One of the most difficult things to do when you’re trying to lose fat is to lose the fat and maintain the muscle. Here is how to lose fat and maintain muscle at the same time. In fact, you can even lose fat and gain muscle. How would that be?
Losing fat often entails losing muscle for two reasons; restricted calorie diets that contain insufficient nutrients to support muscle tissue, and two sides of the same coin, training. Many people train incorrectly when they are looking to lose fat, and that costs them valuable muscle tissue. They either over train when they are trying to lose fat, they rely on diet only, or they do cardio training exclusively in their quest for fat loss.
Any of these mistakes are muscle killers, and that’s a cryin’ shame, because it is the muscle that keeps your metabolic rate elevated, and causes you to burn more calories and fat 24/7, not simply when you’re in the gym, on the bike or slogging through yet another mile on the trail.
In many cases increased fat is associated with reduced activity levels. It is easy to fall into the trap, what with the demands of job, family, and X-Box, and before long, the pounds begin to pile on. It is not simply the fat increase, it is the decrease in skeletal muscle tissue that often accompanies fat gain. This decrease is what can be so devastating to your ability to lose fat and lead an active lifestyle in the future.
So, how can you lose your fat and either maintain, or better still, increase your muscle?
1 – Maintain sufficient nutrition and calories to sustain muscle growth. One of the primary mistakes people make when they begin to lose weight is to cut back too far on their calories, and important nutrients. This will cause initial weight loss, but it deprives your body of the essential nutrients it needs to support muscle maintenance, and in a better world, muscle growth. Eat 6 small, highly nutritious meals every day. Never go more than about 4 hours (during your waking hours) without eating. This helps assure maximum nutrient absorption and utilization. In addition, eating on such a schedule helps your body keep its’ metabolic rate elevated.
If you are lifting weights in a high intensity training program, balance your meals to include (by calorie content) about 40% protein, 15% carbohydrates (low glycemic index carbs derived from vegetables and whole grains), and 45% healthy fats that are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and low in saturated fat. Don’t eat a low fat diet, like we all did in the ’80’s. It is not the best for your health and you will shortchange your fat loss efforts. You need to eat fat to burn fat. Two great sources of Omega-3 fatty acids are fish oil supplements and flax seed meal. I eat a nice sized helping of golden flax seed meal with my oatmeal and protein powder every morning. Try it!
Several recent studies have indicated that low carbohydrate diets are very effective for losing fat while gaining muscle mass, if the proper training regimen is followed. One such study, conducted by Volek et al. at the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Connecticut, found that “Considering the effectiveness of very low carbohydrate diets (VLCDs) in promoting fat loss and improving the metabolic syndrome, discounting or condemning their use is unjustified.”
To determine how many calories you need, see my post on How Many Calories Should I Eat to Lose Weight.
2 – Make sure you get enough protein. This is a corollary to number 1 above, but it is easy to get insufficient protein to support muscle growth if you’re trying to lose fat. If you are in a high intensity resistance training program (and you probably should be if you want to multiply your fat loss results) you should eat about 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass. If you’re training really hard, such as at competitive athlete levels, you can up this to 1gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. Get your protein from a good quality protein powder, plenty of fish (check for safety to ensure the type of fish you eat is not contaminated with heavy metals such as mercury)
If you do not know how much lean body mass you have, you’ll need to get tested somewhere, or purchase one of the scales that uses low current electricity to measure your body fat. This is a great idea anyway, because it will let you see exactly how much fat you’ve lost and if you are gaining or losing muscle. This knowledge allows you to adjust your training and diet programs accordingly.
3 – Use high intensity resistance training to ensure you help keep your metabolism high and have adequate muscle stimulation to avoid muscle wasting. High intensity resistance training with reasonably heavy weights will give your muscles the stimulation they require to initiate hypertrophy. That is the big, fancy word kinesiologists use to mean your muscles are growing. You can use weights, resistance bands, or body weight exercises, although in many cases you’ll want to use a combination of all three. If you are extremely heavy, check with your doctor to make sure you can safely engage in an exercise program without damaging your knees, heart, or other body parts.
Warm up your muscles and joints by doing some high repetition (14 – 20 reps) sets with very light weights before you begin. This will get blood flowing trough your muscles to help prevent injury. Do relatively slow movements on the down or in phase and somewhat faster movements on the actual lifting portion of the movement. Proper form is essential at all times. Don’t jerk, fish around, or use any Saturday Night Fever gyrations to help you lift the weight, or you can easily tweak something or get more seriously injured. After your warm up is complete, choose a weight you can barely lift 7 times on the first set. Do 4 total sets of each exercise. Personally, I’ve had the best results doing 2 or 3 exercises per body part. You may be need to do more, or be able to do only one or two exercises per body part. For example, if I could get maximum results by doing only 4 set s of dumbbell bench presses for chest, I damn sure would.
4 – Don’t over train or under train. Kind of like Goldilocks and the 3 bears, you’re shooting for “just right”. You need adequate recovery time to allow your muscles to recover form your workouts and grow. The harder you train, the longer you should wait between workouts to allow adequate recovery time. Some people have a better ability to recover from training sessions than others. All things being equal, the older you get, the longer it takes to recover. In most cases 5 – 7 days is a perfect interval between training the same body parts. Some people require more than this and some people can train each body part more frequently.
5 – Get plenty of sleep every night. Your muscles do most of their recovery and growing when you’re asleep, so don’t shoot yourself and your progress in the foot by not getting at least 7 – 8 hours of quality sleep every night. Studies have discovered that sleep, or lack thereof, affects protein synthesis and growth hormone production. Obviously, these things are vital to get your maximum muscle growth. In fact, human growth hormone (HGH) levels are elevated during sleep, and the longer you sleep, the longer they stay that way. HGH has been shown to have a positive effect on skeletal muscle and lowering body fat levels. Since almost half of your total HGH production happens during the 3rd and forth REM sleep stages, it stands to reason that spending little time in these stages will dramatically decrease your body’s HGH production.
A 2007 Stanford University study demonstrated that male test subjects over 60 years of age gained almost 5 pounds of muscle and lost almost 5 pounds of fat as the direct result of HGH therapy. HGH therapy in young patients on the other hand, has been theoretically linked to several problems including certain types of cancers and diabetes. Naturally maximizing your own body’s natural production of the hormone has not been shown to cause such problems, however.
6 – Stay well hydrated. Your muscles are made up of mostly water, so you obviously need plenty of the stuff to keep the functioning at their peak, and to make sure they continue growing. There are other great reasons to drink plenty of water when you’re trying to lose fat. Your water intake should be about 96oz of water per day, including the water you get from your food. Heavy training and hot weather will increase this requirement. Basically, you should drink enough water that you’re urine is consistently pretty close to clear.
One reason is simply that drinking cold water requires your body to burn calories in order to heat it to your body temperature. Those are calories you would have otherwise had to cut back on or work off using some other method, like 3 sets of dumbbell presses, or something.
The big reason that you should drink enough water is that your liver, which is tasked with most of your body’s fat metabolization, needs enough water to function efficiently. Too little water and the liver not only doesn’t function as efficiently as it could, it will spend much of it’s time assisting the kidneys, which also need plenty of water in order to do their work. Too little water ad the kidneys look to the liver for help, which means it is not doing all it can to help you burn fat.
These 6 things are essential to help you burn fat and maintain muscle. Actually, if you do them correctly, you should be able to burn fat and increase muscle, and wouldn’t that make you look a damn sight better! I know it would me.