Ever wondered how to lose weight without gaining muscle? I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want to gain muscle, but I’m guessing most people think gaining muscle would make them look like the Hulk or something.
Now, don’t get me wrong, you can lose weight without gaining muscle, but there is a much more effective way to do it.
Many weight-loss plans include recommendations for strength training, so you gain valuable muscle mass to help with calorie burning. The two to three resistance-training sessions suggested per week for these plans won’t turn you into a bodybuilder, but it will help you preserve some tone and function as you slim down.
If you’re still not interested in adding any lean tissue, following a low-calorie diet without participating in any formal exercise will help prevent the addition of muscle mass.
So…what do you need to know on how to lose weight without gaining muscle? Is this even possible?
Understanding the Mechanism Behind Muscle Gain During Weight Loss
If you want to know why you gain muscle in your meagre and often halfhearted efforts to lose weight, you should always keep in mind two major factors: DIET and EXERCISE.
Let’s start with DIET.
The key here is to create a CALORIE DEFICIT.
This simply means that you want to create a shortage of calories inside your body. You know that calories are the source of your body’s energy. To create a calorie deficit, you go on a diet for the purpose of eating much fewer calories than you usually consume.
As usual, your body burns off what little calories you ate through your regular physical activities and exercise. Since your body can no longer get the energy it needs from the food you’ve been stuffing yourself with, it gets the fuel it needs instead from all those fats you have stored from your past food binges.
Don’t forget that those fats are the reason why you are overweight to begin with. So, when your body lacks calories as a result of the deficit, it burns off more and more fats as you exercise, and…voila…goodbye excess weight!
Now, there’s something you also need to remember.
Don’t lower your caloric intake too much. If you create a huge calorie deficit, your body doesn’t just burn off fats. It also burns off muscle mass in order to meet its energy requirements. When you lose too much muscle, you won’t be able to exercise properly, only making it harder for you to lose weight.
Now, let’s talk about EXERCISE.
In your normal day-to-day life, or even if you’re a couch potato, your body is always burning calories for its everyday functions.
Your heart needs the calories so it can keep pumping blood.
Your digestive system may get the calories out of the food you eat, but it also needs that energy in order to digest food properly and eliminate waste. The calories that fuel these everyday bodily functions comprise what you call your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).
For you to lose weight, you need to INCREASE YOUR CALORIE BURN through exercise. Certain exercises can make you lose weight faster. The downside to these workouts is that it also causes muscle growth and rebuilding, so you end up gaining more muscle mass.
Yes, I hear you protesting, “I don’t want to get bulked up like a bodybuilder! I just want biceps I can pump up and down and six-pack abs to impress the ladies! Tell me how to lose weight without gaining muscle!
But why would you not want to gain muscle?
Here’s what I recommend you should focus on instead:
- Continue to burn off calories by creating a calorie deficit;
- Increase your calorie burn through exercise;
- BUT maintain the muscle mass that you have.
To achieve this goal, let’s do a more in-depth discussion about the functions of diet and exercise and what it can do for your body.
The Role of Diet in Weight Loss
Everyone dreads the idea of going on a diet, even though it’s a necessary torture if you want to get back into shape. Being deprived of your favourite foods, the hunger pangs…UGH! Just the thought of a diet puts you into starvation mode already!
Unfortunately, all known diet plans restrict calories by getting rid of certain food groups or an entire meal from your current daily food intake. Let’s go over some popular diets and their corresponding restrictions:
1) Paleo – Be like a caveman by eating only grass-fed meat, veggies, fruits, and nuts.
2) Keto – Say goodbye to carbs
3) Plant-based/Vegetarian/Vegan – Absolutely no meat allowed (Boo!)
4) Carnivore – Absolutely no veggies, fruits, or other plant-based foods (Yeah!)
5) Intermittent fasting – Skip one major meal (usually breakfast) or you don’t eat at all for an entire day
Now, these diets only work for the SHORT TERM.
Why, you ask?
When you eliminate certain nutrients or food groups, you deprive your body of what it needs.
Needless to say, you end up starving and craving for what your body now lacks. You may also find that the so-called “healthy foods” you are now eating as part of your diet are not tasty at all and do not fill you up as it should. So, once you get off your diet, you not only go back to eating like you usually do. You end up eating more than usual because you are starving. The result is that you not only regain all that weight you have lost; you gain more added pounds.
For weight loss to be effective, any dietary measures you take should be PERMANENT and ENJOYABLE/LESS STRESSFUL.
How do you do this?
By simply adjusting the proportions of the foods that you are eating now.
Let’s put it this way. Why deprive yourself of certain foods when all you need to do is to change how much of each food group you eat?
Creating Your Healthy Food Plate
Now that I got your undivided attention, you are wondering how do I go about making these adjustments?
You tinker with proportions by creating your own healthy food plate.
Your healthy food plate should consist of the following food groups with their corresponding proportions:
(Serving Size:4 oz for uncooked piece of meat or 3 oz for cooked piece of meat. About your palm’s size and thickness. Covers 1/4th of your healthy food plate.)
The most important part of your healthy food plate is protein. This is sure to make a lot of carnivores very happy since you do get most of your protein from meat.
Why is protein so important in your food plate?
For one, unlike the other food groups, protein has a high Thermic Effect of Food (TEF). TEF means that just digesting and metabolizing the proteins you eat entails burning a lot more calories. In fact, while digesting the proteins you have eaten, you are already burning 20 to 30 percent of calories off of it.
Another reason is that proteins cause you to burn more calories because your metabolism is boosted, even while you sleep. If you increase the protein in your diet, you stand to burn 80 to 100 calories per day. Now, if you go on an all-out binge on protein, you can burn as much as 260 calories per day!
Does your current diet make you feel so hungry?
Well, increasing your protein intake makes you feel so full so that you lose your appetite and reduce your cravings and desire for late-night snacking. The result is you eat fewer calories.
Here are two other reasons why protein is so great for weight loss. It makes you lose weight without your being conscious of it. You don’t even realize the fact that you are losing weight, especially your belly fat. The calorie restriction also helps prevent you from regaining the weight that you have lost. Last but not least, eating more protein prevents muscle loss and metabolic slowdown, so that you have more pep for exercise and other physical activities.
You can get proteins from a variety of sources. Lean meats, such as steak, pork, beef, and bison, are great sources as long as you never forget to trim away the fats. You can also eat fowl meat from chicken, duck, or turkey, eggs, fish (salmon, tuna), shrimp, and legumes (chickpeas, black beans).
(Serving Size: Two fist-sized servings of veggies that should cover half of your healthy food plate)
Every person going on a diet immediately turns green when they are told to increase their consumption of veggies. But, if you want to control your eating, veggies are just as important as proteins in your healthy food plate.
Veggies are what you call low energy density foods. This means you get full faster and reduce your hunger pangs and cravings. The result is you greatly reduce your energy or caloric intake. The sensation of fullness or satiety is due to the higher nutrient, fibre and water content of veggies. Studies have shown that weight loss was higher in people who ate more low-density foods like veggies than those who ate low-fat foods.
Some great veggies that you should pile up on your healthy food plate are broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cucumber, squash, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts.
(Serving Size: 1 cupped hand of uncooked carbs. 2 hands forming a cup for cooked carbs)
Okay, many people are saying that you should stick to low-carb intake when dieting. However, you need to still meet your daily nutritional needs for carbs. Carbs only become bad when you eat too much of it. Sadly, when you deprive yourself of carbs, you find yourself eating more saturated fats (which many low-carb diets have) in order to meet your energy requirements.
If you want to add carbs to your diet that are filling and you will not overeat on, then include fruits (nope, juices are rich in sugar, not to mention the fact that they already have their fibre content removed), brown rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, quinoa, yams, whole grain bread, and whole-grain pasta.
(Serving Size: Thumb-sized serving of fats)
Fats have gotten a bad rep, but like carbs, they are essential to the body as long as they are not eaten in excess. So why do you still need to add such a small amount of fats in your healthy food plate?
Well, for one, it is filling. Fats trigger the release of the hormone cholecystokinin, which slows down your stomach from emptying food into your intestines. Healthy fats also help to maintain balance in your blood sugar levels, so you have less food cravings.
You also need fats to absorb nutrients, particularly the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. You also have essential fats, namely Omega-3 and Omega-6, which are very important to maintain the proper functioning of your heart, brain, and body cells. Last but not least, even a small amount of fats keeps your food tasting good. When there’s zero fat in your diet, you end up eating more processed foods or add more salt and sugar to mimic the texture and flavour of natural fats.
Great sources of healthy fats include olive oil, almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, peanut butter, and almond butter. Reduce your intake of saturated fats, such as whole milk and full-fat dairy products like cheese, grass-fed butter, lard, and fatty meats.
Other Tips on Diet
As you can see from our above discussion on the food groups, you don’t need to deprive yourself of certain foods.
It’s all a matter of keeping them in their proper amounts. Doing so will keep you from feeling so deprived and starved.
Here are a few more tips to help you with your diet:
1) If you go for low-carb or low-fat diets, make sure that you can stick with the program. If you can’t, just follow our healthy food plate guide above.
2) Try Intermittent Fasting. It helps to keep your calorie intake under control by keeping your eating window small. To do this, you need to skip a major meal like breakfast or go on a full 24-hour fast.
3) Reduce your intake of liquid calories. This would include sweet beverages like juices and sodas, alcoholic drinks, and syrups.
4) Make it a habit to check nutritional labels on everything you eat. This will help you to control your calorie intake.
5) Make it a point to plan your meals. Meal planning not only helps to keep your food intake healthy. It also enables you to manage how many calories you eat.
6) Do you love to eat out? Check menus before heading out to your favourite restaurants. Many restaurants already post their menus online. Some even include the number of calories a dish contains. Since some restaurants give large servings, you can also ask in advance how many calories there are in one serving so you can want your calorie intake.
7) Keep a calorie journal. This will help you to keep track of how many calories you have eaten per meal per day.
8) If you find yourself eating something unhealthy in one meal, make up for the lapse by eating healthy in the next meal.
9) Chew your food more slowly. When you eat more slowly, it triggers the release of hormones that make your tummy feel full. Thus, you decrease your energy intake.
10) Can’t stop the snack cravings? Throw out all the chips, cookies and other unhealthy foods and replace them with healthy alternatives like celery and carrot sticks.
Now that we are done with diet, let us move on to the second factor for weight loss (and the one that most people are too lazy to do and find all sorts of excuses not to do it), namely EXERCISE.
The Role of Exercise in Weight Loss
The primary role of exercise is to burn off the calories from the food that you chowed down on and which are stored as fats inside your body.
It also helps to strengthen and improve overall body functioning, improve bone health, and straighten posture.
When it comes to weight loss, there are three types of exercise that you are likely to hear from physical fitness nuts. Let’s go through these types one by one:
Cardio is defined as any movement or physical activity that gets your heart pumping. It can be something as simple as puttering around the house doing chores to going for a brisk walk or jog in the park.
If you want to lose weight, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends doing 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio weekly.
However, if you want to see substantial losses in pounds, you should add strength training to your cardio program.
2) High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is more effective than cardio in burning away those excess calories. In HIIT, you give 100 percent of your effort in running, sprinting or other vigorous activity and then follow it with an active, recovery period like walking.
Why is HIIT so effective as an exercise program for weight loss? The reason is that HIIT keeps your metabolism up. Your heart keeps on pumping so that your heart rate remains high. The result is that you lose more weight in the process.
How do you do HIIT? As an example, you can set high-intensity activities like squats, pushups, planks, and burpees for 30 to 45 seconds. Make sure that you give these activities your 100 percent effort. After you have finished one activity, rest for 15 seconds, then do the next activity you have lined up for another 30 to 45 seconds.
HIIT is most effective when you do it 30 minutes per day every day of the week.
3) Strength Training
Now if you want to get the ultimate BOOM out of your exercise regimen, the grand champion is strength training.
When you do strength training, you not only burn away those excess calories. You also start breaking down muscles, especially if you are also on a diet. That’s the calorie deficit at work for you.
Since the calories from your accumulated fats are not enough to meet your energy requirements during strength training, your body begins breaking down muscle for fuel. Remember that you are eating higher amounts of proteins. With muscle breakdown, your body not only uses the protein to repair your tired, worn-out muscles. They also help you grow new and stronger muscles.
A good strength training session should be around 40 to 60 minutes every day. For beginners, you can do the following exercises:
- 20 bodyweight squats
- 10 push-ups
- 20 walking lunges
- 10 dumbbell rows (using a gallon milk jug)
- 15-second plank
- 30 jumping jacks
- Repeat for 3 rounds
If you have a gym membership, you can get a trainer to help create a strength training plan that uses available weights, such as dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells, and other fitness equipment, like resistance bands.
The key to strength training is that you increase the difficulty of the exercises that you are doing. If you combine strength training with cardio, you stand to lose even more pounds.
“HOLD ON! Won’t strength training turn me into Arnie Schwarzenneger?! I don’t want that!”
Well, if you want to lose weight, then strength training is a MUST because it is the fastest and most effective way to do it.
Let’s say that you have already hit your target weight and you want to continue on this healthy path that you are on right now. The problem is, as you said, you don’t want to bulk up any further and turn into the Terminator or, worse, the Incredible Hulk. Take note though that bulging muscle is not your only problem. Never forget that you naturally LOSE muscle mass as you age.
Because of these two reasons, you should still continue to work out to maintain BOTH your current weight and muscle mass. Exercise not only allows for the rebuilding of your muscles. Partnered with higher protein intake, you also increase muscle repair.
For maintenance of your weight and muscle mass, make moderate-intensity cardio and moderate strength-building exercises (Ex. Yoga) as part of your physical fitness regimen. You can also increase your calorie burn through Non-Exercise Thermogenic Activities (NEAT), such as fidgeting in place, pacing around the house or while talking on your phone, going upstairs instead of using an elevator).
Other Exercise Tips
Here are some more efforts to supercharge your exercise efforts with minimal muscle gain:
1) Activity of any form is the key. Even if it’s just fidgeting in your seat, pacing around your room, or other micromovements. These very small movements can mean an additional loss of 350 calories per day.
2) Increase your activity. Stop relying on your car, public transport, or the elevator/escalator. If the distance to your workplace or anywhere you want to go is manageable, then just walk or jog there. Instead of using the elevator or escalator, use the stairs.
3) Get a fitness tracker. These nifty gadgets, like Fitbit, use an accelerometer to measure your movements. It then computes the number of steps you have taken, the distance you have travelled, and the corresponding number of calories you have burned. Other trackers can also measure your blood pressure and heart rate so you can easily gauge the state of your health.
4) Exercise is not only done in the gym or using fitness equipment at home. Other great forms of exercise include yoga, hiking, rock climbing, and dancing.
If you are still wondering how to lose weight without gaining muscle, diet and exercise remain the best ways by which you can achieve weight loss. However, if you don’t want to gain muscle as a result of a higher protein diet and vigorous exercise, focus instead on maintaining the muscle that you have at present while also keeping your weight down.
And that’s how to lose weight without gaining muscle. You don’t need to lose weight first before you start strength training. You will lose weight BY strength training (and keep the muscle you have).
Photo Source: Hulk