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Lighter Stronger

This might surprise you, but you can get strong as you get lighter. Losing weight doesn't mean losing strength.
Max Cotton

A week ago I hit a deadlift Personal Best for one rep max (1RM = single rep heaviest lift you can do) with a 240kg lift. It was glorious. Deadlift is my favourite lift and I’ve been intermittently pursuing bigger numbers for the past ten years or so in between any other goals.

Afterwards a mate asked me ‘what cals are you on?’, assuming that I must be eating loads to fuel strength gains, so he was surprised when I told him I’d been eating in a 500-800 calorie deficit most days.

That’s something that many people don’t realise: you can keep getting stronger as you get lighter. Not just relative to your bodyweight, but in absolute terms too. I’ve been dieting fairly consistently for the past few months and I’ve been getting stronger and stronger on almost every lift. I was actually feeling really hungry when I hit the PB. I’m definitely not putting on muscle either, I’m just trying to retain it and shed a bit of fat.

How it works: neuromuscular adaptations and coordination gains

In the most recent Olympics the gold medal in the womens under 55kg weightlifting was taken by Hidilyn Diaz from the Philippines with a combined weight of 224kg across her Snatch (97kg) and Clean & Jerk (127kg), two overhead lifts that only count when the weight is locked out overhead with straight arms and the athlete is stable on two feet.

This is her:

Photo credit: Reuters

I have absolutely zero doubt that on my 90kg frame I possess more muscle in absolute terms of overall kilogrammes of muscle tissue. But I also have zero doubt that I cannot come close to snatching 97kg or a 127kg Clean & Jerk. I’d definitely need to train for years to get to that level and even then I’d still weigh 63% more than her. In order to be stronger than her in relative terms I’d need to Clean and Jerk 207kg- never, ever gonna happen.

So how come this lady would absolutely wipe the floor with me in a weightlifting competition? First up, obviously her technique is impeccable, she’s the Olympic champion. Then you have neuromuscular adaptations to training.

When someone first starts training, the fastest gains you usually see are in strength and it’s not uncommon to see someone lifting 50-100% more in weeks 3-4 of starting weight training for the first time. It’s a safe assumption to assume they didn’t put on double their weight in muscle, so how does their strength increase so quickly?

Neuromuscular adaptations are essentially a response to stimulus (ie lifting weights) that causes your body to get better at using what it already has. Your muscle fibres are organised into bundles that are governed by an ‘all-or-none’ law meaning that either all of the muscle fibres from a bundle will be recruited or none of them will, for a certain task. The more you train a certain movement, the better your body gets at recruiting whole bundles of muscle fibres to perform the task.

If you consistently train a movement pattern against progressively-increasing resistance you can get stronger even if you are losing weight. I’ve been training for a long time and I’m still getting stronger purely through repetition. These last two months my numbers have gone up everywhere but the scales.

Strength translates outside of the gym too- it’s not like you’ll only be strong when you lift a barbell. By training movement patterns you enable your body to recruit more muscle fibres for other jobs outside of the gym, such as lifting up kids or moving furniture. The stronger you are the better you can live your life without fear of injury and the more enabled you are to perform heavy-lifting tasks independently. And it’s also loads of fun chucking heavy weights around in the gym.

If you want to be stronger, and you want to lose weight- do not think of these as mutually exclusive goals. You can do both, you just need to incorporate strength training into your programme and stick at it. Being strong is fun, and if you consider yourself a ‘weak’ person then don’t feel like you can’t do anything about it, or that you’ll have to bulk up to get strong.

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