Is it possible to get lean without losing strength? Here's what most people don't know.
Can You Maintain Strength While Cutting?
Many things can contribute to strength. As such, you can lose strength for many reasons while dieting down. The two main reasons you lose strength when trying to get lean are:
1. You're losing muscle.
This is the most obvious one. But it should never happen unless you get down to lower than a real 8 percent body fat. If you keep training hard (but smart), have a high protein intake (1.25 to 1.5 grams per pound of body weight) and an acceptable deficit (not losing more than two pounds per week) you won't lose muscle.
2. You're losing tightness.
This is the most common reason for losing strength. Normally what happens is that you get weaker on the big basic lifts (bench, overhead press, and squat) but your strength on isolation exercises for the muscles involved will be the same or even higher.
By losing muscle glycogen, intramuscular fat, water, and fat, your strength leverage becomes worse and the joints are less "compressed." If you accumulate a lot of glycogen, water, and fat inside the muscle and water/fat outside the muscle, you're creating pressure around the joint which stabilizes it. This passive stabilization makes you stronger. When you lose it, the body feels less "safe" and force production is more easily inhibited as a protective mechanism.
Let's Address the Muscle-Loss Thing
The reason why people lose muscle while dieting is NOT the caloric restriction. To maintain or even increase muscle, your body needs protein and enough calories to fuel the repair processes.
"Yeah, but Thib, if I'm in a caloric deficit I don't have enough calories to fuel the repair process!"
Really? When you're in a deficit you still walk, move around, and train, right? Of course! But you're in a deficit... by definition you are not taking in enough energy to fuel all of that. How can you still function?
Well, by using stored energy for fuel. And the same can be done to fuel the muscle repair and growth process. Even in a deficit, if protein intake is sufficient you should be able to repair and even grow some muscle by relying on stored energy and the ingested protein.
I'm not saying you can build as much muscle on a deficit. When you eat less – especially when you go lower in carbs – you get a lower level of mTOR and IGF-1, which can make it harder to build muscle. But you should still easily be able to maintain what you have.
So why then are people losing muscle while dieting down if it's not because of the caloric deficit? Because they're afraid of losing muscle. That fear leads to the fulfillment of that fear.
So let's say a dude decides to get shredded. He cuts calories and maybe starts doing cardio. But he heard that he'll lose muscle when trying to get lean. At first, he feels smaller in his clothes and doesn't look shredded yet. It's even harder to get a pump (because of lowered carbs and sodium). So in his mind, it must be because he's "losing muscle."
So what does he do? He trains with more volume and intensity. He goes to failure more often, uses a ton of set-extending techniques like drop sets, rest/pause, and supersets for 90-120 minutes sessions using short rest intervals.
The higher volume and intensity both dramatically increase cortisol levels. Cortisol is already elevated more when you diet down (since it's involved in energy mobilization). And this chronic output of cortisol greatly increases the risk of losing muscle since cortisol breaks down muscle tissue.
You also create a lot more muscle damage. Under normal circumstances this would be fine since you need the damage to grow. But if you create so much damage that you can't repair it all before protein synthesis comes back down (24-36 hours after your workout) you might lose muscle!
When you're dieting down, you shouldn't try to use your lifting workout to burn more calories (by increasing volume), nor should you panic and jack up the volume. If anything, when you're dieting your capacity to tolerate volume and adapt is lower. You need to do less, not more. Just make sure you push hard on those sets.
The Loss of "Tightness" or Joint Stability
This is likely the main cause of strength loss while dieting down, especially in the initial phase of dieting.
The more stable a joint involved in a lift is, the stronger you'll be. If the joint is more stable there's less of a strength leak. Also, if the body feels "unsafe" it won't allow you to use all of your strength potential.
When you're on a fat loss regimen you lose...
- Subcutaneous fat
- Intramuscular fat
- Muscle glycogen
- Intramuscular water
- Extracellular water
When you lose intramuscular fat, muscle glycogen, and intramuscular water you "deflate" your muscles. As a result, these muscles aren't pushing as much on the joints. The bigger the muscles are, the more "packed" the joint is, even passively. This makes the joint more stable.
When that happens, you'll lose strength on the multi-joint movements, mostly the pressing movements – the shoulder is an unstable joint as it is.
Your squat will also go down, but the deadlift and pulling exercises aren't as affected. Interestingly, even with a drop in performance on the big lifts, you're just as strong, if not stronger, on isolation or machine exercises for the muscles involved in the big lifts. Your bench press goes down but your triceps extension, pec deck, and lateral raise will probably be just as strong.
The feeling of heavy lifting on joints that are less packed is that everything feels heavier from the moment you unrack the weight. You feel it in your bones. The eccentric/negative is a lot harder and more painful than usual too.
I once lost seven pounds over a three-day period from dehydration. My bench press performance dropped by 60 pounds!
So, what can you do to prevent that from happening?
1. Keep sodium high.
When we start dieting – or even just improving upon our current diets – our sodium intake goes down significantly. That can lead to water loss and a lack of pump. Keep sodium intake high if you want to keep your strength (and pump) up.
Sodium will help muscles stay fuller (more packed) and is also involved in muscle contraction. That's why I like Plazma™ even when dieting down. The ratio of electrolytes is perfect and helps maintain an ideal level of intramuscular water. I also recommend adding Himalayan salt to your meals.
2. Include eccentric and isometric emphasis work.
Using slow eccentric/negative reps on your big lifts (anywhere between 5 and 10 seconds) helps improve motor control and keeps everything tight. It also strengthens tendons.
Both elements will make the body feel safer and will allow you to use a greater proportion of your strength. Include isometric holds during the eccentric phase of a lift (1-3 pauses per rep lasting 2-6 seconds depending on the number of pauses).
During an isometric action, the synergist and antagonists are contracting more than during concentric actions. This develops the capacity to stabilize a joint, improving your capacity to use your strength potential.
For example, here we have professional beach volleyball player Diana Gordon doing 6 reps with 225 pounds using a 5-second eccentric.
For the pauses I recommend:
- 1 pause per rep: (normally at mid-range) 5-6 seconds
- 2 pauses per rep: (normally mid-range and just before bottom) 3-4 seconds
- 3 pauses per rep: (top third, mid-range, just before bottom) 2-3 seconds
3. Use a higher frequency on the big lifts.
The more often you practice the big lifts, the more efficient you are and the more you can maintain or even increase your strength. The approach I use is to train three key "big lifts" three days a week. One day I focus on eccentric, one day on isometric, and the third day on regular lifting.
4. Don't panic.
When dieting, there will come a time where you feel small, have a hard time getting a pump, and don't look any better. Don't be emotional. Keep your head down and resist the urge to add more volume or garbage work.