So you want to shake off those extra pounds without losing your hard-earned muscles? Well, it is possible!
Weight gain, both fat, and muscle, is quite simply taking in more calories in the body than what is needed to function normally. Any excess energy from our diet is not needed and is stored as additional fat or muscle to be used when we need a little pick-me-up.
The challenge is, how will you lose weight without losing muscle if the body naturally does that when you are in a state of a caloric deficit? How can you lose fat if you do not control the calories you take in every single day?
The good news is, you can now manipulate the way body fats, tissues, and muscles are being lost by creating the deficit in different ways (1). A combination of the right diet and exercise can do the trick!
Before we get on the tips on how to lose weight without losing muscle, let’s first review the science of muscle growth.
How Do Muscles Grow?
Regardless of the type of fitness group – bodybuilding, Crossfit, strength training, gymnastics – the aim of the exercise is to lower fat and increase lean muscle. We all know increasing muscle size involves a lot of heavy lifting and just as much of the right nutrition.
Muscles increase in volume and mass after long-term strength training. This “long-term” can be from as short as two weeks or as long as two years, depending on the type of growth you’re after.
After a tough workout, your body goes into full recovery mode mostly to replenish lost vitamin and mineral stores from the food you eat and to repair or replace damaged muscle fibers. After the repairs are done, the muscles are thicker than when you first used them. This general muscle growth is known as muscle hypertrophy or simply hypertrophy.
Technically speaking, the individual fibers that make our muscles grow because of two things – hyperplasia or the increase in the number of muscle fiber and fiber hypertrophy or the increase in the volume of muscle fiber. These two processes, while different, do accomplish one thing and that is increasing the total protein content of the whole muscle through protein synthesis (2).
To keep things simple: Muscle growth happens when the rate of muscle protein breakdown is lower than the rate of protein synthesis. It should be noted that protein synthesis doesn’t happen during training but during rest. This is where nutrition and proper sleep come in.
If you have proper nutrition, the more efficient your body will be at repairing and increasing muscle size. You cannot grow muscle if you’re undernourished or lack the necessary nutrients. And no, “eating a lot” doesn’t guarantee proper nutrition. In fact, eating too much food without really looking into what you’re eating can do more harm than good from a general health perspective.
The most important is of course protein, but other nutrients help muscles grow bigger like zinc, iron, potassium, B vitamins, branched-chain amino acids, and even carbohydrates (3).
If you have proper sleep, the more your body will be in sync in terms of hormones especially melatonin. Melatonin is more than just a sleep hormone. It’s actually in charge of everything related to recovery while you sleep (4).
Generally speaking, the better quality sleep you get, the more melatonin can help restore and repair your muscles which leads to not just muscle hypertrophy, but also an increase in testosterone – a hormone that plays a huge factor in determining just how big your muscles can get.
More than hormonal imbalances, lack of sleep can actually reverse the muscle-growing process (anabolism) and put your body into a muscle-breaking state (catabolism).
Other than rest and nutrition, another factor in muscle growth is genetics. Depending on the genes you’ve inherited, you either grow muscles fast or slow. Most people don’t see real results despite a month or two months’ worth of training while others see development in as little as two weeks. Genetics also plays a role in how much testosterone you’re producing, which muscle fiber grows first, as well as overall metabolism.
The cycle of exercise – repair/rest – exercise should also be sustained if you want to fully grow your muscles. However, after the first year of consistency, everything that follows is often easier and simpler for “maintenance” mode.
10 Ways to Lose Weight Without Losing Muscle
Do Not Overdo Reducing Calories
You must understand that for you to lose body fat, you must create a caloric deficit. That would mean reducing your calorie intake below the maintenance level to promote the burning of stored body fat for energy. But if cutting too many calories would also result in excessive muscle loss, you might want to back away from it.
That deficit can be classified as small, moderate, or large based on how low you can go and how much you reduce your daily calorie intake. Each degree has its own advantages and disadvantages. But in most cases, a moderate deficit, which is approximately 20% below the maintenance level, works for most people (c).
Generally, females are encouraged to reduce intake by 300-400 calories and men by about 400-600 calories (1).
Why not go for a larger deficit? Won’t it help reduce fat faster?
Excessive reduction in calorie intake may cause hormonal issues, hunger, disturbances in sleep, mood swings, decreased libido, lethargy and metabolic slowdown (5). These are quite hard to sustain, which may just cause you to stop all at once. Also, a huge caloric deficit will have a negative impact on training and recovery.
Consume Enough Protein
When cutting calories, you have to make sure that none of them comes from proteins. Protein intake is the single most important dietary requirement in maintaining muscle mass (5). It is likewise the most satisfying nutrient capable of making you feel full longer and is less likely to be stored as fat when taken even in larger amounts (1).
Losing fat without losing muscle is possible by consuming enough protein. Get your ideal amount of protein daily while considering several factors like carbohydrate intake and level of activity. An intake of 6-8 grams of protein per body pound is the sweet spot for people who want to keep a positive nitrogen balance and avoid muscle wasting when under caloric deficit (6).
Go Easy on Cardio and Do HIIT
For most people, weight loss and cardio go hand in hand like peanut butter and jelly. But as mentioned earlier, recovery is affected when calories are reduced. For this reason, the exercises you are doing, including cardio, may need to be adjusted as well to help prevent muscle loss. But cardio can help you lose weight, right? That’s true. But is it necessary? The answer is no.
There are several ways to make your strength training more intense so that you can include cardio workouts at the same time. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be helpful.
Doing a stationary bike or sprints on a treadmill can effectively burn calories not only during training but also through the excess post-workout oxygen consumption. Unlike other cardio workouts, HIIT recruits more type 2 muscle fibers over type 1, thus preventing muscle loss (1).
HIIT can likewise help build muscles if done correctly with rest. In a research published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, the result showed that those who exercised at 1:1 work-to-rest ratio gain significantly more muscles than those who did a 2:1 interval (7).
Doing just the right amount of exercise to keep or add on muscles will be highly favorable. You need not kill yourself in the gym all the time. Nutrition will still be the greatest factor in losing fat.
Check Your Carbs and Glycogen Closely
Going on a low-carb diet is not necessary to lose weight, and may even impair muscle maintenance and growth by restricting exercise performance (1). Glycogen, the main storage form of glucose in the body, serves as the main source of energy for prolonged anaerobic activity (6), and this reserve comes from the sugar we produce.
Make sure you do not run low on carb and glycogen. Eat carbohydrates twice as much as your protein intake (1).
Get Your Pre and Post Training Nutrition Right
Luckily, the time frame after training to which your body uses protein to build muscle is way larger than we thought (8). So as long as you’re getting regular doses of protein, there’s really no need for that extra expense on post-workout drinks to be taken immediately after training.
Everyone seems to know that pre-workout carbs are being linked to better and harder training performances. But did you know that pre-workout protein is more beneficial? One study showed that consuming 18 grams of whey protein at least 20 minutes before a heavy session can increase energy expenditure up to 24 hours after training as compared to taking in 19 grams of pre-workout carbs (9).
Stimulate Your Muscles
Use them or lose them. If you won’t give your body to keep your muscles, then they will be broken down to get some form of energy. Yes, you’ll lose fat by restricting your diet but not for so long, it will start to shift more towards muscle loss without some form of strength training.
If you want the majority of your weight loss to come from stored fats, give your body a good stimulus to hang onto your muscles.
Active recovery from a workout is very important to get the most of what you are doing. Most of us miss one important form of recovery – sleep. The amount of sleep you get can greatly impact whether or not you’ll lose muscles along with your fats by influencing hormone levels (1).
If one lacks sleep, his or her cortisol level increases. In extremely high levels, this anti-inflammatory hormone can both inhibit weight loss and prompt muscle degradation. The human growth hormone is yet another important factor that can help synthesize muscle mass. This peaks at night during sleep (1).
In a study conducted in Chicago, results showed that dieters who got only 5.5 hours of sleep instead of 8.5 have decreased their fat loss by 55% (10). And it has been likewise proven that as little as 4 days of lack of sleep can reduce the body’s insulin sensitivity, thereby increasing the risk for fat storage and decreasing growth hormone levels (1).
Give yourself some BCAAs
Supplementing with BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids) helps replenish protein stores inside the muscles. These can also be used as energy during exercise which is really handy when you’re on a cutting phase given that they’re practically calorie-free.
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is the most underrated way to stay healthy and grow muscle. While you can still grow big even with poor sleep, it won’t be anywhere near as good as when you do get consistently good sleep. You see, training isn’t just all about what you do inside the gym, but also what you do outside with emphasis on sleep and nutrition. Growth hormones peak at night while you sleep and is at its best when you’re in deep sleep (4).
You may have heard of intermittent fasting or IF and if you were bulking then, there’s a good chance you laughed at the idea. Now that you’re cutting, though, now would be a good time to actually try this.
Intermittent fasting is a form of disciplined eating rather than a weight loss protocol. It involves mainly eating only when you’re hungry, consuming all the calories you need in one or two meals, and literally not eating anything until the next eating schedule the next day. The period between your last meal and the next meal is when you fast (11).
The science is actually sound and is actually rooted in how our ancestors used to eat. Studies also confirm that you don’t really lose muscle during IF if you do it right, and that you won’t get hungry too.
However, there are some details to make IF optimal. Ideally, you wake up when the sun rises, workout, go to work, and have your first meal afterward. Your next meal (or the last meal for the day) should be within six hours after your first meal. Let’s say you had breakfast at 9:00 am, your last meal should be at 3:00 pm. You then let your body burn fat for energy until the following day.
Some people go for one meal a day, some even try 24 hours without eating. What matters is you know what you’re doing and the best way to do that is to have someone coach you.
Incorporate Diet Breaks When Needed
This point is seldom being done but is very important. Yes, maintaining a caloric deficit is needed to lose weight, but it likewise comes with some disadvantages if done for longer periods of time. Trust me, you need a diet break!
When you consume fewer calories, your body will slow down your metabolism, which means reducing the amount of energy that your body burns every day. Why? Simply because the body thinks you do not have enough access to food and slowing down metabolism is its way to compensate. This can then lead to a race to the bottom with your calories, which is not good! You will be forced to keep cutting more calories as you go on. There’s a big chance that you’ll start losing muscles too when this happens.
So to prevent these things from happening, you have to take diet breaks. Set some dates where you will eat more calories than usual. Others call this a refeed day. This can help normalize important hormones like leptin, which will keep your metabolism running at a good pace (12).
You may also do periodic diet breaks. Stop tracking your calorie intake for a week or two. You can eat based on your hunger, but try not to do pigging out.
Again, it is possible to lose weight without losing muscle mass. It all just boils down to doing the right techniques so that you can prioritize burning stored fats for energy.
So never fall into the trap of just thinking about the number on your weighing scale! Remember that it is your body composition that matters the most.