Low Calorie Diets. How Low Calorie Can You Go, Without Losing Muscle?

November 20, 2007

Low calorie diets are a great way to lose weight quickly. You can create a much larger calorie deficit through dieting than you can though exercise. The challenge is that most of the time we want to lose body fat instead of muscle. If your calorie intake is too low, you can eventually lose muscle as well as body fat.
low calorie diet
[Mr T’s Son, James T., Displays a Great Slim and Toned Look]

Why Low Calorie Diets Are Effective

The most effective way to lose weight is to create a calorie deficit. You do this by burning more calories throughout the day than what you eat…simple enough. There are two ways to create this deficit, eat less or exercise more. I believe that it is much easier to create this deficit through dieting than it is through exercise. Here is an article I wrote about this exact subject: Is Diet OR Exercise More Important for Fat Loss and Getting Lean?

Won’t Going Too Low Calorie, Slow The Metabolism?

Drastically reducing your calories does slow down your metabolism, but it doesn’t happen as quickly and easily as you have been led to believe. People who push the idea of eating every couple of hours would like you to believe that skipping a meal will immediately cause the body to hold onto fat for the next meal. This idea of going into “starvation mode” has been greatly exaggerated. I have written another article that explains more about starvation mode: Skipping Meals Will NOT Slow Your Metabolism and Cause Weight Gain! This article talks mainly on the subject of meal frequency, but it also explains how the body goes into starvation mode over a period of time.

So How Many Calories Per Day is Enough?

Here is where things get REALLY complicated. There are tons of variables that dictate how many calories per day is the optimum amount to lose body fat, without sacrificing a bunch of muscle. Someone who has a lot of body fat to lose, can get away with eating less than someone who is closer to their target weight. A person who is extremely active has to eat more than someone who is not that active. A person with a slow metabolism should eat fewer calories than someone with a higher metabolism. I can’t give a perfect formula to tell you exactly how many calories is ideal for you, but I can give you a way to figure it out for yourself.

A Simple Method to Figure Out If you Are Getting Enough Calories

I believe in simple solutions to complex problems, and this is as easy as it gets in my opinion. This simple method does require that you are performing some type of resistance exercise. If you lift weights in a gym, then this will be easy for you. Okay…when you begin a low calorie diet for fast fat loss, I want you to begin a strength training routine as well. Don’t worry, you won’t get bulky off of a strength training routine while experiencing a daily calorie deficit. While you are dieting hard, if you either maintain or gain strength on a consistent basis…you are eating enough calories per day…end of story!

Shouldn’t We Lift High Reps For Muscle Tone?

If you are consuming a low calorie diet, you won’t have the energy for a high rep workout routine. This is one of the many reasons I’m against the traditional “high reps for tone” approach. If you gain strength while dropping weight, your body is becoming more efficient and will quickly display greater muscle tone. Think along the lines of an Olympic gymnast. They aren’t even trying to look toned…their muscle tone is the result of being light, yet amazingly strong for their size.

What Does This Strength Routine Look Like?

There is a ton of flexibility here. My favorite strength routine on a really low calorie diet is to choose 2 exercises per body part and perform 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps. So for chest, I might start with “45 degree angle dumbbell incline presses”. I would warm up with 50 pound dumbbells for 5 reps…then maybe 60 for 5 reps…then grab 80’s and do three work sets of between 3-5 reps. My next chest exercise might be a “low incline bench press on a smith machine”…I would do one warm up set, since my chest was already warmed up from the previous lift…at that point I would hit 3 work sets with a weight I could get up 3-5 times. I would do the same for every major muscle group.

How Would I Split up The Muscle Groups?

I recommend splitting the muscle groups into two workouts. My favorite is to work Back and Chest on day one and Shoulders, Biceps, and Triceps on day two. Ideally you would workout 4 times per week, so the body would get worked two total times each week. Note: I like the way intense cardio shapes the legs and butt, so I don’t really recommend direct leg work unless your legs are very skinny (this is the most controversial piece of advice I give on my website on a regular basis). I simply think that excessive direct leg work ruins the physique. How many male and female Supermodels do you think hit the squat racks? I rest my case.

So…How to Tell If You Aren’t Getting Enough Calories

As long as you are either getting stronger each workout, or maintaining your strength each workout…you are getting sufficient calories each day. If you begin to lose strength or have a tough time finishing your workout, you need to bump up the calories a bit. It is important to have the same “test conditions” each workout…so if you begin your chest workout with “incline dumbbell presses”, you need to do that every chest workout. I only monitor the strength progress of the first exercise per muscle group. Feel free to vary the exercise choice for the second lift to get variety in your workout.

What is a Good Low Calorie Baseline?

Take your target bodyweight in pounds and multiply it by 10. So if you weighed 200 pounds and wanted to get to 150 pounds, then you would eat 1,500 calories per day. If you have 30 or more pounds to lose, begin with this daily calorie amount (your target weight multiplied by 10). If you have 10-30 pounds to lose, this may be too low. If you have less than 10 pounds to lose, you will need to be careful and really monitor the way you feel and your strength levels.

Note: You may need to eat more than this. Also, this is a low calorie diet and isn’t meant to be a year-round deal. Be sensible about this…I like you guys and don’t want to create any eating disorders! The main thing is to find out “how low you can go” while still gaining strength.

Important Message: Although this site has received 25+ million visitors, I am starting from scratch and abandoning it. This site is dated and old school looking, terrible to read on mobile, etc.

It's like a Ford Pinto compared to my new site...which is like a Ferrari. Click the link to head over to my new site.

Starting Over...R.I.P. Fitness Black Book!

Thanks for reading all these years!


----> (New) Facebook Comments..."Cause all the cool kids are doin' it!"

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Brett June 25, 2010 at 10:24 pm

I think you have just replaced Lebron James as my idol. Please tell me you have a website or some way of keeping up to date with your tips. After i found your post i literally read every single comment to soak up that much more of your advice.

Just one quick question. What and when do you normally eat earlier on in the day?

Lee November 5, 2011 at 6:29 pm

Hey I was 387 pounds, I started a low calorie high protein diet, I do cardio for 1 hour in the morning before I eat and 1 hour of cardio in the evening after I eat a high protein supper… I lost 35 pounds in 3 weeks, and that’s on a 800 to 1100 calorie diet… Should I be eating more on my calorie intake a day, because I’m so big. I’m thinking at this rate I should loose 150 in three months. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Dave November 10, 2011 at 5:08 pm

So is this the number of net calories we eat? Or is it that many in general? What I’m asking is should we eat the calories we burn from exercise?

Doug November 17, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Good article. I have your book and I am a decent bit over weight so would I start off with phase 3?

Rayca November 21, 2011 at 2:58 pm

@Doug. I asked the same ? on another article but didn’t get a response. That’s what I’m doing, Phase 3. They are short, intense workouts and I have found it really allows me to cut way back on calories, more than I would ever do otherwise, and still maintain my strength. I sometimes gain strength. I did this morning. The focus on this kind of workout is the cardio. I follow each lifting session with 1/2 hour cardio, 6 days a week. I’m never hungry, even with a huge deficit. Good luck.

John May 12, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Hello Rusty,

I a 18 years old male, 5′ 8”, and around 138 lbs. I have a small upper body and naturally have bigger legs and carry more fat on my legs. My main goal is to tone down my legs and and gain some muscle in my upper body. Like four months ago, I used to weight around 136 lbs but I know I had more muscle and a lot less fat on my body. So, I’m afraid that I lost too much muscle mass in the past couple of months. To s tart burning this extra fat off but not lose even more muscle at the same time, I was plannning on going on a 1000-calorie diet for 2 weeks, and then 1500 calories for one week, and keep cycling like that. I was also going to lift in my upper body and do the elliptical for at least an hour a day. What do you think?

katie August 12, 2012 at 12:40 pm

You give some wonderful advice on this blog, but I disagree with the advice about not doing direct leg work. I always did direct leg/glute work on my weightloss regime and gained some size +beautiful definition in the quads/butt. But of course, I do not find the ‘lean’ and muscular look on women attractive in the slightest. I like the lower body to have some muscle size covered with a nice layer of fat. I guess everyone needs to remember to train for their goal.

Matt May 14, 2013 at 4:57 am


Hoping you still respond to this post after so long…

I have recently taken up pro wrestling which requires me to work on a wide range of fitness areas including strength, physical appearance (more muscle, less fat!!), agility, speed, stamina, jump height etc etc. The work out is going great, but I am concerned that I will be burning too many calories through excersise as my current daily calorie intake never really exceeds 1400.

I want to lose the gut, but at the same time, I want to build muscle and fitness – I am worried that my calorie defisit is too high (I am now burning an additional 5000 calories per week through a mixture of cardio, yoga, claistenics and weights) so I will end up losing muscle as well as fat, and lose weight too fast (which from experience I know I will end up struggling too keep off and be healthy).

Any advise?


Hunt June 19, 2013 at 10:57 am

It is even more complicated than mentioned to find the right calorie count as not all calories are nutritionally equal. You will be able to eat less nutrient dense foods and maintain/build strength (eg vs eating donuts 3x a day).

I found that Juicing once a day helped me maintain/build with less hunger issues.

Nan December 7, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Finally! I have been scouring the web trying to find support for my very low calorie diet, and it is hard to find. I got rid of the sugars and bad carbs, and stick to protein, leafy greens in the main, and have carefully tracked my eating for the last three years. At the normal recommended macros, for me around 1400 cals & 30 carbs perday, I could lose nothing of the extra 30# I carry, despite doing Hiit and walking several miles a week. All I saw was fearmongering about what will happen, but finally decided to see where I would begin to lose, so
dropped a hundred calories at a time over several weeks, finally when I dropped to <900 I began to lose weight.
I have plenty of energy, keeping pushing to greater gains in lifting, and feel great.
The fact that there is a metabolics spectrum gets lost in what is "normal/average"; some people can't gain, I knew several on my paternal side; others, like me need very little to sustain our body mass.
Thank you for pointing put the truth, that you can measure whether your needs require more or fewer calories. I'm just aggravated it took me so long to get past the conventional BS.
So glad to finally see this put in plan language.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: