I love being strong!
Yes mentally, but also physically.
Whether it sounds dumb or not there is just something empowering and confidence building about being able to look at a task or object and think yeah I definitely have the physical attributes necessary to handle that.
Not to mention I always think about what Dan John has said, which is something to the effect that strength is the physical attribute from which all other physical attributes flow. I think he actually throws in some kind of cup or bowl metaphor to explain this better. The idea being that strength functions as a cup that holds your other physical abilities and the larger the cup the more of those physical abilities you can have. I am sure he explains it in a much more elegant and memorable way, but you get the idea.
For example, if there is a 15-year-old kid who is looking to make the varsity football team and knows that his one limiting factors is his speed he would better served to focus on improving his lower body strength then spending hours working on speed/agility drills because the more force he can produce each time his foot makes contact with the ground the more distance he is going to cover and the faster he is going to cover it.
You may be trying to plug a hole in this idea by saying "but Stevan what about flexibility and mobility; strength doesn't influence that."
Ah ha! But it does! And I can make the case from two different angles.
Improving your core stability or the strength required to hold your spine stable will result in improved mobility in distal (further away from mid-section) areas of your body. The most common example of this is strengthening your core in order to free up your hips to be more mobile.
In addition to this relationship between proximal stability and distal mobility, strengthening your muscles through isometric and eccentric contractions of end range of motion will result in improved flexibility and control over that flexibility (read mobility).
See Dan John was right! Don't mess with Dan John he knows all!
Anyways back to my original point, I think being strong is the shit!
And because of this I try to encourage all my clients to focus on improving their strength even if they are more focused on physique-related goals..
Yes I admit that this is a personal and professional bias, but I also know that science and research will back me up on the fact that good things happen when someone gets stronger. I'd be willing to bet that a lot of other coaches would agree as well.
As I know I'm not the only coach who loves people getting strong I also know I am not the only dude who loves being strong and while being strong is great us dudes also have other wants and desires.
Namely we want to look good naked and be physically appealing to the individual we are attracted to.
In other words while we love being strong we also wouldn't mind being jacked and tan too.
And if you are a dude reading this don't try to deny it!
I know it's true because not only do I feel the same way, but I have heard a lot of other dudes across a wide range of ages express the same sentiment.
Granted what someone considers "jacked" and "physically appealing" is going to be largely determined by us as an individual and the individual who we want to find us attractive, but for simplicity sake we can probably all agree that it has something to do with carrying less fat and more muscle on our body.
And because of this desire and our love of being able to pick heavy things up we all have come face to face with a dilemma.
I am going to coin it the "Dude Dilemma." If you don't like the term dude feel free to insert any other identifier. I use dude to describe a male human being. I mean it to carry no other implied characteristics.
The "Dude Dilemma"
The dilemma looks like this:
A strong dude loves being strong, but he is getting the itch to lean out a bit and feel a little more comfortable with his shirt off and as a bonus maybe his lady will take a bit more interest in him physically (;D).
This strong dude starts orienting his programming towards some higher rep ranges and adding in a bit of conditioning. He also starts working to place himself in a small caloric deficit each day. He pays more attention to what he is eating particularly the quality.
After a week focusing on leaning out and losing some fat he comes into the gym to work on his squat and bench game.
It goes pretty bad. He misses a couple lifts and isn't able to hit the numbers he normally does. Then as he is showering after his training session and getting ready he looks in the mirror and notices his chest and arms, which he felt where his best features, look a bit deflated and smaller. It could be in his head, but he did just have a terribly weak day in the gym.
The strong dude then wanders over to the scale and steps on it. It shows he is down a pound since the last time he weighed. He thinks to himself, "Well I have been focusing on losing some weight so that makes since," but then the panic starts to set in. His mind starts messing with him and he begins dwelling on it.
He begins to worry that his new focus is causing him to become small and weak. Exactly the two things he never ever wants to be.
In his panic and desire to forestall any further shrinking, atrophy, or increasing weakness he abandons his focus on losing fat takes to the kitchen with reckless abandon to restore his lost weight and hopefully his depleted strength.
During his next training session he ditches his conditioning and returns to lifting heavy stuff for fewer reps and more sets.
He is again the strong dude hitting his old numbers and reaching for new PR's. It feels great!
However then the weekend comes and there are plans to go out and everything he tries on makes him feel like a strongman competitor in a wrestling singlet.
His thoughts again return to wanting to lean out to improve his confidence and physical appearance.
And the cycle beings all again.
The dilemma I am describing here is one all of us dudes know so well and it is how do we lean out without having to sacrifice our strength and size.
Maintaining muscular size and overall strength is difficult to do when trying to lose weight and lean out.
I mean there is a whole sport built around that challenge. It's called Bodybuilding.
And granted while there are some significant differences in terms of your situation and that of a bodybuilder's (steroid use, time allowed for training, supplements, genetics, equipment and facility availability, etc.) the overall idea and end goal is the same.
How do you continue training with high levels of intensity and maintain high levels of muscle mass while existing in a caloric deficit?
I mean aside from the mind game this kind of goal plays on us our bodies have literally adapt to be extremely good at preventing us from losing too much weight as in another time this kind of fat loss could be potentially life threatening should we suddenly be without food for an extended period of time.
In other words we are chasing a goal that are bodies have evolved to fight back against. That doesn't mean it's impossible it just means that if you haven't been able to get this done before don't feel bad it's a challenging goal.
All of that being said the question then becomes for us Dudes how the hell do we get past this dilemma.
How is it that we maintain our strength, but work to lean out and have a more "jacked" appearance without the resources of an amateur or professional bodybuilder?
The truth is I believe that there is probably more than one way to go about this and I fully acknowledge that there are coaches and trainers and athletes out there with way more experience with this kind of goal than me, but I can and will share with you what I have done and what I have helped coached others to do in order to accomplish this feat.
And trust me it's nothing sexy, but it does work.
How I've dealt with the dilemma.
I'm going to break this up into three parts: mindset, training, and nutrition.
For me it all begins with beliefs and getting the mindset right.
The first thing you have to do is begin to rework the cognitive pattern in your head that believes you can't get lean while staying strong and rather muscular. As long as you hold that belief you will have a hard time committing to getting lean because you will feel as if you are going to have to sacrifice the things you perhaps love most about training. This won't happen overnight just like a physical habit a new belief is something you have to continually tell yourself and reinforce.
Next I like to first have an inner dialogue with myself about why I want to lean out and what it will mean to me once I get to where I'd like to me.
As long as that dialogue comes out in favor of continuing on with the getting lean project I'll move on to establishing some guiding parameters and affirmations that I can use on a daily basis to keep my mind where it needs to be. If that inner dialogue ends up ending with me deciding now isn't quite the right time for me to make a go at this particular goal and I am honest with myself about that then I simply resume with my current focus and table it for the time.
I want to make sure you understand that it isn't a sign of weakness to admit you aren't ready to tackle something right away and simply put it on hold till you feel your in the right time and place for it. As long as you are being open and honest with yourself you'll have nothing to worry about and it is better than trying to lie to yourself and convince yourself that it is something you want and end up feeling frustrated and rebellious because you feel a loss of autonomy and becoming discouraged because you failed.
Next comes setting up parameters to both control my environment and redirect my thoughts when I am most susceptible to relapsing back into the vicious cycle that the "Dude Dilemma" bring with it.
I usually set the following parameters:
A predetermined length of time that I will focus on getting lean.
Removal of all scales from my environment to remove the temptation of wanting to weight myself.
Set performance and strength related goals using bodyweight or calisthenic exercises.
These three parameters remove two of the biggest events that have derailed by ability to lean out in the past and allow me to create daily affirmations that I can use to orient my focus on things that will keep me in the game.
By setting a predetermined length of time I can rest assured that even if my strength drops a bit and my muscles don't seem to have the same pop it will only be for a time.
By removing scales I prevent myself from freaking out if I see my weight begin to drop below a certain number that I might have a bit of my ego attached too, such as the 200 pound mark.
By setting new performance and strength related goals that are based on bodyweight exercises I play into the fact strength motivates me and signals progress to me so being able to do a pistol squat or front lever which both require a lot of strength will allow me to feel like I am still getting stronger, but also will reinforce the fat loss focus I have as the more useless weight I drop the easier these exercises will get. It's a win-win.
The affirmations I will then use on a daily basis are as follows:
"It's okay that I am focusing on leaning out now and that my strength levels might take a dip because it's only for a small amount of time and I can soon return to my strength focused training and nutrition"
"It's okay if my numbers are lagging in the barbell and dumbbell movements because I am getting better at doing single leg squats and front lever progressions are getting easier"
I know all of this so far seems like it won't make a difference and you are just waiting for me to get on with the training and nutrition recommendations for staying strong while getting leaner, but in truth the above advice is what has made all the difference for me in staying the course. Don't gloss over this stuff. This is where you should spend a lot of your time. Getting your mindset right sets the stage for everything that will follow as it will allow you to overcome the inevitable setbacks and disappointments.
To summarize my mindset advice:
1. Begin to believe that you can get lean while staying strong.
2. Do some introspection and be honest with yourself about what your priorities and motivations are.
3. Control your environment and mindset by setting parameters that eliminate things that will distract you from your goal or derail your motivation.
4. Set goals that when attained will make you feel as if you are making strength gains.
5. Use daily affirmations that will constantly reorient you to the goal of leaning out and reassure you that focusing on it for now is okay.
I don't change a lot when it comes to my training.
I typically don't add in any extra activity or conditioning other than what I am already doing.
This is largely because I try to achieve most the necessary caloric deficit through my diet and adding in additional activity is just going to widen that deficit and make my body work harder to convince me I need to eat more in order to prevent the loss of the fat that it sees as protective and I see as annoying.
I will continue to practicing the big three lifts (deadlift, bench, and squat) with a strength emphasis so that I still get to do stuff in the gym that I enjoy. In addition I'll add in dedicated time to work on my new bodyweight exercises that I've set strength goals for.
Then with my auxiliary or accessory work I will typically raise my rep ranges to the 6-12 rep range, use lots of supersets and pairing, and decrease the amount of rest between supersets. This allows me to stimulate more structural hypertrophy adaptations and gives me a metabolic effect that will increase my excess post oxygen consumption which we know is a good way of burning more calories at rest and therefore more fat at rest.
The overall changes to my training have two purposes: help me lose fat and continue to stimulate muscle growth in an effort to maintain it while I'm in a caloric deficit.
To summarize my training advice:
1. Don't try to change everything.
2. Don't over do it on conditioning or cardio.
3. Continue to try to get stronger in the gym and give yourself opportunities lift heavy stuff.
4. Work on the new strength goals you set.
5. Use your auxiliary and accessory work to stimulate hypertrophy by working in a 6 to 12 rep range with short rest periods.
6. Pair exercises together to increase the afterburn effect of your workouts.
This is where the rabbit hole could go really deep and the advice could get really complicated, but that just isn't how I like to approach nutrition as I really believe 80% of your results are going to come from 20% of the choices you make.
Not to mention I am a much bigger fan of focusing on daily habitual practices rather than specific dietary guidelines and numbers.
This is my personal and professional bias and in no way am I suggesting it's the only way. It's just the way I feel and have found that works best.
That being said the overall goal is to place me in a caloric deficit so that I can drop weight, but support muscle mass so that I can optimize that weight loss from fat.
In order to accomplish this I have three specific go to habits that I start and granted doing more than one new habit at a time is not recommended, but these habits aren't necessarily new to me as I've practiced them before.
I always start by eliminating my breakfast. This isn't to say I don't eat a breakfast I just push it off until later in the day. Some might call it a form of intermittent fasting, but I simply call it a caloric reduction strategy as reducing window of time in the day that I have to eat often reduces the amount of food I eat as well.
The second one I start is an obsession of getting in as much protein as I can possibly fit into the window of feeding I have. Keeping my protein intake high helps me support the muscle mass I have currently and reduce the chances of my body being unable to recover from my training or atrophy the muscle to create a supply of amino acids it isn't getting from my dietary intake.
And finally although I know the "anabolic window" is largely a myth I tend to plan a large portion of my carbohydrate intake for the window of time following a training session. This way I know at the very least I am hedging my bet that I am giving my body the nutrients it needs when it can benefit from them the most and is the least likely to store the excess glucose in my body as fat.
To summarize my nutrition advice:
1. Push your breakfast off until later in the day.
2. Eat lots of protein throughout the day.
3. Eat a large portion of your carbohydrates following your training session.
Now take action.
I know that there is a lot in this article, but I hope that I provided you with some straight forward actionable knowledge that you can carry out right away if you are someone like me who at times would like to be a bit leaner, but constantly find yourself encountering the "Dude Dilemma."
The key now is to take what you have read here today and go put it into action.
If you'd like to talk in more detail about your experience with the "Dude Dilemma" and how you can structure your training and nutrition to help you beat it once and for all feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Happy moving and heavy lifting!
Practical, Purposeful, Effective Training