A bodybuilder who is cutting is trying to lose fat while preserving his muscle mass. The latter is perhaps the most difficult aspect. Prevent muscle loss in the cut by applying the following ten rules.
1. DON’T CHANGE YOUR TRAINING TOO MUCH
Heavy diet or not, during the cut you should ‘just’ keep doing your strength training: this is the only way to give your body the signal to maintain the muscle mass that is present, despite the persistent energy deficit. After all, without sufficient anabolic stimuli, your body will be only too happy to break down that energy-guzzling muscle mass.
According to coach Eric Helms, you should maintain your regular training program in the cut, which you used in the bulk to build muscle mass [ i ] . If you do a so-called minicut, a cut of a maximum of six weeks, according to Helms you don’t even have to change anything or hardly anything. So you basically keep training as if you were bulking. After all:
And in the words of Eric Helms [ viii ] :
The way you should train for hypertrophy is the way you should train for hypertrophy. Regardless of whether you’re in a calorie surplus or calorie deficit.
With a longer cut you will probably have to adjust your training a bit, because the long-term energy shortage will start to play tricks on you sooner or later. Here are some tips to maintain your training level and maintain your muscle mass.
Maintain the absolute intensity in the cut as much as possible, i.e. the training weight and the number of repetitions. In the initial phase of your cut you may even be able to make some progress in weight and/or reps .
Avoid training to complete muscle failure (0 RIR or -1 RIR). In the bulk you can safely do that from time to time during isolation exercises, but during a (long) cut you cannot afford the disproportionately great fatigue that results.
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.
MECHANICAL VS. METABOLIC STRENGTH TRAINING
Keep training as much as possible as in the bulk: that also means that you should not turn your strength training in the cut into glorified cardio. After all, you often see that people ‘suddenly’ start using short rest periods and doing long sets with light weights. Although metabolically oriented strength training is effective for burning fat and also for your condition, it is not for preserving muscle mass as a bodybuilder.
You burn fat through diet, possibly supplemented with cardio. If you also want to burn some extra fat through strength training, you could add a few ‘metabolic finishers‘ to your regular strength training. However, do so in moderation, as your recovery capacity in the cut is very limited.
In conclusion, in the words of bodybuilding coach Christian Thibaudeau:
Don’t lift to lose fat. [ ii ]
Strength training in the cut is intended to maintain your current muscle mass. By training you give your body the signal to leave the muscle mass intact, despite the energy deficit. To this end, your training must provide sufficient anabolic stimuli, which you achieve by continuing to train as much as possible as you normally do, so for muscle growth. With a longer cut you have to reduce your volume a bit: train on average at maintenance level, ie at about 2/3 of your regular number of sets.
2. MANAGE AN ENERGY DEFICIT OF 20-25%
To lose fat you have to create an energy deficit for a longer period of time . You do this in the first place by following a calorie-restricted diet. You can also increase your energy expenditure through cardio.
How big your energy deficit should ideally be depends on your current body fat percentage and on how long you are going to cut. Cutting the calories too aggressively can lead to muscle loss, but if you’re too careful, you’ll cut unnecessarily long.
On average, with an energy deficit of 20-25% of your maintenance level, you achieve the most fat loss while retaining muscle mass. With such a deficiency, you will lose 0.5 to 1% of your body weight every week.
To maintain this rate of fat loss and prevent a plateau, you will need to lower your energy balance over time. During the cut, after all, under the influence of metabolic adaptation, your maintenance level will decrease. You can maintain your energy deficit by eating even less and/or by doing (more) cardio.
GREATER ENERGY SHORTAGE SOMETIMES ALSO POSSIBLE
There are two situations in which a greater energy deficit can make sense:
- People with a high fat percentage can lose fat faster and therefore also have a greater energy deficit;
- If you do a minicut, a cut of a few weeks at most, you can diet more aggressively, for example with an energy deficit of 30-40% [ iii ] . However, dealing with an even greater energy deficit makes no sense: your body can only burn a limited amount of fat within a certain period of time.
MUSCLE PRESERVATION AIDS
There are various strategies that can make cutting and especially the maintenance of muscle mass easier. For example, you can take advantage of nutrient timing (for example, concentrating carbohydrate intake around training) and by using calorie/carb cycling, where you use a slightly higher calorie intake on some days (which you achieve by adding more carbohydrates to eat). Even diet breaks and refeeds can help to prevent muscle loss (see below).
On average, with an energy deficit of 20-25% you achieve the most fat loss while retaining muscle mass. With this deficiency you achieve a weight loss of 0.5 to 1% of your body weight on a weekly basis. To maintain this rate of fat loss and prevent a plateau, you will need to lower your energy balance over time. During the cut, after all, under the influence of metabolic adaptation, your maintenance level will decrease. You can maintain your energy deficit by eating even less and/or by doing (more) cardio.
3. EAT ENOUGH PROTEIN, BUT NO MORE THAN YOU NEED
Although an energy deficit and therefore calorie intake is decisive for weight loss, the distribution of those calories among the macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) also plays a role, especially if you want to maintain your hard-earned muscle mass.
For the latter, you have to keep your protein intake up in the first place. Besides the fact that a high protein intake is necessary for repairing damaged muscle tissues through strength training, it also has a beneficial effect on fat burning [ iv ].
Some studies suggest that a calorie deficit requires a much higher protein intake than a calorie surplus. Intakes of between 2 and 3 g/kg/d are sometimes recommended. Progressive insight shows that – in most cases – this is exaggerated. Normally, 1.8 g/kg/d in the cut is enough for you, possibly increasing to 2.2 g/kg/d.
That 1.8 is still somewhat higher than the normal recommendation of 1.6 g/kg/d. The fact that you may need a little more protein during the cut is because with an energy deficit the muscle protein synthesis as a result of training is increased less, while the muscle breakdown is greater. As a result, there is a greater risk of a negative protein balance (meaning muscle breakdown).
WHEN AN EXTRA HIGH INTAKE IS NECESSARY
That risk becomes more real as you get slimmer. If you already have a very low fat percentage and still want to lose fat, for example before a competition, it can be wise to eat extra protein: 2-3 g/kg/d.
This means that you can consume even fewer carbohydrates. Diet breaks and refeeds (see below) can then offer a solution to keep your energy up to some extent.
DON’T EAT MORE PROTEIN THAN YOU NEED
Never eat more protein in the cut than is strictly necessary: you need the other macronutrients, carbohydrates and fats, just as much. Coach Jeff Nippard aptly calls protein intake during an energy deficit a ‘balancing act’ [ vi ] :
In a calorie deficit, you need enough protein to spare muscle, but not so much that carbs or fats are displaced. [ vi ]
Also ensure a ‘smart’ division between carbohydrates and fats. Looking purely at fat loss, it does not matter whether you go low-carb or low-fat [ v ] , but as a bodybuilder you need carbohydrates badly , partly because they are the primary fuel for your strength training. Fats are a much less efficient source of energy for strength training than carbohydrates.
Nevertheless, you do need some fat – both saturated and unsaturated – to maintain your testosterone level, among other things. But an intake of around 0.7 g per kg of body weight per day should suffice [ vii ] . However, eat a little more if you notice that your testosterone production is suffering too much from that minimal intake, which can affect your libido, for example.
In short, eat as much carbohydrates in your cut as possible, taking into account sufficient intake of proteins and fats.
MACROS IN THE CUT
In this way we arrive at the following distribution of macronutrients during cutting:
- proteins: 1.8-2.2 g/kg body weight
- fats: ~0.7 g/kg body weight
- carbohydrates: the rest
The following applies to the macronutrients in the cut: intake of protein high (1.8-2.2 g/kg/d), low fat (~0.7 g/kg/day), carbohydrates as high as possible (the rest).
4. EAT CARBOHYDRATES AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE AROUND THE WORKOUT
We already saw that carbohydrates in the cut are very important and that you should therefore not cut back on them more than necessary. In addition, it is best to eat as many carbohydrates as possible around the training, at least half of your daily intake.
By consuming a lot of carbohydrates in your pre-workout meal, you can optimize your training performance, according to bodybuilding coach Mike Israetel, especially as your total calorie intake, under the influence of metabolic adaptation, decreases further.
A high carbohydrate intake is also a good idea immediately after training, Israetel says. On the one hand because you may be very hungry, on the other because, according to some studies, those carbohydrates may be stored more easily as glycogen (the energy stores in your muscles and liver) than as fat.
In principle, carbohydrates during training are not necessary, unless you train intensively for more than an hour. Then you can refuel some energy by eating a banana, for example .
Eat a large portion of your daily carbohydrates, at least half, around your workout. Carbohydrates are especially important in your pre-workout meal, because they help you perform better during your training.
5. EAT AS HEALTHY AS POSSIBLE
In principle, if It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) applies to body composition: as long as you eat the right amounts of calories and macronutrients, you will gain or lose weight, regardless of whether the food consumed is healthy. This has also been shown several times in (playful) studies, such as the professor who lost weight by eating only cookies and chips, and the American who lost more than 13 kilos of body weight by drinking only beer.
While IIFYM in the bulk can be justified to some extent, we strongly advise against this ‘strategy’ for the cut. And for three reasons.
First of all, with a calorie-restricted diet, it is more difficult to get all your micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and the importance of those micronutrients also weighs more heavily. After all, your body has to function for a long time when there is an energy shortage. For example, micronutrients help to maintain your hormone balance and energy level to some extent.
Second, snacks have a high calorie density, while providing relatively little dietary fiber. As a result, despite the high number of calories, they do not really make you feel full and they usually taste like more (see also point 6). In short, they just make dieting unnecessarily difficult.
Third, eating healthy while on a calorie-restricted diet also works psychologically better. By completely banning unhealthy treats from your diet and from your field of vision, you will think and crave them less. “Embrace the darkness”, Mike Israetel calls this diet principle. Embrace that sprout of broccoli.
Eat mainly healthy, nutritious products during the cut. This way you get enough vitamins and minerals, and you don’t make dieting unnecessarily difficult. Vitamins and minerals are not only important for your health, but also for your energy supply and muscle recovery.
6. EAT PLENTY OF SATIATING FOODS
Unfortunately, it is inevitable that you will sometimes feel hungry during a long-term calorie-restricted diet. However, you can reduce that feeling of hunger by eating a lot of food with a high degree of satiety.
How satiating a food is is mainly determined by its energy density (calories: volume), the amount of fiber and to a lesser extent by the amount of protein.
In the cut, it is best to choose foods that are healthy, satiating and relatively low in calories, such as: potatoes, oatmeal porridge, chicken breast, fish, eggs, boiled rice, legumes and most fruits and vegetables.
You can counteract hunger by eating a lot of food with a high degree of satiety.
7. TAKE SOME SUPPLEMENTS
As a (strength) athlete you have a greater need for vitamins and minerals than non-active people. But with a healthy and varied diet you should normally get them in more than sufficient amount.
Nevertheless, deficiencies can sometimes arise with a long-term calorie-restricting diet, especially if you have to reduce your energy balance through metabolic adaptation. We mainly think of zinc, magnesium, calcium and some vitamins, such as vitamin B6. These are not only important for your health in general, but they also play a role in energy supply and the repair and building of muscle tissues. In short, things that are important for the strength athlete, especially in the cut.
The easiest (and cheapest) is to take a multivitamin during your cut. A little ‘multi’ contains all the important vitamins and minerals, in adequate doses (not too much and not too little). You could only supplement the mineral magnesium separately, because most multivitamins contain only a relatively small amount.
There are also some other supplements that can give you a little boost during a tough cutting cycle, such as:
* If you normally use creatine, we advise you to keep doing it in the cut: it is precisely in the cut that you can use such a support during your training.
Of course, protein powders can also be a handy addition to your ‘regular’ diet. Whey isolate is ideal for getting high-quality protein without a lot of by-product. The disadvantage is that protein powders usually do not contain other valuable nutrients. In addition, liquid food is less effective against appetite or hunger.
With a large or long-term calorie deficit, you can ensure that you are getting enough micronutrients with a multivitamin. In addition, creatine monohydrate is also a useful strength sports supplement in the cut.
8. FEEL FREE TO DO CARDIO, BUT IN MODERATION
‘Cardio’ sounds to many bodybuilders as a synonym for muscle breakdown and therefore something you should avoid. That is not quite right. As long as you do cardio in moderation and choose the right forms, it can be a helpful aid in realizing 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. 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 cardio, but make sure that strength training remains your first priority (see point 1). Excessive cardio can undermine your recovery from that strength training and also increase the level of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol in your body. 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 that many calories, it is a time-consuming activity.
Cardio can make dieting easier for some people. Limit your cardio sessions to a few hours a week, in the case of HIIT to two or three workouts. Although time consuming, walking is the best form of cardio for bodybuilders.
9. DON’T CUT TOO LONG IN ONE PIECE
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, because 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 less energetic). This has negative consequences for your training performance and for your recovery capacity.
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.
The longer your cut, the harder it becomes to lose fat and maintain muscle mass. Non-linear diet strategies such as refeeds and diet breaks help you to maintain muscle mass and to keep cutting, especially if you already have a low fat percentage.
10. AVOID ARRIVING QUICKLY AFTER THE CUT; APPLY REVERSE DIETING
Once you’re done cutting, your next step is either a bulking or maintenance phase. That means your calorie level will be at least maintenance – in the bulk probably 10-20% above that.
Many people experience that they quickly regain fat mass after the start of that bulking or maintenance phase. And that’s a shame, because it was precisely those last remnants of fat that were so difficult to get rid of.
Only if you are exceptionally lean (before a competition, for example) is a rapid increase in fat mass (to a certain extent) desirable, because your training performance and general functioning benefit from slightly more fat reserves.
The fact that you gain fat again so easily after a cut is due to metabolic adaptation, which you can’t reverse just like that.
The solution is reverse dieting. That is the principle whereby after the cut you increase your calorie level in steps to your normal maintenance level.
After completing the cut, it is best to eliminate your energy deficit as soon as possible to avoid further dietary fatigue. So you will eat at your (current) maintenance level. Because you don’t know exactly how many calories that are, it is best to gradually increase your calorie intake over a few days. If your body weight remains constant, you are at the right level.
Then the actual reverse dieting begins: you increase your calorie intake step by step, until you reach your ‘real’ maintenance level (which is lower than before the cut: you will have to calculate it again). That way you give your body time to adapt metabolically to the higher calorie intake.
How big the steps are in which you increase your calorie level depends on how quickly your body adapts. That can vary greatly from person to person. General: 50-100 kcal – per day or every few days.
To prevent you from quickly gaining fat again after the cut, increase your calorie level in small steps towards your new maintenance level: reverse dieting.
Bodybuilding is changing your body composition: more muscle and less fat. Those two goals are usually not attainable simultaneously for intermediate and advanced natural bodybuilders with a low fat percentage. Usually only beginners are able to build up a significant amount of muscle mass in the event of an energy deficit and thus kill two birds with one stone: body recomposition.
For intermediate and advanced bodybuilders, the time-honoured bulking and cutting is a proven method to build lean muscle mass. Body recomposition is only possible for them in special situations, such as after a long training break .
The most difficult aspect of cutting is maintaining muscle mass. Where the ‘ordinary’ person only has to worry about fat loss when losing weight, a bodybuilder must do everything to at least maintain his muscle mass. Above we gave you the most important starting points for this.
Preserving muscle mass in the cut has two additional benefits. The more muscle mass your body has to ‘maintain’, the faster the metabolism and therefore the more calories you burn at rest. In addition, greater muscle mass means greater body sensitivity to insulin. Because a larger muscle has more insulin receptors, making the muscles more sensitive to insulin. Greater insulin sensitivity means less fat storage. In addition, it promotes muscle protein synthesis and blood flow to the muscles. Even more reason to cherish your muscle mass.
|small energy surplus (10-20% of maintenance)||average energy deficit (20-30% of maintenance)||small energy deficit (0-20% of maintenance)*|
|1.6-2 g protein per kg body weight per day||1.8-2.2 g protein per kg body weight per day (which increases as you get leaner )||2-2.5 protein per kg of body weight per day|
|strength training with progressive overload||strength training on maintenance volume (adapted to energy balance), progressive overload not or limited possible||strength training with progressive overload|
|weight gain||weight decreases||all weight changes possible, but usually small decrease or approximately the same|
- [i] https://youtu.be/dxt5rRLZMIM?t=55
- [ii] https://www.t-nation.com/training/thibaudeaus-top-7-tips
- [iii] https://youtu.be/BhLIsFFsPAA
- [iv] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-protein-can-help-you-lose-weight
- [v] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29466592
- [vi] https://youtu.be/g82MXEJC3NI?t=336
- [vii] https://youtu.be/gcUXMW0sWBA?t=2755
- [viii] https://www.instagram.com/p/CZp8SB9AAJE/