Lose Belly Fat Without Losing Weight (or Muscle)

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Today I’d like to discuss the best ways to lose belly fat without losing weight.

I’m sure this sounds like a contradiction in terms to many people.

Surely, if you’re worried about the excess baggage you’re carrying around your midsection then being overweight must also be an issue.

However, for many people this simply isn’t the case.

Just as someone can be overweight and wish to lose weight, but they don’t actually have a fat belly.

Trust me, both scenarios are perfectly feasible.

Lose Belly Fat Without Losing Weight

A man with a muscular torso holding a measuring tape around a man with a flabby torso

Something that everyone should be aware of is that fat isn’t the only element that contributes to our body weight, especially in terms of weight loss.

In fact, a major part of how much we weigh is down to lean muscle.

Realistically, the vast majority of people want to lose body fat, as opposed to lean muscle.

So, the ideal scenario would actually be to maintain muscle mass (or even build muscle) while losing body fat, which will ensure that the digits on those weighing scales won’t decrease.

With that being said, the ability to actually lose fat while building muscle can be extremely difficult in most cases.

In fact, I’ll go as far to say that this phenomenon may be restricted to those who have never lifted weights before and are extremely overweight, or someone who is returning to training after a long lay off (this is when muscle memory comes into play).

For people who are looking to lose a large amount of fat, achieving this without losing muscle is fairly easy.

However, for those of you who are already lean, and are looking to get leaner or ripped, then trying to keep hold of muscle becomes a more difficult job.

I think the best way to look at this is to take two people, one has a high level of body fat, whereas the other has a far lower level of body fat.

If they were to consume the same low-calorie diet, then a higher proportion of the weight lost for the leaner individual would come from muscle.

Without bringing genetics into the equation, there are two main factors to losing body fat without losing muscle – the food that you consume and the type of exercise that you’re doing.

Eating For Fat Loss

Okay, so we are now aware that in order to lose belly fat without losing weight, not losing lean muscle plays an important part.

Furthermore, the foods that you eat have a pivotal role.

So, how (and what) exactly should you be eating?

I think most of us realise that when it comes to losing weight we typically need to eat at a calorie deficit.

Therefore, you need to be consuming fewer calories than you are burning on a daily basis.

However, when it comes to losing belly fat and body fat in general, while trying to maintain your current body weight, then you’ll need to approach things ever so slightly differently.

You still clearly need to eat at a calorie deficit in order to lose any type of body fat, but there’s no need for anything fancy.

So, you can stop worrying about low-carb diets, 5-6 meals a day, intermittent fasting, or cutting out gluten, wheat, dairy, or any other nonsense that may be forced upon you (intolerances aside of course).

RELATED====>How To Lose Weight and Still Eat Carbs

This is all well-and-good, but what exactly do I mean by a calorie deficit (especially for those looking to lose fat, but retain body weight)?

This is where you have to be conservative about lowering your calories in order to lose body fat.

If you lower calories too much, then you typically won’t have the energy for exercise, and you may pass into the realms of losing weight by losing muscle.

If you don’t lower your calorie intake enough, you may still lose body fat while retaining muscle, but it could be a slow, arduous journey, and generally take a lot longer than you hoped for.

In the vast majority of cases setting a calorie deficit at around 10% minimum and 20% maximum below the levels required to maintain your weight should suffice.

So, if you generally eat 2,500 calories a day and your weight remains constant (as does your belly fat) then lowering your calories intake to 2,000-2,250 calories should do the trick.

Therefore, by consuming 250-500 fewer calories a day the aim is for your body to take the energy it needs from your fat stores (and not from lean muscle).

If you are worried about losing weight, but still want to flatten that midsection, I would err on the side of caution initially.

Start with a 10% reduction in calories, try that for a week (while following everything else included in this article), then weigh yourself and also take note of how you look in the mirror (you can of course take belly measurements before, during, and after, although I generally prefer a “sight-test”).

Then maintain or increase your calorie intake as necessary.

It’s important to know that if you do start losing weight, and especially losing weight very quickly, then you are most likely losing muscle.

Basically, a pound of muscle contains around 600 calories, whereas a pound of fat contains 3,500 calories.

So, if your daily calorie deficit is 500 calories, as in the “maximum” example above, that equates to 3,500 calories on a weekly basis. In effect, you are burning 3,500 calories more a week than is available in your diet.

If all of these calories come from fat then you will lose one pound in that week.

However, if all these calories come from muscle (extremely unlikely) then you will lose almost 6 pounds during the same week.

Additionally, to debunk the myth that, “muscle is heavier than fat”, muscle simply weighs more in terms of similar mass. A pound of muscle will weigh the same as a pound of fat, or a pound of bricks, or a pound of feathers – a pound weighs a pound, irrespective of what it is made up of.

The easiest way to look at it is that a pound of muscle would take up less room in the body than a pound of fat, and if you had a block of muscle and a block of fat of exactly the same size, then the block of muscle would weigh more.

In order to maintain muscle mass you will need to ensure that you are eating enough protein.

If you’re not eating enough protein then you’ll lose muscle as well as body fat.

The amount of protein you should eat a day is a contentious subject.

According to the National Academy of Medicine the recommended dietary intake (RDI) is 56g for men and 46g for women on a daily basis.

This particular recommendation is based on 0.8g of protein per kilogram on average (male and female) body weight.

If you were to quote these figures to a regular gym-goer, someone who spends most of their time lifting weights, they would simply scoff at you, shake their head, and explain that this is typically the amount of protein they take in just one meal a day.

And they have a point.

If you are strength training then your requirement for protein increases significantly.

In fact, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compiled a study which stated that a high-protein diet requires 2.4g of protein per kilogram of body weight.

Therefore, three times as much as the RDI.

I would suggest that your protein requirements will vary depending on exactly how much exercise (strength training) you do, so aiming for somewhere in the middle is as good a place as any.

1.6g of protein per kilogram of body weight will suffice for most people, although if your aim is to go from being lean to extremely lean then you may need slightly more.

At a guess, the vast majority of people interested in an article about “losing belly fat without losing weight” will generally be in fairly good shape already.

They would perhaps have around 12%-14% body fat, but are aiming for single digit figures, thus ensuring that those abs are highly visible.

If this is the case then should aim for around 2g per kilogram of body weight.

Going back to our friends in the weights area of the gym, swallowing down gallons of protein shakes (and I feel I can say this because I’ve been there too), there really isn’t a need to go much higher than this in order to build lean muscle.

I will also add that another reason to up your protein intake if you’re looking to lose belly fat is that protein will do a far better job of filling you up than carbohydrates or fats.

Additionally, you are better off spreading your protein intake throughout the day, as this helps with muscle protein synthesis.

However, I’m still not a fan of eating 5-6 times a day, which is extremely popular among lifters, and I tend to have 4 meals a day (I’m not counting the post-workout protein shake I have as a meal).

Each of my meals will contain protein, carbohydrates, and fats.

You can check out this PDF for the top 10 foods with the highest protein.

What Type Of Exercise Should You Be Doing?

People performing weighted exercises in a gym

Okay, so we now know that eating at a calorie deficit, but increasing protein intake will ensure that we are losing body fat, but not significantly impacting on our lean muscle.

Next on the agenda is exercise.

I’m just going to come out and say it – if you don’t want to lose any weight, but you’re looking to banish that flabby midsection, then lifting weights is essential.

I think it’s time to debunk another myth, although I feel the truth about this has been around for long enough now that most people “get it”.

Plain and simple – you CANNOT spot reduce fat on certain areas of your body.

You can spend as many hours as you like doing crunches and sit ups. In fact, go on, spend the next month doing 1,000 reps a day, and I guarantee all you’ll have to show for it is a busted up lower back. Oh yeah, and still a lot of belly fat.

Even if you go the right way about exercising to lose belly fat, if you have fat in other areas of your body, then it’s likely you’ll see reductions in those areas first.

Unfortunately, this is just the way it is.

I hope you now understand the importance of maintaining lean muscle mass (and even building more) in terms of losing body fat.

Essentially the more lean muscle you have, the more calories you burn while at rest, plus the less body fat you’re likely to have.

Now I’ve mentioned many times before that people are often thrown off by the word “muscle”, typically because they associate this with those bulky gym-bros quaffing protein shakes, growling, and eating small children in the corner of the gym.

Irrespective of who you are, and what your current body composition is, you have muscle.

Simply strengthening or growing these muscles to their best potential will not make you bulky.

In fact, I would say it is far more likely to make you look lean, athletic and sexy.

Obviously, if you want to “get swole” and “huge” please be my guest, but this is not what I am about (or this website for that matter).

I think I also need to clarify the difference between strength training and resistance training.

Resistance training is simply adding some form of resistance to an exercise in order to make it harder.

Strength training is exercising in order to make yourself stronger.

The best way to do this is to use compound (multi-joint) exercises and progressively overload these exercises.

In layman’s terms, exercises that work a variety of muscles at the same time, and regularly making these exercises harder (usually by adding more weight, although there are other ways).

The basic strength exercises are typically the squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and bent over row.

I’d also like to add glute ham raises, weighted dips and weighted chins to the equation, as I think it just gives you that little extra oomph.

In fact, in order to produce a sexy, athletic, muscular body, with low body fat (and of course less belly fat) you don’t realistically ever need to do anything else in the gym.

I also really like Jeff Cavaliere’s explanation of strength training (and exercise demonstrations) in the video below.

The Fastest Way To Get Stronger

 

What About Cardio?

Regular readers, are you waiting for me to bash cardio again?

LOL.

I think I’ve made myself quite clear about how I feel about moderate-intensity, steady-state, long, boring bouts of cardio many times before.

So, there’s no need for me to pick on this version of cardio again.

I’ve mentioned that this type of cardio is fine if you are very, very new to exercise and are looking to lose weight.

For the first month, it will help you lose weight, and you’ll love moderate-intensity cardio (treadmill, stationary bike, or elliptical trainer at a slow and steady pace).

This is typically why many people go back again-and-again to this type of cardio.

But usually after that first month, progression halts, and the only way to continue making improvements is to workout for longer.

If your aim is to lose belly fat without losing weight, then please do not go near moderate-intensity, steady-state cardio.

You will lose weight, and this will very likely be muscle loss, as opposed to fat.

This is actually why many people who do moderate-intensity cardio don’t look that great without their clothes on.

Yes, they are definitely a smaller version of their former selves, but they have depleted their lean muscle and will therefore still have body fat.

Oh no, I did again, didn’t I?

I promised I’d leave cardio alone and once again I was rude to it.

I just want to get across that these long bouts of moderate-intensity, aerobic training can increase the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

While cortisol has a role in controlling blood sugar levels and even regulating the metabolism, it will also increase the rate at which protein is broken down in the body.

This will typically lead to muscle loss.

And I’m sure I don’t need to reiterate how bad that is.

Okay, there are two types of cardio I would suggest if you’re looking to lose belly fat without affecting your muscle.

Firstly, low-intensity, low-impact cardio – basically go for a leisurely, morning walk for 30-60 minutes.

Not only will this provide you with some exercise that doesn’t affect your ability to lift weights and hinder your strength training, but a morning walk also does wonders for the mind and the mood.

Secondly, high-intensity training, but this shouldn’t last any longer than 15 minutes (if you’re regularly performing strength training) otherwise we get into the realms of increased cortisol production again.

I have recently reviewed the Workout Finishers 2.0 program, which is ideal for anyone looking to complete this type of cardio.

In fact, some of the workouts are short as 3 minutes long, but will still have a dramatic impact on fat loss.

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking to lose belly fat without losing weight then the most important factor is that you will want to maintain muscle mass, or even build muscle.

Your first port of call will be to ensure that your consumed calories are slightly lower than the number of calories you burn on a daily basis, but be conservative here, as a significant calorie reduction will typically lead to weight (and even muscle) loss.

You should also look to increase your protein intake to the required levels.

The best form of exercise will be strength training, which will ensure that at worst that you maintain your current muscle mass, and at best, you’ll add to it.

Finally, for cardio, either stick to walking or short bursts of high-intensity exercise.

If you follow these rules you’ll soon lose that unsightly waistline without having to worry about directly affecting the weighing scales.

6 thoughts on “Lose Belly Fat Without Losing Weight (or Muscle)”

  1. I was just talking about this very subject today. I put on nearly half a stone during lock-down and couldn’t get into my usual work uniform! I have now lost the weight and a little bit more which is great (although my thighs are bigger due to strength training and I still can’t comfortably wear my uniform skirt!)

    Anyway, I still have a bit of a layer of fat over my stomach despite being slightly under weight. I need to do something. (I was on a plant based diet but am getting fed up with it lol though I also eat fish.) I do walk quite a lot as well as doing weights.

    The thing I struggle most with is getting my BMR up. It is currently 1267 and it hardly moves. I have hit a plateau! Any suggestions would be appreciated!

    Best,

    Jean

    Reply
    • Hi Jean,

      Lovely to hear from you.

      Well I think lockdown probably affected us in some way healthwise, and I’m sure putting on some weight was something that a lot of people went through.

      Just reading what you’ve said here a few things do come to mind.

      Firstly, your BMR is extremely low, although that tells me that you probably don’t carry much body weight (which may be a good thing).

      I’m also glad that you understand the importance of strength training, as it is something that many people avoid for fear of becoming “bulky”, but in truth this rarely happens unless you’re training very heavy for a couple of hours a day and supplementing additional testosterone and human growth hormone.

      My recommendations Jean may at first seem a little odd, but I think the main thing we need to do here is to boost your metabolism, and up your intake of certain foods.

      If you’re getting fed up with the plant-based diet, but you do enjoy fish, then please 100% get some more fish into your diet.

      In fact, protein-rich foods will help to increase the thermic effect of food, which is basically the number of calories the body requires to digest, absorb and process the various nutrients found in your meals.

      Proteins will typically increase your metabolic rate by 15%-30%, whereas carbs are 10%-15% and fats are as low as 0.5% and under.

      Many legumes, pulses, beans, peas, etc. also have high-protein content, e.g. edamame, lentils, chickpeas, fava beans, mung beans, lima beans, pinto beans, etc.

      Plus if you like spice, then please spice things up too, a chili or two can be great for a quick metabolic boost.

      I would also carry on with the strength training, as this will boost the metabolism and buld muscle, which in turn will automatically burn fat.

      However, you can make a couple of changes.

      You can move to a form of density training, which is basically getting more down in the same (or less) amount of time.

      So this would typically involve reducing your rest periods or doing timed exercises and looking to beat the amount of reps each workout.

      A couple of examples – Let’s say, if you currently perform 3 sets of 10 barbell squats with one minute rest in between, aim to do your 3 sets with just 50 seconds rest. The next time you complete that workout aim for 45 seconds rest, and then 40 seconds the following time. Once you get down to about 35 seconds rest between sets you can add weight, take a slightly longer rest period, and go through the same process all over again.

      Timed workouts would be that you set a timer for say 7 minutes and you simply do as many barbell squats as you can. So you may do 8 reps, take a quick breather, complete another 5 reps, take a breather, 3 reps, quick rest, another 3 reps, and so on.

      Keep a note of how many reps you completed and your aim is to beat that number the next time you workout (even if it’s only by one rep, you MUST beat it).

      Additionally, you could add very short, but heart-pumping, metabolism boosting finishers to the end of your workouts.

      One of my favourite ways to do this is through Tabata workouts, in fact I’ve recently written about Tabata Bodyweight Workouts.

      4 minutes of 20 seconds all out effort followed by 10 seconds rest. I love alternating kettlebell swings and burpees. It’s only 4 minutes, but my heart is literally beating out of my chest by the end.

      Just try a few of these things Jean and I’m sure you’ll burst out of that plateau in no time.

      And please do let me know how you get on.

      Partha

      Reply
  2. Hi, thanks for the article. I think a lot of people out there still have that mindset that tells them to work their bum off on a treadmill or a bike. I started shedding weight really fast when lockdown came because that was the only way to exercise for about two months. I am very gym dependent and this experience taught me a lesson. My quite nicely rounded bum was gone and the scale just kept going down. I agree with the fact that continuous cardio is the worst thing out there. Guys stop running on a treadmill for 45 mins and start doing HIIT training – It raises your heart rate, improves coordination, it’s fun, you can do it in a group,…
    And start resistance training if you haven’t yet! This article is spot on!

    Reply
    • Hi Silvie,

      Great to hear from you.

      Oh, I agree. I did eventually manage to find a great workout routine during lockdown, but initially I concentrated on very high rep bodyweight training and heaven forbid, I did actually have a few runs as well (you’ll learn that I’m not a fan of moderate-intensity, steady-state cardio and that I believe that we can put our bodies to far better use than just jogging away). I also managed to lose a lot of weight in the first month or so, I guess missing my gym workouts and specifically training for endurance.

      Resistance training is definitely the way forward and it will produce that lean, sexy and athletic body that most people crave. However, as you say, most people are content to plod along on a treadmill and yet can’t work out why they don’t look great.

      Thanks so much for your kind words too.

      Partha

      Reply
  3. Thanks for doing the research and sharing what you know.
    I have wanted to lose the betty fat, or ‘love handles,’ that I have and couldn’t work out why it wasn’t going down. Now I know…. I’m losing the fat from other areas of my body first. This sucks! But I do realize that if I keep doing what I am currently doing, I will end up with a better looking ‘all round’ body. This is a good thought and inspires me to keep going.

    I’m going to add more resistance excersises and maybe and extra round of Tabata training each day.
    Cheers mate.

    Reply
    • Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Yes, unfortunately the belly is notoriously one of the hardest areas of the body to lose fat. Plus as I’ve mentioned, it’s pretty much impossible to “spot-reduce” specific areas of the body.

      But, if you’re eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet, utilising strength training and intense intervals of cardio it will definitely make a difference to that waistline soon.

      I’m sure as you’re also aware that the stress hormone, cortisol, plays havoc with both the mind and the body, and this also seems to have an impact on the belly.

      But as I say, stick to the basics that I’ve apoken about here, and good things will eventually happen.

      Partha

      Reply

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