Lose fat, keep muscle

Whenever I speak to individuals who have made it their goal to lose body fat, they all tend to make the same mistakes. These mistakes are often easy to avoid following an understanding of what works best for your body to drop body fat. I’m not saying this is what you might enjoy the most, but below are tips on what I have used with my clients as the most effective strategies for fat loss.

1. Preserving muscle
Individuals always end up adopting a strategy that makes it impossible for them to preserve muscle mass. Who cares right? Unfortunately not. The number one priority when attempting to lose fat should be to keep the muscle you have. Why? Losing muscle will make it harder to look good when losing the fat, but most importantly, it will make it harder to lose fat since muscle tissue is metabolically responsible for most of the fat you lose. For example, 20 pounds of muscle burns 100kcal per day even at rest, so if you lose 20 pounds of muscle, you will burn 100 fewer calories per day, or 700 fewer calories per week. This can make a significant difference in the long run. Also, if you have more muscle mass, you can lift heavier weights and train harder, which increases the amount of calories you burn during a workout.

2. Insulin sensitivity
Another key issue in preserving muscle mass is insulin sensitivity. The more muscle mass you have, the greater the insulin sensitivity. Not bothered? A larger muscle has more insulin receptors, which makes the muscle more insulin sensitive. In the most basic terms possible, this means that you’ll tend to store more of what you eat in the muscles instead of as body fat. (check this post to find out more information on the role insulin plays within the body )

3. Avoiding moderate intensity, steady state cardio
Moderate intensity steady state cardio, the type that most people are doing when trying to lose fat, is one of the worst ways to drop fat and preserve muscle. Why? This type of exercise increases free radical damage whilst also elevating the level of the hormone cortisol within the body. Most importantly, moderate intensity, steady state cardio stimulates the release for long enough to elevate it significantly. Why does this matter? When our bodies are under stress, cortisol helps to increase the concentration of glucose in our blood so there’s readily-available energy for our muscles to utilise. Cortisol secretion is a natural response to stress and it’s a good thing when released infrequently and for short periods as it helps the body deal with the threat to homeostasis (the normal state). However, when we’re exposed to chronic and consistently elevated cortisol for extended periods of time, we experience long-term consequences, showing associations with fat gain, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease and all causes of mortality.

4. Performing slow and easy or fast and torrid cardio
When it comes to doing cardio for fat loss, it’s either slow and easy (walking) or fast and torrid (HIIT). As we discussed above, the middle ground can make you fatter and more likely to experience other consequences. Low intensity cardio, such as walking at a relaxed pace for 1 hour can help to lower cortisol levels by having a relaxing effect. I recommend my clients perform this type of activity 3 times per week. Alternatively, we focus on high-intensity work (HIIT) for the best way to drop body fat. Performing high intensity work, such as intervals, sprinting, tabata, farmers walks and/or battle ropes lasting 20 minutes or less, have been shown to produce equal aerobic improvements and greater fat loss (short sprint intervals) when compared to moderate intensity exercise (jogging). Also, HIIT has been shown to increase muscle mass due to its anabolic effect on the body, so it can also be seen as ‘muscle building’ cardio as well as fat loss.

5. Keeping carbohydrates around a workout
Consuming functional carbohydrates (rice, quinoa) is your absolute best insurance policy when it comes to preserving muscle mass when dieting down and trying to lose body fat. Plan carbohydrates around HIIT workouts to ensure you can train optimally and thus, burn more calories during the session. Go ahead and reduce carbs and calories the rest of the day to get the maximum fat burning effect possible, but keep carbs in meals placed around each workout.

6. Performing fasted cardio
Now I know many people have succeeded in losing weight using the method of performing cardio before eating (a fasted state). However, the key term I used is weight loss, not fat loss. Going back to tip 1, when in a calorie deficit and trying to drop body fat, it is very important to preserve muscle. Fasted cardio does result in weight loss, but this includes the loss of muscle mass too. Why? First of all, cortisol is at its highest in the morning (the cortisol spike is what allows you to have energy when you wake-up). If you don’t eat, it will stay elevated and even increase. And if you do cardio work, which also tends to jack up cortisol output, you’ll end up with a sky-high cortisol level, which is one of the best ways to lose muscle (see tip 4). Not only that, if it gets high enough you’ll actually struggle bringing it down during the day (especially when in a caloric deficit). Most importantly, you end up spending the whole day in a muscle-wasting state. Just because people have lost weight using this method, doesn’t mean they’ve actually lost much fat, with muscle being the first thing you body wants to sacrifice when in a state of calorie deficit.

Still not convinced? If you do your cardio in a fasted state, the overall fat oxidation over a 24-hour period is significantly lower, probably because the metabolic rate doesn’t increase or stay elevated, but also because the bout of activity causes more fatigue. You instinctively end up lowering your activity level throughout the day. Furthermore, this is without taking into account the issue of cardio being potentially catabolic to muscle mass
The best option is not to perform cardio after you have just eaten, but rather when the body has fully absorbed nutrients prior to activity. Consuming a protein shake, if exercising first thing in the morning, is readily absorbed by the body and will aid in preserving your muscle mass whilst not impacting your fat loss over a 24 hour period.

Take Home Messages:

• When using cardio while dieting, begin by doing the minimum necessary for fat loss, not the maximum. When it comes to doing cardio for fat loss, it’s either slow and easy (walking) or fast and torrid (HIIT). The middle ground can make you fatter.

• Don’t ditch carbohydrates around your workouts for sustained energy and performance = greater fat loss

• Keep lifting heavy on the big basic lifts, such as deadlifts, squats, bench press etc.

• Start conservatively. Do just enough to maintain a good rate of progress (a loss of 2 pounds per week, for example) so that you keep some weapons in store for when fat loss slows down. Don’t do everything at the start!

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