maintain muscle fat loss

How To Maintain Muscle During Fat Loss

A big concern for anyone who cares about the future is maintaining muscle. Being able to maintain muscle during fat loss will make the difference between long-term success with your diet or rebound weight gain. It also helps you live a longer, active life.

Any time you lose weight, a portion of that weight is body fat, and the rest is lean tissue, mostly muscle. For the average overweight dieter, 70 percent of the weight lost is fat and 30 percent is muscle.

How to Maintain Muscle During Weight Loss

Fortunately, there are two proven strategies to maintain muscle during fat loss: Protein and strength training.

Exercise maintains muscle by overloading muscle fibers, triggering a protein synthesis pathway known as mTOR.

Protein foods provide amino acids. Based on the availability of amino acids, the body is constantly in a fluctuating state of muscle loss and gain. Anytime you replenish the pool of amino acid building blocks by eating protein, it’s a good thing, protecting the muscle you’ve got.

Prioritize Strength Training

Scientists have tested a couple of different exercise interventions to maintain muscle during fat loss:

When you do aerobic exercise without cutting calories, lean mass is typically preserved or even increased. A study that had women burn 600 calories a day by running on a treadmill found that the women lost 2.7 kg of fat and increased lean mass by 1.1 kg.

When dieting and aerobic cardio are combined, preservation of lean mass is not as favorable: One review found that a low-calorie diet combined with aerobic exercise produced muscle loss of about 1.7 kg in both men and women.

Performing strength training eliminates the loss of muscle, especially if it coincides with a high protein intake. One study from Canada found that doing an intense 6-day a week training program and eating a high-protein diet preserved muscle mass. Subjects who ate 1.2 g/kg of body weight of protein maintained muscle while losing 3.5 kg of body fat. A subset of volunteers who had a higher protein intake of 2.4 g/kg of body weight actually gained 1.2 kg of muscle while losing 4.8 kg of fat.

Use A Moderate Rate of Weight Loss

A big mistake many people make is to slash calories below 1,200 a day. This backfires because the greater the energy deficit, the more muscle you lose.

Instead, use a more moderate rate of weight loss. For example, a study of athletes compared what would happen with a 500-calorie a day diet or a 1,000-calorie diet. Results showed that although it took the athletes longer to lose the weight with the 500-calorie deficit diet, the greater daily energy intake allowed them to gain 2.1 percent muscle mass at the same time.

The group on the 1,000-calorie deficit diet lost 0.2 kg of muscle. Both groups ate a higher protein diet and did a heavy weight-training program in conjunction with regular sport training, which is likely the reason the muscle loss in the 1000-calorie deficit group was not greater.

Take Aways

To maintain muscle during fat loss, perform strength training and increase protein intake to a minimum of 1.6 g/kg. For someone weighing 165 lbs, this equals 75 kg in body weight, so you need a minimum of 120 grams of protein daily.

Be sure to spread high-quality protein meals out over the day to continually stimulate protein synthesis and avoid muscle breakdown.

Be smart about the severity of diet you choose. Leaner individuals, including people in the overweight category who are not obese, will benefit from slower rates of fat loss because the experience will be less miserable, and it is possible to maintain muscle. Aim for a max deficit of 500 calories a day.


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