How to lose fat without losing muscle: Preventing muscle loss in calorie deficit

Written by Tihomir Stefanov, M.S.(C), PT

| Published on

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Wondering how to lose fat without losing muscle? In this article we explain how to prevent muscle loss while in a calorie deficit.

What you’re going to learn

  • How the body loses fat and muscle
  • How proper nutrition can help maintain muscle mass and optimize fat loss
  • How to tweak training to optimize muscle retention
  • Meal timing
  • How important are supplements for fat loss

For the most part, when someone gets into training, they want quick results.

A couple of weeks or months of inconsistent work go by and people don’t see the results they didn’t work hard for.

Before we go on with the specific topic at hand, we’ll just make an important mention- Making progress naturally requires good discipline and consistency.

No magic pill can compensate for the lack of a well-thought plan of action that follows a specific structure.

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how to lose weight

Initially, everyone progresses quickly, but as time passes by, the law of diminishing returns sets in and the effort becomes less effective, yielding less results.

That is exactly why we need a SUSTAINABLE plan of action, to which we can stick in the long-term.

Whether it’s about fat loss or muscle gains.

Losing fat

When it comes to losing weight, the most important thing is introducing a caloric deficit to your body.

If you consistently consume lesser calories than your body requires to maintain its weight, you are going to lose fat.

The body is a closed biological system, meaning that we have a certain degree of thermodynamics to think about.

Fat gets burnt in a deficit, simply because all it is, is an energy reserve of the body.

Excessively stacked fat is mainly a result of a systematic, excessive consumption of food.

If you’re still reading, this is where you can release the guilt you feel for the cheat meal you had yesterday.

One bad meal won’t get you fat, just like a good meal won’t get you abs.

But it’s good to know something else, too.

The body loses MUSCLE

When you’re in energy deficit conditions, the body doesn’t just burn fat, it also burns lean body mass (LBM).

Note – LBM is not just muscle mass, it is every other tissue in the body besides fat.


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You CAN eat ANYTHING you want – Pizza, burgers, ice cream,
you name it. You will lose weight if you are in a DEFICIT while
eating those. Just don’t overconsume & get quality foods as
well, for an optimal, healthy weight loss!

Preserving LBM

how to lose fat without losing muscle

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Needless to say, what we want is losing mostly fat and less LBM.

Logically, if we consistently deprive the organism of energy, we will lose lean body mass and with that, the metabolism will further slow down.

Why does the metabolism slow down when muscle is burnt?

Well, because that muscle requires more energy to be maintained and it can also expend more energy by doing the work of which it is capable.

In other words, the more muscle you have, the bigger your daily weight maintenance needs become (You can eat more and maintain weight).

We cannot completely avoid LBM loss, but it can be taken down to practically zero.

How to lose fat without losing muscle

Well, there really is no magical pill when it comes to preserving lean body mass or losing fat.

It’s rather all about doing the right things when it comes to your eating and training.

Here is a list of the most to least important things when it comes to losing fat healthily.

1. Creating a moderate caloric deficit

Contrary to popular belief, a diet shouldn’t be all that painful and excruciating.

A diet should be sustainable and pleasurable.

When creating a caloric deficit, you should aim for a maximum of 500 calories per day.

If your TDEE is calories, that would mean you should be consuming 2500 calories to get to a healthy rate of weight loss, that won’t have a negative impact on your body composition and health.

But… The calculators online are generally accurate within 100-200 calories.

What that means for you is that you should rather track how much weight you’re losing.

A healthy rate of weight loss is about 1-2 lbs per week for non-obese people.

The more weight you have to lose, the bigger the deficit can be.

If you are obese and have a LOT of weight to lose, you can cut out up to 30% of your daily maintenance needs and still preserve LBM.

However, as you get back into normal body composition, the deficit must become smaller.

If you’re just chubby or want to get shredded… Don’t lose more than 1-2 lbs weekly. If you do, just increase your food intake!

2. Setting realistic targets

As I mentioned in the beginning, everyone wants it the quick way.

“I want to lose 20 lbs in 30 days!”

It can be done, but is it worth it? Probably not, not at least if you want to know how to lose fat without losing muscle.

The goal of weight loss, as I said, is to make it as healthy as possible.

Based on bullet point number one, you should aim for a maximum of 2-3 lbs per week, if you are not obese.

3. Protein intake

As you should know by now, you ARE protein. Literally every tissue in your body is made of it.

Following that train of thought, we can conclude that one of the key elements to preserving lean body mass is granting sufficient protein through food.

So, how much should the intake be for you, if you’re trying to maintain your lean body mass?

To find that number, take your weight in kilograms and multiply it by 1.5~2.6, depending on how trained you are.

The more muscle mass you have, the more protein you’d require to maintain it, which is why a beginner/intermediate can optimize muscle retention during fat loss on just 1.5-2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight.

But what foods should you get your protein from?

Well, the best thing to do here is include foods that have the full amino acid profile.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s just a brief explanation of how protein works:

Upon digestion, the body breaks down protein into amino acids, which then get used up as needed.
There are essential and non-essential amino acids, meaning that some of them, the body can produce, while others, we can only get from food.
Needless to say, if the essential amino acids are lacking in our diet, we will hinder recovery, growth and many other functions of the organism.

Now that we know this, there is a question that pops up right away – Which foods contain the full set of amino acids?

Well, the easiest and most practical source are animal products – Meats, fish, eggs, dairy, etcetera.

If you are plant-based however, it is highly recommended that you mix up your grains.

Generally, there aren’t many accessible plants that have the full amino acid profile like animal products do.

Each plant product that is rich in protein, lacks some amino acid.

A classic example for a protein-rich, proper vegan meal, is beans and rice.

4. Carbohydrates and fats

best food sources

When it comes to body composition and LBM retention, protein intake is the most crucial out of all 3 macronutrients in food.

While some people may look at that as something bad, if you think about it, that allows for much more flexibility and diversity with carbs and fats.

It is important to mention that fats are important for the body and especially its hormonal balance.

That’s why our fat intake should be at the very minimum, 15-20% of the total energy intake.

From then on, the rest of the intake can be carbohydrates.

Note – Carbohydrates are important when it comes to performing optimally in the gym, which is the next point we will talk about.

5. Meal timing

Truth is, when it comes to meal timing, there are just a couple of things to remember.

  1. The most important aspect of the diet is the total daily energy intake and the amount of protein
  2. Muscle retention is possible with a vast variety of meal patterns – As low as 2 meals per day and as high as 6.
  3. Protein intake is distributed evenly in all meals and preferably, timed around both sides of the training bout – Pre and post workout. What that will do is optimize the anabolic response of the body.

Conclusion? Go with what you can stick to. At equated energy intake, there won’t be substantial, drastic differences in body composition, whether you’re consuming 2500 calories in 3 or 6 meals.

6. Training

Most people think that getting shredded or lean is 80% diet and 20% workouts.

However, we from think that it is 100% of both. That is how to lose fat without losing muscle the right way.

Whichever one you f*#k up on, the end result will be sub-optimal.

Needless to say, training properly while cutting will not only help you retain that muscle mass, but also shape it up and make it look sharper.

So, what should your training approach be when cutting?

If you’ve followed some of our educational articles, you would know that intensity by nature is stressing and constructive.

Intensity requires recovery, which ultimately leads to a positive adaptation – An improvement in the physical properties of the trainee.

When losing fat however, we are in a deficit of energy, meaning that the recovery of the body is sub-optimal.

That is exactly why we need to make changes to the training regimen and focus on the task at hand.

Focusing on maximizing the progressively increasing mechanical tension (intensity), is the main focus for muscle building.

With muscle retention and fat loss however, the approach is different – Intensity drops 5-10% and the repetitions (Volume) increase, while the rest time decreases (density).

By creating higher volume and density in the workout and staying away from sets until failure, we create a sustainable, blood-rich environment for muscle retention.

Note – Those are the so-called “Blood flushing” workouts, where the main goal is getting the muscle through its best contraction, for a bigger number of repetitions.

To recap – Training while cutting fat should consist of 10+ repetition sets, done with ~45 seconds of rest between each set.

Furthermore, you can add other training principles and methods, such as supersets, peak flexion, constant tension and iso-tension.

Supersets – Doing two exercises consecutively, one after the other, with no rest whatsoever. Traditionally, supersets are done for opposing muscle groups, such as the biceps and triceps, chest and back, quads and hamstrings, etcetera.

Peak flexion – With this method, we hold the peak contraction of the working muscle group for up to 1-2 seconds, after which we let go into a slow negative (The negative part of the movement is the eccentric part, where the muscle is stretching. Example- When you let the barbell down to your chest during bench press)
Constant tension – The point with this principle is completely avoiding any inertial (cheating) movements. Instead, you get as much tension as possible through the muscle.
Iso-tension – This is something you can do outside of the gym. It is basically flexing! Try it- Flexing each muscle in your body and holding that peak flexion for 10-15 seconds. Rest assured, it is hell of a workout. 
Furthermore, iso-tension workouts will help you establish a better mind-muscle connection, which will ultimately allow for better workouts.

7. Supplements

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This is the LEAST important part of your shredding diet… Why?

Because, as we’ve said before, no supplement can compensate for the lack of a well-structured, sustainable plan of action.

Yes, you can throw in a protein powder or some casein in your nutrition, but if you don’t have a good food plan, the supplement just won’t help!

Supplements by definition are products that are added to other things to enhance their effect.

In this case, they are added to the nutrition plan.

An article for shredding supplements will be published soon, but for now, it is enough to know that nutrition makes the most substantial difference.

Why do I need all of this?

Well, the point here is plain and simple – We are trying to help you create a sustainable plan, which you can stick to in the long term, so this is how to lose fat without losing muscle fast and easy.

Sticking to the plan long term = yielding consistent results.

And after all, a lesser number on the scale should be the last thing we must be concerned with.

Instead, we should focus on dieting down in a healthy manner, then coming up and transitioning into a muscle building period.

Adherence is king.

To sum this article up, we’ve taken the most important points out:

  • Moderate caloric deficit (Lose ~1-2 lbs/week)
  • Sufficient protein intake (1.5-2.6g/kg of bodyweight, depending on training experience and amount of muscle), distributed evenly in all meals
  • At least 20% of the daily intake is fats
  • No severe carb restrictions
  • 2 to 6 meals a day depending on personal preference

In a future article, we’ll cover another key point with dieting – Doing diet breaks, refeeds and cheat days!

Stay tuned.

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