When I began my journey of weight training to get bigger and stronger I would often reads a lot of magazines to learn how to achieve my goals. In between the pages there would be the common advice to eat big to get big and strong. It made sense to me and I started to believe in it.
The common reasoning for this advice was that when you train with heavy weights your muscle tissue breaks down. Thereafter a big intake of food focusing primarily on protein would help rebuild the muscle tissue and make it bigger and stronger than before. I guess it all makes sense, right? So I kept up with the big eating and big lifting, and made some good progress with it.
However, I would often come across individuals who came from slightly economically challenged backgrounds and were often underfed. Yet their physical strength was much better than a lot of people who were better fed. This made me wonder if physical strength truly does depend a lot on food intake.
Is A High Calorie Diet Necessary For Strength?
Now before I continue let me tell you that your physical size depends 75% on your diet. If you want to get big then eat more than what you burn, and if you want to lose fat then eat lesser or at least more healthy than what you currently eat. Do not think that you can lift heavy weights and skip meals and still continue to put on mass. Similarly doing 1 hour of weights and cardio followed by buffet meals will not help you lose weight. You must learn to plan your diet as per your physical exertion to affect the size and composition of your body.
Getting back to strength and food intake, let's take an example of two different individuals. The first individual is a manager in a big company. His job is primarily desk bound and he works 9 hours a day. He is very well off financially and enjoys big lunches and dinner. Due to his sedentary job he burns only 1800 calories a day, yet consumes 3000 calories a day. The only exercise he gets is carrying his laptop to and from work. He is at a surplus of 1200 calories, which means he is consuming far more than his body is burning off and it will most likely be stored as fat.
The second individual is a construction worker. His job involves a lot of physical labor, and he is not as well off financially, so he is often underfed. He burns 2500 calories a day and eats only 1600 calories, which means he is at a 900 calorie deficit. Now who do you think is stronger? Do you think that the factory worker will be physically weaker than the manager? Obviously not!
Due to his constant physical labor the construction worker will be in good physical condition and will defeat the deconditioned and weakened manager in a comparison of strength. So when you think about it you realize that an undernourished man can be stronger than an over nourished man. There you have it, a practical case to prove that theoretical knowledge is not always correct.
Now if you are wondering how that can be possible, let me explain. You see our body adapts itself to whatever environment we put it in. Thus if you were to lift heavier weight than what you are used to then your muscles will get stronger to respond to the demands being placed on it. On the other hand if you stop your regular workouts then your body will no longer feel the need to stay strong and will thus become weak.
This is the reason why you need to keep working out to retain your strength and conditioning. Never believe anyone who says that you can stay strong and lean even if you do not work out and only watch your diet. Sure you might maintain a certain weight, but you will probably lose muscle and replace it with fat and will definitely loose strength.
So basically what I am trying to tell you is that your physical strength depends 75% on your training, and about 25% on your diet. Obviously the diet can never be ruled out entirely as a factor in becoming stronger. I mean you cannot expect to eat only 200 calories for a month and maintain your strength, right? Your diet is a factor and should be optimized for maximum results in adding strength, but it is your training that matters the most in this case.
Now some of you who are starting a fat loss program might be wondering if you can add strength during your program despite eating fewer calories. To answer your question I will have to say that it depends. If you have been a couch potato and become deconditioned then yes you will and should aim to add physical strength. Since your body has been provided an excess of comfort it will get stronger once tough demands are placed on it.
On the other hand if you have been a powerlifter for 5 years and added a lot of strength then you will probably not add any strength while cutting calories when trying to get lean. Why is this so? It is because in this case your body will be in top condition and will require every factor (eating, sleeping, stress, etc) involved in becoming stronger be optimized for further results.
Now before you start to get confused and think that in one case I am saying you will get stronger on a caloric deficit, yet in another case I am saying that you will not get stronger, let me clarify. Remember that I said that training is 75% important to add strength, not the full 100%. Yes diet is a factor but not more important than your training. Your training will create a neural demand in the body to get stronger.
Strength Routine With Low Calorie Intake
So if you are on a tight budget and want to add only strength without bulk then you can do so. However, for adding mass you will require surplus calories. A good program to follow to add strength without mass on a lowered caloric intake is to do something like the "Power to the people" program designed by Pavel Tsatsouline.
The program basically involves doing only two exercises like the deadlift and floor press for 5 days a week doing 2 sets of 5 reps. You can also do some other low volume training programs where you don't do more than 4-5 exercises with no more than 2 sets on most occasions focusing only on compound movements.
Try this routine to gain great strength even if you do not wish to over feed your body for added mass.
Do 1 set of 5 reps with your 7 rep max on all the exercises on Monday. On Tuesday and Thursday lift the same weight for 2 sets. Add another set on Saturday to make it a total of 3 sets of 5 reps. Take a rest of 2-2 ½ minutes between sets. Next Monday increase the weight by 2-5 pounds and do 1 set of 5 reps, thus once again starting the cycle.