The Short Answer:
Shedding excess body fat while retaining muscle? Sounds nice in theory but can it be done. While it’s unrealistic to expect not to lose some muscle tissue when cutting body fat, the good news is you don’t need to be a genetic freak or spend 8 hours per day in the gym. You just need to understand the science behind what it takes to lose body fat without losing muscle and be disciplined enough to see it through.
Unlike many of us who may bounce from one fad diet to the next bodybuilders need to burn body fat while retaining as much muscle as possible. It’s their job and we can learn a lot from how they go achieving this task.
In fact, 5 times Mr. Olympia Phil Heath acknowledges this in the movie Generation Iron . Phil says “We are a select group of individuals. As we’re not only losing fat, but we are also building muscle simultaneously.”
While you may not want to take things as far as Phil Heath, there’s a lot of information we can take from bodybuilding. Especially when it comes to burning body fat and retaining muscle.
How is it Done?
It’s important to understand while being a simple concept it requires patience and effort. It’s a difficult task and there’s good reason for that. Our bodies are efficient at storing fat. The reason for this is the fact that body fat is essentially stored energy.
Storing body fat in this way is a legacy harking back to earlier times. When threatened with starvation, our bodies would draw on this stored energy source. The stored body fat would then keep us functioning when food was scarce.
So, one of the keys to burning fat is to ensure our body is using stored body fat as an energy source. To do this requires your body to be in a caloric deficit . Which means we are consuming less in calories (units of energy) than we use daily. If not in a deficit, your body won’t use it’s stored energy reserve (body fat). If you are in caloric surplus, your bodyweight will increase.
It’s too simplistic to think it’s a case of calories in V calories out, though. Especially when our desired outcome is to not lose muscle. After all, our bodies break down muscle tissue five times faster than it takes to develop.
In truth, maximizing fat loss and muscle retention is much like hitting a moving target. As your body becomes more efficient at burning fat or growing muscle, adjustments will need to be made to continue seeing progress. To do this requires an understanding of how our bodies function and utilize energy.
So while times may have changed (starvation isn’t quite as big a deal as it once was, for many of us). Our bodies haven’t changed all that much over time. As a result, we are still efficient at storing fat, meaning it requires a sustained effort to lose body fat while maintaining muscle. It is possible, however, and the following recommendations should help you to do so.
How to Create a Caloric Deficit and Retain Muscle
There are three ways to create a caloric deficit:
- You can limit your caloric intake to less than your body utilizes per day.
- You can increase your activity to burn more calories.
- You can use a combination of both.
The problem we face when increasing aerobic activity is our bodies crave more calories. We can all relate to an increased appetite when activity levels for the day are higher than normal. When you start thinking about Calories as actual units of energy, this begins to make more sense.
There are two things you must do to increase or retain muscle mass:
- Stimulate your muscle fibers through strength training.
- Provide your body with enough calories to maintain or increase muscle mass. With Protein making up a large part of your diet (e.g. up to 50% in some cases).
When increasing muscle mass introducing a caloric surplus rather than a deficit is crucial. As we are attempting to lose fat and retain muscle, in this case, a surplus will work against our efforts. Be aware however that when undertaking a fat burning program, it’s almost impossible to increase strength due to a reduced intake of calories. That is unless you are only just starting out in the gym ( the newbie gains phenomenon ).
There are always exceptions e.g. it is possible for your body to burn fat at one point during the day. While at another point build muscle. But for most people burning fat and limiting lean muscle loss is a more realistic goal and I highly recommend not overcomplicating things if you are new to the concept.
So to retain our existing muscle mass while reducing body fat we need a balanced approach. It is far better to have only a moderate deficit over time rather than an extreme deficit over a shorter period. Thus, our caloric deficit should only be moderate e.g. between 200 – 500 calories per day (for the average person). This assists us in two specific ways:
- By maintaining a deficit of 200 – 500 calories. Our bodies will utilize stored body fat as an energy source. Due to the lower deficit, it can do this without breaking down muscle tissue (Catabolism).
- Your energy levels will be enough to maintain a high intensity in the gym. High-intensity results in muscle stimulation.
As a rule, you should aim for losing no more than 2 pounds per week. Any more and your body will respond by adjusting your metabolism and preserving calories. You may also start losing muscle mass which will work against your efforts to reduce body fat.
Be aware that entering a Catabolic state (when your body breaks down muscle tissue) doesn’t happen as often as you may have read elsewhere. Often those who notice muscle loss when in deficit are seeing a reduction in water held by the muscle tissue. This can make our muscles appear flat and smaller in size.
Your bodies metabolism can be your friend or foe. Metabolism describes the chemical reactions going on inside your body, keeping you alive. Nutrition obviously plays a key role in this. How your body utilizes nutrients is crucial to how your body functions.
To achieve fat loss, you need to create an environment ideal for fat burning by speeding up your metabolism. Increasing muscle mass helps speed up the bodies metabolism, as maintaining muscle utilizes more energy than maintaining body fat. In turn, you will burn more calories as part of your normal day to day activity. So, the higher the muscle composition of your body the more efficient, your body will burn fat. Which is just another reason weight training is ideal for fat loss.
How to Lose Body Fat without Losing Muscle using A Caloric Deficit
You will lose weight if you reduce calories, but it’s important not to drop your caloric intake by too much. Otherwise, you feel low on energy which will sabotage your efforts in the gym. Which in turn will make retaining muscle difficult if not impossible.
We must also calculate our macronutrient ratio. Which is the amount of Protein, Carbohydrate and Fat consumed. When entering a fat burning/muscle retention phase, you should consume a lot of Protein. Protein can make up as much as 50% of your daily intake. Fat should then make up 30% with Carbohydrates making up 20%.
These numbers may vary depending on your specific body type but for most of us this represents a good starting point.
Use the Calculator below to establish a starting point for daily caloric intake and macronutrient levels.
How the Calculator Works
The calculator utilizes the Harris–Benedict equation . A method used to calculate your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate). It relies on factors such as your age, weight, and height. The formulas for both men and woman vary as seen below:
BMR calculation for men (metric)
BMR = 66.5 + (13.75 x weight in kg) + (5.003 x height in cm) – (6.755 x age in years)
BMR calculation for men (imperial)
BMR = 66 + (6.2 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – ( 6.76 x age in years)
BMR calculation for women (metric)
BMR = 655.1 + (9.563 x weight in kg) + (1.850 x height in cm) – (4.676 x age in years)
BMR calculation for women (imperial)
BMR = 655.1 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) - (4.7 x age in years)
Using the Harris–Benedict equation mentioned above we can calculate BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate). BMR is an estimate of how many calories your body would use if undertaking no physical activity. In other words, the number of calories your body uses per day to keep you alive.
Once we have an estimate of your BMR, it’s important to factor in your activity levels for the day. We do this because your body will need more calories to meet these energy requirements.
|Little to no exercise
|Daily kilocalories needed = BMR x 1.2
|Light exercise (1–3 days per week)
|Daily kilocalories needed = BMR x 1.375
|Moderate exercise (3–5 days per week)
|Daily kilocalories needed = BMR x 1.55
|Heavy exercise (6–7 days per week)
|Daily kilocalories needed = BMR x 1.725
|Very heavy exercise (twice per day, extra heavy workouts)
|Daily kilocalories needed = BMR x 1.9
Finally, we need to reduce our recommended daily calories. Based on the deficit we choose e.g. between 100 – 500 is ideal.
Finally, the calculator works out our recommended calories per day. It then converts calories to our recommended Macronutrients ratio.
The Truth about Fats
30% fat, that sure seems high? It’s true, most people associate fat loss with eradicating fat from your diet. The truth is your body fat percentage has less to do with how much fat you consume. It’s more to do with your total caloric intake. Any macro e.g. Fat, Protein or Carbohydrate has the potential to be stored as fat if not used by the body.
So why have we for so long considered fats as evil? Because it is the most calorie dense macronutrient consumed by your body. Each gram of fat you take in is equal to 9 calories. Fat is twice as dense in calories as Protein or Carbohydrates. If eating fats, you are consuming twice the calories for the same amount.
Getting rid of fat from your diet is not the answer, however. In truth, fat is essential for your body to make the most of the other nutrients you consume. It also regulates hormone levels and assists the immune system and central nervous system.
Don’t Forget about your Health
You might be thinking, Ok I now know how many calories I can consume per day if maintaining a caloric deficit. If I get my macros right, I can just eat anything until I reach my deficit. If you were only concerned about health, this would be true. In fact, it’s been proven: http://www.today.com/health/man-loses-56-pounds-after-eating-only-mcdonalds-six-months-2D79329158
But you would be choosing your appearance over your general health, which would be a big mistake. Take the case study above. Sure the subject managed to lose 56 pounds eating only McDonalds. But the sheer amount of sodium consumed, not to mention the lack of fiber and essential minerals and vitamins means there will be a price to pay eventually.
There are plenty of people who look fit but in actuality are unhealthy. It only serves to harm you over the longer term and will have an impact on your endurance and ability to recover. Instead, avoid processed foods and ensure you are getting enough fruit and vegetables. Your body will reward you for it.
Time Frames for Fat Loss/Muscle Retention
To burn fat without losing your muscle tissue, you should adopt a long-term approach. For instance, bodybuilders need 12-16 weeks to prepare for a show. If they reduced this time and hit a higher deficit, they would still burn fat. But they would also lose more muscle than desired and have less energy.
How long you should remain in a deficit is up to you and depends on the goals you have set. It’s determined how much body fat you have to lose. If you are overweight, your weight may reduce by more than 1-2 pounds per week even on a 200 calorie deficit. But while some of the weight will be body fat, you are also losing water. Be aware of this as the weight starts coming off, as this will slow down over time.
Training for Fat Loss and Retaining Muscle
Should I be doing Cardio?
To burn fat, you must be in a caloric deficit. Cardio is just one available tool that can assist with this, nutritional intake is another. The fact is, if you can get your nutrition right, you won’t need to do hours of cardio to burn fat. It’s far better to look at cardio as an opportunity to increase your cardiovascular health. Which, in turn, will assist your body in becoming more efficient at burning fat. So, stick to lifting heavy weights as your primary form of exercise if don’t have time to do both.
How to weight train for muscle maintenance and fat burning
To reduce the amount of muscle you lose while losing body fat you need to keep sending signals to your muscles. We do this by continuing to lift at close to capacity.
There’s a lot of advice out there for gaining muscle e.g. when in a bulking phase (trying to put on weight) you should opt for heavy weights and a small number of reps.
The problem is when entering a cutting phase (losing body fat) many people believe the opposite to be true. That is they lift lighter weights and opt for a higher number of reps. In truth, this is far from ideal. You are far better served to lift heavy the entire time. If not, you are telling your body “it’s ok, we don’t need the strength we had when bulking”. As a result, you will lose muscle mass over time, it’s inevitable. I would add here as a caveat that we all respond differently to different stimulation, in some cases higher rep ranges work more effectively for some and in some cases just by making changes to your training e.g. going from low to high rep ranges that change in stimulation will also be more effective.
Weight Training while in a Caloric Deficit
While we don’t want to lose strength, there are differences in working out while in a deficit. For one, your recovery won’t be as efficient and endurance and power can fall away.
There are many ways you can compensate for this. You can undertake shorter workouts or reduce the number of sets during your workout. Either way, try to keep lifting heavy (75% capacity).
You might also consider cycling your caloric intake to suit your training requirements. Your body will need more calories before working out. It will help maintain your energy at a moderate level while in a deficit. Cycling your intake will help you train at capacity, keeping your muscles stimulated. On non-training days, you can then reduce your caloric intake, maintaining a deficit.
For example, you might prefer to avoid being in a deficit on heavy training days. You can then increase the intake on non-training days. There are no rules; it’s best to try a few different approaches out and see what works best for you.
How to Recover from Training While in a Caloric Deficit
Recovery is one of the most overlooked aspects of any form of fat loss, muscle growth training. Your body adapts to training when it is recovering. So, maximizing the effectiveness of your recovery is of vital importance. It’s even more important when in a deficit as your body will take longer to recover.
Below are some tips to maximize your recovery time while training in a deficit:
- Increase your protein intake (Aim for .8 – 1 gramme of Protein per pound of body weight)
- Increase your water intake
- Increase your Carbohydrate intake before training
- Get as much sleep as you can.
- Consider taking a BCAA supplement. When in a caloric deficit you can be more susceptible to illness. A BCAA (Branch Chain Amino Acid) supplement can help aid your immune system. It can also prevent lean muscle loss)
- Warm up before and after training to avoid injury
- Eat clean, healthy foods
- Take a fish oil supplement and a Multivitamin
Summing Things Up
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If you follow the tips above, you can be successful in your efforts to reduce body fat while retaining muscle. It’s not easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. So set yourself a realistic goal and start working towards it. If you suffer a setback, don’t let it define you, get back on the horse as soon as possible.
Also, remember, every ‘body’ is different. Not only that but your body will be subject to change as you progress. If your efforts have stagnated, make the necessary adjustments to your diet and training and you will burn more fat, without sacrificing muscle tissue.