It would be nice if every pound of weight you lost was body fat and you didn’t have to worry about losing lean body mass. However, it doesn’t always work that way. Depending upon the type of diet you eat and the exercise you do, a considerable portion of the weight you lose might be muscle – exactly what you don’t want. Of course, there’s no way to ensure that every pound you take off is fat, but you can “tip the scales” in your favor by following certain practices when trying to get leaner. Need some guidance? Here are some tips for losing weight without losing muscle.
Losing Weight Without Losing Muscle Tip: Shorten Your Cardio Workouts
When you’re trying to lose body fat, you might be tempted to jump on a treadmill or bicycle and do an hour of cardio, in hopes or burning lots of calories and body fat. Yes, you’ll burn calories but more than a third of the calories you burn may come at the expense of muscle. Long periods of moderate-intensity cardio aren’t ideal for preserving lean body mass. Just look at long-distance runners with their long, almost emaciated-looking legs and you’ll quickly see their muscle is taking a hit. In contrast, you have sprinters who are lean but well-defined with muscles that “pop.” Yes, genetics play a role, but sprinters keep their workouts short and intense. Short, vigorous workouts improve your aerobic and anaerobic fitness while preserving more lean body mass than long periods of steady-state cardio.
You don’t have to sprint to get these benefits. You can get the same results with high-intensity interval training. Both sprinting and HIIT training or any kind of short, intense workout activates anabolic hormones like growth hormone. When you do long periods of steady-state cardio, especially when you’re in a calorie-depleted state, your adrenal glands release more cortisol, which promotes muscle breakdown. Growth hormone release helps offset the catabolic effects of cortisol. The bottom line? Keep your cardio sessions short and intense.
Losing Weight Without Losing Muscle Tip: Don’t Reduce Your Calorie Intake Too Much
You need a slight calorie deficit to lose weight, but don’t be too aggressive with your calorie restriction. Cut your calories back by no more than 15% to avoid slowing your metabolic rate and, potentially cannibalizing your muscle tissue. For preserving muscle mass when you’re calorie restricted, research shows doing two things will help you maintain muscle tissue while losing fat: eating more protein and regular resistance training.
In one study, researchers asked overweight dieters to eat various amounts of protein while on a calorie-restricted diet. One group ate a diet where 10% of their calories came from protein. The second and third groups ate twice and three times this amount of protein respectively. The outcome? All the participants lost weight, but those consuming at least 20% of their calories from protein lost less muscle tissue.
When cutting back on calories, keep your protein intake high, between 1.4 and 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight, and make sure you’re getting protein regularly throughout the day, so your muscles have a constant supply of amino acids to build muscle tissue.
Losing Weight Without Losing Muscle tip: Train Heavy
When you’re trying to preserve lean body mass, not only do you need to resistance train but train heavy. Heavy training maximizes release of growth hormone. This helps preserve lean body mass while stimulating anabolic pathways that help you stay strong and defined. Plus, lifting heavy leads to greater EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption), the excess calories you burn after a hard workout is over. The last thing you want to do is a light muscle endurance workout when you’re in a calorie deficit and trying to preserve muscle. The combination of protein and heavy resistance training will help you lose more of what you want to lose, body fat, and less of what you don’t, muscle.
Losing Weight Without Losing Muscle: Don’t Skimp on Sleep
Don’t shortchange yourself by skimping on sleep. Lack of sleep undermines your ability to lose body fat in a number of ways. For one, it stimulates your appetite by its effect on appetite hormones like ghrelin and leptin. Secondly, research shows a lack of sleep can slow your resting metabolic rate by as much as 5%.
In addition, a study carried out at the University of Chicago showed a lack of sleep may impact the type of weight you lose. In this study, one group of participants slept 8.5 hours nightly while a second group slept only 5.5 hours a night. Both ate a similar number of calories and lost the same amount of weight. The difference: the group who slept more than 8 hours nightly lost 50% body fat while the group who didn’t sleep enough lost only 25% body fat. The rest of their weight loss was lean body mass. That’s a compelling reason to make sure you’re getting enough beauty sleep!
The Bottom Line
If you’re concerned about losing muscle when you’re trying to get leaner, make sure you’re doing a high ratio of resistance training to cardio and keeping your cardio sessions short and intense. As tempting as it is to cut your calories a lot to speed up fat loss, doing so can work against you. Create a small calorie deficit and make sure you’re getting protein throughout the day. Finally, make sure you’re getting enough sleep, especially if you’re training hard. The weight may come off a little slower, but you’ll lose less lean body mass along the way.
Poliquin Group. “Eight Reasons Everyone Should Do Sprints”
Ann Nutr Metab. 2000;44(1):21-29.
J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2010;7(1):4. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-7-4.
Quick and Dirty Tips. “Double Your Protein, Lose More Fat”
Women’s Health. “6 Ways Sleep Can Help You Lose Weight”
Fitness RX for Men. November 2015. “5 Ways to Preserve Muscle While Dieting
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This Study Might Change How You Look at Protein
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HiiT and Interval Workout DVDs