In my last article, I talked about ways to optimize your ability to gain weight whilst minimizing fat gain. As important as that is, the fact of the matter is that eating calories and eating a bunch of calories will pretty much allow you to hit the numbers you need to maximize gaining. The key is to minimize body fat, and if done properly, you have set yourself up for a good period to cut some weight. Your calories are high, and you are probably sick of eating all of the food you need to eat to grow. I can’t stress this enough: if your food is low, you have not spent time getting your calories, and your hormones are up, you should not even think about dieting regardless of how you look. I will do an article on the pitfalls of long-term dieting here shortly, but just know that it is dangerous to your body, will destroy a lot of muscle, and will leave you in a very unhealthy state.
When it comes to dieting, there are a few key principles to think about that can drastically help you to execute the perfect weight loss phase. These are protein intake, calorie reduction/rate of weight loss, and training/cardio. It’s not about losing as much weight as soon as possible. And for a strength athlete, it’s not about dieting for an extended period of time. You want to get in and out because the ultimate goal is strength.
The building block of muscle, whether you are trying to put it on or to preserve it, is always going to be protein. There are a lot of studies that show how much protein we need to consume, and it has gone back and forth, but for athletes, the recommended amount is from 1.3-1.8g per kg a day, and if you are in a higher-volume block of training, it can go as high as 1.8-2.0g per kg. This was stated in a paper by Stuart Phillips, titled Dietary Protein for Athletes: From Requirements to Optimum Adaptation.
These recommendations vary when you are in a surplus and when you are in a deficit. As you start to drop weight, you want your protein to be higher for a few reasons. 1) It is the most thermogenic food that your body breaks down, meaning that it burns the greatest number of calories out of all of the macros for your body to digest it. 2) It is the most satiating macro, so you are able to stay fuller for longer periods of time, which is really helpful when you are dieting. 3) There have been studies showing that protein overfeeding can improve your body composition over a diet that has fewer calories in it. This study was done by Jose Antonio and colleagues in 2014: The Effects of Consuming a High-Protein Diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on Body Composition in Resistance-Trained Individuals.
In this study, they fed one group of men 4.4g/kg/d compared with a control group that kept things the same as before, consuming 1.8g/kg/d. The key finding in the present study is that consuming a hypercaloric, high-protein diet has no effect on body composition in resistance-trained individuals. Now when in a surplus, you could lower protein intake down closer to 1.4-1.6g/kg/d, and that is mainly because carbs are protein sparing, and typically when you are in a surplus, your carbs are higher. My basic recommendation here is to have your diet set at 1.8g/kg of BW.
When starting a weight-loss diet, the acceptable rate of weight loss is 1% of bodyweight per week. Weight loss is not the goal; we want to target fat loss. This rate, as long as protein is kept in range, will allow for as much muscle retention as possible while dieting. It is very hard to gain muscle, so we don’t want to be too aggressive with our weight loss and sacrifice the hard-earned muscle we have.
By Garthe et al.: Effect of Two Different Weight-Loss Rates on Body Composition and Strength and Power-Related Performance in Elite Athletes. In this study, they compared a .7% weight-loss pace vs. a 1.4% pace and found that the athletes who did the .7% gained more lean mass and increased 1RM strength during this 4- and 12-week plan. The plan lasted once athletes hit around a 4% decrease in weight. A good initial drop in calories to start a diet phase would be roughly 15% of the baseline, and research shows that a roughly 40% reduction total is what some competitors do to get stage lean. So, as athletes, I think starting with a 15% reduction and going as high as 25-30% would be ideal to keep strength as high as possible.
The last thing to be talked about is understanding the importance of strength training during a diet. The main goal when dieting from a strength and muscle perspective is to try your hardest to maintain strength and to preserve as much muscle as possible. This is done by training with the focus being on the primary drivers of hypertrophy, and the top of that food chain is muscle tension. The amount of tension you can put on the muscle will drive the stimulus to adapt and preserve. Focusing on progressive overload and training to get strong is the idea here, along with adding in some high-rep metabolite training at the end of the workout. You should not go into a huge cardio-only phase or a phase of super-high reps to “tone and cut the muscles.” When it comes to cardio, you want to focus on slowly progressing that and not having that be so high that it interferes with your ability to train. The interference effect is real and can play a huge role in muscle wasting while dieting, so keep cardio away from training, and have it be a systematic approach. Don’t start at 60 minutes a day on the stair stepper. The other focus needs to be on staying active and keeping your NEAT levels climbing. If this is done correctly, and if you are training hard, you may not need to add in any cardio. NEAT is non-exercise activity thermogenesis, which just means how active you are outside of exercise. You can track this by monitoring your steps and making sure that you hit a step count each that progresses as the diet does.
If you focus on nailing these three things, I promise you success in your dieting efforts. Always keep in mind that you are a strength athlete first and foremost, so don’t let dieting bring you down a path that inhibits your ability to perform. If it does, pull the plug, and follow my weight-gaining strategies to systematically put weight on.