One of the most amusing myths in the fitness industry is that you can’t simultaneously lose weight and get stronger.
The reasoning behind this notion is based on the fact that it’s difficult to see significant muscle hypertrophy while you lose weight. I’m not going to contest this point (except for beginners or seriously detrained/overweight people). However, there’s a lot more that goes into getting stronger than simply gaining muscle.
A much more important factor is neuromuscular efficiency. You know who’s totally maxed out their neurological gains? It’s not you, it’s not me, and it’s probably not anyone on this planet (except maybe Naim Suleymanoglu. He weighs 138 and probably clean and jerked more than you deadlift). Firing rate, intermuscular coordination, intramuscular coordination, and decrease in inhibitory signals can all be improved upon.
Neural factors are what allow grandmothers to throw cars off of their trapped grandchildren. If you can’t lift up a car on whim, then you haven’t reached your neurological capacity for improvement. If a grandmother can do it when she needs to, the issue is NOT muscle mass, so you can’t blame limited hypertrophy on lack of strength gains.
So what can you do?
Practice. Heavy weights (75%+), low reps (fewer than 5. Less than 3 is better). Keep in mind that if you’re losing weight, muscular recovery will be problematic. Therefore, don’t even go close to failure. If you’re sore the next day, you did too much. Drop the volume next time. Also, since your main goal should be to PRACTICE a skill (to enhance neural efficiency), high frequency is best: 4+ times per week. If you wanted to get really good at shooting foul shots, you’d practice every day. So if you want to get good at benching or squatting, why not find a way to practice them every day as well? Remember, you’re practicing a skill to improve your firing rate and muscular coordination. That’s best done with perfect form and frequent exposure.
So what if you don’t get a pump the whole time? Your muscles will not shrivel away to nothing. As long as you’re taking in adequate protein, you shouldn’t lose much if any muscle mass at all. Once your cut is over, you’ll be stronger and with that added strength you’ll find it easier to build more muscle since you can place a greater stress on your musculature by handling heavier weight.
Take home: even if you’re losing weight, you don’t have to resign yourself to losing strength as well. Set up your training properly, and you should be able to gain strength, if not muscle, throughout your cut and end up a stronger, lighter you at the end.
p.s. Obviously this doesn’t apply as much for people who are already lean. But for cutting from >15%bf to around 10-12%, there’s no reason you can’t keep getting stronger the whole time.
p.p.s. If i’m preaching to the choir here, I’m sorry. I just hear this myth pop up often enough that I felt the need to weigh in on it, and so I’d have something to refer people back to any time they bring up this self-defeatist notion.