Muscle is sexy, muscle is functional. You don’t want to lose it. On the other hand, fat is neither functional nor aesthetic, so when you say you want to lose weight, you’re actually thinking of your fat stores. This is why it’s important to distinguish the two; and yes, you can lose fat effectively without sacrificing muscle mass.
However, that doesn’t mean that the process is easy in any way, because in order to preserve muscle mass while dropping fat, you will need to take a calculated approach to nutrition and training. What’s more, this challenge will require a fair bit of autoregulation on your part, so you will need to keep you head in the game every step of the way.
Five Tips to Burn Fat and Retain Your Muscle Mass
With that said, let’s break down the five tips that will help you burn fat stores without losing precious muscle mass.
#1. Emphasize Protein Intake
Proteins are the building blocks of muscle mass, and life in general. Before you start calculating your caloric intake or adjusting your workout routine, you need to determine how much protein you should be eating every single day in order to stay in an anabolic, or at least muscle maintenance state, and prevent catabolism. Catabolism is when your body lacks the nutrients it needs to keep your body running, and so it starts stripping nutrients from your hard-earned muscles.
To prevent this, you need to stock up on protein. Needless to say, your every meal should have a decent amount of plant-based, meat, or dairy protein in order to maintain muscle mass. As a general rule of thumb, you should shoot for 1.3 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. If you are overweight, however, you should use your goal body weight to calculate your protein intake. Always stick to higher protein consumption when you’re cutting.
#2. Keep Up the Strength Work
Increasing your protein intake is not enough to make your body preserve muscle mass while burning fat – you need to actively try to hold on to muscle. The age-old adage “use it or lose it” works very well in this scenario. In essence, you need to keep up with your regular fitness routine and lifestyle, albeit with a couple of key amendments. Firstly, you should include strength training into your program.
No need to train as if you’re going to compete in a strongman competition, but just enough to produce neuro-muscular adaptations in a caloric deficit. In simpler terms, hit your muscles with heavy weights to make them denser and show your body that it needs to hold on to as much muscle mass as possible. A simple 5×5 workout regime should be enough to satisfy strength requirements without fatiguing your CNS. Stick to heavy compound movements such as squats, presses, and rows – do five sets of five reps for each muscle group with heavy weights.
#3. Pre-Workout and Post-Workout Nutrition
Another crucial element of a successful fat-loss journey (in which you retain most of your muscle mass), is nutrient timing. In order to lose weight effectively, you need to be in a slight caloric deficit at the very least. This means that if you don’t supply your body with the right nutrients at the right time, you might inadvertently kick-start the catabolic process.
To prevent this, you need a pre and post workout meal. For the former, stick with something light that your body can digest easily, or have a full meal one and a half to two hours before you hit the gym. For the latter, you’ll want a post workout product rich with proteins and other essential nutrients in order to kick-start the recovery and muscle-building process. Keep in mind that while studies have shown that there is no such thing as an anabolic window per se, there is also no benefit to skipping your post-workout protein shake. In fact, you might even lose out, especially if you are trying to lose weight while preserving muscle.
#4. Don’t Stop Training for Muscle Growth
No matter how much you would love to believe otherwise, weight training is highly disruptive to your body and CNS. When you lift weights, you are literally tearing your muscle tissue apart (on a microscopic level), which is a taxing process your body struggles to reverse during the post-workout recovery phase. Being so disruptive and stressful in general, weight training needs to be optimized during the periods when you’re trying to lose weight.
The reduced caloric intake is doing you no favors here, so in order to compensate and prevent injuries as well as muscle loss, you might need to reduce your weekly workload. For example, if you are used to doing four sets, you might want to bring that back down to three sets, or you might even want to reduce the frequency of training by exercising three days a week instead of four. This will help your body stay in line with your nutrient intake and preserve muscle mass while slowly burning through your fat stores.
#5. Refrain From Excessive Cardio
Lastly, it’s important that we address the question of cardio and its role in muscle retention. Now, there is no denying that cardio exercises boast numerous health benefits and that you should be performing aerobic training on a regular basis in order to preserve and build lifelong health and vibrancy. That said, when it comes to losing weight and maintaining muscle mass, cardio training does not offer much and it could actually have a negative effect if you’re not careful.
Given the fact that you need to reduce your overall weekly workload in order to compensate for the lowered caloric intake, there is simply no room in your training schedule to add cardio into the mix, especially if your goal is to retain muscle mass. Keep in mind that aerobic training is just as taxing and energy-demanding as weight training, but it doesn’t produce the same results. In turn, doing cardio during this phase will do nothing more than damage your recovery potential and eat away at your energy stores. Stick to weight training instead.
The Bottom Line
If you are afraid of losing muscle when you go on a cut or start reducing your caloric intake, don’t be, natural muscle mass is not easily lost. That said, you will lose muscle if you reduce your calories too much, if you don’t consume enough protein, or if you exercise too little or too vigorously. You need to find the perfect balance in all of these aspects in order to lose fat steadily without sacrificing your hard-earned muscle. Follow these tips and you should have no problem sculpting a chiseled physique.