Somewhere in the distance summer beckons and so many bodybuilders start cutting. Goal: make fat disappear like snow in the sun, so that only the hard-earned muscle mass remains. Means: managing an energy deficit for a longer period of time, but in the meantime continuing to train hard. Sounds simple – in essence it is – but the following mistakes often throw a spanner in the works.
1. USING A TOO BIG ENERGY DEFICIT
During a cutting phase, you want to lose fat on the one hand, and maintain muscle mass on the other. The latter becomes more difficult as your body receives fewer nutrients. It is therefore pointless to follow a crash diet: although you burn fat quickly, you will almost certainly also lose muscle mass.
On the other hand, you should not be too frugal with your energy deficit. After all, the longer you are cutting, the less time you can spend building muscle (bulking).
The sweet spot is an energy deficit of 20% of the maintenance level. So if you need 2500 kcal daily, you will be at about 2000 kcal. That way you will lose fat the fastest while preserving your muscle mass.
Keep in mind that your body will use energy more and more efficiently during a cutting cycle (metabolic adaptation). As a result, your maintenance level decreases over time and you will therefore have to lower your energy balance further and further to maintain that energy deficit. This can be done by eating even less and/or by doing (more) cardio.
2. EATING TOO LITTLE PROTEIN
As a bodybuilder you have a higher protein requirement than normal. To grow muscle, you need to eat about 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. And you may need a little more protein in cut to ensure a positive protein balance. Therefore use as a guideline in the cut: 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram per day. Athletes who already have a very low fat percentage should eat even more.
Eating too little protein inexorably leads to muscle loss in the cut, no matter how well you train.
3. EATING TOO MUCH PROTEIN
Eating more proteins than 1.8 g/kg/d is normally not necessary in the cut. Although it is not harmful in itself, it does come at the expense of the amount of carbohydrates you can eat. And carbohydrates are actually just as important in the cut as proteins: they are the primary source of energy for your strength training.
As mentioned earlier, only (competition) bodybuilders who aim for (extremely) low fat percentages (and are therefore already very lean) may need even more proteins in the cut to keep their muscle mass intact: 2-3 g/kg/d.
4. TRAINING MUCH DIFFERENTLY THAN IN THE BULK
In order to maintain the muscle mass that you have built up in the bulk, you must continue to train ‘normally’ in the cut. Because certainly when you have an energy deficit, you must continue to give your body sufficient training stimuli, as a signal that the muscle mass present has a ‘function’. After all, maintaining muscle mass costs energy and your body prefers to use it for other things in times of ’emergency’.
What worked in the bulk for muscle growth, works in the cut for muscle retention. Therefore, do not change your training too much. If you do a minicut, you may not even have to change anything at all.
Finally, the training volume, or the number of sets per muscle group per week. You may have the tendency to scale that back considerably, but research shows that it is best to maintain your regular training volume as much as possible in the cut. Do as many sets as you can, depending on your recovery capacity. In practice, that means that you do at least two thirds of the number of sets that you did in the bulk.
5. CUTTING TOO LONG CONTINUOUSLY
The longer you are cutting, the greater the chance that you will lose muscle mass in addition to fat.
This is partly due to the fact that you have less and less fat reserves (great, as that’s the goal of cutting), while, due to the metabolic adaptation, you have to eat less and less to be able to lose fat. And the less energy your body has at its disposal, the greater the risk that muscle proteins will be broken down to get energy.
On the other hand, this is due to diet fatigue, which is mainly due to the depletion of glycogen stores (which means you have less energy for your training) and to hormone levels that become increasingly unfavorable (which makes you more hungry and are less energetic). This has negative consequences for your training performance and for your recovery. And also for muscle maintenance.
In addition to the increasing risk of muscle loss, you will lose fat less and less quickly during your cut and end up on plateaus faster and faster. And you have to almost starve yourself if you want to break through such a plateau.
If you need to lose a lot of fat and aim for a low fat percentage, it is best, in our opinion, to apply a non-linear diet strategy, with diet breaks and/or refeeds. Although that does require accurate programming and you should certainly not turn it into cheat days.
Furthermore, it is of course a good idea not to get too fat at all during your bulk. Then you also have to cut for much less time.
6. DOING TOO MUCH (INTENSIVE) CARDIO
‘Cardio’ sounds to many bodybuilders as a synonym for muscle loss and therefore something you should avoid. That is not quite right. As long as you do cardio in moderation and choose the right forms of exercise, it can be a useful tool in achieving your energy deficit. Although you can also create that deficit purely on the basis of a calorie-restricted diet.
Whether or not you do cardio during the cut is therefore mainly a matter of personal preference. Many people are able to maintain their diet better with the help of cardio, because they can eat more. In addition, cardio offers health benefits. And if you move a lot in daylight, it’s good for your night’s sleep.
So you can safely do some cardio, but make sure that strength training remains your first priority. Excessive cardio can undermine your recovery from that strength training and also increase the level of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol in your body. So limit your cardio to a few hours of steady state cardio per week, or two to three HIIT sessions.
The most risk-free and therefore the best form of cardio for bodybuilders is walking. But if you want to burn a lot of calories, that is a time-consuming activity.