How To Maintain Muscle During Weight Loss

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When starting a weight-loss plan, most of us hope to lose body fat, specifically—not muscle mass. But when we lose weight, a large percentage of the total weight lost can be muscle. Is there any way to reduce that muscle loss?

How to Lose Weight (Body Fat)
To lose weight you need to create a caloric deficit by consuming fewer calories than you are burn each day. This is usually accomplished by: 1) eating less food (fewer calories), 2) burning more calories by exercising more, or 3) a combination of both.  In an ideal world, all of the weight we lose would be body fat, but in truth, losing weight means losing fat—and some muscle, fluids, etc.

How to Maintain Muscle Mass
Your muscles actually help hold some of your body fat in place. Therefore it is natural that you will lose some muscle when you lose body fat because that muscle tissue is longer needed. But you don’t want to lose large amounts of muscle, especially from your large muscle groups. To prevent the loss of muscle mass while on a weight-loss plan:

  • Do not cut calories drastically. Drastic and sudden drops in caloric intake will result in a higher percentage of muscle loss. (See notes for a general progression below.)
  • Eat to meet your protein needs. You don’t need to go above and beyond (it won’t provide additional benefit).
  • Perform muscle-building strength training exercises at least two times weekly. If you’re not lifting weights, up to 30 percent of the weight you lose could be muscle tissue.

Best Practices for Maintaining Muscle during Weight Loss
Everyone begins a weight-loss plan with different eating habits, disease conditions, physical abilities, and needs. These factors will affect how quickly and easily you lose weight. The guidelines that follow are general suggestions. You may be able to progress faster, or you may have to go somewhat slower. Work with your health care provider and assess your needs as you chart the course for your specific, individualized weight-loss plan to lose body fat and build muscle.

  • Weeks 1-2: By the end of week 2 you should be eating within your new reducedcalorie range most days of the week.  Don’t worry yet if all the other numbers (protein, etc.) aren’t quite on target.
  • Week 3: Tweak your diet to meet your recommended protein, fat and carbohydrate ranges most days of the week while staying within your calorie range.
  • Weeks 4-8: By the end of week 8, you should be burning at least 2,000 calories each week through planned exercise.
  • By week 12: You should be incorporating at least 2 sessions of strength training each week for all of your major muscle groups. To maintain muscle mass, exercises should work your muscles to fatigue by the end of each set.

A combination of dietary changes, aerobic exercise and strength training—not just one or two of the three—is the most effective plan to follow to lose body fat, while preserving lean muscle tissue.

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