For the last ten weeks, I’ve been working towards my goal of an ‘elite’ 198# weight class total… by going the other way. Specifically, my goal was to lose 12 pounds within 12 weeks while maintaining or even gaining strength and lean mass, and it went pretty much exactly as I’d hoped. If you’re interested in doing similar or want to know what this whole ‘flexible dieting’/IIFYM’ thing is all about, read on!
I’ll start off addressing the reasons a powerlifter would diet at all. Despite the stereotype of the big-bellied man-monster, powerlifting is a weight-class sport (unless you’re a super-heavyweight). When it comes to body composition, you want to be the shortest, leanest lifter in your weight class, edging right up against the weight limit. If you want to deep dive this, check Izzy’s two articles at PowerliftingToWin and Greg Nuckols’ article here.
Being a lean natural at 198 will be a challenge and may not even be effective for me at 5’5″… but what’s the point of a goal that’s easy to reach?
The second key question is one I get a lot: “If you want to be 198 pounds, why would you lose weight first?”” The simple answer is that I was fat. When “Phase 1” started last year, I was around 24% body fat and 184 pounds. This isn’t terrible, but for a strength program, it’s not productive. Why? For a lot of reasons really, but hormones are a part of it: Testosterone (among other hormones) and body fat are inversely related and they feed into each other in a loop. As fat increases, visceral adipose tissue (“gut fat”) releases aromatase, which reduce the available T. Lowered T availability in turn decreases muscle mass and increases fat storage.
If you have unproductive fat and a base of strength, cutting can:
- Improve your relative strength
- Prime you for greater muscle gain on your next mass gaining cycle
- Impress the beach crowd with your abzzz
Not only that, but unless you’re already an advanced lifter, you may not even have to lose a ton of strength in the process!
- Starting Weight: 172
- BF (by Navy BF Test): 19%
For diet, I took a ‘flexible dieting’ approach where you measure your daily macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat), mostly built off of the Renaissance Diet book while incorporating some of the elements I learned dieting under Coach Feigenbaum for the 8 months previous. I tracked macros using the MyFitnessPal app. In addition, I cut out alcohol for the diet period, took in most of my carbs (and almost all of my sugars) in the period immediately surrounding workouts, tried to get at least 30 grams of whole-food fiber daily, spread my protein in meals evenly throughout the day, and followed Jordan’s supplement recommendations.
For training, I stuck with an RPE-based approach with the goal of pushing a little more total work each week, tracked on an excel spreadsheet. I did conditioning twice a week almost every week and strength trained four sessions a week with three exercise ‘blocks’ each session. Each one of the competition lifts took 1 block a week at sets of 5, and the rest of the blocks were filled up with variants of the main lifts at sets of 7-12 for an RPE of 8 (2 reps left in the tank). For one day’s example, here’s March 31st:
2ct Rehab Paused Squat: 5X5@8
Press: 4X7@8 followed by 2 backoff sets @8
Touch-n-Go Bench Press: 5X10@8
You can also check out my workout log if you’re looking for ideas. As you can see from this chart, with the exception of 1 deload week, volume and tonnage generally trended upwards for the bench and deadlift (squats got wonky because of an old Jiu Jitsu injury that came back up, requiring me to deload and progress from a light weight) and started to plateau in March as I found I couldn’t effectively add much more volume while decreasing my regular calories.
So… what happened? First off, training:
On my top set of each of the competition lifts each week, I calculated my estimated 1RM based on Mike Tuscherer’s RPE system and got the above graph. Note the squat injury’s effect. For the other two lifts, I was able to systematically bring my e1RM to about 500# and 300# before they plateaued and held steady. Rep maxes (ie: strength-endurance) in the assistance lifts continued going up slowly, but not absolute strength… this might make a little more sense based on this chart:
For the first month and a half, I lost an initial rush of body fat and gained about 7 pounds of lean mass (maybe a pound of active muscle if I was lucky, but still a gain). This allowed for some initial strength gains, especially coming off the deload of the holidays. Afterwards, I actually lost some of that lean mass, getting better at what I was doing in training (higher-rep sets), but not necessarily at low-rep strength. No surprise there, and if you try this yourself, you’ll probably see something similar.
All told, I lost 12 total pounds and (understanding that the Navy test is a little wonky), went from 19% to 12.2% body fat (a 33.75″ waist to a 30″ waist) without a serious loss in overall strength. And what does this look like in real terms?
Surprise! On the one hand, it’s not a terribly big difference certainly not like you see on a late-night infomercial. Some sharper muscle definition, definitely some fat loss, the abzzz are starting to come into play, but nothing earth-shattering. On the other hand, this is from just 10 weeks of watching what I ate and training with progressively higher and higher volumes, and although it definitely took some work, it didn’t involve monk-like levels of sacrifice and effort. I’m honestly a lazy chef/food prepper, and with some practice and the right mindset, it can be sustained for as long as you need to achieve your athletic goals (hm… that might be a blog series later: Macro-Counting for Lazy Bums). It serves as an example of the general principles of training: steady, consistent effort produces noticeable results… but don’t expect any miracles.
Here are some of the lessons I picked up from this little project:
During “Phase 1,” my period of dieting and training under Jordan last year, I lost about 17 pounds of fat, gained about 5-6 pounds of lean mass, and improved my total by about 50 pounds over 8 months (measured by DXA). If you look at the numbers, though, Phase 1 wasn’t nearly as effective as Phase 2, and I had a coach for Phase 1… so is the Renaissance Diet superior to Barbell Medicine? In a word, no. At the top levels, most of the big-name flexible diet plans are more similar than they are different, and Jordan was an excellent coach. Here’s what I learned from my progress during these two phases:
- Consistency isn’t just important- it’s everything. While I was working with Jordan, I’d have 4 good weeks of 90-95% compliance and steady progress… then one week I’d go on a training trip with the Navy or lose focus and it would all go straight to hell. When this happened, not only would weight stall, but my intake would be all over the map (or, even worse, I wouldn’t record it), so we wouldn’t have great information to base changes to the program for the following week. In other words, 1 week’s goofup = 2 lost weeks of potential progress. 2 steps forward, one step… somewhere not forward. Don’t misunderstand me: having a bad week does not doom your program, but three consistent 95% months will get you farther than four or five months at 75%.
- Experience makes the world go ’round– it took practice to figure out what foods I liked, how to meet my macros convenient to my diet, how to plan around my work schedule, etc. I had the information to understand the diet, but it took a while to figure out how to make it work in real-time. If you’re just starting any diet, consciously and actively look to find not just the why but the how of it.
- Don’t chase two rabbits– While working with Jordan, I spun up for 2 powerlifting meets that I really wanted to do well at. Was I going to win them? Certainly not. It just felt like something a powerlifter should do: compete in meets. Generally, training volume has to decrease going into a meet and Jordan would slow down (and for a short time reverse) the calorie cut so I could do as well as I wanted before we’d start back up again. The meets went as expected, but in retrospect, this didn’t serve the long-term goal. If you don’t want your short-term achievements to slow your long-term dreams, plan your competitions in sync with your diet and training plan.
The rest of these are somewhat piecemeal, a la carte tips.
- Your weight fluctuates. If it’s not going to mess with your head, weigh yourself every day and track your progress over time (see my chart above). The trend matters more than today’s weight, and give your diet changes time to take effect. A week is about right.
- If you do go off the rails for a bit (planned or otherwise), do your best to track it anyways. You might learn something about how you respond to certain foods.
- Look out for artifacts. On most weeks, I’d rise or stay even in weight through the week, then drop going into Monday (the most dramatic was the very last day, at 157.8#). This wasn’t planned: it happened because my weekends were light training days and off days, so I’d eat less food. Another example: my fiber intake went through the floor on non-training days. Sometimes you can fix these artifacts, sometimes you can’t, and sometimes you shouldn’t bother, but notice them when they happen and adjust.
- If you use the Navy Body-Fat test, remember that you have to measure your neck every time. If you lose enough body fat, it will change circumference (I lost about half an inch).
- Speaking of the Navy test, if you choose to tape anything (Navy test, bicep size, whatever), use a tensioned tape measure like this one. They’re cheap and they take the guesswork out of things.
- For heavy lifters (>30% BF or >41″ waist are a general rule of thumb), calipers and the Navy test get dicey. I’d stick to measuring waist circumference alone until you’ve leaned down some (unless you have access to a DXA or Bod Pod… in which case… I envy you).
- Don’t bother with electrical impedance body-fat scales. I tried 3 different models, two commercial, one made for home use, and they all sucked.
- Use the same tools across your measurements. Measure your food on the same scale, use the same home scale for bodyweight, take photos at the same time of day and week using the same camera and lighting conditions, etc. Consistency, for tracking change over time, is more important than medical-grade accuracy.
- If you’re going to track volume and tonnage, use the same exercises or similar ones throughout the block. Switching from deficit deadlifts to rack pulls halfway through your phase will dramatically throw off your measure of how much volume you’re doing. I found staying on the same ‘cluster’ of assistance exercises for 6 weeks before switching them up worked well for me.
- Whichever diet and exercise programs you decide to follow, either get a coach or really dig into the source material in detail. The devil’s in ‘dem details.
Go Forth and Do Good Things
I hope you learned something from my experience over the last few months and maybe got some ideas for your own diet and training. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out on Facebook, e-mail me, or drop in on my workout log!