7 Ways To Lose Weight Without Losing Muscle

If you're trying to live a healthier lifestyle, eat cleaner or cut your calories. To lose weight, it's natural to lose some muscle.

However, losing too much of your muscle strength and function can directly impair the health of your body. Here's how to lose body fat without losing any muscle mass.

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1. Eat enough calories

An essential part of weight loss is reducing your total calorie intake. However, extremely low-calorie diets can also result in muscle loss.

Women should aim to reduce their intake by 300 to 400 calories in the initial period of weight loss. For men, this is about 400 to 600 calories. Any more, and your body can actually go into starvation mode and try to keep on as much body fat as possible.¹

While you do want to cut out calories, especially from unhealthy foods, cutting too much too soon is not only unsustainable but can also be detrimental to your muscle growth and repair.

2. Eat a varied diet with enough protein

Following the previous point, eating enough protein, especially from lean protein sources like fish, chicken, eggs, or turkey, can help feed your muscles. Not only does protein increase satiety and keep you feeling fuller for longer, but protein also helps to preserve lean body mass during a calorie restriction diet.

A study looked at lean body mass and how it was affected by either a low protein intake or a high protein intake over a short-term calorie deficit. The low protein group had about 1 g per kg daily and lost about 3.5 pounds of muscle mass. The high protein group consumed 2.3 g per kg daily and only lost about 0.66 pounds of muscle mass.²

Many factors can influence how much protein you need, including your weight, sex, and activity level. However, most evidence currently suggests that 1.6 g of protein per kg of body weight daily is recommended to maintain lean body mass during calorie restriction.³

3. Have a varied exercise plan

There's no harm in finding an exercise you love and sticking with it. However, you'll need to incorporate both strength and aerobic training if you want to burn fat without losing muscle.

There's no "wrong" exercise, but alternating between a few can help vary intensity levels and provide new benefits.

If you want to engage more muscle groups while burning more calories, try incorporating compound exercises into your exercise regime. These include pullups, squats, and deadlifts. Because they work for multiple muscle groups at once, they can help conserve lean muscle mass compared to other isolation exercises.⁴

4. Lift weights

Cardio is vital for shedding excess fat, but lifting weights is key to maintaining lean and toned muscles. Increasing the amount of weight you lift can also stimulate muscle growth, which is needed to improve overall muscle mass.

You'll want to engage as many muscle groups as possible, so full-body workouts are a great idea instead of isolating specific muscle groups.

You can also try progressive overload—known as the slow increase of stress placed on muscles during training. Muscle growth results from forcing muscles to adapt to challenging stressors.⁵ So, while constantly challenging the body might be incredibly tiring, try giving your muscles higher weights over time and watching your muscle mass grow. 

5. Don't forget rest days

While exercising with a routine is crucial for toning up, growing muscle, and losing fat, rest days are integral to any healthy lifestyle. Constant overtraining and straining of your muscles can cause excessive muscle protein breakdown.⁶ While some muscle breakdown is expected when you push yourself during a workout, not letting your body rest and recover post-workout can be detrimental.

When too much muscle breakdown occurs, this can significantly lose muscle mass instead of fat mass. Instead, focus on improving performance over time and increasing muscle mass slowly.

6. Aim for slower weight loss and avoid crash dieting

While you might be super excited about your new healthy lifestyle or workout program, it's important to slow it down, especially in the first few weeks. What you don't want is to end up overworking your body or injuring your muscles, keeping you out of action until you fully heal.

Rapid weight loss also means rapid muscle loss. The research found that following crash diets can actually cause you to lose muscle mass, not fat. Individuals who consume drastically low calories, also known as a crash diet, lose more weight, but most of this is muscle mass.⁷ In the long run, this can make you tired and weak.

Losing muscle can also reduce your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR is responsible for determining how many calories you burn at rest, and when your body has a lower muscle mass, fewer calories are needed to maintain them.⁸

7. Get sufficient sleep

Making sure you're getting sufficient sleep and reducing your stress levels for a healthy night's sleep is crucial for fat loss and muscle recovery post-workout.

Research points out the important relationship between the poor quality of sleep and consequent weight gain. Even increasing our sleep by a few hours can help us lose more body fat mass, and getting insufficient sleep can make you lose more muscle tissue.⁹

Sleep deprivation comes from insufficient sleep or poor quality sleep, which can directly impact your metabolism. This is mainly due to the relationship with our nightly hormones leptin and ghrelin, which are responsible for controlling appetite. Excess ghrelin with less leptin means increased hunger signals and weight gain.¹⁰ 

The lowdown

If you want to lose weight without losing muscle mass, you'll need to incorporate some changes into your weight loss program to feed your muscles without adding to your fat stores.

While some reductions in muscle mass are normal, your weight loss must be sustainable and slow in order to reduce as much muscle loss as possible.

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