While many of us say we want to lose weight, it is fat mass that we truly want to get rid of. I don’t know about you but I want to hold onto as much muscle as I can.
When I am losing weight, I want to lose as much fat as possible while maintaining the muscle I have worked hard to build. The goal is to be lean NOT skinny.
And to be lean, you need to not only have relatively low body fat but a sufficient amount of muscle as well.
The issue is that when weight loss is gone about the wrong way (i.e, quick, drastic changes are made) individuals end up doing more harm (specially to their body composition) than good.
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” as when they started. And that can cause a lot of negative thinking, low self-esteem, and more poor behaviors. None of which are likely to lead to that lean body they set out for.
Worse than all that is that before adopting another unhealthy, ineffective strategy, many end up regaining the weight they lost. 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). All this hard work and yet no closer to that leaner, stronger body they set out to achieve.
Going about weight loss in such a poor manner left them with a worse body composition, slower metabolism and negative emotions.
And all of those things 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 that you can do prevent all of this mess.
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 muscle you’re likely to lose while dieting for weight loss.
With all that being said… Let’s get into the 4 key strategies that you can use to preserve muscle while dieting!
The 4 Key Strategies to Preserve Muscle While Dieting
1. Do NOT cut calories too low, i.e, keep your deficit moderate.
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.
- They are unsustainable and therefore poor for long-term success
- 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 you DON’T need to starve yourself.
An 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.
Key take-away: Keep your deficit small to moderate (250-1000 below TDEE) to prevent nutritional deficiencies and keep the diet sustainable.
2. Aim to lose no more than 1% of your 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 usually do not lead us to that leaner, stronger, healthier self. This one is very strongly correlated to the previous tip in that the extent of your deficit will strongly influence how quickly you will lose weight.
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 two, especially 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. In other words, the leaner you are the harder it will become to lose fat.
As hard as it can be to go slow, more often than not it is the better option. This slower pace is going to be better for both muscle preservation as well as long-term sustainability.
To lose fat as effectively as possible and prevent unwanted lean mass losses aim to lose no more than 1% of your body weight per week.
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.
- As you lose weight, your calorie needs will change. A smaller body means less calories to maintain itself.
- 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 in the following weeks. If you do, you’re deficit is likely to great and you 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.
Resistance training has been shown to aid in the preservation of muscle mass while dieting. (1)
Think of it like this; if you don’t give your muscles a reason to stay, they won’t. Especially when you’re not giving your body the necessary calories it needs (by being in a deficit).
Many make the mistake of doing excessive cardio while in a huge deficit. Others simply stop eating. This is a huge no-no.
These individuals end up losing just as much, if not more lean body mass as they do fat mass while messing up their metabolism. And because (as we mentioned before) they cannot sustain these ridiculous strategies they regain the weight. Unfortunately for them, they are much more likely to gain more fat mass and less muscle than they had lost.
This leaves them with a worse body composition than when they started (i.e, less muscle and more fat).
Performing resistance exercise while in a caloric deficit will allow you to preserve your hard earned muscle 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, and/or prevent muscle loss while losing fat. 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).
Now, before I move on I want to point out that the below information is general and each individual will require different variables based on their specific needs.
A full body resistance training program consisting of 4-6 exercises, done for 25-45 minutes, 2-3 days a week would likely be sufficient for most healthy individuals with the above mentioned goals (especially for a beginner). Note: A circuit style resistance training regimen can take as little as 7-10 minutes (plus a 5 minute warm-up).
There is much more that goes into making a safe and effective resistance training program. However, as far as the basics go, the information above would be a sufficient guideline for the average individual.
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. These differences will create different exercise selection, intensity level, 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 and that you enjoy doing. 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 loss is coming from.
Losing weight the wrong way (e.g, using severe deficits) causes many to end up with a poor body composition.
Often times, not much better than when they started.
The good news is that we can prevent that from happening with the 4 strategies mentioned in this article.
We don’t have to give up our hard earned muscle while losing that unwanted fat!
If you want that lean look, these four strategies will help get you there!
I hope that you have found this article to be helpful in your pursuits of a leaner, stronger, healthier you.
Best of luck with all your fitness goals, please feel free to like, share, or comment!