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How to burn fat without losing muscle

When you’ve spent months slogging away at the gym, eating a calorie surplus and seeing your 1RM go up and up, you might start to feel ready to heading into a cutting phase.

Regardless of how much (or how little) muscle you’ve added to your frame, the only way to get that lean athletic look is to start cutting away at the fat that covers the muscle.

In order to lose fat you need to achieve a negative energy balance, or basically ensuring your calories are below your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure). But here’s the kicker, if you go too low, you’ll start to lose muscle mass as your body turns on your hard won gains for fuel. Keep your calorie intake too high and you’ll cut, but it’ll be a slow and drawn out process.

You’ll end up being the guy everyone knows who’s always on a diet, but never looks any different .

Calorie Intake for Fat Loss and Muscle Preservation

There’s a sweet spot to the number of calories you need to drop to start preserving muscle whilst on a cut, and it’s generally 20%.

You ideally need to be cutting around 20% of your TDEE out of your diet. How you do this depends on you and your diet.

Try and keep protein intake high though, as protein plays a key role in your metabolism but also ensures that your body has a good chance at retaining as muscle cells as possible.

Protein will help keep you satisfied and feeling full, stopping you turning into a sad and h-angry monster. It’s also the hardest macronutrient for your body to digest, meaning you’ll also burn a higher amount of calories in digestion than with other foods.

If you try and get 1.8-2.0 grams of protein per kg1 of your body weight into your diet, you’re setting yourself up for success with your weight cut.

Training for Muscle Preservation

Go to the gym. Lift heavy. It’s really that simple. The best defence is a good offence here, so instead of sitting at home and crying that you are feeling weaker, get up off the sofa, drink a black coffee or try some fat burners and go hit some heavy compound movements.

There’s science to this approach. Because you’re lifting more weight in shorter amounts of time, you’ll feel less fatigued. The compound movements and the heavier weight will also stimulate as much muscle as possible, without needing as much gas in your tank.

When you couple this with the fact that these bigger movements have been shown to increase growth hormone and testosterone2, you’ll give your body even more reason to hang on to your muscle mass.

When the Fatigue Hits…

When you’ve dropped your calories down by 20% and are still hitting the iron with big lifts, you’re going to get fatigued at some point. You’re not Superman. But stick with it, and you will at least look like him.

When the fatigue comes creeping at you, rest. Don’t try to be a hero. Sleep is absolutely crucial to ensuring your body obliterates fat and keeps a tight hold of your muscle.

Too little sleep and you’ll become miserable, frustrated, weak and see cortisol levels start to creep up. Cortisol being a serial killer of testosterone levels. Which in turn will impact your body fat and general well being.

If you start to feel really exhausted, then take a few days off. But remember to adjust your calories according to your sofa and Netflix time. Also keep the Ben and Jerry’s in the freezer.

Obviously this article is quite a one size fits all approach to keeping muscle whilst losing fat, but it isn’t very complicated. Once you know you’re own TDEE you can use resources online to figure out exactly how many calories you need to be dropping out of your diet.

From there, keep protein intake high, lift heavy for shorter sessions and sleeeeeeeeeeeep.

Scientific Citations

Related Guides:

4 reasons why you’re not losing weight

How to get cut and lean


Eddie Bye

Eddie is an expert in health and fitness, having written for some of the biggest health and fitness sites in recent years. Eddie writes content on Elite Health covering a range of fitness topics to help you get the edge.

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