Do you lose muscle and get weak when you're trying to get lean? It doesn't have to be that way. Follow these smart guidelines
Here's what you need to know...
- You can maintain strength while dieting. In some cases, lifters even get stronger later while weighing less.
- If you're smart about diet and training. The key is managing your calorie deficit in an intelligent and timely manner, and adjusting training based on your goals.
- Ideal macros. Protein intake should be 1 gram per pound of bodyweight, fat intake should be 20% of total caloric intake, and the rest should be from carbs.
- Ideal calories. For calories, start with bodyweight x 15 per day. After a week, adjust to bodyweight x 14 and repeat the process.
- Change up your training. As far as training, change it up, train hard, train more, use the RPE scale, and keep the reps low and the volume high with the big lifts.
An Old Myth That Needs Die
Decades ago, bodybuilders preparing for contests used to transition from heavy, low-rep work to high-rep work. The thinking was that reps brought out "the cuts" and separation, whereas the heavy training made you thicker and denser.
We know now that this is broscience. What makes a muscle appear more "cut" is simply the degree of muscular development it has and the degree of body fat that sits on top of it, and you can't carve detail into a muscle with higher reps.
You're gaining muscle, losing muscle, or staying the same. And the entire point of lifting weights is to grow mass and/or get stronger. That being said, a change of mentality about training is in order once a lifter decides that being a fat slob is no longer a very desirable way of living.
Focus on Retaining Muscle, Not Losing Fat
The first mental hurdle to get over is that you're not going to gain mass while dieting. I mean, that's what you should have been doing the whole time you were stuffing your face with all that shitty food you were posting on social media for all those months–taking advantage of that calorie surplus to gain mass.
Dieting isn't the most efficient time to try to grow or build strength. Although both can be done, depending on the qualifications of the athlete, it's not optimal. Instead, approach fat loss by focusing on retaining muscle instead of losing fat.
Approaching it from this mindset makes the landscape look quite different. The reasoning here is simple. Gaining and losing fat is significantly easier than building muscle.
And as long as you're not in a time crunch, like getting ready for a show, then your best course of action is to take as much time out as needed so that you can retain all of your mass while getting down to the body fat level you desire.
Why Most People Quit or Fail When Dieting
Let's deal with one of the biggest factors as to why people quit when they transition from a "bulking" cycle into a fat loss cycle: "I get weak(er)."
Let's cut through this issue. The calorie surplus equation is easy. Lots of calories coming in equals lots of ATP and muscle glycogen, plus some water retention and bloating. So strength gains should come quite easily. In this state the lifter generally feels strong in all rep ranges from top to bottom.
It's when these calories get stripped away that most lifters find their strength fading. But that loss in strength is really related to two factors:
- How many calories they drop.
- How quickly they do this.
Get Stronger While Weighing Less
You can indeed maintain most, if not all, of your strength while dieting. In some cases, guys even get stronger while weighing less. The key is managing your calorie deficit in an intelligent and timely manner, and adjusting training based on your personal goals as you navigate your way to the kingdom of swoledom.
If your calories get too low, then it's a matter of basic energy levels falling off, lack of ATP, lack of glycogen, and an overall lack of fuel to function in the gym at a high level. During very low-carb dieting, you may be having a good day in the gym, and the first 3-4 reps of a heavy working set may still feel just as explosive and strong as they did in a caloric surplus.
However, after those 3-4 reps, the lights suddenly get "turned off." You eke out a maximum 7 reps or so with a weight you used to do 12 reps with. Here's why:
Once ATP gets depleted, the body then turns to using muscle glycogen to fuel your efforts. When there's not a lot of fuel (glycogen) in the tank to push these reps out, you're going to feel weak.
This particular feeling is what causes a lot of "strength guys" to abandon their diet and return to pizza and doughnut land–they feel as though suddenly they "lost strength." This is a myth. If you don't believe me, carb load with the pizza and doughnuts for three days. Then tell me what happens.
Oh. you're strong again? So you didn't actually get weaker?
K. Thanks. So stop being a little bitch about it.
Don't abandon a body recomp process because of short-term strength dips. You need to put your ego aside for a while and understand you're not going to "feel weaker" forever, and you shouldn't feel that much weaker if you're doing things right in the first place.
Dieting Properly for Muscle Retention
So how do you adjust your diet in order to avoid the pitfalls of Lifter Fatass who quits after a few weeks? It's actually quite simple. You just need some basic math.
Protein – 1 gram per pound of body-weight
Protein intake should be 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. I'm not sure why this is even debated anymore. We've known since the 1970's that 1 gram per pound of bodyweight is enough to allow hard training athletes to recover and grow. In fact, 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight is enough. People have just been brainwashed through the years with broscience that mega-dosing protein somehow makes muscle growth happen faster. And it's just not the case.
Fat – 20% of total calories
Fat intake should be 20% of total caloric intake. After you figure out how many calories you'll be eating each day, devote 20% of that total calorie figure to fat intake.
The rest should be from carbohydrates.
More specifically, after you figure out how many calories will be coming from protein and fat, simply give carbs the remaining percentage.
Calorie Starting Point – body-weight maintenance level
Your calorie starting point for the first week of "dieting" is just bodyweight maintenance. That's right. You want to maintain your bodyweight the first week. Here's the catch: Eat your maintenance level of calories from quality food sources. Maintenance level is all going to depend on age, activity level, and individual genetic factors, but a good place to start is bodyweight x 15 per day.
Week 1 Dietary Guidelines
- Eliminate Junk. Eliminate all candy, soft drinks, and anything with a significant amount of added sugars.
- Eliminate fast food.
- Eat Clean. Replace all of that shit with quality food sources like chicken, lean beef, turkey, eggs, jasmine rice, cream of rice, potatoes, protein shakes, etc.
Once you sit down and figure out how many calories you have to eat in regards to maintaining bodyweight from quality food sources, you're probably going to be eating a shit ton of food the first week. As such, don't be surprised if you feel like you're eating more food the first week than you had been.
One of the reasons that most "clean bulks" fail, meaning people can't stick to them, is because eating 5,000 calories a day from quality food is a chore. Eight cups of rice a day along with 20 egg whites and 8 chicken breasts is difficult.
Week 2 Dietary Guidelines
Adjust your caloric intake down from your week 1 level, unless you lost weight. If you lost weight in week 1, then simply stay there for another week. If you lose weight the second week, then once again, stay there. Your weight/fat loss shouldn't be more than about 1.5 pounds a week.
Once the scale stops moving for a week or two, simply adjust calories down slightly. So if calories were at bodyweight x 15, adjust to bodyweight x 14 and repeat the process.
If Lifter Fatass weighed 275 pounds, his starting daily diet would look like this:
- Calories 4,125
- Protein 275 g
- Fats 92 g
- Carbohydrates 550 g
The lowest level I'd ever advise anyone is bodyweight x 10. That would mean you've moved over into "I'm going to get shredded" land, and at that point, I'd advise an increase in activity level per day/week in order to achieve more fat loss instead of a further drop in total calories.
You could then expect strength to dip very significantly and my guess is you're planning to enter a bodybuilding or physique show, so the same rules no longer apply.
You also need to follow a nutrition timing protocol for increasing muscle protein synthesis while reducing muscle protein breakdown. This is incredibly important while being in calorie deficit because without a positive net protein balance, you absolutely will lose muscle mass.
So despite what people tell you about nutrient timing and that it doesn't really matter, it really does, and should be a part of your nutritional plan to retain muscle mass.
Training for Maximum Muscle Retention
Everyone should be training for maximum muscle retention during dieting. After all, even if you're a strength athlete, it's muscle that moves the weight. And the more of it you have, the more weight you're going to move. However, not everyone wants to focus on moving as much weight as possible.
With that said, here are some principles that should be applied to both physique and strength athletes in regards to training:
1. Change Your Training
This is a great time to make changes in your training to provide a new stimulus, which will lead to further muscle retention because of new stress adaptation. If you aren't giving your muscle a reason to grow, it won't. And if you're not giving your body a reason to hold on to muscle, it won't.
Training in the same manner for too long is a great way not to grow, and a great way not to retain muscle. This means introducing new movements, including rep ranges you don't do (because you hate them), and movements that you don't do (because you hate them).
2. Train Harder
A lot of people think that you need to dial down the training intensity to spare muscle while dieting. It's quite the opposite. You need to train your ass off during this time. That means incorporating set-extending techniques like drop sets, rest/pause, and giant sets.
3. Train More Frequently
Yes, you need to train more. By "more" I mean more days per week. If you've been training 3 days per week, train 5 days per week. If you've been training 5 days per week, train 7 days per week where two of those days are easier days, like arm training.
As John Meadows says, "Do you want to look like a guy that does a lot of cardio, or a guy that lifts a lot of weights?" Point taken.
Training for Strength Retention
1. You Shouldn't Be Getting That Much Weaker
During an energy deficit, you may have days where you don't feel as strong as usual. However, unless you screw up and drop calories too far and too fast, your strength should hold pretty steady.
Second, until you start venturing into single digit body fat, you shouldn't see a dramatic drop off in strength. There's no reason why you shouldn't be as strong at 12% body fat as you were at 20%.
If you're only moving big weights due to fat leverages, then you've gone beyond Lifter Fatass level into some other new realm of obesity that probably requires immediate medical attention.
2. Use the RPE Scale
Using the Rate of Perceived Exertion scale on the way to that goal is a bit better than percentage-based training because of the ups and downs of the energy debt. I advise a training plan based around lots of sets using nothing higher than a 7 RPE.
3. Big Lifts – Train High Volume and Low Reps
Unlike the bodybuilding/physique guy, your goal is strength retention on a select few lifts. That means specificity will play a big role here, so you need to settle in on the lifts you want to stay strongest on and base your training around them.
The volume for those lifts should be high, with lots of sets in the 3-5 rep range. Once again, nothing higher than a 7 on the RPE scale. Remember that strength has a large neural-based factor, so motor patterning should be a primary focus here as well.
To get good and stay good at the big lifts, they must be practiced. This still holds true while losing fat.
4. Big Lifts – Train Once Per Week
You still need to keep muscle retention in mind as the highest priority. Again, it's the muscle that moves the weight. So keeping as much as possible is going to keep strength retention as high as possible. Therefore, apply the principles of muscle retention to your support movements after you do your big work.
One difference is to keep the big lifts to a minimum. Train them once per week. Then spend the rest of the days of the week training less taxing stuff. For example, you can add in two days a week where you do arms and calves on the same day. This won't tax you from a systemic standpoint, but you're still doing work.
Keep Training Fun and Interesting
Make sure that training is fun, exciting, and keeps you motivated. Because the dieting is going to suck. This is another huge bonus of doing a lot of new things in the gym and incorporating things you haven't been doing.
We often avoid certain movements because we aren't very good at them. But what you'll often find is that doing them for a while will give you new gains to spur you along, and new gains generally means more enthusiasm.
Big Fat Takeaway Points
- You can't really build mass while losing body fat (unless you're a total novice). I still hear people say, "I want to get huge and cut." You aren't going to get huge and cut at the same time. So just stop. Don't say that anymore.
- During a fat loss cycle, for muscle retention, you still need to train hard and let your muscles know they're still "needed." This is a great time to overhaul your training rather than continuing with what you've been doing. The introduction of a new training stimulus means the chances for muscle retention become much higher.
- During the fat loss cycle, understand there will be an ebb and flow of strength highs and lows. This is normal. Even when you're eating in a surplus, strength has an ebb and flow to it, so don't panic if you hit a down slope for a while. But also use that time to evaluate if your calories have dipped too drastically. When you reach a "set point" in regards to bodyweight, your strength will climb back to previous standards, or close to it.
- During a fat loss cycle, eat with the mindset of retaining muscle while shedding fat. This means not eating like a runway model. It means eating with the purpose of getting into a calorie deficit deep enough to cause fat loss, but not so deep that cortisol eats through muscle. You also need to eat enough to keep your metabolism high and to fuel the training needed to retain lean mass.
- Don't rush the process. If you're preparing for a show, taking 12 months to recomposition from fat to jacked is fine. This is actually a smart plan, as it gives you the best chances of muscle retention while reducing adipose tissue. If you're in the 15% body fat range for men, or 22% range for women, and want to get much lower, you can cut that figure in half (6 months).
- Understand you probably aren't as jacked as you think you are. Most guys end up finding out that despite the fact that their friends tell them, "Bro, you are so huge," they don't have as much muscle as they think they do.
I see guys throwing around weight scale numbers all the time to prove how big they are, but most of them are fat. This can be a hard pill to swallow.
You're probably not going to end up at 240 pounds of ultra jacked muscle mass unless you've put in a lot of years of very hard training, are chemically enhanced, or are supremely genetically gifted... and enhanced. If you're a natural guy, with run-of-the-mill genetics (and you probably are), you're probably not even going to be 220 pounds ripped. Ever.
I'm not trying to shit on your dreams here, just giving you a dose of hard reality. If you plan on being in this for the long haul, you'll ultimately be bound by your genetic ceiling. There's a reason there are no midgets in the NBA.
This doesn't mean you can't be jacked and yoked at some point, but in all likelihood, that will take more than a decade of consistent training and proper eating. So think about the big picture here and how it applies to reaching your goals over a long period of time.
Don't quit during a body recomp phase because there's a little less weight on the bar during certain periods of those phases. It shouldn't drop that much, and will come back if you're doing things correctly. Trust in the process. And the process is usually longer than you want it to be.