Today I am discussing cutting – the real hard part of bodybuilding where you’re hungry, feeling weaker, and struggling through those meal choices.
What I want to talk about in particular is how to cut – and how not to cut. The dos and don’ts of cutting – the major differences between a great weight loss phase and one that leaves you small, weak, and under-nourished!
This is coming from my own experience, from the science of weight loss, and from the experience of many of my friends in natural bodybuilding. I’ve put together the most important lessons on getting lean and showing off your hard-earned gains!
Why Cutting Is So Rewarding
Cutting refers to the process of dieting down to reduce fat mass and show off the muscles. It’s all about targeting better definition, proportion, and developing the visible separation and texture of the muscles.
Cutting is where you show just how serious you are about bodybuilding and the condition of your physique. Anyone can eat lots and train lots and get bigger – but it’s in the cutting process that your discipline and choices really show up.
When cutting, you simply don’t have the space or tolerances to get it wrong. It’s not like gaining a little too much fat on a bulk; cutting is unforgiving. If you do it wrong you’ll either not lose weight or, even worse, you’ll lose muscle that you worked hard to build up. This can be frustrating and it’s where so many guys trip themselves up.
This is especially true for so called “hardgainers” and other former skinny guys and girls who are cautious about losing weight. Doing it properly is the key, and that’s why I’m taking you through my ‘pearls of wisdom’ today. Don’t make these easy mistakes – cutting can be easy and rewarding if you get it right!
Mr. Stereotype: Myths and Mistakes When Cutting
The reason I need to write this article is because many people don’t understand how their body works – especially when it comes to losing weight.
Even today, a lot of people still think that losing weight comes from eating nothing but salads and jogging. In the bodybuilding world, it’s all about the simple goal: bigger, stronger muscles while trying to minimise fat gains.
When we cut, we want to reduce fat without losing muscle. Many of the things I focus on are about preserving muscle while losing fat – or even building it. The goal of a cut isn’t to just meekly accept that you’re going to get smaller and weaker – because so many natural athletes out there are still able to build or maintain muscle.
The cut is about what you look like at the end, not just the number on the scale. When we focus too much on the numbers we lose the process of getting stronger and healthier and looking better. I always prioritise performance and appearance during a cut, because that’s why we want to lose weight and burn fat in the first place.
These are the most important principles that guide the do and don’t sections today. This is cutting advice for people who want to look, feel, and perform better while losing fat.
Don’ts: Cutting Mistakes to Avoid
Cutting out Carbs – Keto for weight loss
Keto is a diet that limits carbohydrate intake. There are 2 goals of the keto diet that you need to know:
- Reduce carb bad habits by limiting overall intake
- Improve fat metabolism by increasing dietary fat intake
I’m not a big fan of keto – it’s bad for bodybuilders and muscle building. Keto is a diet for the average person who has gained weight and needs to get rid of their ‘spare tire’. It’s for people who are more interested in burning fat than getting lean or putting together an aesthetic, muscular physique.
Keto does 2 things that are death for bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts: it reduces your ability to build muscle mass and it increases your risk of burning muscle during a cut. Even more than that, it actually reduces resting muscle glycogen, which makes you look small and ‘flat’ – not great for bodybuilding.
Keto isn’t a miracle diet and it won’t get you shredded. You’ll lose a lot of weight but that will be more muscle-loss than you’d see with a smart, carb-rich diet. You’ll lose weight faster on the scale but you’ll not look nearly as good in the mirror – and you’ll have more work to do next time you want to build muscle.
Over-cutting, reducing calories too far
It won’t make you leaner quicker, it will just make you lose muscle faster and not specifically the fat. Drastic calorie reduction starts to metabolise important tissues like muscle and tendon proteins to make up the deficit – if you’re not careful, that means rapid muscle loss.
You don’t just want to lose weight on a cut – you want to lose fat, specifically. You need to preserve your muscle and strength – or even build more – while you’re losing fat. This is why we use a patient cut with good planning, so you don’t have to rush the process or get yourself weak, small, or flat while you’re cutting.
You’re going to destroy your cut results if you rush your body. You’re going to drop strength quickly resulting in muscle loss and no motivation to train.
Dropping too many calories too quickly can produce fast results on the scales but doesn’t look good. It’s better to be patient, keep your body fuelled properly, and let your hard-earned muscle show through with a more modest calorie deficit.
Modifying your program too often
It’s not because you’re going on a cut that you have to specifically change the program.
Many training programs are effective during a cut, if you’re smart about how much training you do. You don’t always need to throw the whole training program out of the window because you’re eating 800 fewer calories per day. Minor adjustments could be all it takes to align your diet and training.
The goal of your program is to stick to things and be regular with it so you can improve. You have to keep the same program when cutting and similar exercises to measure your cut. Consistency is the foundation of success in both of these areas – and keeping things as normal and routine as possible makes it easy to stick with good habits and predictable success.
The goal is to keep your performances as high as possible while cutting. The better you do at these performances, the most likely you’re doing well at keeping your muscle mass. The intensity and good training habits we’ve discussed before will be just as important to building and maintaining muscle on a cut, keeping your muscles strong and safe.
Relying too heavily on cardio
If you think “Cardio = fat loss” you’re missing the point.
Cardio is just a tool to burn more calories.
Cardio is good for maintaining health and can contribute to better hormonal balance during a cut – but it isn’t necessary. When you’re cutting and you’ve got limited recovery capacity, it can be a waste of time to put impact on your joints and tendons through cardio – especially if you’re not cutting down for a show. If you’re just doing a test cut, you don’t need the extra calorie burn.
If you’re training to look good and want to just get leaner, you don’t need to use cardio to shift ‘stubborn’ bodyfat like a competition bodybuilder. You just need to be patient and preserve muscle mass while you slowly lose weight – cardio is a tool to help, but it doesn’t have to be the focus of your cut.
Add cardio when you stall or if you’re looking for health benefits, but remember that diet drives a good cut.
Worrying about specific numbers
Many people fail their cut because they fixate on the amount of weight they want to lose or what particular body fat percentage they should be. This is usually the wrong way: if you’re not competing, you don’t need to worry about the specific look – you’ll find it when you get there.
It’s much better to focus on the habits and processes that drive an effective cut than having a set-in-stone deadline for it. You don’t need to be exactly 8% bodyfat, especially if you’re just trying to look, feel, and perform better. You could get to 9.5% and realise that further loss risks muscle mass, or that you perform and recover better at that weight.
Focus on the process and what things will indicate to you that it’s time to stop cutting, like:
- Losing too much strength in the gym
- Being happy with your lean-ness
- Achieving a weight that makes you feel better
- Feeling like you’re in the ‘right place’ with recovery and eating
These are all important for non-competing physique enthusiasts who don’t have a hard deadline. If you’ve got a stage date, that’s different and you need to prepare and come in at your very best on the day.
Specifically, do not try to achieve a specific goal if you haven’t done a cut in the past. Focus on what you can control: your diet, training, and recovery – and let your body surprise you with the quality of results. You’ll find a happy place to stop cutting eventually as your body establishes a new balance.
Cutting hard to be summer (or party) ready
Cutting hard for summer parties might not be the best move if you’re planning on living on fast food and alcohol. It’s a waste of a lot of potential and you will find yourself spinning your wheels as – year on year – you bombard yourself with anti-muscle influences.
I’ve seen hundreds of people cut down for summer only to spend that summer losing muscle and building fat, ending up with the same physique year on year. It’
Going down to 12-14% bodyfat is great for these kind of events: you look great, keep your muscle mass, and are able to ‘tank’ the negative influences a little more effectively. If you’re going down to 10%, however, you’re trying very hard for results that will immediately wash away with bad dieting and alcohol.
Be reasonable with your partying, if you’re really looking to improve your physique. Don’t over-invest in those few weeks if they cost you months of hard work.
Drinking less water than usual
You don’t get that “dry, grainy” look by dehydrating yourself. That just makes you small, flat, and weak. It also makes you feel horrible and puts your health at risk.
Drink plenty of water while you’re cutting to support the water you’re not getting from food. It’s key to stay hydrated and maintain your electrolyte and water balance during a cut, keeping your muscles hydrated and ready to perform at their best.
Give your body what it needs. The calorie deficit will do the heavy lifting of your diet, don’t restrict things like water which don’t actually add to your calorie count!
DO’s: How to Cut More Effectively
Have a diet plan: track and plan
While I wouldn’t necessarily advise the same on a bulk, it’s better to know exactly what and how many calories you consume and setting a plan to make the most out of your cut.
There is less room for mistakes on a cut than on a bulk, you want to have a plan. This helps keep you accountable and – for first time cuts – it’s a perfect way to build a better understanding of the foods you eat and how many calories, protein, carbs, and fats they include.
I’ve talked to many people who didn’t realise which foods were calorie-dense until they were hitting plateaus with their cut. Something that seems low calorie isn’t – and tracking your diet provides certainty on what you should and shouldn’t eat.
You should also have a general sense of the ‘blocks’ in your diet. I would typically want to review my diet every 2 weeks, weigh in, and reset my calorie and macro needs. This is even more important during your first cut where things change very quickly.
Taking regular check-ins with yourself is key to making sure your diet is working towards your goals. Set out your plan for tracking and monitoring with these landmarks in – it’ll keep you healthy and accountable.
Avoid fluff workouts and set simple priorities
If you had time to do additional volume for fun on a bulk, you have to make sure on a cut to really direct your energy to the most important factors.
While you don’t always need to change the program, you should make sure that your program is directly contributing to your goals. Each workout and exercise should have a place and a reason – you should be able to explain why you’re doing that and what it will do for you in the long-run.
Equally, when you’re lower energy and cutting, you shouldn’t be focusing on adding in tons of new elements. Don’t start complicating things because you’re going to have limited “recovery potential” during a cut and you should make sure that those resources go towards the key exercises and workouts.
Direct your energy to your best exercises, focus on the basics, and don’t add unnecessary volume which will just make you more tired and burn muscle in the long run.
Intensity: maintain your strength
The focus of a cut is the same as a bulk: bigger, stronger muscles – with as little fat as possible.
When you’re cutting, you’re just focusing on the second half. You still need to maintain high intensity training during these lower-calorie weeks and months. If you lower the weight too much – expecting to lose strength – then you will.
On the other hand, if you try to maintain strength on a cut you actually reduce the risk of muscle loss. Your body knows it needs to feed muscles and preserve them because you’re using them for high-effort work. It’s this balance that allows you to keep your muscle mass and the science is clear that high-intensity training means less muscle loss during a cut.
Don’t drop the weight unless your body is struggling with it. You may lose some strength during a cut but you’re supposed to fight that process! Don’t just give up on your strength!
Take more rest and focus on quality
At some point in the cut, things will get harder, like strength sets and recovery in general.
One thing you can do if you have time is to make your sessions a little longer. You do what you’re supposed to do but give yourself a bit more rest so you can still maintain better performance.
The science is clear already that maintaining longer rest periods helps build strength and muscle. It’s also a great way to maintain those traits during a cut where energy resources are scarce and each set starts to feel like a battle. Give yourself the time you need – this will improve performance and reduce the risk of muscle damage and loss after workouts.
Put time into stretching and injury-prevention
When eating a lot of food during the bulk, it just feels like you’re invincible, you have plenty of energy and body mass “protecting you” from injury.
On a cut you don’t have much energy and the slightest mistake can lead to injuries or other issues. Rates of injury go up when recovery resources go down and you’re left with persistent aches, pains, and degradation over time. This is the real price of cutting, compared to bulking, where you might feel invincible.
Paying greater attention to warming up and stretching is important, as well as the food you consume. Every single habit becomes more important when you don’t have a calorie surplus, and you actually have to be disciplined to get the most out of your body.
Focus on quality of food
Diet is always important. It’s even more important if you’re cutting.
Giving the very best you can to your body in a period you’re at a calorie deficit and lacking energy is essential. This usually means less food overall – which means that each gram and calorie has to do more work and be more carefully-selected to support your health and performance.
When you’re bulking, you have plenty of space in your diet to get in high quality foods and fun foods. On a cut, you don’t have the same luxuries – you’re limited in your calorie intake which can indirectly lead to deficiencies if you’re not careful.
Foods that are rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals need to be your priority. This is why diets that prioritise meat, seafood, dairy, and vegetables are the best for cutting – they are nutrient-rich so that you’re not missing out on essential nutrients while your calorie intake comes down.
Give yourself the best nutrients for your body to be as efficient as possible in tough times.
Use low-calorie, high-volume foods when hungry
Low calories healthy food like apples can help you make hunger pass. Take advantage of these good low calorie foods.
The hunger challenge of dieting is one we’re all familiar with – it’s what keeps us all from simply starving. But, during a cut, this is something you need to overcome because you’re not starving and your calorie reduction is deliberate.
Keeping yourself full with high-volume, low-calorie foods is a great way to prevent major hunger. You can even add nutrient-dense foods here. This is why it’s great to add a low-calorie side salad to your meals if you start experiencing hunger – or even as an extra meal throughout the day.
Fruit and vegetables that are high in fiber are perfect here. I personally enjoy tomatoes, shredded carrot, and lettuce as a simple and fresh side salad to my normal meals – adding only around 50-100 calories but seriously padding out the stomach and leaving me full even on a hard cut.
Train at your best
You need to train when you’re able to get the best out of yourself.
This can conflict with other areas of life, but put your energy towards training as best possible. You should schedule refeed days and higher-carb days before your big session of the week, eat to fuel yourself through workouts, and even add carbs during workouts to maintain energy levels.
During a cut, you have to use dirty tactics like these to keep yourself fuelled up. Gym training isn’t as easy when you’re low-energy and it can easily get demotivating – use your food to support your training. Use your sleep to support your training. Go to the gym when you feel most rested and energised throughout the day.
You might also want to avoid peak times in the gym where it’s very busy, cutting is already hard and annoying at times, you don’t need extra pressure from waiting unnecessarily at the gym. It’s easy to get irritable on a cut!
Cutting is an important part of the bodybuilding process and comes with its own risks. The way you ‘finish’ your diet and training matters because it’s the time when you’re showing off those muscles, but also the time when they’re most at-risk for damage and atrophy.
Following these simple lessons – 7 key dos and 7 dangerous don’ts – will protect you from the risks that face us when we try to get lean. If you’re focused on the process and the quality of your result, rather than the speed, you’re off to a great start.
Cutting is the time to show off just how committed you are, how good your habits are, and to turn those into results. The chance is all yours and the result depends on just how well you make the most of your diet and training – it’s time to be smart and make every bite, rep, and day count!