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How to Retain Muscle During a Fat Loss Diet

Retaining muscle while losing fat can be challenging but is essential for achieving a lean and strong physique. In this article I will provide an overview of body recomposition, explaining the science behind cutting, and offering practical strategies to maintain muscle mass through the right nutrition, training, and lifestyle adjustments. Whether you're a experienced athlete, a gym rat or new to fitness, these guidelines will help you to retain muscle mass during a fat loss diet. Enjoy reading!

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muscle dring fat loss

The Mechanics Behind Cutting

Cutting, or reducing body fat, involves creating a calorie deficit, meaning you have to consume fewer calories than your body needs to maintain its current weight. This deficit forces your body to utilize stored fat for energy, leading to fat loss.

However, an aggressive calorie deficit can result in muscle loss, fatigue, and decreased performance.

When you reduce your caloric intake too drastically, your body may start breaking down muscle tissue for energy. This is because muscle is metabolically active and requires energy to maintain. By cutting calories too quickly, your body perceives a state of starvation and conserves energy by reducing muscle mass. To prevent this, it's essential to create a moderate calorie deficit and support your body with adequate nutrition and a training program that is designed for optimal progression.

Body Composition and Recomposition

Body composition refers to the proportion of fat and muscle, that make up a your total body weight. Body composition is often expressed as a percentage of fat mass versus lean mass (muscle, bone, water, etc.) in the body.

Body recomposition on the other hand refers to the simultaneous process of losing fat and gaining or maintaining muscle mass. Unlike most weight loss programs, that focus solely on the scale, body recomposition aims to improve body composition by reducing fat and enhancing muscle definition.

Achieving body recomposition involves a holistic approach, that should consider all of the following aspects:

How to Retain Muscle During a Fat Loss Diet

Maintaining muscle during a fat loss phase requires a scientific and strategic approach that addresses nutrition, training, and lifestyle factors. Now, I want to delve deeper into the principles of all three categories, that will help you maintain your muscle mass while dieting for fat loss.

1. Nutrition

Avoid an Extreme Calorie Deficit

Creating too large a calorie deficit can lead to muscle loss, decreased performance, and a slower metabolism. Instead, you should aim for a moderate calorie deficit that allows a slow and gradual weight loss. But keep in mind that fat loss and weight loss are not the same. Weight loss will also most likely not happen linear.

My recommendation is to lose no more than 1% of your body weight per week. For example, if you weigh 70 kg, aim to lose no more than 0.7 kg per week. This approach helps preserve muscle mass and will support sustainable and long term fat loss.

Eat Enough Protein

Protein plays a crucial role in muscle maintenance and growth. During a calorie deficit, protein requirements increase to preserve muscle mass. Aim to consume approximately 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily. For instance, if you weigh 70 kg, your protein intake should be around 105 grams per day. Protein sources could include lean meats, fish, dairy, eggs, legumes, and plant-based proteins like tofu or soy products.



Resistance Training

A well-structured resistance training program is necessary for muscle retention and growth during a fat loss phase. Resistance training stimulates muscle protein synthesis, which helps preserve muscle mass while in a calorie deficit.

Here are my key recommendations for an effective resistance training program:

Training Parameter


Sets per muscle per week


Reps per set


Reps in reserve (RIR)


Rest periods (compound moves)

> 2 minutes

Rest periods (isolated moves)

< 1 minute

Exercise selection

Mix of compound and isolated exercises, targeting all muscle groups (depending on your goals and weaknesses), emphasizing the stretched position of the muscle


Full range of motion, controlled eccentric movement, focus on optimizing your form is more important than increasing the load

A program with progressive overload—gradually increasing the weights or resistance used—ensures continuous muscle stimulation and adaptation. This approach helps maintain muscle mass and strength even during a calorie deficit.

4. Moderate Cardio

Cardio can help in creating a calorie deficit but should be done in moderation to avoid excessive fatigue and muscle loss. Too much cardio can increase hunger and stress, leading to potential muscle breakdown.

My recommendation is to limit cardio sessions to a maximum of 60 minutes per day, focusing on lower to moderate intensity.

Different types of cardio have varying energy expenditures. Here’s a comparison of total energy expenditure for different kinds of cardio performed for 60 minutes:

Type of Cardio

Calories Burned (approx.) in 1 hour









From the table, it’s clear that running burns more calories compared to walking. However, the increased caloric burn from high-intensity cardio can also lead to increased hunger and fatigue, which may undermine muscle retention efforts. Therefore, controlling your diet and calorie intake is more important than long cardio sessions for fat loss.

The Interference Effect

This phenomenon occurs when excessive cardio hampers muscle gains from strength training. To minimize this, separate cardio and strength training sessions, prioritizing strength training. For example, if you do both on the same day, perform your strength training first when energy levels are higher. But to avoid interference effects, it would be more beneficial to do strength and cardio on seperate days.


Other Lifestyle Factors

Plan Recovery Time

Recovery is crucial for muscle retention. Ensure you have sufficient rest days to allow muscles to repair and grow. Quality sleep (7-9 hours per night) is essential for muscle recovery, hormone regulation, and overall health. Incorporate recovery strategies such as sauna, ice baths, stretching, foam rolling, and light activities like walking or yoga.

Manage Stress

In order to retain muscle during fat loss, you should have your stress levels under control. Chronic stress can impair muscle recovery and growth by increasing cortisol levels, a hormone that can break down muscle tissue. Implement stress management techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing exercises, or engaging in hobbies that promote relaxation, like drawing, music, or journaling.

Several Other Factors Influence Muscle Retention

  • Age and Gender: Younger people and men generally have higher levels of anabolic hormones like testosterone, which aids in muscle retention and growth.

  • Training Experience: Experienced lifters have developed neuromuscular adaptations and muscle memory, making it easier to maintain muscle compared to beginners. That's why I recommend beginners to build muscle first, and then starting a fat loss diet.

  • Current Body Fat Levels: People with higher body fat percentages can lose fat more easily while preserving muscle, as their bodies have ample energy reserves.

  • Muscle Mass: The more muscle mass you have, the more critical it is to follow a precise plan to maintain it during a fat loss phase.

Practical Tips for Preserving Muscle Mass While Reducing Body Fat

To summarize, here are the key takeaways of how to retain muscle during fat loss:

  • Weight Loss Rate: Aim for a maximum of 1% body weight loss per week.

  • Protein Intake: Consume at least 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

  • Resistance Training: Engage in regular resistance training with a structured program that emphasizes progressive overload.

  • Cardio: Limit cardio to low to moderate intensity and prioritize strength training, and try to separate strength and cardio days.

  • Recovery: Ensure adequate rest, sleep, and manage stress effectively. Everyone has to find their individual strategies, that fits into their life and preferences.

By following these scientifically-backed guidelines, you can achieve effective body recomposition, retaining muscle while losing unwanted fat.

Achieve your fitness goals now through personalized 1:1 Coaching from your online nutrition and fitness coach. Book a call now!


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  1. Roth C, Schoenfeld BJ, Behringer M. Lean mass sparing in resistance-trained athletes during caloric restriction: the role of resistance training volume. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2022;122(5):1129-1151.

  2. Murphy C, Koehler K. Energy deficiency impairs resistance training gains in lean mass but not strength: A meta-analysis and meta-regression. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2022;32(1):125-137.

  3. Longland TM, Oikawa SY, Mitchell CJ, Devries MC, Phillips SM. Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016;103(3):738-46. 4. Lundberg TR, Feuerbacher JF, Sünkeler M, Schumann M. The Effects of Concurrent Aerobic and Strength Training on Muscle Fiber Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2022;52(10):2391-2403.

  4. Ribeiro AS, Pereira LC, Schoenfeld BJ, Nunes JP, Kassiano W, Nabuco HCG, Sugihara Junior P, Fernandes RR, Antunes M, Aguiar AF, Cyrino ES. Moderate and Higher Protein Intakes Promote Superior Body Recomposition in Older Women Performing Resistance Training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2022 May 1;54(5):807-813. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002855. Epub 2022 Jan 12. PMID: 35019903.

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wow so viele detaillierte gute Information und Erklärungen. Tolle Recherche und wirklich sehr lehrreich 👍👍👍👍👍👍👌

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