Last updated on June 10th, 2018
So how do you burn fat and not lose muscle? You’ve built the muscle and now it’s fat burning time. This is the part that virtually EVERYONE gets wrong.
By now you have probably gone around the block enough times to know that there is no super quick and easy way to lose body fat.
However, there are various approaches to getting it done, and some are definitely more efficient, and downright quicker than others.
The amount of information out there is mind-boggling, and I am just about to add another piece to the total.
The difference is that this article will go on the tiny pile labelled “correct”, whereas the majority of the internet’s so-called authorities talk massive heaps of horse sh1t.
Stay with me on this and you’ll see what I’m talking about because when you begin to adopt the practices I discuss, you will get the results you want.
Furthermore it’s all very simple to understand, it might help you save some time compared with what you are doing to lose weight now, and it will definitely feel better.
Do You Think You Have a Slow Metabolism?
If your answer is yes, then you are most likely putting too much stock in the idea that some people can eat lots and never gain weight while others, like yourself, are stuck with sloth-like metabolisms.
I say this because the slow metabolism thing is mostly myth.
If you don’t have a specific disease then your metabolism is likely within 10% of the average. That means you burn the same amount of calories per day as the average person, plus or minus just 150 to 200 kcal
There are some people who stretch to 16% difference to the average, but by no means does this make up for “eating as much as they want without putting on a pound”. That equates to just over 95% of people burning within 200 – 300 kcal of the average.
Obesity, or prior obesity, can slow your metabolic turnover but it can be turned around by applying the information in this article to your daily life.
I’ll explain some basic science stuff first, which matters, so please read it.
Metabolism, RMR and TDEE
Chances are that if you were in the “I have a slow metabolism” camp mentioned above, then you also think Metabolism = Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR).
You’re sort of right. One is a process and one is the energy demand of the process.
Metabolism is actually the total of all chemical reactions that occur in your body to keep you going. The process.
Those metabolic reactions require energy, and we define the energy needed to simply stay alive as the RMR, i.e. Resting Metabolic Rate. In other words, the amount of calories you burn a day just to exist.
Your RMR is the energy your body spends to stay alive, but is separate to both energy spent to digest food and energy spent during activity/exercise.
The sum of the energy you spend  existing (RMR);  digesting; and  being active is called your Total Daily Energy Expenditure or TDEE.
What’s great is that you can increase all three components of the TDEE.
Your RMR, for example, is higher for more active people than it is for sedentary people. Muscle mass needs 13 kcal per kilogram per day at rest, whereas fat only needs 4.5.
More muscle mass therefore means more calories burned, and much of those calories come from fat.
In fact, your RMR is directly determined by the mass of your muscle, organs and brain tissues. Basically what is known as your metabolically active fat free mass.
Brains and organ size don’t vary too much from person to person but they account for a lot of your TDEE. Per pound they require 20 – 30 times the energy muscle needs and up to 100 times that of fat.
However, given muscle mass is the only variable of your fat free mass (FFM) it is the means by which to increase your RMR.
Digesting Food, Absorbing and Storing Nutrients
The second part of your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is the energy needed for digesting food, absorbing it, using it and storing it.
It’s called the Thermic Effect of Food and the different macronutrients have different “thermic rates”.
Protein uses, or burns, the most by a long shot, which is one reason why high protein diets are associated with greater weight loss success.
The other reason is that protein retains muscle mass, meaning most of the weight loss is body fat.
Activity and Exercise
The third and final component of the TDEE is your Active Energy Expenditure (AEE).
There are two components to your Active Energy Expenditure and they are rather annoyingly called Physical Activity and Spontaneous Physical Activity.
I would call them Physical Exercise and Physical Activity personally, but whatever.
The point is that the spontaneous kind is the movement and activity you do on a daily basis – walking, taking the stairs, running for the bus, playing with the kids, tapping your feet…all of it. All the movement you do in life, apart from exercise.
Physical activity, or exercise, is just that – exercise, training, lifting weights, running laps, jogging, rowing, cycling etc.
As a whole, your Active Energy Expenditure is the biggest variable in your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, and you have absolute control over it.
How Can I Use This to Burn More Fat
In the next part of this article I will talk about how you can use the information about your metabolism, your TDEE, RMR, AEE and the thermic effect of food, to really speed up and improve your weight loss results.
When I say “improve” I mean that there are high quality weight loss results and low quality weight loss results.
Weight loss at the sacrifice of strength, fitness and/or health is not really a positive result unless you are morbidly obese.
To lose weight while gaining strength, becoming fitter and getting healthier is the ultimate in weight loss success. It’s fat loss.
Some people aren’t even big enough to need to lose weight, they just need to transform their body. The same rules apply.
At the start of this article, I looked at metabolism and the differences between:
- Resting Metabolic Rate – RMR is what most people consider to be their ‘metabolism’;
- The thermic effect of food – the energy required to digest, absorb, use and store food;
- Active Energy Expenditure – the energy spent exercising and moving
The three components above make up the Total Daily Energy Expenditure.
Understanding them is important to understanding how to use them in order to burn more body fat, and in the process become stronger and healthier.
A note on Weight Loss vs Fat Loss
Losing weight requires you to consume less energy than you spend over the course of a day. Your TDEE in calories therefore must be a greater number than your consumed calories.
Technically speaking, people who just want to lose some fat don’t have to do this as they can train and eat a protein rich diet. It is not unheard of to put on weight while losing body fat mass.
Generally speaking though, when someone wants to “lose weight” it implies that they want to lose body fat. However, those same people then gauge their success by weighing themselves on scales, which is nothing but a linear measurement of total body mass.
Crappy diets, lack of knowledge and poor choices mean that while the needle goes down, they will have lost a lot of muscle and bone density as well.
Overweight people need to lose weight, it’s true, but the scales are only one part of the measurement process. If you are losing weight but also losing strength, then you are losing muscle and possibly weakening your bones.
Some people are more out of shape than obese or overweight and so they don’t technically need to lose weight at all, they need to transform their body mass ratios from high fat-low muscle to low fat-high muscle.
Either way, the rules are essentially the same, and the emphasis from now on should be on fat loss and your satisfaction with your own physique. I’d rather you looked in the mirror than stood on scales.
Increasing your RMR
If you read the first part of this article then you know that there isn’t really such a thing as a “slow” metabolism if you’re not in a diseased state of some kind.
Everyone’s got that friend that seems to be able to shovel food down and stay skinny while they look at a burger and gain weight.
The truth is, in one way or another, that friend is making up for it by
a) not eating much during the rest of the day;
b) exercising a lot more than you think,
c) being way more active spontaneously:
or d) a combination, or all, of the above.
Wipe the idea of your slow metabolism from your mind and focus on things you can change. I said in Part One that most people sit within 10% of each other’s RMR. And some can get 16% away.
You can actually make that 10% increase happen.
Remember that RMR is the energy your body burns to stay alive. You can use your biggest variable – your Active Energy Expenditure to increase it.
Increasing Muscle Mass
Exercise burns calories as you do it, that’s what makes up your AEE, and for really active people their AEE can be up to half of their TDEE.
Still with me?
But the thing is, your RMR, your Resting Metabolic Rate, is determined by the amount of fat free mass you are made of.
Growing your brain is sadly not an option, and growing your organs much bigger than they are is thankfully not either, so it’s down to muscle and bone tissue.
Pound for pound muscle tissue burns about three times the kcal compared to adipose tissue (fat) over the course of day.
This is why resistance training has had such a boom in popularity in recent years. More muscle = increased RMR = increased fat burning.
The beauty of resistance training, and muscle tissue for that matter, is that they can be designed and shaped depending on the body type you want. Toned and curvy is as possible as huge and sculpted. It’s really down to you.
Anaerobic vs Aerobic Exercise
That’s not all your training does though. It also increases your excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC for short)
(Btw, I know…the acronyms and initialisms are out in force. And I’m sorry).
So, the bigger the volume of excess post-exercise consumption, the more energy is required and the more fat is burned.
As you are fully aware, there is two general types of exercise: aerobic and anaerobic. Aerobic exercise predominantly uses a combination of the oxygen you breath and your stored fat to fuel it. However, it doesn’t tend to burn lots of calories after the exercise session.
Aerobic exercise therefore has low EPOC.
Anaerobic exercise is short bursts of high-intensity, ranging from about 10 seconds (e.g. 100m sprint) to about 2 minutes (e.g. a volume set of squats).
Glucose is the fuel and lactic acid is the by-product. Oxygen cannot be delivered to the muscles in time during their most intense usage.
Anaerobic exercise burns less calories in the moment, but a lot more afterwards. It has high EPOC.
A combination of the two types is possible with a sliding scale of each one countering the other. For example, running a fast mile still requires a lot of oxygen but will dip into anaerobic glycolysis as well.
To boost your RMR significantly, your workouts should incorporate anaerobic exercise. This includes weight lifting and resistance training, together with high intensity interval training.
Short sprint intervals of explosive power are a great example of fast-twitch muscle builders and post exercise fat burners.
Aerobic and Cardio-vascular work is still important but if you don’t have time for hour long jogs, or just hate the idea of them, then you can do 20 minutes at the end of a 2o minute anaerobic session.
Back To Muscle Mass
Not only does anaerobic exercise increase the excess post exercise oxygen consumption, and for many hours as well, but it triggers the growth of muscle.
Once again we come back to muscle and it’s importance for burning fat. Muscle tissue, as I have discussed, uses more energy – and therefore more calories – than fat, simply existing.
The stronger it gets the denser it gets and the more mitochondrial cells there will be to burn more and more fat, even as you rest.
Even at the point where you no longer want to grow your muscles, or no longer can because you’ve hit a plateau, the repeated training and repairing of it will still require the same EPOC and maintenance energy.
In this next part I’m going to discuss more ways by which you can boost your metabolism, and burn more fat, by adapting your nutritional intake, increasing your Active Energy Expenditure and taking the odd supplement.
Hopefully, if you’ve read everything so far you are forming some ideas in your mind about how you can use this information to improve your fat burning, physique improving, efforts.
Efficiency should be at the forefront of your mind when you have a goal in mind: How can I reach the next target most efficiently? … because doing things the hard way is just silly.
So, by now you will realize that there are much more efficient ways to boost your metabolism, and I hope from what I’ve already written that anaerobic exercise and resistance training are calling out to you like sirens.
Too many people spend too much time in what they think is the fat-burning zone – slow and steady for hours a week.
I’m not saying they are boring – I love distance running and endurance sports, but if getting slimmer is your objective (and by that I mean slim and strong), then hard, powerful and fast is the way to go.
Increasing the Thermic Effect of Food
The thermic effect of food is a fancy way of referring to the energy required to put food through the cycle of digestion, absorption, assignment and storage.
So consuming food not only provides energy, but it requires energy as well.
Sadly, the idea that celery or anything else can use more energy to consume than they provide, and are therefore “negative calories” is a theory that doesn’t graduate to practical. The difference, if there is one, is so small that you’d have to eat celery all day. And who wants to do that.
Protein, Carbohydrates and Fat
That said, of the three macronutrients, Protein, Carbohydrates and Fat, it is Protein which has the highest thermic rate. It burns far more energy than fat and carbs.
High protein diets are the best choice for someone who needs to lose weight because of this thermic effect and because it retains muscle mass. The same can be said of course for someone looking to increase overall mass but stay lean.
It nearly always comes back to muscle, doesn’t it.
Increasing Activity Energy Expenditure
Physical exercise has been covered in the previous article, but what about the rest of your activity during the day? Spontaneous physical activity (SPA), is it is defined, includes anything you do other than deliberate exercise.
These are often the subconscious things you do. Fidgeters, for example, burn a couple hundred calories a day just by being annoying.
Sitting upright and holding proper back posture takes effort, which is why a lot of people slouch at work or on the sofa, but that effort is energy and that’s calories in the bank.
Chewing gum, taking the stairs, squeezing a stress ball, just getting up to walk around the office every 30 minutes…it all helps.
Your random activity through the day can account for between 5% and 15% of your total daily energy expenditure.
That can be up to around 600 calories a day. That’s free fat loss.
Use Supplements To Burn Fat But Keep Muscle
Various supplements can help with improving your physique, whether through burning fat, increasing muscle growth or improving your mood.
Fat burning ingredients that work exist, but are rarer than the supplement manufacturers would have you believe.
Unsurprisingly caffeine is the most prevalent fat burning ingredient and if it’s used correctly it does indeed work. The problem is habitual coffee drinking that desensitizes the body to its thermogenic effects, but you can read more about that in the dedicated caffeine article.
Protein powders are a great way of getting the high thermic effect without many calories and they are a no-brainer for people who work out.
Do some exploring and research before buying because you will definitely be drowned in hype by the manufacturers themselves. I have written a lot of articles on current supplements on this website, and there will be more to come.
Some Take Aways
Metabolism is what makes you tick, but it needs fuel to run. By altering the 3 components of your body’s total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), you can increase the amount of fat you lose substantially.
Don’t blame your “slow metabolism” for your inability to obtain the physique you want, or consider it somehow unfair that you were left with this when others around you seem to eat anything they want and stay slim, because it doesn’t work that way.
If you take ownership of your situation and change some things up, you will be astonished by the results.
You might be putting so much effort in but not getting the results you want simply because you are fighting yourself. A classic example of this is people who go to the gym to do an hour of light cardio thinking all the time that they are in the fat burning zone.
It’s not the hour at the gym where you want to burn the most fat, it’s the 23 others in the day. Switch it to 20 minutes weight lifting, 20 minutes intense interval training and 20 minutes of medium intensity cardio and see how that goes.
Ditch the toast and cereal and have a protein based breakfast in the morning. Try a couple of proven supplements out.
Make the changes and you’ll see the results.