You’ve got your strength training program ready to go. It might be strongman, weightlifting, or even powerbuilding. You’re getting stronger and building your endurance, but something’s missing. Maybe you’re dialed in with a routine at the gym — but not so much in the kitchen.
Whether you’re in competition prep or training strictly for your own enjoyment, you might at some point or another want to match your rigor in the gym with specific nutrition guidelines. Fueling your workouts is as essential as a thoughtfully designed program. Many athletes turn to dieting to help them get closer to their lifting goals. This is especially so when goals are related to fat loss, muscle gain, or both.
But how does dieting affect strength training? If you’re wondering whether you can be on a diet while training for max strength, you’ve come to the right place.
What is a Diet?
If you’re speaking as broadly as possible, a diet is a pattern of intentionally eating some things and not others. For some people, that might mean avoiding meat and animal products — a vegan diet — or eating fish but not other kinds of meat — a pescatarian diet. Others might keep kosher or halal.
However, there’s a difference between a diet that is someone’s lifestyle and a diet that someone refers to when they say they’re “on a diet.” Being on a diet refers to intentionally eating some things and restricting others that’s meant to be temporary, or is driven toward a particular goal — often, weight loss.
How Do Diets for Fat Loss Work?
Generally speaking, diets geared toward weight loss focus on food restriction as their driving force. They may prioritize some foods while disallowing others or only encourage eating during specific times of day. Often, diets involve some type of food measurement or calorie counting.
The idea is that if you want to lose body fat, you need to consume less calories than you use each day — a caloric deficit. (1)(2) In order to do that, many people turn to counting calories and restricting what they eat according to those numbers. Different people have different caloric requirements every day, depending on their activity levels, height, current weight, and assigned sex at birth. There aren’t enough studies about the relationship between nutrition and training for trans and nonbinary people to say how hormone replacement therapy might alter these needs.
To lose weight slowly and gradually — which research says is the most sustainable way to lose weight without gaining it back over time — you might opt to calculate the number of calories you need to fuel each day. Then, subtract 150 to 300 calories per day and go from there. (3)(4)(5) That might mean one less cookie a day, rather than drastic restrictions.
Strength Training Diets
To train effectively, you need to fuel your workouts. If you’re eating less calories every day, it might impact your strength training. But not all diets are the same. Here’s how different kinds of goals and associated diets might impact your workouts.
Change in Lifestyle
You might be switching up how you eat because you’ve decided to go vegan or recommit to keeping kosher. With any big change in your eating habits, your energy levels might fluctuate or your digestive system might feel a little funky for a while. As long as you’re making sure to get all of your macronutrients — protein, carbs, and fats — and micronutrients, you’re probably okay to continue strength training while you transitions habits.
That said, with potentially fluctuating energy levels, monitor yourself to make sure you’re good to go with your workouts. Consider taking it a little bit easy in the gym when you’re transitioning what you eat every day. Some changes to your diet might make you feel temporarily bloated, which isn’t necessarily the best feeling when you’re strapping on your weightlifting belt for a set of heavy squats. You might want to give your body some time to adjust before launching into a Smolov Jr. program.
Elimination diets are geared toward helping someone figure out what they’re allergic to. They’re focused around restricting a particular food type — for example, gluten, dairy, or nightshades like tomatoes and eggplants — to confirm if someone is allergic.
As with other changes in your eating habits, elimination diets might take an initial toll on your energy levels. For example, you might be looking to see if your stomach has been feeling extra acidic because of your morning cup of Joe. So, if you’re temporarily eliminating coffee to test the hypothesis, your body might feel a bit out of whack at first. Take it easy with yourself while your body adjusts.
You might choose to time an elimination diet alongside a deload week. But it’s generally okay if you can’t. Just make sure you aren’t afraid to strip a plate or two off the bar if your body just isn’t feeling right.
Bulking is one of those rare diets that isn’t about restriction. Instead, you’re looking to eat as much as you need to put on as much muscle mass as possible. When you’re bulking and training hard, you might add around 300 to 500 extra calories per day — on top of what you need to fuel the basics of your life and workouts.
When you’re bulking, you’re likely going to add a lot of protein to your plate, as well as a bunch of carbs to fuel your performance. (6)(7) And when you need to slap in those extra calories, dietary fat will help make up the difference to hit your caloric benchmarks. (8)
All of these extra calories can help give you a boost in the gym. When you’re training to bulk, focus on getting after it with intensive hypertrophy and strength-building workouts. Put an emphasis on recovery to make sure your muscles can grow between sessions.
Choose your cardio strategically. A lot of long steady-state sessions won’t strip you of your muscles — but they may eat into those extra calories without necessarily giving you the extra muscle boost you’re looking for.
Even if they’re trying to reduce body fat levels, many athletes want to hang onto as much muscle mass as possible. If you’re approaching your training and nutrition carefully, you can maintain and even gain muscle while dieting to lose weight overall. Aim for around 150 to 200 calories per day less than you need to maintain your current weight so that you can account for slow, gradual fat loss that allows you to keep your muscle mass. (9)
If you’re severely restricting yourself in the kitchen, you may find your progress stalling in the gym. All things being equal, strategically programmed cardio doesn’t eat away at your muscles — but not getting enough calories will. Your strength and muscle mass both stand to take a big dip if your diet isn’t giving you enough of what you need.
Body Composition Changes
If you have a goal of losing body fat and/or maintaining muscle mass, strength training on a diet can potentially help you get closer to those goals. (9) If you’re just using dietary restriction or just using strength training while eating as you normally would, you may lose body fat in the short term. But combining strength training with dietary interventions seems to make the most significant changes to body composition — you can potentially reduce body fat levels while gaining lean muscle mass. (9)
However, these results are likely temporary. Research suggests that dieting is not a sustainable way for strength athletes to lose weight and maintain that weight loss. (10)(11) As opposed to restriction-based dieting, flexible eating habits can help strength athletes lose as much weight during a 10-week cycle as more rigid diets. (12) So if body composition changes are among your goals, you might want to consider what you mean by a “diet” and how sustainable it might be for long-term goals.
Losing Versus Cutting Weight
Cutting weight is a very specific type of dropping pounds. It’s not your typical attempt to lose body fat. Instead, cutting weight refers to a specific attempt to shed as much weight as possible right before a competition. Powerlifters who are already lean might do this to drop down a weight class, while bodybuilders may do this to accomplish that stage-ready physique.
Bodybuilders prepping for competition often look to cut their body fat down to as little as five percent. This can cause an athlete’s heart rate to drop dangerously low — as few as 27 beats per minute, where typical standards are between 60 and 100 beats per minute. (13) Because of risks like this, cutting is far from a sustainable practice and is only supposed to be deployed in the immediate weeks and days leading up to a show.
You can — and generally want to — maintain your muscle mass while cutting weight. Since lifting weights helps you maintain muscle even during a deficit, you’ll want to make sure you’re eating enough to keep yourself going in the gym. Find a balance that works best for you, and know that cutting is supposed to be extremely temporary.
Potential Benefits of Strength Training on a Diet
Strength athletes who choose to diet may do so for a variety of reasons. Whether you’re looking to compete successfully or strategically boost your energy in the gym, dieting might be able to lend a hand.
Elite physique athletes need to eat to grow their muscles to the max. They also have to achieve a low body fat percentage to show off those muscles on stage when the time comes. While powerlifters aren’t in the business of showing off their bodies, they might need to diet down and/or cut weight before a meet to go down a weight class. If you have aspirations to compete at a high level, you might opt to go on a particular diet to achieve those goals.
You might be on an elimination diet to find out which foods keep giving you that pesky runny nose or that uncomfortable bloated feeling. In that case, figuring out which foods feel best for your body can help increase your energy levels. The better your body is feeling on a day-to-day basis, the more ready you’ll be to crush it on the platform.
Potential Drawbacks of Strength Training on a Diet
Diets might be all the rage on social media, but that doesn’t mean they don’t come with abundant potential drawbacks. Restricting food intake may often have a negative impact on psychological health, as well as athletes’ body image and esteem. (14)(15)(16)
Increased Risk of Disordered Eating Habits
Many strength athletes are health conscious but don’t feel the need to restrict food through dieting. Other athletes choose not to diet or count calories because dieting can negatively affect psychological health and body image while contributing to disordered eating habits. (14)(15)(16)
These athletes might opt to use the principles of intuitive eating — nutrition based on your body’s hunger cues rather than restriction — for more sustainable eating habits. (14)(15)(16)(17) Retired athletes with a history of restrictive dieting and food regulation for their sport have used intuitive eating to repair their relationships with their bodies and food. (17)
Eating less calories often means deliberately ignoring your body’s hunger cues. If you’re bulking, you may find yourself ignoring when you’re full and forcing yourself to eat more. If you’re dieting in the sense that you’re eating less, you may wind up ignoring when you feel hungry. Either way, dieting can lead to reduced energy levels. This can negatively impact your performance in the gym whether you’re too full or too hungry to push it hard.
Whether you’re bulking or cutting, meal time — or the times in between — can be rough. In bulking phases, you’ll likely force yourself to eat a lot more than you want to. This can also be true of strongman and strongwoman athletes or CrossFitters who need to fuel massive energy expenditures on the daily. Forcing upwards of 4,000 calories per day can be tedious and emotionally draining.
On the flip side, restricting food can also severely limit the enjoyment you get out of what you can eat. While bodybuilders aren’t restricted to the old boiled chicken and rice archetype, drastically limiting what you allow yourself to eat can take a lot of literal spice out of your meals. As with a training regimen, it can be tough to adhere to a nutrition program that bores you.
Dieting for Strength
Not all diets are created equal. Some involve eating a whole lot — bulking — while many others involve restricting which and how much food you eat. Either way, being on a diet generally requires you to ignore your own body’s hunger cues about when you’re hungry and when you’re full. This might leave you with energy gaps that can negatively impact your performance in the gym. That said, if your sport requires you to eat a particular way to compete, you might consider dieting on a limited basis to make sure you can crush it on meet day.
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