*Note: This article is intended for athletes who are already engaged in tracking their macronutrient intake.
It’s normal to want to tackle a six-pack and a 400-pound squat at the same time, but if you’re at a zero-pack and a 225-pound squat, you’ve got a long way to go in both directions. What’s worse, working toward both shred and strength at the same often results frustrating stagnation: either a significant loss of strength, or the scale not budging.
I learned this the hard way when I set my sights on getting stronger and leaner at the same time to fulfill my weight class in competitive strongman competitions. Yes, I dropped 20 pounds quickly, but I also watched my testosterone levels and energy drop to all-time lows.
Fortunately, I learned from my missteps and I’m now able to maintain a nutritional approach for lean gains that allows me to hang with my insanely strong competition. It wasn’t easy, and it took a lot of time, dedication, and learning. But it can be done, and you don’t have to be a strongman to make it work.
Here’s what you need to know about chipping away at the pounds on the scale and placing them on the bar!
There’s no way around calorie balance; if you want to lose weight, you must be taking in fewer calories than you expend. When all other variables such as your training, macro amounts, and nutrient timing are in place, you can absolutely gain strength while in a deficit. However, it’s important to be patient and start from an appropriate caloric deficit.
Cutting weight too quickly will inevitably limit your strength potential. Don’t go down that road. On the other hand, cutting weight healthily and gaining strength both take time—and doing both simultaneously requires even more time. Think months, not weeks. And it starts with a slight calorie deficit.
To figure out the calories you need to place yourself into a slight deficit, first plug your information into the calculator below. This will provide you with an estimate of the number of calories you need to maintain your current weight. Then, subtract 300 calories and track your food intake and weight over the next 5-10 days.
After this period of time, evaluate the trend in weight change—did you gain, maintain, or lose weight? Adjust as necessary to place yourself in a slight deficit to drive weight loss. Aim to lose 0.5-1.0 pounds per week, and no more.
If you feel your strength start to slip, increase your calories a bit so that you’re on the lower end of this range.
HOW MUCH SHOULD I EAT?
For those seeking a purely physique-based goal, it’s commonplace to determine protein and fat macros before “filling” the remaining calories with carbohydrates. However, when performance is the goal, I recommend prioritizing protein and carbohydrates to support hard training.
Protein: Nothing fancy here. Strength athletes need at least 1.0-1.25 grams per pound of body weight each day to support muscle preservation and satiety.
Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are your muscles’ primary energy source. I can’t stress this enough for strength and power athletes. To support hard training and your body-composition goals, align your carbohydrate intake with your daily energy demands. I’ll definitely manipulate my carb intake around training sessions and rest days, but I don’t recommend cutting carbs to spur fat loss except when absolutely necessary.
For typical training sessions, take in 1-1.5 grams per pound of body weight per day. For lighter sessions, reduce your intake to 0.75-1.0 grams per pound of body weight, and for nontraining days, reduce that number to less than 0.75 grams. Play around with different ends of each range to find an ideal amount that fuels training and recovery, but also fits into your daily calorie allotment.
Fat: Fat is essential for cell communication within the body, nutrient storage, and optimal hormonal health. Keep total daily fat intake at or above 15 percent of total calories at all times. Dipping below this threshold will inevitably lead to a drop in testosterone levels (which negatively impacts performance), sub-optimal recovery, and potential health problems.1-3
DIET ADJUSTMENTS TO KEEP WEIGHT LOSS COMING
To fuel for consistent weight loss and lean gains of strength, you must manipulate your nutrition strategically. Once your weight loss stalls—based on multiple weigh-ins over a period of 5-10 days—proceed by making adjustments in the following manner:…