Looking to get lean and show off your hard work? To make those muscles pop, you need a lower body fat percentage while preserving that hard-earned muscle mass.
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But here's the hard part: Muscle is high-maintenance and requires a specific type of diet, training and recovery plan to preserve, especially if you're looking to lose body fat at the same time. That means you need to cut your calories slowly, spend some extra time in the weight room and make sleep a high priority.
1. Cut Your Calories... Slowly
In order to drop excess body fat, you need a caloric deficit, meaning you consume fewer calories than you burns each day, according to the Mayo Clinic. While you can cut as many as 500 to 1,000 calories a day to lose weight safely, you need to ease into your deficit in order to keep as much muscle mass as possible.
After testing two different weight-loss regimens, researchers of an April 2011 study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that athletes on a slower weight-loss plan lost more fat and actually gained muscle mass during the trial.
On the other hand, those who followed a faster weight-loss regimen did lose fat but gained no muscle mass. Researchers concluded that a weight loss of 0.7 percent per week was optimal for those looking to lose fat but keep (or gain) muscle.
A 2014 review published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition came to a similar conclusion. A weight-loss rate between 0.5 to 1 percent body weight each week helped athletes keep the most muscle while maximizing fat loss.
The amount of protein you eat also affect your muscle maintenance. Each day, eating between 2.3 to 3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is ideal, according to the above-mentioned review. For a 150-pound adult, that means consuming between 156 and 210 grams of protein each day.
Healthy fats, like olive oil and avocado should make up between 15 to 30 percent of your daily calories, according to that same review. Then, the remainder of your daily calories can come from carbohydrates.
2. Focus on Strength Training and HIIT
If you want to lose fat and keep your muscle, you'll need to combine your nutritional efforts with consistent resistance training, according to a January 2018 study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. After a small group of people were assigned to either follow a diet, resistance program or both, researchers found that those who followed both programs experienced the best results.
The type of exercise you do makes a difference, too. Strength training helps your body retain more muscle mass than cardio while you're in a calorie deficit, according to an October 2017 study published in Obesity.
For the best results, base your workout regimen around strength training and consider including compound movements (ones that involve more than one joint) like the chest press and deadlifts to target several muscles at once.
While a majority of your weekly workouts should take place in the weight room, cardio is still important for your heart health. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is great for burning calories quickly and may also help you maintain muscle while you're losing fat, according to a June 2012 study published in the Journal of Obesity.
HIIT involves alternating between short intervals of high-intensity work and rest or active recovery, spiking your heart rate and revving your metabolism.
3. Prioritize Quality Sleep
Your recovery regimen is just as important as your exercise and diet, especially if you want to keep as much muscle mass as possible. Even one hour lost sleep can cause your body to lose less fat when on a calorie deficit, according to a February 2018 study published in Sleep.
While you sleep, your body produces human growth hormone, which stimulates muscle growth, according to the National Sleep Foundation. During this time, your body increases blood flow to the muscles, which helps repair damaged tissues post-workout.
Sleep also helps minimize your body's production of cortisol, which is also known as your stress hormone, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Higher levels of cortisol have also been associated with increased fat stores, particularly in the abdominal area, according to the University of New Mexico.
Sleep demands vary from person to person, but you should try and get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night on a consistent basis.
- Mayo Clinic: "Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Effect of Two Different Weight-Loss Rates on Body Composition and Strength and Power-Related Performance in Elite Athletes"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Evidence-Based Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Nutrition and Supplementation"
- International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism: "Resistance Training Combined With Diet Decreases Body Fat While Preserving Lean Mass Independent of Resting Metabolic Rate: A Randomized Trial."
- Obesity: "Effect of Exercise Type During Intentional Weight Loss on Body Composition in Older Adults with Obesity"
- Journal of Obesity: "The Effect of High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise on Body Composition of Overweight Young Males"
- Sleep: "Influence of Sleep Restriction on Weight Loss Outcomes Associated with Caloric Restriction"
- National Sleep Foundation: "How Sleep Adds Muscle"
- National Sleep Foundation: "The Physiology of Sleep — The Endocrine System & Sleep"
- University of New Mexico: "Cortisol Connection: Tips on Managing Stress and Weight"