I am currently on calories deficit and my weight is decreasing.

I do some exercises 5-6 days a week (mainly pullups). I try to eat enough protein, but didn't count the exact amount.

How can I make sure I'm keeping my muscle level?

  • Why not just look in the mirror? If you think you look muscular,(usually), you are muscular. And vice versa. If you think you're fat, you're probably fat. Oct 8 '15 at 0:36

The only really accurate way to determine if you're gaining (or losing) fat is with a water tank. Fat floats, bones and muscle sink, and fluids don't really have much of a difference. Armed with that folks can figure out pretty accurately how much fat you have.

That of course is incredibly unrealistic for 99.9% of the population.

If the only exercise you're doing is pullups, and you're losing weight, there's a very good chance you're losing a bit of muscle. Pullups are a terrific exercise, really one of the best.

But you also have legs, a butt, hips, abs, triceps, pecs, and a bunch of other muscles that you're really not putting under considerable strain when doing pullups.

Your body is always adapting to what you're currently doing. Since you're not exercising your entire body and requiring a lot of whole-body strength, there's no reason for it to maintain muscle tissue in those areas beyond the minimum amount required for walking around.

How can I make sure I'm keeping my muscle level?

  • Use a real training program like Starting Strength. This focuses on big compound movements which will make your body build muscle in a balanced, powerful, and safe way. I'm not aware of a faster or more effective way for novices to build strength and muscles.
  • Eat enough food. Long term if you want to build muscle and strength you can't be in a calorie deficit the whole time. Trimming up every now and then to shed some fat is one thing, but most of your life you should be roughly calorie neutral. Some people "bulk" and "cut", a never-ended seesaw of building mass and then removing fat.
  • thanks, I wrote 'mainly pullups', but I try to vary them as much as possible and I also do abs and legs exercises. As for 'starting strength', I'm not aiming for increasing muscle level and strength now, I want to keep losing fat, while keeping my muscles
    – Herokiller
    Oct 31 '14 at 18:31
  • @Herokiller fair enough, but it's quite hard to maintain muscle mass when in a caloric deficit, and that's with solid compound strength training.
    – Eric
    Oct 31 '14 at 18:49
  • You could always start the strength training program, work up to a sufficiently difficult weight and make staying there your goal. If one day you find you can't lift what you used to lift, then you've probably lost muscle.
    – Tyler
    Nov 1 '14 at 5:17
  • And as an added benefit, that method of testing if you've lost muscle will also help prevent you from losing it.
    – Tyler
    Nov 1 '14 at 5:19
  • @Tyler - That's bad advice - strength isn't precisely correlated with muscle-mass. Especially when you consider the fluctuating energy levels most people have when on a deficit.
    – john3103
    Nov 3 '14 at 21:46

For those of us that can't afford a water tank, but still want some relatively easy measure of body fat percent, you can get digital body fat scales that send small electric currents through your body, using Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA). Since it takes longer to get through fat than muscle, they can give you a rough estimate of your body's fat composition.

They are not as accurate as calipers or water tanks in terms of absolute value, but they are decent at showing relative values over time.

According to this article on Body Fat Scales: Do They Really Work?

Factors such as body type, body temperature, hydration, and recent exercise can have a noteworthy impact on the number you see on the scale. Even wet or sweaty feet can skew the results. Whether or not you get a true analysis, what you can do is use that number to gauge your progress. But you must be consistent when you weigh yourself, so do it at the same time of day, drink/eat approximately the same amount, don't do it directly after exercising, and use it in a room that is generally a stable temperature. Utilize the body fat scale as a means of tracking trends rather than focusing on what that number is or comparing that number to what you think your body fat should be.

I have an Aria from Fitbit which will automatically sync over WiFi, but goes for a hefty $130. If you look around you can find plenty of other models for as low as $60.

  • 1
    upvoted for formatting, a good answer, links, and a great use of a block quote
    – Eric
    Jun 30 '15 at 18:57

There are three variables you can easily measure for a very accurate idea of what's happening with your skeletomuscular system: body fat, body weight, and circumference.

Measuring body fat is most important, but as Eric pointed out, measuring displacement in a water tank is not accessible for most people. Instead, pick up some skinfold calipers from Amazon for about $8. There are a number of skinfold tests that will give you a decent estimate of body fat, and let you track your fat over time. Combined with body weight and some simple math, you'll be able to figure out about how much of the weight you've lost is fat.

On top of that, a tailor's measuring tape can be used to get the circumferences of critical areas such as chest, arms, legs, and waist. This will give you an idea of where you're losing fat and muscle, and help you correlate this data to your workouts.

I recommend putting all of this into an excel spreadsheet and tracking it over time (weekly is good enough, but it depends on how granular you want your data). This will let you be extremely scientific about your progress.

How can I make sure I'm keeping my muscle level?

This can be a very delicate process. Eating at too great a deficit can cause catabolism of your muscles, which you obviously don't want. The data in your spreadsheet will help you decide if you can eat more or less.

Another idea some pro bodybuilders I've met have recommended is keeping every variable the same (diet, sleep, workout routine), but adding in 30 minutes of light cardio per day, such as walking.

In any case, to get excellent results, you'll probably need to be very meticulous about things.

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