4 steps to lose fat, not just weight
Weight loss can be looked at from a more educated perspective in which is not only about making a number on the scale go down. A weight loss program that is done the right way is a fat loss only program with no muscle mass loss. Let’s see how you can achieve this and really make a change in how your body will actually look afterwards.
The issue is that most people think they will look like this after losing weight.
In fact most of them will look something like this.
Notice the difference?
Both individuals lost weight, but they look so much different. If you would see both of them with clothes on, they will both look about the same, quite thin, but underneath the clothes there is quite a difference.
The first photo shows a nicely toned up body (without being too muscular though), with little body fat, while the second picture shows a body that has pretty much the same body fat level as the one in the first photo, but very little muscle mass. This is also referred to as skinny fat – a person which is skinny (meaning that it has very little muscle), yet just enough body fat to make him (or her) look flabby.
You don’t want to be that skinny fat person. That’s why you need to have your focus on losing fat, not just losing weight. Moreover, your goal should be to recompose your body, by reducing the body fat percentage (or the fat mass) and maintaining or even increasing muscles size (fat-free mass).
That’s how you will get the physique you see in the weight loss advertising. Now that we agree on what your goal physique is let’s see how you can achieve it and how a weight loss program done the right way looks like. Here is the 4 step process that will make you lose fat, not muscle and get you that toned up physique you are after.
Step 1: Smart macronutrient balance
Losing or gaining weight is triggered by over eating or under eating and it has to do with calories in versus calories out. However, fat loss and muscle mass preservation or muscle building has a lot to do with macronutrient distribution as well.
This is where a calorie is no just a calorie anymore. Some calories are better than others when you want to lose fat without losing any of the muscle. And things are not complicated at all. Studies have shown that a high protein diet will help muscle preservation during a caloric restriction period.
On top of that most high protein foods such as meats, beans, fish and dairy are more satiating and will help you go through a caloric deficit much easier than if you would be eating high carb and high fat junk foods..
As you probably know already, proteins are the building blocks of muscular fibers, so a high protein diet makes total sense.
What is a high protein diet you may ask? There are several answers to that question, but the general accepted one is that you will need anywhere from 2 to 3 grams of protein for kg of lean mass (or fat free mass). You will have to know what your body fat percentage is in order to calculate the lean mass.
For example, an individual that is 20% body fat at 90 kg has 72 pounds of lean mass, which will put him at 144 to 216 grams of protein each day. As you notice the interval (144 to 216 grams) is quite big. You can tweak it based on two factors: the severity of the caloric restriction and the body fat levels.
The more severe the caloric restriction is and the leaner you are, the higher the protein intake should be. So, if you are really overweight and cut back on calories with only 10-15% you probably are fine by staying in the lower range, but if you are like 10% body fat and cut with 20-25% of maintenance you will need to be on the upper range of the interval.
That is the short version of the story, if you want the long version I recommend you to check out Mike Matthews article How Much Protein You Should Eat to Build Muscle or Menno Henselmans take on it. Both articles are very detailed and supported by many studies.
Step 2: Moderate caloric deficit
I am sure you noticed that terms such as caloric deficit, caloric restriction or negative energy balance pop up a lot in this article and in other articles as well. That’s because this is the only true way to losing weight or fat.
I know that diets such as low carb or anti sugar are really trendy right now, and that there are famous diet experts that tell you on TV or on ads that weight loss is not as easy as calories in versus calories out, but trust me there is a lot of shady information behind any of those so called weight loss plans.
It’s all down to calories in versus calories out, and people used very creative ways of proving it: a teacher lost 56 pounds by eating noting but McDonalds for 6 months. Prof. Cisna restricted his daily intake to 2,000 kcal and exercised for 45 minutes five day each week. Another professor named Mark Haub decided to start a diet based on Twinkies, Doritos, Oreos, protein shakes and other snacks which helped him lose 27 pounds.
I’m not saying this is optimal and I’m not encouraging anybody to replicate this especially if you are not a fan of the skinny fat picture above, but it proves the fact that weight loss is just about calories in versus calories out.
Getting back to the purpose of this article, optimizing weight loss to losing just fat while maintaining or even building muscle can be achieved by moderately restricting calories. Moderate means no more that 25% caloric deficit.
Anything above 30% deficit is considered aggressive, will probably interfere with lean mass and slow down your metabolism too much, which can result in metabolic damage over time. You can read more about it over here.
For example, in everyday life this translates to this.
- A sedentary male weighing 200 pounds needs around 1,900 – 2,000 kcal a day to maintain his weight. Therefore, such a person should not eat less than 1,500 kcal a day during fat loss plan.
- A 200 pounds male that works out 4 times a week needs around 2,400 – 2,500 kcal a day to maintain his weight. Therefore, such a person should not eat less than 2,000 kcal a day during fat loss plan.
Eating anything less will result in faster weight loss indeed, but with a cost – muscle loss and possibly metabolic stress. Also, this approach usually leads to binging eventually which will bring the individual back to the initial weight if not more.
Make sure you are not seriously under eating, get plenty of protein and pick satiating foods and you should be fine. A good way to tell if you are losing any muscle mass is my keeping track of your strength in the gym. If you are constantly lifting the same weights, same number of reps and sets you are fine and you are not losing any muscle mass during your caloric deficit.
If you notice that strength is going down you need to double check your calories and macros, make sure you count everything right, and probably you should increase calories a bit.
Step 3: Strength training
Muscles don’t grow if you don’t stimulate them. Weight lifting is the best possible way to preserve muscle mass during a cut, or even to build new muscle during a cut if you are untrained.
Generally speaking strength training doesn’t actually support weight loss, it only supports fat loss. Because you are actually building new muscle mass with weight training you will lose less weight than you would lose by simply staying in a deficit and doing cardio.
But this is not what you want, remember the skinny fat photo? Strength training will get you that toned up or muscular physique everybody sees in the weight loss ads from TV and magazines.
Include at least 2 weight training session per week and you will be one step closer to recomposing your body. Use heavy weights and train intense, in the 6-8 reps range for optimal muscle hypertrophy.
Step 4: Moderate cardio training
Lastly but not least, cardio training is a very effective way of burning off extra calories. But it can be a double-edged sword. If you too it too often and too intense it will start eating off your muscles, research shows. And people tend to overdo it quite often because they want to lose weight fast.
That’s why I recommend to include no more than 1 hour of cardio a week to make extra sure you are not losing any muscle mass by doing it. I’ve tried many cardio exercises but my favorite is the high intensity interval training (HIIT). Nevertheless, there are ways to lose fat without cardio training.
Researches shows that HIIT is a more effective for fat loss than steady pace cardio such as jogging, incline walking or cycling. On top of than HIIT is very time efficient, because it’s short and intense. Usually my HIIT training session does not take more than 15-20 minutes and I only include up to 3 of these a week.
Here’s my typical HIIT session on the treadmill:
a) 1 minute walk at speed 5
b) 1 minute sprint at speed 17
c) 2 minute walk at speed 5
d) Repeat b) and c) 3 to 5 times
That’s it. All the cardio you need for fat loss while keeping those muscles.
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