When going into a fat-loss phase, there is often concern around whether muscle will also be lost. Muscle is difficult to gain for most people, so who wants to lose it when going through a fat-loss phase?
Firstly, I should say that the likelihood is that in a fat-loss phase, there may be some muscle loss. But there isn’t always, and even when there is, there are definitely ways of minimising the loss.
1. Eat in a Slight Caloric Deficit
There are no two ways about it: In order to lose weight, you must be in a caloric deficit, meaning that you are expending more energy (calories) than you are using, and the extent of that caloric deficit determines how quickly you’ll lose weight.
So, why not just eat as few calories as possible? Sure, you’ll lose a lot of fat if you do so, but you also run the risk of not being able to perform optimally in GAA training and matches, losing muscle, feeling crap, and eventually not being able to keep it up.
Think about it: If you’re hungry and lacking energy all the time, you won’t want to train, you’ll think about and crave food all the time, and you’ll hate the whole process. It’s unnecessary and frankly leads to disaster most of the time.
Instead, what we want to do is eat in a way that is allowing us to lose weight whilst not feeling hungry all the time, feel energised in training, and supply our body with enough energy to carry out its biological processes.
In order to do so, I would recommend eating in a 10–20% deficit, meaning that someone who maintains their weight at 2500 kcal should eat around 2000–2250 kcal per day. You could go more extreme than that, but doing so can put you closer to that stage of risking muscle loss and the other factors mentioned earlier.
2. Use Resistance Training (lift weights)
One of the main factors that will cause the body to maintain muscle tissue is to regularly put a stress on the muscle, and allow for subsequent recovery.
Let’s put this into the evolutionary context. Our bodies have evolved to be survival-oriented machines. When we under-eat, which is essentially what we do when we eat in a caloric deficit, one way in which the body adapts is by using more muscle protein for energy.
Fortunately, the body is very adaptable, and one way of thinking about it is that if we signal to the body that it’s going to need muscle in the near future, by strength training in the gym, for example, it is more likely to hold on to muscle tissue.
It’s likely that the same training modalities used to gain muscle are the ones that are going to be beneficial for maintaining muscle. That is, progressively overloading mainly compound movements. There’s no need to think you have to change up your training to HIIT training or very high-rep weight training because of its supposed fat-burning effects. Remember, being in a caloric deficit is going to cause your weight-loss, and resistance training is going to be a priority when it comes to maintaining muscle.
3. Eat Enough Protein
Our muscle tissue is made primarily of protein. The muscle mass that we have is determined by Muscle breakdown vs. Muscle Synthesis (creation of new muscle).
By eating enough protein, we supply the amino acids needed to build new muscle, and we are able to elicit a muscle synthesis response, which skews the MPB vs. MPS equation in our preferred direction.
By eating adequate protein, we also allow for recovery from exercise, which means we continue to get on with our strength training in the gym, and elicit that muscle maintenance response we spoke about earlier.
Protein sources also tend to be quite filling, which can help when not eating as much food as we’re used to, allowing us to stick to our nutrition plan.
4. Use Cardio as a Tool, but Not Excessively
Often we make the mistake of taking on extra laps around the field, or “Fat-burning” workouts or hours on the cardio machines, in order to try burn body fat.
But if this is replacing our resistance training, we’re missing out on those benefits. Also, if you're already doing a lot of running at training, adding more on top of this is going to add to the stress on the body, creating greater fatigue, and therefore greater recovery requirements.
Remember, when it comes to fat loss, eating in a calorie deficit is our main priority. Cardio can help us here, however. Let’s say we expend an extra 300 kcal on a stationary bike. That means that we can eat an extra 300 kcal for that day, and still be within our calorie deficit for the day.
However, when we take this too far, we begin to see that it interferes with our resistance training, which is our main training priority, as well as potentially increasing appetite, which obviously isn’t conducive to staying in a caloric deficit.
So yes, we can use some extra cardio to elicit an extra caloric deficit, potentially allowing us to eat more, or go into a further deficit, but if that causes our GAA training, resistance training and recovery to suffer, or affects adherence to our nutrition, then it’s probably too much.
Obviously there are other advantages to cardiovascular training, but in the context of fat-loss and muscle building, these are the main considerations.
5. Be Consistent and Patient
This is probably where most people fall down.
Progress is never completely linear, so it’s important to do the right things consistently over the long term, in order to ensure we aren’t misinterpreting slow or non-linear progress as lack of progress.
Some of the previously mentioned things will help here. Not being in too much of an energy deficit will be better for adherence than a more intense energy deficit. Not adding hours of cardio per week is going to be easier to adhere to than doing hours every day. Eating high-protein foods that keep you full is also likely to lead to better adherence.
Also, getting in shape usually takes longer than people think, so setting up with a long-term view is more in line with reality. If we are able to take a long-term view on the situation, perhaps we won’t be disappointed when the scale isn’t moving as we think it should, or when we temporarily go off-side from our nutrition plan.
So In summary, in order to lose fat, whilst maintaining as much muscle as possible, I recommend 5 things:
Eating in a slight calorie deficit,
Doing resistance training,
Eating enough protein,
Using cardio, but not excessively,
and being consistent and patient.
Conor O'Neill, Know Yourself Nutrition