How To Get Lean Without Losing Muscle

Bulking season is coming to an end, which means it’s time to trade in the sweatpants and hoodies for bikinis and swim trunks. Almost everyone has some kind of event that they want to look lean for when the weather gets warm- whether it’s a beach vacation, a wedding, or even a competition stage.

But what about all that hard-earned muscle you’ve put on over the past few months? Do you have to sacrifice the winter gains for a summer shred? No! You can have your cake and eat it too (don’t tell your trainer I said it’s ok to eat cake). Here are a few tips to help you get lean without losing muscle.

Continue to Prioritize Lifting

When the average gym-goer decides that they want to lose some weight, their first thought is long hours on the treadmill and countless floors on the stairmaster. Unfortunately, this is a sure-fire recipe for muscle loss and is an inefficient way to lose fat.

Whether you’re trying to do a total body transformation and lose 100 pounds or just cut some excess weight to fit into your favorite pair of jeans, a well-designed weight training program should be your foundation. If there’s one thing you take from this article, let it be this: You have to USE weight to LOSE weight.

Lifting weights builds muscle. Muscle tissue burns more calories than fat. So by that equation, the more muscle mass you have, the more effectively your body can burn fat.

Steady state cardio may burn more calories during the actual exercise, but weight training burns more calories over the course of the day. Weight training also tends to increase testosterone levels in the body (the muscle building hormone) while long cardio sessions can release cortisol (the stress hormone) which has a number of detrimental effects.

There are certainly a number of ways to make your lifting sessions more metabolic. The first, and easiest, method is to simply reduce your rest periods. Rather than checking Instagram or chatting with your buddy between every set, catch your breath, take a swig of water, and get back to it.

Another great way to break a major sweat while lifting is to implement supersets, trisets, and giant sets into your training. Alternating between exercises with little to no rest between will continue to build muscle while also creating a cardiovascular effect.

Choose Conditioning Over Cardio

The difference between conditioning and cardio was best described by Chris Shugart:

“Conditioning prepares you for battle. Cardio makes you really good at running away slowly.”

As I previously mentioned, long bouts of steady state cardio eat away at muscle and leave you weak. Conditioning, on the other hand, has the ability to make you stronger while burning fat.

Conditioning is the kind of training incorporated by NFL stars, MMA fighters, and physique competitors. It builds you up rather than breaking you down. Contrary to traditional cardio, a conditioning workout doesn’t have to last for hours- 20 minutes or so is all it takes.

Here are a few conditioning exercises that give you the most bang for your buck:

  • Farmer’s Walks
  • Walking Lunges
  • Sled Drags/Pulls/Pushes
  • HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)
  • Hill Sprints

It’s best to perform these exercises immediately following your regular training session or at another time during the day.

Eat Enough Calories

One of the most common mistakes when cutting weight is dropping too many calories too soon. While eating like a rabbit may cause the numbers on the scale to drop initially, eventually your body will catch up with you.

When you’re lifting regularly and eating a healthy diet, your metabolism is fired up. Your body is burning calories very efficiently. When you significantly reduce calories, your metabolism begins to slow down. Eventually, it screeches to a halt in order to hold on to any calories (energy) left in the tank. You will feel tired, weak, and your workouts will suffer. And of course, you’ll stop losing weight.

This is the root cause of the “yo-yo” dieting that is seen time and time again in pop culture. Operating at a major caloric deficit is not sustainable over long periods of time, so when people reach the point where they’re no longer seeing results, they binge and revert back to their old habits. This often results in gaining back all, if not more, of the weight they had previously lost.

Instead, operate at a minor caloric deficit. Simply reducing your intake by a couple hundred calories per day can have drastic effects over time. If you’ve never tracked your calories before, give it a try for just a few days. You may be surprised at how much (or how little) you’re eating.

Based on your current situation and your goals, set a daily caloric requirement and aim to hit it. Take note of your results over the course of a few weeks. If you haven’t noticed a difference on the scale or in the mirror, adjust accordingly. The key is to do it safely and gradually over time.

Be Patient

Unless you are a beginner or an enhanced athlete, getting lean without losing muscle is a very challenging process. It will test you mentally just as much as it will physically. There will be days when you feel bloated and out of shape, and days when you feel tiny and shriveled. Then, just when you lose all hope, there will be days when you feel like Arnold.

The key to cutting fat while maintaining muscle is to be patient. Trust the process. Find a nutrition plan and a workout regimen that you believe in and stick to it. Flip-flopping from program to program will lead you down a long and frustrating path.

Losing weight in a safe and healthy manner takes time. It’s not easy. The best way to accomplish your goal is to follow a detailed plan, execute it consistently, and have faith that you will indeed accomplish it.