore, you should aim to consume at least the minimum amount of healthy fats daily to reap the health benefits like:
How Many Carbs for Fat Loss?
Believe it or not but relatively high-carbohydrate diet is a necessity if your goal is to lose fat without losing muscle mass. Since this macronutrient helps to grow muscle faster and enhances performance.
Therefore, after you take into account the above-suggested amounts of protein and fats, research suggests that the rest of the calories should come from carbs. Which ends up being between 30-50% of your daily calorie intake.
How Much Fiber for Fat Loss?
The last nutrient that you should not be neglected is fiber, which is a type of carbohydrate that cannot be completely digested by the human body. It has tons of health benefits and by consuming enough fiber you are more likely to live a longer life.
According to the American Heart Association, the advised amount of fiber is 25 grams daily on a 2000 calorie diet for adults. Obviously, if you consume more food, you should also ensure to eat more fiber, up to 38 grams daily.
Step 3: Follow a Meal Plan
Opposite to public opinion, the food options you decide to include in your meal plan is actually less important than the number of calories you consume. As a matter of fact, many have proven that it is possible to lose fat on a twinkie diet or eating only at McDonald’s.
However, it is not wise to follow their example, especially if you want to maximize your results and feel good throughout the process. Certain foods are better than others for various goals like building muscle or losing fat. Therefore, you should not neglect the health aspects that a healthy diet provides.
The Best Foods to Lose Fat
To lose body fat without losing muscle mass you want to hit your calorie and macro targets daily by eating whole, minimally-processed foods. Minimally-processed foods in comparison to processed and ultra-processed food options are higher in volume and lower-calorie. Which means that whole, minimally processed foods will fill you up more and help you get lean easier.
Some examples of minimally-processed foods are:
- Lean cuts of meat and fish
- Eggs and dairy
- Potatoes, beans, lentils and various grains
- Fruits and vegetables
- Natural nut butter, healthy oils (avocado, canola, coconut, flaxseed, olive)
- Different kinds of nuts and seeds
When selecting the best foods to lose fat for your diet plan, be sure to check out my healthy food sources list.
What Is the Best Diet to Lose Fat?
The best diet is the one that you can stick to. You can choose whatever diet you want: keto, paleo, low-carb, vegan, carnivore, you name it. However, if you cannot stick to it long-term, then it is not the right one for you.
Following a wrong diet, you risk gaining all that fat again. Therefore, it is important to pick the foods that you would be happy to eat every day, including a small treat if needed. Therefore, a high-protein diet that puts you in a calorie deficit, with healthy food options that you enjoy eating daily is the best diet for you!
Step 4: Do Strength Training Workouts
To burn fat and keep as much muscle as possible you do not want to train with low-weights and do high repetitions. Certainly, you should not quit strength training and focus only on cardio. Instead, you should be doing heavy weight-lifting.
Weight training helps you burn calories and helps to keep more muscle when losing fat. In fact, weight lifting can help you build lean muscle while losing fat. Particularly if you are at the early stages of training with weights.
Here are some general guidelines that your workout routine could follow:
- Focus on getting stronger at the compound exercises – squats, deadlifts, bench press and overhead press
- Train each body part at least 1-2 times a week
- Perform 8-20 sets per muscle group, depending on your experience level and recovery
- Do 6-12 repetitions per set when training bigger muscle groups
- Do 12-20 repetitions per set when training smaller muscle groups
Step 5: Include Some Cardio
To this day the majority of gym-goers believe that without cardio it is impossible to lose fat. In reality, a proper diet plan is all you need. However, it would not be right to say that cardio cannot be beneficial for fat loss if done properly.
What Is the Best Cardio for Fat Loss?
Research is clear that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) burns the most calories, helping you lose more fat. However, HIIT sessions are not obligatory to lose fat, you can also do low-intensity steady state (LISS) type of cardio like walking. Moderate-intensity steady state (MISS) type of cardio such as jogging or walking on a Stairmaster can also be done.
Bear in mind that the main benefit that cardio provides is improving your cardiovascular endurance. For fat loss, however, it is a tool that can help you burn more calories, creating a larger calorie deficit.
How Much Cardio Should I Do to Lose Fat?
When it comes to the amount of cardio you should be doing, I would advise doing no more than 1,5-2 hours of cardio a week. Mostly because too much cardio can prevent maximum muscle growth.
In general, you shouldn’t rely on cardio too much. Let me give you an example explaining why – an hour of cycling at a moderate speed can burn about 500 calories. It takes one Starbucks Frappuccino or a McDonald’s BigMac to eat those 500 calories back. Therefore, it’s far easier to eat less high-calorie dense food than do hours of cardio.
Tips on Losing Fat Without Losing Muscle
The five steps above are the most important principles for losing fat efficiently without losing muscle mass. However, there are more things you could do.
Especially, for the ones that are very serious about keeping that every ounce of their hard-earned muscle, I have prepared 5 bonus tips!
1. Optimize Pre And Post Workout Nutrition
You have to understand that a drop in performance when training is inevitable, especially when being at a calorie deficit. Additionally, when dieting, muscle recovery is also somewhat reduced. Therefore, meals that you eat before and after your workouts may help you perform better during the workout and improve muscle recovery after your workout.
Aim to consume 20-40 grams of protein and 30-60 grams of carbs 1-2 hours before and after your workouts.
2. Prioritize Sleeping
Make sure to sleep an appropriate amount of hours every day, to lose fat without losing muscle. It’s proven that the sleep restriction may not influence the total amount of weight loss, however, it has a significant impact on the proportion of fat mass loss.
Make sure to sleep 7-9 hours every day and stick to the same sleeping schedule of the same bedtime and wake up time.
3. Include Refeed Days
Refeed days allow consuming slightly more calories (200-300 calories) than your current total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). The increase in those calories coming mainly from carbohydrates.
The main benefits of refeed days are:
- More sustainable diet plan
- Lower risk of binge eating
- Improved performance in the gym
- Increased leptin levels (a hormone in charge of metabolism and satiety)
Include 1-2 refeed days every 7-21 days depending on the body fat percentage level. The leaner you are, the more often you can incorporate refeed days in your fat loss protocol.
4. Take Diet Breaks
By taking a 1-2 weeks long diet break and eating at around your current maintenance level you can let your body recover from the calorie deficit. In fact, research shows that diet break can reduce metabolic adaptations when dieting, improve hormone levels and improve fat loss efficiency.
Take a diet break around 3-5 month into your diet, if you notice that your fat loss has slowed down, even after numerous decreases in your daily calorie intake.
5. Reduce Training Volume
Lastly, pay attention to how well you recover from your training, both cardio and weight training. If you notice that your workouts are getting harder, or you realize that you are getting weaker, you might be doing too much. Simply put, it means that your body cannot fully recover from one workout to the next one, thus you should decrease the total amount of work that you do.
Try to decrease the volume, the total amount of work, by doing fewer sets or reducing your training frequency, by decreasing the number of days you train.
Frequently Asked Questions About Losing Fat
How Do You Prevent Muscle Loss?
Here’s how you can prevent muscle loss:
– Do heavy weight training
– Don’t have too high calorie-restrictive
– Don’t exclude carbs out of your diet
– Eat a sufficient amount of protein daily
– Avoid doing lots of cardio
– Sleep 7-9 hours every day
Will I Lose Muscle If I Lose Weight?
A calorie deficit will ensure that you lose weight. However, by relying just on a calorie deficit and nothing else, there’s a chance that you will also lose muscle. To prevent that it’s advised to do weight training, eating a high-protein, a high-carb diet with a moderate calorie deficit, avoid doing too much cardio and prioritize sleep.
Is It Possible to Lose Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time?
Gaining muscle while losing is hard but it’s not impossible to do, especially for novice lifters. A calorie surplus is best for gaining muscle while calorie deficit is needed when losing fat. However, you can lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, if you optimize multiple variables, or if you are new to training with weights.
What Causes Loss of Muscle?
Here’s what causes loss of muscle:
– Little to none physical activity, especially weight training
– Extensive alcohol consumption
– A low-protein diet
– Sleep restriction
– High-calorie restriction
– An extensive amount of cardio
How Do You Know You’re Burning Fat?
You can ensure that you are burning fat not muscle if you notice that your body weight is dropping while your strength level is maintaining or even increasing. Another way to know if you’re burning fat is doing a body fat percentage measurements once every 2-4 weeks and comparing the results.
How Can I Do Cardio Without Losing Muscle?
To prevent muscle loss when doing cardio, it’s important that you don’t do an extensive amount of cardio. It’s advised to do no more than 1,5-2 hours of cardio a week to preserve as much muscle as possible when losing fat.
Key Takeaways of Losing Fat Not Muscle
These are all the necessary steps you have to take to lose fat while keeping muscle:
- Be in a calorie deficit of about 20-25%
- Have a high-protein, moderate fat and high-carb diet
- Eat whole, minimally-processed food most of the time
- Do weight training, focusing around the main compound exercises
- Do cardio for 1,5-2 times a week
Tips on Losing Fat Without Losing Muscle
- Optimize pre and post-workout nutrition
- Prioritize sleeping
- Include refeed days
- Take diet breaks
- Reduce training volume
Follow the steps above, be consistent and you will see your body becoming leaner and more muscular!
Feel free to contact me if you have more questions about how to get lean or any other fitness topic!
What are your thoughts on losing fat without losing muscle? Do you have some tips to share? Write it in the comments below!
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