Typically, when you want to “lose weight,” you mean you want to lose fat while maintaining as much muscle as possible. If you’re losing muscle and not fat, then you may need to make some changes to your diet and exercise to counteract this. Dominic Gallo, accredited practicing dietitian and owner of DG Dietetics and Fitness, explains how to cut the fat, but keep the muscle.
Is it possible to cut fat, while still building lean muscle?
“Absolutely,” says Gallo. To do this, you need to be in a slight energy deficit where you are not starving yourself, but are still consuming fewer calories than you are burning. You also need to be eating adequate amounts of protein to achieve this.
However, just eating protein isn’t enough. As Gallo points out, “The key is plenty of exercise (a mix of cardio and resistance). Without stimuli or a trigger, the muscles won’t want to grow, since they aren’t being used.”
Signs That You’re Losing Muscle and Not Fat
Look out for these signs that the weight you are losing is more muscle than fat:
You’re losing too much weight, too fast.
Who would have thought that this could be a bad thing? But, it is, if you’re trying to cut fat while maintaining/growing your muscle mass. Your body can only shed a certain amount of fat before it starts turning to muscle.
Gallo adds, that for accurate readings, don’t simply rely on your normal scales. Instead, “Use scales that measure body fat percentage and muscle mass, to first establish a baseline.” Once you have these measurements, you can “then monitor [your] progress against these numbers.” You want your body fat percentage to decrease, while muscle mass should stay the same or go up.
You feel more tired than usual.
“In a more subjective measure, feeling weak or tired during workouts is a good indication that muscle is being lost,” explains Gallo, including, “not being able to lift as much weight, or [experiencing your] muscles becoming exhausted faster than before.” If you find that you are starting to consistently half-ass your workouts, then it may be a repercussion of losing muscle and not fat.
4 Reasons Why You’re Losing Muscle and Not Fat
1. You’re not eating enough protein.
You need to feed your muscles protein to maintain and build them. Gallo sees “a multitude of fad diets and cleanses, which drop water weight (not [an] effective method of weight loss) and cause muscle loss.” He explains that since these fad diets often lack protein, they cause your body to enter a “muscle destroying starvation mode, [called] catabolism.”
The Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise medical journal also published a study that showed the correlation between increased protein and “reduced loss of lean body mass.” Healthy, young, elite athletes that were given a high-protein diet lost more weight while still maintaining muscle over those who had a “normal” amount of protein in their diet.
So, while you should be in a calorie deficit to lose fat, you should be focusing on healthy whole foods, with a healthy amount of protein. To help maintain or build muscle, Gallo recommends eating “fish, lean meat, eggs, tofu, and low-fat dairy.”
2. You’re not using your muscles.
Not using your muscles can cause them to waste away, so make sure that you strength train. “Resistance exercises and high-intensity cardio are fantastic for building muscle and cutting fat,” says Gallo. “I love multi-joint compound exercises, such as squats, deadlift, bench press, pull-ups, and any high-intensity cardio.”
Not to mention, because muscles burn more calories than fat, you will be helping yourself if you strength train. Not only will you be able to grow muscle, but you can aid in your weight loss. So, use those muscles or lose them!
3. You’re not allowing yourself to recover.
People often blame muscle loss on too much cardio, and while Gallo agrees, he does so only to a certain extent. “Too much cardio is the classic muscle loss enemy, but [it] gets a bad rap. Doing too much cardio with inadequate recovery will certainly lead to muscle wasting,” he explains.
However, he adds, “if you consume some protein in your cardio recovery and train resistance/weights at least two to three times per week, there should be no reason to lose muscle.” So, the key is to make sure that you get that protein in, without neglecting your strength training for cardio.
4. You’re not sleeping enough.
Part of that pivotal recovery progress is getting enough shut-eye. Not getting enough sleep raises cortisol levels in the body. This imbalance can mess with growth hormone production, which increases the chance that the carbs you consume will be stored as fat. It also slows muscle growth which leads to—you guessed it—more fat.
Also, compare your training and energy levels after a bad night’s sleep and a good night’s sleep. We’ll bet that you are much more efficient and energetic when you’ve had a good night’s sleep. Make sure that you get your rest so that when do you work out, it is a great session.