Losing weight while maintaining muscle at the same time is like the holy grail in the fitness world.
While it can be difficult to do, it’s not impossible.
The goal of this article is to provide you with a clearly outlined approach to do just this. It’s an approach based on solid scientific research, so you can be confident it has worked for many other people before.
The primary sources for all the information found in this article are “Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation”, written by a group of researchers from New Zealand, California, and Illinois; and “Preserving Healthy Muscle during Weight Loss” written by three researchers from the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University School of Medicine.
Be sure to check out these papers for a deeper dive into the information found in this article.
Weight loss can be tricky. First off, it can be difficult for many people to lose weight at all. And secondly, if you do figure out how to lose weight, you don’t want it to come at the expense of the stuff in your body that you want to keep (i.e. lean muscle).
Research suggests that most weight loss comes from a loss of both fat and muscle. If you lose 8-10% of your initial body weight, 2-10% of the weight lost is going to be muscle mass.
That means if you lose 10 pounds, 0.2 pounds of that is going to be muscle.
That may not seem like a lot, but you also have to think about the opportunity cost. Weight training can help you gain about 0.5 pounds of muscle per week under the best conditions.
So, if you lose 10 pounds across 8 weeks, you could be sacrificing as much as 4 pounds of muscle.
This doesn’t have to be the case. Incorporate the following strategies into your weight loss plan and you can maintain or increase your muscle mass at the same time.
1) Maintain a moderate rate of weight loss
To maximize your ability to maintain lean muscle mass while also losing fat, research suggests the ideal rate of weight loss is 0.5 to 1% of your body weight per week.
If you weigh 150 pounds when you start, that means your rate of weight loss will initially be 1.5 pounds.
This also means you’ll have to adjust your weight loss rate accordingly each week.
Assuming you’re successful in your first week losing the 1.5 pounds, your weight loss rate for the second week would then be 1.48 pounds.
Losing weight at a rate faster than this causes you to lose a greater percentage of that weight from lean muscle.
Slow and steady wins the race.
2) Increase your protein intake
Muscle loss that occurs during weight loss is mainly mediated by muscle breakdown rather than a lack of protein synthesis.
One of the primary regulators of muscle protein breakdown is the dietary intake of amino acids (i.e. how much protein you’re getting from your diet).
To counteract the increased muscle breakdown that can occur with weight loss, you need to increase the amount of protein that you’re taking in.
Eric Helms of Sport Performance Research in New Zealand and the author of “Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation” recommends 2.3 to 3.1 g/kg of lean body mass per day.
To get an estimate of your lean body mass composition, use a simple calculator like the one that can be found here: Lean Body Mass Calculator.
I’m about 160 pounds, 30 years old, and 5’10”.
If I use the calculator, I find that approximately 127.4 pounds of my body weight is from lean mass. 127.4 pounds is 53.3 kg.
That means my protein intake, if I’m losing weight while trying to maintain lean body mass, should be 53.3 kg x 3.1 g of protein = 165 g of protein per day.
3) Resistance training
The amount of protein in your diet is one major determinant of the rate of protein synthesis and protein breakdown. Another is muscle contractile activity.
What that really means is that a muscle that is constantly working is less likely to break down.
One reason for this is that muscle contraction stimulates protein synthesis. By stimulating your muscles to grow you’re counteracting their want to break down in the weight loss environment.
The second reason contractile activity prevents muscle break down has to do with the hormone insulin.
Insulin is a potent inhibitor of muscle protein breakdown. Exercise, like resistance training, increases insulin sensitivity, which makes muscles less likely to degrade.
There are a few supplements that have solid scientific backing regarding their ability to promote muscle protein synthesis and prevent muscle protein degradation. One of them is dietary protein intake, which we’ve already covered.
The others are creatine monohydrate, beta-alanine, and BCAAs.
Creatine is a molecule naturally produced by the body and found in foods like meat, eggs, and fish.
Creatine supplementation is highly associated with increasing and maintaining lean muscle mass.
Many different forms of creatine are available. Stick to creatine monohydrate though, it’s the cheapest and it’s the most effective.
To take, start with a loading phase for a week (0.3 g/kg body weight for a week). After that initial week, go down to 0.03 g/kg.
For a 160 pound (53.3 kg) individual, this would be 16g per day for the first week followed by 1.6 g every day thereafter.
Beta-alanine is the biological building block of carnosine (a molecule that buffers acid levels in muscle tissue).
In addition to buffering to its buffering capability, beta-alanine is also highly associated with increasing lean muscle mass.
To supplement with beta-alanine, take a daily dose of 2-5 g.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs are amino acids found in eggs, meat, and many supplements.
Supplementation is strongly associated with increases in muscle protein synthesis and increasing muscle growth over time.
BCAAs can be added as a supplement on their own. However, your best bet is incorporating a protein supplement into your diet that contains BCAAs since you need to increase your protein intake too.
Weight loss without losing muscle is possible with the right approach. I hope I’ve succeeded in giving you a good starting point if this is your goal.
Have you ever tried to lose weight without losing muscle? Let me know how it went for you in the comments below.