Warmer months are fast approaching, which means that many of us are hitting the gym a little harder in anticipation of shorts, tank tops, and long sunny beach days.
But if you’re trying to maintain that healthy, shredded physique, there’s a whole lot more to think about than simply cutting calories and hitting a goal weight. It also means taking a look at your body composition (in other words, how much fat vs muscle you have).
Keeping your muscle is important for more than just the flex -- it’s also the key behind staying strong, keeping your metabolism up, and leaning into that fit, healthy physique that so many of us are after. So focusing on your muscle tissue is relevant to more than just athletes and bodybuilders; everyone can stand to benefit from keeping on enough muscle mass and approaching weight loss in the healthiest way possible.
Let’s talk about cutting, the delicate balancing act between losing fat while keeping muscle.
If you are at all familiar with weight loss, you probably already know that it means cutting your calories, which are the units of measurement for the amount of energy you’re getting from your food.
But if you’re trying to lose weight healthily and cut fat, not muscle, you can’t just slash your calorie intake to the bare minimum. Eating way too few calories means that your body has to turn to your stored energy and, you guessed it, a lot of that stored energy is in your muscles. This is part of the reason that starving yourself simply isn’t a good way to lose weight!
A good general rule of thumb is to cut about 500 calories/day for healthy weight loss …. but this can also vary widely based on factors like your height, age, current weight, and activity level. To figure out how much you should be cutting, it’s a good idea to figure out how many calories a day you burn first (this Calorie Calculator by Mayo Clinic is a good place to start). You only want to aim to lose about 1% of your body weight per week to preserve as much muscle mass as possible.
When cutting, you should be at a moderate calorie deficit, but you should also pay very close attention to your macros.
So, no surprises here: getting enough protein is a big deal if you’re working out often. It’s the main macronutrient your muscles need to recover and, more pertinently, grow, after a good weightlifting sesh. So it’s even more important to get enough protein in your diet to maintain that muscle mass during a cut.
While you’re on your caloric deficit, try to get at least 1 gram of protein/pound of your body weight. Supplements like protein shakes and BCAAs(many of which come in your monthly Fit Lifestyle Box subscription!) can give you the protein boost you need to keep those muscles fueled.
Another general rule of thumb that many people follow when trying to lose weight is to cut their carbohydrate intake way down to save on calories. But if you’re working out hard and want to see the results, you actually need some carbohydrates to recover and refuel. Stick to small portions of healthy, complex carbs (we’re talking fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), especially post-workout, and avoid “empty calories” in sugar and processed carbs that increase your calorie intake without giving you any quality nutrition in the process.
Now let’s talk fun stuff: the best workouts to do while cutting.
Cardio makes your entire body work hard, which is an excellent tool for burning calories. Weightlifting and other types of resistance training are going to make your muscles work hard, driving hypertrophy. So as you’re cutting, you’re going to want to mix it up and do a good mix of both.
Compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at once (think squats and bench) are excellent for cutting since they’re burning more calories than simpler isolation exercises. HIIT, or high-intensity interval training, is also a good idea since it can challenge your muscles while still ramping up your heart rate and getting you sweating. Remember, the goal is to keep your heart rate up while still working your muscles hard.
When you’re working on maintaining your muscle while losing fat, your progress isn’t always going to show itself on a scale. That old saying “muscle weighs more than fat” really translates to muscle tissue being denser than fat tissue, so a pound of fat is going to look very different from a pound of muscle. This means that your progress isn’t always going to show solely by checking your weight.
So while you’re cutting, make sure to take regular measurements every week or so to gauge your progress outside of your weight. Good places to measure include your biceps, waist, stomach, and thighs. Even better, tracking your body fat percentage with a BIA (bioelectrical impedance analysis) scale or other similar device gives you a real measurement of how much fat tissue vs. muscle tissue you have.
When it comes to cutting, you’re walking a fine line between staying at a caloric deficit and still properly fueling your muscles. By fueling yourself up with plenty of protein and other supplements, keeping both cardio and weightlifting in your gym routine, and tracking your progress on measurements other than the scale, you’ll be able to lean out and cut that excess fat tissue without sacrificing those muscles you’ve worked so hard for.