One question I get often is whether or not someone can gain strength while cutting.
Some people say that gaining strength while cutting is an impossible task, and that your main goal during a fat loss phase should only be to maintain the strength you built during your bulk.
While other people say that gaining strength is not only possible, it should actually be your main goal when cutting.
So, the question becomes; who are right here?
Well, after going through several bulking and cutting cycles and after reading a ton of research on the subject, here’s what I’ve learned:
Can you gain strength while cutting? Yes you can gain strength while cutting. Improvements in strength happens as a result of three things;
- increased muscle fiber recruitment,
- increased skill on the lift being trained, and
- gains in muscle mass.
These three components of strength can all be improved during a cutting phase. However, not nearly as quickly as they could during a maintenance or bulking diet.
In this post I’ll dig deeper into why it’s possibile to gain strength while cutting, why you should do your best to improve your strength while cutting, and finally how to most effectively do it.
Why It’s Possible to Gains Strength While Cutting
As I explained in the intro, increases in strength happens as a result of improvement in the nervous systems ability to recruit msucle fibers, increased skill on the lift being trained, and gains in muscle mass. Let’s look closer at these one by one and how they get affected while cutting.
Increased Muscle Fiber Recruitment
Effective muscle fiber recruitment is one of the biggest reasons why seemingly small individuals can lift very heavy weights. These individuals has trained their nervous system to recruit maximum amounts of muscle fibers at once. Here’s a great example:
Lu Xiaojun back squatting 600 lbs (275 kg) at a bodyweight of 77 kg.
Lus’ godlike strength is an impressive example of effective muscle fiber recruitment. But, the question is whether or not it’s possible to increase strength while cutting? Well, when it comes to muscle fiber recruitment the answer is yes.
Increasing muscle fiber recruitment mainly comes down to training with intentional speed, range of motion, and technique.
This is where you focus on lifting weights as quickly and explosively as possible. No matter if you’re supposed to do a set of 1 rep, 3 reps or 10 reps, the more intentional you can be in your mind with lifting quickly and explosively (even if the lift appears slow), the more effective your body will become at recruiting muscle fibers.
Range of motion & Technique
The longer the range of motion and the better your technique can be when lifting (ass to grass squats for example) the more muscle fibers will be recruited. In fact, if you’re losing range of motion and/or your technique breaks down, which usually happens when you get fatigued, then you’re no longer training with full muscle fiber recruitment.
I’m sure you’ve experienced when you get tired that you just can’t drag yourself over the bar with your chin anymore in a pull-up, or you can’t seem to get the bar to your stomach on a bent over row on those last few reps? This is usually where people start to compensate by breaking down their technique.
In short, when cutting (and always for that matter) you should aim to train with full range of motion and excellent technique as this will ensure that you maintain or even gain strength even in a calorie deficit.
The point I’m trying to make here is that improved muscle fiber recruitment doesn’t rely much on your energy availability, which means that you can be cutting and still improve it.
Okay cool, the first component of strength can be improved even while cutting, but what about the second?
Well, let’s look at that:
Increased Skill on The Lift Being Trained
This ties together with technique. The better technique you can develop and the more frequently you can train a movement, the more strength you can build. This is true because strength training is, just as with any other movement, a learnable skill.
And the good news is that you can get better at a skill even though you’re in a calorie deficit. So, you got two of the three factors for strength developing working with you even though you’re cutting. But what about the last one?
Gains in Muscle Mass
Gains in muscle mass is the last component of strength improvement, which also takes place on a longer time scale than the other two (you can increase muscle fiber recruitment and skill faster than muscle mass). This means that at some point, when your technique is on point and you’ve had good practice with a lift, there’s nothing more that you can do to increase strength than to build more muscle.
And this is where it can get troublesome when cutting. You see, in order to build muscle effectively your body requires a lot of energy, and when you’re cutting the opposite is true, which is that you’re in an energy deficit.
Now, there are certain times when you can build muscle while in a calorie deficit though, but it will always be less effective than what it is if you’re eating at calorie maintenance or at a surplus.
The 4 Circumstances When You Can Build Muscle Effectively While Cutting:
- In beginners – People that are new to training can build muscle and lose fat very effectively at the same time because the stimulus to training is so fresh.
- In overweight and obese – These individuals have a large surplus of stored energy on their body, which effectively can be used as energy by the muscle building process.
- In de-trained – People that have been laying of their training for a while and become de-trained has increased their number of myo-nuclei within the muscles during the training they previously did. This myo-nuclei stay in the muscle far longer than actual muscle tissue do, ready to return it to the previous condition ones the training continues. This is known as the bro-term “muscle memory”
- In steroid users – Individuals that take supraphysiological doses of androgens effectively ramp up their amounts of myo-nuclei within the muscles, and will experience the “muscle memory” effect that de-trained individuals do, while not being de-trained at all!
Assuming you want to stay natural, then the more training experience you gather, the leaner you get, and the less de-trained you become, the slower it’ll be for you to gain muscle while you’re cutting.
Now, even though you have more components that contribute to strength development than muscle growth specifically, these four circumstances still holds true for strength development as well. In the beginning you can increase muscle fiber recruitment and skill on your lifts very quickly even when you’re in a large calorie deficit.
So in short, both strength and msucle growth can happen fairly quickly while you’re cutting in the beginning of your training career, but then both of these slow down substantially when you get more advanced.
Why You Should do Your Best to Gain Strength While Cutting
The main reason why most of us are cutting in the first place is obviously to achieve a lean, muscular and strong looking physique, perhaps something like these guys:
Now, you won’t achieve this look if all you focus on is simply losing a bunch of body weight. No, the pure definition of the “bro-term” cutting is losing body fat and preserving or building muscle mass. And for this to happen you must give your body a reason to do so.
And this reason is called strength training. The more strength you can build while you’re cutting, the better you’ll look once you’re done with your cut.
You see, when you’re in a calorie deficit (required to lose body fat), your body is doing everything it can to only keep the most necessary tissue on your body, which is your body fat. Muscle mass is only necessary if you constantly give your body signals to keep it. And this is most effectively done with strength training.
A lot of people choose to focus on pump training and cardio when they go on a cut, but this is a big mistake. These ways to train are highly stressful to the body and requires a ton of energy to recover the system. And good recovery is half of the equation when it comes to strength gains and muscle growth.
Since you’re in a recovery deficit when you’re cutting, the best thing you can do is to train with effective methods that provide the most bang for your buck. So, let’s look at that now:
How to Gain Strength While Cutting (The Five Keys)
Now, even though it gets increasingly harder to gain strength while cutting as you become more advanced, you should still try your absolute best to gain strength! Having this mindset is really what will set your physique apart from the guys who simply give up on trying when they’re cutting.
So with that said, here are the five keys that’ll help you build strength while cutting:
Key 1. Don’t Train in a Fatigued State
One of the biggest reasons behind why people can’t gain strength while cutting is that they try to build strength during suboptimal conditions.
People think that they need to use 3-4 exercises for a muscle group to make it grow. So for back they’ll start with pull-ups, then rows, followed by lat pullovers and finally T-bar rows for high reps.
The problem with this is that their back is already very fatigued after the pull-ups and rows. By the time they hit lat pullovers, they will be working far below their potential. They won’t be triggering any real strength gains when they’re lifting in a highly fatigued state. All they’re doing at this point is depleting their muscles and providing their body with more work to recover from. The two additional exercises they’re performing are actually causing more harm than good.
If you really want to maximize strength gains when cutting you must exercise some temperament. Two exercises per muscle group is enough. Ideally rest 4-5 minutes before going into your second exercise for the same muscle group, or ideally train another muscle group entirely in-between.
For example, I love using upper/lower splits when cutting as these allow me to train my chest immediately after I’ve trained my back, and then go back to my back again after I’ve trained chest.
When cutting I usually only do 3 sets per exercise per muscle group at most. If I do more sets I know I’ll be weaker for my upcoming exercise that trains the same muscle group. However, if I only do 3 sets on my first back exercise, I’ll still be close to my strength potential for my second back exercise. When I switched my cutting programs down to 3 sets per exercise, my strength gains went up.
One very common question I get is if someone can do pull-ups, rows and lat pullovers for 4 sets each all in the same workout. My answer is always a big NO! This is way too much training volume for 99% of the people, especially when cutting. Doing this won’t allow you to consistently overload your workouts and getting stronger overtime, which is the key to build a ripped and aesthetic looking physique.
Key 2. Don’t Train Heavy Two Days in a Row
The best training routine that you can be on when cutting is an every other day routine. Here’s an example of the optimal cutting routine:
- Monday – Upper body
- Wednesday – Lower body
- Friday – Upper body
- Monday – Lower body
- Wednesday – Upper body
- Friday – Lower body
As you can see, you’re cycling between upper and lower body workouts with at least one rest day in between.
When you train every other day like this, it allows for much better nervous system recovery. This means you’ll hit the weights feeling light, fresh and full of vigor each time.
For people that have found it hard to gain strength on a consistent basis, three lifts per week is your ticket. When you lift 4-6 days per week, you’re going to be lifting under different conditions each session, some days you’ll feel strong and powerful and other days you’ll feel wiped.
This will screw with your motivation and lead to plateaus in your training, which will drastically increase the risk of msucle loss during your cut. Take that full rest day after each heavy workout and you will be recharging your neural battery for every session.
Key 3. Don’t Force Reps
If there’s one thing that makes me cringe, it’s when I see someone have their friend spot them and help them get a few more reps.
In fact, forced reps are for two types of people. People who are weak and people who are on steroids. A muscular and strong natural trainee rarely, if ever, do forced reps.
The problem with forced reps is that they quickly overburden your nervous system which tanks your strength for the rest of the workout, even future workouts. If you want to get a truly productive set, you need to get each rep on your own. Once you have someone step in and help you lift the weight, you are actually training yourself to become weak.
Key 4. Give Yourself Some Room For Growth
When training for strength I strongly recommend that you leave 1-2 reps in the tank on each set. If you’re grinding out every last rep of each set, you’re reducing your potential to come in stronger on your upcoming workouts.
Going to failure, which is the point where you can’t lift the weight without help, will overtax your nervous system and make strength gains tougher. When however, every last rep is executed with strength and confidence, by stopping 1-2 reps from failure, your strength will start to skyrocket!
This doesn’t mean training has to be easy, it won’t, it will require a ton of fortitude and intensity. All it means is that you will have to learn when you’ve had enough during a set. If you think the next rep is going to be a huge struggle, then there’s no shame in racking the weight. Believe me, you’ll come back stronger the next workout if you do so.
If you can leave a bit in the tank on each set you’ll achieve MUCH quicker progressive overload and strength gains in the long-term.
Key 5. Rotate Exercises
If you’ve been doing everything correctly with your strength training routine, but you’re stuck in a plateau, then the solution is to rotate your exercises. This is something I learned from Greg over at kinobody.com and it’s a strategy that works incredibly well.
Eventually after several weeks of strength gains on a particular exercise you will inevitably stall in your progress. If you didn’t then you would be lifting thousands of pounds, which is unfortunately unrealistic.
After you’ve been lifting the same exercises for some time you’ll reach something called monotonous overtraining, which is a maladaptation of the neuromuscular system. At this point you need to switch to a similar but fresh exercise.
By doing so you’ll begin to hit personal bests again for several more weeks. Then you will likely hit another plateau, and at that point you should rotate to a third movement. After yet another 4-8 weeks of personal bests you will go back to the first original movement.
Here are my favourite exercises to cycle through for each of my movements:
- Pull-ups –> Chin-ups –> Parallel Chin-ups
- Incline Barbell Bench –> Incline Dumbbell Bench –> Flat Barbell Bench
- Standing Barbell Press –> Seated Dumbbell Press –> Standing One Arm Dumbbell Press
- Barbell Curls –> Dumbbell Spider Curls –> Rope Extension Curls
- Barbell Back Squats –> Barbell Front Squats –> Bulgarian Split Squats
So, not only is it possible to gain strength while cutting, you should also try your best to gain strength while cutting as doing so will lead to the absolute best results on your physique once you’re done cutting.
Now, there’s a lot more that goes into building a lean and muscular physique, strength training is just one part of the equation. If you want to know exactly what you should do depending on your starting point, then I recommend reading the guide: How to build an aesthetic physique by pressing here