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
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
Questions and comments on this article can be sent to
This article appears courtesy of www.mindandmuscle.net
1. Foster, D. Banting lecture 1984. From glycogen to ketones--and
back. Diabetes. 1984 Dec; 33(12):1188-99.
2. Enoka RM. Muscle strength and its development. New
perspectives. Sports Med. 1988 Sep;6(3):146-68.
3. McDonald, Lyle. The Ketogenic Diet. Morris Publishing.
4. Weltan SM, Bosch AN, Dennis SC, Noakes TD. Influence
of muscle glycogen content on metabolic regulation. Am J Physiol. 1998
Jan;274(1 Pt 1):E72-82.
5. Price TB, Rothman DL, Taylor R, Avison MJ, Shulman
GI, Shulman RG. Human muscle glycogen resynthesis after exercise: insulin-dependent
and -independent phases. J Appl Physiol. 1994 Jan;76(1):104-11.
6. Bowtell JL, Gelly K, Jackman ML, Patel A, Simeoni M,
Rennie MJ. Effect of oral glutamine on whole body carbohydrate storage
during recovery from exhaustive exercise.
7. van Hall G, Saris WH, van de Schoor PA, Wagenmakers
AJ. The effect of free glutamine and peptide ingestion on the rate of
muscle glycogen resynthesis in man. Int J Sports Med. 2000 Jan;21(1):25-30.
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