Most people want to burn fat while maintaining or gaining muscles. Read this article to learn how to lose fat without losing muscle mass.
Losing Fat & Gaining Or At Least Maintaining Muscle At The Same Time
To avoid losing muscle along with fat, you have to combine exercise programming with the right strategy for fueling.
I am frequently asked about the right way to maximize fat loss and minimize muscle loss to look better. For this, you need to know how to combine exercise and food so that you burn more fat to fuel your workouts without burning your muscle. So I will break it down for you in a way so that it’s pretty simple for you to understand.
First, you should have a good knowledge of the basic principles of how your body’s energy needs are met while working out. That is what fuel (fat vs. carbs vs. protein) is used when you are working out.
Principle # 1
Your Body Needs Continuum Of Energy During Workout
We use Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as the fundamental unit of energy to fuel workouts. Your body has enough ATP to fuel work for five to ten seconds, and then your body begins to break down stored macronutrients (fat, carbs, or protein) in a certain order to produce more ATP.
The simplest macronutrient to burn is glucose (sugar). Exercise lasting from ten seconds to several minutes consumes mainly sugar (glucose) in the form of pyruvate and, if the exercise is intense enough, in the form of lactate.
After several minutes of workout, your body will start to burn fats for energy use.
Thumb Rule Number 1: Your body will burn glucose (sugar) first, always.
Principle # 2
What Fuel Your Body Uses Depends On Exercise Intensity
Aerobic activities are lower intensity and good for increasing endurance. They predominantly burn fat as fuel, once your body has gotten through the available glucose (sugar).
On the other hand, high-intensity workouts such as weight lifting, cross-fit, sprinting & HIIT (high-intensity interval training) lead to physiological effects that are different from those caused by aerobic workouts.
High-intensity workout is anaerobic (meaning without oxygen). Therefore, it causes a lot of unique physiological responses:
(i) It generates an Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) effect—that helps your body burns calories even for some time post-workout.
(ii) The body burns calories restocking oxygen to your blood & myoglobin.
(iii) The body experiences an elevated heart rate & core temperature, enhanced respiratory rate, and creates thermogenic effects of fat-burning hormones like epinephrine.
Thumb Rule Number 2: Your body burns fat during low-intensity aerobic workouts.
Thumb Rule Number 3: High-intensity workout benefits occur predominantly after the workout.
Fuelling Your Workout
How you should fuel your workout will depend on your goal. Keeping your goal in mind, you must plan what to eat before and after the workout session. It’s generally believed that low-carbohydrate diets help lose weight.
However, on high-intensity workout days, low-carbohydrate meals may not be the most effective strategy, particularly post-workout.
As already stated above, your body burns glucose (sugars) first. So, low stored carbohydrates (glycogen levels) together with high-intensity exercise create opportunities for your body to burn a greater amount of muscle—which not anyone wants.
To quote the famous Canadian bodybuilder and strength coach Christian Thibodaux: “Those who burn up both fat and muscle create “smaller versions of their unaesthetic selves,” and for most of us, this is not the goal of improving body composition.
So, on the days of higher-intensity workouts, the optimal strategy is to create opportunities to burn carbs as fuel and use protein to gain/ rebuild muscle.
Insulin is a powerful hormone that fires up protein synthesis, and moreover, it releases blood sugar for energy use. Insulin is activated when we eat carbs.
So, we want to eat carbohydrates on high-intensity workout days to ensure we have adequate sugar to burn. But unfortunately, this inhibits the body from breaking down muscle to burn protein for energy.
Thumb Rule Number 4: You should eat complex carbohydrates well before a workout and particularly after. Your body requires insulin for protein synthesis after the workout is done.
[Read Here: Workout Nutrition Tips For Beginners]
On the days when you do a lower intensity aerobic exercise, your fuelling needs are different. These days our aim is to burn fat, so everything we eat should be to induce the burning of fat for energy. This process is known as lipolysis.
In simple words, these are our low-fat days. Total fat intake should not exceed twenty percent of total calorie intake, and the same holds good for carbs.
There are two inhibitors of fat burning (lipolysis):
Insulin – Your body’s natural response is to burn sugar first for energy. To make things easy to understand, think of sugar & fat as using two separate faucets for energy. When sugar is available, your body will turn down the volume of fat burn on one faucet and enhance the volume of sugar burn on the other faucet. This is related to insulin. When the pancreas releases insulin, fat-burning (lipolysis) is inhibited.
Thumb Rule Number 5: On longer, low-intensity / slower aerobic days, foods that activate insulin release, that is, simple carbs, should be avoided completely.
Lactate is present in muscles. It’s another enemy of fat burn (lipolysis) and is used for providing energy to your body at rest and during high-intensity exercise. Lactate is either recycled to the liver for glycogen storage or is used by slow twitch muscles for energy. The human body’s natural preference is to reserve it for energy use. So, the more lactate gets accumulated in your body, the fewer opportunities available for the fat to burn during aerobic exercise. High-intensity exercise causes greater lactate production and so should be avoided on low-intensity days to burn fat.
The lower the exercise intensity, the higher the percentage of fat burned. Though higher aerobic intensity too will cause fat to burn out then, it also will cause greater amounts of muscle to be burned.
Thumb Rule Number 6: You should aim to maintain a heart rate between 105 and 125 during exercise on low-intensity days.
Alternate Low- and Hugh-Intensity Workout Days and Fuel Accordingly
The effective way to lose weight while building, or at least not losing muscle, is to alternate your workouts between low-intensity aerobic exercises and high-intensity anaerobic workouts. And then fuel accordingly on those days:
- On low-intensity workout days, you can burn out the fat without losing muscle by really maintaining the workout intensity low & by avoiding carbs, particularly simple carbohydrates.
- On high-intensity workout days, you can gain or maintain muscle by eating more and including carbohydrates.
Burning fat and preserving/gaining muscle is both time-consuming & difficult. It’s not a quick fix. You need to be slow and steady and ensure not to fall victim to fad diets based on drastic caloric restrictions.
[Read Here: What To Eat For Muscle Gain]
The fad diet strategies, together with exercise-intensive programming, can lead to immediate weight loss, but over the long term, they can do more harm than good. So instead, focus on the slow, steady, disciplined, and healthy approach to exercise and fuelling.
About Author: Renu Bakshi, AKA Fitness Buffhq, is ISSA Certified Elite Trainer. He passed Personal Fitness Trainer Course, Nutrition Health Coach course & Specialist Exercise Therapy course from ISSA, USA obtaining + 97% marks. He shares his experience and knowledge about nutrition and effective workouts to get you in the best shape of your life, no matter how old you may be. The author says: “For me, age is just a number!”