The question of how to burn fat without muscle loss is easily among the most important challenges in one’s weight loss plan. Most people realize that excess fat is really the enemy, not just weight. But many fail to recognize something else when thinking about weight loss and health: MUSCLE IS YOUR FRIEND.
When you want (or need) to lose weight, YOU DO NOT WANT TO LOSE MUSCLE! And when you run a calorie deficit, as is required to lose weight, unless you do it right that weight will include muscle.
Why you should want to burn fat without muscle loss
There are many reasons you want to burn fat without muscle loss.
Muscle burns calories
People often talk about having a “slow metabolism” that makes it hard for them to lose weight. Well, MUSCLE has a FAST METABOLISM. It burns a lot of fuel even when it is not in use, and even more when it is in use. The more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism.
It is estimated that one pound of muscle tissue requires 50-100 calories per day just to survive, even without activity. When you’re sitting on the couch watching TV your muscles are rumbling on idle burning up fuel.
To illustrate the sigificance of this fact, lets estimate that a pound of muscle burns 75 calories/day just to stay alive (halfway between that 50 to 100 range experts estimate). And lets say that you start a resistance training (weights) program and add five pounds of muscle tissue. In such a scenario you would be burning an extra 375 calories per day DOING NOTHING. Depending on your weight that amounts to around the same amount that you would burn running three miles.
And the time you would need to spend in the gym to gain that five pounds of muscle is FAR less than you think, and less than the amount of time it would take for you to run off that many calories.
More muscle simply means FASTER METABOLISM. If you LOSE MUSCLE, your metabolism slows, and you lose that calorie-burning capacity and subsequent weight loss can become more difficult.
Muscle looks good
We’re not talking bodybuilder muscle here, but MUSCLE LOOKS GOOD. Even on very slender people a little muscle gives a toned, tight, healthy look. And think about it. Half the time someone wants to lose weight, it is for asthetic reasons. In other words, to LOOK BETTER.
Muscle IS health
The vast majority of the role of the body’s vital organs – heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, bones – exist primarily to support the function of muscle. When one loses muscle, whether through atrophy, age, or diet, these organs tend to decrease in function along with muscle loss.
The loss of muscle mass is practically synonymous with aging. As people age, they lose muscle, grow weak, and essentially succumb to gravity because the “engine” to resist it simply isn’t strong enough.
How to burn fat without muscle loss
Because of the extremely high value of muscle for all the reasons mentioned above we don’t want to lose it. So can you burn fat without muscle loss?
Muscle is very “metabolically expensive”. That means that it requires LOTS of resources to keep it alive and functioning. For that reason, if it isn’t used the body wants to get rid of it. Why pay for all that upkeep and fuel for something not in use? And this is especially important when you’re on a tight budget (calorically speaking). It’s then that the body MUST get rid of things it can’t “afford” to maintain. If it has no compelling reason to maintain muscle tissue, it goes!
But you CAN give your body a compelling reason to maintain – and even INCREASE – muscle tissue during a period of restricted caloric intake. You do that with RESISTANCE TRAINING (weights). When you put your body under the right kind of stress it will maintain your muscle mass while shedding fat.
And fortunately, it takes surprisingly little resistance exercise to signal the body that it needs the muscle tissue such that it will be preserved.
Actually it’s even better than that. It isn’t that you can “get by” with surprisingly little resistance exercise, but that you MUST LIMIT yourself to a fairly minimal amount of exercise or risk losing muscle!
In Body by Science they describe an experiment they performed showing the effects of diet and resistance training. You can read the book for all the details and the specific kind of resistance training they recommend, but I’ll summarize here.
Over a ten week period subjects were on a calorie-deficit diet and performed a weekly (like ONCE PER WEEK) resistance exercise routine. Based on everything else in the book I would assume that each set is performed very slowly to the point of failure over a period of one to two minutes.
Every two weeks they were measured in a “Bod Pod”, a highly accurate body composition measurement system.
At the start of the experiment subjects performed a six-set workout. That means SIX SETS. So we’re talking 6-12 minutes of actual exercise.
Measurements taken after the first two weeks showed that all subjects lost weight, but they lost both fat and muscle.
After the first two weeks they cut the workouts to four sets (still once per week). Two weeks later – at the 4-week point – they measured again and discovered that all subjects continued to lose fat AND muscle.
Only after reducing subjects to THREE SETS PER WEEK, probably a MAX of SIX MINUTES per week of actual exercise, did they burn fat without muscle loss.
THEN it gets very interesting! For the last two weeks of the study they split subjects into two groups. One group just continued with the restricted calorie intake and three sets of resistance exercise per week. The other group continued with the caloric restrictions, but reduced exercise to TWO SETS PER WEEK.
Over the last two weeks the group that performed three sets continued to lose fat without losing any muscle. The group that performed only two sets per week also continued to lose fat, but INCREASED MUSCLE. Not only that, but they lost fat at TWICE the speed as the three-set group!
Take it for what it’s worth. I’m sure there could be legtimate criticisms leveled against this study, but from the description of the research it sounded pretty well controlled. Surely it has some value in demonstrating that one can burn fat without muscle loss.
Suggestions for improving the study
Personally I would love to see this study repeated where the actual content of the nutritional content was more controlled. Don’t just limit calories, but also break the group into 2-3 subgroups. Still limit the calories, but this time try different ratios of carbs, fats, and proteins.
My guess would be that the higher protein group would probably lose the least muscle or gain the most. Takers anyone?
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