Losing strength during a cut is common. But it’s not something affecting everyone to the same degree. While some people lose strength when cutting, others will end up getting stronger.
Read on, and I’ll explain who is most at risk of losing strength when cutting, as well as outlining a few simple steps you can take to stop it happening.
What is Strength?
In technical terms, strength is the ability to produce force against an external resistance.
However, the term “strength” can mean different things to different people.
For some, losing strength means a reduction in the maximum amount of weight they can lift for a single repetition in an exercise like the squat or bench press.
Others may say they’ve lost strength because they’re able to do fewer reps with a given amount of weight.
Let’s say, for example, you can bench press 150 pounds for a total of 40 reps, spread across four hard sets, with each set separated by a couple of minutes of rest.
When they go on a diet, some people will see those numbers go down. That’s because dieting leads to a reduction in the amount of carbohydrate stored in your muscles, known as muscle glycogen.
Given that muscle glycogen plays an important role in fueling muscular contractions during those sets, it’s likely that your performance is also going to take a dip.
Absolute vs Relative Strength
You also need to consider the difference between absolute and relative strength.
Relative strength refers to your ability to produce force relative to your bodyweight.
Absolute strength, on the other hand, is the ability to produce force irrespective of how much you weigh.
Let’s say, for example, that you weigh 220 pounds, and you can bench press 220 pounds for a single repetition, which represents 100% of your body weight.
Next, you go on a diet and lose 20 pounds. After losing the weight, you find that you’re able to bench press 210 pounds.
In absolute terms, your strength has declined. Prior to the cut, you could bench press 220 pounds. Now, you can only lift 210 pounds.
But relative to body weight, your strength has actually increased. Before losing the fat, you could bench 100% of your weight. Now, you’re able to lift 111% of your body weight.
Your ability to crank out multiple reps of various bodyweight exercises, such as chin-ups, press-ups or dips, may well improve on a cut. That’s because there’s less weight to move from point A to point B.
As a general rule, beginners tend to gain strength a lot more quickly than intermediate or advanced lifters, irrespective of whether or not they’re on a cut.
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Beginners will often gain strength from one workout to the next, adding weight or reps for months at a time.
A beginner in his first few months of lifting weights, for example, might start out getting strong five pounds at a time.
That is, he adds five pounds in weight to an exercise like the squat or deadlift from one training session to the next, while still performing the same number of reps.
But those gains won’t keep coming at the same rate forever. Keep trying to add five pounds in every workout, and eventually you’ll start to miss reps. The increase in weight will outstrip your ability to adapt to that increase in weight.
A good example of how beginners can gain strength during a period of weight loss comes from a study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, where researchers rounded up a group of untrained men and got them to lift weights three times a week .
This exercise routine put them in a caloric deficit, which means they were burning off more calories than they were getting from their diet.
Fourteen weeks later, the men had lost, on average, 16 pounds of fat.
Despite that, they actually finished the study stronger than they were at the start. One-rep max in the bench press increased by 19 percent, and 25 percent in the leg press.
In other words, despite the fact the men were on a cut, they still gained a decent amount of strength.
Take someone who is untrained with a large amount of fat to lose, and they’ll usually gain muscle size and strength when they go on a cut and start lifting weights.
However, it’s a different story for someone on the other end of the body composition spectrum, with a few years of hard training behind them.
In one case study, researchers tracked changes in strength and body composition in a male bodybuilder as he prepared for a contest .
During this six-month cutting phase, his body fat percentage dropped from 15 to just 5 percent body fat.
In the same period of time, when it was measured in absolute terms, he also got weaker. One-rep max dropped by 14 percent in the squat, 8 percent in the bench press and 7 percent in the deadlift.
However, calculated relative to his body weight, his strength didn’t change at all. That is, when you account for the weight loss, his strength remained much the same.
At the start of the study, for example, our man could squat twice his own body weight for a single rep. After six months of cutting, he was still able to squat twice his own body weight for a single rep.
It was much the same story in the bench press and deadlift, where strength relative to bodyweight actually improved slightly.
In other words, while cutting led to a decrease in absolute strength, relative strength was maintained.
How To Avoid Losing Strength When Cutting
Chances are you’ve invested a large chunk of time and effort in building muscle and getting strong. What you don’t want to do is see all that hard work go down the pan due to mistakes being made during a cut.
If you’ve ever lost strength while trying to lose fat, or even if you’re just worried it might happen to you in future, the following five steps will go a long way towards ensuring that it doesn’t happen.
1. Don’t Let Calorie Intake Get Too Low
One of the things that increases your risk of losing strength during a cutting phase is aggressively cutting your calorie intake and trying to lose weight too quickly.
A calorie deficit can be defined as small, medium or large depending on how much food you eat and how active you are.
A large caloric deficit increases the risk of losing strength during a cut. A smaller caloric deficit, which in turn will mean a slower cut, can mitigate that.
That is, someone taking the slow and steady approach to fat loss is likely to see less of a drop in strength compared to someone who aggressively cuts calories.
You want a calorie deficit large enough to allow for fat to be lost on a consistent basis, but small enough that muscle tissue and strength are maintained. That’s going to be somewhere in the region of 20-25% fewer calories than you need to maintain your weight.
Large calorie deficits can be a viable approach in some cases, particularly the overweight newbie. But for everyone else, they do make it more likely that muscle tissue and strength will be lost during a period of weight loss.
2. Eat Enough Protein
Other than strength training, getting enough protein in your diet is probably the single most important thing you can do to avoid losing strength during a cut.
What constitutes enough protein?
For most people, it’s going to be somewhere in the region of 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. For those who prefer metric, that’s 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
If you’ve got a large amount of fat to lose, you may be better off basing protein intake on lean body mass (i.e. everything in your body that isn’t fat) rather than total weight. It’s a subject I cover in more detail in this post.
3. Don’t Overdo the Cardio
While cardio is a useful tool in the box when it comes to getting lean, it’s not essential. That is, as long as your diet is set up properly, you can drop fat without spending any time on a treadmill, exercise bike or elliptical machine.
The only true requirement for losing fat is a calorie deficit. That deficit can be created with diet alone, diet plus resistance training, or a combination of diet, cardio and resistance training.
If you do want to add some cardio, I’d suggest that most of it is of the low-intensity steady-state (LISS) variety.
The benefit of LISS is that it burns additional calories while having only a minor impact on your muscle-building efforts in the gym.
Too much high-intensity cardio has the potential to interfere with your ability to recover from and adapt to strength training, particularly if your training volume is on the high side.
That’s not to say you should avoid it completely, but it does need to be used with caution.
4. Train for Hypertrophy During a Cutting Phase
One of the ways in which resistance training contributes to an increase in strength is by stimulating muscle growth. Strength is the ability to produce force, and a larger muscle fiber will generally produce more force than a smaller one.
In other words, your ability to retain strength during a cutting phase is going to depend heavily on your ability to maintain muscle mass during that cut.
And the training you do to maintain muscle size and strength will be much the same as the training you did to gain muscle size and strength in the first place.
When they make the shift from bulking to cutting, some people will make wholesale changes to their training program, lifting lighter weights for higher reps, ramping up their training volume, throwing in a metabolic finisher here or a hill sprint there, all in an attempt to burn calories and lose fat more quickly.
In most cases, there’s no need to make a raft of changes to your training program. The basic structure of your training program during a cut should be much the same as it was during a bulking phase.
Put differently, if what you’ve been doing has worked well for building size and strength, it’s highly likely to work well for maintaining that size and strength when you start dieting.
5. Eat Some Carbs Before and/or During a Workout
If you find that you lack energy during a training session (which often happens when you cut back on your calorie intake), the quality of those workouts will often improve by shifting your carb intake around based on when you need the most energy to train.
On the days you train, aim for an extra 50-75 grams of carbs, consumed before and/or during a workout. Then, on non-training days, your calorie intake would be lower, with the reduction coming from carbs and/or fat.
Over the course of the week, the size of the calorie deficit would remain the same, but you’re just alternating between a higher and lower intake of carbs.
Do You Lose Strength When Cutting: Summary
Losing strength on a cut isn’t unusual, but it’s far from inevitable.
If you’re just starting out lifting weights, then it’s highly likely you’ll see an increase in strength when cutting.
More advanced trainees will find it much harder to maintain their strength, let alone gain any. Relative to your body weight, you may still be improving, but that’s probably no consolation when you see your numbers in the gym tanking.
The good news is that any strength lost during a cut will come back relatively quickly once the cut is over. That is, once you bump up your caloric intake, your numbers will shoot back up again within a few weeks.
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