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Losing Weight and Building Strength: Conflicting Goals?

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created May 31, 2012 at 3:20 PM

Morning, Hackers!

I'm a CrossFitter and caveman, and when I started on that path, my top two goals were to 1) lose fat and 2) become stronger. However, in the lats few months, it has seemed like these goals have been somewhat incompatible. I'm losing weight and I feel great, but I haven't been getting stronger on my benchmark lifts. Am I doing something wrong, or do I have to choose between these goals on a practical level?

Here's some background:

  • I'm a mid-20's male, 180#, 5' 10".
  • My target is 165# with <10% body fat.
  • I started doing CrossFit and Paleo at the end of September last year.
  • I do Paleo with zero grains and dairy products.
  • I do Zone with 17 blocks per day. (~1700-2200 Cal).
  • I do LeanGains IF, but I end the fast around noon and workout in the evening.
  • I enjoy fruits a lot, and they probably make up over 50% of my carb intake.
  • I cheat, but no more than a few times a week.
  • I've been taking 2 scoops of BSN Syntha-6 post-workout, but I'm thinking of cutting that out.
  • I go to CrossFit 3-4x/6-8hrs per week (including cash-out time).
  • I stretch, drink lots of water, lift heavy, and loosely manage my O3:O6 ratio.

My more technical lifts (cleans, snatches, etc.) have been improving, but I've barely improved my squat 3RM in these 9 months (185# --> 225#), and my deadlift 3RM has been stalled (if not degraded) around 305# for months. When I did StrongLifts 5x5 on a SAD diet with high protein, I improved extremely fast in these lifts.

On the other hand, my overheads, pull-ups, push-ups, and gymnastics have greatly improved, my aerobic endurance is markedly better, and I've lost around 35 pounds.

I really would like to improve my main lifts, but I'm worried about gaining back fat if I increase my intake. Is there some change I can make to have my cake and lose it, too?

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on June 04, 2012
at 02:08 PM

I'll give that a shot. Thanks!

F5be4be097edc85690c12d67ee1a27c0

(1884)

on June 01, 2012
at 03:16 PM

btw I'm not suggesting you quit Crossfit. But I do strongly suggest separating your Crossfit workouts with strength training workouts. I bet it will get you a LOT stronger if you did so.

F5be4be097edc85690c12d67ee1a27c0

(1884)

on June 01, 2012
at 03:12 PM

I guess the point is that Crossfit depletes you of being able to even consider lifting to your potential. It's a lot of unneccessary work if you are trying to get stronger. Those two things, yes, are conflicting. However, weight and strength do not conflict... but restricting your diet DOES conflict with strength training. i.e. Ivan Chakarov - small man, heaviest of heavy squats http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rodJM0n9fE

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on June 01, 2012
at 02:02 PM

Well, the problem is that my Paleo friends are the ones looking askance this time.

07ca188c8dac3a17f629dd87198d2098

(7970)

on June 01, 2012
at 01:30 PM

Have your friends also informed you that cutting out something so healthy and natural as whole grain wheat bread constitutes insanity?

07ca188c8dac3a17f629dd87198d2098

(7970)

on June 01, 2012
at 01:30 PM

You're right, if you eat rice the Paleo Police will hunt you down and arrest you. Oh wait, there aren't any Paleo Police! Truth is, rice is fairly benign and an excellent source of carbs. You can always trial it to see if affects you negatively.

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on May 31, 2012
at 09:17 PM

This is great advice; thank you! I'm probably too focused on the metrics and the measured results, but that's a large part of CrossFit culture, for better or worse. I do still think that I'm in the novice phase after 9 months, especially when it comes to bodily fitness, largely because I started off in such a poor state. When I reach that point, I'll take your advice to heart and decide on a focus.

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on May 31, 2012
at 09:12 PM

I love many other facets of CrossFit too much to give it up, but you make some great points. I'll consider increasing the focus on heavy weightlifting.

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on May 31, 2012
at 09:07 PM

Great clarification question. I primarily want two things: to be fitter, so that I can participate in as many activities as possible, and to look and feel lean and healthy. It's like Sisson says: "This is why I train... to play." I know that increasing my benchmark strength is beneficial to both these goals, which is why I'm concerned about it.

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on May 31, 2012
at 09:03 PM

I used to do StrongLifts 5x5, as I mentioned, which is very similar to what you're describing. It's a great program that was very successful for increasing my major lifts and I was building muscle, but I didn't feel any more functionally fit. When I said that I wanted to get "stronger", I really meant "fitter", but CrossFit has been dramatically improving all aspects of that except one, which is my benchmark strength (squat, deadlift, etc). Thus, I'm looking for a hack that improves that. When it comes to CF, to each his own, but I'll say that it changed my life, and I love it.

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on May 31, 2012
at 08:58 PM

I love Crossfit too much! I do have other goals that I didn't mention, and CrossFit is perfect for those. Thank you for the advice, though!

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on May 31, 2012
at 08:57 PM

I'm looking to get leaner, regardless of what that means for my total weight. That's a very interesting link. Thanks for posting it! I especially liked the discussion about cortisol levels. I have notoriously poor sleep habits, and I didn't consider before that elevated cortisol levels might be getting in the way of all of my goals. Focusing on certain lifts is also good advice. I think I'll set aside some open gym time to try to improve them.

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on May 31, 2012
at 08:40 PM

While I don't think that rice is Paleo, I do think that the fruits might be standing in the way of my goals. However, my friends have also informed me that cutting out something so healthy and natural as fruits constitutes insanity.

F5be4be097edc85690c12d67ee1a27c0

(1884)

on May 31, 2012
at 08:33 PM

No, I know. I despise Crossfit and will never understand why anybody would want to do as many terrible pullups as possible. But it seems like anybody who has a paleo blog is into Crossfit. I don't get it, so I'm glad you guys don't either. I'll stick to strength training and muay thai.

F5be4be097edc85690c12d67ee1a27c0

(1884)

on May 31, 2012
at 08:32 PM

No, I know. I HATE Crossfit and will never understand why anybody would want to do as many terrible pullups as possible. But it seems like anybody who has a paleo blog is into Crossfit. I don't get it, so I'm glad you guys don't either. I'll stick to strength training and muay thai.

F0a3e3f17d9a740810ac37ff2353a9f3

(3804)

on May 31, 2012
at 06:13 PM

@Joshua: I've never understood the connection between CrossFit and a Paleolithic lifestyle, and the more I learn about CrossFit, the less I understand it.

246ebf68e35743f62e5e187891b9cba0

(21430)

on May 31, 2012
at 05:41 PM

"I know I'm going against the Paleo Gods"... For the record, Crossfit is not a component of Paleo. There are plenty who do not advocate Crossfit. Before Crossfit existed, I was lifting the core 3 and eating a Paleo diet.

870fdea50f2a9f1cd2890c8e22549300

(2056)

on May 31, 2012
at 05:01 PM

Increased strength frequently decreases flexibility.

870fdea50f2a9f1cd2890c8e22549300

(2056)

on May 31, 2012
at 05:00 PM

Not everyone breaks fitness into only three factors. There is also an association between balance and longevity, just as there is an association between strength and longevity. "Endurance" has several different meanings as well.

81fca18329e68e227cdfef3857bfef96

(1320)

on May 31, 2012
at 04:47 PM

Strength is the most important factor of human fitness (strength, mobility, and endurance being the 3 factors). Being stronger improves endurance and mobility. Conversely, being more mobile (flexible) or able to run a marathon does not give increased performance in the two other areas. Fit by Lon Kilgore discusses this and the reasons for it. Also, several studies have correlated the link between strength and longevity.

F0a3e3f17d9a740810ac37ff2353a9f3

(3804)

on May 31, 2012
at 04:04 PM

+1...I would only add that when everything else is "optimized", the limiting factor for increasing strength is recovery time.

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8 Answers

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10
510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on May 31, 2012
at 03:40 PM

When people start working out, especially with crossfit, there's a novice effect where everything improves: you get stronger, faster, lose weight, feel better, etc. But once you reach a point you need to focus your efforts and pick a goal. Crossfit's random, unknown, and unknowable is great for the novice, but you will need a smart program after you start to level off. If you want to get strong, you will have to give up the metcons. If you want to go fast, you'll have to reduce the lifting. If you want to be great at the gymnasics, you will have to give up some on the lifts. That's just the way it goes, you can't be great at everything.

I was commenting yesterday about a guy worrying about a specific number for his percent body fat. I'll do the same here about specific lifts. I used to be like that and worry about what weights I was putting overhead or deadlifting and basing my self worth on the fact that I got or missed that 100kg jerk. But over the last 18 months I quit worrying about the number. I lift what feels heavy for today. If I'm having a good day, then I lift more. If I had a busy day at work and got less sleep the night before, "heavy" may be less weight. It doesn't matter, the goal is just to keep getting stronger. Since I quit worrying about specific numbers (Fran time, C&J, max pullups) and just train smart all of those numbers actually got better.

I guess basically, what I'm advocating is that you pick what you want, find out how to train for that goal, and go for it. Don't worry about specific numbers, just do your best and train faithfully to the program you pick, and you'll get better. But be aware that there are trade-offs and no one is great at everything.

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on May 31, 2012
at 09:17 PM

This is great advice; thank you! I'm probably too focused on the metrics and the measured results, but that's a large part of CrossFit culture, for better or worse. I do still think that I'm in the novice phase after 9 months, especially when it comes to bodily fitness, largely because I started off in such a poor state. When I reach that point, I'll take your advice to heart and decide on a focus.

F0a3e3f17d9a740810ac37ff2353a9f3

(3804)

on May 31, 2012
at 04:04 PM

+1...I would only add that when everything else is "optimized", the limiting factor for increasing strength is recovery time.

4
81fca18329e68e227cdfef3857bfef96

(1320)

on May 31, 2012
at 04:11 PM

Short answer...Yes, losing weight and gaining strength is difficult for novices (beginners to strength training) and almost impossible for more advanced lifters. To lose weight, a calorie deficit must be created. To build strength, muscle mass must be generated and a calorie surplus is needed. Two conflicting goals. That being said. If you have a higher BF%, you can gain strength and lose weight as your body will use your excess fat to bridge the calorie gap for recovery. This condition exists in novices.

Your squat and deadlift 3RM is your indicator for strength, not technical oly lifts. The fact that you are noticing strength losses is telling. The reason you have not made strength gains is because Crossfit is not a strength training program. Many CF gyms have begun to include separate strength training programs into their programming for this reason. Look up Crossfit Football and Crossfit Endurance for examples. Lift Heavy/run sprints (prowler work) has been the standard template for making people bigger, stronger, faster, with more endurance since antiquity. CF boxes that program in 2-3 days of separate strength training follow this template and just replace sprinting with met cons.

I would suggest adopting a strength training program like Starting Strength, add 2 days of sprints, and walk on off days to meet your goals. You will be achieve your goals and save a lot of $$$ in CF gym fees.

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on May 31, 2012
at 09:12 PM

I love many other facets of CrossFit too much to give it up, but you make some great points. I'll consider increasing the focus on heavy weightlifting.

2
631b29d5ab1146e264e91d08103bb72c

on May 31, 2012
at 03:51 PM

Losing fat and gaining muscle are incompatible if attempted on a 17 block diet.

Try unweighed/unmeasured plus CFfootball or other strength biased program and you should see muscle increase and fat decrease simultaneously.

2
07ca188c8dac3a17f629dd87198d2098

(7970)

on May 31, 2012
at 03:26 PM

Check out http://leangains.com, which combines carb cycling and intermittent fasting for Great Win. More info or perhaps more approachable is http://rippedbody.jp - specifically http://www.leangains.com/2010/04/leangains-guide.html or http://rippedbody.jp/intermittent-fasting-leangains-introduction-benefits/

Whoops, I see you already do LG IF. Maybe you should concentrate on the nutrition and timing aspects. I've also found better success using rice and potatoes as my carb source, not fruit.

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on May 31, 2012
at 08:40 PM

While I don't think that rice is Paleo, I do think that the fruits might be standing in the way of my goals. However, my friends have also informed me that cutting out something so healthy and natural as fruits constitutes insanity.

07ca188c8dac3a17f629dd87198d2098

(7970)

on June 01, 2012
at 01:30 PM

Have your friends also informed you that cutting out something so healthy and natural as whole grain wheat bread constitutes insanity?

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on June 01, 2012
at 02:02 PM

Well, the problem is that my Paleo friends are the ones looking askance this time.

07ca188c8dac3a17f629dd87198d2098

(7970)

on June 01, 2012
at 01:30 PM

You're right, if you eat rice the Paleo Police will hunt you down and arrest you. Oh wait, there aren't any Paleo Police! Truth is, rice is fairly benign and an excellent source of carbs. You can always trial it to see if affects you negatively.

1
9e6c3e5aa7f9a5fd2a0966fe933a73b7

on May 31, 2012
at 06:20 PM

First, do you want to lose "weight" or "fat"? The two are not necessarily the same. I would suggest only trying to lose fat unless you're in a competitive sport with weight classes. There are programs for improving overall strength and relative strength (strength relative to body weight). The former will induce some hypertrophy as well as neuromuscular adaptations, while the latter will be almost exclusively neuromuscular adaptations. From what I've read, you should focus on specific lifts and practice those when you lift weights. For example you mentioned your squat and deadlift. Instead of crossfit, go to the gym and practice your squat and deadlift with sets of two or three reps. This should increase your strength without a lot of muscular hypertrophy. I've heard on Robb Wolf's podcast that it's hard to have a really low body fat level while doing crossfit and glycolitically demanding work. I can't find the exact podcast, but here's a link along the same lines. Good luck to ya.

http://robbwolf.com/2008/09/10/exercise-effective-for-fat-gain/

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on May 31, 2012
at 08:57 PM

I'm looking to get leaner, regardless of what that means for my total weight. That's a very interesting link. Thanks for posting it! I especially liked the discussion about cortisol levels. I have notoriously poor sleep habits, and I didn't consider before that elevated cortisol levels might be getting in the way of all of my goals. Focusing on certain lifts is also good advice. I think I'll set aside some open gym time to try to improve them.

1
6da7ce6a4a250c46a6e78b5b4e22da83

(987)

on May 31, 2012
at 05:06 PM

If I were you, I'd ditch the Zone and the Crossfit. Just follow the Leangains recommendations regarding calorie and macronutrient cycling, as well as the Leangains exercise advice. But just use paleo foods. It's hard to beat Paleo/Leangains for losing fat while gaining strength. If those are your goals, adding in crossfit and the Zone seem counterproductive, IMO.

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on May 31, 2012
at 08:58 PM

I love Crossfit too much! I do have other goals that I didn't mention, and CrossFit is perfect for those. Thank you for the advice, though!

1
870fdea50f2a9f1cd2890c8e22549300

(2056)

on May 31, 2012
at 04:37 PM

I've really debated answering this, and started and discarded several answers. This probably should be a comment, but it has too many characters to fit.

When you say your goal is to "become stronger," why is that your goal? What does "stronger" signify to you?

Do you need to be stronger than you are now to function better during the day?

Do you equate increased strength (as measured by your main lifts) with better overall health?

Do you want to feel good mentally that you are lifting heavier weights (are you loving seeing the numbers go up, do you like putting the really heavy plates on the bar)?

Do you like the physical feeling you get from lifting near your maximum?

Or do you want your body to look a certain way?

I ask this because your approach will differ depending on WHY you want to be strong. I am not at all saying that one of the reasons above is more meritorious than others, or that you have to pick one (I personally mostly like to look good, although there are some "functional fitness" aspects for me as well).

I would note parenthetically that physical fitness has a number of components and I think aspects such as flexibility, coordination, accuracy, and balance frequently get short shrift in favor of power, strength, and stamina. I suppose CF helps with the other components (not a CF fan).

I assume that your question is implying are these goals conflicting if done simultaneously. I think they're totally unrelated goals that are almost impossible to achieve simultaneously, but can be achieved by the same person in the same lifetime in fairly close sequence. I think it's easier to lose fat first. When you add muscle your weight may go up but your body fat percentage will lower.

870fdea50f2a9f1cd2890c8e22549300

(2056)

on May 31, 2012
at 05:00 PM

Not everyone breaks fitness into only three factors. There is also an association between balance and longevity, just as there is an association between strength and longevity. "Endurance" has several different meanings as well.

870fdea50f2a9f1cd2890c8e22549300

(2056)

on May 31, 2012
at 05:01 PM

Increased strength frequently decreases flexibility.

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on May 31, 2012
at 09:07 PM

Great clarification question. I primarily want two things: to be fitter, so that I can participate in as many activities as possible, and to look and feel lean and healthy. It's like Sisson says: "This is why I train... to play." I know that increasing my benchmark strength is beneficial to both these goals, which is why I'm concerned about it.

81fca18329e68e227cdfef3857bfef96

(1320)

on May 31, 2012
at 04:47 PM

Strength is the most important factor of human fitness (strength, mobility, and endurance being the 3 factors). Being stronger improves endurance and mobility. Conversely, being more mobile (flexible) or able to run a marathon does not give increased performance in the two other areas. Fit by Lon Kilgore discusses this and the reasons for it. Also, several studies have correlated the link between strength and longevity.

1
F5be4be097edc85690c12d67ee1a27c0

on May 31, 2012
at 03:42 PM

Elunah - have you considered doing a strength training program instead of Crossfit?

I know I'm going against the Paleo Gods when I say that Crossfit is not the best thing for strengthening, but it's true.

I've increased my squat by a ton, and I'm still going... AND I'm losing weight.

http://startingstrength.wikia.com/wiki/The_Starting_Strength_Novice/Beginner_Programs

Mark Rippetoe is a genius and all of his methods allow you to lift to your max potential. He also is so strict on form and doing correct technique that it will help you a LOT more in Crossfit which promotes flimsy technique and the ability to 'just do it'. Yes, we even saw this horrible technique at work on the Crossfit Games a couple weeks ago. If they used correct form, they would be able to lift a lot more.

Anyway, the program is your basic lifts. Squats, Deadlifts, Presses, Bench, etc. You start lower doing DEEPLY correct technique 3 sets of 5 reps. The next workout you add 2.5 lbs to each side. This continues until you start hitting your limit - I bought 1.25 lb weights for these moments. Sometimes I do the same weight 3-4 workouts until I'm comfortable and then continue increasing.

You don't need to gain weight to do this. You're building muscle, burning fat, and enhancing your body's ability to stabilize such weight for the range of motion.

F5be4be097edc85690c12d67ee1a27c0

(1884)

on May 31, 2012
at 08:33 PM

No, I know. I despise Crossfit and will never understand why anybody would want to do as many terrible pullups as possible. But it seems like anybody who has a paleo blog is into Crossfit. I don't get it, so I'm glad you guys don't either. I'll stick to strength training and muay thai.

F0a3e3f17d9a740810ac37ff2353a9f3

(3804)

on May 31, 2012
at 06:13 PM

@Joshua: I've never understood the connection between CrossFit and a Paleolithic lifestyle, and the more I learn about CrossFit, the less I understand it.

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on May 31, 2012
at 09:03 PM

I used to do StrongLifts 5x5, as I mentioned, which is very similar to what you're describing. It's a great program that was very successful for increasing my major lifts and I was building muscle, but I didn't feel any more functionally fit. When I said that I wanted to get "stronger", I really meant "fitter", but CrossFit has been dramatically improving all aspects of that except one, which is my benchmark strength (squat, deadlift, etc). Thus, I'm looking for a hack that improves that. When it comes to CF, to each his own, but I'll say that it changed my life, and I love it.

246ebf68e35743f62e5e187891b9cba0

(21430)

on May 31, 2012
at 05:41 PM

"I know I'm going against the Paleo Gods"... For the record, Crossfit is not a component of Paleo. There are plenty who do not advocate Crossfit. Before Crossfit existed, I was lifting the core 3 and eating a Paleo diet.

F5be4be097edc85690c12d67ee1a27c0

(1884)

on June 01, 2012
at 03:16 PM

btw I'm not suggesting you quit Crossfit. But I do strongly suggest separating your Crossfit workouts with strength training workouts. I bet it will get you a LOT stronger if you did so.

F5be4be097edc85690c12d67ee1a27c0

(1884)

on May 31, 2012
at 08:32 PM

No, I know. I HATE Crossfit and will never understand why anybody would want to do as many terrible pullups as possible. But it seems like anybody who has a paleo blog is into Crossfit. I don't get it, so I'm glad you guys don't either. I'll stick to strength training and muay thai.

F5be4be097edc85690c12d67ee1a27c0

(1884)

on June 01, 2012
at 03:12 PM

I guess the point is that Crossfit depletes you of being able to even consider lifting to your potential. It's a lot of unneccessary work if you are trying to get stronger. Those two things, yes, are conflicting. However, weight and strength do not conflict... but restricting your diet DOES conflict with strength training. i.e. Ivan Chakarov - small man, heaviest of heavy squats http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rodJM0n9fE

F694fc245d03b64d6936ddb29f4c9306

(2613)

on June 04, 2012
at 02:08 PM

I'll give that a shot. Thanks!

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