How To Gain Strength While Losing Fat

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In my last post I made a statement that it’s very possible and common to gain strength while losing fat, as opposed to most people who insist that you need to get weaker to get leaner.

One of the members at the gym very kindly read the post and asked me to go into a bit more detail. I was on my way out the door to go see a play (see, there is a little culture in my game!) so I gave him a pretty quick answer. It was a great question, though, so I thought I’d go into a bit more detail here. Paul, this one’s for you.

Ok, the age old bro-wisdom of the weightlifting and bodybuilding world goes something like this: You eat a bunch of food, “bulk up”, lift heavy weight, get big, and get strong. This works pretty well, right? Right.

Then somewhere along the way you decide that you’ve become a butterball (albeit a strong one, like one of those hormone-enhanced turkeys they grow in like 28 days) and you’ve lost sight of your winky. Since not seeing your best friend anymore makes you sad, you decide to cut. You immediately stop eating, start doing hours of cardio at a whack, carry an old milk jug of water around with you everywhere, and start lifting in 12-15 rep sets to “cut up”. Still following me?

Lo and behold, you do lose some fat, but also drop a lot of muscle and feel weak as a bitch. Imagine that.

Eventually you freak out because you’re now the weak dude in the gym, make another 180 degree turn, and commence with eating your way back to being strong and never being sure if your underwear is backwards.

Sound about right?

Well, it doesn’t have to go down like that.

Let’s get into what strength really is. You’ve got strength coming primarily from two factors: Muscle cross-sectional area and motor recruitment.

The first one, muscle cross-sectional area, is the size of the muscle. All other things being equal, the bigger a muscle is the more contractile force (strength) it’ll have. This can come from real muscle fiber growth (actin and myosin development) and/or increased glycogen and fluid storage. This is how a lot of the strength in the aforementioned bulking period happens. You have lots of nutrients to play with, muscle protein grows in response to heavy lifting, and glycogen stores are nice and full. This results in big, full muscles that move weight. Pretty sweet.

The thing is, it’s the lesser key to strength.

build muscle lose fatThe primary driver for strength (pun somewhat intended) is motor recruitment. This is the ability of your body to fire and sequence more muscle fibers towards a goal. This is largely a learned skill, hence my post Strength Is a Skill.

Basically, increasing the muscle cross-sectional area makes you stronger by making your muscle fibers bigger, but by improving your motor recruitment you utilize more fibers.

This is why small wrestlers and powerlifters can often be much stronger than big gymrats. Even though they have much less muscle mass, they use what they do have much more efficiently.

Now that the geek stuff is out of the way, how do you go about getting stronger, even when losing weight?

1. Train heavy. First of all, forget this stuff about doing everything with high reps to “tone up”. When you’re trying to lose fat you need to keep training with heavy loads, especially on the big lifts. Assuming that you’re a reasonably advanced lifter, continue to push the weights up using singles, doubles, and triples that are at 85-95% of your max. This should be the central focus of your training. Everything else is gravy.

2. Avoid failure. If you’re operating on sub-optimal nutrition, you don’t have the resources to just go buck-nutty in the gym. That’s just the way it is. Also, since you’re focusing more on training the nervous system then that means that you’ll need to be a little more careful about your stress levels. When it comes to training for strength, the focus should be on stimulating the body to improve, not annihilating it.

Nothing beats you down like not eating enough combined with grinding heavy reps and failing on them, week after week. Operate at loads that are heavy but you can do smoothly. Again, this should be in the 85-95% range of your non-excited max.

3. Allow more recovery time. You lift for strength to get strong, and you do conditioning to get in condition, and you watch your diet to get lean. If you can get that through your head then you’ll be about 95% of the way there.

So don’t try to turn your strength work, especially while dieting, into a conditioning routine. Take your time between sets of the big lifts. Allow enough rest time to perform your prescribed reps.

After your strength work if you want to mess with your battling ropes, bodyweight circuits, kettlebell complexes, and all that other sexy as-seen-on-random-Ultimate-Fighting-commercials stuff, then have at it… within reason.

Also allow more recovery time in your training program. Remember, getting lean comes from the kitchen, not time on the hamster wheel.

Are you going to gain strength as fast when dieting as when you’re stuffing yourself at the Asian buffet three times per week? No, probably not. However, if you’re smart then you should be able to at the very least maintain your strength, if not improve it, during all but maybe the very last stages of your diet.

Stay strong, your winky will respect you more when you see him again.



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