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Whether you’re talking about cutting, getting shredded, or leaning out, you’re probably thinking about a very specific body recomposition goal: losing body fat while maintaining skeletal muscle mass. 

There are numerous benefits to focusing on body recomposition rather than just weight loss. Losing fat while keeping your muscle allows you to maintain strength and energy and even supports your overall health, all while helping you get that lean, toned, and defined look that so many people are after.  

But cutting down your body fat mass while keeping your muscles the same can be a bit confusing since they are actually two different goals. 

Luckily, both are achievable if you know the right strategies. Read on for a five-step guide to losing body fat without sacrificing your muscle in the process. 

5 Ways To Lose Body Fat While Maintaining Muscle Mass 

1. Cut down on your calories, but prioritize protein

Grilled chicken with fresh rosemary.

If you want to lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit. When you are in a calorie deficit (in other words, when you are eating fewer calories than your body uses for energy), it has to use the energy that it has stored in your body from previous meals. 

Much of this extra energy is stored as fat tissue, which ultimately means that your body will “burn” through this fat tissue and help with weight loss! 

Unfortunately, fat tissue isn’t the only thing that can be burned when you’re in a calorie deficit. 

You can also lose muscle in the process since some of your energy is also stored there in addition to in your fat tissue. 

So, a calorie deficit isn’t the only thing you need to think about when you’re trying to lose fat while keeping your muscle — you’ll also need to pay attention to the quality of your diet and eat enough protein, so that muscles have what they need.  

Protein is often called a “building block”, because it makes up the structure of important components of our body, including muscle. 

So, eating plenty of protein can help preserve your muscle mass, even when you’re trying to cut fat. 

In fact, research suggests that eating plenty of protein can even promote increases in lean body mass during a calorie deficit. 

So, your nutritional goals are twofold: you should eat at a moderate calorie deficit to encourage fat loss, but also fill up on plenty of protein sources to maintain muscle. 

In cases like these, lean protein sources are a good option. They’re going to be lower in fat than richer protein sources, which can help you sustain a calorie deficit, while they still provide your muscles with all the nutritional tools they need. Good lean protein sources include turkey, chicken breast, white fish, low-fat dairy, lean cuts of beef, Greek yogurt, tofu, and legumes. 

2. Make room for cardio and resistance training in your workout routine 

A woman lifts a barbell.

Traditionally speaking, when it comes to exercises that help you lose weight, sweat-inducing cardio workouts like running, cycling, and swimming probably come to mind. 

These exercises are highly taxing on your body and require tons of energy to perform, which means that cardio is generally a great way to increase your calorie deficit for weight loss

But remember: you can’t rely on a calorie deficit alone if you’re trying to keep your muscle. 

If you’re also looking to maintain your strength and get that defined, toned look, you’ll also want to add some resistance training to your exercise routine.

Many studies have suggested that doing resistance training in addition to cardio may help preserve skeletal muscle mass during weight loss. 

Weight lifting is a popular form of resistance training that challenges and grows your muscles. You can also do bodyweight exercises like push-ups, sit-ups, squats, and Pilates for a lower-intensity form of resistance training. 

3. Try HIIT

A man jumps rope outdoors.

If you want to attack both your fat loss and resistance training goals with one intense, heart-pounding exercise, adding a few days of HIIT training to your workout routine is a great idea!

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) involves doing high-intensity exercises for short periods of time, with brief periods of rest in between. These intense workouts are designed to accelerate your heart rate and can include repetitive whole-body movements like jumping jacks, sprints, lunges, burpees, and more. 

Because these workouts are so intense, HIIT is highly effective at burning calories. But even better, HIIT also seems to help with maintaining muscle mass at the same time! 

One study found that young overweight adults were able to better maintain muscle mass on a hypocaloric diet when they added HIIT to their training regimen. 

4. Fill up on satisfying, healthy foods

A healthy salad with eggs, beans, and eggplant.

One of the biggest obstacles that people tend to run into when attempting to lose weight is battling with their appetites. 

If you’re trying to lose fat, the key to maintaining a good calorie deficit is to fill up your diet with foods that keep you feeling full while still allowing you to stay within your calorie limits

This is another big reason why you should add protein to your diet while cutting: it can help keep you fuller for longer periods. 

Adding more volume to your meals by eating a variety of non-starchy vegetables is another great strategy since it can add to the physical bulk of your diet. Leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale and salad-friendly, colorful vegetables like tomatoes and carrots add plenty of nutrients to your diet without adding too many calories.  

Beans and legumes are another great example of filling, fat loss-friendly foods

Not only are beans a good source of fiber, which can keep you feeling more satisfied during a calorie deficit, but they’re also a good source of plant-based protein.

Interestingly, there’s some evidence that legume intake can help predict body weight change, BMI, and abdominal adiposity! 

5. Strategize the best meal and snack times

A black alarm clock.

Finally, because you’re in a calorie deficit, it can be extremely helpful to strategize the ideal mealtimes for yourself, to determine what works best for you and will keep you from feeling deprived throughout the day. 

Ultimately, the most important thing for fat loss is to burn more calories than you take in. 

However, experimenting with your mealtimes and finding out what makes you feel the most satisfied can help make restriction much more comfortable and tolerable throughout your fat-loss journey.  

For example, eating several small, frequent meals during the day is a popular strategy that has been linked to fat loss and increases in fat-free mass (otherwise known as muscle mass). 

Some people also swear by intermittent fasting (IF) since it can help you stay in your calorie deficit. 

Current research suggests that IF can be an effective means of losing primarily body fat. 

Do some experimenting to figure out which strategy helps you stay the most comfortable while working on your goals. 

Conclusion

Cutting fat while maintaining your muscle mass is a multifaceted goal, and it requires attention to both your diet plan and your exercise schedule. 

Because cutting fat while maintaining muscle is more involved than regular weight loss, tracking your weight alone won’t always show the extent of your success. 

Taking measurements and using body composition tests will help you to monitor both your fat and your muscle so that you know you’re on the right track for shredding. 

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