One of the things that I frequently get asked about is if it’s possible to make progress in the gym while trying to lose body fat. As a strength athlete, you may find yourself looking to drop a weight class for competition. Or maybe you’re looking to drop some body fat to improve health markers because dying is known to be pretty bad for performance. Or, hell, you just want to look good for the beach. Either way, you’re not about to let your performance slip to just see your abs.
One thing to clarify, though, is that gaining muscle while losing body fat is highly unlikely, particularly with the more training experience you have under your belt. Newbie’s going from couch potato to eating protein and doing some lifting? Sure, they’re in that magic unicorn realm of time where it’s highly possible. But the rest of us are probably just looking to hang on to whatever muscle that we have at best, and will need at least a small caloric surplus to start layering on new muscle tissue.
However, most of us are really interested in performance and in particular, getting stronger. And if you’re wondering if it’s possible to gain strength while losing body fat, you absolutely can with careful planning and precision with your nutrition. My objective with this article is to lay out a few simple guidelines to set you off on the right track should you choose to embark on such a quest.
Let’s get something out of the way at the start. In order to lose fat you must be in a caloric deficit. There needs to be less energy coming in than what’s going out in order for bodies to begin oxidizing fat so that it can be used as fuel. For the sake of our discussion we will save the conversation on metabolic adaptation and how to know if you’re in a healthy place to decrease calories for another time. For our purposes let’s assume you’re healthy, have been eating in a surplus or at maintenance, and want to drop some fat and continue to PR your lifts.
When putting strength and performance at the forefront, it’s important to remember that we don’t want to slash calories so much so that we sacrifice what’s most important to us. Because you’ve been eating like an athlete (read: a lot) and train like an animal, even the smallest of changes will yield results. When beginning a fat loss phase, I suggest a slight deficit of around 300 calories (give or take depending on your maintenance calories). We want enough to generate a response, but we don’t need to go crazy. Just as in training, the goal is to stimulate not annihilate. You can always make adjustments down the road, but we want to get the most from the least for as long as we possibly can.
A Note on Nutrient Timing
When food is abundant and you’re eating to maximize all things gains, the total amount of calories that you’re taking in tends to negate the overall importance of nutrient timing, or when you choose to eat certain macronutrients and in what amounts. However, as we start to take food away, nutrient timing becomes increasingly important. There’s just less to work with, so when you choose to eat certain macros becomes critical in ensuring adequate digestion, and metabolic flexibility while enhancing recovery between training sessions.
When it comes to setting up macros, the one constant is always protein. On both training days and non-training days my protein will be set at a gram per pound of body weight. We want to keep protein relatively high to maintain muscle mass, and the ol’ 1 gram per pound of body weight is easy to remember and implement.
Training Days: Lower Fats / Higher Carbs
On training days we want to keep our fats lower and carbs higher. The reason for this is fat slows digestion down and we don’t want that around training. We need energy, primarily in the form of glucose (from carbs) to fuel our workouts and if we consume too much fat around our pre-training meal we risk the food remaining in our stomach, unabsorbed by the body, and inaccessible during training. Initially this may not pose much of an issue, but as you get deeper into the cut it will become quite noticeable. The same applies for our post workout meal. We need carbs to fill our depleted glycogen stores and we don’t want fats slowing down that process. On training days I make it a rule to keep fats as far away from training as possible.
This brings me to another point. I find it best to consume your food about two hours before you train. If you consume your pre-workout meal too close to training your food will still be in your stomach and your body will prioritize digestion taking precious blood flow to your stomach instead of your muscles. Your post workout meal should be consumed soon after training, but the idea of the anabolic window is largely a myth (particularly if you're training just once per day). If you wait an hour or so to eat you will be fine.
Non Training Days: Higher Fats/ Lower Carbs
For non-training days we want to keep our fats higher and our carbs lower. On our non-training days our body will primarily be using fat as a fuel source and will not need to dip into the glycogen stores to nearly the degree it does on training days. Fats are critical for brain health and hormone production so we want to get a healthy amount, but in a deficit it's all about giving our body what it needs when it needs it. Since we are depriving it of energy we have to do a bit of the work we otherwise wouldn't need to in a surplus.
Okay, we covered the basics of how to structure your nutrition while in a deficit but let me give you a more clear formula to work from. Let’s use an example. Steve is 200lb and he is looking to cut some fat while getting stronger. The first thing I’ll have Steve do is log his food as accurately as possible for at least a week or two in order to find his maintenance calories. After doing so, let’s say that we find his maintenance to be at 2800 calories per day. At this point, we’ll drop his intake to 2500 calories to put him into a slight deficit.
The next thing that I need to do is determine his macro nutrients - or the grams of protein, fat, and carbohydrates that he needs to eat each day. First, I solve for protein. I am going to have Steve consume 200g (1g per pound of BW) of protein. Protein is 4 calories a gram so that is 800 calories from protein.
Next I solve for fats. On training days we don’t need as many fats so I will drop between 15-20% of his total calories from fat. (I like to keep ladies closer to 20% on training days) For our purposes I’ll stick to 15% for Steve and that puts him at 375 calories from fat. Fat has 9 calories per gram so that equals 42g (or 41.666666 if you want to be specific) of fat.
The remainder of his intake comes from carbohydrates. When we subtract 800 and 375 from 2500 we are left with 1325. Carbs also have 4 calories per gram, so Steve gets a whopping 331g of carbs. If this were an off day I would do the same thing except I would keep Steve at 30% of his calories from fat and his carbs would drop accordingly.
Now, the fun and sometimes frustrating thing is that everyone is unique. As I work with clients we are always tweaking things to better meet their individual needs, but if you start small, stay consistent, and stay patient you will see results. I highlight the need for patience because too many people are looking for quick fixes and the second they hit a wall they change multiple variables hoping that something will work. The problem with that is if you try five different solutions and experience a change, you won’t know which solution was effective.
I’d also say don’t change your approach with only one week’s worth of data. There are far too many variables when it comes to weight loss, and while the scale is a tool in our arsenal, true fat loss doesn’t always immediately reflect with the number that’s staring back at you. Your body weight can fluctuate for any number of reasons, ranging from your quality of sleep to your hydration status to overall stress levels, etc. So it’s important to remain logical with your decision making as opposed to emotionally reacting and making sweeping changes at the drop of a hat.
All good things eventually come to an end, including your fat loss phase. For many of us that is a welcomed relief, but sometimes we haven’t quite reached our goals and while we want to continue on, our body is telling us it’s time to ease off the gas pedal.
Our bodies crave homeostasis and work incredibly hard to maintain it. Because of this, our bodies are always adapting to the stimulus we place on it. In the case of dieting, the way the body adapts is to become more and more efficient. In most cases efficiency is a great thing, but when it comes to fat loss, efficiency hampers our goals. Our body learns to operate on fewer and fewer calories. If you continue dieting eventually what was once your caloric deficit has become your new baseline as your metabolism has slowed down. The only way to keep losing fat is to either increase the deficit, increase the training volume, or some combination of both. This will work for some time, but it won’t work indefinitely and is unsustainable.
Competitive bodybuilders are able to push their bodies to extreme levels of leanness because they need to look a certain way on stage, but are not concerned with anything else. But if any of you have ever been in single digit body fat for any length of time you know that performance is far from ideal. As strength athletes our fat loss phase is done when performance begins to suffer.
The 90% Rule
Now I want to say a word here to newer athletes about what that actually means. If your max deadlift is 500lbs and you can’t hit that everyday, that does not mean you’ve regressed. We can’t be at peak performance all the time. My personal metric to understand whether or not I’ve maintained or progressed is the 90% rule. My personal best deadlift is 725lb. I can’t pull that weight every day, but If I can pull 650 then I know I am keeping my strength and am roughly one training block away from matching or beating my previous PR. Oftentimes, athletes will begin to get anxious when they’re not matching old PR’s, but it’s important to “keep the goal the goal” and manage your expectations when dieting accordingly.
However, if you’re deep in a deficit and have lost a significant amount of fat, your nutrient timing is on point, sleep is on point, recovery and stress management are on point and you’re beginning to struggle hitting weights in the 75-85% range it’s potentially time to take a step back and assess your situation.
Remember, don’t make a decision on one week of data. Review everything, make sure you’re executing on all points and give it at least another week. If you continue to struggle with weights you were previously crushing, and otherwise just feeling completely run down, then it’s probably time back off the diet and enter into a maintenance phase.
Don’t Go Back to Old Habits
When transitioning out of a fat loss phase, the worst thing you can do is just stop tracking calories and start eating whatever you want. That is a recipe for quick fat gain. Instead, begin to slowly reintroduce calories in a progressive, stepwise manner. Just as you started your diet by taking away approximately 300 calories, I would suggest adding that same amount back to your current deficit in the form of carbohydrates. The best way to do this to minimize fat gain would be to put them around your training. So in this instance, you would add an additional 40 grams of pre workout and 35 grams post and evaluate how you look, feel, and perform.
Over the course of 6-8 weeks, you would slowly continue to titrate calories back in as you monitor your body fat until you were back or slightly beyond your previous level of maintenance calories. At this point, you might be ready to enter another fat loss phase, or continue to ride the gains train (let’s be honest, that’s way more fun).
Lastly, let's remember that in addition to making changes to your body composition, good nutrition comes down building healthy habits for long term sustainable results. Avoid the common error of 'throwing it all away' once you've reached your destination. Each phase that you enter is an opportunity to build on the last and become an upgraded version of your former self.
Anthony is a husband, father to three wild kids, a professional 105k strongman, and a strength and nutrition coach. (NSCA-CPT | Precision Nutrition) He's played sports his entire life and has been lifting weights for over 15 years. He's a competitive strongman athlete with over 30 competitions under his belt in the last 5 years. Prior to being a coach, Anthony worked in operations management for both Starbucks and Amazon - developing skills in leadership and using data to drive decision making. He is now blessed to be able to use those skills and apply them to his passions of strength and nutrition. You can find him on Instagram @anthony105kprostrongman