Whether you let your diet get away from you during your last strength cycle, you need to cut weight for a meet, or you just want to be shredded and strong, inevitably there will come a time in your strength training career where you’ll want to lose body fat.
But you’re worried. Fat loss, and specifically a calorie deficit, are not the friends of building monster strength levels.
You’ve worked hard for your strength gains, and the last thing your want when trying to lean out is to lose them.
When done poorly, losing fat will leave you feeling weak, and unable to move weight that was previously your warm-up.
But, when done correctly, you can lose fat, get lean, and still maintain all your strength; possibly even making more gains along the way.
Managing Your Diet To Cut Fat And Maintain Strength
Like any fat loss plan, diet is going to be the primary driver of progress.
The higher your body fat levels, the easier it’s going to be to maintain energy, and the longer you can diet. The lower your body fat levels, the less time you can stay in a deficit before you start to feel the effects of the diet. The good news here is though, you also have less fat to lose.
Your deficit is also going to depend on how quickly you need to lose fat. I typically recommend a 15-20% calorie deficit; with 15% being preferred if you have a longer timeframe, and 20% if you need to cut fat more quickly.
You can push the deficit to 25%, but proceed with caution: Here you’re getting into a large drop in calories, and the negative effects are going to come about a lot faster and be more drastic.
The most important aspect of your nutrition is going to be how much protein you consume. A calorie deficit puts us at risk for muscle loss. And a loss of muscle means a loss in strength, so we want to ensure we’re consuming enough protein to help support muscle protein synthesis, and retain as much lean mass as possible.
In my personal experience, I’ve found 1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day to be an adequate level. There are arguments for higher amounts, but I’ve never seen or experienced definitive benefits to back that up. Plus, you’re already going to be eating less food, you don’t want it all to be protein.
As far as carbs and fat go, I know cycling day-to-day is popular, but again, that’s minutia I’ve found unnecessary for most. I’ve gotten lean and maintained strength utilizing both carb cycling, and running the same macro breakdown all seven days per week; so it’s really a matter of personal preference, rather than one being more effective than the other.
If you want to run carb cycling, pick your three hardest strength days, and make those your high carb days. Set your fat equal to 0.3 grams per pound of body weight, and use the rest of your calories for carbs. On non-training, or any other day of the week, up your fats to 0.4-0.45 grams per pound of bodyweight, and drop your carbs to hit your calories.
Like I said though, this isn’t necessary, and in my experience, won’t provide superior results. Carbs are necessary to help fuel training sessions, and fat helps support hormone functions, so a nice middle ground will work as well
For this, set your fat to 0.35 grams per pound of bodyweight per day, and then fill in the rest of your calories with carbs.
Training To Cut Fat And Maintain Strength
The two big keys to maintaining, and even building strength while in a deficit are low volume and high intensity.
Since our diet is going to propel fat loss, we don’t need a lot of volume to drive us further into a deficit. By keeping volume low, we’re not unnecessarily spending precious energy on things like curls, pulldowns, shoulder raises, abs, or anything that isn’t going to help us maintain strength.
On the other side we still need to maintain a high intensity. Squatting 3 sets of 10 reps at 70% of our 1-RM isn’t going to do a whole lot for our strength levels. We still need to be working near our 1-RM in order to provide enough central nervous system stimulation to maintain strength levels.
We don’t want to overstimulate either, however. One, maaaaaaaybe two, hard working sets per session is more than enough to maintain your strength levels. And if you’re focusing on progressive overload week-to-week, you can still add weight to the bar while subtracting weight from your body.
The most effective method I’ve found for maintaining strength during a cut is to place your toughest, heaviest working set first in your workout; after a proper warm-up of course. This is when you’re freshest, have the most energy, and your CNS hasn’t been fatigued yet.
One example this is Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT).
As opposed to typical pyramid-style training where the reps decrease while the weight increases, RPT puts your heaviest set first, then decreases the weight while the reps increase.
- Warm-Up: 3-5 sets
- Working Set 1: 2-4 reps (85-90% of 1-RM)
- Working Set 2: 4-6 reps (drop weight 10-15% from Set 1)
- Working Set 3: 6-8 reps (drop weight again 10-15% from Set 2)
- Mon: Deadlift
- Tues: Off
- Weds: Bench Press
- Thurs: Off
- Fri: Squat
- Sat: Overhead Press or Accessory Work
- Sun: Off
Don’t go crazy with accessory work. Remember, your goal here is strength in your main movements. 2-4 exercises of 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps is plenty.
Another good program for maintaining strength in a cut is Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1. Not only is this a tried and true strength program, but it’s naturally a low volume, high intensity, and not overboard on the accessory work.
You can even combine RPT and 5/3/1 and reverse the 5/3/1 protocol so your heavy sets come first in your workout.
Conditioning & Finishers
Conditioning and finishers are great add-ons to your training sessions that can help accelerate fat loss, and won’t have much impact on recovery, burn you out, or negatively affect strength and muscle.
These can include anything done in short, high-intensity bursts, like sprints, sled pulls/pushes, kettlebell swings, and complexes.
And best of all, they only need to take 10-20 minutes, and can either be done at the end of your workout, or on a separate off day.
My favorite conditioning workouts are hill sprints and sled pushes. Hill sprints are great because unlike sprinting on flat ground, they reduce the risk of over-striding and pulling a hamstring. Sled pushes are also great because the don’t have an eccentric component to the movement, which will greatly help reduce the risk of additional muscle soreness.
Here’s what you can do for either one: If you’re new to conditioning, pick a distance of about 20 yard (if you’re more experienced, double it to 40) and either sprint or push the sled that far. When you get to the end, rest a strict 30 seconds, and sprint/push the sled back. Do 10 sprints/pushes, twice per week. Each week add 2 sets to the workout.
Short, but brutal and effective.
Dropping fat so you can look great naked, or make weight for a competition, and still maintaining strength is a challenging, but perfectly reasonable and attainable goal. When done correctly – following the steps above – not only can you get lean but maintain all of your strength. And maybe, if done perfectly, continue gaining some as well.