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How to cut the fat and keep the muscle

Fitness trainer Becky Wright advises being honest about your calorie intake, but warns that crash dieting will switch off your fat-burning hormones and decrease your metabolic rate

This is the dilemma: You’ve been working hard in the gym for a few months now. You finally got over your fear of lifting weights and are beginning to see and feel the benefits of resistance and weight training. As a result, you are loving your new-found muscles — good job! But here’s the thing, you want to take your physique to the next level and get a little bit leaner, but you don’t want to do it at the expense of losing all your new, hard-earned muscle. So what should you do?

It’s definitely possible to lean down whilst preserving muscle but, as with many things, especially those weight-loss or fitness-related, the slow and steady approach is best.

While your gut reaction may be to go on a crash diet or start incorporating lengthy, moderate-paced cardio sessions into your routine, this will actually have the opposite effect and will likely burn muscle rather than fat. Just like your approach to muscle building, you need to be smart about how you cut body fat, too.

Firstly, understand that not all cardio is equal. To maximise your chances of preserving muscle while using cardio as a tool to help burn fat, you should look to make interval training your priority. Intervals are short bursts of intense exercise during which your body feels very challenged, followed by a brief recovery period. Both phases are then repeated for a number of sets.

While there are lots of different formats for intervals, my preference when trying to maintain muscle but burn fat is to include lots of body weight and plyometric (jumping) type exercises, as these offer greater muscle stimulation, thus helping to preserve muscle tissue.

Secondly, it is important to take a look at your nutrition. You need to be honest with yourself. Is your diet really in alignment with your goals to get leaner, or could it do with some work?

It is crucial that you eat a good balance of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats from a range of whole foods. This will help you to get and stay lean in the long run. However, with muscle preservation in mind, your foremost concern should be that you are getting enough protein, which is essential for muscle recovery and growth. As a general rule, aim to get 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight, and try and to get this from lean sources such as chicken and turkey breast, white fish, egg whites and lean cuts of red meat.

Overeating and portion control is something we all struggle with from time to time. I know I’ve been there. I too have suffered from a case of ‘my eyes are bigger than my belly’.

But obviously a surplus of calories is going to hold you back from achieving your goal to get lean.

When trying to reduce portion sizes, my recommendation is to do it slowly; if you cut too much too quickly your brain and stomach will notice the decrease in fuel and tell you that you are being deprived, and we all know what happens next!

Instead, try making your portion sizes a little smaller each time over the course of a few weeks, and I’ll bet that you hardly notice the difference in the amount you are eating.

While overeating is going to hinder your results, crash dieting and not eating enough will unfortunately have a similar effect, too. If you reduce the number of calories you eat for too long this will impact your fat-burning hormones, essentially switching them off, as well as decreasing your metabolic rate (the rate at which your body burns calories for fuel).

In various studies, being in a prolonged calorie deficit has been proven to lower growth hormone levels and cause muscle breakdown. So, all those hours you spent lifting weights to develop your muscles, well, they’ve been for nothing if you diet too hard for too long.

If you are going to follow a restrictive diet, limit the length of time you cut calories severely to no more than eight to 12 weeks, and look to follow a maintenance nutrition plan for the remainder of the time.

I know it’s a bit of a minefield navigating the fat-loss and muscle-building game, but take on board these simple suggestions and persevere with your commitment to getting in shape, and I have no doubt you will start to feel and see the difference in your physique.

• Becky Wright is a qualified personal trainer, nutritional therapist and international bikini fitness champion. She has worked with clients worldwide, including royalty. Contact her at www.inspire-fitness-coaching.com or becky@inspirefitnesscoaching.com