How to lose body fat without losing muscle

Getting bigger is good only if it’s the right kind of “bigger.”

The gym’s “old-timers” have trained together for nearly 10 years. At 49 and 53 they are amongst the oldest members. Peter and Reid are much stronger and better developed than nearly all the drug-free members. And they’ve never used bodybuilding drugs themselves.

Over their time training together, they’ve almost always kept their routines simple and focused primarily on major compound exercises, with just two workouts per week. And they’ve always been sticklers for hard work and excellent form. Their training has worked a treat for building muscle and strength.

I’d just started warming up on a treadmill when Peter and Reid noticed me as they were about to leave the gym after finishing a workout. They came over to have a word—we often chat. After exchanging pleasantries, Peter asked me how he could add 15 pounds to his bench press, to take him to 320 pounds for sets of five reps—so he could match Reid.

“What about the visible abs you keep telling me you want? What about making the improvements to your eating that we’ve discussed many times? And what about doing some decent cardio? Those things are more important than adding 15 pounds to your already-outstanding bench press,” I told him.

“I’ll get to those things later on, Stuart. Just tell me what to do so I can get to the 320 for fives.”

Peter is 49 years old and yet still procrastinates fixing his eating and doing decent cardio. And it’s the same story with Reid, although he’s procrastinated even longer.

I explained that even if Peter gets to 320 for fives on his bench press—up from the 305 for fives he’s at now—it won’t make any noticeable difference to his physique. But if he reduces his body fat to 10%—from the-around-20% he’s at now—that will transform his appearance. He’ll lose a little on his bench press over the short term—which he may be able to restore later—but would finally see his muscle mass. And at 49 years old and drug-free, his physique would make most people’s jaws drop. 

The same body-fat reduction would make a similarly dramatic improvement to Reid’s physique.

I told them they each need to lose about 20 pounds of body fat to display their musculature clearly (although not ripped). Down from 210 pounds bodyweight to 190, approximately. They agreed it was high time they shed their excess body fat.


How to lose body fat

Their bodyweights have been stable for months, so their first task over the next few days was to keep an accurate three-day record of what they normally eat and drink, and the quantities. Then, with that information and the help of this website, they can calculate the average daily caloric intakes that maintain their bodyweights at their current activity levels. Next week we’ll meet at the gym and I’ll explain the dietary changes they should make.

When we met again, Peter told me that his current average daily caloric intake, rounded up to the nearest 100, is 3,200. Reid’s is 3,000. So, at least initially, Peter’s fat-loss intake is 2,700 and Reid’s 2,500, provided they keep their activity levels the same as recently.

I told them that they should increase their protein intake. They were already consuming around one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. To that they will now add one 25-gram portion of whey isolate twice a day between main meals. That protein boost of about 50 grams will help prevent muscle loss and perhaps help with satiety. That extra protein has about 200 calories. To compensate, 200 calories must be deducted from their carbs and/or fats.

So, at their current activity levels, Peter and Reid needed to reduce their current food intake by 700 calories. That means 200 to compensate for the extra protein, and 500 to put them into a caloric deficit to produce the gradual fat-loss. The calories should be cut evenly from their carbohydrate and fat intake. (But they are neither going to adopt a low-carb regimen nor a low-fat one.) They told me they would eliminate the highly processed carbs and fats they had been eating, which would cover the reduction of 700 calories.

I explained that rather than make all the 500-calorie deficit adjustment through their food intake, some of it could be made through increasing their physical activity. Then they wouldn’t have to reduce their food intake so much. (They should still eliminate all highly processed foods, though, and substitute some of those calories with good food.) But that physical activity must be easy and non-taxing, so that recovery from their weights workouts isn’t undermined, and their training intensity not impaired; or otherwise muscle loss would be encouraged. 

I recommended easy-paced walking. For example, two miles of walking per day at a leisurely pace on the flat would increase energy output by around 180 calories per day. So, for example, if Peter commits to the extra walking, he would reduce his caloric intake by only 300 calories—to 2,900 instead of 2,700.

If, after a few weeks, the new caloric intakes haven’t yielded a loss of about one pound a week, the intakes should be reduced a little more. But I told the guys not to speed up their weight loss, or otherwise they will increase the chance of some of it being muscle.

They also got going on cardio work: high-intensity interval training twice a week after their weights work. On a stationary exercise bike, they warm up for a couple of minutes of easy to moderate effort, rest for a minute, then do three cycles of a flat-out 20 seconds with the maximum resistance they can endure followed by 90 seconds rest, and then a cool down with 50% resistance for a couple of minutes. The whole thing takes only about 12 minutes. (They eased into the high-intensity phase over a few weeks, though.) 

The cardio isn’t for calorie burning, although there’s some of that. It’s primarily for the health benefits from improved cardio-respiratory fitness.

To maintain their muscle mass while shedding body fat, they maintained the same sort of training that built their muscle mass in the first place. They didn’t adopt overtraining routines to try to lose body fat quicker. Overtraining leads to muscle loss.

Once the fat-loss has occurred, Peter and Reid should remove the protein boost from the whey isolate. That will mean a loss of about 200 calories, which must be offset with other calories. And then their overall daily caloric intake should be increased by 500—assuming no change in their activity levels—to stabilize their reduced level of body fat. Those extra (200 plus 500) calories should come from healthy carbs and fats. If, however, they increase or decrease their physical activity, they should make the appropriate compensations to their caloric intakes.

It’s not just middle-aged bodybuilders who often carry excess body fat. Many bodybuilders of all ages get stuck on a size trip. No matter how much size they get, they want more even if it’s not all muscle. Many of them pile on much more body fat than Peter and Reid did. 

Regardless of age, I recommend all bodybuilders who want to see their musculature apply the recommendations in this article.

What do you do once you can see your musculature and your body fat is stable, but you want to build more muscle? 

Once your bodyweight has been stable for a few weeks, work out your average daily caloric intake. Keep a food and drink log for three typical days and calculate your average daily caloric intake. Then add 200 calories, to produce a caloric-surplus for muscle gain. Of course, you must also stimulate muscle growth in the gym (but without overtraining), eat well (including around one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight), get plenty of sleep and rest in general, and control the stress in your life. 

If the caloric surplus accompanies bodyweight gain over a few weeks without a detectable gain of body fat, add a further 100 calories per day. Then plug away with slowly building muscle and strength without any detectable gain of body fat. 

As your muscles grow, you’ll have more metabolically active bodyweight to sustain. So, occasionally boost your food intake in 100-calorie increments. But don’t overdo the increased intake or otherwise you’ll pile on body fat.

The changes outlined in this article aren’t just for physique improvement. There are even more important benefits: improved health and an increased likelihood of greater training longevity.

CAVEAT: This article gives just a summary of how to lose body fat and keep it off, without loss of muscle mass. The guidance will work only if those who implement it are strongly motivated and self-disciplined. But for the plan to be doable and sustainable, it must also include well-informed food choices, meal planning and preparation, and eating behaviors. And those who really struggle to lose fat and keep it off need to address psychological issues.