Most folks interested in fitness want to learn how to build muscle.

Some, however, want the opposite: they want to know how to lose muscle they don’t want. 

If you’re one of them, this article is for you.

In it, you’ll learn whether losing muscle is a good idea, how to lose muscle mass you don’t want, how long the process will take, and more.

 

Should You Try to Lose Muscle?

Under most circumstances, no, you shouldn’t try to lose muscle. 

Muscle helps you to move, maintain good metabolic health, enjoy a high quality of life, avoid disease and dysfunction, recover from trauma and illness, live longer, and more. 

In other words, being muscular helps you live a healthy, enjoyable, and long life. As such, most people should focus on maintaining their muscle mass or building more

That said, there are times when people want to lose muscle in specific areas, usually for aesthetic reasons.

For example, some people dislike particular parts of their body because the muscles in that area make it look bulky or disproportionate to the rest of their physique. Others simply don’t like the way “jacked” looks and would prefer to be “fit” instead.

In these cases, when muscle loss is targeted rather than absolute or when you want to go from “extreme” to “high” levels of muscle mass but no lower, it’s possible to lose muscle without harming your health.

Here’s how . . .

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How to Lose Muscle Mass

If you want to lose muscle everywhere on your body, your marching orders are simple:

  • Don’t lift weights
  • Do at least a few hours of low-intensity cardio per week
  • Maintain a calorie deficit
  • Don’t eat a lot of protein (no more than 0.5 grams per pound of body weight per day)

The problem with this approach is that it generally isn’t conducive to good health.

Fortunately, most people who want to lose muscle don’t want to shrink everything. Instead, they want to target specific body parts. And in that case, the strategy is different.

Principally, you need to stop training the muscle groups you want to trim because it doesn’t take much stimulus to maintain muscle mass. This requires some thought, however, because you have to consider direct and indirect stimulation of each muscle group.

For instance, if you want smaller quadriceps, you’d want to stop squatting and lunging (heavily involves the quadriceps but also trains the hamstrings) as well as deadlifting (heavily involves the hamstrings but also trains the quads).

With that in mind, here’s how to lose muscle from the areas of the body that most people want to shrink without your other muscle groups going to seed.

How to Lose Arm Muscle

For the biceps, avoid all pulling and curling exercises, including the pull-up, chin-up, barbell, dumbbell, and cable row, and biceps curl.

For the triceps, avoid all pushing exercises, including the barbell and dumbbell flat and incline bench press, close-grip bench press, standing and seated overhead press, dumbbell shoulder press, Arnold press, dip, and push-up.

Bypass triceps extension exercises, too, such as the skullcrusher, overhead triceps extension, and triceps pushdown.

You can still do isolation exercises for the pecs and shoulders that don’t strongly engage the biceps or triceps, however, like the cable fly and front, side, and rear raise (shoulders).

How to Lose Leg Muscle

The legs comprise four major muscle groups: The quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes. Here’s how to lose muscle from each.

You can still do isolation exercises for the hamstrings, like the seated, lying, and Nordic hamstring curl, and glute isolation exercises like the hip thrust, glute bridge, and cable pull-through.

You can still do isolation exercises for the quads that don’t strongly engage the hamstrings, however, like the leg extension.

  • How to Lose Calf Muscle: When it comes to how to lose muscle in the calves, things are slightly trickier. That’s because your calves keep you upright while standing or walking, which means they get plenty of stimulus to maintain their size even if you don’t lift weights.

That said, if you’re currently doing weightlifting exercises that train your calves, cutting these out should help you lose some calf muscle. 

Specifically, cut out all calf isolation exercises such as calf raises; compound lower body exercises like squats, lunges, and deadlifts; and any isolation exercises that train the hamstrings or glutes, as these also generally train the calves as well. 

Some “safe” lower-body exercises that don’t train the calves include leg extensions, reverse Nordic curls, and sissy squats. 

  • How to Lose Glute Muscle: Avoid all squat, lunge, and hip hinge (exercises that involve bending and straightening the hips, such as the deadlift, hip thrust, and cable pull-through) exercises. 

You can still do isolation exercises for your quads and hamstrings that don’t strongly engage the glutes, however, like the leg extension and lying or seated hamstring curl.

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How to Lose Back Muscle

Avoid all pulling and deadlift exercises, including the pull-up and chin-up; barbell, dumbbell, and cable row; and the conventional, trap-bar, sumo, and Romanian deadlift.

In some people, heavy back and front squatting can provide enough stimulus to maintain significant amounts of back muscle, too. If this is the case for you, stick to lunge variations and lower-body isolation exercises to train your bottom half. 

How to Lose Shoulder Muscle

Avoid all pressing exercises (horizontal and vertical) and shoulder isolation exercises, such as the front, side, and rear raise.

You can still do isolation exercises for the pecs that don’t strongly engage the shoulders, however, like the cable fly and dumbbell pullover.

How to Lose Chest Muscle

Avoid all pressing (horizontal and vertical) and fly exercises. You can still do isolation exercises for your shoulders and triceps that don’t strongly engage your pecs, however, like the front, side, and rear raise and the skullcrusher, overhead triceps extension, and triceps pushdown.

Dieting to Lose Muscle Mass

In addition to modifying your training for directed muscle loss, maintaining a calorie deficit and eating a low-protein diet will help accelerate the process because it impairs muscle repair and growth.

Here’s what you need to do specifically:

  • Eat 20-to-25% fewer calories than you burn every day. This will help you lose unwanted muscle without wrestling with excessive hunger, lethargy, and the other hobgoblins of low-calorie dieting.
  • Eat no more than 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. This is enough to maintain good health but not enough to maintain muscle that you’re not regularly training. 

(And if you’d like even more specific advice about what diet to follow to reach your fitness goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know exactly what diet is right for you. Click here to check it out.)

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How Long Does It Take To Lose Muscle?

It depends on how active you are.

You can lose a significant amount of muscle in as little as a week if you stay completely sedentary. 

However, most people who want to lose muscle aren’t prepared to spend seven days in bed, so it’ll likely take a little longer. 

For example, studies show that people who stop training but continue doing daily activities (walking, dressing, washing, and so forth) lose no muscle over a two-week period. 

You probably can’t go much longer than this without shedding muscle, though. And once you go as long as 1-to-2 months, muscle loss ramps up appreciably.

Thus, it’ll probably take between 3 and 8 weeks to see a difference in your body, provided you cease training the muscle groups at issue entirely. That said, it could take as long as 6-to-7 months if they receive sufficient indirect stimulation.

For instance, if you want to lose calf muscle but play a sport that involves a lot of jumping and sprinting, it’ll likely take several months to slim your lower limbs.

And finally, if you adopt a focused approach to losing muscle and see little progress because the minimal amounts of crossover training are still enough to retain more muscle in the wrong places than you’d like, you may need to change your approach.

In this scenario, the best way forward is to use the whole-body method of muscle loss until the offending muscle groups are sufficiently downsized and then the selective method of training to build back only the muscle you’d like to keep.

This strategy isn’t as laborious as it sounds, largely thanks to “muscle memory,” which is the phenomenon of muscle fibers regaining size and strength faster than initially gaining them.

Basically, it refers to the fact that it’s much easier to regain lost muscle and strength than to build muscle and strength from scratch.

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