Most people whose goal is fat loss usually want to look leaner and see their abs. They also wouldn’t mind seeing at least SOME muscle tone. In order to achieve that “toned” look, all you are really seeking is a muscle with less body fat. Even if your goal isn’t to be a bodybuilder, you are going to need to put on muscle if you want to look lean and shapely.
Diet Comes First
I’d like to preface this all by saying, diet is the number one factor for weight loss. You can have the best cardio or weight training program in the world, but if you are not in a deficit to shed away the excess body fat, you will not see any changes. Make sure you are keeping your protein on the higher side (.82-1g/lb) to retain any muscle you currently have.
Why Strength Training is Important
Our body needs a good reason, especially during a fat loss phase, to keep the muscle you have. It is calorically expensive to hold onto muscle so your body needs a good reason to not prioritize getting rid of it over your fat. Fat provides energy, so it makes more sense for survival to hold onto fat as much as it can.
Incorporating 2-3 resistance training days will help provide that signal to hold onto that muscle. Focus on mostly compound exercises that stimulate the most amount of muscles in a given exercise while also allowing you to move the most weight. Stay 2-3 reps shy of failure, and make sure you are trying to progress or maintain as best as you can. Towards the end of your diet, this may be tougher as calories are at a minimum (this is why protein is important). Take those compound movements anywhere from 5-10 reps with the occasional change to 10-15 as needed to mix it up. If you go 20+ reps you will only find yourself getting exhausted because of the cardiovascular effect that will start to enter as the reps get higher.
Strength training in general is great, because when out of a deficit, it’s the only form of exercise that the more muscle you put on, the more calories you burn at rest. Cardio has the opposite effect. Your body becomes more efficient with each session at burning less and less calories so you will need to keep doing more to achieve the same result. It also isn’t a strong enough signal like strength training is to tell the body to retain what muscle you do have.
If you do want to add cardio, focus on step count instead. Start with 10,000 steps, or go 5,000 steps above whatever your current average is. The benefit of this method is it is far less intense than running on a treadmill, so your body will not try to burn muscle for the sake of matching the intensity. It is also much easier to turn into a lifestyle habit. To get the body fat level you want means implementing lifestyle changes that you can sustain long after the diet is done. That is not to say that you will forever need to do 15-20,000 steps but you will want to on average be walking 10,000 steps a day for general health. Go for a 10 minute walk after every meal to help get your step count in AND help with better digestion and absorption of your food.