How to lose fat without losing muscle

The other day someone asked me if I have ever “competed” in bodybuilding.

The answer is no. While I have never formally competed in any bodybuilding competition I have brought myself to that level of conditioning on more than one occasion…

I am soooo hungry.....

I am soooo hungry…..







This picture was taken when I was in my late twenties for  Mens Exercise magazine.


I have also helped others do the same to varying degrees (you can see some weight loss success stories and pics here).


To be perfectly honest, I have zero interest in participating in bodybuilding competitions however I am interested in learning everything I can about the process involved in getting into such extreme conditioning.


It is a bit like the space program- many of the modern conveniences found in every household were first conceived and developed as part of the rather extreme human desire to conquer space travel. These same advances were then watered down and filtered into our every day existence.








This is reminiscent of bodybuilding- the tremendous methods required to achieve extreme levels of leanness and muscularity can be “watered down” and used by regular people who wish to improve their own body composition. I often find it amusing how many so called “new” training and diet methods are rooted in old school bodybuilding techniques from the 1950’s- 1980’s (before extreme amounts of anabolics completely destroyed the sport).


The first step to achieving you body transformation goal is to decide on what look you are trying to achieve. In other words, what percent body fat are you after? I can tell you from personal experience that most men look their best somewhere between 8-12 per cent body fat. Women need more body fat and tend to peak at somewhere between 18 and 25 percent. This of course is completely subjective and also depends on how your body fat is distributed on your frame. For example, some men carry the majority of their fat around their mid section with very little elsewhere. This means that they can have terrific looking arms, back and legs but still have this circle of fat obscuring any abdominal definition. In order to look good shirtless, these guys may have to diet down to a much lower body fat percentage compared to a guy who carries his fat more uniformly or has more fat around his butt and hamstring area which can be easily hidden with shorts.


The same goes for females. You can have two women who share an identical body fat percentage yet look completely different simply because of the differences in where the fat is distributed.


This is one of the reasons why you should track your progress using pictures and percent body fat. Most of us are more concerned with how our bodies look and perform rather than achieving some number on a scale or chart. It is important for you to overcome the negative hurdle of obsessing over scale weight. This goes for people who want to lose fat and those whose desire is to gain muscle. The scale is simply too blunt of an instrument to gauge progress with any degree of accuracy or objectively.


Focus on moving the big rocks first

Losing fat without losing muscle is first and foremost a nutritional challenge. I acknowledge the role that hormonal imbalances can play in the fat loss process but this does not negate the law of energy balance. You must be eating fewer calories than you are burning on most days (but not necessarily every day) in order to mobilize fat for energy. This number is, of course, in a perpetual state of flux- as your weight drops so do your calorie requirements. While it is possible to achieve significant decreases in body fat without monitoring calorie intake, I have found that those who were most successful achieved the best results while following a structured meal plan. In fact, I would go so far to say that the best physique competitors in the world would never hope to achieve their results buy “winging it” when it comes to their nutritional intake and would instead opt for following a structured plan for more predictable results. This plan would likely address three primary concerns (listed in descending order of importance);


  • Total number of calories (how much energy is consumed)



  • Nutrient timing (when certain macronutrients are eaten)



How many calories should I eat to lose weight?

The number of calories you should be eating each day depends largely upon your body composition (how much muscle you have), body weight, activity level and goal. I use a formula that incorporates all of these factors when creating the meal plans on my system- In order to give you a ballpark type figure of how much you should be eating here are some simple calculations for you to use;


Weight loss: bodyweight X 10= number of daily calories

Weight maintenance: bodyweight X 12= number of daily calories

Weight gain: bodyweight X 14= number of daily calories


Keep in mind that these calculations are approximations only and often need to be adjusted up or down.


Macronutrient ratios

This is the percentage of calories eaten as healthy, minimally processed carbohydrates, proteins or fats. There are many opinions as to what the best ratios are for fat loss, muscle building, increasing performance etc. In keeping within the context of fat loss I have found that a low carbohydrate, moderate fat, high protein  approach works very well for many people (especially when trying to mobilize hard to lose fat as outlined in this post). For people looking to get lean (but not necessarily “ripped”) the moderate carb, protein, fat ratio (40:30:30) works well too. This is the ratio I use in my ebodi system and I use it personally on most days. For people involved in endurance sports such as marathon training it would be advisable to keep the carbs a bit higher and follow more of a 55:30:15 approach. The important thing to remember is that macronutrient ratios are secondary in importance to overall calories when the goal is fat loss.


Nutrient timing   

The timing of your macronutrients is the final point to consider. I have found that this becomes more important as you become more and more lean and are trying to lose the last annoying fat deposits. During this period it may be advisable to limit the majority of your starch based carbohydrate food intake (rice, potato etc) to the post exercise period. This will help take advantage of the increased insulin sensitivity that occurs post exercise as well as the activation of Glut 4- a glucose transporter that helps shuttle nutrients into muscle preferentially over fat cells.  The other nutrient timing consideration is to always exercise following a high carbohydrate day. In other words, if you cheat on your diet and eat a pizza on Sunday make sure you workout on Monday.


The top two genetic variables

One thing is for certain- there are no two people who are exactly alike. I have found that there are two genetic variables that must be addressed on a “per person” basis and those are;


1. How carbohydrate sensitive you are.

Being carbohydrate sensitive simply means that you have some level of insulin resistance causing your body to secrete more insulin than it should. Insulin is your body’s storage hormone and people with high insulin levels tend to store more energy as fat while simultaneously impeding their body’s ability to access fat for energy. People who are carb sensitive tend to crave sugars and starches and easily gain weight when they eat those types of foods. The best way to address this sensitivity is to shift from eating grains, potatoes, rice, bread and other carb heavy foods in favor of green vegetables. After a 2-3 weeks of doing this you can re-introduce some healthy carb based foods in the post workout period to see how your body handles them. I am always amazed at the genetic variance when it comes to carb sensitivity. I have coached many people to extreme levels of leanness and some can achieve this level of conditioning with carbs while others cannot. You simply have to find out what works best for your body.


2. How much exercise your body needs.

Just like carbs, how much exercise (more specifically cardio) you have to do will also vary from person to person. For example, I do not require excessive amounts of cardio to get very lean. By simply reducing my carbs and shortening my rest intervals during my resistance training workouts I am able to effectively induce a calorie deficit and get the job done. However, I have clients for whom this is not enough and they require more exercise. You can only do so much weight training before you over-train and get injured and that is why you may need to incorporate a few cardio sessions each week. When performed correctly, cardio can help increase the actions of the catcholamines resulting in greater fat release. How much you need depends on your body- some individuals respond faster and more favorably to exercise than others. I always recommend starting with the least amount and assessing from there. Just remember that when it comes to losing fat it is your diet that matters most followed by resistance training (to help retain muscle) and then finally, cardio. Changing this hierarchy of priorities will usually result in subpar results.


 He who chases two rabbits catches neither

The fact of the matter is that losing fat and building muscle are two conflicting goals. Fat loss is a catabolic process that requires a calorie deficit and muscle building is an anabolic process requiring a calorie surplus. The goal with any fat loss program is to minimize the collateral damage (muscle loss) that invariably comes from losing body fat. This is the primary reason why weight training is so critical during a fat loss program- it helps to minimize muscle loss. My preferred method is to focus on losing fat first and once this goal is achieved switch to a different training and nutrition program that emphasizes muscle gain. This allows you to focus all of your energies on achieving one goal at a time and creates a very aesthetically pleasing physique. It also just makes a lot more sense.

This post was written by

Bruce – who has written posts on Cutting edge muscle building and fat loss secrets.
bruce krahn is a best-selling author, writer, researcher, personal trainer and professional speaker. he has coached people for two decades both in person and online. he created this site to be an honest source of useful, practical information you can use to improve your health, build muscle, lose fat and get the lean body look.

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bruce krahn is a best-selling author, writer, researcher, personal trainer and professional speaker. he has coached people for two decades both in person and online. he created this site to be an honest source of useful, practical information you can use to improve your health, build muscle, lose fat and get the lean body look.

4 Responses to “How to lose fat without losing muscle”

  1. eileen says:

    Excellent article. Too much muscle definition is not pleasing to the average female eye!

  2. Maritsa says:

    Hey Bruce,

    Another great article! I personally need to combine cardio with weight training as I’m
    pear shaped and without doing cardio, even with a low starchy carb diet I tend to still
    hold weight around my tummy & thigh area.
    I’ve recently introduced running twice a week, weight train 3 to 4 times a week & practice yoga a couple times a week too & this seems to be working well!
    So just wanted to say that I love reading your blogs & your articles always offer great advice! Thanks :)

  3. Another engaging thing about the best body fat % is that it is different for women than it is for men. Women tend to carry additional subcutaneous fat and their ideal p.c. is often about twice as high as it is in a male.

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