When you hear the terms “low-carb” or “zero carb,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Well, it’s certainly not big-time strength gains. The way most people view the diets I’ve created, Carb Back-Loading is for mass and strength gains, and Carb Nite, my ultra-low-carb plan, is strictly for fat loss—with compromises in performance and strength levels.
Surprisingly, at least to people with preconceived notions about how these low-carb plans work, it doesn’t have to be this way. Several clients I’ve worked with, including massive powerlifters Mark Bell and Jesse Burdick, have continued to get stronger while adhering full-bore to the principles of Carb Nite. The issue, however, is the effectiveness of the plan. You’ll lose a ton of fat, and it’ll happen quickly—forcing you to make several adaptations with regard to biomechanical considerations and the way you schedule your training.
Let’s say you’re a really big, bulky guy who’s carrying a lot of body fat. With Carb Nite, guys like this will typically lose 20–40 pounds of fat over a three-month period. When this much fat comes off, the shape of your body goes through some drastic changes. Depending on how you train—but especially if you lift heavy—you’re going to have to figure out how this affects the way you move.
The first thing you’ll need to do is change your training schedule, because you’re going to find it very hard to maintain the volume and intensity of your workouts later in the week. The longer you stay on a diet like Carb Nite, the harder this will be. Jesse Burdick, a world-class powerlifter, and trainer at Combat Sports Academy in Dublin, CA, has a few suggestions:
“With my clients,” Burdick says, “I really don’t until they start to feel the ef fects of becoming ketogenic. If Carb Nite [the refeed] falls on a Sunday, this will happen by Thursday.” This means you’ll have to do the majority of your important training on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. The key, Burdick says, is to manage your week based on your Carb Nite—doing your hard, heavy stuff in the days immediately following, then tapering of as the week goes on. This takes advantage of the serious glycogen swell you’ll get from your refeed, then throttles it back as the week goes on—giving you only the amounts of volume and intensity you can tolerate in a state of carb depletion.
You’ll know exactly when you’re ketogenic, and when you’re there, it’s time to adjust your training. You’ll be sluggish, you won’t be able to process thoughts as well as you typically do, and you’ll feel lethargic. When this happens, you’ll need to cut your volume down drastically—my Shockwave Protocols are perfect for this—and increase your rest periods between each set.
For some, pushing higher volumes and intensities to a fourth workout day is possible, but this isn’t typical. Experiment with your schedule and see what’s effective. Again, it all depends on when you feel the effects of ketosis. With Shockwave, I’ve created a program that allows you to manage your volume every step of the way with ultra-low-carb diet plans like Carb Nite.
Losing large amounts of fat will change your leverages, which changes the way you lift heavy weights. “When you change your body like this,” Burdick says, “you’re not necessarily getting weaker. What you’re actually doing is changing your stroke on certain lifts. Your stroke gets longer, which means the bar has to travel a lot farther to get to the top of the lift.”
You’ll need a way to get back all those inches you’re losing. Guys who carry a lot of fat tend to rely on their girth to shorten their range of motion with the main lifts— the bench press, squat, and deadlift. If you drop the fat and find yourself getting “weaker,” focus on streamlining your technique by finding new ways—other than your massive gut—to become more efficient at these lifts. Burdick suggests using YouTube for this purpose. Find videos of experienced powerlifters with your same body type, and see how they perform their lifts.
“What a lot of guys do when they’re carrying a lot of fat,” Burdick says, “is lean on their belts at the bottom of a heavy squat. That’s not possible anymore when you drop a ton of fat. You can’t rely on that any longer, so now you’ll have to do it the right way, by staying more upright, using your hips, and pushing your knees out.”
The same principle applies to your bench press. If you’ve taken off 20–40 pounds of fat and you’re suddenly having problems pushing the bar off your chest, it’s because the bar has to travel a few more—or several more—inches from the bottom of your stroke. Have an experienced powerlifter adjust your setup, and start doing some extra work for your lats to compensate for the inches you’ve lost up front.
Finally, it’s also wise to streamline your exercise selection when you’re going ultra-low-carb. This is when it’s time to seriously simplify. With Carb Nite, you don’t need to do all sorts of crazy lifts with bands and chains. Instead, focus on the basics. Shockwave covers this in detail, and Burdick says to work on three to five main movements per week in order to learn your new form, figure out how your body moves at its new weight, and where your strengths and weaknesses are with your new leverages.
Finally, you can mitigate strength loss by downing a high-quality pre- and post- workout shake. I cover this in detail in both my books—especially Carb Back-Loading. Keep these principles in mind, and I think you’ll find—as many of my clients have— that gaining strength on an extremely low- carb diet plan isn’t nearly as “impossible” as you think.