Do you want to know how to lose muscle?
It’s not something that a lot of people need help doing.
So, how do you lose muscle mass on purpose? The short answer is that you need to stop working your muscles. Cut back on or stop strength training and eat less protein.
Unfortunately, if you completely stop working out and replace the protein with other calories, you may start to gain fat.
To counter this problem, eat at a calorie deficit and include cardio in your routine.
While it seems simple, there’s much more to the process.
(Women that are interesting in losing muscle, but still want to build a lean, toned appearance should check out this workout program designed specifically for females.)
How to Lose Muscle Safely and Effectively
Losing muscle isn’t too difficult, but still requires planning.
You could simply stop working out. However, if you want to lose muscle without becoming a couch potato, you need to think about your workout routine and nutrition.
The basic steps for losing muscle include:
- Reducing your workouts
- Cutting back on protein
- Eating at a calorie deficit
- Performing more cardio
Before you start toning down, you should ask yourself if this is really what you want. After you get rid of the muscles, gaining them back is a lot of work.
With that in mind, here’s what you should do if you want to know how to lose muscle mass quickly.
Reduce Strength Training Workouts: Stop Working Your Muscles So Hard
The first step for toning down is an obvious one. You need to stop or limit your strength training.
Muscles become larger through a process called muscle hypertrophy.
When you work out, you stimulate the muscles, causing contractions. The repeated contractions create small tears in the muscle fibers.
During muscle recovery, your body repairs the fibers. The new fibers increase muscle mass, resulting in bigger muscles.
When you stop giving your muscles the stimulation they need, they start a process called muscle atrophy and become smaller.
How long this takes depends on the size of the muscles, your calorie intake, and other factors.
Typically, expect your muscles to start shrinking within a few weeks, but it may take up to a few months to get the results you want.
As you don’t want your muscle to completely atrophy (i.e., waste away), you still need to work them.
Use smaller weights and more repetitions. You should also try limiting the number of times that you target each muscle group each week.
For example, only work on your arms and shoulders once per week. Just make sure that you avoid overworking the areas that you want to tone down.
Cut Back on Protein Intake to Lose Muscle
Cutting back on strength training is a good first step, but you also need to cut back on your daily protein intake.
Keep in mind that you don’t want to completely starve your muscles. You want to lose muscle mass, but you don’t want them to completely waste away.
To find the right balance, try scaling back your daily protein intake.
First, determine how much protein you need to maintain muscle mass. This depends on your activity level:
- Sedentary – 0.36 grams per 1 pound of body weight
- Endurance – 0.55 grams per 1 pound
- Strength – 0.73 per 1 pound
If you lead a sedentary lifestyle, you probably don’t need to lose muscle.
Endurance athletes are those that regularly cycle, bike, or engage in other aerobic activities. If you fall into this category, you’ll need to eat a little less than 0.55 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
Strength training requires more protein. If you regularly lift weights, you may eat 0.73 to 0.82 grams of protein per pound of body weight to keep your muscles.
To scale back your protein intake, cut it by about 25%. If you typically eat 80 grams of protein per day, start eating 60 grams.
Each gram of protein provides four calories of energy. If you cut 20 grams of protein, you’re also cutting 80 calories from your diet.
However, to lose muscle, you’ll likely need to cut back your calories a little further.
Eat at a Calorie Deficit to Lose Muscle
If you want to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories compared to the calories your body burns each day. This also works for losing muscle, as you also need calories to maintain muscle mass.
When you eat at a calorie deficit, your body needs to find a stored energy source. It starts with the stored fat, but it can also use some of the stored muscle tissue.
If you don’t eat enough food to maintain your muscles, your body will start to eat away at your muscles a little bit.
How many calories should you strip from your diet?
You don’t want to drop too many calories unless you also want to lose fat.
The average calories needed for maintenance mode is 2,000 calories for women and 2,500 calories for men. That is how much you should eat to maintain your size.
If you want to lose a pound per week, you cut 500 calories from your diet. To start toning down, try cutting about 250 calories.
You should also wait a little while to eat after working out. If you eat right after exercising, your body uses more of the nutrients to repair muscle.
Wait about an hour after working out before eating. If you get hungry, try sipping on some water.
Include More Cardio in Your Workout Routine
The final piece of the puzzle is cardio. Stop strength training and start performing low-intensity cardiovascular exercises, such as walking or jogging.
You don’t want to include cardio that works your muscles too much, such as swimming or rowing. Those exercises promote muscle hypertrophy, which is what you want to prevent.
Adding cardio also burns extra calories, increasing your calorie deficit.
You may start by cutting 250 calories, but with 30 minutes or so of cardio, you’ll get closer to a 500-calorie deficit.
Avoid any exercises that target your hamstrings or quads. You should also stop performing any exercises that involve a “pumping” motion of your legs, such as cycling.
If you just want to lose muscle in your arms, avoid any exercises involving your upper body.
For the best results, stop all exercise except for marathon cardio.
Marathon cardio helps you lose muscle quickly and you can perform it on a treadmill. Jog at a medium-intensity speed for 45 to 60 minutes at a time.
If you’re looking for something a little less strenuous, you could include Pilates or yoga in your workout routine.
Both types of exercises involve low-impact movements and allow you to burn extra calories. You can maintain your flexibility and cardio health without working your muscles.
What’s Are Some Reasons for Wanting to Lose Muscle?
For most people, the idea of wanting to lose muscle mass on purpose seems ludicrous.
We lift so many weights and eat so much protein just to pack on a little more muscle. However, you’ll find there are quite a few legitimate reasons for getting rid of muscle, such as:
- Altering your physique for sport-specific reasons
- Creating more balance between muscle groups
- Achieving a slimmer look for aesthetic reasons (e.g., some females want a lean body, but don’t want to be muscular)
Athletes sometimes need to tone down specific muscle groups to focus on others or to alter their physique to improve their performance.
A swimmer may realize he needs to put on more leg muscle without increasing weight. By toning down his arms, the swimmer can reach that goal.
Most of us aren’t professional athletes, but there are still a few reasons for the average Joe or Jane to want to lose muscle mass. For example, you may want to tone down a specific set of muscles to create a more balanced look.
Sometimes, you just want to lose muscle for personal aesthetics. After years of walking around with bulky muscles, maybe you want to achieve a slimmer look.
How Long Does It Take to Lose Muscle Definition?
As mentioned, it may take a few weeks or several months for your muscles to become smaller.
Your fitness level, age, and sex all impact how long it takes to lose muscle.
If you maintain a higher level of fitness, your muscle mass will decrease faster.
According to one study, competitive athletes experienced muscle atrophy after two weeks of not training. For recreational athletes, it took up to 12 weeks.
The type of strength training that you normally use also affects how quickly you’ll lose muscle.
If you pump iron, you tend to have fluffier, showier muscles. Bodybuilders and powerlifters are more likely to lose muscle after just a couple of weeks of inactivity.
For those with lean muscle mass, it may take a little longer. The lean muscle is tighter and the fibers atrophy at a slower rate.
As you age, you also start to lose muscle faster. However, age isn’t really a factor unless you’re a senior citizen wanting to know how to lose muscle.
How to Measure Muscle (Or Calculate) Mass?
To calculate the amount of muscle mass on your body, you need to know your lean body mass.
Lean body mass (LBM) includes the mass of all organs in your body and excludes body fat, bones, blood, and skin.
Multiple formulas exist, but really your LBM is the opposite of your body fat percentage. If you have 20% body fat, your LBM is 80%.
The average muscle mass percentage for a 35-year-old woman is 31%. If she weighs 119 pounds and has a body fat percentage of 25%, her LBM is 75% and weighs 89.25 pounds. If her muscle mass is 31% of her LBM, she has 27.66 pounds of muscle.
Keeping track of these estimates may help you avoid losing too much muscle.
While you may not track your estimated muscle mass each week, you can use your LBM, body fat, and overall weight as indicators.
If you safely lose muscle without gaining fat, your weight should decrease while the LBM and body fat remain relatively the same.
Can You Lose Muscle Without Losing Strength?
Taking away some of your muscle will take away some of your strength. As your muscles start to atrophy, your strength diminishes.
It’s the same with cardio. If you stop performing cardio exercises, your endurance starts to decrease within a few days.
To maintain your strength while slimming down, you need to continue strength training, but with a few modifications:
- Perform more repetitions and sets with less weight
- Avoid exercises with lots of high impact movements, such as squats or lunges
- Include HIIT exercises in your workout routine
Using less weight and performing more repetitions is how you build leaner muscle. You can continue working on every major muscle group, just not as intensely.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is also effective for losing weight and maintaining muscle without adding bulk.
Don’t skip the cardio. Continue to use cardio to burn calories and eat at a calorie deficit.
Final Thoughts: Eat Less and Lift Less to Lose Muscle
Losing muscle isn’t as hard as gaining it.
If you want to know how to lose muscle, just remember to eat less and stop or limit your strength training.
Without the constant resistance and stress, your muscle size will start to decrease.
You can also cut back on protein, as muscles need protein for fuel.
Adding more cardio to your daily routine should also speed up the process.
It helps burn calories, creating more of a deficit, forcing your body to use more muscle tissue for energy.
Within a few weeks, you should notice your muscles getting smaller.
For the average person, it may take up to 12 weeks for your muscles to become significantly smaller. Throughout this process, remember to check your weight and body fat percentage.
If you start gaining fat, you may need to adjust your routine. Try including more cardio and increase your protein intake slightly.
Hopefully, you’ll manage to lose muscle without packing on any unwanted fat.
(If you’re ready to get started immediately, read this article about the workout program that we recommend for women who want to build toned, lean body without creating a muscular appearance.)