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

In the final part of this series the focus is on keeping up the protein and not over doing the Cardio. We want to avoid being ‘skinny fat’, where we’ve lost total weight but the bulk of that is in muscle loss not removing fat. So far we’ve learned to:

  • Train using moderate to heavy weights

  • Reduce your overall training volume & frequency

  • Don’t use more than a moderate calorie deficit

Other important steps are:

Make Sure You’re Eating Enough Protein

We all know that protein is an important part of the diet but this is especially so when trying to maintain muscle mass in a calorie deficit.

  • It fuels protein synthesis which is vital for growth and maintenance of your body

  • It is highly satiating and helps keep you fuller for longer

However, exactly how much you need is often the topic of hot debate and can vary greatly depending on who you ask.

That being said most people can agree that your intake should be higher when eating in a calorie deficit to help preserve muscle mass than it does when eating at maintenance or in a calorie surplus.

Optimal protein intake to build or preserve muscle mass is 1-2 gm per kg of bodyweight, with the idea of sticking closer to 2 when eating in a calorie deficit and closer to 1 when eating in a calorie surplus.

Now going over this recommendation isn’t bad for you but it will impact your intake of fat and carbs which can affect your performance in the gym.

Research shows that glycogen stored in your muscles is the primary fuel source of moderate to intense exercise. Add to this research that shows a sufficient carbohydrate intake that keeps your muscle and liver glycogen stores full can improve workout performance.

Not only this but research shows that when compared a low carbohydrate intake (approx. 220 g per day) against a high carbohydrate intake (approx. 350 g per day) resulted in more strength lost, slower recovery and lower levels of protein synthesis.

Regardless of whether you’re trying to lose fat and preserve muscle mass or gain muscle and minimise fat gain, you can begin to see why a moderate to high carbohydrate intake is beneficial for you if you're strength training regularly.

Obviously, depending on your total daily calorie allowance your carb intake may not be that high but it does go to show that keeping your carbs as high as possible can result in improved performance in the gym which translates to the preservation of muscle mass when in a calorie deficit.

Don’t Overdo Your Cardio

Truth be told you can get lean without doing any cardio at all. If we refer back to the rules of the energy balance equation, we can see that provide you’re in a calorie deficit you will lose weight regardless of whether or not you’re doing any cardio or not.

However, where cardio can be useful in 2 key ways.

  1. Allowing you to eat more food when in a calorie deficit

  2. Assisting with the loss of body fat

The question is which type of cardio should you do to get these benefits? The 2 contenders are low-intensity steady-state (LISS) training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

LISS is characterised by long bouts of walking, jogging or cycling usually around an hour in length to burn calories without taxing the body. Whereas HIIT is characterised by short bursts of sprinting or other anaerobic activity followed by a period of rest or recovery before being repeated, usually lasting 10 – 30 minutes in total.

  • One study comparing the 2 found that high-intensity exercise when compared to steady-state exercise provided “significant reductions in total body fat, subcutaneous leg and trunk fat.”

  • A review of available HIIT research studies conducted in 2011 found that “Regular HIIT has been shown to significantly increase both aerobic and anaerobic fitness. HIIT also significantly lowers insulin resistance and results in a number of skeletal muscle adaptations that result in enhanced skeletal muscle fat oxidation and improved glucose tolerance.”

Ultimately, whilst HIIT wins out in the research I believe that whichever form of exercise works best for your lifestyle is the best. Maybe that’s a mix of both, maybe it’s none at all. If you can do some HIIT, great. If not then don’t worry as we said before you can get ‘lean’ without using cardio at all.

Whatever you choose the key is still not to overdo it.

There is a common phenomenon where people who are trying to lose weight often increase their cardio output and decrease their calories when adaptive thermogenesis begins to kick in. As we’ve already said you don’t need to do any cardio to lose weight provided you’re in a calorie deficit AND your body has a reduced ability to repair itself when in this state.

Considering both of these points it’s advisable to keep the cardio on the lower side. This means 2 – 3 HIIT training sessions a week for 10 – 25 minutes each will be plenty, whilst giving you the benefit of increased calorie intake for that day plus the fat loss benefits described in the research above.

Alternatively, you could take an hour walk 3 – 4 times a week if you want the extra calories but don’t want to or cannot do the HIIT training.

Ultimately, what I would say is this, don’t do cardio for cardio’s sake. Do it because you enjoy it and want to get the benefits. There’s nothing worse than having to force yourself to go for a run because you think you need to, exercise shouldn’t be associated with negative feelings. Sure, it will hurt sometimes and it should challenge you but it shouldn’t be a chore.

You can always try learning a new sport, doing a team activity or something you find fun.

Additionally, if we put the fat loss to one side for a moment, some form of cardio a couple of times a week even if it’s just walking is recommended for general cardiovascular health.

So finally the Conclusion

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.


  • Train using moderate to heavy weights

  • Reduce your overall training volume & frequency

  • Don’t use more than a moderate calorie deficit

  • Eat enough protein

  • Don’t overdo the cardio


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