We hope we make clear on this blog that building muscle, and getting in shape generally, isn’t just about hard work in the gym.
Just as important as the repeated lifting of heavy objects and placing them down again are both your nutrition and your recovery.
All 3 elements are keystones of any effective body transformation. And all are of equal importance.
That said, even as a bodybuilding and strength training focused blog, we will admit that your nutrition is arguably the most important thing to get right in your life, certainly from a general wellbeing perspective.
Then again, you obviously can’t function without consistent quality sleep and you want to avoid being sedentary too often, that is you want to move regularly for cardiovascular health.
But, we are a muscle building focused blog thus we are not only interested in general wellbeing, but also in building a chiseled physique reminiscent of a mythological Greek god.
We have a general article on nutrition for muscle growth here but wanted to follow up with some specific articles on the different phases you will need to get acquainted with as part of any successful body transformation.
Just like your resistance training, your nutrition needs to adapt to both your goals and your current training cycle to avoid stalling.
In this article, we are going to look at cutting, which is the process of reducing your body fat while trying to maintain as much muscle mass as possible.
The overall aim is to better show off all the muscle you’ve spent many months and years growing.
First, a health warning
Cutting should be seen as a more advanced training technique and only undertaken when you’ve nailed the nutritional basics.
That is, you are comfortable tracking your daily caloric intake, have a good idea of what your maintenance intake is, and can stick with a regular and disciplined eating regime (quality, quantity, timings etc.).
If you go to the gym for general health and wellbeing you likely don’t need to cut.
Eating at or slightly above maintenance, rather than cycling between cuts and bulks, will be effective for improving your physical appearance and managing excess body fat. Provided you are eating a healthy diet with sufficient protein intake and actually doing the heavy lifting in the gym.
If you are already reasonably lean, then cutting to reveal abs and muscle striations has no purpose other than for the sake of doing it. Hell, being super ripped can actually be unhealthy. So make sure you are clear on what you want to achieve and why.
We don’t say this because cutting is ineffective, as it absolutely is. But it is more extreme and the constant yo-yoing from bulks, to maintenance, to cuts is taxing both physically and mentally.
We know that much of the developed world could do with shedding a few pounds. But we also know that mental health issues related to diet are extremely prevalent. This goes doubly so for many avid gym goers.
Again, losing excess body fat is a great thing to do. But getting YouTube lean isn’t always healthy, either physically or mentally, and for most of us is completely unsustainable.
So try to set realistic expectations for your weight loss and appearance and accept it takes time. Small daily changes in eating and moving habits will achieve great results and are likely far more sustainable.
With that said, let’s take a dive into cutting and learn how to do it.
Why is nutrition so important for muscle building and/or fat loss?
First up, let’s have a quick refresh on why nutrition matters so much when we are trying to build muscle, improve our fitness, or lose/gain weight.
As a starter, it’s important to understand the following basic principle:
You need a base level of energy to live and additional energy to fuel your workouts and muscle growth.
This energy comes from the food you consume and is measured in calories.
A calorie is a unit of energy. When you hear something described as containing 100 calories it’s a way of describing how much energy your body obtains from you eating or drinking it.
Our bodies need a minimum amount of energy (calories) each day to keep up our core functions – breathing, moving, thinking, repairing cells, keeping warm – and a whole host of other essential activities that keep us alive and well.
The amount of calories needed each day to sustain these core basic bodily functions is referred to as your basal metabolic rate (BMR).
Importantly, your BMR is the minimum you need to keep your body running. If you want to do more, for example, lift weights and grow muscle, you need additional energy to facilitate this.
In really simple terms the amount of calories you need to be consuming each day to build muscle is a total of your BMR PLUS the calories required to fuel your workouts PLUS the calories required to repair and build new muscle tissue.
This total figure is often referred to as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or, TDEE.
Strictly speaking, your TDEE is a maintenance figure. That is, consuming calories equal to your TDEE would maintain your current weight.
To increase your weight, or build muscle, you need to consume calories above your TDEE.
Conversely, if you want to lose weight (cut), you need to consume fewer calories than your TDEE figure.
Although this is a simplification, and you should consider other factors, it’s worth restating that the number one rule for losing weight is to ensure you are in a caloric deficit. That is, you are burning more calories than you are consuming.
What is cutting in a bodybuilding context?
When cutting you limit your caloric intake in the hope of losing body fat to better reveal the chiseled muscle you’ve spent so long working on in the gym.
By reducing your daily caloric intake below your daily expenditure you enter a negative energy balance. This forces your body to acquire the energy it needs from your reserves, ideally your body fat stores.
Cutting should be viewed differently from just losing weight. Although a drop in body weight will most often be the outcome, the key difference is that a cut is trying to specifically lose body fat while maintaining as much lean muscle as possible.
So cutting is a bit more complicated than just lowering calories. There are other measures you should employ too to ensure you maintain as much lean muscle mass as possible while burning off the fat.
It’s worth pointing out that as a novice trainee you could realistically increase your overall body weight and still manage to ‘cut’ down your body fat. When new to the gym you can pack on a fair amount of muscle mass in a short amount of time and this may counter any weight loss from a reduction in body fat.
In most instances, however, cutting will produce a decrease in overall body weight. And, although we aim to maintain as much muscle mass as possible, a small amount of muscle and strength loss is to be expected.
The key principles of a successful cut
So, what do you actually want to be doing to give yourself the best chance of reducing body fat to reveal your hard earned gym gains?
1. Once more with feeling, you must be in a caloric deficit!
Yes, there is some evidence that not all calories are created equal. But, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, when trying to cut, realise that the number one rule is to be in a caloric deficit.
That is, you must be burning more calories than you are consuming.
The easiest and most effective way to create a daily caloric deficit is to reduce the number of calories you consume. I.e. eat less.
The deficit doesn’t need to be huge, but it must be a deficit and it must be maintained consistently over multiple weeks for you to see any substantial weight loss.
We’ll cover how to calculate a sensible caloric deficit below.
2. Keep your protein up, drop the fat (or the carbs if this works for you)
We need to eat less to create a daily caloric deficit. But we also want to give ourselves the best chance of maintaining muscle mass and keeping our energy levels up for the hard work in the gym.
So when creating your daily calorie deficit it makes sense to first focus on a reduction in your fats while keeping your protein and carbs at maintenance.
Due to fat’s high caloric value you may find you can create a moderate deficit without too much sacrifice.
Don’t drop your fat intake below 1g per kg of body weight, however. If you are at this level and need to create more of a caloric deficit, focus on reducing carbs next before hitting the protein.
Remember, you only need 1.6 – 2.2g of protein per KG of body weight each day so you shouldn’t find yourself in a situation where you are having to sacrifice carbs to maintain your protein intake.
3. Keep up the heavy lifting
Obviously, if we are trying to maintain muscle but lose fat it is essential we keep up the resistance training.
Although a small amount of muscle and strength loss is to be expected while cutting. You can minimise any loss by consistently hitting the gym.
Note that you may need to tweak your programme slightly due to the reduced energy you’ll have on a cut (see below) and to support your body to hold on to as much lean muscle mass as possible.
4. Move more
It’s annoying but, unfortunately, cardio doesn’t burn off many calories.
The old adage that you can’t outrun a bad diet is undoubtedly true. But this doesn’t mean cardio is completely useless or that it shouldn’t form part of your cutting protocol.
It will burn off some calories and will help make your body more efficient at burning more of them throughout the day.
And let’s not forget the many other benefits of cardio in addition to weight loss/weight management. You should be doing something that raises your heart rate every day anyway, regardless of any weight loss aspirations.
Plus, for most people, a sensible daily caloric deficit that will help them lose weight will only be 300-500 calories (see our example below)
If you can get 100-200 of this from cardio then you only need to make relatively minor tweaks to your diet, which makes your chances of adherence and long term success all the more likely.
How much weight should I look to cut each week?
A sensible weight loss ballpark to aim for when cutting is 0.25 to 0.5% of your total bodyweight per week.
This may seem like a small amount. But if you try to lose more than this each week you will likely also begin to lose a fair amount of muscle mass too. And we want to avoid this as much as possible.
So small amounts each week, slow and steady, is the way to go.
As an example, if you weigh in at 165lbs (75kg) then you’d look to cut the calories/increase cardio so that your body weight reduces by approx 0.4 – 0.8 of a lb per week (or approx 180-360 grams).
It’s unlikely your scales are that accurate, so rounding up to the nearest sensible number works fine.
Remember that your weight can fluctuate widely from day to day, with a whole kilo/2 lbs change not being uncommon.
So make sure to weigh yourself regularly during the week and take an average to help smooth out the results.
Plus, try to always weigh yourself at a similar time and in a similar state, e.g. when you first wake up, in just your smalls and after you’ve been to the toilet.
*if you are very new to lifting, you may be able to cut fat and build muscle at the same time. In this case, you may find that your body weight stays pretty static or even increases a touch. If you’re getting stronger in the gym and the bathroom shirt off selfies are getting more impressive, you’re on the right track and perhaps don’t need to stress about your weight just yet.
How many calories when cutting?
1lb of body fat is roughly equivalent to 3500 calories. So, to lose 1lb over a week you’d need to create a 3500 calorie deficit, or 500 calories per day.
But, we want to reduce our fat by a percentage of our existing body weight rather than a fixed amount. So we use the following rough rule to calculate a more individual figure.
Take your current body weight and multiply it by the percentage figure you wish to cut. Take this figure and multiple it by 500 and you will have the daily calorie deficit you are aiming to create.
Using our 165lb example:
165 X 0.005 = 0.825
0.825 X 500 = 412.5
So the starting caloric deficit we want to create each day is approximately 400 calories.
A few more things to think about....
1. Cutting is not a quick fix and should be supported by ‘diet breaks’
Cutting should be a slow and steady process and if you’ve never cut before, best undertaken over several months.
Yes, you could jump straight into a huge daily calorie deficit and may well drop several kilos in a matter of weeks. But you’ll most likely struggle to complete your workouts and be shedding a lot of muscle mass too. And your body will quickly slam on the brakes through sheer panic and put a halt to any fat loss and/or shed more muscle mass instead.
The smarter approach is to stay in a small caloric deficit over a longer period, gently ramping up the deficit and cardio as the weeks progress.
There is no definite length of time for an ideal cut but, as a cutting novice, you should be thinking 8-12 weeks.
That said, your pesky body will fight you all the way and become more and more reluctant to shred fat. Thus you should also employ regular ‘diet breaks’ where you increase your calorie intake to help keep your body onside, restore your glycogen levels for consistent gym performance, and support your mood, thus adherence to the cut.
More recent research seems to suggest that a 5 day on/2 day off cutting process is highly effective. That is, you are in a more severe cut for 5 days in a week and then increase your intake back up to near maintenance for 2 days.
These 2 days at or near maintenance calories help with recovery, thus prep for another week of hard training, and mentally as you have a break from a restricted diet.
If you adopt this approach you may want to increase your daily deficit slightly for 5 days per week to account for the 2 days at near maintenance.
Alternatively, and especially if only in a moderate daily caloric deficit, you may find that cutting for 2-3 weeks at a time, followed by a week back at maintenance before returning to another 2-3 week cut is also effective.
2. It may may take a few attempts to really shred down
Getting uber lean, we’re taking the full washboard abs and vein popping, is really tough. And it is very unlikely you’ll get anywhere near this level of body fat (<10%) at your first attempt.
As with your training, it takes time for your body to adapt and a sensible timescale to look at if you really want to get super lean is 12 months with 2 or 3 separate cutting periods bookmarked with periods at maintenance.
3. You can’t stay super lean forever AND grow muscle
As discussed, the key rule for cutting is that we must be in a caloric deficit. That is, we must be burning more calories than we are consuming.
The key rule for building muscle (in tandem with doing the actual lifting) is to be in a caloric surplus. That is, we must be consuming more calories than we are burning.
See the contradiction? You cannot stay super lean and build muscle.
This doesn’t mean you have to be fat to get stronger. But if you want to continually improve in the gym then you will have to have phases where you are bulking. And if you are bulking, or just above maintenance, then you will gain fat as well as muscle.
The people who stay around 10% body fat permanently AND still manage to grow muscle and smash big numbers are freaks of nature or, more likely (read most definitely), not natural.
4. You may need to alter your exercise selection and increase your training volume
Remember, you need calories for the energy to not only grow/maintain muscle mass but also to complete your workouts. But when cutting and in a calorie deficit you have fewer calories (thus energy) to spare.
Due to this reduced energy, you may want to make some minor tweaks to both your exercise selection and training volume.
Deadlifts, squats, heavy benches and rows are fantastic all-over muscle builders. But they take a huge toll on your body and the fatigue they produce can be tougher to deal with in a caloric deficit/on a cut.
It will vary by individual, and you may well be totally fine sticking with the big compound moves. But if you’re struggling to complete your workouts and/or seeing big drops in your lifting performance, try swapping out some of the big lifts for less fatigue-inducing alternatives. E.g. RDL for deadlift, leg press for squat, DB presses for bench.
Also, due to the negative impact of a long term caloric surplus on your muscle mass, you may find you need to increase your overall weekly volume to maintain your current muscularity.
It’s a smart idea, therefore, to increase your reps across the board to make sure you are working your muscles sufficiently as your cutting cycle progresses.
You will have to accept a certain amount of strength and mass loss on a cut. But you can maintain the majority of your lean gains through hard work and smart programming.
And whatever you do lose can easily be regained when you return to a maintenance or bulking phase.
When done sensibly, and given sufficient time, cutting is very effective for fat loss and can deliver incredible physical changes.
You should be aware of what you are getting into, however, and appreciate that like other aspects of your training it takes time and effort to be effective.
And if setting yourself the goal of being uber lean, 6 pack abs and multiple muscle striations, be sure you really want to achieve it and be prepared for multiple cuts over many months and a pretty unpleasant experience overall.
But, more moderate cuts needn’t be taxing or complicated.
A relatively small daily caloric deficit, combined with additional cardio and a sensible high protein diet, maintained consistently over multiple weeks will result in a lower body fat percentage and a more chiselled physique.
Do remember, however, that it’s extremely difficult to grow muscle while cutting. This goes doubly so for more experienced lifters. And you must accept that there will be a small amount of muscle and strength loss during any cutting phase.
Any muscle loss can be regained, however, when you increase your calories post-cut. And, on the plus side, you may find that following a successful cut you can return to a bulking/muscle growth phase without putting on as much additional fat.