LOSING weight is one thing, but not if it comes at the expense of muscle loss. So it makes sense to wonder – is it actually possible to achieve fat loss while maintaining muscle mass? Surprisingly, the answer is yes – but it does involve a smart approach to fitness and nutrition.
A lot of the time, when people lose weight, they wind up with a lot less muscle than they started out with. Why? Weight loss requires an energy (calorie) deficit and muscle building requires an energy surplus. To implement a calorie deficit, you need to either eat less calories or burn more calories through exercise, or do a combination of the two. However, while eating less is necessary for losing overall body weight, this calorie deficit is counterproductive for building muscle at the same time. What’s more, if a person is restricting carbohydrates, fats (in the form of ketones) and protein will be used for energy instead, therefore won’t be available for muscle repair and growth.
So, how can you achieve both goals? These four science-backed strategies will help.
1. Don’t overly restrict.
Drastic changes in calories will not only sabotage your workout efforts, but will ultimately slow your metabolism, partly due to the loss in muscle that comes when you drop overall body weight. And since muscle is the greatest determiner of your metabolic rate, this muscle loss may largely explain why so many people struggle to keep weight off once they lose it.
To prevent this, your food intake should never dip below your ‘basal’ metabolic requirements, which is the minimum number of calories your body uses to keep all its systems functioning correctly. There are a plethora of online tools that can help you calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Whilst their accuracy is debatable, they will give you a basic understanding.
2. Protein is key
Protein needs are based on age, activity, sex and whether you are breastfeeding or pregnant. However, most authorities recommend around 0.75-0.84g per kilogram of body weight, but many round it up to 1g per kg to keep things simple. For example, if you weight 75kg, you would need roughly 75g of protein per day. But, in order to preserve lean muscle tissue, adjusting your protein intake slightly is an important piece of the puzzle.
If you are regularly active or undergoing regular intense activity, you may need slightly more protein to assist muscle growth and development. In which case, achieving a protein intake of approximately 1.3-1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight, or aiming for at least 20g of protein in every meal and snack across the day would ensure you meet your energy needs as well as have enough left over to sustain or even build muscle.
Let’s give an example:
For that same 75kg person, that’s a protein intake of roughly 97g – 120g per day. This can be achieved by including protein-rich foods as part of a calorie-controlled eating plan, such as eating a couple of eggs (12g protein), a cheese sandwhich (35g protein), glass of milk (10g protein), two handfuls of nuts (12g protein), 1 cup of Greek yoghurt, and 150g steak (40g protein). Pretty easy to do.
3. Focus on strength
On top of adjusting dietary protein intake, performing regular resistance-type exercises (e.g. push-ups, squats, lunges, or lifting weights), two to three times a week will help to maintain existing muscle mass and build more muscle.
4. High vs low
For the fat loss side of things, balance your strength training with cardio-type activity to help you burn body fat and calories. However, it’s best to keep your cardio sessions short and sweet.
Minimising the total volume (amount) of endurance training (e.g., reducing the duration of endurance training sessions) is key.
If you’re going to perform cardio training, focus on high intensity interval training (HIIT), provided you have a good base level of fitness to do so. This type of cardio involves short bursts of intense exercise with intermittent rest periods. These workouts will maximum intensity within the session and keeps your body burning fat post-exercise.
Disclaimer: HIIT workouts are not for everyone. It’s important to build a good fitness foundation before you jump into regular HIIT style training. This may mean doing regular steady-state exercise, such as walking or cycling at around 60% of maximum heart rate. Once you build upon your fitness, then you can slowly progress to more intense levels of training. An exercise physiologist is best suited to prescribe a program that is right for you.