Getting stronger is hard work. So is dieting. Doing both at once? Well, sometimes it seems virtually impossible. But if you’re willing to put in the work, and you plan really carefully, it’s absolutely is possible to get stronger and lose weight at the same time. At the very least, you shouldn’t lose any strength, unless your diet is very extreme.
Planning a diet and training program that work together can be tricky, though. In the Unf*ck Your Program course, I explain that everyone has a limited amount of recovery resources to “spend” on training. When you’re dieting, you have even fewer recovery resources, and so if you don’t adjust your training to reflect that, you’re gonna have a bad time. It’s also important to remember that you’re working with a two-way street: by increasing your recovery resources in other ways, you can give yourself more leeway when it comes to training.
Reducing Your Training Stress
First, a refresher: the three main training variables you need to focus on are volume, intensity, and frequency. There’s a ton of other details to consider when you’re planning a program, but those three are going to have far more influence on your recovery than anything else. To be clear,
- Volume refers to how many reps you’re doing
- Intensity refers to how much weight you’re using (usually as a percentage of 1RM)
- Frequency refers to how often you’re doing it
You can out the UYP series on YouTube for a little more in-depth take on these, of course.
Now, it’s the combination of the three make up your overall training stress, so by lowering any one particular variable, you can reduce your stress and therefore improve your recovery. However, if you cut by too much, you can lower your training stress so much that you end up overtraining. The secret to gaining strength is finding that sweet spot, regardless of whether you’re in a caloric deficit or surplus. However, when you’re in a deficit, the sweet spot is going to be much smaller, and therefore you’re going to have to be really careful about how you adjust.
As always, there’s no one right answer, but if you’ve been through the UYP course, you already understand the process.
- UYP explains how to figure out which variable tends to work best for you. You want to keep that one as the focus — so if you’ve found that the high-volume plan works best for you, you want to keep your volume high, and adjust intensity and frequency. Same for the other two variables.
- Your goal is to find the combination of the other two variables that allows you to make progress. To do this, you must make small changes. In the example above, don’t go out and try to find the absolute minimum intensity you can train with! First, if you drop the intensity way down and start to regress, you don’t know why. Is it because you’re better off adjusting frequency rather than intensity? Or is it because you dropped the intensity too much, too quickly? There’s no way to tell.
- Prioritize. If the squat, bench, and deadlift are your most important lifts, cut from accessory work first. Cut backoff sets before top sets. Cut from the lifts you’re strong at before the lifts where you’re weaker.
Furthermore, if you immediately go to the lowest possible range of any variable, how are you going to continue to progress over the long term? Unless you’re dieting for a very short period of time, chances are that you’ll need to continue to adjust your program as you go, and so at first, you want to leave yourself as much room as possible to do that.
Lastly, consider the timing of your diet with regard to your long- and short-term goals. If you’re prepping for a meet, you don’t want to be in a hard dieting phase in the last couple of weeks, where training is the hardest. Instead, lose weight during the offseason, maintain while you move into harder phases of training, and then after your competition, consider making further changes in body weight or body composition.
Improving Your Recovery
Training is only the first half of the strength equation. Recovery is the second half, and while you want to decrease training stress during a diet, you want to increase recovery to keep that balance and stay in the sweet spot. Food and sleep are probably the two biggest components of recovery, so reducing one of those means that you’ve got your work cut out for you. On the other hand, every little thing you do will make a difference, so don’t ever think of your efforts as a waste of time.
First: you must make the best possible use of the calories that you are consuming. Peri-workout nutrition is huge here: by fueling your body appropriately around your training, you can push harder and recover better, even if you’re not eating much at other times. I’ve already covered the importance of peri-workout nutrition in detail, so check out this article if you need help on that front.
Food is huge, but there’s a lot more to recovery than just food. Sleep is number two — and to some extent, you can actually substitute sleep for food. However, that can be tough, because (A) people have busy schedules, and (B) lower-calorie diets may interfere with your quality of sleep. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to use supplements to improve your sleep, especially during a dieting phase.
Rest and relaxation go hand-in-hand with sleep. Remember, all of this planning comes down to managing stress. By reserving some extra “me time,” and going out of your way to have fun and be kind to yourself, during a diet, you can reduce your overall level of stress and improve your results. Meditation is huge here, as is social connection. Dieting can make it hard to go out to eat and drink with friends, so it’s easy to withdraw from social activity, but you don’t want to make that mistake. Social media can help some people to some degree, but it’s no substitute for “IRL” friendship.
Other modalities can be useful, but in my experience, they’re not deal makers or breakers. Ice baths, massage, and other bodywork can help prevent some of the minor aches and strains that tend to be more frequent when you’re dieting (because of that higher overall stress). Reducing stimulant use isn’t really practical, because you’ll probably find that you need that extra energy to counteract the sluggishness that can come with a lower caloric intake. Your cardio and condition plan needs to be part of (and not separate from) your diet, so I don’t recommend manipulating that as a method of improving recovery.
If you care about your strength, then the careful, slow approach is the way to go for weight loss. If you remember that, and plan and put in the effort, you’ll be really successful. I strongly recommend you avoid the “bro-yo” bulk-and-cut cycle, because it’s more of a short-term solution that causes many athletes to end up spinning their wheels over the long term.
Above all else, you’ve got to believe in yourself and your ability to succeed. If you go into a diet with the idea that you’ve going to get small and weak… then you’re probably going to get small and weak. If you go in with a more mindful approach, you’ll go far.