How To Stop Losing Strength While Cutting
You spend months in the gym in a caloric surplus, packing on additional muscle mass while throwing around some new PBs in the gym on your heavy compound movements.
Yet, each time you enter a cutting phase and begin to lean down you lose a ton of strength.
Discouraging isn’t it?
Trust me I’ve been there.
If your cutting phase involves dropping down from 16 – 20% body fat down to the 8 – 10% range there’s no doubt you’ll lose a small amount of muscle and likely a little bit of strength in the process, however the weight and reps you regularly perform should not drop off by much if you perform your cutting phase correctly.
Below you’ll find my 7 key tips to ensure you maintain as much strength as possible from your bulking phase.
Don’t Drop Your Calories Too Drastically
Your caloric intake should not drop more than 500 calories below your maintenance level.
If your body requires 3300 calories per day to maintain its current condition you should cut on no less than 2800 calories.
Sure, dropping 800 calories below maintenance will see you dropping body fat a bit quicker, but you’ll also be losing significantly more muscle mass and strength.
When cutting keeping our metabolism as high as possible is also key, you do not want to drop your caloric intake unnecessarily low if you’re still losing fat at your current deficit.
Large caloric deficits can result in metabolic damage, and recovering from metabolic damage and returning to a regular caloric intake without packing on a bunch of body fat is a lengthy process.
Don’t Drastically Alter Your Macronutrient Split
To this day there are many fitness ‘experts’, dietitians, blogs and magazines preaching that carbohydrates are the enemy.
They’ll tell you in order to get abs and have a successful cutting phase you need to drastically reduce your carbohydrate intake.
This is a big factor in the loss of strength.
Unless you’re following a strict ketogenic diet your primary source of fuel will be carbohydrates.
To continue to lift heavy and maintain your strength you need carbohydrates.
And here’s the thing, carbohydrates aren’t the enemy at all… excess calories are.
Provided your body is in a caloric deficit you will lose weight.
Continue To Lift In A Low Rep Range
The majority of individuals tend to lift within the typical 10 – 15 rep range as prescribed by pro bodybuilders, fitness magazines and internet forums. However, if you’re an average guy that isn’t a genetically blessed god you should be lifting in the single digit rep range for optimal strength and size gains.
I personally recommend working within the 4 – 7 rep range for all of your major lifts.
Regardless of whether you are in a cutting or bulking phase your workout does not need to change at all, you won’t get increased vascularity or striations by performing a higher number of repetitions, that’s a load of crap. I keep my rep structure the same all year round and simply manipulate my caloric intake based on whether I want to gain mass (calorie surplus) or burn fat (calorie deficit).
I’m certainly not the first person to advocate lifting heavy for fewer reps…
“If you must use dumbbells for daily training, use heavy ones with fewer repetitions rather than light bells with numerous repetitions” – Arthur Saxon, 1906
If you don’t generally train in the lower rep range I recommend you give it a try, stop lifting in the 10 – 15 rep range for at least a month and focus on heavy, low rep sets. Once you start to see results you won’t want to go back.
Now, you may still think high reps are beneficial, but let me tell you they’re far from it.
High repetitions result in increased stress on your CNS, increase in localized inflammation and increased soreness.
“Movements or exercises that do not give the muscle the required resistance, but are the kind that involve a great number of repetitions, never break down any tissue, to speak of. These movements involve a forcing process that cause the blood to swell up the muscle, and simply pump them up”– George F. Jowett, 1926
Don’t Fall In Love With Isolation Exercises
Every workout should start with compound exercises.
Hit the big stuff first then you may hone in with some isolation work if you like. Never isolate first, you’ll cut your abilities short by the time you get to your heavy compound movements, while also increasing your risk of Injury as your muscles are fatigued from the previous isolation work.
Why am I so biased towards compound movements?
The first step to understand why compound exercises are king comes down to understanding how muscle mass and strength is actually built.
The guys that spend all day hitting sets of curl, chest flies and straight arm pull downs swearing that set after set of these exercises at a relatively light weight is the key to getting ripped are the same guys that’ll tell you that ‘the pump’ equates to muscle growth.
It doesn’t, that’s a myth that’s been debunked.
Strength and size come via way of progressive overload, not by the tight feeling in your arms after copious sets of curls.
This is where the compound exercise shines.
Compound movements are far better at providing this progressive overload we require.
Before we delve deeper into that though let’s clarify what we’re talking about when we say progressive overload… Progressive overload is the increase in tension on the targeted muscle – be it your chest, shoulders, arms or legs.
How do we increase tension?
- We do one of the following…
- increase the number of repetitions we’re performing at a set weight
- Increase the number of sets we’re performing
- increase the amount of weight we’re lifting
- decrease our rest periods between sets
Simply put, compound exercises, due to the sheer amount of weight we’re able to lift are far superior to isolation exercises as we’re apply to fully apply progressive overload.
Bench pressing 315lbs is putter far greater stress on your chest than high repetition dumbbell incline flyes with 20lb dumbbells. Regardless of how great the pump in your chest feels from the flyes it’s just not possible to compare the two and expect similar results.
Increase Emphasis On Your Recovery Techniques
To put it quite bluntly when we’re in a cutting phase we’re essentially starving our body.
Our body does not want to change, it wants to maintain it’s current condition… it doesn’t want to be lean and shredded – it wants to store some fat.
While we’re essentially in a state of starvation it’s imperative you place greater focus on your recovery.
As calories are in short supply your body is not able to repair itself quite as efficiently as if you were eating either at maintenance or in a surplus.
I do not have a hard and fast rule on what your exact recovery regime should look like, listen to your body and implement techniques based on how your body feels including:
Keep Your Cardio Sessions Short & Efficient
The vast majority of your cutting phase should be via your diet, as discussed earlier a 500~ calorie deficit will do the trick.
Therefore there is no need to kill yourself on the treadmill (or any other piece of cardio equipment) for hours on end.
Should you wish to implement some cardio keep it simple and quick with some high intensity interval training.
Jump on the treadmill and do 10 rounds of 30 seconds of sprints followed by 30 seconds of light jogging.
Repeat 10 to 20 times.
Boom, that’s all you need.
Endless hours of cardio will have you burning muscle which will see you losing that strength we’re trying ever so hard to maintain.
You can check out some more of my HIIT cardio workouts here.
Remain Mentally Strong (Stop The Negative Self-Talk)
Do not constantly remind yourself that you’re in a caloric deficit, nor use this as an excuse for coming up short a rep or two on your heavy compound lifts.
Remind yourself that the weight is light, you’ve lifted it before and you can do it again.
Now, there’s no science to say that this method works but from my own experience the opposite is true – if you tell yourself you’re low on calories and can’t lift the weight then you’re damn sure not going to be able to.