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What to do if you're Losing Strength while Cutting

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In this article we’re going to talk about Losing Strength while Cutting, we’ll discuss why it happens and what to do about it.

I’m now almost at the end of my cut and this is the first cut I didn’t lose any strength on, despite my bodyweight going down almost 10 pounds. I can now see what I did wrong in the past and why I lost strength. So now I know how to prevent it, or reverse it.

Let’s see how.

Why you may be Losing Strength Without Losing Muscle

When we’re cutting the goal is obviously not just weight loss, we want to lose fat without muscle. Sometimes some muscle loss is inevitable, for example if you’re going to diet to 5% body fat you will have less lean mass than you had at 7% let’s say.

However, for most people looking to get beach ripped, muscle loss should not happen at all if they do things right.

Strength and muscle size are intricately linked.  We can’t really talk about one without the other. When cutting, strength maintenance is the best indicator for muscle maintenance.

That is because if the contractile tissue (your muscle fibers) remain the same size, they will be able to produce just as much force. So if you’re maintaining strength while cutting, know that you’re doing things right, you’re maintaining all your muscle. In fact you may be gaining a little because you’re lifting the same weights at a lower body weight.

However, it is possible to lose strength without losing muscle. The reason for that is because strength is not only dependent on muscle size, it is also dependent on fuel availability and leverage.

When you’re eating less, you’re also reducing your fuel for your workouts. Carbs fuel workout performance so if after a few weeks of dieting, one day you are glycogen depleted you’ll probably lose some strength in that workout. As you get closer and closer to the essential body fat levels, fueling your body while staying in a deficit becomes more and more difficult so in this scenario you may see strength loss without muscle loss.

Also, I mentioned leverage a few moments ago. When you’re losing body weight your ability to control the weight on some movements decreases. For example on shoulder press if the weight you’re using moves you around instead of you moving it, obviously the exercise will be that much harder to perform.

That’s probably the main reason pushing strength is the first one to go on a cut. Most people find their bench press to suffer while cutting and this certainly has something to do with that.

And as a side note, when you’re leaner the range of motion on bench press is likely increased because you have less fat on your back and chest and the bar may need to travel an extra inch each rep. That also affects your strength levels.

This is not to say that you can’t gain strength while cutting. In fact, a lot of people do, beginners and advanced lifters alike. I was talking with Greg on facebook about cutting and he said something I’ll remember for a long time. He said “In my reality I see no reason why you couldn’t make gains on a cut. So I go for it.” Wow what an attitude. No wonder the guy hits PRs at 7% body fat.

I was also watching a video of Eric Helms where he was saying he got stronger while cutting – again someone at an advanced level.

So the mental side is a huge component of workout performance and you got to make sure you have the right attitude when lifting. We’ll talk about this more later in this video.

Quick summary of what we covered so far: The main reasons your strength may go down without losing muscle are reduced glycogen stores and reduced leverage.

With that said, a large part of the guys going to gym actually lose strength because they are losing muscle. To make sure this is not the case for you too, let’s address the main diet mistakes that lead to muscle loss and confirm that you’re not making them.

Reasons you may be Losing Muscle (and therefore strength) while Cutting

The first indicator you’re losing muscle on a cut is that your strength is going down a lot. As we talked about before if you’re losing a little bit of strength (let’s say a maximum of 5%) that’s usually no concern because it may be because of eating less carbs and reduced leverage. But losing 10-15% of your strength while cutting is bad and it means you’re doing something wrong, no question about it.

So let’s see why that may happen:

1. Eating very little calories 

If you have a deficit larger than 25% of maintenance, you’re probably going to lose muscle while cutting. There are more reasons for this:

* Eating very little doesn’t allow sufficient recovery. A calorie deficit is also a recovery deficit. The larger the deficit, the poorer the recovery (obviously).
* Eating very little restricts the fuel for workout performance. If you eat less carbs, and less food in general, your performance is going to drop. And if you can’t maintain the training stimulus that caused your muscle growth, then you will lose that adaptation.
* Eating very little reduces the rate of protein synthesis. When you’re cutting you’re predominantly catabolic and if protein synthesis doesn’t equals or exceed protein breakdown, you’re going to lose muscle.

So if you’re eating less than 75% of maintenance increase your calories. This will make a world of a difference.

As a side note: It is possible to have a deficit larger than 25% without negative effects. However, you can’t maintain it for a long time. You’ll have to use something known as diet periodization, where you cut aggressively for 2-4 weeks, then you take a diet break for 1-2 weeks. The diet break helps prevent metabolic slow-down, helps restore hormonal balance, and also removes the psychological stress of a large calorie deficit.

2. Not lifting the same heavy weights as before 

A big mistake some people make when dieting is reducing the weights they’re using and working in a higher rep range.

We know that progressive overload (lifting heavier and heavier weights over time) is the main driver of muscle growth. In fact, most of the time we can predict the level of muscularity a person has just by looking at their strength levels in a medium rep range.

What this means is that the intensity you use now is the main reason you’re muscles are at their current level of development. If you were to reduce the weight on the bar, you’d remove the very stimulus that caused and maintains the adaptation.

To quote Lyle McDonald: “You could maintain volume and frequency at the same level but if you cut intensity, you will lose the adaptation.”

So don’t fall into the camp that thinks high reps get you cut. There’s usually no need to change your training while cutting. You just eat less.

3. Doing too much cardio

A lot of cardio on a cut is bad because it can sap recovery your recovery. When you’re eating less your recovery capacity is also reduced so it’s best to save most of it for weight lifting not cardio.

Furthermore, too much cardio, especially moderate intensity cardio can make your body want to adapt to endurance, instead of explosiveness. You don’t want this while cutting.

I recommend you do a maximum of 3-4 hours of cardio per week. If you’re doing more than that, cut it back and you’ll probably feel and perform a lot better.

4. Eating too little or too much protein

This is a tired topic but it’s worth repeating just for completeness. You need to get about 1g of protein per pound of body weight while cutting to maintain muscle mass. If you’re getting much less than that, that may be the primary reason for muscle loss.

On the other hand you don’t want to eat too much protein because it leaves very little room for the other macronutrients. Remember that you need carbs to fuel performance and fat is also important to support optimal hormonal balance.

My best recommendation for protein is 1g per pound. Greg actually goes with 0.82g per pound has not experienced any negative effects, even when dieting to 7-8% body fat. You could also go higher than 1g per pound, (as high as  1.5g per lb) but I think it’s not necessary and you’d do better if you ate more carbs and fats instead.

5. Expecting to Lose Muscle and Strength, so you do 

As we touched upon earlier, your expectations drastically affect the outcome of your actions. If you start your cut with the mentality that you will lose muscle and strength, it will probably happen.

Modern psychology shows that we always act in a way that fits our self image. So in the gym you may feel tired, you may not push hard, you may quit your sets without giving everything you got, all these factors will hurt your training.

And if your training performance suffers, you’d of course lose muscle and strength as a result.

If you recognize this is you, start seeing yourself as strong and capable instead. Expect to have great workouts not bad ones. See yourself as someone who is always making progress and you will.

Remember how Greg put it: “In my reality I see no reason why you couldn’t make gains while cutting.” The key words there are “in my reality” – that shows you how powerful your beliefs truly are. They create your reality.

6. You’re doing too much volume

This is the last point because it’s the most uncommon. Most people can train with pretty much the same volume as before even while cutting.

However, reducing volume almost always leads to strength gains. That is probably because your muscles are used to recover from  higher volume so they can now super-compensate.

So if you’re doing 80+ hard reps per body part per week, you could cut it down to 40-60 reps per week. You’d probably recover much better after that and you could even make some strength gains.

Now, if you’re already training with a low volume routine (I consider low volume any routine that has 40 or less reps per body part per week) you don’t want to reduce volume even further. Your problem probably lies in the other points we covered so far.

What you need to do if you’re losing Strength

Alright, now let’s summarize the points we covered so far. If you’re losing strength while cutting make sure to:

1. Don’t exceed a 25% daily deficit

2. Use the same intensity (weight on the bar) as before

3. Do just the amount of cardio you need to reach your goals (anywhere from no cardio at all to 3-4 hours per week)

4. Eat the optimal amount of protein

5. Expect yourself to be strong in the gym

6. Cut back on volume if you’re not recovering properly

If you follow all these steps you’re guaranteed to have great results while cutting. You’ll feel good, stay strong, stay big all while getting as lean as you want.

 

What did you think of this article? Do you have any questions? Any feedback at all? Let me know in the comment section below. I read and answer all comments.


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18 Comments

  1. Jason on July 27, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    Nice article with solid information, also very timely for me personally! I’ve got a somewhat related question: Say I screw up my cutting diet on a day where I’m going out for lunch with friends or family. Should I try to keep calories low for the rest of the day to stay in a deficit and risk having too little protein OR should I forget about the deficit and hit my protein numbers to prevent muscle loss?

    • Radu Antoniu on July 27, 2015 at 8:33 pm

      Good question Jason!

      I’d say it depends on how much protein you had that day. If you got about 80% of your protein, I think you could stay in a deficit and eat a bit more protein the next day.

      But if you ate less than 70% of what you need, I think it would be best to hit your protein numbers even if you go over the deficit.

      • Jason on July 28, 2015 at 6:49 am

        Makes sense, thanks! 🙂

        • Radu Antoniu on July 28, 2015 at 8:38 pm

          YW!

  2. Richard on July 27, 2015 at 9:37 pm

    Very useful articles! I always struggle with strength when I lose weight.

    • Radu Antoniu on July 28, 2015 at 8:38 pm

      Thanks Richard! Give these strategies a try!

  3. Prateek on January 30, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    Nice article man. Can you please tell how to calculate protein intake on a cut? I mean to say, do you calculate protein intake with respect to goal bodyweight or current bodyweight?

    • Radu Antoniu on February 1, 2016 at 6:51 pm

      Thanks !

      Current bodyweight. If you have a lot of fat to lose you can use a lower protein intake, around 0.7g per pound

      • Prateek on February 4, 2016 at 7:13 am

        Thanks man! That helps.

        • Radu Antoniu on February 8, 2016 at 11:09 pm

          You’re welcome!

  4. Adam on April 28, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    Your article supports all my beliefs!! I don’t do cardio while cutting myself, a calorie deficit of 500 cals per day will do the same job. Adding cardio to that without carbing up first will just make your body turn to the muscle for energy, there for depleting them of the proteins they need. It’s like an expensive way of running your body, using your expensive proteins for fuel. And if you carb up before cardio they it’s pointless doing it because your just burning of what you ate to do the cardio, the only Benifit would be better endurance but weight training gives you that anyway so there’s really no need. I see so many people look much worse after deciding to cut and hitting the cardio continuously. They look like they were over weight once apon a time and then lost it quickly, the muscle strips away and your left with saggy skin around the muscle, not a good look. Also I read somewhere that 5×5 is a good programme to follow when cutting because it’s helps maintain strength, there fore maintaining muscle. I use 5×5 once a week and 4×8 twice a week. I do all over body workouts 3x week compound exersises mainly, train every other day also to allow full recovery!
    My point is DONT DO CARDIO WHILE CUTTING!!
    there’s plenty of evidence to back that up, including this article ?

  5. Leatrice on July 19, 2016 at 12:32 pm

    This “free sharing” of inirfmatoon seems too good to be true. Like communism.

  6. MM on August 31, 2016 at 11:41 am

    Your article is very helpful. I lost strength when I consumed 1300 calories a day.
    i train 5 days a week, strength train 4 times a week, and one day of cardio only. I want to know how much protein should I eatevery day. I’m a female, my height is 161 cm and I weight 62 kg.

  7. Verity on September 19, 2016 at 12:31 am

    Thanks for this article! I’m just about to start my cut and needed to read exactly this because I always fear losing strength, especially because I’ve been on a specific strength regime. thank you!

  8. napoleon on January 23, 2017 at 8:06 am

    if you lose a lot of strength midway during cut, should you go to maintenance calories to gain the lost strength and after regaining it resume the cut?

  9. Declan on June 16, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    I have recently just switched from a 5 month bulk to begin cutting & noticed a loss in strength , my original plan was to follow your advice on maintaining the weight on the bar previously lifted during my bulk and to control my cut through eating at a calorie deficit but how is this possible if I physically cannot lift the weight anymore for the desired reps? I didn’t want to fall into the ‘ lower weight , higher rep ‘ category but if I can’t push the same weight as I could previously I feel it’s the only option to continue getting through volume.

    I have only created a 300 calorie deficit to begin with so I haven’t drastically cut my calories and my protein is set at 1.5g per lb body weight & fat is 0.45g , the rest carbs.

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  10. […] made some progress on some of the lifts, while on others, I regressed. That was expected because getting stronger in a caloric deficit state is downright difficult, if not impossible. The goal when doing a cut is to preserve strength and muscle mass while losing […]

  11. William on November 20, 2017 at 9:38 pm

    Hello, what exactly do you mean by “not recovering correctly” in point 6? I’ve been losing major strength on my bench press and I have been doing about 120 reps per week for chest. I don’t feel drained of energy but I’m not sure about recovery. Can you please elaborate? Should I drop volume? Thanks.

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