Strength Gains On A Diet!

For the non-novice, non-chemically aided lifter, significant muscle and strength gains are generally not possible on submaintenence calories. This is because the body typically exists in a state of whole body anabolism or whole body catabolism.

For the non-novice, non-chemically aided lifter, significant muscle and strength gains are generally not possible on submaintenence calories. This is because the body typically exists in a state of whole body anabolism or whole body catabolism - the former is necessary for gaining optimal amounts of muscle but is not conducive to losing bodyfat (or even maintaining) - and the vice-versa is true for the latter (1). Thus, the smart trainee typically employs cycles of overfeeding (remember, "overeating" is for gluttons:) and underfeeding - aka "bulking" and "dieting" phases.

In the mass phase, a bit of fat gain is accepted, in the dieting phase a bit of muscle loss is accepted. So, you end up with a 2 steps forward, one step back thing (or more ideally 4-5 steps forward, one step back). In this article, I will discuss a method for avoiding this to some extent in regards to strength gains, even on a very low calorie diet (I think I also know how to gain muscle on a diet or at least near maintenance calories, but that is an article for another time:).

The primary reason we can hope to achieve strength gains without adding muscle, is that they are, to a great extent, neurologically based (2). Thus, we bypass the need for whole body anabolism because we don't need to gain muscle. But, we still need two things, both of which prove somewhat difficult when calories are significantly reduced: 1) We need to pretty much maintain our current LBM - even with improvements of the neural aspect, if we lose contractile tissue, we will compromise strength gains. 2) We have to maintain workouts of a significant intensity to facilitate neural adaptations.

The first can typically be solved with the use of a ketogenic diet - I will not go into any great detail on why this is so (for anyone interested, I refer you to Lyle McDonald's excellent book on the subject - whose title "The Ketogenic Diet" is surpassed only by the cover art.:). With such a diet, basically the body stops using glucose as its primary fuel source, thus gluconeogenesis (formation of glucose from protein (dietary and from muscle tissue) is greatly reduced (3).

Unfortunately, the typical ketogenic diet is pretty much the worst thing the for fulfilling the conditions set forth in #2. The reason is twofold - first, for reasons not completely clear, with high intensity exercise, your body likes glucose (3), Secondly, the drastic reduction in carbohydrates produces a state of whole body dehydration, which seems to reduce strength, perhaps by taking away a bit of leverage, and also just makes Lifting Heavy Things (tm) uncomfortable on the joints.

A couple of methods have been developed in an attempt to address these issues, but both have there shortcomings. The first is the Cyclical Ketogenic Diet - basically this consists of 5 days of low/no carbs, followed by 24-48 hours of massive overfeeding, particularly of carbohydrates. The problems with this are that you basically get one good workout per week - on the Monday following your carb-up - (on Tuesday, you will likely still have decent muscle glycogen stores and body hydration, but you will be feeling like shit from low blood sugar while your body is switching over to using ketones) This might be sufficient to produce a bit of strength gain in one lift, but other lifts will suffer, and this will not do. Many people also tend to overeat on the carb-up, thus limiting fat loss as well.

The second method is the Targeted Ketogenic Diet - basically carbs are consumed around workouts - generally a bit before and then the typical post-workout meal after. The general idea is sound, and in fact, our method is a variation on this, but the timing of the carbohydrates is backward, in my opinion. With the TDK, you have your workout with low glycogen stores - which we have said is not optimal, then the carbohydrates are consumed after, which will refill them somewhat, but this does not do us much good because we have already worked out -- and, in fact, it might inhibit fat loss a bit because glycogen levels of < 70mmol/kg is necessary for optimal fat loss (4). So, basically, we compromise fat loss until glycogen drops back down below 70... right in time for our next workout (when we wanted it to be high).

The solution: Consume carbohydrates (along with a few other things to promote total body hydration) BEFORE your workout.

Here is the basic theory -- refined by a bit of real world experimentation and tinkering:

First, if you have never done a ketogenic diet, do a straight keto diet for 10-14 days at pretty close to maintenance calories - this will give the body time to adapt to using ketones which will greatly minimize muscle loss when we switch to our very low calorie diet. If you have regularly employed keto diet, you will likely make the switch must faster - 3-4 days should be sufficient. After adaptation has taken place, switch to a very-low-calorie no carb diet -- 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight, plus 50 or so grams of EFA's -- this will be about 1200 calories per day for a 200lb athlete (this does not take into account the short-term massive overfeeding, which will bring daily caloric average up considerably).

Now choose three lifts you want to improve (these will be done using a three day split). On workout day (which will be every other day -- or every third if you have poor genetics), 6-8 hours before your workout, do a depletion workout for the bodypart you will be working (better yet, do the exact exercise. But push-ups will substitute for bench, etc, if you do not have ready access to a gym twice per day).

This first workout will consist of multiple sets of 10-12 reps at about 50% of 1 RM. The purpose is to upregulate Glut4 receptors and drop glycogen levels below 30 mmol which will facilitate insulin dependent and dependent glycogen storage within the muscle to be worked, preferentially over those that won't (which we want to keep low to facilitate fat loss)(5). Generally, 6-7 sets will do the trick - you can tell when they have reached the critical point because performance drops off dramatically - you basically hit a wall.

At this time, you will begin massive carbohydrate overfeeding - about 1 gram/lb every 2 hours for a total of 3 meals - liquid meals will make this much more comfortable (as will limiting fat intake to near zero)- if there is a food you crave, go ahead and have it for part of one meal (but even there we are venturing into the realm of the glutton). With each meal, get 20-30 g of protein, along with 10-15g creatine, and perhaps 5g glutamine (which has been found to increase glycogen storage (6), though other studies have not found this (7).

Then, 45-60 minutes before the workout, have a small isolcaloric liquid meal, along with 20g of creatine, ? teaspoon of table salt, and 2 tablespoons of glycerin in order to increase whole body hydration. Drink as much water as you can throughout the entire 6-8 hour period. Some magnesium will be helpful to prevent cramping caused by pre-workout creatine. Using this method, I have put on 6-7 pounds (of water, obviously) at a bodyweight of a bit over 200 in the 8 hour period between workouts.

Workouts were a typical powerlifting routine - multiple sets of less than 3 reps along with 4-5 minute rest periods. Workouts were done every other day, targeting one lift (bench, squat, and pull-up for my client and myself) bench, squat, and deadlift for my powerlifting friend). Each workout was followed with a liquid meal of 40-50 grams of dextrose, 5 g creatine, and 40-50 grams of whey - primarily for the insulin spike to blunt cortisol, but without refilling glycogen stores and compromising fat loss.

The results:

I increased my 3RM on bench from 255 to 275 and squat (ass-to-grass, of course) from 315 to 345 (I found my lower back strength was very limiting - perhaps a future article will take a look at the gains in the squat after the deadlift and good-morning program which I intend to embark on immediately) in four weeks while dropping from 204 lbs to 197. I have been training for 10 years, so I am far from a beginner, though I have not done targeted strength training much before.

T.L.P., who served as a fellow guinea pig, was a shotputter in college and thus has trained quite a bit with typical strength/power routines (and still does). As might be expected, he did not make gains in his lifts, but did manage to maintain them while dropping from 230 to 221 in the same time period. I think both of our results could have been even better if we had not had to refine the system as we went along.

One of my clients, who WOULD qualify as a novice, particularly in regards to anything resembling pure strength training -- about a year of training experience, and no experience with sets of less than 6-8 reps (had been doing more like 12-15 until the last 2 month when I began training him) and who started the program after we had refined it, took his 3RM on bench from 155 to 185 - a very dramatic improvement -- while dropping from 18% to 14% bodyfat. He also increased his squat from 95 to 165 (but he had just recently been introduced to the art of the ass-to-grass squat, so that confounds the results considerably).

I think the appeal of this for powerlifters (or anyone else for whom strength to bodyweight ratios are of paramount importance) is obvious, but it will also benefit those concerned primarily with muscle size. Strength gains will ultimately lead to increased muscle size because it will allow you to overload the fibers to a greater degree in your typical hypertrophy workouts. This method, however, saves us from having to waste precious weeks of whole body anabolism that should be being used for muscle growth while we try to gain pure strength. So, give this a try next time you decide to drop some bodyfat.

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