For a long time now, there’s been a big misconception that when you start a dieting phase, your training program changes as well. The first thing people normally do when deciding they want to lose weight and most importantly lose fat, is they turn their strength training sessions into almost cardio-like sessions. They lower the weight for many or even all exercises they have in their program and start doing higher reps and shorter rest periods in order to “burn more” during their training session. The idea behind this is that it helps burn extra calories which would in turn speed up the process of losing fat. While it is true that cardio is often needed in a dieting phase, this is a separate entity and should be used only as a tool when dieting. “Calorie burning” or in better words, an energy deficit, is done through the utilization of cardio and decreasing caloric intake over a period of time.

When dieting, the goal is to lose fat and to hold on to as much muscle mass as possible. Strength NEEDS to be prioritized during a strength training session in order to preserve muscle mass. In order to do this, you need to continue to train exactly the same. Whatever you do to build muscle needs to be done to maintain it. This is usually achieved through the process called progressive overload. Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress on the body produced during a training session such as adding in more reps per exercise and/or more weight over time and needs to be utilized during all phases to maintain or grow muscle.

Whether my clients are maintaining, dieting or in a slight caloric surplus, progressive overload is ALWAYS the goal because this is what helps preserve muscle mass. The only thing that needs to be done differently to lose fat is creating an energy deficit. An energy deficit is created by either adding in cardio, increasing your cardio amount and/or decreasing your caloric consumption. Cardio needs to be done at a separate time, not in between sets during strength training. It is also important to understand that some may need both cardio and a decrease in caloric consumption while others would only need one or the other. Some people are also more complex and other aspects may need to be looked at, such as stress, sleep, etc. 

As an online coach, I use this approach with all my clients whenever they enter a dieting phase. My clients are all different in terms of how much cardio they do and the amount of calories they consume but what is the same for each individual client, however, is that their training programs typically stay the same when they enter a dieting phase. A program may be slightly adjusted, for example, a certain movement could be rotated with a different one but not for the sake of losing fat. 

To reiterate, the goal when dieting is to lose fat and preserve muscle mass. The most crucial aspect to understand is that each individual needs to continue training hard and with real intensity during each training session. Progressive overload needs to happen and your training program stays the same in order to be able to overload and to preserve muscle mass. 

-Kaylin Hauge BS, CSCS

Disclaimer:  The author is not a physician or a registered dietitian. The contents of this article should not be taken as medical advice. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any health problem – nor is it intended to replace the advice of a physician.