Dropping weight without losing strength

Dropping weight without losing strength

After I mentioned that I have started cutting weight for my competition in late February, one of my clients asked me to write a post about losing weight without losing strength. Depending on how much weight we’re talking about, it’s entirely possible to maintain your strength levels – or even increase them – while simultaneously losing weight.

The trick is to maximise your nutritional intake so you retain as much lean muscle tissue as possible and ensure you are well-energised for your workouts. After all, excess body fat is not what enables you to lift weights – it is your muscle.

I have done slower cuts to make weight comfortably without any water, carbohydrate or sodium manipulation, as well as more extreme drops (most notably, 4.5kg in five days).

I am competing in the U75kg class at my powerlifting meet on February 22, and I will thankfully have my first 24 hour weigh-in. When I returned home from Turkey I was sitting at a whopping 79.2kg (the most I’ve ever weighed!). Yesterday, I weighed in at 76.3kg – meaning I’ve lost almost three kilos in two weeks.

I am hoping to hit 74kg in the next three weeks, so I can avoid doing any kind of water manipulation whatsoever. Once my competition is done and dusted, I plan to keep cutting. I would like to maintain at around 71kg so I can diet up as opposed to down in the weeks leading up to a comp, because I’m sick of the added pressure of dieting on top of everything else! If all goes to plan, I may then consider dropping to a lower weight class, but that really depends on whether or not I keep competing in powerlifting.

I have to say, this time around, I’m finding it much easier to drop weight. You may remember that my body was being stupidly stubborn in August and September when I was trying to drop weight. In hindsight, I can contribute that to a combination of being on the pill and having a lot of stress in my life. Literally all I’ve done is stop eating junk food and the weight is dropping off. I’m currently eating between 2000 and 2200 calories a day (30/30/40 protein/carbs/fat) and I will only drop that when I stop losing fat.

While I’m still far from being an expert, I’ve cut weight for a competition four times now without it affecting my strength. Here are my top tips for doing so:

1. Start the cut as far out as possible
It’s much easier to get to your “goal” weight a few weeks in advance and maintain that, rather than desperately scrambling to lose 10lbs in the final week. Once you have chosen a competition date, start dieting. While there is nothing like a ticking clock to keep you nutritionally compliant, losing 10lbs in 10 weeks is a lot easier than in four weeks. A loss of 0.5kg/1lb per week is sustainable and not enough to affect your strength. Also keep in mind that the leaner you are, the harder it will be to lose weight.

2. Decide whether you are manipulating water or not
Some people are happy to lose fat until they are a few pounds over their weight class, and then rely on water and sodium manipulation in the final days to make weight. While it’s not the most enjoyable experience in the world, I have no problem with doing this. Some people can’t bear the feeling of drinking 8 litres of water a day, while others compete in sports that don’t allow time for rehydration, so cutting water is not an option.

It is also much easier to refuel and rehydrate with a 24 hour weigh-in than a two hour weigh-in. At my last competition, my stomach had shrunk so much that drinking more than water and a protein shake was painful, so that definitely affected my strength.

I should also point out that if it’s your first competition, you should not worry about making weight as it is very unlikely you will be breaking any records. I’m nowhere near that level in powerlifting, so my current weight cut is more related to future competitions.

weigh in


3. Keep your calories as high as possible
You’re better off starting with your calories too high than too low, as the latter won’t give you very much wiggle room when your fat loss inevitably plateaus. In line with this line of thinking, I personally prefer to add in more exercise than subtract calories. I’d rather keep my calories at 2000 per day (as anything less frankly makes me go crazy), but add in an extra two cardio sessions per week.

Dropping your calories too low will have the opposite effect, as your body will assume it’s starving and hold on to as much fat as possible. You also run the risk of losing not only fat tissue but hard-earned muscle, which will negatively affect your strength levels. I’d recommend starting your deficit at around 300 calories below maintenance and never drop below 1500 calories.

4. Concentrate your food around your workouts
I typically train at around 5.30pm. I am currently eating a light, low carb breakfast and lunch, with the bulk of my calories and carbs consumed immediately pre- and post–workout. Doing so supports my strength goals and helps to maintain my muscle mass.

In this way, I only feel hungry during the morning and afternoon – and even then, it’s barely noticeable as I’m usually sitting on my backside. I am fuelled for my workout and allow my body to properly recover. There is nothing worse than being in a calorie deficit and “running out” of calories by the time you reach your post-workout meal.

Pre-workout nommage

Pre-workout nommage

5. Increase protein and vegetable intake
Even though my calories drop overall when I am dieting to make weight, I consciously increase my protein intake. I also load up my meals with more veggies than usual. These two tactics help to keep me more satiated, and I barely notice I’m in a deficit. Sure, eating extra broccoli isn’t going to be as filling as a burger bun, but it all fills the stomach just the same. Eating a sufficient amount of protein will also ensure that you maintain muscle mass, which you will need to maintain your strength.

6. Cycle your carbs
As I mentioned, I typically have days that are higher in carbs than others. In terms of both fat loss and performance, my body functions better with a high fat, lower carb approach. In an average week, I typically have:

– Four low-carb days: 100-130 grams of carbs and about 100 grams of fat
– Two moderate-carb days:  150-180 grams of carbs and around 85 grams of fat
– One high carb day: 230-250 grams of carbs and 60 grams of fat (interestingly, this day typically falls on Saturday when I do dancing and don’t lift – I’m always starving!)

I cycle my carbs – and calories, somewhat – to ensure I eat the most on heavy training days (squats and deadlifts) and less on rest and cardio-only days.

I love high carb day

I love high carb day

7. Avoid inflammatory food
Most of the weight I have lost in the past few weeks has largely been due to cutting dairy, sugar and grains from my diet. The macro/calorie breakdown of my meals isn’t that much different, but I’m not eating foods like yoghurt, bread, oatmeal or rice – all things that are perfectly healthy yet cause water retention. I cut these out as early as possible to build up some momentum, but you don’t really need to drop them until about two weeks before you are due to make weight.

8. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Thirst is often mistaken for hunger. I am personally a big fan of drinking tea when I’m dieting, as it keeps me full and kills any cravings (I realise I sound like a pro ana website right now). I have just bought a load of chocolate-flavoured tea from T2 and it’s a life-saver. I add a splash of almond milk and it tastes almost as good as a hot chocolate but without any of the calories. I usually have two or three cups of tea a day, plus a couple of coffees and about three litres of water, so my stomach is never empty.

My T2 stash

My T2 stash

9. Track your macros but don’t go crazy
Because I’m stuck in 2005 and love Blackberry, I can’t download My Fitness Pal on my phone. This is actually a good thing, as I’m not constantly logging on to see if X food “fits” my macros. I log on to my PC every morning and roughly plug in my meals planned for the day, and then don’t think about it for the rest of the day. Although I am not tracking my macros to the letter, I find it keeps me accountable and less likely to raid the biscuit tin at work. Back in September, I was on MFP all the time and it wasn’t helping my already high stress levels!

10. Don’t change your training regime
If you are dieting sensibly and appropriately, you should not have to change your training regime at all. Keep lifting heavy, as stimulating your muscles will ensure they do not waste away. If you follow the tips above, you should eat a pre-workout meal that will provide you with enough strength to make it through your normally programmed workout.

Although I mentioned adding in more cardio to allow you to keep your calories higher, you don’t want to go balls to the wall with cardio 12 weeks out, either. It’s best to start with dietary changes first, and then add in cardio when your body stops responding. Also keep in mind that, if you are competing in a strength-based sport, you will likely have to drop any high intensity cardio in the final weeks leading up to a competition.

Have you ever had to cut weight for competition?

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