Many people assume that if you’re trying to lose fat, you will lose strength. Consequently, it is common for those looking to get leaner to switch to a higher rep range when training the main lifts. I’m making a broad generalisation here, but most men delay cutting because they worry about muscle and strength loss, while most women think that they can’t train for strength until they first obtain their perfect body.
Although performing sets in a higher rep range does assist fat loss I believe that, barring an injury, you should always train the squat, deadlift, bench press and some form of overhead press at a rep range of 5 or less. If you feel too weak to follow this rep range, or find yourself frustrated that your lifts are rapidly going down, there is something wrong with your diet and I would suggest finding a new coach!
Bodybuilding competitors are mostly to blame for promoting the idea of higher repetition ranges in the lead up to competition. Consequently, most average joes think they also have to throw the notion of making strength gains out the window during periods of fat loss. This idea is based on the fact that you are taking in less energy to perform at high intensities, and also that losing body weight will mean current PRs become a greater percentage of your body weight and therefore more difficult.
However, there is no reason that your strength cannot continue to increase as you lose body fat and therefore lose weight. Why do people think having extra fat on their bodies makes them stronger? Fat doesn’t help you lift weights – your muscle does! If your diet is structured correctly to avoid muscle wastage, there is no reason you cannot continue to hit PRs – which will become more impressive as you will therefore be stronger pound for pound. Bodyweight exercises such as chin-ups, push ups and inverted rows also become easier the lighter you are.
I am currently dieting, and yet I continue to hit PRs. I still have the occasional day where I feel weak, but that’s more to do with other factors such as inadequate sleep and recovery rather than lack of food. If I was to get, say, photoshoot lean, I’m sure I wouldn’t be hitting PRs – but I wouldn’t expect this phase to last longer than a couple of weeks.
If your goal is fat loss, I would suggest structuring your workouts as follows. Begin each training session with one of the main lifts, completing 4-5 sets of 5 reps or less. Fill the remainder of your workout with any combination of accessory exercises you wish, making sure you keep your total workout time to less than 60 minutes. Stick to a higher rep range (10-20 reps) and superset exercises using opposing muscle groups for a more intense workout. Alternatively, you could complete the exercises as straight sets but add some kind of finisher to your workout such as sled pushes, battle ropes, kettlebell swings or a short bodyweight circuit. (If you need more help with structuring a workout, please see this post and this post.)
Plan your meals so that your carbohydrate intake is concentrated around your workouts. This should provide you with enough energy to power through and continue hitting PRs even while dieting. If you’re dieting sensibly and slowly, you shouldn’t be losing any muscle – and therefore your strength should not be affected at all.
Have you ever struggled to maintain strength while dieting?