A big concern many people have when trying to lose weight is how to lose fat without losing muscle. What people often don’t realize is when they’re losing fat, they’re also losing muscle mass. This can be a huge problem because the dream outcome for most people isn’t necessarily to just lose weight or burn fat, but it’s to change their body composition.
The ideal outcome would be to lose body fat while also increasing or at least maintaining muscle mass.
The problem is, if you lose muscle every time you try to cut some fat, you’re just going to stay stuck in a cyclical process where you’re losing fat and muscle when dieting, and then gaining fat and muscle when bulking.
To actually ensure progress, we’re going to give you guys nine rules that you should follow whenever you’re trying to reduce your love handles, your belly fat, or any kind of fat without wasting precious muscle mass in the process.
1. Manage Your Caloric Intake
The first tip on our list of top tips on how to lose fat without losing muscle I’m sure you’ve heard a 1000 times before but we have to include it at the top of the list because it’s crucial. You need to make sure that you base your caloric intake on your current body fat percentage to maximize the amount of fat you can lose while also minimizing muscle loss.
This is so important because the less body fat you carry, the more prone you are to muscle loss. Alternatively, if you have a higher body fat percentage, you’re able to diet more aggressively without risking the same muscle loss.
This is because there’s more stored energy available for your body to tap into and use as fuel when you’re overweight or when you have a high body fat percentage, so your body doesn’t need to break down precious muscle tissue to get that fuel. So, based on the scientific data, here’s how you should set up your caloric deficit as a function of your body fat percentage.
Body Fat Percentage (Male)
Body Fat Percentage (Female)
Max Recommending Weekly Weight Loss (% of BW)
Bodybuilder Content Prep
2.5 - 7.5%
As you can see from the table above, if you happen to be a man with an average body fat percentage of 15% to 21%, you can reduce your calories by 20% to 30% from your maintenance level without risking significant muscle loss.
If you’re a man with a body fat percentage that’s greater than 26%, you can literally reduce your calories by 40% to 50% without risking excessive muscle loss. The easiest way to figure out approximately what level your body fat percentage is right now would be by looking on the screen and choosing the range that looks most similar to your current body.
To easily figure out your maintenance calories, you can just Google a macro calculator (here’s one for example). Just keep in mind that it’s totally fine to diet less aggressively than the numbers that you see on these tables. However, to avoid significant muscle loss, we would highly recommend not to go beyond the calorie deficit ranges displayed above for each category.
Since no macro calculator is perfect, you should also keep track of how much weight you lose every week yourself. If you lose more weight than the numbers in the maximum Weekly Weight loss column that could be a sign that you’re dieting too aggressively.
2. Maintain Training Intensity
The next super important rule to follow is to maintain your training intensity as you weight lift for weight loss, and from the training side of things, this is by far the best thing you can do. Unfortunately, when you’re in a calorie deficit, it can become harder to recover from your workouts because the calorie deficit itself triggers physiological changes that impair recovery. For example, you’ll experience a reduction in testosterone and IGF one production along with a simultaneous increase in cortisol.
All of these changes are not ideal for muscle growth and recovery. So most people will adjust their workout to make up for the reduced energy levels and their reduced recovery capacity. The big problem is that usually people do this by reducing their training intensity.
In other words, by reducing the amount of weight that they lift and/or the frequency of their workouts. This is a big mistake because there is a very close correlation between strength and muscle mass, which means your ability to maintain muscle while you cut is very closely related to your ability to keep your level of strength while you cut.
So even though you’ll lose at least some strength each week as you diet, you shouldn’t just willingly reduce your weight load every workout just because you have less energy. You should fight to maintain that same intensity throughout your entire cut, almost in the same way that you would train if you were trying to gain strength. You should only reduce the weight when you physically can’t lift the weight for the intended rep range that you’re going for while still maintaining good form.
Of course, instead of reducing intensity to match your lower energy levels, reducing your rep and set volume during a cut is better. So, for example, before your cut, you might have been able to do 225 for ten reps, but during your cut, you can’t do more than six reps.
It’s better to keep the weight at 225 and fight for those six reps. Of course, if you keep dieting and your rep range drops to two or three reps, then you will have to drop the weight, but only drop the minimum amount of weight that you need to get your reps back above your target rep range, which in this example would be six to ten.
3. Utilize Calorie Cycling
Another eating strategy that you could use when trying to lose fat without losing muscle is calorie cycling. Calorie cycling is basically eating more calories on some days and fewer calories on others. So let’s say that to lose fat, you need to stay under an average of 2300 calories per day. Instead of maintaining the same deficit every single day, you could have two really low calorie days of, let’s say, 1400 calories, and that would allow you to have 2660 calories on the other days while creating the same total calorie deficit at the end of the week.
Research shows that cycling like this improves diet adherence, diet satisfaction, and weight loss compared to continuous calorie restriction. On top of that, calorie cycling may help you maintain muscle mass as you’re burning fat. This is because when you lift weights, you stimulate something within your muscles known as protein synthesis, and that leads to muscle recovery and growth.
It’s been shown that muscle protein synthesis is elevated by 50% 4 hours after heavy weight training and 109% after 24 hours. However, after longer time lengths like 36 hours, we find that protein synthesis rates drop to only about a 14% increase above baseline.
What this all means is that your muscles are in an optimal muscle-building state for about 24 hours after your workout, but after that, protein synthesis drops significantly. So you can take advantage of this with calorie cycling by eating more calories on workout days and fewer calories on the days that you rest.
4. Consume Enough Fat
It may be counterintuitive, but when trying to keep your muscle and lose your fat, you’ll want to make sure that your diet contains a sufficient amount of fat. A lot of people make the mistake of going on a low-fat diet, or they just arbitrarily try to avoid fats since fats make you fat, right? Well, no, not exactly.
It turns out that fats can not only be good for fat loss, but they are also essential for optimal hormone production. Specifically, testosterone is negatively affected when your fat intake falls below 20% of your total daily caloric intake.
In a systematic meta-analysis, a group of men were first put on a high-fat diet with roughly 40% of their calories coming from a type of fat. Then they were later transitioned to a low-fat diet where 20% of the calories came from fat. Researchers found that the low-fat diet decreased testosterone levels by ten to 15% on average.
Specifically, vegetarians that were on low-fat diets were most vulnerable to testosterone losses, some experiencing up to a 26% reduction in test levels. So make sure at least 20% to 35% of your diet is made up of fats. An easy way to check if you’re getting enough is by multiplying your body weight times zero.
If you’re under that amount in grams of fat per day, you may want to consider increasing the amount of fat in your diet. Out of all the fats, you want to try to get more omega-3 in your diet, because research shows that consuming more omega-3 improves physical performance, muscle growth, and helps to keep a lean body.
5. Don’t do too Much Cardio
Next, let’s talk about cardio. When trying to lose fat without losing muscle, it’s a good idea to avoid doing excessive amounts of cardio because that can make maintaining your current level of muscle much more difficult. We already mentioned that maintaining your strength levels throughout a cut is one of the best things that you can do to maintain muscle mass.
If you’re already in an energy deficit and then you’re also overdoing it with cardio, it’s going to make it even harder to be fully recovered for each of your strength training workouts. This is actually something known as the interference effect, and it’s been shown in a meta-analysis to reduce muscle growth effect size by up to 39%.
That’s why many times it’s better to perform low-intensity cardio when you’re cutting down, like brisk walking instead of running the walking most likely won’t interfere with your weight training as much as the running. It’s also a known fact that cardio decreases mTOR, which is essential for muscle growth, and it increases AMPK, which is catabolic, meaning it’s bad for muscle growth. So when trying to burn extra calories, it’s almost always better to look closer at your diet rather than doing more and more cardio.
6. Limit Alcohol Consumption
The next important tip is to limit your alcohol consumption, or, better yet, avoid it altogether if you’re truly serious about your fitness goals (albeit this may seem extreme to some people). This is because alcohol hinders fat loss and also leads to muscle deterioration.
For example, research shows that as acetate enters your blood, fat burning is highly suppressed, which causes most of the fatty acids in your blood to be stored as fat. Combine that with the fact that you’re more likely to eat high-fat processed foods after a few drinks.
Also, if acetate isn’t used for energy soon after you drink, it can be converted into fat, which is another reason why alcohol has such a high potential to make you gain fat. From a muscle maintenance perspective, alcohol is a hindrance because it impairs protein synthesis. One study found that nine servings of alcohol post-workout decreased protein synthesis rates by 24%.
The scientists mention that alcohol suppresses the anabolic, or muscle-building response in skeletal muscle, and that could make recovery and adaptation to training much more difficult.
7. Eat Enough Protein and Fiber
Another key diet tip when attempting to lose fat but not muscle is to make sure that you get enough fiber and protein because doing so will help you lose that pesky belly fat and preserve your muscle mass. Both protein and fiber help increase the feelings of fullness, and without eating enough protein during a cut, you will absolutely lose muscle mass. So make sure that you’re getting at least zero 8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Fiber is not only good for your health and body composition, but it’s also highly satiating.
Research shows that for every 14 extra grams of fiber that you consume, food consumption tends to be reduced by around 10%. This is because fiber has the unique ability to prolong fullness by slowing down digestion. And once the food enters the large intestine, fiber begins to ferment, leading to the production of short-chain fatty acids, which is a type of fat that enhances fullness.
So assuming you don’t have any digestive issues, it seems to be ideal to aim for at least 30 to 38 grams of fiber per day as a man and 21 to 25 grams of fiber as a woman. While that might sound like a lot, it’s actually not that much compared to the amount of fiber that humans have evolved to eat.
For example, scientists estimate that Australian Aboriginals ate between 40 to 80 grams of fiber per day. Other nomadic hunter-gatherer groups in northern parts of Mexico were estimated to consume up to 225 grams of fiber per day due to their diet. So it’s definitely doable to get at least 38 grams of fiber per day, especially if you’re eating a lot of fiber-heavy foods such as beans, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, etc.
8. Eat Eggs for Breakfast
As I’m sure you’re all aware of by now, protein is super important. Given that, a super easy tip is to eat a high-protein breakfast like eggs every day. And when I say breakfast, if you’re intermittent fasting, your breakfast would literally be whenever it is that you break your fast (probably your lunch).
Evidence shows that eggs are a great food for helping us lose fat without losing muscle. One egg contains about 6 grams of protein, and that protein is of high quality since it contains all nine of the essential amino acids, making eggs a fantastic overall food and a great source of protein.
On top of that, it’s one of the world’s best sources of leucine, which is the most important amino acid for muscle growth because it activates mTOR, which, as we talked about, is the primary muscle-building pathway in the body. Aside from benefiting muscle mass, the high protein content makes the egg also amazing for losing weight, especially when eaten for breakfast. For example, research links eating eggs regularly for breakfast to increased weight loss over time.
Last but not least in our list of tips on how to lose fat without losing muscle, it’s a good idea to try to maintain a consistent eating schedule to burn fat while retaining muscle. Research shows that being inconsistent with your eating schedule increases hunger and cortisol while impairing insulin sensitivity and the thermic effect of food, all of which can slow down fat loss. An increase in cortisol tends to have a negative effect on your belly fat, which partially explains why people with chronically elevated cortisol levels are categorized as having abdominal obesity.
So don’t eat six meals today, three meals tomorrow, and one the day after that. Keep your diet relatively consistent and do your best to spread your protein intake evenly throughout the day. For example, even if you fast for longer than 16 hours and you only have two meals a day during your feeding window, research shows that a more even distribution of protein in each meal is better than skewing the protein intake and having one very high protein meal along with another very low protein meal. Just like your workouts, diet consistency can really help.
One last thing that is important is to have realistic expectations. On Instagram, it may look like everyone but you is maintaining a shredded, muscular physique with low body fat year-round, but this isn’t realistic. When you cut and you do everything right, you will still lose some muscle, especially as a natural weightlifter. But even if that’s the case, it’s not the end of the world. You can always gain that muscle back when your fat loss journey is over. In a nutshell, the goal is to try your best to maintain your muscle mass the best you can while being in a calory deficit and losing fat.
We hope you’ve gained some actionable tips in this article about how to lose fat without losing muscle, and wish you well on your fat loss journey!
Jason Chapman has a degree in Exercise Science and is a personal trainer with 10+ years of experience in fitness and strength coaching. Jason spends his time with BodyCapable researching the latest strength training trends and writing science-backed, informative content. Jason likes to spend his spare time hiking, traveling, and of course training!
Body Capable’s content is for informational and educational purposes only. Our website is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment; we encourage you to seek out a medical professional whenever necessary.