When most people want to lose weight, they are generally looking to lose fat, not muscle.
Sure, there are exceptions to this, but I’d venture to say that this holds true over 99% of the time. However, keeping your muscle mass while losing weight is often a lot easier said than done…
So, the question becomes, how do you get your body to prioritise using fat for energy, rather than muscle?
In my experience, this is something that many people struggle with – and if you’re not careful, it can be easy to waste away your hard-earned muscle gains along with all of that body fat.
To help with this, I’ll be going through exactly how to lose weight without losing muscle, highlighting 6 important things that you should be focusing on.
1) Don’t Reduce the Amount of Weight You’re Lifting
This is something that many people get wrong, so listen up!
When you’re focused on fat loss, there is a misconception that you should be lifting lighter weights, for higher reps, compared to when you’re primarily trying to build muscle.
Unfortunately, like a lot of gym lore, this is completely wrong – and if you do this, you’ll practically be giving your body permission to lose a whole bunch of muscle mass!
Let me explain.
When you’re cutting, unless you’re fairly new to weight training, it will be very difficult to build additional muscle. Instead, your body will be in a state where it is comparatively easy to lose muscle mass (along with body fat).
However, by continuing to focus on lifting heavy weights – and fighting your hardest to maintain your existing weight and rep numbers – you’ll be signalling to your body that you need to retain the muscle that you have, but suffice to say this can make all the difference between a successful cut where you primarily lose body fat, and one where you end up losing far too much muscle in the process.
2) Be Mindful of Your Training Volume
When you’re losing weight, your recovery capacity won’t necessarily be the same as when you’re maintaining or gaining weight.
This means that you might want to decrease your total weekly training volume – either by reducing the number of days you lift weights, reducing the number of sets you do per workout or both.
You see, there is a fine line between working out hard and working out too hard, to the point where you start overtraining. When this happens, you don’t recover from your workouts as effectively, you feel run down, and your overall progress takes a hit.
So, don’t be afraid to cut down the number of days you train and the number of sets that you do when you’re trying to lose weight.
Remember, the goal here is to retain the muscle you already have, which is best achieved by keeping up the intensity of your most important sets (as I went over before), whereas the total volume of sets is much less important.
3) Set Your Calorie Deficit Appropriately
In order to lose weight, you need to put your body at an energy deficit.
This simply means consuming less energy each day than you’re burning.
So, it follows that the larger the energy deficit, the more weight you’ll lose each week, right?
Yes, this is true, but that isn’t the only consideration here.
Even if you only cared about losing weight, with no concern for your overall body composition, working with too large of a deficit can lead to all sorts of problems – namely, a precipitous decline in your metabolic rate, making it far more challenging to lose weight (and maintain weight) in the longer term.
But you don’t only care about losing weight; you want to lose the right kind of weight. You want to lose the most amount of fat while holding on to as much lean muscle mass as possible.
And when you cut calories too much, or do an excessive amount of cardio, you end up creating an energy deficit that is too large. As a result, your body starts burning a greater amount of muscle tissue, along with body fat.
So, in practical terms, I would recommend working with a calorie target that is 15-25% lower than your current TDEE (which factors in the amount that you’re working out). This will provide the best balance of allowing you to lose weight steadily, without risking unnecessary muscle loss in the process.
4) Keep Your Protein Intake On The High End
Protein intake is very important when you’re trying to build muscle.
Most people know that you need quite a bit of protein to pack on muscle effectively.
But even if you’re already eating a higher protein diet, you might be surprised to learn that you actually want to be consuming more protein when you’re trying to lose weight (and retain muscle), then when you’re focused primarily on building it.
This might seem kind of counter-intuitive, right?
After all, you’d think that you need more protein when you’re trying to build muscle, compared to when your goal is simply retaining what you already have.
The thing is, keeping your protein even higher when you’re cutting tends to be more muscle-sparing.
This means that all things being equal, maintaining an even high protein intake when you’re cutting while cause your body to prioritise burning fat for energy, instead of potentially eating into your existing muscle stores.
I would recommend aiming for a protein intake of roughly 40% of your total calories if you’re trying to lose weight without losing muscle mass.
5) Keep Your Carbs As High As Possible
This one might come as a shock to some of you…
We’re often told that carbs contribute to fat gain and that in order to lose weight you should be cutting your carbs, not keeping them high.
But this is an oversimplification, and also doesn’t take overall body composition into account.
For many people, simply cutting out carbs will automatically create the necessary caloric deficit to lose weight, at least for a period of time.
However, this doesn’t factor in gym performance, so if you’re also concerned with not losing muscle as you lose weight, then it is in your best interests to keep carbs higher.
The reason for this is that carbs are what provide muscle glycogen, which in turn is what allows you to maintain your performance in the gym. When you keep carbs too low, you’ll have insufficient muscle glycogen to properly maximise the amount you’re lifting, putting your body at risk of losing more muscle mass.
I would suggest keeping your carbs as high as possible, within the given number of calories that you’re eating, and while also keeping your protein sufficiently high (as I mentioned above).
6) Incorporate Refeed Days Or Diet Breaks
This is the last point I want to mention here, but it’s an important one.
Maintaining a caloric deficit is an essential part of losing weight, but there are downsides to doing this – especially if you’re cutting for longer periods of time.
When you eat fewer calories, it is normal for your body to down-regulate your metabolism, which simply means reducing the amount of energy that your body burns each day.
Why would it do this?
Well, your body isn’t aware of your fitness goals. Instead, when you’re losing weight, your body senses that you don’t have access to enough food, and in order to prevent against starvation it will reduce the speed of your metabolism to make up for this.
As you might imagine, this can lead to a race to the bottom with your calories, where you have to keep cutting calories further and further. This is both unpleasant, and also makes it harder and harder to maintain your strength in the gym.
Which, of course, means that you are at greater risk of losing muscle when this happens!
In order to help prevent this from happening, it can be helpful to occasionally have a day where you eat a greater number of calories than usual, with a large portion of those calories coming from carbs.
This is known as a refeed day, which is basically a more controlled version of a cheat day.
Aside from being nice psychologically, the refeed day helps to normalise certain key hormones, like leptin, which in turns helps to keep your metabolism running at a faster rate.
Another option here is to have periodic diet breaks, which are pretty much what they sound like: a period of time, usually 1-2 weeks, where you don’t track your calories, and instead, eat based on your hunger (without pigging out).
Like refeed days, diet breaks help to keep your metabolism from slowing down after longer periods of eating at a caloric deficit, and in turn help to keep your strength up in the gym and retain your muscle.
The Bottom Line On Losing Weight Without Losing Muscle
At the end of the day, it is certainly possible to lose a lot of weight without losing very much muscle.
It all just comes down to following the right strategies, so that you can put your body in a position to prioritise burning fat stores for energy, instead of lean muscle mass.
On the workout side, this means doing everything you can to maintain your performance in the gym, fighting not to lose strength on your exercises, while reducing volume if necessary to ensure that you’re recovering properly.
And on the diet side, this means working with a moderate calorie deficit, while keeping both protein and carb intake on the higher end.
So, don’t fall into the trap of focusing only on the number on the scale, and losing a whole bunch of muscle along with body fat. Remember, it is your body composition that ultimately matters most, and you’ll be in the best position to focus on building muscle after your cut if you didn’t lose much in the first place!
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