Training Articles

Fat Loss or Strength?

Everyone knows you can increase strength and lose fat at the same time.  It happens to every single beginner the first time they lift serious weight.  What I want to know is can advanced men and women already lifting 2x body weight with low levels of body fat continue to improve in both without sacrificing one?  Or do they have to prioritize one above the other?

My opinion is yes, one can continue to trend upward in both for a very long time before facing a crossroads.

One of my favorite topics to post about is the debate that high level strength requires one to gain a proportionate amount of mass to obtain it, since I feel most people don’t realize you can get very strong without altering diet and adding performance averse mass.  I am going to spare the science stuff in this entry and let you read it here in “Why Mass is Overrated for Strength Gains”, and simply provide you with two real world examples of last Friday in my gym to reiterate both my opinion and the science of strength.

I don’t really enjoy reading websites and blogs where people simply discuss their own training.  That’s not compelling at all nor reason enough for me to believe something works.  Individually, we are too small of a sample size to prove anything as there are a host of genetic metabolic factors that play a huge role in one’s results.  It’s also why I wasn’t that amped on the first article I wrote on the matter.

This is not a lift to get big post.

This is not a lift to get a 700 pound deadlift post.

Or to get to 350 pounds and compete in strongmen competitions.

It’s for regular folks (you’re not an athlete) who want to be at a very high level of strength, athleticism and desirable body composition.

I want to be able to show what works for a large population of people, how something can realistically be implemented for both genders, regardless of whether their genetics are gifted or below average.

Both of these examples occurred within the last hour we were open last Friday and both got me extremely excited about the respective results.

Dan Jahnke: 505# @ 173 pound body weight

I never thought I would be posting a lack of accomplishment and using it to illustrate a point of accomplishment but that’s exactly what I am attempting to do here with Performance360 member Dan Jahnke.

Dan’s been a member at P360 for 11 months now and shown excellent work ethic from day one.   Right out of the gates he has displayed above average strength in his posterior chain but a relatively weak and immobile thoracic back.  His deadlift to overhead press ratio is comically out of whack in favor of his deadlifts.  I noticed it on a few heavy pulls and then ran some brief mobility drills with him to test it out and sure enough, thoracic spine was the weak link in his major lifts.

Additionally, Dan works for a major food company and Dan is from Wisconsin.  This means that Dan is hard wired to like two things contraindicated for fat loss.

  1. Processed carbohydrates
  2. Cheese (big time)

So, in adding all of this up it equalled naturally strong legs and a tendency to keep body fat.

Rewinding for a minute to day one, once Dan was trained in deadlifts with form he settled into pulling 275# for 3R and over the course of eleven months, like anyone else who would train regularly his lifts increased all the way until he pulled 400# (which we consider a huge day in our gym).

Over the past few month’s we’ve seen Dan’s deadlift climb up as follows, roughly.

  • February – 405# deadlift @ 186# body weight
  • April – 455# @ 186#
  • May – 475# @ 186#
  • August – ~505# @ 173#

Um, what?  Esqueeze me?  Baking powder?

That’s going up 30 pounds to 505 and nearly hitting three times body weight while losing 13 pounds from his frame in the process?  (Here is his weigh in video.)

Shouldn’t strength be coming off his body, not the other way around?!?!

He lost fat!!!! Shouldn’t he instantly be getting bullied, have his lunch money stolen and hung up by his undies!?!?!?!?

He should getting weak!!!  Nooo!!!!!!  HE LOST WEIGHT!!!

What the hell’s the matter with you people!!!

(Freak out over.)

Suffice it to say, none of this happened.  The world didn’t end.

Here’s what Dan had to say about his simultaneous dramatic strength increase and fat reduction:

All I’ve done is follow the strength side of the RFG protocol.   I have definitely tried to push myself on the lifts, and the coaching you have given me on form and progression has been absolutely critical.  Along with the 13 lbs., I’m also down 2% in body fat and to your point [on my strength increasing while losing fat] I’m up on all my lifts. I’ve been really strict on the carbs trying to stay below 100 per your suggestion and essentially have a high protein, high veg diet and it’s really been working!  Now I just got to hit that 505 in a few weeks.”

Um, not exactly magic is it?  He’s been continuing his P360 strength protocol and been strict Paleo.  With continued work on his thoracic area and last few inches of hip drive he will hit 505# at around 170 pounds which will be the gym’s first 3x body weight deadlift.

Jandy Vernon: 265# @ 129 pound body weight

Jandy came to Performance360 almost a year ago as well, with absolutely no background in power lifting or serious strength training.  None.  I think she came from a generic San Diego boot camp if I recall correctly so deadlifts, squats, presses and cleans were replacing clapping, singing, hugging and dancing mostly body weight and light weight exercises.

Over the course of the past year she has completely embraced strength training as a way to obtain her body composition and weight loss goals and while she has completely changed her body, her performance has also increased as much as anyone we have.  Jandy was one among the first women to creep over 200 pounds on her deadlift and has been steadily increasing since.

Like Dan, she recently hit a PR while simultaneously taking weight off of her frame in thanks to the Whole30 program she underwent.  She followed it religiously for a month and in that time frame took seven fat pounds off her frame.  Jandy was already lean to start so there wasn’t much more weight to remove than this so seven fat pounds is pretty significant.

Tradition dictates she should become weaker during this process but like Dan, just the opposite occurred.

She broke through a plateau and PR’d at 265#, just over 2x her body weight.

Here is what Jandy had to say about her recent leaning out, strength-up phase:

“To lose the 7 lbs, I was strict with my food.  Absolutely no cheating.  Everything was paleo. I gave up all dairy, sugar, grains and legumes.  If a salad came with dressing that had sugar in it, I got it without.  For example, near the end I monitored my fruit intake also because I tend to eat too much.  So I only allowed myself one or two pieces a day.
 
I gave up sugary alcohol also (I miss Fireball) and stuck to vodka waters.  I drank wine but ended up giving up beer since I didn’t like how it made me feel (full and bloated).  You’re supposed to give up alcohol during the Whole 30 but I wasn’t about to do that.
 
My diet was really the biggest change for me.  Before I started the Whole 30 I tended to be strict for 3 days and then eat candy.  Or have a bite of pasta here and there.  Once I cut all of those cheats out, the weight finally started to come off. 
 
I also made slight changes with the workouts.  I worked out less because I was worried I wouldn’t have enough energy to sustain it and I didn’t want to overeat as a result.  So i didn’t do any “two a days”.  I also limited myself to 4-5 workouts a week.  I probably could have cut out the fifth workout but I felt guilty if I did and your gym is slightly addictive.  
 
Also, I was determined to lose weight without giving up a focus on strength.  So, all of my workouts were strength-focused on all rep options.  I’m stoked that I didn’t have to give up the fun part of lifting and my gains in order to lose weight.  That’s why that deadlift on Friday was such a big deal for me.  I wanted to know I could get stronger at a lighter weight.”  

There is absolutely nothing magic about this so I am not pretending to have a secret formula.  In fact, I’m hoping to show just the opposite and reveal exactly what these two did to achieve phenomenal results.

In each example, they have simply followed our strength protocol for continued gains and made individual alterations in diet to address the reduction in body fat.

The science of it is this:

  • Reduction in dietary carbohydrates channels body fat as energy
  • Heavy load, low rep lifting trains central nervous system.

Diet and training can be mutually exclusive.  You can eat for one thing (leanness) and train for another (strength) with not only acceptable, but outstanding results.

My biggest pet peeve in weight training is the chest out “eat big to lift big” bullshit that seems at least to me, more of an excuse for gluttony than functional programming.  Any time I’ve ever eaten big I’ve gotten fat.  I’ve never understood why people think fat moves weight.  It doesn’t.  So why not target it with diet while continuing to increase strength with lifts?  After all, fat does not help your central nervous system, your prime mover for strength.

People will disagree with this article and that’s okay.  For me, the proof will always be in the pudding and not in the recipe of how you’re supposed to make it.

The reality is this.  These results surprised me.

Dan is on the verge of lifting 3x body weight and he has done it while taking 13 pounds off his frame, not adding to it.  I found it remarkable, surprising and counter intuitive to what I would have guessed.

You do not need inherently superior genetics to achieve these results because no offense to either Jandy or Dan, but they are pretty regular people and I could have written this post featuring probably twelve to sixteen other member examples.

It’s a matter of simply deciding you want it and then just fucking doing it.

Lift big.  Eat right.  Commit your ass off.

Simple as that.

4 thoughts on “Fat Loss or Strength?

  1. Fact- you will build more muscled eating at a caloric surplus then at a deficit- there is a reason professional bodybuilders go through the bulk and cut phases in training

    “I feel most people don’t realize you can get very strong without altering diet” – 90% of body composition is determined by diet

    You say you don’t want to get caught up in only analyzing what works for us personally because of the small sample size, but then you only give 2 examples to prove your points

    Final point- obviously in your 2nd example she was going to improve on her lifts that she had no previous experience doing, no matter what the diet was. however you have nothing to compare this to, I hypothesize that had she eaten at a caloric surplus her lifts would have went up further.

    • Fitness Guru,

      Fact – professional body builders train for growth, not for strength so we’re talking about apples and oranges. Their goal is type-I fiber growth, not demonstration of strength. Show me how caloric surplus effects maximal relative strength beyond the generic “it builds muscle” because that’s not what I asked.

      I love when people arbitrarily post “90% of body composition is diet”. Really? Says who. And how is that proven? I agree it plays a huge role but it is nowhere close to 90%. Restructuring muscle fiber make-up is based entirely around compound strength training, not on diet.

      Here are some more examples if you really need them: http://davethomasperformance.com/2012/05/24/bashing-hiit-crossfit-youre-making-yourself-look-foolish/. I give examples every week on this site, as well. And you are welcome to come to my gym and see for yourself.

      Regards to your final point. You can hypothesize whatever you like and I can’t agree or disagree either way because it’s made up and in play land. I can only look at what’s happening in real life. You said that if she weighed more her lift would go up? It didn’t. Just the opposite of your hypothesis occurred. Her weight went down and strength went up whereas previous peak weight yielded reduced output. This is not a beginner in her first few months. She’s been power lifting for a year. Plenty of people are fine with 2 – 3x body weight on strength while also being lean, and athletic and that’s the whole point.

      There are different ways. Gasp. I know it’s hard to think about that.
      -Dave

    • @ Fitness Guru – Yes, my lifts increased for a while because I was new at lifting but then I hit a plateau for a few months. When I started the Whole 30 program to lose the weight, my lifts increased again. I could go the traditional route to increase in strength by adding calories, but then I wouldn’t be hitting my personal goal of leaning out. Dave’s overall point was that I didn’t need to give up lifting heavy to pursue my goal of losing some fat. He’s not saying that what I did is better than the programs bodybuilders use. He’s saying that people can have the two goals of strength increases while losing fat simultaneously, which is exactly what Dan and I were both able to do.

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