Is your strength doomed while losing fat?

written by Philip Stefanov  |  APRIL 6, 2021

Prevailing wisdom claims that fat loss comes with strength loss. This notion comes primarily from the understanding that, as we diet down and get leaner, we also lose some muscle mass.

While I tend to agree about the muscle loss to some degree, I don’t believe that it is as significant for most people who diet slowly and don’t drop below 10-12% body fat. And that’s for experienced lifters with decent muscular development. De-trained and new lifters can expect to gain muscle while losing fat (1, 2).

But muscle mass aside, other factors also contribute to strength gains, and one such is neuromuscular efficiency. Most people don’t realize just how important neuromuscular adaptation is for strength. To demonstrate how significant it is, allow me to share three examples of it:

  • Naim Süleymanoğlu clean and jerked 190 kilos (~419 pounds) and snatched 152.5 kilos (~336 pounds) at a body weight of just 62 kilos (~136 pounds) in the 1988 Olympics.
  • Lei Liu bench presses 226 kilos (~498 pounds) at a body weight of 67.5 kilos (~149 pounds). Oh, and without leg drive or a massive arch his back.
  • And most recently, Tao Wenli front squatted 197 kilos (~435 pounds) at a body weight of 55 kilos (~121 pounds) with impeccable technique.

Mind = Blown

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure now that I haven’t reached more than 0.000003% of my neuromuscular capacity.

Neural capacity is what allows a single person to lift a car off a trapped child when the need arises. The last time I checked, none of us can do that on a whim. Therefore our biggest roadblock isn’t the lack of muscular development but neuromuscular efficiency.

To improve our neuromuscular efficiency, the best thing we can do is practice. Getting stronger with particular lifts, like many things, is a skill that needs to be practiced.

  • Lift heavy weight (75-80%+ of your 1RM) in the lower rep ranges of 1-4 with proper form. Specificity is critical.
  • Practice the lifts you want to improve two to four times per week. More frequent exposure leads to quicker adaptations.
  • Don’t train to failure, especially if you’re losing fat. Always leave some repetitions in the tank.

Your recovery will be impaired in a calorie deficit, so it’s important to control your volume and allocate most of it to practice the main exercises you want to improve.

More deadlifts, squats, bench, chin-ups, and overhead presses. Fewer bicep curls, tricep extensions, and calf raises.

Thank you for your time! Until next week,


P.S. Back in the day, I would first lose strength on the overhead and bench press. Once I began dieting more slowly and focusing on maintaining my strength, I found it wasn’t that challenging. I’ve even had periods where I would lose fat and increase my strength.


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