Can You ‘Cut’ It? Losing Weight Whilst Maintaining Muscle


It’s the holy grail of any body-builder and health and fitness enthusiast, cutting fat whilst maintaining maximal muscle. Thankfully, on the whole it’s a synergistic process i.e. the process of increasing muscle mass inherently makes it a little easier to burn fat. It’s that muscle : fat burning relationship that see’s energy thirsty muscle using calories to fuel their existence and function. Even muscle at rest requires energy to respire and work, and it makes sense if you consider that all muscles work together with bones to maintain our structure. Bones only remain upright due to the antagonistic pairing (push & pull phenomenon) of your muscles e.g. your abdominal muscles pull you forward whilst your back muscle pull you back… and somewhere in the middle there they meet, hence you remain upright.

The cost of all this structural work, combined with the movement functions the muscles produce make them great at burning calories and fat. However, the difficulties arise when you have to consume enough calories to fuel your training and performance, whilst not tipping the balance and causing you to go into fat storage mode!

The struggle for body-builders and athletes

So therein lies the challenge that many athletes face, finding and maintaining a calorie balance that enables them to optimise performance whilst manage bodyweight. Calorie control is only the beginning, optimising calories and body composition requires a closer look into protein, carbohydrate and fat intake, because these ultimately make up your total calorie intake. Consider the following, carbohydrates deliver 4 calories per gram, protein delivers 4 calories per gram, fat provides 9 calories per gram, and alcohol comes in at 7 calories per gram. These are Atwater figures which basically describe the calorie content of each macronutrient (protein, carbs and fat), and although they are integral to understanding calorie balance, they can be misinterpreted. Looking at those figures you would be forgiven for thinking that you should cut down fat and alcohol because they are the highest in calories, and to all intents and purposes you’d be right, but there’s more to it than this.

Is ‘a calorie a calorie’, yes, but they don’t all work the same, calories consumed from carbs for example may be used in a different way to protein. Carbs are your bodies preferred source of energy because it is readily broken down into ATP via a process called glycolysis, consequently we can use the calories in carbs very efficiently. Consuming too many carbs for your needs means you channel some of the excess carbs off to be stored as fat, the chances of carbohydrate being used for anything else is slim. On the other hand, the calories from protein are less effective (although possible) at converting to fat, yes, if you consume too much protein the surplus calories will also be stored as fat, however this is less likely in an athlete due to the elevated muscle protein requirements caused by strenuous activity.

The muscle : fat loss relationship

So here’s where building muscle comes in. The process of developing lean mass (muscle) requires 2 main ingredients 1.) Resistance and micro damage to muscle tissue, and 2.) Energy and protein for recovery and growth. Breaking the muscle down and building it back up again expends energy, plus the growth of muscle burns more calories at rest…but it has its limits. The key to maximising muscle mass and burning fat is to find your ‘maintenance calorie intake’ i.e. the amount of calories to maintain your weight. Once you have achieved this begin to increase protein and reduce total carbs and fat to maintain calorie balance whilst increasing total protein intake. The higher ratio of protein to carbs and fat (aim for a ratio of 40:30:30 respectively) will ensure that muscle is fed and replenished, and strength performance is optimised.

Protein, glorious protein

The reason for the increase in total protein intake is twofold, the protein increases muscle size, which in turn burns more calories and fat stores, plus the chemical and physical structure of protein makes it harder to digest, increasing its thermic effect. TEF, aka the thermic effect of food is the amount of calories spent during the digestion of a certain food. Take steak for example, the striated fibres in the meat requires more chewing and chemical digestion in the stomach, in turn burning more calories than carbs or fat through digestion.

Protein shakes are largely semi-elemental, meaning they are already partially digested therefore their TEF is relatively lower, however they still require digestion, they occupy a physical space in the stomach, plus they feed damaged muscle cells more readily than whole form protein (meat, eggs etc). Using protein shakes after exercise is critical to burning fat whilst maintaining muscle mass, the calorie cost of an average shake (usually 120 calories or so) is far, far outweighed by the muscle building benefit, and will ultimately encourage fat loss if you’re in calorie balance.

Calorie requirements

As a rule of thumb, you can estimate your calorie requirements by following a simple National Institute of Clinical Exercise (NICE) recognise calculation which is as follows:

Weight in kg e.g. 70    x    35   =   2450kcal. This figure is pretty much bang on the Department of Health’s recommendation for an average, active 70kg male. You may wish to reduce this figure by around 500kcal to approx. 2000kcal if you are female, or if you think you are less active than you should be. Play about with your calories to see how your weight and muscle responds, if you’re losing weight then up the calories a little, if you’re gaining then bring it down accordingly. In order to maintain lean muscle mass though, ensure protein is approx. 1.5g per kg bodyweight e.g. 105g per day, as well as including a ‘muscle sparing’ supplement such as a BCAA supplement.

About the Author

Job Role Qualified Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist Qualifications BSc (Hons) Sports Science | BSc (Hons) Dietetics Tom has always participated in sport both recreationally and competitively which led to an unquenchable thirst for information on anything health, nutrition and fitness. After leaving school Tom went on to play for a football academy during which time he studied Sport and Exercise Science. From here he went on to study a BSc (Hons) Sport Science at UEA followed by his second BSc (Hons) degree, this time at the University of Hertfordshire studying Dietetics. Tom has worked in the fitness, educational and clinical nutrition industry starting out at David Lloyd Health and Leisure Clubs. He then went on to work as a Dietitian (RD) in the NHS, during which time he conducted clinics for healthy eating, weight loss and weight gain, as well as specialised consultations on Diabetes, IBS and Coeliac disease to name a few. He has vast amounts of experience at devising diet plans and supplement regimens, as well as working in the community with schools and competitive athletes. As Head Nutritionist and Supplement expert at Discount Supplements Tom is here to provide current and evidence based health and nutrition information to help you reach your health and fitness goals!
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