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Losing Fat While Gaining Strength and Muscle: Fact or Fiction?

By Thomas Phillips

As is the case with many questions, the problem is within the question itself. Many people equate strength and muscle as the same thing. Although they are related, they are two very different things. Therefore, we must take each question separately in order to properly address the issue. First, the issue of gaining strength while losing fat; followed by gaining muscle and losing fat. As we will see, these are two very different questions with completely different answers. Part 1 of this article will address gaining strength while losing fat on a more restricted calorie diet. I will discuss a well known and proven program that effectively does just that; however, I will also discuss the downside of following such a protocol when compared to another well known and time proven system. The latter advocates much more work and certainly much more eating without the goal of losing fat. It will become clear that cutting calories and time in the gym will also eventually cut your general strength and conditioning progress.

Part 2 of this article will discuss the business of losing fat while gaining muscle. It can be done, but not in the way that most people would like to believe. For this section I will briefly describe my own experience when I won the 2002 EAS body for life competition and then I will show you how my friend and colleague Mike Hanley utilizes an annual approach to continually increase size and strength while also maintaining a lean build. Trust me, if this is the goal it’s not what most lifters do, but it IS what most lifters should be doing. I guarantee my interview with Mike will open a lot of people’s eyes as to what is possible for a natural bodybuilder and a raw natural powerlifter with proper planning throughout the year. Mike’s success speaks for itself.


Losing Fat while increasing strength:

If you are a serious strength athlete it is incredibly difficult to lose fat and increase overall strength at the same time. It can be done for a short period of time (varies for every person); but in the long run you will be sacrificing your overall strength for fat loss. What I mean by “overall” strength is strength in ANY particular lift or rep scheme as opposed to one or two “specialized” lifts within very particular rep schemes. Don’t get me wrong, if you focus on a particular movement like the deadlift (for example), you can train your nervous system to lift a heavier and heavier weight while also losing fat; however, you will also likely to do away with all other “non-functional” deadlifting muscle. Strength can increase in this manner because the nervous system is incredibly receptive to the proper training stimulus despite sacrifices in muscle atrophy.

A program designed to focus purely on developing the CNS needs to be low volume, and high frequency (but only when the lifter is as fresh as possible). The lifter never goes to muscle failure because the focus is on the “practice” of lifting the weight. If you want a clear explanation of how this is done read Pavel Tsatsouline’s Power to the People (purchase the book at this link). In the book Pavel explains a very simple DL program designed to increase deadlifting strength without having to gain weight. Pavel’s main point is that since most of us only know how to access 20-30% of our muscle potential, it is a worthy pursuit to train the nervous system properly in order to access this untapped power. This type of program is ideal for Law enforcement officers, Military personal, gymnasts, rock climbers, etc. and of course most every woman you know who wants to gain strength without gaining weight.

A program like Power to the People can be done effectively when the lifter focuses on one or two movements; therefore, the lifter needs to choose wisely in terms of which exercises gives them the most “bang for their buck.” The deadlift is a great choice here, but you could also choose the squat, the pull-up, a pressing movement, etc. Once again though, this program only works well when the proper parameters are utilized for one or two lifts only! The idea is to choose the lifts that give you the most carryover to the things you do in real life or for your job. Please note (in fairness to Pavel and this book) the concepts described in Power to the People go well beyond a few mere protocols. Pavel gives practical solutions to increasing tension throughout the body – thereby making you “seemingly” instantaneously stronger – this “maximization” of CNS recruitment is what getting strong is ultimately all about. Pavel’s insights on this topic are well worth the read.

The down side is that if you had been following a different template such as Westside’s (purchase templates at this link) and suddenly switch to PTTP, you will lose GPP (e.g. your body’s overall work capacity will go down) and you will not be able to “carry over” into other lifts as easily as the lifter who does higher volume, incorporates GPP, eats like a beast, and focuses on CNS development as well as hypertrophy (which a Westside template does). Let me give an example:

Take a guy in the gym of average strength and experience following a Power to the People protocol with the goal of getting stronger while losing weight. He will be able to continue to increase his DL and (for example) his Kettlebell side press as prescribed in Power to the People. There are plenty of benefits to the program: 1.) The workout is quick, 2.) the lifter easily recovers, 3.) little chance for injury and 4.) since it is his goal, bodyweight can continue to go down on a calorie restricted diet while also while increasing strength.

Take the same guy on a Westside protocol. He will be able to gain strength, muscle, and GPP but ONLY IF he eats like he means it and sleeps enough hours during the week in order to maximize the benefits to such a demanding template. The reward is 1.)more lean body mass, 2.) more strength and 3.) increased GPP 4.) the body’s ability to “carry over” to different lifts is more noticeable. Here is what I mean by that:

When on the PTTP protocol the lifter will be getting noticeably stronger in those two lifts (the DL and side press in this case); however, when on the Westside protocol the lifter will be getting stronger everywhere – especially since the philosophy behind Westside is to strengthen the weak links and find what works for each individual’s needs. The Westside protocol is likely to keep up with the strength gains of PTTP’s deadlift and side press power, but with the additional benefit of being able to do more work while also getting stronger in various other movements as well.

Hypothetically, if we were to take the PTTP lifter vs. the same lifter doing Westside after a 12 week cycle we would notice that on PTTP the lifter could have feasibly gotten stronger while also losing weight; but the same lifter using Westside would (despite being heavier) not only be stronger overall, but also more capable of doing work loads that he didn’t even have to practice! For example: have both of these guys push a car for distance and speed, or carry a sand bag as far as possible or drag a heavy sled for 100 yards for 20 minute intervals etc. This is because GPP is part of the Westside protocol as well as the dynamic and maximal effort lifts. As Louie Simmons states “the Westside system allows athletes to get bigger, faster and stronger though out the year.” However, continually raising one’s work capacity (GPP) is also a critical goal at Westside (read the articles entitled “Extra Workouts” and “Extra Workouts 2”). The lifter on PTTP would fair well in the side press and deadlift, and perhaps a few selected relative bodyweight exercises after the 12 weeks, but that is it. In fairness, the PTTP lifter would have spent a heck of a lot less time in the gym than the same lifter on a Westside protocol – but that is part of the benefit of Power to the People! PTTP is great for those looking to maximize their results with relatively little time to train.

Therefore, if you are looking to get bigger, stronger, faster, and increase your overall work capacity you need to eat AND train toward that end; however, if it is pure selected strength you are after without the unnecessary added bulk and if time / energy is a restriction – then a protocol like PTTP is the right choice. It is also my opinion that the deadlift and side press (as prescribed by Pavel) are the best choices for most people. PTTP is a fantastic program that delivers exactly what it says while also proving the point that a lifter can get stronger while also getting rid of unnecessary fat on a restricted calorie diet.

Summary: So, the answer to the original question “can I lose fat and gain strength?” is “yes” with some warning signs attached. If you decide to go down this road, just remember to keep the volume low, the sessions short, and frequency high being sure to “practice” when you are fresh. Treat each training session as “strength practice” being sure to never go to failure. Choose only one or two lifts to focus on. If you are looking to lose fat while doing this program, you MUST clean up your eating! This combination of calorie restriction through proper eating and doing away with all “non-functional” lean body mass will result in getting stronger at your selected lifts while also losing weight!


Losing fat while gaining muscle

This goal is even more difficult than losing fat and gaining strength. Most people believe in this illusion because of the “out of context” stories they read within magazines about somebody gaining X amount of muscle while losing X amount of fat at the same time. I know this because I have been one of those guys on the side of the Myoplex box, in Muscle Media magazine, on various EAS pamphlets distributed literally around the world. Back in 2002 I won the body for life challenge and I’m here to tell you that the reason I was able to do that is not because I am some exception to the rule. There are certain criteria that can be in place that allow individuals to lose fat and gain muscle; but only over a certain period of time – here is what they are:

In my case – I started weight training when I was around 12 years old, nothing serious, but I did all the traditional bodybuilding stuff and started reading the magazines etc. at a very young age. I was a three sport athlete in high school and a fairly good recreational boxer. When I got married, started having kids, went for my Master’s degree and held down a second job I put my training life on hold for over a year. To make a long story short I used the BFL contest as a means to an end. I missed the gym, I was unhappy with myself and I trained my ass off for 12 weeks to accomplish the goal. In the end I lost something like 25 lbs of fat and gained about 12 lbs. of lean mass. Here is how that was possible:

  1. My body and mind had been in a highly trained state in the past – within 4 weeks my body snapped back to reasonable condition fairly quickly. Essentially, my body was “remembering” what had been there for years. Within 10 weeks I was pretty much back to where I was and by the 12th week I was in tremendous shape.
  2. I ate, slept and supplemented perfectly, never missed a workout, did not allow distractions – I did everything right.
  3. Since I had been eating like garbage for about a year, my body was used to a fairly high calorie diet. When I started to gradually cut back the calories and increase activity it is obvious why the fat melted off.
  4. The muscle came back quickly for me because (as I mentioned) it had been there before and after such a long layoff the training stimulus was extremely anabolic.

All of these circumstances together lead to an average of 2 lbs of fat lost and 1 lb. of lean mass gained per week for 12 weeks. This obviously did not continue indefinitely. Today I struggle to gain even a couple of lbs. of lean mass every 12-16 weeks while eating and training like a champ. Like I said, I am no exception to the rule, I just happened to be in a situation 4 years ago where circumstances were just right for me to accomplish what I did.

Having said that, there is a more “scientific” way to continue to gain lean mass and lose fat (or at least be very lean) over a long period of time. It needs to be an annual / semi-annual approach as opposed to an everyday linear approach. In other words, if you try to just train hard and watch what you eat all the time you will hit plateaus where you will not only stop losing fat, but you will also stop gaining strength and muscle. It’s true and many of us have been there – including myself!

I have made it a priority to increase my size and strength over the past year. As a result of that decision I trained hard, ate a lot of food and got adequate rest. I supplemented properly, I asked a lot of questions, read a lot of books / articles / magazines, I attended seminars, participated on forums, competed in competitions, asked my colleagues to watch me while I lifted to get feedback and (in general) did and continue to do what needs to be done to continue being successful. Since my goal continues to be increasing size and strength I must eat and train in that manner. This does NOT mean I “diet” and restrict calories while I am trying to get bigger and stronger. I might as well be kicking myself in my own ass!

So then is there some secret to continue to get bigger and stronger while also being lean? Yes, and the answer is relatively simple – the answer is within the goals you set for yourself throughout the year from any particular “starting point.” If you are (for example) 8% bodyfat at 180 lbs. in June and the following June you are 7% or 8% bodyfat at 184 lbs. and the following June you are 187 lbs. at 6% or 7% bodyfat and over that time you continue to get stronger, well then that is some real progress! However, if you think it can be done by simply training all out all the time, restricting your calories throughout the whole year and doing lots of “extra cardio” – well then you will be very disappointed every June.

The best example I can give to explain the success of creating a meaningful progress toward this end is my friend and colleague Mike Hanley. Mike has had tremendous success over the past few years competing in natural bodybuilding shows every September as well as in natural raw powerlifting events throughout the winter and spring. Mike’s story is a classic example of how to achieve a great physique while also getting bigger and stronger throughout the year. You heard my story (which is clearly not applicable to the everyday guy who is training hard in the gym and looking for everything he can do to make progress); therefore, listen to Mike’s story and take notes on how it can be done right!

T. Phillips: Mike, tell us a little about yourself and your recent accomplishments.

M. Hanley: I grew up engrossed in sports of all sorts. It did not matter what it was, I played it. I played football, basketball, baseball, wrestled, ran track. I was also into outside activities such as skiing, skateboarding, as well as surfing. As I got older my selection of sports became more focused on a couple rather than all. All along my first love was football. This became my main sport in high school. I played for one of the best high school football teams in NJ (St. Peter’s Prep). Just before entering high school my father started to teach me how to lift weights in the garage. I fell in love with the iron. I would buy all the magazines, and would read anything that I could get my hands on about lifting weights. I still remember to this day my father buying me Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding.

In high school we lifted weights for football. My training was based on becoming a better football player. Presses, cleans, and squats were the main focus of our training. One thing I know is I was taught how to lift PROPERLY at an early age. My father & the coaches around me stressed the importance of proper form. By the time I completed high school I had a pretty good knowledge of how to lift weights effectively. I had put on a good amount of weight and was ready to play at the next level. From here I went on to play ball at a Div. 3 school where I also picked up the sport of lacrosse. The teams I was on had won some championships in their divisions. I majored in Physical Education in college and love my classes in anatomy, biomechanics, motor learning, etc. I had real good teachers and they really made me love their classes. When I graduated I wanted to do something more than be a gym teacher so I started working in health clubs. I started to train people and teach them what came to me so easily. Since then I have been training people of all walks of life. I have been training clients for close to 10 years and I still enjoy working with people as much as I did when I started.

During the past 5 years I have taken up some sports to help settle the competitor in me. I have competed in bodybuilding & powerlifting with some pretty good results. I have placed in the top 5 in four of my six bodybuilding shows. I have also placed top 3 in all my powerlifting meets. I have lifted raw in the 181 division as well as the 198 division. My best lifts to date are 415 squat, 275 bench, 530 deadlift. The funny thing about this is I have done this at the 181 weight division. I plan to continue to compete in both sports from time to time testing my progress. I think it is a great way to test how well your training is going.

T. Phillips: How do you train throughout the year?

M. Hanley: My training varies throughout the course of the year. One thing that’s for sure is I am constantly trying to beat numbers. Unless I am deloading, I am trying to better my numbers from the week before. Beating numbers does not always have to mean increasing weights. I would love for this to be the case but from my experience my lifts would be astronomical if I was always increasing the weight. What I try to do is increase in some way whether that is in weight, reps, sets, speed, as well as decrease the time between sets to increase density.

I have used many different methods in my training. I have used the Westside methods, EDT methods, Sheiko methods; all types of Bodybuilding methods (drop sets, double contractions, supersets, etc). The list could go on forever but the one thing that I find to be the most important factor in any training program is your attitude & intensity level. When I say intensity I do not mean the percent of weights used. I mean your mental intensity. I find that if I go into a training session tired, bored, preoccupied, or just not feeling it than my workout will suffer. If I go into the workout focused on the task at hand, fired up, excited, happy than my workout is so much better off. Now I know life gets in the way sometimes but this is not an excuse for me. I leave everything at the door knowing that it will be there for me when I’m done training. I do not hang out in the gym, talk to people during my workout, and I sure as hell don’t answer the phone while I’m training.

One problem I find people do with their training while preparing for a bodybuilding show is they stop lifting heavy and increase the reps thinking that this will get them cut. This is far from the truth. When you are in a calorie deficit it is important to keep the reps low and the weights high especially if you are depleting your carbohydrates. When carb depleting, one’s glycogen stores are at their lowest therefore increasing reps would be counterproductive since upping the reps will tap your glycolitic system. When carb depleted it’s much safer to hit the central nervous system rather than the glycogen stores. You will maintain more muscle mass and not eat up as much muscle as upping the reps would.

T. Phillips: Tell us how you eat throughout the year in order to accommodate your powerlifting and (later in the year) your bodybuilding.

M. Hanley: My nutrition has come a long way from what it used to be. I have to give credit to Christian Thibaudeau for this. Even before he became my mentor/coach I would read his articles and his books and follow much of his nutrition info. I also think that John Berardi has influenced me in the nutrition department. If it is the off season for bodybuilding I eat a bit more food to try & pack on as much muscle as I can. This does not mean that it’s a free for all however I do enjoy some foods that I cannot have during a bodybuilding pre contest schedule. I eat according to my goals. If I want to get bigger, I up my calories & if I want to shed some fat, I decrease my calories.

The one problem I have encountered is gaining too much fat during the off season and as a result losing some muscle while dieting for a contest. I feel that if you are holding too much body fat it will take you longer to get ready for a show therefore you are restricting calories for a longer period of time which is not optimal. If your goal is to lose body fat then it has to come off slowly. If you are losing more than 2 pounds of scale weight a week most likely you are losing muscle along with it.

What I try to do is pick a show and start a diet 12-16 weeks before that date depending on how much body fat I have. Now people reading this might be thinking if you are a bodybuilder you shouldn’t have that much fat to lose. In order to put on a good amount of muscle one must accept the fact that he or she will have to put on a certain amount of that weight in fat. It is very difficult to add muscle to one’s body frame without gaining some fat along the way. People have this idea that you can add muscle & get ripped at the same time which is absurd. To get ripped you must drop your calories in order to invite fat loss. When calories are lower than what your body needs you are not in a position to add any significant amount of muscle because the muscle are not being flushed with nutrients.

I feel that you have to pick one or the other. If your goal is to add muscle don’t be afraid to put on some fat with it. A nice ratio would be fro every 2 pounds of muscle put on 1 pound of fat. That’s the most one should shoot for gaining muscle. If one’s goal is to get really lean, understand that you will not be able to pack on muscle during this time. Your goal while getting ripped should be to maintain the muscle that you have. If you can accept these conditions than you will succeed in the adding muscle, getting ripped game.

T. Phillips: What supplements do you use and how do you take them in order to get the most out of them?

M. Hanley: The first thing I feel the need to say in regards to supplements is that’s exactly what they are: a supplement. They are a supplement to your training & nutrition programs. Many people come to me as clients & after 3 weeks of training want to know what they can take to add some muscle. My answer is always the same: Add FOOD. Supplements can help one makes some nice gains but it is a small piece to the puzzle. Your nutrition has to be right before you add supplements.

As far as what I take it varies with the goal at hand. When dieting I feel that taking a testosterone booster like Biotest’s Alpha Male can help in maintaining muscle while restricting calories. It also helps with mood swings while severely dieting for a contest. Other testosterone boosters I have used are cordyceps powder which is a form of mushroom known to increase libido. I have also used maca powder. While gaining muscle I really don’t take much in the supplement area. I find that food is the best thing for adding muscle. Staple supplements I use are fish oils, protein powders both whey isolate & a mixture of casein & whey, multi- vitamin. What I feel works really well for any goal is a combination of creatine, glutamine, & BCAA in a drink mix. I got this one from Christian Thibaudeau and it has helped me add some quality muscle. I also like a supplement that helps with recovery form max effort lifting session. It is Biotest’s Power Drive. I find it helpful while dieting before a training session as it can give you a boost as well as after a heavy lifting session to aid in central nervous system recovery. The main ingredient in Power Drive is l-tyrosine. Tyrosine is an amino acid that the body synthesizes from the phenylalanine in your body. Tyrosine is necessary for brain function and it’s a precursor of adrenaline and the “mood-elevating” neurotransmitters, norepinephrine and dopamine; These 2 neurotransmitters stimulate metabolism and the nervous system, while regulating mood. L-Tyrosine also blocks the absorption of tryptophan across the blood/brain barrier which is another way this amino acid helps “pick you up”. Another benefit of L-Tyrosine supplementation is that it helps increase nerve transmission from the brain to the muscles. This excites more motor units which creates greater strength.

T. Phillips: Tell us some of your current goals and how you are going to accomplish them.

M. Hanley: Some of my current goals are to earn a WNBF Pro card in the bodybuilding federation I compete in. The way I plan to accomplish this is to put on about 20 more pounds of muscle over the next 2 years or so. I feel at my height I need a bit more size to compete. The way I plan to do this is by competing in powerlifting meets throughout the course of the 2 years. My goals as far as powerlifting are concerned are to bring each individual lift up in particular the bench as well as my total. I would like to reach a 600 deadlift, 500 squat, 300 bench in the 181 weight class. I plan to do this raw as well. With all that said I plan to stay as healthy as I can in doing this. I would like to be able to pick up my grandchildren when the time comes & throw the ball with them. Thanks very much for having me.

For more information on Thomas Phillips and Mike Hanley, click here.


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