Drop weight too quickly or with an unhealthy diet plan and the number on the scale might go down, but you'll lose valuable muscle in the process. Follow a weight-loss protocol that helps you lose body fat, not just overall weight. Strength-train as you lose weight to gain muscle, creating a lean, taut physique that is strong and healthy. Don't worry about creating a masculine appearance, either. It takes specialized training, a genetic predisposition and, sometimes, supplements to look like a female bodybuilder.
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A Calorie Deficit to Lose Fat
You may want quick results when it comes to weight loss, but slow and steady helps you ensure it's fat you're dropping. When you severely cut calories, usually below 1,200 calories per day, your body starts to eat into lean muscle tissue to provide fuel. That ultimately slows down your metabolism, so you'll have a harder time getting down to your goal weight.
Create a 250- to 500-calorie deficit to lose just 1/2 to 1 pound of fat per week. Figure out how many calories you need to maintain your weight using an online calculator that accounts for your size, age and activity level. Subtract 250 to 500 calories from that number to determine how many calories you should eat daily. If you want to lose a pound per week, you are best off combining exercise and dietary changes to create the 500-calorie deficit. Increase your daily activity to burn an extra 250 calories per day while eating 250 fewer calories.
Careful Food Choices
The type of foods you choose to fill your plate affects your ability to lose fat and gain muscle. Make meals consist of "clean" foods -- meaning unprocessed, whole choices such as fresh vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, nuts and seeds, low-fat dairy and whole grains. Ditch the meal-replacement shakes, cereal bars, white breads and grains, sugary treats, soda and most alcohol.
Divide your calorie needs over four to six mini meals daily to help combat cravings and keep you feeling satisfied. Breakfast, lunch and dinner should each contain a serving of protein, whole grains and vegetables. Have snack-sized meals of low-fat dairy, such as cottage cheese, yogurt or cheese, with fruit or more vegetables. Arranging an eating plan with multiple small meals daily also allows for adequate fueling around your workout, which can help boost muscle growth.
The Importance of Protein for Gaining Muscle
High-quality lean protein helps keep you feeling full, so it's easier to cut calories without feeling deprived. Lean protein supports muscle growth too. Aim to consume about 0.55 gram per pound of body weight per day to help prevent muscle loss as you experience a calorie deficit. Optimal sources include skinless poultry, lean steak, white fish, eggs and tofu.
Consuming protein before and after your weight-training session at the gym supports muscle repair and growth. Whole-food proteins are good choices but are not always practical. A scoop of whey protein, however, is portable and can be mixed into a cup of milk or water for a quick 20 to 30 grams of protein per serving. Be sure to count these pre- and post-workout meals in your total calories eaten for the day.
Weight-Train for a Lean Physique
Even if you follow the dietary guidelines for fat loss and lose at a slow, steady rate, 25 percent of every pound lost will be in the form of lean muscle if you fail to strength-train. Aim for at least two sessions per week; increase the days you strength-train to three or four as you progress.
Whole-body strength-training sessions that target all the major muscle groups help rev your metabolism and promote growth. Aim for at least one exercise that targets the chest, back, hips, hamstrings, quadriceps, triceps, biceps, shoulders and abs at each workout. Women can train exactly like men, using compound exercises, such as dead lifts, chest presses and lunges, which target several muscles at once.
If you're just starting out, opt for body weight exercises such as dips, pushups and squats with one to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions of each move. After a few weeks, start to use weights that make your effort feel very difficult in the last one to two repetitions. When 12 repetitions feels doable, increase weight further on that particular exercise. Once you feel stronger and are comfortable with weight training, increase the number of reps to between three and six to build greater muscle size, if desired. Avoid training the same muscle group on back-to-back days; give muscles at least 48 hours to recover from a strength workout.
Every four to six weeks, adjust your strength-training routine to prevent getting stuck in a plateau that stalls your weight loss and fitness gains. Reorder the exercises, add new exercises or use different equipment -- switch to kettle bells instead of dumbbells, for example.
Some Cardio Improves Fat Loss
Getting the minimum 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise weekly helps boost your calorie burn rate and keeps your heart and lungs healthy. Make a few of these sessions involve high-intensity interval training, which involves alternating high-intensity and low-intensity efforts. For example, after a five-minute warm-up on the treadmill, alternate running a minute at a near all-out pace with a minute of walking. A paper published in the Journal of Obesity in 2011 concluded that HIIT is more effective in burning fat than exercise done consistently at a moderate intensity. Don't try to do HIIT every day, or you'll overfatigue your muscles; two to three times per week is adequate.