In the pursuit of a healthier body, shedding excess body fat is a common goal. However, for those who’ve invested time and effort into building muscle mass, concerns about losing those hard-earned gains can be substantial. Fortunately, recent scientific research emphasises that losing fat while retaining muscle is a realistic and attainable objective. This article delves into the latest evidence-based strategies for losing fat without sacrificing muscle mass.
Optimal Protein Intake
Modern research underscores the pivotal role of protein in the muscle preservation process during fat loss. Consuming sufficient high-quality protein sources with every meal is essential. Current research indicates that consuming between 2.3-3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day may be optimal for muscle growth and preservation when in a caloric deficit (Helms et al., 2014). Leaner individuals should aim for the upper end of this range, whereas those with a higher body fat percentage should aim to consume closer to 2.3 g/kg/day.
High protein diets also have the added benefit of often being more satiating than diets higher in carbohydrates or fats. Protein-rich meals help individuals feel fuller for longer, which can assist in managing hunger and reducing overall calorie intake. Additionally, protein has a higher thermic effect compared to carbohydrates and fats, meaning the body expends more energy during digestion and processing. This increased calorie expenditure can aid in fat loss by contributing to a higher overall daily energy expenditure.
Embrace Resistance Training
Preserving muscle mass hinges on providing your muscles with a reason to stick around. This is where resistance training becomes paramount. Maintain, or even slightly increase, the volume performed during your training and the frequency of your workouts. This will ensure that muscle protein synthesis (the process by which the body repairs and builds new muscle fibres) continues to be triggered, and this is crucial for building and maintaining muscle mass (Petrizzo et al., 2017). Compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and pull-ups, which stimulate multiple muscle groups simultaneously, should be integral to your regimen. However, some loss of strength is normal during a dieting phase so you may need to consider reducing the weight that you typically lift.
Track Your Calories
Losing weight is all about consuming fewer calories than you burn. However, the number on the scale isn’t the only factor you should focus on since cutting calories excessively may lead to muscle loss. In order to maintain muscle whilst losing fat you will need to be patient and take a slower approach to your diet. Recent recommendations indicate that a moderate deficit of 250-500 kcal below your maintenance levels may be the best approach (Helms et al., 2014). This promotes fat loss while mitigating the risk of muscle catabolism, ensuring the body draws on fat stores as the primary energy source.
Track Your Weight
Although the number on the scale can sometimes be misleading, tracking your weight each week will allow you to gauge whether your caloric deficit is optimal for your goals. Aim to weigh yourself first thing in the morning at the same time each week in order to ensure an accurate measurement. Then, based on the weight measurements taken each week you can adjust your calorie intake according to whether you are losing too much or not enough weight. To avoid loss of muscle mass during your dieting phase, aim to lose no more than 1% of your body weight per week.
However, it is important to consider that weight loss during the initial weeks of your diet may not accurately reflect loss of fat, especially if you significantly reduce your carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrates are stored in the body in the form of glycogen, and each gram of glycogen is bound to 3-4 grams of water. When you decrease your carbohydrate intake, your body uses up its glycogen stores for energy. As glycogen is broken down, the water bound to it is released and excreted by the body, resulting in a noticeable loss of water weight. Therefore, during the initial weeks of your diet it is recommended to begin with a moderate caloric deficit and stick with this for 1-2 weeks before considering adjusting according to your weight loss.
Incorporating high-intensity interval training (HIIT) alongside resistance training during a calorie deficit can yield significant benefits. Firstly, this combination enhances the overall calorie expenditure during workouts, making the most of limited time. HIIT’s alternating intense bursts and recovery periods result in an elevated heart rate and energy expenditure, complementing the muscle-focused efforts of resistance training. Furthermore, the inclusion of HIIT can help address the interference effect, a phenomenon where excessive endurance training might interfere with muscle gains from resistance training. HIIT mitigates this interference effect due to its shorter duration and reduced frequency compared to traditional endurance exercises. This ensures that the muscle-building stimulus of resistance training remains potent while allowing for cardiovascular improvement through HIIT (Wilson et al., 2012).
Strategic fat loss doesn’t have to mean waving goodbye to your hard-earned muscle gains. By implementing the strategies listed above you can successfully shed pounds while safeguarding your muscle mass. Remember, a well-rounded approach that combines proper nutrition, smart training, and adequate recovery is the key to achieving the physique you desire.
Helms, E.R., Aragon, A.A. and Fitschen, P.J., 2014. Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), p.20.
Murphy, C. and Koehler, K., 2022. Energy deficiency impairs resistance training gains in lean mass but not strength: A meta‐analysis and meta‐regression. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 32(1), pp.125-137.
Petrizzo, J., DiMenna, F.J., Martins, K., Wygand, J. and Otto, R.M., 2017. Case study: The effect of 32 weeks of figure-contest preparation on a self-proclaimed drug-free female’s lean body and bone mass. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 27(6), pp.543-549.
Wilson, J.M., Marin, P.J., Rhea, M.R., Wilson, S.M., Loenneke, J.P. and Anderson, J.C., 2012. Concurrent training: a meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(8), pp.2293-2307.