In this article, I argue that focusing on strength alone can lead to poor training decisions, and I break reader hearts by explaining that yes, true progress becomes increasingly difficult the leaner we get and I give guidelines on when that’s likely to be.
Dieting, cutting, shredding the fat off — everyone is shit scared of losing muscle mass while doing it because they don’t want to end up skinny.
This fear is understandable, but of the hundreds of clients I’ve coached to get their abs, I can’t recall and single client losing a significant amount of muscle mass.
Many gain muscle mass while cutting.
How? We follow these three guidelines (if you’re a regular reader, you’ll recall them from the nutrition setup guide — if you haven’t read that, download it!):
- Train appropriately hard,
- Keep the rate of body weight loss moderate (0.5-1% per week),
- Keep protein intake high — 1.0–1.2 g/lb (2.2–2.6 g/kg) of body weight.
The latter two are easily quantifiable. But how do we quantify “appropriately hard”?
This is a tougher one and where people get themselves into a mess.
It starts with choosing the right training program but is not as simple as saying, ‘maintain your strength’.
Why I think it’s a bad idea to focus on strength alone
If I told you to load the bar with as much as you could lift for 6 sets of 8 reps, it would be less than if I told you to just do 3 sets, right?
This is because when our training volume is lower, there is less cumulative fatigue and we can lift more.
Powerlifters use this strategy to perform their best on the lifting platform. This is called ‘tapering‘ (of training volume — the number of sets performed) and peaking (of the loads lifted).
It typically starts 6-8 weeks away from competition, and a lifter might increase their training loads by 25% in this time.
Does this mean they gained 25% more muscle mass in those 6 weeks?
No. That would be silly.
You know this, I know this, your mom knows this.
But when it comes to those of us whose goals are to look as good as possible when lean as all hell, I see people dishing out the same bad advice again and again, “Just work to maintain your strength, bro!”
See, the problem is it’s entirely possible to lose muscle mass while maintaining your strength.
See, strength is not the same as progress.
Strength increases for the same number of sets and reps, under the same circumstances (sleep, stress, other elements of your program), is progress.
We have enough evidence now to be reasonably sure that training volume is the key driver of adaptations (strength and muscle mass). When we are cutting, we want training volume to be sufficient to maintain these adaptations and progress if possible.
Here’s the issue: if you slash training volume too much in an effort to keep your strength up, you’re not going to hold onto your muscle mass. So, it’s essential to compare like for like.
How much progress can be made while cutting?
This is highly individual. It will decrease with the severity of your caloric deficit, your level of training advancement, and how fat you are. I’d like to focus on this latter point.
While an obese and a leaner person may both be in calorie deficit circumstances, their energy availability is different.
Fatter individuals have a larger pantry to dip into (their fat stores) when the food on the table isn’t enough, leaner individuals don’t. This blurs the lines of what is possible during a calorie deficit because the energy available for recovery is different.
On average, for someone let’s say cutting from 20% body fat to a stage shredded 5%, they’ll make progress during the first 1/3 of the cut, work to maintain their progress during the middle third, and then probably regress a little in the last 1/3 as they get below 9% body fat.
Now, as the vast majority of clients aren’t destined for the stage, regressions don’t typically happen to any significant extent at all. They usually make progress until they get down to around 13–14% body fat, after which point the training is often mainly about maintaining what they have.
But this is just averages, and there aren’t any average cases.
It’s rare that people are equally experienced in all lifts, some will progress better than others.
The bench press (and pushing exercises in general) tend to suffer most, but that’s the combination of people generally having more experience here, as well as the loss of fat from the back and chest meaning the bar has to travel further.
Any new lift will expect good progress, but that won’t necessarily relate to muscle mass gain while base competency with the movement pattern is gained.
Those people are coming back to training from a period of time off can expect to make great progress.
Interestingly, some people tell themselves they won’t make any progress in a deficit and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (the mind has a powerful effect on the body).
Also, some people have life stress come up that hampers how well they respond to the training.
Lastly, different people are just different. I’ve seen some guys make progress throughout the entirety of a cut; I’ve seen some people just get stuck without explanation (though in these latter cases, I’m fairly sure it’s just a lack of belief in themselves that holds them back, possibly due to a poor training environment.)
Gains in strength cannot continue forever in an energy deficit, no matter how smart the programming.
If you are in a caloric deficit and find yourself recovering well, adding a set can often be all that is needed.
When you are no longer able to add load to the bar week to week, move to the intermediate progression pattern (which you’ll see in my progression guide).
If you find that at some point progress stalls, often it just needs to be accepted that further progress will need to wait until your diet ends.
The blockage to progress is the calorie deficit.
Your goal in this situation is to maintain your training adaptations for the duration of the cut, until you have achieved your desired level of leanness and then start increasing calorie intake.
A rough way to gauge this is to strive to maintain your strength in the main compound movements for the same number of sets if you can. However…
Don’t forget about the mechanical disadvantage of being leaner
The mechanical disadvantage of being leaner needs to be taken into account when comparing lifting stats.
Take your right arm, reach under your left armpit and grab the fat on your back at chest level.
When chasing a fat loss goal it is important to remember that this fat will be burned off too, as will the fat on your arms and legs. When ripped you may look bigger due to the increased definition, but the chest and limb measurements will go down.
I’ve said that past a certain level of leanness the goal of simply maintaining strength as you cut is a good one, as that is a proxy for muscle retention.
However it is important to note that there is a mechanical disadvantage of being leaner, so in fact, a drop in the lifting stats to a certain degree is to be expected and shouldn’t be confused with muscle loss.
The easiest way to visualize this effect is with the bench press, the leaner you are, the further the bar has to travel, thus more ‘work’ has to be done for the same load. (Recall your high school physics class: work = force x distance.)
- A 5–10% drop in strength is not uncommon from the start to the end of the typical client’s cut.
- The pressing movements are usually affected more than the deadlift and the squat, and how much the latter is affected depends on limb length ratios.
- This also means that for a guy that has dropped, say, 25lbs, maintenance of lifts can be indicative of muscle mass gain.
In summary, all things being equal:
- Novice trainees can expect to gain strength while cutting.
- Intermediate trainees will probably gain a little strength while cutting at the start but this may return to baseline as they lean out.
- Experienced trainees shouldn’t panic if their strength goes down a little.
I hope you found this helpful. Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.