Maintaining your strength while cutting is hands down the best indicator that you’re losing only body fat while preserving your hard earned muscle mass.
If you’re looking to get a ripped “summer” physique at around 8-10% body fat, then you shouldn’t be losing much strength during your cutting phase.
Unless you’re doing all the wrong things, losing strength occurs mainly when people are dieting to get completely shredded, such as a bodybuilder who are dieting for the stage, with the goal to get down to 4-6% body fat.
Even people who are looking to get shredded, shouldn’t lose that much strength during their cut. Perhaps a few reps here and there on smaller isolation exercises and a few pounds on larger compound lifts at most.
In fact, some trainees can actually maintain 100% of their strength all the way throughout their cut, while some, especially beginner to intermediate trainees, can even gain some strength while cutting.
No matter the case, if you find yourself losing a lot of strength on your cut, then something is very likely wrong with your fitness plan and should be corrected.
There’s a lot of things that you could be doing wrong if you’re losing strength while cutting, in this post I will give you all the 8 reasons that might be the cause of your strength loss. You could be doing one of these things wrong or a combination of multiple ones. So if you want to maintain your strength and muscle while cutting, make sure you read through all the reasons below. But before we’re getting to the reasons, let’s look at…
Why You Might Lose Strength Without Losing Muscle Mass
Even though strength is highly correlated with muscle mass (which is why keeping your strength is a good indicator of muscle maintenance), muscle mass isn’t the only factor behind expressing strength. No, when it comes to strength there are four things to consider:
- Muscle mass
- Fuel availability
- Body leverage
- Range of motion
1. Muscle Mass And Strength Maintenance
The size of your muscle fibers (the contractile tissue) is the biggest contributor for strength. If you manage to keep your fibers the same size, they will be able to produce the same amount of force, even if you’re down 10 lbs in body weight.
This means that if you’re successfully maintaining your strength while cutting, then that means you’re doing things correctly. In fact, you might even be gaining a little muscle because you’re lifting the same weights at a lower body weight.
2. Fuel Availability And Strength Maintenance
When you’re eating less calories than what your body takes in, you’re also reducing the amount of fuel you bring to your workouts. The main source of fuel used for your workouts are carbs.
When you eat carbs you store some of it as glycogen in your muscles, this glycogen is ready to fuel your muscles when it’s needed. However, when you’ve been cutting for a while, your glycogen stores might end up slightly depleted as you come to one of your workouts and when your stores are depleted, you might lose some strength in that workout.
The closer you come to your essential levels of body fat, fueling your body while staying in a calorie deficit becomes increasingly more difficult to do, and in this scenario you might see some strength loss without actual muscle loss.
3. Body Leverage And Strength Maintenance
The lighter you become the more challenging it will be for you to control the weight on some movements. For instance, standing shoulder press is one exercise that I always lose a bit of strength on while I’m cutting. This is because once my body weight drops the weight I’m using on the standing press moves me around instead of me moving the weight around. This obviously makes the exercise a lot harder to do.
This is probably why pushing strength, of most kinds, is the first to go on a cut.
4. Range of Motion And Strength Maintenance
A lot of people find their bench press and squat strength decline a bit when they’ve been cutting for a while. This is most likely because of increased range of motion and not necessarily muscle loss.
You see, when you’re losing body fat on your back and chest, then the bar during the bench press will need to travel a couple inches more each rep. The same is true for the squat. When you lose fat on the backside of your legs and on your butt, you will be able to go deeper and hence that the movement becomes tougher to do.
As you can see, there are more factors than just muscle loss that can lead to strength loss during a cut. Now, with that said, a large part of people who go to the gym actually lose strength because they are losing muscle mass. So, to ensure that this is not happening to you, let’s cover the 8 main reasons why people tend to lose muscle while cutting:
The 8 Reasons Why You Might be Losing Muscle Mass (And Therefore Strength) While Cutting
The biggest indicator that you’re losing muscle mass on a cut is if your strength is going down a lot. As we just discussed, if you’re losing a little bit of strength (like a few reps on your isolation lifts and a couple of pounds on your compound lifts) then you shouldn’t be concerned as it’s likely caused by eating less carbs, reduced leverage and increased range of motion.
But if you start to lose a lot of strength (like multiple reps on isolation exercises and a lot of weight on your compound lifts) while cutting, then it means that you’re doing something wrong.
So, let’s look at why this might happen:
Reason #1: You’re in a Too Large Calorie Deficit
Eating excessively low calories is the most common reason why people lose muscle and strength while cutting.
Yes, it’s true that you need to be in a calorie deficit consistently for a prolonged period of time in order to drop body fat, but going too low in calories will work against you.
It do so for a few reasons:
- Eating too few calories will impact recovery negatively. This is because a calorie deficit is also a recovery deficit. So the larger the deficit the poorer the recovery.
- Eating too few calories prevents your body from getting the fuel needed to maintain training performance. If you eat less food, especially carbs, your performance is going to drop. And if you can’t maintain the training stimulus that caused the muscle growth in the first place, then you will lose the muscle gained.
- Eating too few calories also reduces your rate of muscle protein synthesis (MPS). When you’re in a calorie deficit you will spend more time in a catabolic environment which negatively affects your MPS. Too low MPS and you will start losing muscle mass.
So, to avoid that these things causes you to lose muscle, stick to a moderate calorie deficit. This would mean between 15-25% below your maintenance calories.
Now, it is possible to lose body fat faster by having a larger calorie deficit. But to do so you must take breaks in between where you’re eating at maintenance calories, otherwise you will start to lose muscle. This is known as diet periodization and works well for some people.
If you want to learn more about settig up your calorie deficit, check out this post.
Reason #2: You’re no Longer Lifting Heavy Weights
One of the most common mistake I see people make, which almost always leads to muscle loss, is starting to train with lighter weights for higher reps once they jump on a cut.
You see, if you previously trained with heavy weights and build your muscle by getting stronger in a lower rep range, then your muscles were forced to adapt to lifting heavy weights, which means that if you reduce or remove the weights that caused the adaptation, you will lose the adaptation.
Once you switch to a light weigh/high rep program at the expense of heavy/lower rep work, you’re simply weakening the training stimulus you place on your body. This signals the body that it doesn’t need to maintain its existing strength and muscle mass.
Training intensity (the weight on the bar) is also the thing that matters most for muscle maintenance. This has a lot to do with something I like to call your work-to-recovery ratio. I’ll discuss this more under a later point.
So in short, don’t make the mistake of changing to light weight/high rep pump training when you start cutting. If you do you will inevitably lose your muscle mass.
Reason #3: You’re Eating Too Little or Too Much Protein
I’m sure you’ve heard this a hundred times by now, but it’s important and worth repeating. You need to eat around 1g of protein per lb of body weight while cutting in order to maintain your muscle mass. If you have a protein intake that’s much lower than this, that might be the reason for your muscle loss.
Now, a surprising fact that people don’t believe is that you don’t want to eat too much protein either. This is because doing so will leave you with less room for the other two macros carbs and fats.
By not going above 1g of protein per lb of body weight, you will leave enough room for a fairly high and balanced intake of carbs and fats which has been shown to lead to the following benefits during a cutting phase:
- Higher testosterone levels
- Better training performance
- Tastier meals
- Improved well being
These are all benefits that will lead to better msucle maintenance and well being. So, forget the high 1.5-2 grams of protein per lb of body weight per day that so many people seem to throw out there trying to sell you protein powders.
If you want to learn more about the power of keeping your protein on the lower end of what’s often recommended, read this post next.
Reason #4: You’re Doing Too Much Cardio
Usually when people start cutting they think; “since it’s cutting time, it’s cardio time.” But this thinking is a bit misleading.
In fact, when you’re cutting you should try your best to do as little cardio as you can get away with.
This is because most types of cardio is highly stressful to the body, which means that the cardio you do can leave you unable to recover from your more important strength training, leading to strength loss.
With that said though, cardio can still be very helpful for calorie burn, but in order to be so it needs to be controlled and done moderately.
So, a good recommendation is to let your diet stand for 80% of your calorie deficit and cardio only 20%.
By doing this you will make sure that you’re not bumping into recovery problems and start losing muscle mass.
Another good way to burn more calories is to do low intensity cardio like power walking or taking slow bike rides etc. This will help you burn more calories, but it won’t stress the body nearly as much as what more intense cardio do.
To avoid making this into a book rather than a blog post, I recommend that you read about cardio when cutting here. In the post you’ll learn exactly how much, what types, and when you should do your cardio when cutting.
Reason #5: You’re Expecting to Lose Muscle And Strength
This is a far bigger reason for muscle and strength loss than what most people think.
It’s been shown that the way you choose to think on a consistent basis, is what will determine your results. So if you go to the gym with the mindset that you will lose strength because you’re cutting, then chances are very high that you will.
For instace, when you come to the gym, you might feel tired and because of that don’t exert the force you’re really capable to. This will significantly impact your results, because if you’re training performance is reduced, you will lose muscle and strength as a result.
To fix this issue, walk into the gym with the warrior mind! Nothing will stop you, you’re strong and you’re capable. Remember, having constant motivation to be strong each time you hit the gym, to adopt the warrior mind is a skill that can be learned. In the beginning you might only have a few good workouts per month, but once you master this skill all your workouts will be good no matter how you feel.
Reason #6: You’re Doing Too Much Training Volume
Earlier I mentioned the work-to-recovery ratio. Let me elaborate what I mean with that and how setting up your work-to-recovery ratio will help you preserve strength and muscle while cutting.
In order to build muscle (or preserve muscle when cutting) you must first provide the stimulus for growth. This is obviously done via challenging resistance training.
After that you must recover. This is where your body repairs itself from the stress and damage inflicted by the challenging resistance training. This is done with rest, food and sleep. When work and recovery are balanced out with each other, that’s when you preserve or even build muscle and strength.
Now, when you’re in a calorie deficit, required for fat loss to take place, you drastically reduce your ability to recover. This means that if you do too much training, your “work” will likely exceed your “recovery” which then leads to strength and muscle loss.
So, the question becomes; how do you make sure that you do enough work while still being able to recover?
Well, you do this by setting up your training to do the least amount of volume you can get away with while still keeping your strength by training with higher intensity. (Aka minimalistic training)
In fact, one of our most scientifically educated and experienced fitness expert in the industry Lyle McDonald, said that you can maintain all your muscle mass even if you reduce training volume by two thirds as long as training intensity remains the same.
In other words, you could maintain volume and frequency at the same level but if you cut intensity, you will lose out on muscle mass.
If you want to learn more about setting up the best training program when cutting, read this post next.
Reason #7: You’re Sleeping Too Little
Did you know that sleep is one of the most importnat things to focus on if you want to retain your strength and muscle while cutting?
In fact, research has shown that when someone is sleeping enough it promotes muscle growth, but when someone is sleeping too little it actually causes muscle loss, even without a calorie deficit in place!
Poor sleep also leads to increased hunger making teh calorie deficit harder to adhere to.
Futhermore, poor sleep leads to worse glycogen storage. Sleep is the most powerful glycogen storage factor, below actually eating carbs of course. During a good nights sleep your glycogen stores will become topped off which effectively promotes recovery. This is especially important when cutting as well, since glycogen stores will be lowered by the diet alone as I discussed earlier.
Another huge reason to sleep well is to release optimal levels of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) into the bloodstream. HGH is one of the primary compounds that allows muscles to recover and grow. Our bodies also need HGH available to be able to utilize the amino acids present in the protein we eat, and sleep help with this more than anything else.
Finally, this study showed that good sleep results in increased levels of testosterone and reduced levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Other research has even seen that cortisol levels may stay elevated until the following evening when you don’t get enough sleep. Cortisol is already elevated slightly from the calorie deficit, so poor sleep equals high levels of cortisol.
So, if your goal is to lose fat don’t skip out on your sleep! If you want to learn more about the power of sleep and also find some tips to help you sleep better, read this post.
Reason #8: You’re Stressing Too Much
Stress can, just as poor sleep make fat loss and muscle maintenance a lot harder.
Stress causes the body to produce more of the stress hormone cortisol. Chronically elevated cortisol acts very catabolic, meaning it effectively break down amino acids, your muscles.
Psychological stress has been shown to use up huge resources of energy making it harder for your obdy to effectively recover.
If you want to read more about reducing stress, read the last section of this post.
3 Extra Tips That Can Help You Maintain Your Strength While Cutting
Okay, so getting the 8 reasons for strength loss listed above under control will provide you with 90 % of your results!
With that said, here are 3 extra tips you can try to help you maintain as much strength as possible while you’re cutting down to a low body fat percentage. These tips becomes more important the leaner you get:
Tip #1: Implement Refeeds
Taking planned refeed days during your weeks where you eat at maintenance with the increase coming mostly from carbohydrates, has been shown to reverse a lot of the negative physiological as well as psychological adaptations taking place from being in a calorie deficit.
Refeed days seems to be increasingly more important the leaner you get, and they are often a waste of time if you have a bit of body fat to lose. But if you’re already lean and are looking to get shredded, then they are very important. I’ve written more about refeed days here.
Tip #2: Train in The Afternoon
If you’re currently training earlier in the day, then if it suit your schedule, try changing your workouts into the late afternoon instead. Research has seen that muscle strength is at it’s lowest in the morning and then gradually improves until it reaches it’s highest in the early evening.
Placing your strength training where you’re going to be biologically the strongest, can gve you a slight boost!
Tip #3: Consider Taking a High Quality Pre-Workout
If you currently aren’t using any pre-workout supplement then adding in a high quality pre-workout before your workout can help your nervous system wake up and allow you to express better performance.
I recommend going with a supplement that combines caffeine with the amino acid L-theanine as these two together reduces the effects of mental and physical stress, increases the production of nitric oxide, which improves blood flow, and improves alertness, focus, attention, memory, mental task performance, and mood.
To get these effects I recommend the pre-workout Pulse created by Legion Athletics. You can read more about Pulse here.
Conclussion: What You Need to do if You’re Losing Strength
Okay, so let’s summarize the points we’ve covered in this post. If you’re losing strength while cutting make sure you:
- Don’t go beyond a 25% daily calorie deficit
- Keep lifting heavy weights
- Eat optimal amounts of protein
- Don’t do too much cardio
- Get to get gym ready to crush it!
- Don’t train too much
- Sleep well
- Stress less
Then consider doing these three things for best results:
- Implement refeeds
- Lift in the afternoon
- Consider taking a high quality pre-workout
If you follow all these tips you’ll be guaranteed to see great fat loss results.