The key to lasting weight loss is maintaining your strength as you drop pounds. Here’s your plan.
Weight loss might be the name of the game, but the real goal is fat loss.
When you lose weight, the pounds come from a combination of three things: water, fat, and muscle. When the number on the scale dips suddenly—in the first week, say—it’s likely that you’re losing water. If it keeps falling swiftly, you may be losing muscle. This is a problem.
“Any muscle loss can seriously work against both your health and body-composition goals,” says exercise physiologist Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., C.P.T., host of the All About Fitness podcast. A recent Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care study found that lean muscle mass is a better measure of overall health than body mass index, or BMI.
Plus, every 5 pounds of muscle gained increases your basal metabolic rate (the number of calories you burn just to stay alive) by 200 calories per week, McCall explains. So, on the flip side, losing just 5 pounds of muscle will slow your metabolism by 200 calories.
This means that if a person isn’t actively working to maintain or build muscle mass as they lose weight, they’re more likely to gain it right back.
Result: You’re still carrying extra weight—only now you’re weaker. Follow these five science-backed strategies to ensure this doesn’t happen to you.
Strategy #1: Cut Calories Gradually
To lose fat, you have to expend more calories than you eat per day. There’s no way around that, so it can be tempting to make drastic changes to shed pounds faster.
But the larger your calorie deficit, especially at first, the greater your likelihood of losing muscle, explains kinesiologist Ryan Campbell, a training specialist at Anytime Fitness of Southern Wisconsin.
In a study in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, people who lost weight slowly gained 2 pounds of muscle over the course of 8.5 weeks, while those who lost weight quickly also lost 11 pounds of muscle after just 5.3 weeks. Yikes.
So, when it comes to weight loss, what’s slow?
Aim for around 0.7 percent of your body weight per week. For a 180-pound person, that works out to 1.26 pounds per week. And don’t forget to weigh yourself daily—and adjust your calorie intake and activity levels accordingly—to ensure that you aren’t losing any faster than that.
Strategy #2: Lift Weights Until You Can’t
Strength training is obviously important for building muscle, but it’s equally vital for maintaining muscle when you happen to be in a calorie deficit, according to research published in the journal Obesity.
Traditionally, strength training with three to four sets of eight to 12 reps has been the go-to for building muscle. However, a 2017 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shows that any rep range—as long as you take it to fatigue—can effectively spur muscle growth.
“The only way to initiate muscle growth is to go to fatigue,” McCall says. “It’s critical to the overload-repair process.”
But there’s a difference between feeling a burn and actual fatigue. At fatigue, you should not be able to perform another repetition without breaking form. Once you get to that “I can’t do another rep without things getting really ugly” point, that’s your cue to stop. Listen to your body and, over time, you’ll become better able find the line.
Strategy #3: Pay Attention to Your Protein Intake
Proteins form every strand of your muscles. But when calories are in short supply, your body breaks down those proteins for energy—equating to muscle lost.
Maintaining a large protein intake when you’re in a calorie deficit, however, can mitigate any muscle loss, says Liz Weinandy, R.D., M.P.H., a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. For example, in an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, exercisers who followed a low-calorie, high-protein diet lost 10.56 pounds of fat and gained 2.64 pounds of muscle.
How much is enough? Recent research in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests that eating between 0.4 to 0.55 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight at each meal is ideal for muscle health in those engaging in strength training. For a 180-pound individual, that works out to 33 to 45 grams of protein per meal.
For most people, that’s a drastic increase. To boost your protein intake without going over on total calories, prioritize protein sources that are low in fat, carbohydrates, or both, Weinandy recommends. For example, nuts and seeds are low in carbs, and legumes are low in fat. Chicken breasts are low in both, as is low-fat and nonfat dairy.
Strategy #4: Perform High-Intensity Intervals
High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is highly effective at burning fat in less time than steady-state cardio. It builds muscle too, according to 2018 research from the University of North Carolina. Some examples: sprints on cardio equipment and high-power strength moves like kettlebell swings and sled pushes.
But to ensure the cardio component doesn’t cut into muscle loss, researchers advise following a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio.
What this means: For every second you work at a high intensity, rest for that long before your next set. These sizable rest periods will allow you to push yourself harder during each high-intensity interval, recruiting and strengthening more of the fast-twitch muscle fibers that are needed for healthy levels of muscle mass.
Strategy #5: Recover, Recover, Recover
Whatever your calorie intake, your muscles don’t grow stronger during your workouts. It’s after each session that they use the dietary protein you eat you build back up, stay healthy, and possibly even spring back stronger, Campbell says.
Recovery is what allows that to happen. Schedule a couple of recovery days into each week to foam roll, perform yoga, or simply stretch. This is why every flip50 membership includes massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic therapies.
These activities will help the muscles repair themselves, while also keeping stress hormone levels in check to help promote fat loss and prevent muscle wasting, he says.
Note: Please consult your physician before beginning a physical activity program to make sure it’s safe for you.