4 Key Strategies for Muscle Preservation While Dieting

Many times when wanting to get more lean, we say we want to lose weight.

However, more often than not, we don’t really want to lose just any weight, but specifically fat mass.

To look toned, you need to not only have relatively low body fat but a sufficient amount of muscle as well.

The issue is, when weight loss is gone about the wrong way (i.e, quick, drastic changes are made) individuals end up doing more harm than good, especially in regards to their body composition.

Anytime you are losing weight, you must consider where that weight is coming from.

Losing weight the wrong way causes many to end up with a body composition not much better than when they started.

They may be thinner but they are likely weaker, more easily fatigued, and look just as “fat”, if not “fatter” than when they started. And that can cause a lot of negative thinking, low self-esteem, and more poor behaviors in an attempt to change their look in the future.

Worse than all that is, before adopting another unhealthy, ineffective strategy, many end up gaining the weight they lost back because they went about weight loss the wrong way (i.e, in an unsustainable manner). However, because it is much easier to gain fat tissue (especially after having just been in a severe caloric deficit) the weight they gain back is mostly fat tissue.

This leaves the individual with nearly as much fat as they had lost (if not more) and less lean tissue than they had started with.

Losing weight in the wrong way left them with an even worse body composition, slower metabolism and negative emotions that usually lead to more poor, unsustainable behaviors that will cause the same results.

See a pattern here?

This cycle seems to last years and years for most before hopefully realizing where they went wrong (adopting quick fixes instead of healthy habits).

The good news is that there are several things you can do while dieting for fat loss to ensure you hold onto as much lean mass as possible.

Something to remember: You are always likely to lose some amount of lean mass while in a weight loss phase, the goal, however, is to minimize that loss as much as possible. As a general rule of thumb, the leaner you are, the more lean mass you will likely lose while dieting for weight loss.

With that being said, let’s get into the 4 ways that you can preserve lean mass while dieting!


The 4 Key Strategies

1. Do NOT cut calories too low.

Crash dieting and/or very low calorie diets are unfortunately a common “solution” many seek for quick weight loss. These very low calorie diets that many adopt have two main issues.

  1. They are unsustainable and therefore poor for long-term success
  2. They create nutritional deficiencies that will likely lead to a poor fat to lean mass loss ratio along with causing certain health complications depending on the individual and the extent of the nutritional deficiencies

You should never eat below your Resting Metabolic Rate (roughly your lean mass multiplied by 11). This simple calculation will only provide you with an estimate and is in no way exact and/or 100% accurate.

Though you need to be in a caloric deficit to lose weight, a severely restricted diet and/or extremely low calorie diet is very unhealthy, unsustainable, and can easily lead to nutritional deficiencies.

Seeking such a poor solution will not lead you anywhere but backwards.


2. Aim to lose no more than 2 lbs of body weight or 1% of your current body weight per week.

When weight loss is the goal, slow is usually not a term we want to hear. However, as we mentioned before, quick, drastic solutions lead us everywhere but where we want to be (a leaner, stronger, healthier version of ourselves).

The general recommendation for safe and effective weight loss is 1-2 lbs or 1% of your body weight per week.

When losing weight quicker than this 1-2 lb recommendation you increase your chances of losing more lean mass than desired.

This is arguably not as relevant in the first week or the first several weeks if you have a fairly high body fat level. As mentioned earlier, the leaner you are the slower you will need to lose weight to prevent lean mass loss.

As hard as it can be to go slower than we had initially planned, more often than not, slower is going to be better for both muscle preservation as well as long-term sustainability.

To make your weight loss phase as effective as possible and prevent unwanted lean mass losses, aim to lose no more than 1-2 lbs a week (or no more than 1% of your body weight).

For a 175 lb individual, this would be a 1.75 lb loss per week.

Several things to consider;

  • Understand that as you lose weight and/or as you become leaner, your body will become more resistant to weight loss and therefore, it will be tougher to lose weight
  • Similarly, as you lose weight, your calorie needs will change as will your appropriate weekly weight loss rate (as obvious as that seems, many do not consider it)
  • In the beginning (first 1-2 weeks), you will likely lose weight at a much quicker rate than the weeks thereafter. If you lose 3-5 lbs in your first week, do not expect to continue at that rate thereafter. If you do, you may be eating too little and should increase your calories slightly until you are losing at that 1% per week loss rate


3. Perform resistance exercise [at least] 2-3 times a week.

If you do not give your muscles a reason to “stay” when in an energy deficit, your body will use them for energy (by breaking down the proteins and converting them to usable energy). Many who wish to lose weight make the mistake of going on very low calorie diets and performing excessive cardio.

They end up losing just as much, if not more, lean body mass as they do fat mass while messing up their metabolism. Performing resistance exercise while in a caloric deficit will allow you to preserve as much lean mass as possible while losing the unwanted fat.

Your program does not need to be complicated. Many see the workouts of athletes, bodybuilders, physique competitors, etc and assume that is what they need to do. Put simply, different goals equals a different plan.

The average individual is simply trying to improve their overall fitness level, develop a little more muscle mass as well as prevent muscle loss while losing weight. For this reason an excessive workout program is not necessary (i.e, you do not NEED to be in the gym 5-6 days a week for 60 minutes doing dozens of exercises).

A full body resistance training program consisting of 4-6 exercises, done for 15-30 minutes, 2-3 days a week would likely be sufficient for most (especially for a beginner).

As mentioned later, there is much more that goes into making a safe and effective program. However, as far as duration and frequency go, what was mentioned above would be sufficient for the average individual.

To begin and/or build a foundation find and/or develop a program that a) is safe for you to perform b) is sustainable for you c) is focused on compound movements and d) continually increases the training stimulus (progressive overload).

These are general guidelines to look for in a resistance training program. Each and every individual is different and will have different goals, injury history, training experience, etc and therefore different exercise selections, intensity levels, rest intervals, sets, repetitions, etc. Those are factors that you will have to decide on. The key is finding something that sufficiently works your muscles so you can preserve as much lean mass as possible while dieting for weight loss and continue to develop lean mass thereafter. Always ensure you consult your physician before adopting a new exercise regimen. To learn more on this topic see, Resistance Exercise for Weight Loss.


4. Ensure proper protein intake.

Another useful strategy to prevent muscle loss while dieting for weight loss is proper protein intake.

Studies have shown that taking in a moderate to high amount of protein while dieting can aid in the preservation of lean tissue. (1)

Though protein intake should always be a priority no matter what your goal, it’s importance increases when we’re dieting.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, active individuals should take in about 1.2-1.7 g of protein per kilogram of body weight or 0.55-0.77 g per pound.

Whether dieting for weight loss, aiming for weight maintenance or attempting to increase your lean mass you need to be giving your body and/or muscles the building blocks they need to function and repair by taking in a sufficient amount of protein.

To ensure you are getting enough protein each day, include a protein source at each major meal (and keep your snacks high in protein if possible).

If you find yourself struggling to eat enough protein, protein powders can be a useful and convenient supplement (useful and convenient NOT necessary).

Protein is going to be one of your best friends when dieting for weight loss, so ensure you prioritize it.

Some good sources of protein are; lean meats, fish, eggs, navy beans, nuts, and low-fat dairy products.

For more on proper protein intake you can read Benefits of Protein for Fat Loss.



Anytime you are losing weight, you must consider where that weight is coming from.

Losing weight the wrong way (i.e, quick, drastic and unsustainable) causes many to end up with a body composition not much better than when they started.

Down the road this causes many issues and leaves the individual in a seemingly never-ending cycle of losing and gaining weight.

The good news is, we can prevent that from happening.

As we learned in this article, there are ways to prevent losing weight the wrong way while ensuring that we hold onto as much lean mass (specifically muscle mass) as possible.

If you follow these 4 pieces of advice when in an energy deficit you will be setting yourself up for a more toned body/keeping your fat mass to lean mass loss ratio as favorable as possible.

I hope you these four tips are helpful in your pursuits in becoming a leaner, stronger, healthier version of yourself.

For more information check out some of my other posts or visit our Facebook page for weekly motivation, knowledge and helpful tips.

Best of luck with all your fitness goals, please feel free to like, share, or comment!

Michael Cruz