Let’s not kid ourselves. The majority of us lifting and sweating our days away in the gym want to look good naked. There’s no shame in admitting that fact. For advanced athletes, it can even be taboo because they’re supposed to be training for performance, not looks…but who doesn’t want to look good at the beach? Putting all that time and effort into the gym for your body to not “show” the level of fitness you represent can be irritating. I remember putting up some big numbers in college but I was still a hefty guy. Everyone at the pool would look at my friends who were so much weaker than myself but had abs and abs got, and still get, attention. So, can you have your cake and eat it too? In some circumstances you can. Let’s take a look at 3 categories of people and see if they can improve looks while becoming stronger and faster.
BEGINNERS (> 2 years of serious lifting)
Congrats! If you see yourself as a beginner then you will definitely see aesthetic and performance changes. The bad news? You’re in poor shape. You probably have a lot of excess body fat (easily 20%+ for men and 27% for women). Even if you already have some decent strength (which most beginners don’t have) you’ll still save a good bit of muscle mass and probably increase some of it as you lose weight. At the minimum your callisthenic strength (body weight exercises) will improve. The 2 biggest advantages people have in this category will be nutrition and training experience.
Basic improvements in nutrition are pretty simple and effective: eat more vegetables, focus on lean protein at every meal, smaller portions, drink plenty of water, etc. Nearly every diet you’ve heard of will have most of these basic rules. The reason nearly all of them work, at least for a while, is because you’ll eat a more nutrient dense diet with fewer calories. Nearly everything about your body will begin to improve. Body fat goes down, energy levels go up, intestinal health improves, etc. As for training, nearly any basic lifting program will work. Your body is primed to adapt to new stressors. Sure, it’s painful at first but that passes in a few weeks. Your body loves the new stresses and uses the improved diet to help regrow your muscle tissue while sapping fat cells for energy. It’s a win-win!
INTERMEDIATE (2-3 years of serious lifting and/or recreational athletes)
This is where things can get a little tricky. Yes, you can still improve performance and aesthetic goals….but not by much. This is where you need to start giving priority to one or the other. If you’ve become addicted to seeing the lifting numbers go up and up then you’ll have a harder time focusing on the aesthetic goals. You’ll be a little depressed because the numbers won’t jump as high on the bar because you’re now in a caloric deficit. As a reminder, being in a caloric deficit in MANDATORY when losing weight, no exceptions. On the good side, your body fat will continue to drop.
If you can stay focused on the aesthetic goals then you’ll be rocking away a leaner, fitter you. The key is to take it slow with your diet. Don’t cut calories too fast or you’ll lose strength as well as fat. No one wants a skinny fat body by Summer time so don’t rush things. Losing 1-2% of your body weight per week is a nice steady goal. Anything more than that and you’ll lose muscle mass and performance will go south.
ADVANCED (3+ years of serious lifting and/or competitive athletes)
This is the special group. Your only focus is performance. But, like the rest of us you too want to look good in a bathing suit. So, how do we get you leaner when you’re a competitive athlete. The first step is to look at your training schedule for the year and mark down the competition days (i.e. Powerlifting or Weightlifting meet, Crossfit or Strongman competition). Once those days are set we can begin the focus on aesthetics.
You’ll want to be at least 4-5 months out from your competition in order to give yourself time to lean out while maintaining some of your strength. The best way to do this is to kick up the volume with your lifts (6-12 rep range). This will help maintain muscle mass as your body fat drops due to a caloric deficit. Much like the “intermediate” trainees you’ll need to be on a steady drop in calories so you don’t lose lean mass. Too much too soon and you’ll wind up with the same amount of body fat and less muscle. Less muscle means less strength.
About 2-3 months before your competition you should begin shifting gears to focus on strength/performance improvement. Done correctly you’ll maintain a good amount of body fat loss while increasing your strength levels since that can be greatly enhanced via central nervous system. Neural drive is taxing but doesn’t required a massive caloric surplus to achieve bigger numbers.
STAY FIT MY FRIENDS!