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  • Writer's pictureChris Goodman

How to lose fat....and keep the muscle.

For so many years it's been pushed by Dieticians, Doctors and even by ACSM, who've I received my certification through, that exercise is paramount to losing weight. Well, if you look at it through a pinhole, you may think that they are correct. By doing cardio by the ACSM recommendations of 150-250 mins/week, (1) we will burn a significant amount of calories. But, what we fail to recognize is the loss of lean muscle mass that cardio alone can produce.

I was recently talking to a newer trainer about losing weight and how to set up an appropriate program for these goals. They personally lost weight without lifting weights and let their experience guide them on their recommendations to others. I do have respect for this person and their weight loss journey, but I had to suggest to them that their success wasn't based on cardio alone. When I asked about their nutrition, they did state, they adhered to a diet plan and "nailed it" to obtain that success. I can totally understand why they would then want to base weight loss on the amount of cardio done. How we succeed can color our view on weight loss and our experience makes us comfortable. But my thought was, was it optimal? Weight loss will happen with cardio and diet restriction, but at the expense of lean muscle mass. (LMM) Cardio will aid in weight loss but it should not be the only tool in your tool belt.

When we want to lose weight, we tend to focus on the scale as the measure of success. But we fail to see that we may be sacrificing LMM just to reach that number. Our focus should be on reducing the amount of fat and not the overall scale. To do this, we need to make sure we include a structured resistance training program along with diet and/or cardio. A calorie deficit w/ emphasis on protein will also help w/ muscle preservation. Keep in mind, like in weight loss...we don't need to go overboard with training to elicit a response.

For an untrained individual, starting out with 2-3 days of resistance training with 1-2 sets of 8-10 repetitions should be plenty to cause muscle stimulus. Try starting with 1-2 exercises per body part, spread out over the 2 to 3 days. You could do full body workouts on those days or divide it into upper body and lower body days. If you are unsure, invest in a qualified personal trainer. They are there to help you and provide a great gym experience. And most important....please don't feel intimidated! I've made so many friends in the gym and have earned the respect of many because I try to make everyone comfortable. You'll find folks who are caring and want to share what they know without pressure or ego. Most gyms aren't as scary as what Planet Fitness portrays.... Don't believe their marketing hype.

While resistance training can add LMM, we also need to be in a calorie deficit to reduce fat/ Again, nothing big to start. All we need is just enough of a change to elicit a response. Start by tracking food for at least a week to see how many calories you consume to maintain your current weight. Then decrease calories by only 10% to start. When your body adapts, weight loss will stall. At that point, consider dropping again another 5-10%. It is also noted that higher protein diets can help with preserving muscle while in a calorie deficit. In one study by Eric Helms with trained athletes, the results showed that a higher protein diet of 1-1.5g/lb of LMM would help preserve muscle while in a calorie deficit. (4) While higher protein diets have had negative ties, more studies are coming out showing the positive effects of a higher protein diet on healthy individuals. (5)

There's different approaches to cardio to maximize your weight loss efforts. Moderate intensity steady state (MISS) is a common approach people take, but for efficiency and effectiveness, I like to incorporate high intensity interval training (HIIT). While HIIT (6) can be very effective, it may not be appropriate for certain individuals. Starting off with 10-30 minutes of MISS slowly building up to 4 times a week can be a great start. If you feel comfortable with HIIT, you can reduce the amount of MISS and add a few rounds of HIIT. I'd highly recommend that any MISS not be done after any resistance training due to conflicting energy requirements. We want to maximize muscle growth and by doing cardio after lifting, we shut down the potential for growth. HIIT can be done after lifting though due to the different energy demands.

So please keep resistance training in mind when you are considering losing weight. You CAN lose weight with diet and cardio alone, but when resistance training is added, the results are so much more profound and easier to maintain. By keeping our LMM, we are able to keep our metabolism higher because muscle needs energy. Let your nutrition take priority, lift to keep the muscle you have and the cardio will help increase your energy deficit. Next time....let's talk about what to do after we reach our goals!!

Again, I'd love your input and feedback!

References and links:


2) Lose fat, preserve muscle: Weight training beats cardio for older adults

3) Evidence for Resistance Training as a Treatment Therapy in Obesity

4) Eric Helms: A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: a case for higher intakes.

5) Controversies Surrounding High-Protein Diet Intake: Satiating Effect and Kidney and Bone Health1,2

6) How to perform a HIIT interval. John Gorman of Team Gorman

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