5 Ways to Maintain Strength on a Diet

My jaw dropped when I saw the number on the scale. I hadn’t weighed so little since I was in high school.

But then I snapped out of it and remembered that it wasn’t the number on the scale that mattered. All I cared about were the numbers on the DEXA scan (used to measure body fat) and the barbell. And in my wallet.

My fat loss efforts had just made me a couple bucks richer. You guys may remember that eight weeks ago, I set out on a fat loss challenge. Several of my graduate school classmates set out to lose the greatest relative amount of body fat over an eight week period. We re-tested on Wednesday, and lo-and-behold – the aerobi-phobic bacon-loving powerlifter took home first place and claimed the prize money. Winner, winner, boneless/skinless chicken breast dinner.

Using the Renegade Diet, along with weight lifting four days per week and pushing a Prowler twice a week, I went from 191 pounds at 15.5 percent body fat to 177 pounds at 12.8 percent body fat. I dropped 2.7 percent for a 16.9 percent relative reduction in body fat. While still far from “shredded” still, it’s a big step for me.

There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that it took a 14 pound weight reduction to drop 2.7 percent body fat. And I did lose some muscle. According to the DEXA measurements, I lost 6.36 pounds of fat AND 4.65 pounds of lean tissue. I guess getting your wisdom teeth pulled is pretty catabolic.

The good news is that my bone mineral density actually went UP half a percent (refuting the wive’s tale that prolonged high-protein/low-carb diets cause calcium loss) and my strength stayed consistent. So while the pounds melted off, my lifts didn’t regress. This will make it easier to add muscle mass without gaining fat as I move forward.

Over eight weeks, I had to make a lot of adjustments and listen to my body. I learned what worked and what didn’t work with my training and diet, and now I’ll share some of those thoughts with you. Here are five ways to maintain strength while dieting for fat loss.

1. PRIORITIZE STRENGTH WORK

This seems obvious, but if you’re shedding pounds and don’t want to lose strength, you have to keep lifting heavy. Strength is primarily a factor of the nervous system. You see this when new lifters gain a ton of strength but don’t gain any size – it’s the nervous system adapting before the muscles have a chance to grow. If you lose a little weight, your strength shouldn’t immediately disappear.

Jason Ferruggia, my number one strength and conditioning influence, beat me to the punch on this one. He wrote a great article on Monday about adjusting your training for fat loss, and I agree with every point wholeheartedly. Perhaps his best piece of advice is to avoid the common mistake of treating every session like a Biggest Loser last-chance-workout where you do a million reps of light weights with no rest in between. That’s a huge mistake when you’re in a caloric deficit and energy is limited.

When you’re dieting, your workouts need to focus on big, fully body lifts with low-to-moderate rep ranges. Don’t go crazy with the number of sets. We’re aiming for the “minimum effective dose” here.

2. KEEP THE VOLUME LOW

Most people think that when you’re dieting, you have to burn a ton of calories with a ton of sets, reps and exercises. But the truth is, your strength training workouts aren’t going to burn all that many calories. You want to create the caloric deficit by eating the right foods in the right amounts at the right times and creating periodic spikes in metabolism with high intensity conditioning workouts. This will do far more for fat loss than hours upon hours of slow cardio or ridiculous “met-con” workouts.

Don’t trust this man to make you stronger.

My favorite way to set up strength training workouts while dieting is to limit the number of exercises to 4-5 and keep total working sets under 15, not including warmups. I’d recommend doing even fewer sets for the lower body especially if you’re killing the conditioning with hill sprints, Prowler pushes or other finishers a few times a week.

3. DO HIGH INTENSITY CONDITIONING

To maximize fat loss while keeping as much muscle as possible, your “cardio” can’t be anything like traditional cardio. Fat loss workouts have to be short and not-so-sweet.

Out with monotonous moderate pace nonsense on the treadmill or elliptical. In with sprints, sled drags, kettlebell swings and body weight complexes. My two favorites are Prowler pushes and hill sprints.

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People will rant and rave about the “fat burning zone” or that you have to exercise for a certain number of minutes to start burning fat. It’s true that low intensity exercise burns primarily fat for fuel, but so does sitting on your ass. It’s not the percentage of calories burned from fat that matters, it’s the total calories burned from fat. 

High intensity exercise like sprint intervals uses primarily carbs for fuel and may burn a higher percentage of carbs than fat, but the overall fat calories burned AND total calories burned is far higher with high intensity exercise.

Sprinting can be surprisingly dangerous for newbies and anyone prone to hamstring or knee injuries. Hill sprints, Prowler pushes and sled drags are much lower impact and my preferred choice for fat loss workouts.

Here’s a foolproof way to structure your conditioning. Pick a distance based on your experience (20 yards if you’re a rookie and anywhere from 40-100 yards if you’re more advanced). Do 10 sprints with strict 30 seconds rest in between, twice a week. Each week add two sprints to each session. Once you can do a given distance for 16 sprints with 30 seconds rest, increase the distance by 10 yards and start over at 10 sprints.

lobster farm4. HIGH CARB REFEEDS

There’s no denying the effectiveness of carb cycling for fat loss. Keeping carbs low 4-5 days a week is a tried-and-true approach to torch fat. But the key word here is “cycling.” You have to periodically consume high amounts of carbs to fuel your high intensity workouts.

Eating nothing but meat and green veggies is a surefire way to get lean. But if you want to hold onto your precious muscle and maintain strength while cutting fat, you need to eat some starchy carbs at least two to three days per week. Cutting them out completely is a common mistake and your workouts will suffer.

Low volume, heavy strength training workouts won’t deplete a ton of glycogen (glucose stored in muscle tissue), but carbs help fuel the brain and central nervous system. Protein may build muscle but it’s a lousy fuel for exercise. You need carbs occasionally so you can keep training hard.

Pick two or three of your hardest training days of the week and eat a generous helping of carbs after your workout, preferably in the form of easily-digestible, non-inflammatory starches such as sweet potatoes, red potatoes or white rice. I know it’s the cool thing to bash gluten these days, but the digestive issues associated with most wheat products can sabotage fat loss efforts for many people. Stick with the less controversial carbs if you’re trying to get shredded.

5. STAY HYDRATED

It’s always important to stay hydrated, but it’s of top concern while dieting. Low-carb, high-protein diets often result in quick weight loss because of an initial dehydrating effect. Any average Joe knows this and you hear people say it all the time. “Oh, Atkins? It’s just water weight.”

One of the reasons for the water loss is that for every gram of carbohydrate your body stores, it also stores about three grams of water. So if you’re consuming fewer carbs, your body holds on to less water.

High-protein diets can also increase urinary output, so you’ve got to replace all the fluids you’re flushing down the toilet. Some still say high-protein diets will wreck your kidneys, but numerous studies have been unable to prove it. To put it into perspective, during the final week of my fat loss journey, I was consuming upwards of 250 grams of protein a day (43 percent of total calories and over 1,300 calories from grass-fed beef alone) and I’m still alive and kickin’.

An even simpler reason to keep hydration at the forefront of your mind: if you’re dieting, you’re probably eating less food, less often. Most people drink when they eat. And if you’re not eating as much, you may not drink as much.

Sip water throughout the day, not just at meals. There’s still no optimal, scientifically-proven amount of water we need each day, but drinking half an ounce for every pound of body weight will have you covered. I fill up my 40-ounce Klean Kanteen and drink two of them per day for 80 ounces of water. Add in another 12 ounces in a post-workout shake plus a few glasses at dinner and I’m set.

Just don’t be that guy carrying around a gallon jug everywhere you go.

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Posted in Lists, Nutrition, Tips and Tricks
8 comments on “5 Ways to Maintain Strength on a Diet
  1. […] Down, Do It Up – Week of Jan. 20The Paleo Diet: My Journey Begins – Faithfully Frugal & Free5 Ways to Maintain Strength on a Diet/* —————————————————————— ———- BASE LAYOUT […]

  2. What about a 3L jug? It’s less than a gallon. Does that still make me look like a douche?

    Awesome article man, love how you tracked the results via DEXA and kept lifting strong.

  3. Hi! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but
    after browsing through some of the post I realized it’s
    new to me. Anyhow, I’m definitely glad I found it and I’ll
    be bookmarking and checking back often!

  4. Mark says:

    “Pick two or three of your hardest training days of the week and eat a generous helping of carbs after your workout,…”

    After or before? I thought eating some before would give you energy for the workout.

    • tonybonvechio says:

      Mark –

      This was written with the mindset that carbs will be lower than normal because you would be dieting for fat loss. You don’t necessarily need carbs in a pre-training if you consumed carbs earlier in the day, or even the night before.

  5. Mike says:

    Keeping the volume low is awful advice and you need to clarify that what you mean. Volume is the key driver of adaptation in resistance training. High intensity training causes mostly neurological adaptations, not muscular adaptations. So, if a lifter is in a caloric deficit, his/or body wants to get rid of metabolically costly muscle mass, and there’s barley any stimulus to keep said muscle mass, what happens? The lifter gets stronger temporarily while he or she loses muscle.

    I understand this is an older article, but it’s still the first that shows up on Google Search and I don’t like when misinformation is spread.

    • tonybonvechio says:

      Mike, thanks for your reply. Yes, volume is the main driver of adaptation, but have you ever tried to train with high volume on a caloric deficit? Not fun or effective. You proved my point with your own argument: high intensity (and therefore low volume) training is enough stimulus to maintain strength (via neuromuscular adaptation) while dieting. While you may need a huge stimulus to BUILD muscle, don’t need a big stimulus to KEEP the muscle you already have.

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