If you’re looking to trim down, figuring out the secret sauce for saving muscle while losing fat can feel pretty overwhelming.
The good news: While it’s not always easy, it’s totally possible to lose fat and gain muscles at the same time. It just takes a little patience and planning. Trust us, we asked *a lot* of experts.
Losing weight is exactly what it sounds like: It means that the number on the scale is getting lower.
“Your total body weight is comprised of lean body mass and fat mass,” says Anna Em, certified personal trainer and creator of The Weight Training Goddess.
“Your lean body mass is made up of muscle mass, water mass, bone mass, organs, and tissue. Therefore, if you lose weight, you could be losing fat or lean body mass.”
What’s more, losing body fat while gaining muscle requires somewhat conflicting approaches. The traditional path for losing body fat is caloric deficit via diet and exercise.
“Gaining muscle typically involves a caloric surplus, which supports the development of new tissue,” says Elliot Upton, a National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer at Ultimate Performance and Head of LiveUP Online Coaching.
“To muddle things even further, fat and muscle are closely linked, making it difficult to prioritize losing one without impacting the other,” says Jonathan Jordan, a certified personal trainer, massage therapist, and group fitness instructor for Equinox in San Francisco, CA.
Maintaining and building muscle while losing fat requires much of the same as just losing fat: You need to eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly, incorporating strength training into your workout routine.
These are consistent routines that you can try to maintain on a daily basis. In other words, you want to think beyond a fad diet that promises quick results.
And don’t forget these additional tips:
Stop thinking food is the enemy
A calorie deficit doesn’t mean eating as little as possible.
“I usually recommend three balanced meals composed of protein, starch, vegetables, and healthy fats, and two snacks composed of protein and fiber,” says Paula Rubello, a registered dietitian.
Acting like food is the enemy is not the way to go here: “If you’re running on no calories or on very little calories, your body will need to take energy from your muscles, resulting in loss of muscle mass,” she says.
Mix up your workouts
“To burn fat and not lose muscle requires both aerobic and strength training,” says Wendy Bazilian, doctor of public health, registered dietitian, and an American College of Sports Medicine certified exercise physiologist.
Give yourself a break
Exercising regularly may be essential for losing fat and maintaining muscle, but that doesn’t mean you should work yourself to the bone. Rest is just as essential.
According to Upton, overtraining and pushing yourself beyond the limit can cause excessive muscle protein breakdown (the opposite of what you want).
You also want to make sure you’re getting enough sleep and working on lowering your stress levels. “If you are over stressed and under slept, your body will hold onto body fat,” Jordan says.
Keep these tips in mind when creating an exercise plan that works for you.
Get your cardio in
Aerobic exercise is key for losing fat, but it doesn’t have to mean a daily HIIT class. High-intensity workouts can of course be great, but low impact and low intensity workouts can be equally beneficial.
Need some ideas? Bazilian recommends long walks, jogging, running, biking, dancing, Zumba, cardio boxing, swimming, rowing, and jump rope. “Aerobic doesn’t have to be hard, but it needs to be sustained, working up toward 45 to 60 minutes of sustained exercise,” she explains.
“If you’re just starting out, do it in smaller bouts respecting your limits. This also helps with making your cells more receptive to taking in blood sugar and helps with insulin sensitivity, which can help the whole fat burning (and not fat storage) on a physiological level.”
Lift those weights
Cardio is necessary for burning fat, but strength training is necessary for building and maintaining muscle — actually, it’s also necessary for burning fat.
“A well-structured, progressive, and challenging resistance training program is one of the most effective tools for fat loss and body recomposition,” Upton says.
“Not only can lifting hard and heavy expend a decent amount of calories session to session, but as opposed to cardio, it actually builds muscle tissue, which will increase your basal metabolic rate.” In other words? You can eat more and still lose. The ultimate goal!
When getting into a strength training routine, you want to consistently switch things up rather than fall into a pattern. Upton says that the possibility of so many variables is what helps you challenge your body and progress.
“Some of the variables we can change are reps, sets, weight, tempo (speed during the movement), or total time under tension, range of motion, rest, angles, machines vs. free weights,” he says.
And don’t just focus on one part of your body — targeted fat loss doesn’t work.
“Doing a systematic, but simple, head-to-toe routine — shoulders, back (between the shoulder blades) and lats, biceps, triceps, abs, thighs, hips/buttocks, hamstrings, and calves — can be very productive,” says Bazilian.
Don’t be afraid of the heavy weights
Ditch those 2-pound dumbbells. Lifting heavy is key, says Upton, as increasing the weight better stimulates the muscle growth needed to improve body composition.
For those who are new to weightlifting, Upton recommends starting out by performing full-body workouts three times a week and following the core training principle of progressive overload.
“Progressive overload is simply the incremental increase of stress placed on the body when training,” he explains.
“Remember, muscle growth comes from forcing the body to adapt to new and more challenging stressors in training. If you do not constantly challenge the body and give it fresh stimuli to adapt to, then it will never grow or improve.”
Do compound exercises
Upton calls big compound exercises “a great bang-for-your-buck way to recruit more muscle mass in training and burn more calories.” Compound exercises include moves like squats, deadlifts, and pull-ups.
“Prioritize these moves over isolation exercises like leg extensions and bicep curls if fat loss is your goal,” he says.
“These types of exercises stimulate the greatest release of human growth hormones, which help to preserve lean muscle mass,” Anna says. She points out that they’re also ideal for anyone in a rush since they work so much of your body so quickly.
Take it slow
You’re excited about your new workout program, so you go really hard, really fast… and then you end up injuring yourself or overworking your body. “Nothing stops you faster than injury,” Bazilian says. “Get a game plan and tackle this one day at a time at a level you are able to do.”
She recommends seeking help from a personal trainer or physical therapist if possible, or even just following a free or low cost online program and app created by real experts.
Make recovery a priority
Letting your body recuperate from all of this work couldn’t be more important.
“One of the common reasons people lose so much muscle when they are dieting or trying to lose fat is that they train way too much, and this results in creating too much muscle breakdown, as opposed to improving performance and increasing muscle mass,” Upton says.
Upton says that getting enough sleep is vital to the recovery process, noting the link between poor sleep and weight gain.
“It’s important to note that even sleep loss of up to 3 hours can lead to us lose more than 50 percent less body fat during a planned phase of weight loss, and actually lose more muscle tissue too,” he says.
Follow a balanced diet that is also a caloric deficit
“The most important thing is to include all nutrients in your diet (protein, fats, and carbs) and never eliminate a specific nutrient,” Rubello says. A balanced diet that consists of three meals and two or three satisfying snacks is key.
At the same time, you do have to be in a calorie deficit to lose fat. “You need to be burning more energy than you consume in a day, and the best way to do this is to eat a little bit less and move a whole lot more,” Upton says. “Creating and maintaining a calorie deficit is the secret behind any diet.”
Go heavy on the protein
Ingesting an adequate amount of protein is necessary for preserving muscle tissue.
“It helps to repair, rebuild, and maintain muscle tissue, which not only improves body composition, but also increases metabolic rate,” Upton says. Protein-rich foods will fill you up and keep you full for a longer amount of time as well.
Bazilian recommends focusing on lean proteins like seafood, poultry, milk, yogurt, beans, nuts, and seeds.
Carbs are your friend
Repeat after us: Carbs are not the enemy. Try to choose non-refined carbs and you’ll get plenty of benefits. “They can boost performance and strength, and aid recovery from your workouts, improve thyroid function, as well as help you sleep better,” Upton says.
He recommends eating carbs after a workout, when your body is most likely to use the glucose properly and refuel the muscle, and as the last meal of the day to aid in relaxation.
Eat your veggies
Vegetables are one of the healthiest ways to meet your vitamin and mineral needs, and according to Upton, they also suppress inflammation and aid in healthy digestion.
“They are big in physical volume, but low in energy density, meaning you can eat plenty to fill you up without the calorie count climbing too high,” he says.
Get those healthy fats in
Yes, you’re trying to lose fat, but to do it, you need a good mix of healthy fat too. “Fat is a great source of energy that can slow down digestion and suppress hunger between meals,” Upton says.
Just monitor your intake and make the right choices. Nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocados are great options.
Try intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting (IF) is basically only eating for a certain period of time during the day. For example, those who follow the 16:8 plan eat for 8 hours a day (like between 8 and 12) and fast for 16 hours.
“IF can help train your body to burn body fat, reduce insulin resistance and avoid metabolic conditions like diabetes,” Jordan says. “Not every protocol is for everyone, but the evidence increasingly validates this as an effective way to improve body composition for many folks.”
Drinking enough water is vital not just for losing fat and maintaining muscle, but also for just being healthy overall. “Staying hydrated impacts metabolism, performance — virtually every body function,” Bazilian says.
“It carries the nutrients we need to the cells and the cellular debris back from the tissues to the kidney, liver, or back to the intestines to be transported out of the body.”