Becoming stronger while dieting: is it possible?
January 28, 2009 12:25 PM   Subscribe

Becoming stronger while dieting: is it possible? My main focus right now is losing weight. I want to lose about 8-10 kilos of tummy fat, have already lost two of them by dieting and doing cardio. I also want to gain strength in my upper body but after five strength training sessions I have a feeling I am doing something wrong or it just might not be possible on the amount of food I am taking in right now.

I go to the gym four times a week (tue, thu, sat & sun) to do some cardio (mainly running on a treadmill, sometimes a spinning class) and on three of those days (tue, thu & sun) I do three strength training exercises before I move on to running or spinning: shoulder press, chest press and assisted chin. On each exercise I try to do 3x12 repetitions, with about 30 seconds of rest in between repetitions. So far, I am not noticing any improvement.
Am I doing something wrong or should I just wait until I have lost the excess fat?
posted by dinkyday to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I doubt you'llsee strength improvements after your first five sessions, especially if you're new to lifting and still learning technique. Doubly so if you haven't yet established what weight you should be lifting as a starting point.
posted by zippy at 12:29 PM on January 28, 2009

You'll get a mishmash of advice here, lots of calls for crossfit. Your fitness is in a complex relationship with what you're willing to do. A series of one on one conversations will serve you better than what could become a very noisy thread.

That said, your set/rep scheme sounds out of whack to me, as does the movement choice. But, generally, losing weight through a caloric deficit and building strength don't go together as well as building strength and then losing weight. Feel free to email me, I'll yap your ear off.
posted by Shutter at 12:31 PM on January 28, 2009

Only five sessions? Definitely give it time. Also, make sure that you are lifting enough weight so that at the end of your 3x12 repetitions, you've really worn your muscles out and can't do any more repetitions. If you're merely doing 20lbs on a machine where you could possibly do 60lbs, then you're not really breaking those muscles down. Make sure that while you're dieting (cutting down on carbs?) you are still also getting some protein by eating some lean red meat now and then. Lean red meat won't add pounds to your tummy but will help replenish and grow those muscles you're working on.
posted by billysumday at 12:32 PM on January 28, 2009

You're looking for what's called "clean bulking". It's possible to gain muscle and maintain or lose fat at the same time, but harder than doing both individually (most body builders bulk up muscle and then cut fat later afaik).

Search for clean bulking and you'll find some good guides. They'll come in different complexities, but are going to boil down to doing strength training and consuming a lot of protein to build muscle while still eating at a caloric deficit.

From what I've read 3x12 is too many reps if you want to effectively build strength. You'll want to do something like 3x8 or 3x5 (not including warmup sets, natch). Are you not lifting your legs at all? I would look for a program with some basic compound lifts. Starting Strength has been mentioned here in the past and it's a good book even if all you get out of it is instruction on basic lifts.

See if you can talk to a trainer or a friend who is into this sort of thing. I agree with Shutter that "A series of one on one conversations will serve you better..."
posted by ODiV at 12:43 PM on January 28, 2009

It's difficult to lose weight and gain significant bulk at the same time, especially for a novice. You'll have to do some reading on the subject and it may be easier for you to lose weight first and once you reach your target weight move your focus to building muscle.
posted by fire&wings at 12:50 PM on January 28, 2009

Nthing do one first, then the other.
And if you're only doing a few exercises, you should be doing big, compound ones. EG squats, deadlifts, presses, etc.
posted by jckll at 1:03 PM on January 28, 2009

as someone who is doing the same thing... i STRONGLY recommend a few sessions with a trainer. at my gym, there are pics of the trainers on the wall and their various focuses, background, etc. i picked a trainer who had the kind of build i was looking for and went from there.

she was extremely helpful in getting me what i wanted - 3 30-min (or so) sessions i could do 3 times per week, focusing on different muscle groups each session. (i also do cardio on off days at least 2x if not 3x/week).

after 2 months, i am really starting to notice improvement. i have lost weight, built a little muscle tone, and my lung capacity and cardio ability has really improved.

i tried to do it on my own, but really, getting a trainer for a month really helped. i had someone who was able to push me to my limits, help me figure out what those limits were, make sure i was lifting weights/using machines properly, AND be great encouragement.

now i can do my sessions on my own and be completely sweaty and satisfied after each one!
posted by sio42 at 1:06 PM on January 28, 2009

I would definitely recommend concentrating on losing the weight first.

I would stick to the dieting and CV drop the weight you requite then look at what you want to do. Do you want to gain size and muscle? or continue to lose weight to tone?
posted by moochoo at 1:11 PM on January 28, 2009

I'm going to second (or nth) the trainer idea. A month or two of a knowledgeable individual showing a variety of exercises and the methods as well as providing dietary advice will go a long a way i helping you reach your goals. See if any of your friends have a trainer and would recommend them or talk to some people at the gym, see what they have to say. Trainers have differing abilities and personalities so it may take a few trainers to find one that fits you best.
posted by LunaticFringe at 1:26 PM on January 28, 2009

Take a look at this site/program:

It's pretty interesting -- I don't have weight loss concerns, but had been wanting to find a fairly quick, interesting workout that would build overall muscle mass, which of course leads to increased metabolic rate. Paired with a sensible diet, I think the program would be pretty effective.

The basics: 3 days/week, five exercises/day, five sets of five reps per exercise (with some exceptions). The only exercise you do every time is squats, and you alternate the other exercises each time you go. Squats, deadlifts, overhead press, inverted row, bench press, pull-ups, push-ups, reverse crunches and prone bridge.

You start with either body weight (for pull-ups, push-ups, etc) or a barbell (45 pounds) for squats, bench, press. Each day that you do an exercise, you add 5 pounds. I've been doing it for a couple of months and I'm in and out of the gym in 45 minutes or so, which makes it easy to keep coming back.

I also run 2-3/week on alternate days, but you could easily do this routine 3/week, with a 30 minute cardio session afterward to combine your exercise and minimize the amount of time you're in the gym. Good luck!
posted by Pantengliopoli at 1:39 PM on January 28, 2009

Go here: Stumptuous. Ignore the "women's" label. It's a good resource for all novices.

Five sessions is nothing. You might need a month or longer before you notice definitive improvements. Nthing the suggestion to get a couple of sessions with a trainer.

Maintaining muscle while cutting body fat is doable. Eating plans that emphasize protein and fat over carbohydrate do a better job on this front. Gaining muscle while cutting fat is not impossible, but harder, even for experienced exercisers. A lot of novices find it difficult to manage drastic changes to both diet and exercises all at once. It's okay to make modest changes for now or focus on cutting fat while maintaining muscle.

However, don't wait until you've lost fat to start strength training unless you're really very overweight, to the point where your weight is interfering with your ability to train properly. Strength training makes cutting body fat easier, for some people much easier, and some people do notice lean body mass gains even while losing fat. It's not a matter of picking either cardio/endurance training or strength training for weight loss, health improvement, or changes in body fat percentage. Both strength and endurance training are useful.

For that matter, both high-rep, low/moderate-intensity resistance training and low-rep, high-intensity resistance training have uses. Roughly speaking, people tend to see greater strength gains with the latter, and greater endurance gains with the former. Some also argue that high-rep training allows builders to gain bulk faster.

Novices are usually told to begin with a few sets of 8-15 reps, so I don't see anything wrong with 12-rep sets for now. Figure out things like form and routine now so that you can avoid injury. Once you get into the groove and have the hang of properly using the machines and free weights (yes, you should learn to use free weights) you should start doing low-rep, high-load sets as well.

For the record, this is an abstract from the American College of Sports Medicine position paper in 2002, and I don't think a lot has changed since then:
In order to stimulate further adaptation toward a specific training goal(s), progression in the type of resistance training protocol used is necessary. The optimal characteristics of strength-specific programs include the use of both concentric and eccentric muscle actions and the performance of both single- and multiple-joint exercises. It is also recommended that the strength program sequence exercises to optimize the quality of the exercise intensity (large before small muscle group exercises, multiple-joint exercises before single-joint exercises, and higher intensity before lower intensity exercises).

For initial resistances, it is recommended that loads corresponding to 8-12 repetition maximum (RM) be used in novice training. For intermediate to advanced training, it is recommended that individuals use a wider loading range, from 1-12 RM in a periodized fashion, with eventual emphasis on heavy loading (1-6 RM) using at least 3-min rest periods between sets performed at a moderate contraction velocity (1-2 s concentric, 1-2 s eccentric). When training at a specific RM load, it is recommended that 2-10% increase in load be applied when the individual can perform the current workload for one to two repetitions over the desired number.

The recommendation for training frequency is 2-3 d/wk for novice and intermediate training and 4-5 d/wk for advanced training. Similar program designs are recommended for hypertrophy training with respect to exercise selection and frequency.

For loading, it is recommended that loads corresponding to 1-12 RM be used in periodized fashion, with emphasis on the 6-12 RM zone using 1- to 2-min rest periods between sets at a moderate velocity. Higher volume, multiple-set programs are recommended for maximizing hypertrophy.

Progression in power training entails two general loading strategies: 1) strength training, and 2) use of light loads (30-60% of 1 RM) performed at a fast contraction velocity with 2-3 min of rest between sets for multiple sets per exercise. It is also recommended that emphasis be placed on multiple-joint exercises, especially those involving the total body.

For local muscular endurance training, it is recommended that light to moderate loads (40-60% of 1 RM) be performed for high repetitions (> 15) using short rest periods (<>
In the interpretation of this position stand, as with prior ones, the recommendations should be viewed in context of the individual's target goals, physical capacity, and training status.
Good luck.
posted by jeeves at 1:39 PM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

OP here... Thanks so much for all the feedback, definitely very helpful... I will try fewer reps, eating more protein/less carbs (always a problem since I'm semi-vegetarian) and read up on clean bulking!
Answering some of your questions: I am doing the repetitions until 'exhaustion', my goal is to do 3x12 repetitions but usually the third time I cannot get past the 8th repetition. I am doing the exercises on (LifeFitness) machines (this one for example: so technique is probably not such a problem. My focus is not on gaining bulk (even though that would be nice) but on gaining strength (think it would be nice to 'feel stronger', just as it is a great feeling to feel '(cardio) fit').
I have read quite a bit about strength training before asking this question but the problem is that it is always (and understandably) written from the perspective where gaining strength/muscle is the number one priority. For me it is actually my number three priority (1. losing fat, 2. run faster at the same heartrate). Unfortunately I do not have unlimited time to spend on exercise so I have to be realistic about what I can do in the amount of time I do have which means combining things that might not be ideal to combine. This is one of the reasons why I don't do any leg exercises (it would be very hard to run afterwards plus my legs are quite developed after years of running and cycling).
posted by dinkyday at 1:45 PM on January 28, 2009

I agree with the recommendations for Starting Strength or Stronglifts. I also nth the do one, then the other advice, although you want to build muscle first, then lose weight, because more muscle makes your base metabolic rate higher and makes it easier to lose weight.

I also think fewer reps - if you can do 12, you can do more weight. Unless it's crossfit-style high-intensity you're going for, which it doesn't sound like. For muscle strength, more weight. I defer to the experts on this, though - I'm not one.

I want to add a recommendation for the Zone Diet by Dr. Barry Sears. I feel much better, I get to eat whatever foods I want* and it seems like I can't eat all the food I'm supposed to. *The trick is, if I eat that I also have to eat... to balance it out, and call the whole thing a meal. You can easily gain strength and muscle on this diet, you just adjust appropriately for your level of activity.
Ok, commercial over. Have a look.
posted by ctmf at 1:57 PM on January 28, 2009

One more thing, given your response -- I used to do lots of exercise on machines and I've found my body is much happier (and the exercises higher "value") when done with free weights, be it barbell or dumbbells. They promote better form and don't restrict your body to a prescribed motion, as well as recruiting the smaller muscles required to help stabilize the motion, rather than just the large ones the exercise is targeting. If you want to lose fat, I'd lower the reps somewhat and try to build a little more mass -- more muscle mass will burn more fat.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 2:01 PM on January 28, 2009

Ok, after reading your update, I'll be the first (of probably many, as Shutter says) to say - I think you do want the zone diet + crossfit, not dedicated strength training.
posted by ctmf at 2:03 PM on January 28, 2009

Check out Lou Schuler's New Rules of Lifting. It's a really really good book. It covers your question & a lot more. Plus it has a lot of references, which as a geek, I appreciate.

It sounds like you are doing the basics right to lose fat as your main goal & gain muscle as a secondary goal. There are definitely things you should tweak though.

A few things have already been mentioned that I will emphatically agree with.

1) Eat more protein. The easiest way other than eating lots of chicken & fish is to use a supplement. Gold Standard is my personal choice but any of them will help.

2) Do full body exercises with free weights. Don't shy away from leg exercises. You get a better workout with freeweights due to working all the minor stabilizing muscles and you are less likely to end up with bad form that can eventually hurt you.

3) Fewer reps higher weight. I'd also add that you should vary it somewhat. Eventually your body will get used to doing the same exercises over and over and you will see less gain. Every few weeks rotate from incilne bench press to standard bench press to dumbell presses. You can also vary the weight from higher reps with lower weight to lower reps with higher weight.

The reason I say don't shy away from leg exercises is that if you bulk up your legs your running & cycling will burn more calories. Plus years of endurance running & cycling will have made your leg muscles more efficient, so they will burn fewer calories for the same amount of work. If you really want to burn calories quickly switch up your cardio exercise. Do something different like swimming.

Good luck!
posted by thekiltedwonder at 3:31 PM on January 28, 2009

Yep, ctmf, this honestly does look like a clear cut case of "woohoo do crossfit" being the best answer. I'm not sure where you live, but there's likely an affiliate nearby, and there you should be able to find a trainer who can really give you what you're looking for.

(A side note, you didn't ask, but I feel like I have to mention, machines are doing your workout a disservice. They're easier to learn, and I understand the appeal, but you'll go farther faster with your fitness goals if you can learn to use bodyweight or freeweight movements.)
posted by Shutter at 3:40 PM on January 28, 2009

Quit weighing yourself, weight is completely unimportant when it comes to fitness and is a really poor weigh of measuring body fat. And also if you've gone through 5 lifting sessions and are eating properly you should definetely have improved by now, although physically you won't see it. Anyone who says you shouldn't gain strength early has obviously never lifted because that's where you'll see your most dramatic gains, it won't be after one or two sessions but by that 5th session if you haven't improved than you're not working out hard enough. You're doing one thing good and that's cardio after lifting, you want your muscles as fresh as posible early, that way you maximize the weight you're lifting which means more muscle tearing. You said 3x12, how hard are you struggling on that 12th rep? No matter what kind of workout day you have (low reps or high reps) that last rep should be brutally tough, use a spotter and go until you need them and than pump out another 1 or 2 with their help. I remember first working out and by the 2nd week I had already started getting stronger.
posted by BrnP84 at 4:48 PM on January 28, 2009

It's difficult to lose weight and gain significant bulk at the same time, especially for a novice

I totally disagree. In fact, I think one of the few times when you are able to gain strength and some muscle and lose fat is when you are completely new. Newbie gains are a well-known exception to the rule that you can't lose fat and gain significant muscle.

The zone diet is overkill. I still cannot believe people have the patience to do that, frankly, but kudos to them. Crossfit is also overkill for someone that has no idea what they are doing at all, which sounds like the bucket you're falling in to. Sure, a well-done zone and crossfit with a trainer would get you pretty fit pretty fast, but you are a n00b, you do not need all of this to get pretty fit. You also don't need a traditional trainer and while a good one would help, that is about 1% of the trainer population. If you take it slow and pay attention to your body you can teach yourself the major lifts.

Nthing the stumptuous reccs from above. Nthing Starting Strength. Nthing that you cannot ignore your legs if you want to gain serious strength anywhere in your body. Also, this will probably help your running and make you less prone to injury so stop making excuses. You should shed fat and gain a decent amount of muscle if you just eat a reasonably clean high-protein diet and lift heavy full body three times a week. When you have a solid squat and deadlift, and are down to the last 5 stubborn pounds or really want to become a fitness beast, go nuts on the zone, start adding crossfit into your routine, whatever. But don't feel like you have to complicate things when you start out.
posted by ch1x0r at 4:52 PM on January 28, 2009

I'm super late to the party, but I agree with ch1x0r. I don't think people need as much protein as the zone diet recommends. I am a lacto-ovo vegetarian, and get plenty of protein to maintain a very athletic lifestyle.

As far as strength work goes, I also agree with ch1x0r that novices are one of the few types of trainees that can make weight loss/cardio/strength gains at the same time. If you are already quite fit this is a difficult thing to do, but people unaccustomed to training make rapid gains, and for a while, making gains in both areas is a possibility.

Focus on the basics. Squat, deadlift, overhead press, bench press, pullups, dips, cleans. A trainee can go very, very, very far on a few exercises. Also, I've recently been getting into gymnastic style bodyweight training, of the sort endorsed by gymnastic bodies, for example. I think this fits in well with the goal of gaining strength but staying lean.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 11:51 PM on February 1, 2009

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