At first glance, the idea of gaining strength while you’re on a cut seems a little far-fetched. Think about it: you’re taking in fewer calories, which means less energy, and that usually means a drop in strength. After all, you should be lifting heavy and using a progressively heavier weight to increase your strength over time, and that is difficult to do if you are in a calorie deficit, right? The truth is, you CAN gain strength even if you are cutting, it just takes a little bit of intelligent planning.
There are more factors involved, but it can be said that increases in strength are heavily impacted by the following factors: physiological and technique.
While physiological factors like the composition of the muscles, such as muscle fiber types and the cross-sectional area of the muscle, along with genetic factors such as tendon insertion points impact strength,(1) your exercise technique plays a major role in your ability to get stronger. If one segment of your kinetic chain is off, your strength drops. Clean, efficient technique means maximum force production and, therefore, more strength. Quality technique ties into rep performance, which leads to the neurological factor we’ll look at next.
Neurological – this refers to the ability of the Central Nervous System to recruit muscle fibers. The brain controls muscle force production by releasing a chemical neurotransmitter called “acetylcholine” to communicate with muscles in the body. The acetylcholine signal travels through the spinal cord to the “neuromuscular junction,” which can be defined as a biological junction formed by the contact between a motor neuron and a muscle fiber. When acetylcholine is released at the neuromuscular junction it crosses the “synapses” (or, the space that separates the nerve from the muscle) where it then attaches to receptors on the surface of your muscle fibers. This leads to muscle contraction.(2)
This is the fabled “mind-muscle connection” and the more you can improve this connection, the more muscle fibers you can recruit. To exert maximum force, perform your exercises slowly and intentionally, and focus on feeling the rep in the target muscles. This means you shouldn’t be just throwing the weight up and then letting it fall without control. You need to control the ascent and descent. While there’s more than one way to perform a rep, controlled but explosive up, slow and controlled down is ideal. The bottom line is that you must be in control of the rep at all times, you should know what the target muscles are for every exercise you’re doing, and you should be concentrating on feeling the reaction of those target muscles to the exercise you are performing. The more in tune you are to the exercise, the stronger the signal will be from your brain to your muscles, leading to greater muscle fiber recruitment. This, in turn, will lead to more strength.
Of course, most people think of strength as the result of progressively lifting heavier weight. To do that, a caloric surplus is typically required to ensure full glycogen stores for maximum muscular energy. How do you achieve a surplus while on a cut? Read on to find out.
One of the keys to gaining strength while cutting is to consume your carbs in the hours surrounding the workout. This typically means you’ll need to do your cardio at a different time of the day. Ingesting fast-digesting carbs in the hours leading up to a workout ensures adequate glycogen is available to power muscular performance. Of course, these carbs should be consumed with fast-digesting protein. Post-workout, a fast-digesting protein shake with carbs, should also be ingested. While it’s true some “experts” have downplayed the importance of nutrient timing, think about it for a minute: your body needs carbs to perform at its peak, and it needs carbs as well as protein to promote proper recovery. Training is inherently catabolic, ingesting protein and carbs puts the body in an anabolic state that’s conducive to recovery and growth, why wouldn’t you want to time these key macronutrients around the workout?(3,4)
One of the easiest ways to ensure an adequate supply of carbs and protein is to use a balanced recovery shake such as Load-Up. Shakes are great because they are fast, easy, and convenient. Just add one serving of Load-Up and some water to your shaker cup, and you have everything you need, and Load-Up tastes delicious. Recovery is a primary key to growth, make the most of it by starting with the nutrients your body requires after a training session. Of course, once you’ve taken in your post-workout shake, you go back to your nutritional cutting program.
We know that strength gains require progressively heavier weight. Typically, this means 80-90% of your one-rep max and about 3-6 reps per set. If you train at this level but keep your volume down, less glycogen is required to drive your muscles. In other words, set up your workout to reflect your lower caloric intake.
The amount of sleep you get is always essential to peak mental and physical performance. Sleep is a key part of recovery, and it’s when your CNS recharges itself for the upcoming day. It’s important to realize that strength relies heavily on optimal firing of the CNS, so therefore a good night’s sleep can help optimize strength performance.(5)
Let’s be real, you’re not going to make the kind of gains you’d make if you were bulking, but you can keep those gains coming despite being on a cut by following the tips presented here: An optimal mind-muscle connection, flawless technique, going as heavy as you are safely able to, ingesting carbs and protein in the hours surrounding a workout (a great way to help you with this is to use Load-Up), and getting quality sleep every night.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise; you CAN get cut and get stronger at the same time.