One of the biggest challenges that people face when they’re on a diet is keeping their muscle mass and strength. Whether you want it or not your lifts will certainly be affected by a bodyweight loss. Out of the Big Three, the squat and the bench press seem to be more dependent on bodyweight than the deadlift, and logically suffer more damages when you’re trying to achieve that sexy six pack of abs. Why?
You can’t support a mountain on a pair of chicken legs.
During the bench press and the squat your arms and respectively legs act as pillars supporting the heavy barbell. You can’t support a truly heavy weight on a pair of chicken legs and/or arms, can you? The bigger the house, the bigger the foundation and the bigger the columns holding it. The same holds true when you’re doing the bench press and the deadlift. That’s why your strength suffers when you lose bodyweight. You can’t expect to keep the same house and change its base pillars. Unfortunately, you may need to say ‘Goodbye!’ to some of the rooms. Maybe that second bathroom was a mistake after all?
Even if the weight you lose is mainly fat, your strength in the barbell movements will be affected. Of course, you will suffer much higher strength losses when your muscles are getting eaten. However, body fat also assists you in movements such as the squat and the bench press by shorting the range of motion, protecting your joints, creating a form of cushioning and facilitating recovery (when you are fat, you are obviously well fed).
Dirty bulking phases to increase one’s strength are nothing unheard of. They were common even back in the day when people were bulking up to insane bodyweight levels too.
A very long time ago Mr. Universe 1959 Bruce Randall was one of the bulking monsters. He found out that his squat and overall strength were largely affected by his bodyweight. At one point he reached a bodyweight of 380 lbs and was able to squat 680 lbs. According to his journal the more weight he added to his frame, the more weight was also added to the bar.
On a side note: Bruce Randall was able to go down from over 400 lbs to about 185 lbs and then went back up again to 231 to win Mr. Universe 1959. Now, don’t ask us whether we think he won the contest naturally. We will just tell you that he was 6’2″ and 231 lbs. What do you think?
Who is going to fill the gap?
When you lose body fat the range of motion of the bench press increases. Your chest is smaller and therefore when you try to touch it the bar travels over a greater distance. In simpler words – the gap is bigger, who is going to fill it? Even half an inch is an increase and requires more strength to push the weight up. Quite often people miss reps by just a couple of inches. That goes to show you that even such a small length can make a huge difference.
The same holds true for the squat which is helped by body fat a lot. Having a big gut can actually help you at the bottom of the squat. Believe it or not you can sort of bounce off your gut when your are at the bottom position because the mid-section is touching the inner upper legs. This creates more tension which equals more strength. When you are completely shredded there is less tension in that area.
When you lose the gut, you lose the cushioning and as a result your strength decreases.
In the video below you can see the phenomenal 800 lbs squat of Pat Mendes. Notice how at the bottom his gut goes between his legs and clashes with the inner tights and the hip flexor area. That’s the cushioning we’re talking about.
How can you avoid losing your bench and squat strength during dieting?
The best way to keep something is to never lose it. This means that in order to preserve your squat and bench press strength you should keep lifting heavy when you’re on a diet. However, you will have to reduce the volume significantly depending on how severe is the caloric restriction. The fatter you are when you start your diet, the easier it is to keep your strength. A person going from 25% BF to 20% BF will have easier time keeping his strength compared to someone going from 10% BF to 5% BF.
The volume has to be reduced because you no longer have the energy to do multiple reps and sets. You are aiming at maintaining your lifts when you are following a severe diet. That means that if prior to your diet you were doing 5×5, 10×3 or whatever, during your diet you should just do 1-2 heavy sets and and that’s it. Anything beyond will eat you.
Of course, that rule only applies to naturals. We all know very well that anabolic steroids can help you get stronger, shredded and massive while eating junk food. It happens all the time.
What about the deadlift? Is it affected by weight loss as much as the squat and bench?
The deadlift is not affected by bodyweight loss or gain as much as the bench and the squat. During the deadlift you’re pulling the weight and not exactly supporting it except at the top of the movement. However, at that point neither your arms nor your legs need to act as pillars. Instead your whole body forms one super strong pillar which can hold a lot of weight. That’s why a lot of skinny boys can pull super heavy weights while you will almost never see somebody with skinny arms and legs bench or squat serious weights.
Additionally, when you are on a diet the range of motion during the deadlift does not increase. Actually, having a big gut could be an issue and many fat powerlifters experience problems getting into proper position for the deadlift. Losing the gut helps with that.