Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
20 Oct

How to Maintain Muscle While Losing Weight

“Losing weight” is insufficient terminology. It’s too vague, too unspecific. When a person sets out to lose weight, just what are they trying to lose? Bone density? Muscle mass? Organ weight? Of course not – they’re generally looking to lose adipose tissue. People want to burn body fat, and they want to do it without negatively impacting the more beneficial sources of (corporeal) gravitas. Simply put, you want to lose fat, not muscle. The only problem is that the popular methods for shedding weight often result in excessive (but really, any amount is excessive) muscle loss, too. I’m talking, of course, about precisely the practices I rail against in the Primal Blueprint Chronic Cardio, ultra low-cal/low-fat ascetic dieting, and other trappings of Conventional Fitness Wisdom. Granted, adhering to any, individually or in concert, will probably help you lose weight, but a ton of it will come from your lean mass (not to mention bones and organs). That said, if you’re going for skinny-fat chic or the waiflike, undernourished look, feel free to run fifteen miles a day and live off canned tuna and rice cakes. The scale will drop, and you won’t be weighed down by that pesky musculature any longer.

But you don’t want that (do you?). You want a strong, lean body. You want to maintain your agility, your power, your strength, and your agreeable appearance. You want to burn fat while maintaining (or even building upon) your existing muscle. Heck, if you’re mostly interested in burning fat, you need the muscle. Muscle is a hungry, wasteful thing. It craves protein and fat to run effectively, along with a bit of glycogen every now and then to fuel up. Next to the organs and the brain, your muscle mass is one of the biggest consumers of energy in the body, and the more you have, the better your fat loss. It’s a delicious cycle – the right kind of exercise spares muscle and burns fat, and more muscle with reduced body fat allows you to do the right kind of exercise.

To make sure you’re losing the right kind of weight, you have to chart your progress. It’s a little more complicated than just watching your total weight, though. In fact, you don’t even really need the scale anymore. Well, you can keep it around, but don’t get too comfortable; your meetings will be fleeting and infrequent from here on out. Spend a little quality time alone, if you must. Get your fill of each other, because you’re going to be using an entirely different set of barometers to monitor your weight loss: eyes, ears, belts, and weights.


Check yourself out. Don’t hover in front of the mirror, though. Strip down to the bare essentials and take full body snapshots, making sure to space them out every few days. A lot of people tend to obsess over minor daily fluctuations, but you’re not going to see a whole lot of visual differences that quickly. Five days, six days, or definitely a week, however, can be enough time to notice a difference in a direct comparison. Look out for misshapen lumps, sagging chests, flabby underarms – all signs that you’re losing muscle and maintaining fat.


If you’re doing it right, you should be getting noticed. Whether it’s a significant other, a co-worker, or friends, people will compliment you. Heed their words. When people say, “You’ve lost weight!” (and they’re not your grandmother clicking her tongue in disapproval) and, “You look stronger and healthier!” it means you’re on the right track. Take it as a sign.


Losing fat and maintaining muscle means dropping pants sizes. Using an extra notch on the belt is good. Having to buy an entirely new belt is better. Using a hole punch to create new holes because you can’t afford a new belt is pretty bad – but at least you’re still losing fat.


The best way to ensure you’re maintaining muscle mass is to chart your progress in the weight room. Muscle loss is accompanied by a reduction in strength, so if you find yourself failing to hit the marks you used to destroy with ease, you’re probably eating muscle. It’s a bad sign if you’re dropping weight and doing fewer pull-ups than before.

(You can also use body fat testing to get actual numbers, but I’m a big fan of the above methods. How you feel, look, and lift is going to be enough of a marker for most people.)

Okay, those are a few ways to monitor your progress (or lack thereof), but what about actually doing it? What should we be eating, and how should we be exercising? Short answer: follow the PB way. Eating a high-fat, moderate protein, low-carb diet is pretty crucial in our everyday life, and it’s no different now. Minimizing our insulin load while filling up on fats, meat, and veggies is just as important. Likewise, lifting heavy things and running really fast every once in awhile are keys to promoting fat mobilization and muscle maintenance. You could even just check out the last post I did on building muscle and for the most part all that stuff will apply, too.

But there are a few specifics that bear repeating, and a few areas where today’s advice differs slightly from that of the previous muscle-building post.

Intermittent Fasting

IF is perhaps your greatest tool when losing weight and maintaining muscle. It increases insulin sensitivity (good for mobilizing adipose tissue), promotes the secretion of growth hormone (a muscle sparing, fat burning hormone), and reduces body fat. What’s not to love? It’s almost like the human body’s response to IF was designed specifically for our current predicament. Hmm, I wonder if Grok ever found himself in a situation where food was scarce and muscle mass was precious… For extra benefits, exercise in a fasted state and wait at least an hour before you eat something.

Avoid Excess Chronic Cardio

I know, I know, those words probably still sound like sacrilege to a few of you, but it’s true that constant, Chronic Cardio is catabolic – it retards muscle growth, interrupts protein synthesis, and can even reduce existing muscle mass. Too much exercise (especially highly stressful long distance steady state stuff) releases cortisol, a vitally important “flight-or-flight” hormone that can be incredibly damaging in unnaturally large amounts. In Grok’s day, cortisol would have kicked in when he needed it to jog his senses and get him focused on surviving a momentary threat; nowadays, we’re pelted with stress from all angles, and our body doesn’t differentiate between artificial stress (like work, traffic, or money) and “real” threats. Chronic Cardio is just another unnaturally stressful situation we subject ourselves to, and cortisol is happy to help – except all that help packs on the pounds and eats away at our muscles.

Make Sure You Sprint

Besides, sprinting (or really, any exercise that stimulates lactate production) is a great way to increase growth hormone production and burn body fat while maintaining fast twitch musculature. GH, fasting, sprinting, fat mobilization… it all seems to fit together, huh?

Lift Heavy Things

You fail to move it, you’ll lose it. You can’t forget about lifting, whether it’s with a heavy barbell or your own weight. Resistance training increases bone density, which is an important factor in healthy body weight, and it (obviously) also increases (or maintains, depending on your diet/intensity) muscle mass. Oh, and I probably don’t even have to say it, but heavy lifting (especially compound exercises like squats and deadlifts) also stimulates growth hormone production.

Don’t Go Overboard on the Food

You’re not trying to pack on weight – even if it’s muscle – so there’s no need to stuff yourself. When you’re not fasting, just eat normally. Eat your fill, and stop when you want. Just keep those carbohydrates low, no more than 50g or so for most people, and don’t obsess over calorie counting (in either direction). Focus on saturated and monounsaturated fats (with some fish oil to supplement) and take in about a gram of protein for every pound of lean body mass.

Again, you’d be pretty safe just following the normal Primal eating and exercise plans, getting plenty of rest, minimizing stress, and fasting once in awhile, but I figured a quick and dirty guide with a few clarifications would help ensure you achieve fat loss without sacrificing muscle mass. It’s just too bad that most of the mainstream assumes muscle loss accompanies weight loss – if they even consider it. Let’s hope a few outsiders stumble upon this and realize weight loss doesn’t have to be a compromise.

Shoot me some questions or concerns, if you got ‘em! I’m happy to help.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. What do you mean by “fasting” or eat stop eat? I’m eating ~5 times per day, limiting carbs. Should I be fasting a day? Thanks!

    Michael wrote on May 12th, 2011
  2. It’s actually “fight or flight” not “flight or flight” lol

    Jackie wrote on May 31st, 2011
  3. Great post Mark,
    For me, the best way to gain muscle is to simply lift very heavy weight. When I diet, I aim for the 5-6 rep range. I rarely do any burnout sets or anything like that.


    Keith wrote on June 30th, 2011
    • and does that work well for you?

      liam hills wrote on January 12th, 2016
  4. Great blog here! Also your website loads up fast! What host are you the use of? Can I am getting your affiliate link in your host? I wish my web site loaded up as fast as yours lol

  5. Mark- I recently lost lost 40 lbs and after treading this I realize I did it the wrong way. I did a lot of Cardio. I can tell I lost muscle. My stomach is still flabby and so are my thighs. My question is what do I do know to rectify the problem? Please Help

    Jaime wrote on October 17th, 2011
  6. I am 5’2″ over 200 lbs and have been told I am insulin resistant. I desperately want to become healthy. I have two beautiful children and a fantastic husband. I had spinal surgery a few years ago so low impact exercise or swimming is about all I can do for now. Where do I start? Three years ago I was 135 lbs and loved life…I am off course and need help.

    Debra wrote on October 21st, 2011
  7. Debra,
    I am 5’4″ and currently very overweight but recently begun a low glycemic way of eating and lost 11lbs in 2 weeks. My accountability partner has lost 13lbs! Eating this way REALLY WORKS for me!

    Heidi wrote on October 21st, 2011
  8. Hello,

    I have seen people say here that when they changed their diet and exercise plans they came out of all those years of wrong dieting and exercising. I couldn’t figure out what this means? Can someone please help me.

    I am currently on the traditional low fat, moderate protein and moderate carb diet with 30 to 40 minutes elliptical and running in the gym and half hour of weights training. What I do not understand is what is the alternative that worked for you??

    I am eating 100 grams of carb everyday. Cereal in the morning, big Salad with chicken breast and some nuts and a little olive oil for lunch, and then some vegetable stirfry with little veg oil with some baked chicken and 1 cup rice in the evening. I also have a fruit around 5pm as a snack. I feel full but am on a low calorie diet. I am 5’2, 162 pounds and female.

    Can you please tell me what I am doing wrong? i am loosing some pounds in the weighing machine but I do not know if this is mostly muscle??

    Thank you.

    Antree wrote on October 28th, 2011
  9. Hey everyone,
    Ive been paleo for a little now (2 weeks). Im having difficulty when it comes to my workouts. I wake up at 6 am to do my usually hiit (, although i dont seem to have the motivation/ energy to really “give ‘er” like i use to (preworkout use to be a vegasport, yerbamate, green tea, palm sugar..ect, omg it helps so much!). So what do you suggest for a small preworkout kick/energy booster? Sugar free of course.

    Also im very confused as to if i should consume some carbs after a sweaty workout or no. Ive just read “primal body, primal mind”, Nora mentions that there is no need for carbs in the body. Period. But what about postworkout, i dont want to see my hard earned muscles get eaten up! So basicly my 2 questions are, what should i be eating pre and post workout?

    If anyone could help clarify this for me it would be awesome!

    stephanie wrote on October 28th, 2011
  10. @WidiSwift13 3 unfollowed you between 7AM and 8AM. See who:

    QUINCY wrote on October 31st, 2011
  11. Thank you, I have just been searching for information approximately this topic for a while and yours is the greatest I’ve found out till now. But, what concerning the conclusion? Are you sure about the source?|What i do not understood is if truth be told how you’re not really much more well-preferred than you may be right now. You’re so intelligent.

    Exercises for Losing Arm Fat wrote on November 22nd, 2011
  12. Mark,
    You recommend sprinting to increase growth hormone production. This link you supply above ( says that “A single 30-s sprint is a potent physiological stimulus for growth hormone (GH) release. However, repeated bouts of sprinting attenuate the GH response”.

    Your sprint routine consists of 6 to 8 sprints per weekly session. Wouldn’t that be counter productive in terms of trying to get more GH in your system if the above statement is true? Should we be just doing 1 30 seconds sprint every other day instead of 8 sprints in one day?

    Gary wrote on December 17th, 2011
  13. How can you get your full day of protein by eating just 1 per day?

    Niya wrote on February 6th, 2012
  14. Sorry should be,by eating just 1 meal per day

    Niya wrote on February 6th, 2012
  15. Your recommendation of a certain amount of protein per pound of lean body mass is fine. I just need to determine my lean body mass for the right intake of protein. Any recommendations as to how to best make this determination. Currently 59 years old six foot 2 inches. No meds. Very active. Hope that helps:)

    jlfitguy wrote on April 30th, 2012
  16. Hello, 23 male here i had lost a total of 83lbs in 8 months i was 255 now i am 172 i did it on my own decided to run it off and swim it off. Was tired of being lazy i have been doing bicep curls past 5 months and abs. Seeing good results i just want to gain knowledge on muscle mass for chest and forearms and back. I am beginning to build a routine and it feels good never have i received so many compliments in my life from a size 44- a 32. I just dont want to be a anorexic skelo lol. i guess i will moderately watch my protein intake from now on. I always looked stocky even still have a big upper body people think i box/ football.

    roman wrote on May 20th, 2012
  17. Hello there,

    I have recently found out about becoming fat-adapted, when looking to overcome my problems with hypoglycemia when I try fasting (I would like to IF regularly, for health not weight loss, but it seems detrimental at present, with the symptoms like faintness, headaches and raised cortisol I get from fasting).

    So I figured I have to get fat-adapted (or leptin-sensitive) first and started to follow the advice of reducing carbs to ~50g a day and having lots of protein & fat.

    I’m slim with not much excessive body fat, just a little bit on my stomach and tights maybe, and normally fairly active with walking and cycling to places.

    What worries me now is that after just a few days of this I have lost a little bit of weight, but it is clearly from muscle as my fat deposits seem about the same but I look noticeably less toned and more flabby! I’m scared to continue with this low level of carbs now; conventional advice says to have days with more carbs in between and not to reduce too much.

    Is it because my body cannot yet use the fat and protein to feed the muscles? If so it seems a catch-22 if I have to reduce carbs to become fat-adapted!? Or is my overall calory intake too low? I’ve not lost much weight, only a pound or two, but I’m sure it’s muscle I lost.

    Also finding it a bit hard to judge exactly how much carbs I am getting, but assumed if anything it was more than theh 50g as I had some veg, very small amounts of rice, tomato sauce, houmous, beans and a larger amount of yoghurt over the days, also some fruit. But compared to what I used to eat (mainly carbs), it was truly tiny amounts.

    Feeling daunted and confused now, any advice would be much appreciated…

    Dannie wrote on August 16th, 2012
  18. hello,

    I am a type 2 diabetic male. I am 63 years old. In march, 2011, My fasting blood sugar was 316 mg/dl. My postprandial reading was 428 mg/dl. ketones in my urine was + +. My weight was 172 lbs. I am 71 inches tall. My waist size was about 40 inches. My doctor put me on Mixtard 30 to be taken, using the insulin flex pen. The dosage was 20 units in the morning after breakfast and 14 units in the evening after dinner.

    Taking the help of many diabetes web sites, I changed my eating habits, eating lesser grains, and eating frequent small meals. I also walked after breakfast, after lunch, after evening coffee and after dinner. I walked briskly for about ½ an hour after these meal times. As my blood sugar readings improved, I decreased the amount of insulin I was taking. For the last two months, I have been taking only 2 units of insulin in a day. This was sufficient to keep my fasting blood sugar levels at below 100 mg/dl and 2 hours after meal readings as 120 mg/dl.

    Today is the 17th of October, 2012. For the last 7 days I have not taken any insulin shots. My fasting sugar is below 90 mg/dl. My postprandial sugars are below 110 mg/dl. If I take, even a single unit of insulin, in a day, my sugar readings go below 60 mg/dl. My weight is now 147 lbs. My waist size is now 36 inches. I still have a lot of fat around my waist. I have a lot of fat around my belly button. I want to get rid of the fat round my belly button and the fat around my waist. I want to increase my weight by increasing my muscle.

    The pants, that would not fit me in march, 2011 are loose on me today. I have used a hole punch to make notches in my belt. Even now, the belt, wrinkles the waist band. I feel, that I have to buy new pants in the near future. I now weigh, the same as I did, when I was 20 years old.

    I still have to walk after alternate meals, to burn the sugar in my blood stream. I have to continue this routine so as to avoid taking the insulin. I do not know, how long I can maintain this routine, and avoid taking insulin. I take no oral medication. Also, I do not wish to take any oral medication. I want to know, whether I will be burning fat as well as sugar, during this ½ an hour walk after meals. I also want to know, whether this walk decreases my muscle mass. I want to avoid decreasing muscle mass.


    salvis wrote on October 17th, 2012
  19. Hello everyone I came across this as I am trying to find a way of losing weight and gain muscle, my problem is what kinds of food should I be eating to help me lose weight and keep it off , can anyone give me a few tips or even recipes to help and even some exercising tips would be fantastic thank you kim :)

    Kim wrote on November 21st, 2012
  20. I’m confused by the 50g carb/day recommendation. The primal blueprint curve shows that 50-100g is the sweet spot for weight loss, and under 50g is for ketosis, people with diabetes, etc. What should be my aim? I’m currently about 36% body fat, 156 pounds, and 5’4″.

    Katherine wrote on January 22nd, 2013
  21. Hi Mark,I stumbled upon this article and found it incredibly helpful, primarily because I’m scared that since I’ve started losing weight (it’s been three months that I’ve started eating healthier and less, as well, in order to lose a few lbs) I’ve also lost muscle mass: checking myself at the mirror I’ve realized that I’ve completely lost all the bum I had. Actually I have less cellulite , but I really can’t say if it’s flabbier, but the curve of my ass has almost disappeared. I don’t know if I’ve lost muscle or fat there, but it’s definitely something I didn’t want.

    My goal was/is to lose fat on my thighs and to tone them up together with my butt, but actually so far I’ve lost only a few little inches on my thighs and I don’t see much improvement in my tone. I am scared I focused too much on cardio and too little on strenght training, and mostly, I’m scared I’ve been eating too little. All the times I’ve checked my calorie intake using the online calorie calculator the result that came out was way less than what I should eat,also for loss weight, but I always thought that I didn’t count well or that those calculators weren’t dependable, because really, I don’t feel like I’ve been starving myself. Energy wise, I don’t feel tired, and since I’ve started working out, I’ve developed a lot of resistance, not lost it. Maybe then I’ve just lost fat and not muscle, or maybe a combination of both? What do you think?

    I wanted to ask you advice on how increasing my calorie intake without gaining the weight I’ve lost, I’m scared I will take it all back as soon as I start eating a little more. Plus, what do you recommend doing to tone my lower body and lose the fat I still have? I really am in need of an expert’s advice.

    Chiara wrote on May 6th, 2013
  22. I did the Body for Life program a few years back and didn’t eat enough. Although my thighs and biceps responded nicely, my calves and forearms lost almost all their muscle. Does anyone know how to build them up again? I’ve tried the calf raises at the gym with the machines, but no results. Thanks!

    Shirley wrote on June 27th, 2014
  23. I have been with a few online trainers.. this is my second time competing in npc bikini. I am 39, vegetarian. I do not feel like I am getting the right diet. In January I weighed 145 (I am5’6.5) my trainer put me on an 1100 cal day diet.macros- 60% protein, 30% carbs and 10% fats. running 5 miles a day 5 days a week. I lost 20lbs by competition in March but just looked skinny-not fit.
    I managed to stay around 137 lbs after and maintain at 1400 calories/Day.
    I now have a new trainer and at 15 weeks out put me on 1950 calories 35% protein,45% carbs and 10% fats. This was to put on muscle before cutting. I am doing strength training 5x a week and little cardio. but I am up 10-11 lbs in 5 weeks. I am 10 weeks out from my comp now and just feel big and sloppy. I feel gross from the carbs. is this too many? my diet will change next week but now in afraid I won’t lean out in time.

    Dina wrote on July 23rd, 2014

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