Q&A: Should I Strength Train While On A Diet?

Question: 

I have been an avid follower of your blog for a while now. You are providing an excellent resource to your students. I have been a HIT lifer and have gained some weight over the years with too many calories and beers over time. I am looking to drop about 75lbs. One fellow that I know suggests I diet only and drop the weight training. He stated that I would lose weight at a more rapid weight if I concentrated solely on diet. He thinks that me being overweight is a stressor in itself, and that by adding more stress in the form of exercise that I will lose weight at a much slower pace than if I dropped all activity and concentrated on diet until I get closer to my goal weight. What is your opinion on my so-called buddy’s proposition?

Answer:

I’m sure your buddy means well, but he has no idea what he’s talking about. High intensity strength training is one of the best things you can do when dieting to lose weight because it helps to ensure the weight you’re losing is coming from fat rather than your hard-earned muscle. While excessive stress can negatively effect fat loss due to it’s impact on cortisol and other hormones, this is not a problem if you keep your high intensity workouts sufficiently brief and infrequent.

In addition to making it possible to maintain or even gain muscle while losing fat, even if stress hormones are working against you (according to Goldberg et al, “…muscular activity takes precedence over endocrine influences on muscle size”), high intensity training improves glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity, and increasing your muscle mass raises your metabolism and the amount of glucose that can be stored in your muscles as glycogen (so less of it is converted to triglycerides and stored as fat).

For many people high intensity training can even reduce stress, and many of the people I have trained over the past two decades have commented on feeling less stressed when they’re working out regularly. The level of mental focus required to perform a proper high intensity training workout does a great job of driving other thoughts out which may be causing you stress, at least for the duration, and many people report feeling more relaxed after their workouts.

Whatever you do, don’t drop your high intensity training workouts, because you don’t want to lose all that fat and end up with less muscle to show off when you do!

Roger Mann at 49

As an example, check out what 49 year old Roger Mann was able to achieve in just five months with a combination of diet and only one brief high intensity workout per week. He dropped from 195 down to 165 pounds, while getting stronger in the process. He could have lost the fat with diet alone and no strength training, but the results wouldn’t have been nearly this good.

References:

Goldberg A. L., Etlinger J. D., Goldspink D. F., Jablecki C. (1975). Mechanism of work-induced hypertrophy of skeletal muscle. Med. Sci. Sports 7, 185–198

Fox KR. The influence of physical activity on mental well-being. Public Health Nutr. 1999;2:411–8. doi: 10.1017/S1368980099000567

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