Losing Fat While Gaining Strength And Muscle: Fact or Fiction by Thomas Philips and Mike Hanley

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As is the case with many questions, the problem is within the question itself. Many people equate strength and muscle as the same thing. Although they’re related, they are two very different things. Therefore, we must take each question separately in order to properly address the issue because two different questions have two entirely different answers.

Part 1 of this article will address gaining strength while losing fat on a calorie-restricted diet. I’ll discuss a well-known and proven program that effectively does just that. However, I’ll also discuss the downside of following such a protocol when compared with another well-known and time proven system. The latter advocates much more work and certainly much more eating without the goal of losing fat. It will become clear that cutting calories and time in the gym will also eventually cut your general strength and conditioning progress.

Part 2 of this article will discuss losing fat while gaining muscle. It can be done but not in the way most people would like to believe. For this section, I’ll briefly describe my own experience when I won the 2002 EAS Body for Life competition. Then I’ll show you how my friend and colleague, Mike Hanley (www.HanleyStrength.com), utilized an annual approach to continually increase size and strength while maintaining a lean build. Trust me if this is the goal, it’s not what most lifters do. But it IS what most lifters should be doing. I guarantee my interview with Mike will open many people’s eyes as to what is possible with proper planning throughout the year for a natural bodybuilder and a raw natural powerlifter. Mike’s success speaks for itself.  

Part 1: Losing fat while increasing strength

If you’re a serious strength athlete, it’s incredibly difficult to lose fat and increase overall strength at the same time. It can be done for a short period of time (varies for every person), but in the long run, you’ll be sacrificing your overall strength for fat loss. What I mean by “overall” strength is strength in ANY particular lift or rep scheme as opposed to one or two “specialized” lifts within very particular rep schemes. Don’t get me wrong. If you focus on a particular movement like the deadlift (for example), you can train your nervous system to lift a heavier and heavier weight while also losing fat. However, you’re also likely to do away with all other “nonfunctional” deadlifting muscle. Strength can increase in this manner because the nervous system is incredibly receptive to the proper training stimulus despite sacrifices in muscle atrophy.

A program designed to focus purely on developing the CNS needs to be low volume and high frequency (but only when the lifter is as fresh as possible). The lifter never goes to muscle failure because the focus is on the “practice” of lifting the weight. If you want a clear explanation of how this is done, read Pavel Tsatsouline’s Power to the People (purchase the book at http://www.dragondoor.com/b10.html). In the book, Pavel explains a very simple deadlifting program designed to increase deadlifting strength without gaining weight. Pavel’s main point is that since most of us only know how to access 20–30 percent of our muscle potential, it’s a worthy pursuit to train the nervous system properly in order to access this untapped power. This type of program is ideal for law enforcement officers, military personal, gymnasts, rock climbers, and of course most every woman you know who wants to gain strength without gaining weight.

A program like Power to the People (PTTP) can be done effectively when the lifter focuses on one or two movements. Therefore, the lifter needs to choose wisely in terms of which exercises gives them the most “bang for their buck.” The deadlift is a great choice here, but you could also choose the squat, the pull-up, or a pressing movement. However, this program only works well when the proper parameters are utilized for one or two lifts only! The idea is to choose the lifts that give you the most carryover to the things that you do in real life or for your job.

Please note (in fairness to Pavel and this book) that the concepts described in Power to the People go well beyond a few mere protocols. Pavel gives practical solutions to increasing tension throughout the body thereby making you “seemingly” instantaneously stronger. Ultimately, getting strong is all about the “maximization” of CNS recruitment. Pavel’s insights on this topic are well worth the read.

The downside is if you had been following a different template such as Westside (purchase templates at http://www.flexcart.com/members/elitefts/default.asp?cid=207) and then suddenly switched to PTTP, you would lose GPP (e.g. your body’s overall work capacity will go down). You wouldn’t be able to “carryover” into other lifts as easily as the lifter who does higher volume, incorporates GPP, eats like a beast, and focuses on CNS development as well as hypertrophy (which a Westside template does).

Let me give an example. Let’s take a guy in the gym of average strength and experience who’s following a PTTP protocol with the goal of getting stronger while losing weight. He’ll be able to continue to increase his deadlift and (for example) his kettlebell side press as prescribed in Power to the People. There are plenty of benefits to the program. The workout is quick, the lifter easily recovers, there’s little chance for injury, and the lifter’s body weight will continue to drop on a calorie-restricted diet while also increasing strength (our lifter’s goal).

Now, take that same guy but imagine he’s following a Westside protocol. He’ll be able to gain strength, muscle, and GPP but only if he eats like he means it and sleeps enough hours during the week to maximize the benefits of such a demanding template. The rewards are increased lean body mass, strength, and GPP, and the body is better able to “carryover” to different lifts.

What I mean by this is that when on the PTTP protocol, the lifter will be getting noticeably stronger in those two lifts (in this case, the deadlift and the side press). However, when on the Westside protocol, the lifter will be getting stronger everywhere, especially since the philosophy behind Westside is to strengthen the weak links and find what works for each individual’s needs. The Westside protocol is likely to keep up with the strength gains of the PTTP deadlift and side press power but with the additional benefit of being able to do more work while also getting stronger in various other movements as well.

Hypothetically, if we were to take the PTTP lifter and compare him to the same lifter using a Westside protocol, after a 12-week cycle, we would notice that on PTTP, the lifter could have feasibly gotten stronger while also losing weight. However, the same lifter using Westside would (despite being heavier) not only be stronger overall but also more capable of doing workloads that he didn’t even have to practice! For example, have both of these guys push a car for distance and speed, carry a sand bag as far as possible, or drag a heavy sled for 100 yards for 20 minute intervals. Because GPP is part of the Westside protocol as well as the dynamic and maximal effort lifts, the Westside lifter would be more capable of doing these workloads. As Louie Simmons states, “The Westside system allows athletes to get bigger, faster, and stronger throughout the year.”

However, continually raising one’s work capacity (GPP) is a critical goal at Westside (read the articles “Extra Workouts” and “Extra Workouts 2” at http://www.westside-barbell.com/articles.htm). The lifter on PTTP would fair well in the side press, deadlift, and perhaps a few selected relative body weight exercises after the 12 weeks, but that’s it. In fairness, the PTTP lifter would have spent a heck of a lot less time in the gym than the same lifter on a Westside protocol, which is part of the benefit of PTTP! PTTP is great for those looking to maximize their results with relatively little time to train.

If you’re looking to get bigger, stronger, and faster, and increase your overall work capacity, you need to eat AND train towards that. If you’re after pure selected strength without the unnecessary added bulk or if time/energy is a restriction, then a protocol like PTTP is the right choice. In my opinion, the deadlift and side press (as prescribed by Pavel) are the best choices for most people. PTTP is a fantastic program that delivers exactly what it says while also proving that a lifter can get stronger and also rid the body of unnecessary fat on a calorie-restricted diet.

So the answer to the original question, “Can I lose fat and gain strength?” is “yes” with some warning signs attached. If you decide to go down this road, just remember to keep the volume low, the sessions short, and the frequency high. Make sure to “practice” when you’re fresh. Treat each training session as “strength practice” and never go to failure. Focus on only one or two choice lifts. If you’re looking to lose fat while doing this program, you MUST clean up your diet! The combination of calorie restriction through proper eating and doing away with all “non-functional” lean body mass will result in increased strength at your selected lifts with weight loss!

Part 2: Losing fat while gaining muscle

This goal is even more difficult than losing fat and gaining strength. Most people believe in this illusion because of the “out of context” stories they read in magazines. These stories are usually about somebody gaining X amount of muscle while losing X amount of fat at the same time. I know this because I’ve been one of those guys on the side of the Myoplex box, in Muscle Media magazine, and on various EAS pamphlets distributed literally around the world. Back in 2002, I won the Body for Life challenge, and I’m here to tell you that the reason I was able to do that is not because I’m some exception to the rule. Certain criteria can be in place that allow individuals to lose fat and gain muscle but only over a certain period of time.

In my case, I started weight training when I was around 12 years old. Nothing serious but I did all the traditional bodybuilding stuff and started reading the magazines at a very young age. I was a three sport athlete in high school and a fairly good recreational boxer. When I got married, started having kids, went for my master’s degree, and held down a second job, I put my training life on hold for over a year. To make a long story short, I used the Body for Life contest as a means to an end. I missed the gym. I was unhappy with myself, and I trained my ass off for 12 weeks to accomplish my goal. In the end, I lost something like 25 lbs of fat and gained about 12 lbs of lean mass.

Here’s how that was possible:

1)      My body and mind had been in a highly trained state in the past. Within four weeks, my body snapped back to reasonable condition fairly quickly. Essentially, my body was “remembering” what had been there for years. Within 10 weeks, I was pretty much back to where I was, and by the twelfth week, I was in tremendous shape.

2)      I ate, slept, and supplemented perfectly. I never missed a workout, and I didn’t allow distractions. I did everything right.

3)      Since I’d been eating like garbage for about a year, my body was used to a fairly high calorie diet. When I started to gradually cut back the calories and increase activity, it’s obvious why the fat melted off.

4)      The muscle came back quickly for me because (as I mentioned) it had been there before, and after such a long layoff, the training stimulus was extremely anabolic.

All of these circumstances together lead to an average of two lbs of fat lost and one lb of lean mass gained per week for 12 weeks. This obviously didn’t continue indefinitely. Today I struggle to gain even a couple of lbs of lean mass every 12–16 weeks while eating and training like a champ. Like I said, I’m no exception to the rule. I just happened to be in a situation four years ago when circumstances were just right for me to accomplish what I did.

Having said that, there’s a more “scientific” way to continually gain lean mass and lose fat (or at least be very lean) over a long period of time. It needs to be an annual/semi-annual approach as opposed to an every day linear approach. In other words, if you try to just train hard and watch what you eat all the time, you’ll hit plateaus when you won’t only stop losing fat but you’ll also stop gaining strength and muscle. It’s true and many of us have been there including my self!

I’ve made it a priority to increase my size and strength over the past year. As a result of that decision, I’ve trained hard, ate a lot of food, and got adequate rest. I’ve supplemented properly, asked many questions, read many books/articles/magazines, attended seminars, participated on forums, competed in competitions, and asked my colleagues for feedback on my lifts. I’ve (in general) done and continue to do what needs to be done to continue being successful. Since my goal is still to increase size and strength, I must eat and train in that manner. This doesn’t mean that I “diet” and restrict calories while I’m trying to get bigger and stronger. I might as well be kicking myself in my own ass!

So then is there some secret to continued increases in size and strength while staying lean? Yes, and the answer is relatively simple. The answer is within the goals you set for yourself throughout the year from any particular “starting point.” If you have (for example) eight percent body fat at 180 lbs in June, seven or eight percent body fat at 184 lbs the following June, and six or seven percent body fat at 187 lbs the June after that and you’ve continued to gain strength over that time period, then that is some real progress! However, if you think it can be done by simply training all out all the time, restricting your calories throughout the whole year, and doing lots of “extra cardio,” then you’ll be very disappointed every June.

The best example I can give to explain the success of creating a meaningful progress toward this end is my friend and colleague, Mike Hanley (www.MikeHanleyStrengthSystems.com). Mike has had tremendous success over the past few years competing in natural bodybuilding shows every September as well as in natural raw powerlifting events throughout the winter and spring. His story is a classic example of how to achieve a great physique while also gaining size and strength throughout the year. You’ve heard my story (which is clearly not applicable to the every day guy who’s training hard in the gym and looking for everything he can do to make progress). So, listen to Mike’s story and take notes on how it can be done right!

T. Phillips: Mike, tell us a little about yourself and your recent accomplishments.

M. Hanley: I grew up engrossed in sports of all sorts. It didn’t matter what it was—I played it. I played football, basketball, and baseball, and wrestled and ran track. I was also into outside activities such as skiing, skateboarding, and surfing. As I got older, I focused on a couple sports instead of all. All along my first love was football. This became my main sport in high school, and I played for one of the best high school football teams in New Jersey (St. Peter’s Prep). Just before entering high school, my father began to teach me how to lift weights in the garage. I fell in love with the iron. I would buy all the magazines and would read anything that I could get my hands on about lifting weights. I still remember to this day my father buying me Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding.

In high school, we lifted weights for football. My training was based on becoming a better football player. Presses, cleans, and squats were the main focus of our training. I was taught how to lift PROPERLY at an early age. My father and the coaches around me stressed the importance of proper form. By the time I completed high school, I had a pretty good knowledge of how to lift weights effectively. I had put on a good amount of weight and was ready to play at the next level. From here, I went on to play ball at a division three school where I also picked up lacrosse. The teams I was on had won some championships in their divisions.

I majored in physical education in college and loved my classes in anatomy, biomechanics, and motor learning. I had very good teachers, and they really made me love their classes. When I graduated, I wanted to do something more than be a gym teacher so I started working in health clubs. I started to train people and teach them what came to me so easily. Since then, I’ve been training people of all walks of life. I’ve been training clients for close to 10 years, and I still enjoy working with people as much as I did when I started.

During the past five years, I’ve taken up some sports to help settle the competitiveness in me. I have competed in bodybuilding and powerlifting with some pretty good results. I’ve placed in the top five in four of my six bodybuilding shows, and I’ve also placed in the top three in all my powerlifting meets. I’ve lifted raw in the 181 lb division as well as the 198 lb division. My best lifts to date are a 415 lb squat, a 275 lb bench, and a 530 lb deadlift. The funny thing about this is I’ve done this in the 181 lb weight division. I plan to continue to compete in both sports from time to time testing my progress. I think it’s a great way to test how well your training is going.

T. Phillips: How do you train throughout the year?

M. Hanley: My training varies throughout the course of the year. One thing that’s for sure is I’m constantly trying to beat numbers. Unless I’m deloading, I’m trying to better my numbers from the week before. Beating numbers doesn’t always have to mean increasing weights. I would love for this to be the case, but from my experience my lifts would be astronomical if I was always increasing the weight. What I try to do is increase in some way whether that’s in weight, reps, sets, or speed. I also try to decrease the time between sets to increase the density.

I’ve used many different methods in my training including Westside, EDT, Sheiko, and all types of bodybuilding methods (drop sets, double contractions, supersets, etc). The list could go on forever, but the one thing that I find to be the most important factor in any training program is your attitude and intensity level. When I say intensity, I don’t mean the percent of weights used. I mean your mental intensity. I find that if I go into a training session tired, bored, preoccupied, or just not feeling it than my workout will suffer. If I go into the workout focused on the task at hand, excited, elated, or fired up than my workout is so much better off. Now, I know life gets in the way sometimes, but this isn’t an excuse for me. I leave everything at the door knowing that it will be there for me when I’m done training. I don’t hang out in the gym or talk to people during my workout, and I sure as hell don’t answer the phone while I’m training.

While preparing for a bodybuilding show, I’ve seen people stop their lifting heavy and increase the reps thinking that this will get them cut. This is a problem and far from the truth. When you’re in a calorie deficit, it’s important to keep the reps low and the weights high, especially if you’re depleting your carbohydrates. When carb depleting, one’s glycogen stores are at their lowest. Therefore increasing reps would be counterproductive since upping the reps will tap your glycolitic system. When you’re carb depleted, it’s much safer to hit the central nervous system rather than the glycogen stores. You’ll maintain more muscle mass, and you won’t eat up as much muscle as you would by upping the reps.

T. Phillips: Tell us how you eat throughout the year in order to accommodate your powerlifting and (later in the year) your bodybuilding.

M. Hanley: My nutrition has come a long way from what it used to be. I have to give credit to Christian Thibaudeau for this. Even before he became my mentor/coach, I would read his articles and books and follow much of his nutrition information. I also think that John Berardi has influenced me in the nutrition department. If it’s the off-season for bodybuilding, I eat a bit more food to try and pack on as much muscle as I can. This doesn’t mean that it’s a free for all. However, I do enjoy some foods that I can’t have during a bodybuilding pre-contest schedule. I eat according to my goals. If I want to get bigger, I up my calories, and if I want to shed some fat, I decrease my calories.

The one problem I’ve encountered is gaining too much fat during the off-season and as a result, losing some muscle while dieting for a contest. I feel that if you’re holding too much body fat, it will take you longer to get ready for a show. Therefore you restrict calories for a longer period of time, which is not optimal. If your goal is to lose body fat, it has to come off slowly. If you’re losing more than two pounds of scale weight a week, most likely you’re losing muscle along with it.

What I try to do is pick a show and start a diet 12–16 weeks before that date depending on how much body fat I have. People reading this might think that if you’re a bodybuilder, you shouldn’t have that much fat to lose. In order to put on a good amount of muscle, one must accept the fact that he or she will have to put on a certain amount of that weight in fat. It’s very difficult to add muscle to one’s body frame without gaining some fat along the way. People have this idea that you can add muscle and get ripped at the same time, which is absurd. To get ripped, you must drop your calories in order to invite fat loss. When calories are lower than what your body needs, you’re not in a position to add any significant amount of muscle because the muscles aren’t being flushed with nutrients.

I feel that you have to pick one or the other. If your goal is to add muscle, don’t be afraid to put on some fat with it. A nice ratio is for every two pounds of muscle, put on one pound of fat. That’s the most one should shoot for when gaining muscle. If one’s goal is to get really lean, understand that you won’t be able to pack on muscle during this time. Your goal while getting ripped should be to maintain the muscle that you have. If you can accept these conditions, you’ll succeed in the adding muscle, getting ripped game.

T. Phillips: What supplements do you use and how do you take them in order to get the most out of them?

M. Hanley: First, I feel I need to say that supplements are exactly that—supplements. They’re a supplement to your training and nutrition programs. Many people come to me as clients, and after three weeks of training, they want to know what they can take to add some muscle. My answer is always the same—add more food! Supplements can help one make some nice gains, but it’s a small piece to the puzzle. Your nutrition has to be correct before you add supplements.

As far as what I take, it varies with the goal at hand. When dieting, I feel that taking a testosterone booster like Biotest’s Alpha Male can help maintain muscle while restricting calories. It also helps with mood swings when severely dieting for a contest. I’ve used other testosterone boosters such as cordyceps powder, which is a form of mushroom known to increase the libido. I’ve also used maca powder. While gaining muscle, I really don’t take much in the supplement area. I find that food is the best thing for adding muscle. The staple supplements I use are fish oils, protein powders (both whey isolate and a mixture of casein and whey), and multivitamins. What I feel works really well for any goal is a combination of creatine, glutamine, and BCAA in a drink mix. I got this one from Christian Thibaudeau, and it has helped me add some quality muscle.

I also like a supplement that helps with recovery from max effort lifting sessions. It’s Biotest’s Power Drive. I find it helpful while dieting before a training session or after a heavy lifting session, as it can give you a boost as well as aid in central nervous system recovery, respectively. The main ingredient in Power Drive is l-tyrosine. Tyrosine is an amino acid that the body synthesizes from the phenylalanine in your body. It’s necessary for brain function and is a precursor of adrenaline and the “mood-elevating” neurotransmitters—norepinephrine and dopamine. These two neurotransmitters stimulate metabolism and the nervous system while regulating mood. L-Tyrosine also blocks the absorption of tryptophan across the blood/brain barrier, which is another way that this amino acid helps “pick you up.” Another benefit of l-tyrosine supplementation is that it helps increase nerve transmission from the brain to the muscles. This excites more motor units, which creates greater strength.

T. Phillips: Tell us some of your current goals and how you’re going to accomplish them.

M. Hanley: One of my current goals is to earn a WNBF Pro card in the bodybuilding federation that I compete in. I plan to accomplish this by putting on about 20 more pounds of muscle over the next two years or so. I feel that at my height I need a bit more size to compete. I plan to do this by competing in powerlifting meets throughout the course of those two years. My goals as far as powerlifting are concerned are to bring each individual lift up, particularly the bench and my overall total. I would like to reach a 600 lb deadlift, a 500 lb squat, and a 300 lb bench in the 181 lb weight class. I plan to do this raw as well. With all that said, I plan to stay as healthy as I can in doing this. I’d like to be able to pick up my grandchildren when the time comes and throw the ball with them. Thanks very much for having me.

Thomas Phillips is the co-owner of Fit-for-Life. He is the 2002 Body-for-Life Grand Master Champion. He placed first in the deadlift at the National AAU, received first place at the AAU PL Nationals 181 raw division, and is a national qualifier for the sport of kettlebell lifting. Thomas also won back to back first place finishes in the National TSC elite class (www.the-tsc.com) and the U.S. Army certificate of Achievement in Physical Fitness. Thomas is an assistant kettlebell instructor for Pavel Tsatsouline. He is a certified personal trainer, sport specific trainer, strength trainer, and kettlebell instructor. Visit his website at www.ThomasPhillipsFitness.com or www.FitforLifeMarlboro.com.

Mike Hanley, RKC, is a strength and performance coach at the Fit for Life Personal Training Studio in Marlboro, New Jersey. He uses a wide variety of training styles including powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, and kettlebell training as well as numerous other forms of performance enhancement methods. He can be contacted at mhanley5903@yahoo.com or visit his website at www.fitforlifemarlboro.com. For more articles and interviews from one of the most innovative coaches and athletes, visit www.UndergroundStrengthCoach.com.

Elite Fitness Systems strives to be a recognized leader in the strength training industry by providing the highest quality strength training products and services while providing the highest level of customer service in the industry. For the best training equipment, information, and accessories, visit us at www.EliteFTS.com.

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Submitted by DMorgan on Fri, 02/23/2007 - 12:37pm.

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