NOTE: If you want to skip my preamble about why I think excessive bulking/cutting is unnecessary and probably suboptimal for most people, just start at the section labeled “Let’s Get Started.”
So you’ve decided to do a cut.
Maybe you’ve been using your recent “bulk” as an excuse to eat cake every night and it’s starting to show, or maybe you just happened to see the latest issues of XYZ muscle mag whose cover featured a particularly ripped Adonis surrounded by taglines like “Get Great Abs!” and you started to feel unhappy with your own appearance. If it’s something more like the second scenario, I’d urge you to stop and consider your motivation for a moment.
Deciding you want to lean out is all well and good, but if the driving force is that you’ve been body-shamed into it, you might not find the kind of satisfaction you were expecting. Even if you do have good physical results, you might find that they never seem good enough (you still don’t look as good as that person on the magazine cover, right?). This opens the door to the whole issue of the body image issues that can be bred from comparing ourselves to others (not to mention the sometimes heavy hand of magazine cover-shoot magic that goes into making those shots look so amazing). It might sound like a trivial distinction, but I want to advocate that internal motivation is probably more sustainable and more conducive to happiness than external motivation if you are going to “cut”—or even if you are going to start training, or bulking, or whatever it may be!
I’ll steer us back on topic for now and delve more into this other topic in the future. For now, suffice to say that I hope you will do it for yourself instead of doing it because of outside pressures.
Bulking & Cutting – The NeverEnding Story
Honestly, I’m not a big fan of the idea of the idea of cutting. I’m especially not a fan of the bulk/cut cycle that so many lifters have been convinced is the way things must be done. If you’re a competitive bodybuilder, it is a part of your sport to get down to 4-6% body fat for competition, and that isn’t exactly maintainable year-round for mortals, so cutting becomes a part of the game. For everyone else, though, what is the real point?
It seems like many people have gotten it in their minds that going into a huge caloric surplus is the only way to build muscle tissue. A lot of times, people who try to execute such cycles seem to end up accruing enough body fat during their bulking phases that once they manage to burn it off on their cut, they’ve lost whatever lean body mass they might have built during the bulk, leaving them more or less right where they were several months ago. I suppose the problem here isn’t necessarily the idea of bulking and cutting so much as the idea that these processes must be so extreme. Sure, a lot of professional bodybuilders these days make swings of 30 or more pounds between their offseason weight and competition weight (Phil Heath – offseason: ~275 lbs, competition: ~240 lbs; Kai Greene – offseason: ~300 lbs, competition: ~267 lbs), but these guys are training their asses off in a way that few people can probably appreciate while also making use of anabolic substances to push the boundaries of their bodies in ways that would be kind of silly to compare to a 170 pound guy who wants to naturally gain 10 or 15 pounds of muscle. I think we can all agree that Arnold Schwarzenegger looked pretty damn good when he was winning Olympias left and right, and he reportedly only fluctuated from a competition weight of 235 lbs to an offseason weight of around 250 lbs. So is there really any good reason to go bulk-crazy?
For each individual, there is going to be a limit to how much muscle tissue you can build per week, or month, or year. This isn’t going to be a fixed rate, mind you. Things like hitting the sweet spot with training volume, recovery (mostly sleep), stress management, and nutrition amount and quality are going to maximize this rate (so theoretically there would be an absolute maximum rate if you do everything perfectly and the stars align, but just doing what you can to optimize the process will get you a long ways towards your goals). Sadly, this rate is going to decrease as you accrue more muscle mass (essentially there will be diminishing returns to your effort as you become more developed muscularly). To my knowledge, though, there has never been any scientific finding that has suggested that providing your body with a caloric surplus that is in excess of this maximal protein synthesis rate will provide any additional benefit.
Now, it can be pretty hard to figure out with any great accuracy just how much you need to eat to grow optimally. If you are really set on putting on size, you need to be eating enough to grow, but if you are gaining more than a few pounds per month, you’re likely overdoing it and building some fat with your shiny new muscle. Lyle McDonald put together a kind of review of several different analyses that aimed to give a general prediction of the amount of lean body mass natural athletes will be able to build on average at different stages of their training maturity. I recommend you check it out if you are interested. The take home point here is that you can build muscle without putting on much fat. This might be hard for some people to assess visually if they are not super lean to begin with, but a general rule of thumb for beginners is to aim for not gaining more than 3 (4 tops) pounds per month. After a year or so of this kind of growth, you might adjust those expectations down to about a pound (2 tops) per month, and as previously mentioned, the expected growth rate will continue to decline as you progress. Of course, there can be daily fluctuations based on things like hydration and glycogen storage/depletion, but don’t worry about the day-to-day numbers so much as the general trend over longer periods of time. It’s also worth noting that people who have been training for several years but haven’t seen many results are still probably capable of growth rates that are at least similar to a newbie if they get their lifting and nutrition in order (i.e. lifting more heavy barbells and eating lots of meat and stuff).
Let’s Get Started
Okay. Now that I’ve tried to dissuade you from even caring about the idea of cutting (not the best marketing strategy for an article on cutting, I know) or at least from falling into the trap of extreme bulking/cutting cycles, let’s talk about what to do if you find yourself with an amount of body fat that you deem to be excessive for your tastes.
The best way to coax your body into tapping into the sacred energy vault that is its adipose (fat) tissue is to ensure that the amount of energy (food) you are consuming is less than the amount of energy your body is expending. At the macroscopic level, it really does come down to calories in vs. calories out. It is important to note, though, that there are a tremendous number of nuances going on behind the scenes that make both sides of this equation much more complicated than simply looking at food labels for the “in” side and using a total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) calculator for the “out” side, but that is a topic for a future post. For now, let’s focus on the idea of simply creating an energy deficit.
There are multiple ways to promote an energy deficit, the two most common and practical ones being diet (decreasing energy intake) and exercise (increasing energy expenditure). So where do we start, exactly? Well, many people are eager to throw everything but the kitchen sink (and sometimes that too) into their fat loss efforts right off the bat. On top of knocking their daily caloric intake down by 30, 40, 50+ percent, they decide they’re going to hop onto a treadmill and run 2, 3, 4, 5+ miles every day to really get that fat a-burnin’! Don’t get me wrong, the person that does this is probably going to start losing weight—probably pretty quickly too if they are actually following their plan—but this is not an optimal scenario for several reasons. For one, it doesn’t give them much wiggle room for the future.
It is pretty well established that individuals initiating a caloric deficit through diet and/or exercise will eventually plateau and cease to lose weight if they maintain the same caloric intake and activity level. If someone who normally eats 2,400 Calories a day all of a sudden drops down to 1,200 Calories a day, what are they going to do when their weight loss begins to slow? Drop down to 1,000 Calories a day? And then 800? That’s probably moving into semi-starvation territory, and for what? That person could have just as easily began by decreasing their caloric intake to, say, 2,100 Calories a day, which would constitute a 12.5% decrease from their starting intake. Many studies like this one use more drastic (sometimes 40% or more) caloric reductions, but these are typically done on obese subjects, and often times part of the point of these studies is to examine the effect of different dietary interventions on the ratio of fat loss vs. lean body mass (more on this in a minute). Still, while research on fat loss in individuals that are already on the leaner side is harder to come by, anecdotal evidence points to caloric reductions of around 10-15% from current intake to be sufficient to jump-start fat loss in individuals who are somewhat fit and active.
What happens when we cut more than that? Let’s go back to that idea of fat loss vs. loss of lean body mass. As far as I can tell, the literature hasn’t given much attention to the question of the effect of caloric deficit size on total weight loss and lean body mass loss. In other words, I haven’t come across any studies that compare the effects of jumping into, say, a 500 Calorie deficit vs. a 1,000 Calorie deficit. This is an area ripe for academic study, but for now, we must draw on anecdotal evidence, which suggests that making larger-than-necessary decrements in caloric intake to produce additional weight loss tends to push people towards losing more lean mass along with whatever fat is lost than they likely would making smaller, more gradual caloric decrements. While it is hard for us to actually assess with any real accuracy how much of the weight we have lost was fat and how much may have been muscle, one decent indicator is strength. Of course, this is going to depend upon a lot of things like your programming, your recovery and stress levels, etcetera, but if you are getting noticeably weaker as you progress along with your cut, it could very well mean you are losing a non-trivial amount of muscle tissue. Visually, this can be hard to assess, as people a lot of times are just going to look less muscular if they are a bit depleted and not far enough into their cut to have developed an appreciable level of leanness.
I decided to do my first ever actual cut (although I stubbornly called it a recomposition) a little over three months ago for two reasons: 1) I have been thinking it would be fun to enter a full powerlifting meet in the next year or so, and I wanted to see how lean I could get at the 242 weight class (I was 253 lbs at the start of this experiment), and 2) I wanted to make sure that all of these ideas I had about how cutting works weren’t actually total bullshit.
In a little over three months, I’ve lost about 20 lbs. That shakes out to about 1.5 lbs per week on average (although the rate was not totally constant throughout), or roughly 0.6% of my average body weight throughout the experiment. At this rate, I’ve managed to keep all of my strength. My squats have actually gotten stronger, but this is probably mostly because I’ve been hammering the movement with high frequency and giving my technique a lot of attention. Before I properly began, I was eating around 3,200-3,400 Calories per day. My first step was to bring that down to a daily intake of ~3,000 Calories, casually easing into it, trying to avoid obsessing over details. I stayed at that level for about a month, adding in one or two 10-minute rounds of high-intensity intervals on a stationary bike per week after the first couple weeks. Small changes! This took me down to around 247 or so, and once my weight seemed to settle there, I decided it was time for the next step. Down to 2,800 Calories per day. Two weeks there, with two or three 10-minute HIIT sessions on the stationary bike per week. Once my weight stabilized there, I went to 2,600 Calories per day for about 2 weeks, adding in a few days of walking lunges for distance (this is a cool conditioning tool that I picked up around this time and will write about in a future post). Stabilized. Down to 2,500 Calories per day for about 1.5 weeks. At this point, I had a planned end date in mind, so I stuck to a planned schedule for the rest of the experiment. Down to 2,400 Calories for one week, then down to 2,300 Calories per day for the last two weeks. Once I got down to 2,300 Calories, I actually cut out most of my walking lunge work and all of my stationary cycling because I was starting to get pretty tired on my high frequency squat program. Aside from being a bit hungry at time for the last two weeks, the whole process was pretty painless. My weight seems to have settled contentedly at about 233 lbs. I’m not in totally shredded six-pack territory (the body hair isn’t helping matters, but that’s there to stay!), but I’m certainly more lean, and I accomplished my goal of creating some wiggle room for becoming the strongest lifter at or below 242 lbs that I can.
The point of me telling you all of this is just to give you a real life example of what kind of pace worked for losing a decent amount of fat without sacrificing too much in terms of lean body mass or strength. As noted before, I was dropping somewhere around 0.6% of my average body weight throughout the time per week. If I were just going from my experience alone, I would recommend you not try to lose weight at a rate much faster than 1% body weight per week, but it turns out that the bodybuilding community has arrived at largely the same conclusion (1% or so per week works best). Go figure. The potential exceptions here are people that have a large excess of fat compared to lean mass. These people might be able to get away with a slightly higher rate of weight loss, but if you have any doubt, stick to 1% body weight per week or less. So, the first (Treebeard approved) takeaway point:
Cutting Tip #1: Don’t be hasty (there it is!) to establish a drastic energy deficit. Make changes gradually and one at a time, whether it is a decrease in caloric intake (bumps of 100-200 Calories at a time should do) or the addition of some form of cardio or conditioning (you don’t have to go overboard here!). This will help you to avoid losing muscle and strength.
So we should move gradually on a cut. Great. But what else goes into staying strong and muscular while you’re doing it, and why do we even need to worry about losing lean body mass during a caloric deficit in the first place?
When the body faces an energy challenge like a chronic caloric deficit, we hope that it will liberate and metabolize fatty acids from adipocytes to provide the energy necessary for daily survival, but it turns out that burning fat is not the only option here. Lean body mass (in this case, we’re pretty much referring to our precious skeletal muscle) can also be broken down to provide substrates to be used in the process of gluconeogenesis (the production of glucose from non-carbohydrate organic molecules such as the amino acids alanine and glutamine). In other words, in the process of burning fat, you can also start to burn ‘dem gainz. Not good, right? So how do we avoid this catastrophe (aside from taking it slow)? The research has quite clearly demonstrated two major keys.
First, you need to make sure you are getting enough protein. Hopefully you’ve already been doing this if you have lifting and trying to build muscle, but if not, now’s the time to fix it. The literature is filled with examples of studies that have all found that for isocaloric diets (same amount of energy, just different ratios of the macronutrients: carbs, fats, and proteins), high protein diets are much better at sparing lean body mass during weight loss. Unlike some other areas of weight loss research, this effect has been shown to hold true for weight loss in athletes (as opposed to just in obese populations). The amount used in the previously linked study had athletes consuming 2.3 g/kg lean body mass (about 1 gram per pound of body weight). Before you go thinking that if some is good, more must be better, I’ll point out that another study showed that while diets at both 1.6 and 2.4 g protein/kg body weight showed increased lean body mass retention during caloric deficit compared to 0.8 g/kg (which is, coincidentally, what the recommended dietary allowance is in the US), none of the metrics they looked at showed that there was a significant benefit in upping the protein intake from 1.6 g/kg (0.73 g protein/lbs body weight) to 2.4 g/kg (1.1 g protein/lbs body weight), so 1 gram per pound of body weight should be sufficient to cover your bases!
Now, it is worth noting that there has been research showing that most commonly studied diet types (high protein; high carb, low fat; high fat, low carb; etc.) seem to result in similar levels of total weight loss (assuming we are staying isocaloric between diet types). However, these studies are also mostly done on obese populations, where simply monitoring caloric intake is probably going to represent a huge paradigm shift from how a lot of these individuals typically behave. Plus, there are ALSO plenty of examples of studies suggesting that certain dietary strategies are better for promoting weight loss. One study found that women on an ad libitum (not calorically restricted), very low carbohydrate regimen lost both more total body weight and more body fat compared to a group that was placed on a low fat, Calorie-restricted diet. Sounds convincing at first, but they go on to note that the ad libitum, low carb group ended up regulating themselves to around the same caloric intake as the diet group over the course of the study, so the ad libitum aspect of the study becomes maybe a bit less impressive sounding. Plus, this was (again) a study done on an obese population. PLUS, they were going off of self-reported food logs to track all of this, so who REALLY knows how compliant either group was. What’s my point here? Mostly just that we should keep a healthy raise in our eyebrow when it comes to saying that one thing works better than another. At any rate, the important takeaway is that diets such as the one toted by the USDA (high carb, low fat, low protein) are not optimal for consequently supporting weight loss AND the maintenance of lean body mass.
We know with some certainty that we need a good protein intake for our purposes, so handle that first. From there, fill in the rest of your caloric intake with whatever balance of carbs and fats YOU find most sustainable. There are a lot of examples of research out there that give some reason to think there may be health benefits to eating certain ways (e.g. low carbohydrate diets—another topic I will plan on exploring in the future…so much to talk about!), but when it comes to changing your body in a meaningful way, the diet strategy that’s going to work best is probably the one that you will actually stick to consistently! As for the exact number of Calories you should be aiming for, everyone always wants to start with plugging their numbers into a TDEE calculator to find out what their “maintenance” should be and go from there. I guess this might do in a pinch, but a more preferable (probably better) place to start would be to just write down everything you eat over the course of several days and use a service like MyFitnessPal to calculate where you are sitting for your current daily caloric intake. Yes, it is more work, but it is also going to give you a better insight into what is happening in YOUR body given YOUR daily circumstances as opposed to what the models predict should be happening. Adjust as needed from that number to meet your protein goals, and so on, and so forth. So, in short:
Cutting Tip #2: Eat enough protein (shoot for about 1 gram per pound of lean bodyweight). This will help to spare lean body mass during weight loss. Try not to go too crazy about the nit-picky details (at least not at the expense of consistency).
The other crucial key research has identified for sparing lean body mass during weight loss is resistance training. This makes some intuitive sense. In general, the body does what it must to adapt to changing conditions and stressors in the environment. If you are sedentary and start reducing your energy intake, it makes sense that the body would start consuming the relatively unused (thus somewhat unnecessary) muscle along with its fat stores to keep functioning. The go-to explanation a lot of people will give for this is that muscle requires a lot of energy to maintain, but at rest, this doesn’t really seem to be the case. In fact, a review of energy balance models came to the prediction that resting skeletal muscle should require about 6.5 Calories per pound. Now, this is definitely going to change to some extent when that muscle is highly active throughout the day or rebuilding after an intense workout, but normally, at rest, the overwhelming balance of energy consumed by our bodies is utilized for things like heart, liver, kidney, and brain function, and all of their underlying, energy-consuming processes that are necessary for keeping us alive and conscious.
The point of degrading muscle tissue when the body faces an energy challenge, then, is probably mostly just to provide the organs with the amino acids they need for crucial life functions. One study that tracked plasma concentrations of 20 amino acids throughout 5-6 weeks of starvation in human stubjects saw, amongst other things, a rapid decline in plasma levels of alanine (remember from earlier that we identified this amino acid as being a good substrate for gluconeogenesis). This idea that muscle is being broken down to provide crucial amino acids rather than to save energy actually makes a lot of sense when we take into consideration the studies from earlier that found that increasing dietary protein alone was enough to reduce the loss of lean body mass (presumably in part because they are providing those amino acid substrates to the vital organs, thus eliminating the need for muscle breakdown). So, really, if all you want to do is burn fat, a high protein, hypocaloric (caloric deficit) diet is capable of doing the job on its own.
But burning fat isn’t the only thing we want, is it? We’re talking here about building a lean physique, which means we need muscles! On top of its benefit of increasing your daily energy expenditure, studies have shown that resistance training also decreases the loss of lean body mass during caloric deficits. This makes pretty intuitive sense, seeing as resistance training is the best way to provide a growth stimulus to muscle. Plus, lifting weights is kind of why we’re here to start with, right? It’s also important to note is that a lot of the available research shows that this sparing of lean body mass during weight loss is NOT achieved with predominantly aerobic activity like jogging on a treadmill on its own. This opens the door to the skinny-fat conundrum (I’ll write about this in a future post). In short, steady state cardio (e.g. treadmill jogging) consumes energy, but these studies have shown that it is inferior to resistance training for our purposes here in that it tends to allow for greater losses in lean mass while dieting (at least in obese individuals). High-intensity interval conditioning work (usually referred to as HIIT), however, seems to be less prone to this problem.
For brevity, I’ll save delving into what research has to say on the hows and whys for a later post, but studies have shown pretty consistently that things like HIIT on, say, a stationary bike lead to greater fat loss and less lean body mass loss than their steady state brethren even when measured energy expenditure is roughly equal between the two. Pretty neat, right? The “metcon” (short for metabolic conditioning) style workouts popularized by CrossFit are also a good option if you really want—or feel like you need—dedicated conditioning work on top of weight training. I’d recommend something like the “Cindy” WOD (workout of the day), which consists of 20 minutes of doing as many circuits as you can of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 air squats. This kind of work will expend a lot of energy and place a high demand on your aerobic conditioning, but unlike steady state cardio, it achieves these things while also stimulating the skeletal muscle in a way that will help prevent the loss of that lean body mass that we’re so concerned about. The last option I’ll mention is the walking lunge, done for distance. I mentioned this method previously, and I’ll write more about it soon, because I think it’s a pretty cool tool for a lot of reasons. Whatever you decide to do here, don’t go overboard. Adding extra conditioning work is nice because it increases your energy expenditure and thus lessens the amount by which you would have to reduce your caloric intake to achieve a caloric deficit (on top of whatever other effects it has on your body’s energy systems), but there is only so much you can do before you risk the conditioning beginning to interfere with the rest of your training. By all means, utilize some of these conditioning methods, but remember to keep the main focus on your weight training, and also remember: small, gradual changes!
When it comes to exactly what style or type of resistance training will be most helpful for maintaining those sweet gains whilst cutting, the research is lacking. Turning to the anecdotal evidence, the picture isn’t necessarily crystal clear either. Some believe that it is best to provide the body with a lot of volume at a moderate-intensity (what would typically be thought of as bodybuilder-style training) to try to maximize both energy expenditure and growth stimuli. Others are more of the mindset that high-intensity, lower-volume (more typical of what people think of as a powerlifting style of training) training is key to providing enough mechanical stress to the muscles to “convince” the body that it needs to keep those bad boys around. People have success with both schools of thought. The most important thing is probably that you train hard and train consistently.
I personally like the strategy of combining the two: starting off each session with high-intensity strength work on a big lift like the squat or deadlift, then moving on to slightly higher rep ranges for some accessory work. This is the general template behind several successful strength programs like Wendler’s 5/3/1, and it is a great way for the average gym-goer to lift whether they are in a caloric surplus, neutrality, or deficit. Anyhow, this leads us to:
Cutting Tip #3: Emphasize resistance training over traditional, steady state cardio. If additional conditioning work is desired, use short sessions of HIIT doing sprints or cycling, or try out “metcon” work or walking lunges for distance a couple times per week at the end of your weight training.
So there you have it folks: don’t be too hasty with your diet and exercise adjustments, eat plenty of protein, and lift lots of heavy things. By no means is this an exhaustive list of things to do when you are trying to change your body composition, but if you can accomplish these three things and be consistent about it, you should start to work off fat tissue fairly smoothly.
What’s next once you’ve achieved your desired composition? Many people decide to go right ahead and up their caloric intake back to “maintenance” levels. Low and behold, they begin to gain weight. On maintenance calories…? Seems like that doesn’t fit the definition of the word, maintenance. What has happened is that they have returned to a caloric intake that indeed had allowed them to steadily maintain their original body weight, only they overlooked a crucial fact: their body has changed. What used to constitute “maintenance” Calories is now a surplus.
Take me, for example. As I discussed above, the end of my little experiment finds me sitting at a daily intake of 2,300 Calories per day, and my body weight is resting pretty steadily at 233 lbs. The caloric intake that maintained my body weight before this experiment was around 3,300 Calories per day. If 3,300 Calories per day still constituted my maintenance level of Calories, I would probably still be losing weight. The fact that I’m sitting steady at 233 lbs while eating about 1,000 Calories less per day than I was three months ago tells us that something (or things) has changed either in how much energy my body requires or in how it is actually using the energy with which I nourish it.
This leads us to the topic of how things like diet, exercise, and body composition can alter one’s resting metabolic rate (RMR). Specifically, I want to talk about how your RMR could be lowered from baseline (in this case referring to directly before you began your cut) at the end of a cut, and how you can use a strategy called reverse dieting (a term that I believe was coined by Layne Norton; it was from his work that I first learned about this idea) to bring your caloric intake back up to (or maybe beyond) that baseline without regaining as much fat as you likely would if you just decided to return to your pre-cut maintenance intake in one big jump. Since this post has turned into something much longer than I was originally planning, I am going to save an in-depth discussion of these concepts for a second installment of this article, but the short version is this: you are simply going to begin bringing your caloric intake back up from wherever your cut ended (2,300 Calories for me) in small, gradual increments (basically mirroring the steps you took downwards, only in reverse). Easy as pie. If you want to know more about the hows and the whys, stay tuned for the post (I’ll aim for getting it out within the next couple of weeks).
As always, thanks for reading, everyone (especially if you stuck with me through the whole thing)! Please send me any comments or questions, and For the Love of Lifting, if you are enjoying the content, please spread the word!
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