This article is ~3300 words and a 10-15ish minute read time
One of the common questions I’m asked is how to deal with strength and muscle loss during a calorie deficit.
This is an important and equally vexing question. I mean, no one wants to have spent months building muscle and gaining strength; only to arrive at the end their fat loss diet looking more Gollum than Adonis.
But, before we take a look at retaining muscle and strength: let’s step back for a second and understand how we gain muscle and strength because in that, venerable reader, lies our answer.
The prime determinant of muscle growth is the mechanical tension being applied to the muscle; which is simply sports science nerd talk for ”how much you’re lifting”.
Read that last line one more time and internalise it: Because every question I receive about muscle gain tends to revolve around nutrition: how many grams of protein? what about creatine? Carb timing? Hey, what about fasting? No? OK, what about BCAA’s?
While nutrition is most definitely an important part of the equation, when it comes to gaining size and strength: training is the priority and nutrition supports it [not vice versa].
I’m glad you asked, let’s get into that.
Stimulus & Signal.
Previously, I’ve spoken about Supply & Demand, and their importance to muscle gain and fat loss.
However, Supply and Demand are only two of the four tenets that make up what I call The Tetralogy of Physique Composition. There are two other factors that also come into play if you want to gain and retain muscle.
These are Stimulus & Signal.
Stimulus is the activity – lifting weights, jumping, running, OR: the lack of activity – sitting, sleeping etc.
‘The stimulus you provide your body determines the state of your body.’
Lift weights, run, move: you become bigger, stronger, and more resilient.
Sit around all day and you, quite literally, waste away: health, body, and mind deteriorate.
The signal is the response from the stimulus. It tells your body what to do.
Lift more than you run, you get bigger and stronger. Run more than you lift, you get better at running, but also lose size and strength.
Think of your body like a blind man walking around a room, feeling different objects discerning what they are.
Touching the objects provides a stimulus, in turn, this sends him a signal. The signal will dictate how he reacts: soft, smooth objects don’t cause any concern for alarm, the sharp, jagged objects, however, make him more alert and cautious.
Your body works in a similar fashion.
Like our hypothetical old man walking around the room inspecting objects and then responding to the stimulus, our body responds to the stimulus it receives from the environment and then depending on the signal it reacts accordingly.
If the stimulus is strong, like say, lifting a bit more weight than you had done in the last session, your muscles get the signal to grow and get stronger.
Conversely, if the stimulus is weak, or nonexistent – like say, lifting the same amount of weight week in week out, or lifting too light – the muscles fail to receive the signal and won’t grow.
And it’s this process that allows us to get muscular and stronger over time.
Stimulus —> Body is signalled to adapt and grow —-> Provide a stronger stimulus next time —> Body is signalled to adapt and grow further
Now that you understand how muscle grows, you’ll better understand why most people lose strength and size during a calorie deficit. And how you can stop it from happening to you.
So, here you are.
You’ve just spent a good 3,4,6 [+] months consistently getting stronger and gaining muscle. The amount of weight you were lifting at the start of your muscle gaining phase has increased substantially.
Deciding you’re getting to the higher end of what is an acceptable body fat level you begin your fat loss diet.
A few weeks go by and you’re dropping fat, looking leaner, and you’re retaining strength: perfect.
Fast forward a few more weeks, and you begin to feel a bit more fatigued during your session; it’s taking you longer to recover between both sets and workouts, and while you’re not losing strength; the sessions are beginning to become more effortful.
Then it starts: You roll up to the gym one day and start your session. You miss the number of reps you were going for and no matter how hard you try to push; you’re struggling to lift the same amount of weights you were just a week or two ago.
Putting it down to a bad day, you move on to the next session. But, the same thing happens. And again, and again at every consecutive session. Eventually, terrified of losing strength and size; you decide to call it quits with your diet and go back to bulking, or, you stubbornly continue on and in the process lose a lot of strength and muscle.
Sound familiar? Unfortunately, I’m not psychic, no – I just see this happen way too often.
So, what exactly is going on?
When you’re dieting the demand of your body goes up: it wants more calories to save itself from, what it thinks, is starvation; but, we’re intentionally cutting calories because we want to lose fat.
This conflict of needs creates inexorable tension between Man and Nature.
So what does the body do? It reverts to its own stores –bodyfat– for fuel.
This is fine up to a point: You start your diet with more body fat and as you restrict calorie intake, the body is forced to use its stored body fat for fuel. In turn, you start losing fat while muscle and strength aren’t affected because the body has an ample supply to draw from.
But, the leaner you start to become, the less of its own supply – body fat – the body has.
Soon, your body enters DEFCON 5 – playtimes over: your body is going to do everything in its power to stop you from losing any more fat. And anything that doesn’t serve an immediate purpose? Well, It’s gotta go. Yup, including your muscles.
So, uh, A, what do we do?
Don’t worry, I gotchu.
We know that during a dieting period calories are, inevitably, going to be low. As a result, the body’s ability to recover between workouts is going to be diminished. The body can only do so much with what it has during this period and it has to allocate the limited calories it does have between recovery, maintaining all bodily processes, fuelling training sessions etc.
So, this presents us with a conundrum: on the one hand, we know providing a sufficient stimulus is needed to signal the body to not burn muscle during a calorie deficit and on the other hand, we also need to manage recovery.
Solution: Reduce volume, maintain Intensity.
I’ve previously mentioned that volume [how much you’re training] and intensity [how hard you’re training] need to be balanced if you want to build muscle.
This becomes even more important during a diet. The intensity –how hard you’re training–is the stimulus; and as we saw at the start of the article, stimulus determines everything. So: keep lifting the same amount you were before dieting and Balance this by reducing the amount of work you’re doing.
To make this more palpable, let’s assume at the start of your fat loss diet you’re training 4x per week, hitting each muscle group twice per week via an upper/lower style split, with a total of 20 sets per muscle group, per week for your larger body parts, and around 10 sets for the smaller body parts. Something like this:
As the diet progresses, calories get lower, and energy begins to drop: reduce the total number of sets you’re doing per week: start with a 10-20% reduction [around 2-5 sets off total weekly volume]. This will mean over the week you’re now doing between 15-18 sets per muscle group, per week.
Remember: Keep lifting the same amount of weight you were before you began dieting. So, for example, if you started your fat loss diet bench pressing 100kg [225lbs] for 8 reps – the goal should be to continue lifting 100kg [225lbs] throughout the diet.
By doing this, you accomplish two things:
- Maintained intensity [amount lifted]: Tells the body that you have a need for your muscle mass.
- Reduced volume [amount of work done]: you’re now better able to recover between workouts and resultantly able to perform better at each session.
What’s the least amount of volume we can do?
As recovery becomes a bigger priority during a calorie deficit when energy reserves are low, we know that a reduction in volume is going to be key. This naturally raises the question of how low can we go exactly without hampering muscle and strength gains. Fortunately, we have some research exploring.
In the first study, researchers from the University of Alabama had a group of subjects resistance train 3x per week, with 9 sets per workout [for a total of 18 sets per week] over a period of 16 weeks. Each workout had the participants performing three sets of knee extensions, leg press, and squats for 8-12 reps.
After the 16 weeks were up, the researchers then split the participants into three different groups for a further 32 week period:
- Group 1 did no exercise at all
- Group 2 cut their training volume [and frequency] from three times per week to once per week for a total of 9 sets [~50% reduction in weekly volume]
- Group 3 cut their training volume [and frequency] from three times per week to once per week for a total of 3 sets [~85% reduction in weekly volume]
Now, the results were interesting:
- Group 1 lost muscle mass [duh]
- Groups 2 & 3 maintained most of the muscle mass they had gained during the first 16 weeks of the study, and what’s more – even gained some strength.
In a second study that looked at the maintenance of strength in soccer players during in-season, two groups performed strength training twice per week for a preparatory 10 week period. After the 10 weeks, the players were split into two groups:
- Group 1 reduced their strength training sessions from twice per week to once per week
- Group 2 reduced their strength training sessions from twice per week, to once every other week.
The researchers did note that only the strength training frequency during the in-season differed between the groups – exercises, sets, the number of reps, and their soccer training, remained similar between groups.
The results found that group 1 maintained the strength they had gained during the 10-week preparatory phase, while group 2 lost strength. Researchers concluding: ‘performing 1 weekly strength maintenance session during the first 12 weeks of the in-season allowed professional soccer players to maintain the improved strength, sprint, and jump performance achieved during a preceding 10-week preparatory period.’
Ok, whatever – science, shmience. What does this mean for us?
It means that we can get away with quite a large drop in training volume and as long as we are maintaining the intensity [load on bar], we won’t lose size and strength.
My personal recommendation is to start with a 15-20% [3-5 sets] reduction in weekly volume and then assess from there.
Ok, time for a quick /side_bar.
Body Fat Versus Caloric Intake: While your calorie intake [or lack of intake] does contribute to strength, muscle, and energy loss, your body fat level will also be a major factor.
Just like weight training signals the body to get bigger and stronger to better cope with an external stressor, your body fat is a signal to the body about the external environment: as your body fat levels decrease, the signal to the body is that there’s a famine, food is getting low, and you’re starving. This, as I mentioned earlier in the article, sets off the proverbial alarms in the body. This is why the leaner you become, the more at risk you become of burning muscle.
What? Ok, ok. Sheesh – I’ll show you.
This is your body at the start of a diet.
The outer, brown, layer is the stored glycogen in your body [carbohydrate stores in the body]. The middle, beige, layer is body fat. And the small, red, layer in the middle is muscle.
When you start dieting, your body will first utilise the stored glycogen.
As the diet progresses, and you become leaner; the body, having used up its glycogen stores, is now primarily using stored body fat for fuel.
Fast forward a few months and you’re now getting really lean; body fat levels are low and the body is beginning to run low on stored energy [glycogen is gone, and body fat levels are also low].
At this point, the body will have no choice but to start resorting to muscle to breakdown for energy.
This is why the leaner you become, the likelihood of muscle loss increases. Your body’s goal of keeping you alive far outweighs your goal of getting lean for the pretty ladies at this year’s pool party. Gettit?
Whew. Ok. Let’s get back to the article.
With all of that said, we can sum everything up like so:
Some additional thoughts.
While decreasing total amount of sets done is one viable way to reduce overall volume, here are some other things to consider.
Reduce the number of exercises you’re doing.
This is ubiquitous amongst Gym Bro’s: 6 different exercises, from every angle possible – flat bench press, flat DB press, incline bench, incline DB, DB flyes,cable flyes, decline bench, decline flies and that’s just for chest. Then they’ll do the same for back, legs, and shoulders.
You honestly don’t need that much work in one session, believe me. Stick to 2-3 exercises for each muscle group  with a Focus on the big lifts: The compound lifts like squats, leg press, military press, bench press, chin ups, rows, deadlifts etc. deliver a – and I’m gonna hate myself for using this phrase – bigger bang for your buck; thus, when calories are low, place emphasis on these lifts and do just enough for the smaller muscle groups.
I appreciate this can come across quite cryptic, so, let me elaborate.
If at the start of your diet, your leg workout looked like this:
Squat – 4 sets x 8 reps
Romanian Deadlifts – 4 sets x 8 reps
Walking Lunges – 3 sets of 20 steps [each leg]
Leg Curls – 3 sets x 10 reps
Leg Extensions – 3 sets x 10 reps
Calve Raises – 3 x 10-12 reps
The bolded text depicts the compound exercises. These are the ones we’re going to focus on.
Halfway through your diet, as calories drop and fatigue accumulates, you decide to reduce volume, here’s how you would approach this:
Squat – 3 sets x 8 reps
Romanian Deadlifts – 3 sets x 8 reps
Walking Lunges – 1-2 sets of 20 steps [each leg]
The compound exercises remain [though,volume has been reduced], but the accessory movements have been taken out. The squats, lunges, and RDL’s will hit all the muscles the leg curl, the leg extension, and the calve raises would – probably even better – so focusing on the bigger lifts will be an efficient use of energy during a deficit.
Reduce volume on your stronger body parts.
Stronger body parts are more resilient during a dieting phase, so you can get away with doing the least amount possible. As an example, my legs are my strongest body part: During a diet when energy begins to wane; I’ll drop the majority of my weekly volume from my legs.
Meaning, If I’d been doing 20 sets for legs, I’ll reduce the volume down to 10 sets per week. This is enough to maintain size while allowing for adequate recovery for my other body parts.
‘But, what if…’
Ok. So, let’s assume you’ve done all of the above – dropped volume, tried to maintain intensity, and you’re still losing strength – what the hell?
Here are some common mistakes I see people making.
– Keep a tab on excessive cardio.
Depending on the person, there may come a time when additional cardio is needed to augment the calorie deficit.
With that said, make sure not to over do it. Remember that cardio counts towards total weekly volume and by overdoing it, you’re going to impede recovery.
General guidelines for cardio:
Aim to be more active: walking, standing, and generally moving around more increases your NEAT. NEAT is all the activity you do outside of physical activity – like fidgeting, standing, walking, and can account for 30-50% of your daily energy expenditure, and actually plays a bigger role in the energy you expend in a day than exercise does. No, really.
All those small, unconscious, seemingly frivolous activities you do throughout the day that you think are irrelevant? Yep, they add up.
- Aim for 10,000 steps a day. On average this is around 300-500 calories. You could do this every day if you wish; it’s low intensity so it won’t impede recovery, in fact, it can help speed up the process.
- Keep High-intensity interval training [HIIT] to a max of 2 sessions per week. Remember, interval training is very similar to weight training in the impact it has on your body and CNS. So if you’re training 4-5x per week and doing 2-3 HIIT sessions on top, you’re performance will take a hit.
Remember: The stimulus you provide your body determines the state of your body. If you want to retain muscle and strength; make that the priority and have everything else support it.
– PHASE the diet.
The body and mind are not designed to be in any one state for too long a period – chronicity becomes a poison.
Deprivation for an extended period reaps havoc on your psychology and physiology; conversely, abundance is equally deleterious.
Like Nature, the body and mind benefit from flux and perturbations.
So, Interspersing periods of low-calories with higher calories will prevent strength and muscle loss.
– Energy Spikes
As mentioned above: The body should not be in a chronic state of low calories – the longer you stay in a deficit, the more your body will push back. As a result, you begin to see a decrease in energy and performance.
Utilising energy spikes intermittently [depending on your body fat levels] can give you a boost in energy and performance during your diet. The better you perform, the better you hold on to strength and muscle.
– Don’t Nocebo Yourself.
This is probably the most important point, so I saved it till last so you remember it.
You’ve most likely heard of the Placebo effect – a phenomenon where a fake treatment or an inactive substance like sugar or coloured water – can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person expects that it will be helpful.
Well, the placebo has a malevolent twin : “The Nocebo”.
The Nocebo is where people expect something bad to happen and it does.
I see this happen a lot.
A person starts a diet and one bad session – which could have been caused by a host of other factors, like a stressful day at work, poor sleep, poor eating – suddenly has the person freaking out because they think the diet is causing them to lose size and strength.
Consequently, this creates a “domino effect” – that one bad session becomes a host of bad sessions and guess what? Eventually, the person really does lose size and strength because they fell for the Nocebo effect.
Simply being aware of the psychology that goes on during a diet will allow you to not fall victim to it.
Maintaining strength and muscle is the key when looking to build an impressive physique.
As I always remind people: