There are a few key things that need to be taken into account in order to lose FAT and not lose MUSCLE. Your body does have the ability to “catabolize” your own muscle, which you want to avoid at all costs if you are spending time putting in work at the gym. Simply put, if you are not doing the things I am about to list below, you risk not only LOSING muscle, but slowing your metabolism down and making yourself more prone to injury.
Above all else, you must be in a “caloric deficit” in order for any loss to occur, whether it be weight loss or fat loss. This simply means that you consume less calories than your body needs to burn for energy throughout the day (walking, exercise, digesting food, breathing, sleeping, etc.). This is why tracking devices and apps like FitBit and MyFitnessPal have become popular for people looking to lose weight. They allow you to track your calories in vs. calories out, macros, adjust daily target numbers and goals, etc.
Now, if I could stop there and it were just that simple, that’d be great. Easy enough right? Unfortunately, for FAT LOSS, there are a few more things that need to happen.
First, it is a must that you are consuming enough protein daily. Protein is the building block for muscle. Even if you were to cut out exercise or strength training, a high protein diet is still ideal for fat loss. Generally speaking, a good rule of thumb is to aim for 1g of protein per pound of your body weight. So for example, if you’re 130 pounds, aim for 130g of protein per day.
Secondly, you must MAINTAIN your current strength levels. In order to maintain muscle while burning fat in a caloric deficit, you have to keep your strength levels up. So again, tracking numbers (weight used, sets, reps) for some of the primary lifts like bench press or squats can be very helpful here. If doing bodyweight workouts from home, track reps for exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, or plank time. You will most likely find that when you are consuming less calories then you are burning, you will also have less energy. This means that you may very well need to adjust your training program to allow for optimal recovery and also so that you can still maintain your strength levels. To do this, you would need to adjust total amount of sets, reps, and/or exercises as well as how many days per week you are training while you are in a caloric deficit versus what you were doing before when you had those excess calories for energy. You may have to play around with adjusting those numbers to find the right combination for you.
Lastly, I would highly advise to avoid excess cardio if your goal is to build and/or maintain lean muscle while burning body fat. The reason being that you are already in a caloric deficit, and you already will most likely need to adjust your training program to compensate for less energy and calories. Strength training is a MUST as this is what signals the body to build and maintain muscle AND burn body fat. Cardio is optional. If your goal is body composition, it really does’t need to be a big part of your training program if at all. If your goal is endurance, you are an athlete, or someone who just likes to run, I’m certainly not against cardio or going to tell you to not be active. By all means, get out and move around. I would just say that you’ll need to be realistic about your goals if you want to have a certain type of physique.
A few other things to keep in mind… a caloric deficit needs to be something that you can maintain. Don’t go too extreme with this. Another good general rule of thumb is around 20% calorie reduction.
Also, two quick tips regarding workout nutrition. First, on training days, get the bulk of your protein and carbs in and around your workout time. Ideally, 1-2 hours before and 1-2 hours after your workout. Second, “carb cycling” is something you may want to experiment with. In a nutshell, this refers to consuming higher amounts of carbs on your training days when you are burning more calories, and less carbs on your rest days. Protein should stay consistently high throughout the week.
Committed To Your Health,
Brian Donovan is a certified fitness and nutrition coach, and the founder of Online Fitness Coach, LLC – an online fitness program where clients get direct coaching and personally tailored training plans and customized meal plans. Coach Brian was voted Chicago’s “Best Personal Trainer” by Chicago Reader magazine, Best Of Chicago 2014 edition. He has been featured in magazines such as Muscle & Fitness, Chicago Reader, Voyage Chicago, and Ezine Articles as well various health and fitness blogs.
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