How to Lose Fat Without Losing Your Muscle (Part 1 of 3)

You've tried to get lean but it just doesn't seem to work...But having muscle and lower body fat is the ideal healthy position to be in.


It’s like every time you try and lose body fat you just end up losing weight and being skinny fat, with less muscle but with unchanged body fat.

You think you’re doing everything right but now you’re just not sure. It’s tempting to pack it all in and give up, but you didn’t get into this fitness game just to give up and walk away when things don’t go your way.

You’re here to better yourself; to perform better, feel better and look better. So, what’s going on?

You know if you can lose fat and keep your muscle mass you’ll look great. You’ll look good on the beach, be more confident. You know that’s the goal, but it never seems to happen to you.

Fear not, it can be done and below we will look at a number of strategies you need to use to maintain and even build muscle mass when in a calorie deficit.

Train Using Heavy Weights

This is a must! Don’t make the mistake of jumping on the ‘light weights burn fat’ bandwagon.

All this does is fast-track you down the path to fat and muscle loss, which will leave you looking small, feeling weak and quite frankly being skinny fat. You know the situation, not enough muscle to be lean but also too much fat for a lean look…skinny fat.

If you don’t want your body to think you don’t need your muscle mass and start using it for fuel you need to give it a reason to hold on to it. and lifting heavy is the best way to do this. Research has shown that “strength training significantly reduced the loss of FFM [fat-free mass i.e. muscle] during dieting”.

This was supported by another study (2) which concluded that “[an] intensive, high volume resistance training program resulted in the preservation of LBW [lean body weight i.e. muscle] and RMR [resting metabolic rate i.e. calories burnt at rest] during weight loss with a VLCD [very low-calorie diet].”

Note: We're not suggesting a very low-calorie diet! We will get to calories further down the page.

In addition, to the above evidence, there is another study (3) that shows that “resistance exercise prevents the normal decline in fat-free mass and muscular power and augments body composition [and] maximal strength.”

Now the best way to lift heavy, build strength and maintain your muscle mass is to use compound movements. Compound movements are movements which train multiple muscle groups through multiple joint actions.

The reason they’re so great is that you’re using multiple muscle groups which allows you to generate a lot more strength and power in comparison to isolation exercises. This lets you lift more and gives you a greater capacity for growth. Common compound movements include;

  • Bench presses – incline or flat

  • Shoulder presses – standing or seated

  • Deadlifts – conventional, Romanian, trap bar, sumo

  • Rows – bent over, single arm

  • Squats – lunges, pistols, step ups, leg press

  • Pull-ups or chin ups

  • Dips

When training in a calorie deficit you’re training goal should be at a minimum to maintain your strength, but what rep range should you be working in to do this?

A research study (4) set out to see what number of repetitions would result in the fastest improvement in strength. They took 199 male Uni students and split them into 9 groups. Each group trained with different repetitions per set from the following set of repetitions; 2RM, 4RM, 6RM, 8RM, 10RM & 12RM.

They were tested before and after completing a 12-week progressive programme and researchers concluded that the optimum number of repetitions for strength was between 3 and 9 reps.

This means you want to train with the heaviest weight you can in the 3 – 9 rep range whilst maintaining good form and aim to increase this using progressive overload continually over time.

Conclusion so far

Maintaining your muscle mass in a calorie deficit is possible. By following the tactics laid out in this post you can diet with confidence, knowing that you’re going to minimise the amount of muscle you lose if you lose any at all.

Remember,

  • Train using moderate to heavy weights

  • Reduce your overall training volume & frequency

Next week we'll look at what else to consider in order to keep you muscle with improving your body fat, including:

  • Don’t use more than a moderate calorie deficit

  • Eat enough protein

  • Don’t overdo the cardio

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