Gaining Strength While Dropping Body Fat

First, let me preface by saying that if you want to gain serious strength, it’s going to work out better for you not to try to lose a bunch of fat and weight at the same time. Best performance/maximum strength gains and calorie deficits just don’t mix. For max strength, you’d be better off eating to maintain your size or even adding more muscle mass with a slight energy surplus.

That being said, many of you want to shed the jiggle, keep the hard stuff and build upon the poundage you’ve put on the barbell over the years. I totally understand that.

Accomplishing this may seem like a magical unicorn but good news: it’s 99.9% possible to get stronger and lose body fat for most people. If you’re a total beginner to strength training, this is probably going to happen anyways (newbie gains). If you’ve been training for a few years it’s just going to take a lot more attention to the finer details of your nutrition and training to pull it off really well and get a solid return on your time and effort investment. 

In this article, I’m going to cover some key habits for losing fat while gaining more strength so you can cut body fat while moving heavier barbells like you enjoy doing.
 

Make sure you’re eating enough Food Before You Cut

This is by far the most important concept and where most people drop the ball. They want to try to cut calories already eating no food and wonder why their strength tanks. News flash: your body doesn’t give a damn about your goals. If it doesn’t have what it needs on a basic level, you can forget about getting a lot stronger. So before you even start cutting food, make sure you are at least eating enough so you have room to cut calories in the first place.

How to eat enough food in 3 steps:

  1. Record your food intake for at least 3 days to see how much food you are currently eating. I recommend weighing and measuring your food and logging in a food tracking app like MyFitnessPal in order to get a better idea of how much calories, protein, carbs and fats you are getting.

  2. Determine the calories, protein, carbs and fats you need to maintain your current weight. There are lots of calorie/macronutrient calculators out there to help you. Each of them will just give you estimates and are starting points. They may not be "right". Choose one, roll with it, see what happens to your weight and body and make adjustments as necessary.

  3. Eat at maintenance food intake levels for at least 2-3 weeks. During this time, the goal is to eat the most food you can while keeping your weight pretty stable (outside of a few daily fluctuations). You may need to adjust your food intake up or down from the initial estimates but try to eat the most you can while properly maintaining before cutting calories.

Note: many people come to me vastly under eating and having all sorts of health problems as a result. If there’s a big gap between your current intake and maintenance, you may need to ramp up your food intake before you start nixing calories. Fat loss is in your future, but, long-term, you’ll likely be better off waiting.

Get a nutrition coach to help you through the process of adding food back so you can start losing from a healthier place.

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Slow and steady is the way to go

We’ve all been repeatedly told that you have to slash a bunch of calories in order to lose fat. Yes, a calorie/energy deficit must be created, but cutting too many calories doesn’t leave your body with the energy and nutrients it MUST HAVE to properly function. A sure-fire way to kill any and all possibility of strength gains while losing fat is to cut too much food and lose mass too quickly.

To preserve or build strength, I recommend cutting the absolute minimum amount of food necessary to make adequate fat loss progress. Your goal is to lose anywhere from 0.5 lb to 1.5 lbs per week. For most people, this translates to about a loss of less than 1% of their starting body weight per week. Lose faster than this and you’re probably sacrificing more muscle mass and strength than you’d like (1). You're also likely not getting enough energy and nutrients that will allow you to train hard and recover, and as a result, increase physical stress.

Shitty training + shitty recovery + tons of stress = you get weak as f*ck

If you’re tracking your calorie/macronutrient intake, I suggest starting with a conservative 5-10% reduction in calories from maintenance. If you're not tracking, just nix a small portion of carbs or fats from your meals each week until you start noticing weight drop. You may have to cut faster due to a competition or because you stall but I suggest trying other things first before you cut a bunch of calories.

Try a refeed, increase your daily number steps, cut back on alcohol or pay more attention to your food choices and amounts. Exhaust all other options or at least make sure you're on point with following your plan before cutting more food. It will just make it harder to keep getting stronger if you do.

Always be patient and don't just look purely at the scale. Fat loss takes time and if you want to get stronger while doing it, be in it for the long haul. 
 

Get enough protein

Protein is the most important macronutrient when it comes to strength training and body composition.

Muscle is made of literally made of protein and your muscles are constantly being broken down and rebuilt within the body. Therefore, it's essential to get enough protein through nutrition. Loss of muscle = loss of potential strength. Ultimately most fat loss diets fail because hunger got too hot to handle and you ate too much food. Protein is the most satiating (filling) nutrient and can help curb hunger during calorie deficits. 

Make sure you are getting enough protein during the day. I would start by getting at least 1g of protein per pound of body weight each day during a deficit (2). To do this. eat a source of protein at each meal and supplement with protein powders if you need to. Your protein sources can be animal or plant-based. 

Here are a few examples of high-protein food sources:

  • Poultry (Turkey, chicken, duck)
  • Lean cuts of pork (tenderloin, chop, roast)
  • Lean cuts of red meat (ground beef, steak, bison, elk, venison, lamb and etc)
  • High quality deli meats (fresh sliced roast beef, turkey breast, chicken breast)
  • Wild-caught seafood (shrimp, scallops, crab)
  • Wild-caught fish
  • Fat-free/reduced-fat milk
  • Greek Yogurt
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Whole Eggs
  • Egg Whites
  • Protein Powder (animal or plant-based)
  • Casein Protein Powder
  • Plant based proteins (tofu, edamame, tempeh, seitan, lentils and beans)
 Include a protein at each meal to make sure you're getting enough throughout the day.

Include a protein at each meal to make sure you're getting enough throughout the day.

 

But what about fats and carbs?

Depending on individual preference, fat and carb intakes are going to vary, but they are both important for both fat loss and strength training.

Fats are necessary for proper health and hormone production. Some fats are essential for life, can't be made by the body and must be obtained through food. Fats also play a role in hormone production and too little dietary fat can lead to a decrease in hormones like testosterone (3). 

Carbs are important for strength training since they are the preferred fuel source for both high and moderate intensity exercise. For low-rep, i.e. a 1-3 reps at heavy loads, carbs will be less important than for medium to high-rep lifting i.e. 4-12 reps at moderate loads (4).

Strength training programs can vary in intensity and rep ranges so the main takeaway is to get a sufficient amount carbs and fats in your diet. Once you've established adequate protein intake, fats can make up 20-70% of your calorie intake with the rest coming from carbs. 

That's a big range for fats and it depends heavily on what your goals are and what kind of training you are doing.

  • If you're doing a ton of high-intensity interval and resistance training (think CrossFit), you're likely going to perform better with fats in the 20-30% range.
     
  • If you're a weightlifter, powerlifter or have a lot of body fat to lose, 30-50% is doable and where I would recommend starting.
     
  • Fat intake higher than 50% is pushing closer towards a ketogenic diet. Keto can work for pure strength training but discussion of that is outside the scope of this article. 

Get your carbs and fats from mostly whole-food, nutrient-dense sources:

  • LOTS OF VEGETABLES
  • Whole Grains (brown and wild rice, quinoa, oats, barley, rye, whole wheat)
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas and etc)
  • Fruits

For fats choose:

  • Nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, macadamia and etc)
  • Seeds (flax, chia, hemp, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower)
  • Nut butters
  • Coconut
  • Full-fat dairy
  • Quality oils (olive, coconut, avocado)
  • Avocado
  • Grass-fed butter/ghee

 

Eat your carbs around training

I’ll have to dig into the details of carb timing in another post but generally get most of your carbs before, during and after training—especially afterwards.

Carbs are the preferred source of fuel for intense exercise like long, hard strength training sessions (5). During intense exercise, stored fuel in the form of glycogen is used up and it’s important to replenish that fuel by eating carbs. Research has shown that glycogen availability affects your body's ability to build and maintain muscle during and after exercise (6). So by not eating carbs and not restoring glycogen, you may be hindering potential strength gains due to breakdown of muscle (7) and poorer performance in future workouts.  

Even if you eat lower carb or a ketogenic diet, you can still benefit from eating most of your carbs around training. Eating carbs before and during can help with performance within the upcoming session but it’s the post-workout meal that’s going to help you recover and hit your workout hard the next day because glycogen replenishment takes at least 24 hours (8) or longer depending how depleted you are or how much carbs you eat. 

After a tough training session, I suggest eating most of your higher-carb foods along with some protein at least within 60-90 minutes in order to restore glycogen and prevent further muscle breakdown. If you’re not exactly within that window, don’t sweat it and just eat as soon as possible.

 Some examples of my post-workout meals. Balanced meals containing mostly whole, unprocessed sources of protein, carbs, and fats help you get stronger, recover from training while losing body fat.

Some examples of my post-workout meals. Balanced meals containing mostly whole, unprocessed sources of protein, carbs, and fats help you get stronger, recover from training while losing body fat.

For example:  If I were to eat 300 grams of carbs per day, my training meals would look like this:

  1. I’d do a pre-training meal with 50g carbs about 60-90 minutes before my session
     
  2. I’d do protein shake after training with 50g of carbs. Protein + Carbs together may be more effective at replenishing glycogen than carbs alone when taken post-workout (9). A 2:1 ratio of carbs and protein will be a good starting point for most strength athletes. Ex: 50g carbs + 25g protein
     
  3. ASAP post workout I’d do a meal with 150g of carbs
     
  4. Then my next meal would have 50g of carbs.

 

Prioritize Strength Training over cardio

This seems like a no-brainer, but I still see people who are wanting to get stronger depleting themselves with endless bouts of cardio. If you want to lose fat, look to adjusting your food intake first.

Cardio can definitely help with losing fat but doing too much, too often can take away from your ability recover and train hard. It won't help you get stronger or put on muscle though so you'll definitely need to lift for the gains (10).

If you end up doing cardio, keep it interval-based and only 2-3 times a week for no longer than 30 minutes. I would suggest doing intervals on a rower or stationary bike in schemes like:

  • 30 seconds moderate pace: 30 seconds low recovery pace
  • 20 seconds sprint: 40 seconds rest
  • 60 seconds fast: 90 seconds low recovery pace

You can also push or drag a weighted sled for a variety of distances and intervals or do loaded farmer carries. They won’t make you sore and they are excellent conditioning.

 Loaded carries with farmer handles, dumbells or kettlebells, prowler pushes or sled drags make for great "cardio" that can also increase your strength.

Loaded carries with farmer handles, dumbells or kettlebells, prowler pushes or sled drags make for great "cardio" that can also increase your strength.

 

Take rest days and go the f*ck to sleep

What’s another way to get weaker? Get hurt!

The time away from barbell is just as important as your time with it. Your body needs rest in order to repair and adapt to the physical stress of training. Do not expect to get stronger or lose fat without enough rest and sleep. Prolonged lack of recovery can lead to:

  • Muscle soreness and fatigue
  • Decreased exercise performance
  • Lower appetite
  • Increased risk of getting sick
  • Poor mood and low motivation to train
  • Poor sleep and less sleep overall
  • Poor digestion and likely nutrient absorption

(11)

Basically, you're a big ol' pot of "everything hurts and I think I'm dying" and then you'll probably just get injured. More is not better. Only better is better and unless you’re an elite, competitive athlete who has to train all the time, I can almost guarantee you will get better results taking dedicated rest days 1-2 times each week.

Also, be an adult and go to bed. Lack of sleep increases stress, leads to lower testosterone, increased cravings, insulin resistance and a bunch of other issues that can cause you to lose muscle, gain fat over time and generally be in crappy health.

Shoot for a MINIMUM of 7 hours a night of quality sleep. If you get less than that, your ass needs to take a nap or just go home and catch up on rest instead of stacking more stress.

 

Supplement wisely and use ones that work

There’s a short list of supplements that have well-documented benefit. Most of them don’t really work all that great otherwise they’d probably be illegal. So save your money for the ones that are known to work.

Keep in mind that supplements can help but if you’re not doing the basic shit like eating right and not treating your body like complete crap, even the ones that do work won’t do too much to fix your problems. However, they can be very useful to maintain health and strength while in a calorie deficit provided you're eating, sleeping and recovering like you should.

The key supplements I recommend while trying to get stronger while losing fat are:

  • Creatine Monohydrate. It's cheap and its effectiveness for strength training is well-documented. Supplement with 5g daily. (12)

  • Caffeine. Highly effective in high volume training. Decreases fatigue and increases motivation to train. Limit use to 200mg or less per day. (13)

  • Protein powder supplements. Helpful for replenishing glycogen and preventing muscle breakdown when taken post-workout with carbs. Can either be animal or plant-based. Extra protein beyond what you need won’t make you get stronger and will just add extra calories.

  • Carb supplements. I recommend dextrose or cyclic dextrin. Helps prevent fatigue and enhance glycogen recovery (14) when taken during and post-workout. Just like protein, you have to keep the amounts within levels to keep losing fat.

  • Vitamin D. Increased testosterone, important for fat metabolism, immune function, and bone health. It's also the #1 most deficient vitamin. Dosage varies but  2000-5000 IU per day would be fine for most people. (15)

  • Magnesium. #2 deficient nutrient and necessary for proper metabolic function. Also helps improve sleep quality. 350-400mg per day. (16)

  • Fish Oil (Omega 3 fatty acids). Has a variety of benefits for the cardiovascular system, reduce inflammation and can help minimize soreness from strength training (17) 0.25 g DHA/EPA per 10 lbs of body mass/per day

*consult with a doctor before using any dietary supplement

Be aware this is by no means a complete list of all possible supplements for strength and performance. I chose them because they are the most useful relative to their cost, backed up by science and/or typically the most deficient in people’s diets.

 

Summary & Key Takeaways:

  • It is possible to lose fat while maintaining or building strength in the process. You’ll need to pay more attention to the details of your training and nutrition as calorie intake, macronutrient composition, nutrient timing, and supplementation.

  • Eat enough food to be in a sustainable energy deficit where you see losses of 0.5 lbs but no more than 1.5 lbs per week.

  • Protein is the most important macronutrient. Make sure to eat lean protein at each meal.

  • Eat most of your carbs around training and especially after training to promote glycogen recovery.

  • Prioritize strength training over cardio sessions. If you do add cardio, keep them interval-based, 2-3 times a week and no longer than 30 minutes.

  • Take 1-2 dedicated rest days per week and sleep a minimum of 7 hours per night.

  • Once you’ve got the basics down, supplement with creatine, caffeine protein, carbs, magnesium, vitamin D & fish oil.  

I hope this article gave you a good overview of things to consider when you’re trying to lose fat and gain strength. If you have any questions feel free to drop a line below and I’m happy to answer.

Train smart & eat right,

Alex

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References

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  2. Phillips SM, Van Loon LJ. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S29-38. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2011.619204. Review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22150425
     
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  4. Nick English. "Does the Ketogenic Diet Work for Strength Training?" Barbend. 16 March 2017 https://barbend.com/ketogenic-diet-strength-training/
     
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  6. Howarth KR, Phillips SM, MacDonald MJ, Richards D, Moreau NA, Gibala MJ. Effect of glycogen availability on human skeletal muscle protein turnover during  exercise and recovery. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2010 Aug;109(2):431-8. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00108.2009. Epub 2010 May 20. https://www.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/japplphysiol.00108.2009
     
  7. Aragon, Alan Albert, and Brad Jon Schoenfeld. “Nutrient Timing Revisited: Is There a Post-Exercise Anabolic Window?” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 10 (2013): 5. PMC. Web. 20 June 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3577439/
     
  8. Bob Murray, Christine Rosenbloom; Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 76, Issue 4, 1 April 2018, Pages 243–259, https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuy001
     
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  11. Gleeson, Michael. “Biochemical and Immunological Markers of Over-Training.” Journal of Sports Science & Medicine 1.2 (2002): 31–41. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3963240/
     
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  17. Jouris, Kelly B., Jennifer L. McDaniel, and Edward P. Weiss. “The Effect of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation on the Inflammatory Response to Eccentric Strength Exercise.” Journal of Sports Science & Medicine 10.3 (2011): 432–438. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3737804/