Lose fat; not muscle?
April 19, 2010 2:34 PM   Subscribe

How can I lose fat, without losing a significant amount of muscle mass?

Recently, I've been eating a lot more calories and protein, lifting weights, etc., and I managed to put on 20+ pounds over the last few months. I would estimate about 5 pounds of that is fat (actually, I have no idea, but most of it was muscle). Now, it's nice and sunny outside, my gym membership expired, and I'd like to go running and burn off the extra fat; really chisel things out.

I know every fitness website ever has advice for how to do this without losing a lot of muscle (and thus wasting a lot of time), but anecdotal advice for this sort of thing is usually better. Any suggestions/guidelines for diet and exercise for this sort of thing?

P.S. I am a fairly skinny guy. Pay no attention to the user name.
posted by fatty magoo to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 2:38 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cut down on the carbs, particularly the simple ones.
posted by Madamina at 2:39 PM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Check out the articles on bodyrecomposition.com, and John Sheaffer's nutrition forum on startingstrength.com.

Cliff's notes:
-Reduce caloric intake
-Maintain adequate protein intake (~1g/lb of bodyweight)
-Reduce training volume (i.e. total repsXsets)
-Maintain training intensity (i.e. %age of 1RM)
-Eat carbs in the morning, avoid them at night
-Aim to lose fat gradually
posted by ludwig_van at 2:40 PM on April 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

-Maintain adequate protein intake (~1g/lb of bodyweight)

Daily??? That's a lotta protein....
posted by schmod at 2:48 PM on April 19, 2010

Not if your weight training.
posted by lakerk at 3:02 PM on April 19, 2010

1g/lb seems a bit high to me. ACSM recommends 1.6g/kg for 'power' athletes.
posted by rbellon at 3:08 PM on April 19, 2010

Judging by caliper and tape measure readings, I have done this successfully this year. I actually sent an email to a friend the other day describing what I have done, so I'm just going to paste it below. Sorry about the formatting and the metric measurements. Also note, I'm a 40 year old man. My main goal has been improving my power to weight ratio for capoeira rather than body building or pure strength. The max deadlift mentioned below is 380lb which I'm pretty pleased with as a mere amateur.


At the end of January I weighed 83.2 kg. Now I weigh 77.6 kg. This is very roughly a tad over a pound a week. As far as I can tell from calipers and tape measure and maximum lifts, the loss was mostly fat not muscle (my max deadlift has actually gone up a bit). My plan was to get to 75 kg and I think when I'm there, I'll be about 10% bf and I'll be starting to think about whether I want to eat a bit more protein and go for some muscle gain. But anyway right now a 6kg loss seems like the crucial factor in my new found ability to press up from headstand into handstand.

As you may have noticed, I've lost weight and regained it before over the last few years so I've been around this loop once or twice. In this most recent iteration I've had the quickest success ever and the least modification to my un-fettered eating habits, so I think it's worth recommending for consideration. (Actually I kind of did this last time, and indeed my last "peak" weight was considerably less than my all time high because I never really went back to gobbling bread and pasta and baked goods all the time).

This is the eating regime:

- no beer, except on special occasions*
- no more than a bottle of wine per week
- no biscuits, cakes, or confectionary, except on special occasions. I do have a row of Whittakers Dark Ghana every day though. It's good for you, you know.
- no white bread, no white rice, no pasta, no potatoes, except on special occasions
- most evening meals, no carbohydrate main dish**
- eating more protein during the day in the form of eggs, tinned fish, cold chicken from the deli counter, what have you
- eating more raw vegetables during the day
- skipping breakfast 2 or 3 times a week and not eating until 11 or 12***

* special occasion being once a month kind of frequency.
** in my experience if I cut out all carbs I "bonk" and it's just not possible for me to be very physically active, so I eat porridge for breakfast and I have sandwiches or baked sweet potato or whatever as part of my lunch.
*** I started doing this about a month ago, and rate of weight loss has accelerated since, even though I feel like I might be eating more at other meals to compensate.

Within those rules, I eat about the same physical volume as before, maybe more. I don't worry about fat or oil, but I do keep an eye on sugar and refined carbs.

I don't keep biscuits or cake or snack food in the house, so it's not around to tempt me -- if we're expecting visitors, i'll get or make something for the occasion and when it's gone it's gone.

The approach is what you might call slacker's paleo. I do eat dairy, and I eat the sourdough bread I make myself (though not that much), and I eat legumes that have been soaked properly first. The breakfast skipping is essentially a mild form of intermittent fasting, which all the cool kids are into these days.


- commuting by bike every day, which is basically Mt Vic summit to Willis St and back [note for Mefi post, this is 5km from sea level to 200m]
- capoeira twice a week
- lifting weights twice a week. Really damned heavy weights, few exercises, few sets, eg deadlift 2x5, military press 2x5, chins with weights on belt 2x5, dips with weights on belt 2x5, that's it.
- keeping a spreadsheet recording morning weight with a graph every day

... but everything I've been reading lately tells me that diet makes the big difference. Exercise makes you hungry and it's hard not to eat more so there's very much diminishing returns in hours of exercise. Certainly seems to be true for me.

The spreadsheet is awesome because it keeps me aware of what's going on. I graph the 7 day moving average so the trend is obvious and it doesn't matter if there's a blip up for a few days. I keep little notes like whether I ate heaps at a party the day before or whatever interesting things might have happened so I can see whether there's a correlation over time.

A few things that have been kind of inspirational:

- http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/
- http://leangains.blogspot.com/
- http://www.marksdailyapple.com/
- http://www.stumptuous.com/
- "Dr Gundry's Diet Evolution", which has some dodgy evolutionary explanations but some effective eating guidelines (it's in the public library)
- Gary Taubes "Good Calories, Bad Calories", also in the public library

Ultimately I don't really know whether the contrarian advice about high protein and infrequent heavy meals and refined carb avoidance is true or not -- it's not my field and I find it hard to assess the research -- but all I can say is that it's working for me in the moderate (or half-arsed) form that I practise it, whereas my Dad follows the (standard) advice of his doctors and gets heavier and heavier. My workmate Meredith lost so much weight I was worried she had some kind of illness on a more extreme version of the same approach. That might not be so good for you long term, I suspect.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:37 PM on April 19, 2010 [24 favorites]

Get your body fat composition actually measured so you can compare before and after for various activities and tweak accordingly.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:38 PM on April 19, 2010

I'm just throwing the P90-X idea again.
My brother did it, and I have never seen him so lean and muscular - looks better at 39 than he did as an athlete in college!
posted by LilBit at 3:47 PM on April 19, 2010

I think I should add that I'm not a weight-loss poster child. The heaviest I've ever been (height 5'8") is 190lb a couple of years ago and my weight loss is strictly for athletic and vanity reasons, not health. The last few years I've noticed a pattern of summer weight gain (here in the Southern Hemisphere Christmas and New Year and summer holidays mean an extended eating and boozing period over December and January) which I then try and shed once the holidays are over. But since that peak of 190 the highs and lows are both lower.

I don't see myself altering my current regime for the future much though. It feels pretty sustainable.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:21 PM on April 19, 2010

Cutting carbs and junk food, eating a lot of protein, and doing High Intensity Interval Training (eg Tabata) is the generally accepted method.
posted by aesacus at 5:39 PM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

...20+ pounds over the last few months. I would estimate about 5 pounds of that is fat...

Then you sir, are a god. Because the maximum amount of muscle a person can put on is about 2 lbs a month.
posted by 517 at 5:48 PM on April 19, 2010

How can I lose fat, without losing a significant amount of muscle mass?

Well, you can't lose fat if you're eating your fill of calories. It won't work: your body will not tap into fat reserves until it has no other choice. I would suggest you put aside the idea of not losing muscle mass. While perhaps not the best method, one of the easiest methods (provided you don't have some more deep-seated psychological issues with food) is to just eat way, way less for a short time. Yes, you lose muscle mass. So you offset this by increasing your caloric intake (concentrating heavily in proteins) in the short-term while focusing on bulk-building exercises like squats, incline bench, leg press, etc.

Basically you go over and then starve under. If you're 150 lbs. right now and you've been working out, the "cut" you is probably 140, which is probably not your ideal. So you concentrate on building up to 165 and then cut your caloric intake in half. Yes, it will suck for about 3 months. Then it's simply maintenance; go back to normal caloric intake and keep exercising.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:57 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Its all diet. diet diet diet. P90x works not because of the workouts but because of the diet + the workouts.

Also, you probably gained a lot more fat than you think. The whole maximum amount of muscle you can put on in a month idea is rather silly, but if you are gaining weight at a fast clip you are gaining muscle as well as fat, if you hit a 1:1 ratio of lbs muscle gained to lbs fat gained you would be doing very well.

If you quit your gym membership and start distance running you will get super skinny (look at marathon runner body types). If you want to look like a muscled sprinter look up how they typically work out, short high intensity sprints and lots of weights.
posted by outsider at 5:59 PM on April 19, 2010

body type analysis:

posted by outsider at 6:01 PM on April 19, 2010

While his site seems like (er, is...) a horrible grotesque eMarketing explosion (WARNING!), I've found Tom Venuto's ideas in "Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle" to be very effective. I think a lot of it is known by body builders, and roughly follows some of the advice already listed in this thread, especially that given by ludwig_van and aesacus, and some of it overlaps with i_am_joe's_spleen practices too. But he lays it all out nicely and is straightforward about the fact that it just takes work. I also like that he stays away from promoting dietary supplements and generally is really not about anything gimmicky--he doesn't lie and say it's easy, he's about changing your overall life-long dietary strategies.

Some simple things he says that I like and that I keep in mind when I'm not really trying very hard to keep a good diet (like lately...although I remain in good shape and have relatively low body-fat...but, um, I had some ice cream tonight...):

1) Eat from the "perimeter of the grocery store," not the center aisles (I think Michael Pollan has said something much like this).

2) If you were to simply cut out "bad carbs" (simple sugars), avoid drinking your calories (soda = evil, juice isn't a lot better, booze has 7 calories to a gram, and can actually slow your metabolism and help you gain fat), and space your meals out so that you keep your metabolism up throughout the day, you'll burn more and gain less fat. He gets pretty analytical about macro-nutrient ratios and whatnot, but just these simple ideas are pretty effective. Again, nothing most body-builders don't know, but I didn't really know these things before I read his e-book.

3) HIIT (high intensity interval training) is awesome because, unlike regular cardio, evidently kicks your metabolism up so that hours after you work out you are still burning at a higher volume.

4) Muscle burns fat. The more muscle you have the more energy you'll be consuming. Of course, you have to feed your muscles too...

5) DON'T deny yourself a fun, rich "bad" meal a few times a week. If you do, it's more likely you'll drop the ball sooner or later, and it's also not going to kill you if you are overall keeping a good diet.

That's just the stuff that comes to mind readily. There's more.
posted by dubitable at 6:31 PM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Because the maximum amount of muscle a person can put on is about 2 lbs a month.

That's a myth.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:18 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't favorite i_am_joe's_spleen's links enough, especially Mark's Daily Apple. I think he has the best introduction to what is the cutting edge in diet and exercise.
posted by SouthCNorthNY at 7:20 AM on April 20, 2010

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