How To Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle [Can It Be Done?]

This post may contain affiliate links: meaning we may receive a commission if you use them

Are you looking to lose fat without losing muscle?

You’re in the right place.

In this post, you’re going to learn the 3 key things you need to burn fat while minimizing muscle loss.

Specifically, you’ll learn:

  • Why simply ‘losing weight’ is the wrong approach
  • What foods you should eat to lose fat and keep muscle
  • What type of exercise you should do to maximize muscle retention

Let’s get started.

Disclaimer:

Although we are doctors and personal trainers, we are not your doctors. This information is for informational purposes only and should not substitute the advice from your healthcare professional. Please read our full Disclaimer for more information. Also, this post may contain affiliate links: meaning we may receive a commission if you use them.

How Do I Lose Fat But Keep Muscle?

Losing fat without losing muscle requires three things.

  1. A slight caloric deficit
  2. A high protein intake
  3. Resistance training

All three of these factors are equally important, and you cannot skip any of them.

We’ll go over each one step-by-step.

Step #1: Create a Slight Caloric Deficit

The first thing that you need to do to lose fat is to eat at a slight caloric deficit.

What does this mean?

This means that your body must burn more calories than you consume. In other words, our bodies follow the first law of thermodynamics. Energy cannot be created nor destroyed. It can only be transferred or converted.

Think of fat kind of like stored energy, or money saved in the bank.

You won’t use it unless you really need to. Going back to the money example, you wont go into your stored savings unless:

  • there is a shortage of money,
  • an economic crisis etc.

In terms of calories – this is the equivalent of a food shortage, or worse, a famine.

As a result, your body is forced to use up stored energy to make up the difference.

So, in order to burn fat, we need to present our bodies with a food shortage… aka fewer calories.

Simple right?

Well, if it were that simple everyone could do it.

Let me show you the right way to do it.

Eat at 90%

Take a look at all of the food you consume in one day.

You don’t have to weigh or measure your food (although you can if you want to). I go over a simple way to measure your food intake here.

After taking note of your daily intake, start by decreasing your portion sizes by 10%.

Yes, I know. This isn’t an exact science.

You can eyeball it, and it doesn’t have to be perfect.

The important thing is that you make a conscious effort to make each portion size a bit smaller.

The question is, why not eat 25% less, or 50% less?

Because of metabolic adaptation.

#1 Thing To Avoid: Large Fluctuations In Metabolic Adaptation

So why can’t you just eat at a large caloric deficit?

The answer is: metabolic adaptation.

Metabolic adaptation refers to how efficiently your body processes the energy you consume.

Just think about it.

  • Let’s say you earn $100 dollars a week
  • And you spend $80 a week.

Now let’s say some economic crisis occurs and your income drops to $50 dollars a week.

Would you continue to spend $80 dollars a week?

Probably not.

But it would take you a little time to adjust.

You may dip into your savings account to get you through the first few weeks. But after all, you will quickly need to decrease your expenditures down to about $40 a week.

That’s what your body does with calories.

It will slow down it’s metabolism and begin using less energy to do the same basic tasks that used to take more energy.

This is why weight loss/fat loss plateaus.

This is normal.

This process is inevitable when losing fat.

The good news is, you can minimize large changes to your metabolism if you lose fat in a controlled manner. AKA – by eating at a slight deficit each day.

Which brings us to point number two.

Step #2: Keep Your Intake Of This Nutrient High

The next thing that you need to do is focus on nutrient intake.

Which one?

Protein of course. Protein is the most important macro-nutrient when it comes to muscle retention and fat loss?

Why?

Because protein has several properties that make it ideal for this situation.

Here’s why.

It is one of the most satiating nutrients

After fiber, protein is the nutrient that keeps you the most satisfied. In other words, it helps keep you full.

That way, you can still eat a decent amount of food while still decreasing caloric intake.

It Helps Boost Your Metabolism

Of the three macronutrients- your body has to work the hardest to digest protein.

Believe it or not, the calories your body expends digesting food isn’t insignificant.

Up to 10% of your total daily energy expenditure is spent absorbing the nutrients from the calories you consume!

So eating more protein helps boost this number up a bit.

It Helps Preserve Muscle Mass

Last but not least, protein intake is associated with preservation of muscle mass.

This is critical to understand.

In fact, its the reason why you don’t want to just “lose weight.”

Let me explain.

#2 Thing To Avoid: Don’t Lose Weight For The Sake of Losing Weight

Weight loss and fat loss are not the same thing!

Read that sentence again.

.

..

It is important to note that your goal is NOT to lose weight.

It’s to lose fat!

They do have some overlap, but weight loss and fat loss are not the same thing.

Let me tell you why.

When your body has to pull energy from stored resources, it doesn’t always pull energy from fat. It can pull energy from muscle tissue too.

This is the exact process that we are trying to avoid.

During times of food shortages (aka a caloric deficit), your body doesn’t see muscle as a necessary thing to hold on to.

It sees muscle as an expensive commodity that it could sell for some cash (aka energy). That is why we want to signal to our body that we value muscle tissue, and we want to keep muscle tissue.

Thankfully, there are two things that you can do to signal to your body to hold on to precious muscle tissue.

The first is keeping your protein intake high.

What should I eat to maintain muscle and lose fat?

So which foods should you consume to maintain muscle and lose fat?

Easy.

You need to consume foods that are high in protein.

Here are the best foods.

Best Sources of Protein
Lean chicken breast
Salmon
Lean beef
Greek yogurt
Legumes (chickpeas, lentils, black beans)
Tofu
Edamame
Seeds (hemp seeds)
Quinoa
Protein powder supplements

Wan’t to know the best sources of carbohydrates and fats too?

I go over them all in the WCT Table of Foods.

table-of-foods-opt-in

Don't Know What To Eat?

Download this valuable FREE Table that goes over the best foods from each category (so that you no longer need to guess which foods are healthy and which one's arent)
YES- SEND ME THE TEMPLATE NOW

Next, let’s talk about the second thing you need to do to preserve muscle tissue.

Step #3: Train Using The Following Exercises

The last thing that you need to do to lose fat and maintain muscle is exercise regularly.

Not just any type of exercise.

It’s important to do exercises that are proven to build the most amount of muscle.

What exercises are these?

Compound exercises that use a large range of motion.

The Best Muscle Building Exercises

Building muscle requires a strong exercise stimulus, a recovery period, and an adaptation period.

The key here is a strong exercise stimulus.

Sure, bicep curls will give your biceps a nice stimulus – but your biceps are a relatively small muscle group.

You need to focus on exercises that allow large muscle groups to go through their full range of motion.

These exercises typically include:

  • An upper body push exercise
  • An upper body pull exercise
  • A knee flexion exercise
  • A hip extension exercise

The Upper Body Push

The upper body push involves exercises that target the shoulders, chest, and tricep muscles.

They can be broken down into horizontal and vertical pushing exercises such as bench pressing, and overhead shoulder pressing respectively.

These types of exercises have large ranges of motion and will force your body to stimulate and preserve muscle tissue on the anterior side of your upper body.

The Upper Body Pull

The upper body pull is the opposite.

These involve exercises that strengthen the trapezius muscles, latissimus dorsi muscles, rhomboid muscles, and the biceps.

Similar to the pushing exercises these can be divided into horizontal and vertical pulls.

Common examples include barbell rows, and pull-ups respectively.

The Knee Flexion

Knee flexion exercises strengthen the muscles on the anterior side of your lower body.

This includes the large quadricep muscles as well as the adductor muscles on the inside of your thighs.

Common examples include squats, lunges, and step ups.

squat-exercise

The Hip Extension

The last category of exercises is the hip extension a.k.a. the hip hinge.

These exercises involving the posterior side of your lower body; namely the glutes, hamstrings, and low back.

Common examples include deadlifts, and bridge exercises.

If you’d like a list of all the best muscle building exercises, download The WCT’s Best Compound Exercises.


The WCT's Best Compound Exercises E-Book

Download this valuable FREE E-Book that goes over the best compound exercises for each body part (so that you stop wasting your time doing mediocre exercises)
YES- SEND ME THE TEMPLATE NOW

As you can see, all of these exercises have one thing in common.

They require a large range of motion, and they stimulate multiple muscle groups at once.

By including exercises from each of these different categories, you will be providing your body a signal that it needs to preserve muscle mass.

If you would like to learn more about strength training check out our article on how to work out effectively and efficiently.

Or you could check out our E-book which summarizes everything in one place!

#3 Thing To Avoid: Creating An Unsustainable Routine

The final thing that you want to avoid is creating a routine that you won’t be able to follow.

This is the most common mistake you could ever make when trying to lose fat and maintain muscle. In general,

  • Don’t follow a crash diet.
  • Don’t try to exercise for countless hours.
  • Don’t do excessive cardio. In fact, cardio isn’t even that useful for fat loss. (I’ll go over this in more detail in just a bit.)
  • Don’t eliminate entire food groups from your diet.

You will be setting yourself up for failure.

That is why I recommend that you focus on a 90% diet. Only drop your caloric intake by 10%. Only focus on exercises that matter.

Also, don’t worry about being perfect. 90% will be more than enough.

Choose Your Diet Wisely

Along those same lines, it is important that you pick a diet that you can actually stick to.

  • If you can’t survive without carbohydrates – don’t do keto.
  • If you can’t consume enough calories during the “feasting” window, don’t do intermittent fasting.
  • If you can’t eat a wide assortment of vegetables, legumes, and nuts every day, don’t follow a plant-based diet.

It is important that you can stick to your diet for at least a year. If you don’t see that happening, then don’t even bother.

What do I recommend?

You’ll see my recommendation below.

why-you-cant-lose-weight-and-keep-it-off

A Few Other Tips To Help You Keep Muscle Tissue During Fat Loss

Now let’s go over a few other things you should do to maximize your results.

Focus on Recovery

Recovery is one of the most important aspects of fitness. Without it, you will never give your body what it needs to process energy efficiently.

So what should you do?

For starters, it’s important that you

  • hydrate appropriately with enough water,
  • eat enough protein, and
  • get a sufficient amount of sleep.

How much?

Drink 0.5 ounces of water per pound of bodyweight, per day.

Consume ~ 0.75 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, per day.

Get at least 7 hours of sleep per night.

We go over other ways to boost recovery here.

Center The Majority Of Your Carbs Around Your Workout

Carbohydrates don’t make you fat.

Eating excessive calories coupled with bad genetics and a lack of physical activity leads to weight gain.

With that said, carbohydrates can easily be eaten in excess.

Do your best to consume carbs close to your workout window (especially post-workout).

Post-workout consumption of carbohydrates don’t get stored as fat. Instead, they are immediately used to help replenish glycogen stores in muscle and liver.

Cardio is not that useful

Lastly, if you don’t enjoy cardio, then don’t do it. It actually isn’t that great at helping you lose fat.

If your goal is to lose fat and maintain muscle, then cardio will do very little to help you maintain muscle mass.

Instead, you should focus more effort in strength training as mentioned above.

I go over this in more detail in Why I Don’t Do Cardio.

_________

Other Related Questions

How much fat can you lose in a week without losing muscle?

On average, you can lose about 1-2 pounds of fat per week without losing muscle. The heavier you are, the more weight you can lose.

With that said, don’t solely rely on the scale for your progress. Use other objective measures such as progress pictures and strength gains.

Can you lose body fat without cardio?

Yes, you can lose body fat without cardio. The most important factor in helping you lose fat is your diet.

Cardio can help you burn additional calories, but it is not necessary. You are much better off spending your time increasing or maintaining lean muscle mass which can only be done through resistance training.

How do I know if I’m losing fat or muscle?

The best way to tell if you are losing fat versus losing muscle is through progress photos.

With that said, it is impossible to determine if weight loss is entirely fat versus mostly fat and some muscle.

If you want exact numbers, you can get DEXA scans, but this is pointless. Pictures speak a thousand words.

When you lose weight, do you lose muscle or fat first?

It depends on your nutrition and your activity levels. If you keep protein intake high while maintaining a regular resistance exercise routine, you will lose fat instead of muscle.

If you focus solely on decreasing caloric intake and nothing else, you will lose a combination of fat and then muscle.

Here’s A Simple “Lose weight While keeping muscle” diet plan

Now, what do we recommend that you eat?

We have put together a complete step-by-step diet plan that can help you lose fat while maintain muscle mass – even if you have a busy schedule.

In fact, it’s the diet we use to stay in shape even with busy physician schedules.

This diet goes over

  • how to increase your protein intake
  • how to decrease your caloric intake strategically
  • how to maximize micro-nutrient intake for optimal performance

And most importantly…

How to stick to the plan for the rest of your life!

You can learn more about The Compound Diet here.

the-compound-diet-ebook

Final Words On How To Maintain Muscle While Losing Fat

So there you have it.

Losing fat without losing muscle primarily requires three things

  • A slight hypocaloric diet
  • Adequate protein intake
  • Strategic resistance training

So, which of these factors do you need to work on the most?

Comment below and let us know!

Related Posts On Muscle Gain and Fat Loss

References

  1. Deibert, P., et al. “Weight loss without losing muscle mass in pre-obese and obese subjects induced by a high-soy-protein diet.” International journal of obesity 28.10 (2004): 1349-1352.
  2. Cava, Edda, Nai Chien Yeat, and Bettina Mittendorfer. “Preserving healthy muscle during weight loss.” Advances in nutrition 8.3 (2017): 511-519.
  3. Demling, Robert H., and Leslie DeSanti. “Effect of a hypocaloric diet, increased protein intake and resistance training on lean mass gains and fat mass loss in overweight police officers.” Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism 44.1 (2000): 21-29.

Get exclusive strategies on how to diet & exercise (with an 80-hour workweek) that we only share with email subscribers!

Sharing is caring!

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT

Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT

Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM CPTs, health & fitness experts, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a site dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals. Their advice has been featured on KevinMD, The Doctor Weighs In, My Fitness Pal, Reader's Digest, Livestrong, and The Active Times. Learn more about them here.

Learn More About Them Here
Need A Simple Workout Program That Only Takes 30 Minutes?

Download A FREE Copy Of The WCT Workout Template To...

Get a complete list of which exercises you should do and how to do them to get the best science-based results. (Especially if you don't have a lot of time to exercise.)
SEND ME THE TEMPLATE NOW

A Comprehensive Full Body Workout To Build Muscle & Burn Fat (In just 30 minutes a day)

Download this valuable FREE template that goes over the best exercises to do to and how to do them to get the best science-based results (especially if you don't have a lot of time to exercise.)
Send Me The Template Now

The WCT Calisthenics Workout Tempates

Included you will recieve two different templates
A 4 Day/Week Upper Lower Workout Template
A 3 Day/Week Push Pull Legs Template
DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE TEMPLATES TODAY
wct-3-day-email-mock-up

Learn 3 Incredibly Simple Strategies That You Can Use Right Now To Eat Healthier & Lose Weight

These are the same strategies we use every day despite working 80+ hours a week!
Start Lesson 1
Note: When you click the button, you will be joining The White Coat Trainer email list. You may unsubscribe at any time
wct-3-day-email-mock-up

Learn 3 Incredibly Simple Strategies That You Can Use Right Now To Eat Healthier & Lose Weight

These are the same strategies we use every day despite working 80+ hours a week!
Start Lesson 1
Note: When you click the button, you will be joining The White Coat Trainer email list. You may unsubscribe at any time

Don't Know What To Eat?

Download this valuable FREE Table that goes over the best foods from each category (so that you no longer need to guess which foods are healthy and which one's arent)
YES- SEND ME THE TEMPLATE NOW

The WCT's Best Compound Exercises E-Book

Download this valuable FREE E-Book that goes over the best compound exercises for each body part (so that you stop wasting your time doing mediocre exercises)
YES- SEND ME THE TEMPLATE NOW

Want To Build Muscle & Gain Strength But You Don't Know How To Get Started?

Download this valuable FREE 10 Step Checklist that goes over the exact step-by-step formula that ensures your workouts are optimized for results!
YES- SEND ME THE CHECKLIST NOW!

Want To Build Muscle & Gain Strength But You Don't Know How To Get Started?

Get 4 Free Full-Body Workouts plus a 10 Step Checklist that goes over the exact step-by-step formula that ensures your workouts are optimized for results!
YES- SEND ME THE  PDF NOW