Gaining muscle is hard work.
It takes time, consistency, proper programming, and dedication day in and day out.
Guys who have put in the time to build muscle know this and the idea of losing even an ounce of their hard-earned muscle is anything but comforting.
The problem is that most guys don't just want to be huge and muscular–they want to be lean, shredded, and have a visible six-pack.
There will come a time when you need to cut body fat so you can show off the muscle you've built through your hard work and commitment to the gym.
The good news it that the science behind losing weight is simple.
Look no further than the First Law of Thermodynamics that states:
Energy in - Energy out = Change in Energy
Here is how it looks for weight loss:
Energy in (calories) - Energy out (body processes and activity) = Change in Energy (weight loss/weight gain)
The problem is that weight loss doesn't just account for fat, it also includes weight loss from LBM. (muscle, organs, bones, etc.)
As stated earlier, the last thing we want is to lose muscle–we want the majority (if not all) of our weight loss to come from fat.
Because of this, our goal should not be to lose weight but rather lose body fat and improve body composition.
The biggest mistake lifters make when cutting body fat is neglecting this fact. They simply cut calories and focus on total weight loss. Yeah, they'll lose weight, but they also end up losing more muscle than they would like.
What's worse is that this often results in the "skinny fat" look that plagues many dieters. (Read This: The No B.S. Skinny-Fat Solution)
You know the look–the person appears skinny in a shirt but still has a belly with little amounts of muscle mass in their upper and lower body.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to maintain muscle while cutting fat to help you achieve the ripped look most guys are after.
There are only a few things (I refer to them as laws) you need to focus on, but it's crucial that you follow them precisely to ensure you keep as much muscle as possible while leaning down.
Follow them, and I guarantee you'll lose more fat and retain (or possibly build) more muscle than if you were to focus just on losing weight.
Law #1 - Lift Weights to Maintain Muscle Mass!
I think the reasoning behind this first law is clear.
You already know that weightlifting is necessary to build muscle, and the same holds true for maintaining muscle.
Many guys think that lifting weights become irrelevant during a cut. This is because they assume since they won't be building muscle while leaning down that lifting weights is irrelevant.
Although you may not be building muscle on a cut, lifting weights is essential for maintaining the muscle you already have.
I'm not just blowing hot air either. Multiple studies have shown that the best way to maintain muscle mass while eating in a calorie deficit is through resistance training and lifting weights.
Takeaway: Keep on doing what you're already doing and continue to lift weights during a cutting phase.
Law #2 - Don't Just Lift, Maintain Your Strength!
If you want to optimize your muscle retention, you'll want to not only resistance train, but also keep as much strength as possible.
You see, the best training protocol for maintaining muscle is ensuring you keep your current level of strength.
I'm sure you are already aware of the importance of progressive overload. To build muscle, you need to be consistently adding more weight or doing more reps in the gym. Over time, this is what results in muscle gain.
A similar phenomenon occurs when maintaining a certain strength level. As long as you are lifting the same weights each week, your body will respond by maintaining the muscle mass needed to support that level of strength.
This is why it is so critical to keep your strength levels up during a cut. By maintaining your strength levels, you are essentially telling your body to hold onto the muscle it has to support your heavy training load.
For example: if you currently bench press 180 lbs, your goal throughout the length of your cut should be to maintain that strength. You should be bench pressing that same 180 lbs (or more if possible) when you’re finished losing fat and at your ideal physique. The same goes for your other lifts in your routine.
If you're still new to lifting, you may gain strength while losing fat. But if you're an intermediate or advanced lifter, simply maintaining strength should be the goal.
Takeaway: Focus on the maintenance of strength levels throughout your cut to ensure you are losing fat WITHOUT losing muscle.
Law #3 - Don't Be Too Extreme With Your Deficit
It's clear that we need to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight; however, the severity of our deficit will play a role in how much of the weight we lose comes from fat compared to muscle.
One of the biggest mistake you could make when cutting is to go too low in calories. In fact, studies have shown that chronically eating too few calories can lead to excessive amounts of muscle being burned for energy.
To ensure you don't burn muscle while cutting, avoid going below a 25% deficit. That is, you shouldn't eat below 75% of your maintenance calorie intake.
For example, a 200-pound male who works out 3-4 times a week probably has a maintenance calorie level around ~2,600 calories. To lose fat while decreasing the chances of burning muscle, he should aim to eat no lower than ~1,950 calories.
The other problem with extremely restricting calories is how it can impede gym performance.
Remember the previous law that talked about the importance of maintaining strength on a cut? Well, eating too few calories can have a negative impact on your energy which will consequently lead to worse workout performance.
While there is no avoiding the decreased energy levels that come from eating in a deficit, you can limit the severity of it by ensuring that you don't eat too few calories.
Takeaway: Keep your calorie deficit in a moderate range (20-25% below maintenance calories). This will allow for a good rate of fat loss without sacrificing unnecessary muscle in the process.
Law #4 - Eat Enough Protein to Support Your Muscles
Protein is one of the three macronutrients (along with carbohydrates and fat) that make up the calories and food we eat.
Eating higher protein is essential for building muscle as protein's primary job is to create and preserve lean body mass (a.k.a. muscle).
Eating a high-protein diet becomes even more important during a cut. This is because a high-protein diet has been shown to result in greater fat loss, increase muscle retention, and improve satiety.
So the next logical question is: "How much protein should I be eating?"
When building muscle in a calorie surplus, the recommended amount of protein needed is around .64-1g of protein per pound of body weight. The same recommendation holds true for cutting, although, it is advantageous to lean towards the higher end of the recommendations (closer to 1g per pound of body weight).
Takeaway: To optimize your weight loss nutrition, aim for .64-1g of protein per pound of body weight.
Law #5 - Take Occasional Diet Breaks
Unfortunately, there is no avoiding some of the undesirable physical and mental outcomes that come along with a calorie deficit. In response to a calorie deficit, your body begins to conserve energy which means a downregulation of energy output, metabolism, and hormone production.
This is mostly unavoidable; however, there is a way to decrease these negative effects often experienced during a prolonged dieting phase.
It's known as a diet break.
A diet break simply involves taking a 1-2 weeks break to eat at maintenance calories.
One benefit of doing this is that it helps reset leptin levels in the body. Leptin is a hormone produced in fat cells and regulates your metabolism and appetite.
When we are in a prolonged calorie deficit, leptin levels drop and the result is decreased energy expenditure and increased hunger. Taking a break from your diet and eating more calories can help spike leptin levels and bring them back to normal levels.
Another benefit is that it can restore your energy levels and increase recovery from lifting weights. Since resistance training and maintaining strength is critical for muscle retention on a diet, taking a week break for eating at a deficit can help improve recovery and give your central nervous system the break it needs.
Takeaway: A diet break is an excellent way to reset leptin levels, improve recovery and increase energy levels to get past a weight loss plateau.
Law #6 - Avoid Excessive Cardio
The importance of cardio for losing weight is a hot topic in the fitness world. While cardio can help burn more calories and fat, doing too much of it can result in undesirable complications.
One of the risks that come with excessive cardio is becoming overtrained. Overtraining commonly presents itself in the form of over-fatigue, lethargy, depression, decreased immunity, and more.
Research has shown that prolonged, intense cardiovascular exercise can significantly increase your chances of becoming overtrained.
Another way that excessive cardio can hurt your weight loss results is through creating something referred to as "metabolic adaptation."
This is basically when your body downregulates metabolic processes like N.E.A.T. (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis).
A slow metabolism is the last thing you want when dropping weight, and avoiding excessive cardio is a way to prevent it.
Takeaway: Avoid doing excessive amounts of cardio. If you do cardio, stick to 30-60 minutes of low-intensity cardio such as walking.
Follow These Laws, and Your Muscles Will Stay Protected
Now that you have read this article, you should be well informed on the proper strategies for losing fat without losing muscle.
If you find yourself in a situation where you need to drop body fat and don't want to lose your hard-earned muscle in the process, follow these six laws. These laws will ensure that you'll lose more fat and little to no muscle on your cut.
About The Author
Carter Good is a personal trainer, weight loss coach and blogger. He has lost over 140 pounds and has made it his life goal to help others achieve the same physical and mental transformation towards better health.