You may have heard the inspiring (and possibly intimidating) quote, “man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.” It’s attributed to Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrel, and is a concise — if debatably accurate — summation of what it takes to cut weight for bodybuilding.
But do cuts have to be a grueling slog that you suffer through? Maybe not. Here’s how to train for bodybuilding during a cut, and possibly even make some new gains along the way.
Bodybuilding on a Cut
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With year-round bodybuilding training so often presented as a dichotomy — “hey bro, are you bulking or cutting?” — it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that your training should be starkly different as well. In reality, this may not be the case as much as you might think.
Should you approach your bodybuilding workouts a bit differently when you’re neck-deep in a fat loss phase? Probably. But that doesn’t mean you need to go back to the drawing board altogether.
If you’re a physique athlete (or hobbyist) on a cutting diet, your number one priority should be preserving as much muscle mass as possible while removing body fat. Make no mistake; losing fat isn’t about “remaking” your identity, it’s just about revealing some of that muscle you’ve put on over the last few years.
The duration and intensity of a cut is a personal decision, but you should manage your expectations accordingly. You should be prepared for the long haul if you’re aiming at a physique show, but shedding a few pounds shouldn’t be a half-a-year-long endeavor.
Balancing your rate of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) against the breakdown of muscle tissue is essential, as MPS rates are the primary contributor to muscular atrophy. (1) Proper balance is a result of proper training and nutritional habits in equal measure.
Contrary to popular belief, you can also build some muscle during a cut in some cases. However, it’s generally more feasible to maintain or recover previously-lost lean tissue rather than grow it anew if you’re working in an energy deficit. (2)(3)
So, as a physique-minded gymgoer on a cut, your workouts ought to be sustainable and calculated; with a focus on consistency, maintenance, and potentially even taking some small gains where you can find them.
You have to train hard if you want to bulk up, but your workout intensity shouldn’t fall off a cliff just because your goals have shifted. In fact, the opposite is true.
Research demonstrates that heavy training is more effective at preserving muscle mass than less-intense work. (4) This may be attributed to the fact that heavier lifting recruits more motor units per muscular contraction.
Since muscle tissue very much adheres to the “use it or lose it” mantra, heavy lifting is an efficient and effective way of ensuring you hold onto your mass while dieting.
If you’re on a cut, try to keep your intensity (how heavy you’re lifting relative to your max) reasonably high, at or above a seven-out-of-ten in difficulty most of the time. This becomes particularly important late into a diet when you’re at a greater risk of losing muscle.
Training volume, or how much physical work you do in the weight room, is strongly correlated with the results you achieve. Perhaps more strongly than any other single factor on a long-enough timescale.
However, while a hearty hypercaloric diet can really help power high-volume lifting, you don’t need to revert to minimalism just because you’re in a caloric deficit. Higher-volume training burns more calories than lower-volume training, so it may be wise to keep your workload up when you kick off a new diet.
That said, research indicates that you generally require only a fraction of “normal” volume to maintain gains you’ve already made. (5) Higher training volumes aren’t strongly associated with better lean mass preservation, though some findings indicate it isn’t strictly detrimental. (6)
Practically speaking, you should reduce your training volume (based on the number of weekly challenging sets) on an as-needed basis over the course of your cut.
If you find yourself struggling to complete workouts in a timely or effective manner, it might be time to cut back on a set or remove an accessory movement altogether. Your core compound lifts (whatever they may be) should remain; trim volume “from the edges” to begin with.
While most modern recommendations for training frequency tend to orbit the twice-per-week-per-muscle-group benchmark, the context of being in a fat loss phase may alter your approach to hitting the gym.
Every time you hit a leg workout in the squat rack, you incur some amount of systemic fatigue and muscle damage. During a period of energy restriction, recovering from leg day can take more time than when you’re eating heartily.
There’s no reason to deviate from hitting a muscle group twice per week while you’re on a cut. However, you may want to consider adjusting your overall number of gym sessions depending on the duration and severity of your energy deficit.
Cardiovascular exercise is often regarded as some degree of mandatory for bodybuilders who are cutting, particularly if they’re trying to get lean enough to walk onto a competition stage.
However, modern scientific literature hardly backs that idea. A large body of research indicates that cardio doesn’t produce meaningful differences in fat loss on its own, even if you prefer high-intensity interval training to low-intensity, steady-state work. (7)
There is some nuance at play for professional physique athletes who work under the guidance of a coach. Generally speaking, you should think of cardio as a tool for increasing caloric expenditure.
If you want to eat a bit more during your diet and create a caloric deficit with extra cardio, go for it. Conversely, you’re perfectly able to run a successful cut without any cardio training whatsoever.
Moderately-dosed cardio training is far from worthless, though. It’s still a time-efficient manner of getting more physical activity in, and comes with a slew of general health benefits.
The equipment you work with in the gym has almost no bearing on the efficacy or outcome of your diet, at least not directly. Unlike a powerlifter or weightlifter, you’re under no obligation to work with the barbell at any point during your physique journey if you don’t want to.
Heavy compound lifting is fantastic for creating lots of mechanical tension, testing your joint and postural stability, and improving your overall strength. However, these qualities have nothing to do with getting to single-digit body fat and, at a certain point in your cut, those athletic demands could even hinder specific physique goals.
If you find yourself getting more and more “beaten up” by lots of compound lifting, consider making some temporary substitutions and working with cables or machines instead. These implements put your performance “on rails” and allow you to safely reach, or exceed, muscular failure.
Sample Bodybuilding Routine for Cutting
There may be plenty of nuance and technicality to these concepts, but the reality is pretty straightforward. There is no “best” workout routine to follow if you’re on a cut. The beauty of bodybuilding is in its fluidity, after all. You can (for the most part) train how you like.
However, your split or program should broadly adhere to some fundamental principles to ensure that your training serves your needs while you diet down:
- Lift at moderate to high intensities, with moderate volume, hitting major muscle groups 1 to 2 times per week.
- Make adjustments to your program based on how you feel during your diet. On an as-needed basis, you should reduce volume first, frequency second, and intensity last.
- Cardio has no direct relevance to the physiology of cutting, but you can include a few moderate-effort sessions during the week as a way of boosting overall caloric expenditure.
While essential for maximizing your results, your actual in-the-gym training is only one half of the picture. After all, abs may be built in the gym but they’re revealed in the kitchen.
Moreover, you should acknowledge the difference between recreational cutting to improve your muscle definition and cutting as part of bodybuilding contest prep. The latter is a far more involved and rigorous process that you should almost always perform under the supervision of a bodybuilding coach.
That said, here are the overarching principles behind running a successful cutting diet as a bodybuilder; particularly how they affect your physical performance.
Your caloric intake is by far the most important factor regarding the degree and direction of your weight change. The more aggressive your cut — meaning, how far below your “maintenance” energy demands you eat on a daily basis — the faster you’ll lose weight, but there are caveats to this.
Science firmly supports the idea that larger caloric deficits create faster weight loss, but as you accelerate your diet, a growing proportion of that weight shed is likely to come from muscle mass. (2)
One of the best ways to determine your maintenance caloric intake is to use a calculator. Try out BarBend’s own in-house calculator to see where you’re at:
Steeper cuts will also deprive you of various macronutrients, which can strongly affect how you feel in the gym with a pair of dumbbells in your hands.
The amounts of protein, carbohydrate, and dietary fat you ingest are intrinsically linked to your caloric deficit, since those macronutrients themselves all contain calories (four for carbs and protein, nine per gram of fat).
Research indicates that very high protein intakes (as much as 1.2 grams per pound of lean body mass, as outlined by Longland et al. in 2016) help preserve and even possibly grow muscle during a hypocaloric diet. (9)(10)
Other literature indicates that ingesting dietary protein directly after a workout can help with muscle sparing, (1) but this finding isn’t considered significant as long as you hit your daily protein benchmark. Still, a high-quality protein powder might be worth picking up.
Carbs aren’t strictly essential for resistance training, but they sure do help. However, you don’t need to fret over timing your carbs perfectly before or after a workout if you primarily lift weights with moderate volume and high intensities. (11)
If you do a lot of endurance-based cardio or high-rep training in the gym, though, an intra-workout carb source to be taken during your workout could be a smart purchase.
Dietary fat may be very calorically-dense on a gram-by-gram basis, but adequate fats are critical for maintaining things like satiety, hormone balance, and immune function. Most recommendations suggest consuming up to 20 percent of your daily calories from fat sources. (12)
Dietary supplements are best utilized as just that; supplementation to a properly-managed meal and training regime. You don’t strictly need to use any supplements during a cut, but there are some that might be worth grabbing while you diet down.
There are some amino acids that you can only get (in meaningful amounts) from high-protein, whole-food sources. A good practical workaround would be to grab a supplement, but it isn’t a hard requirement.
If you find yourself feeling sluggish in the gym during your cut, you could boost your workout performance with a pre-workout powder.
Not only will a solid pre-workout supplement help you push through a hard session, almost all popular ‘pres contain a good helping of caffeine.
Caffeine is markedly confirmed to increase your metabolic rate; some studies even demonstrate that its effects are more potent the leaner you are. (14) Be mindful of the adverse effects chronic caffeine consumption may have on your sleep habits, though.
If you’re not used to supplementing with caffeine, consider starting with a conservative dosage of around 100 milligrams; about as much as you’d get from a cup of black coffee.
Similarly, creatine monohydrate is among the most well-studied athletic supplements on the planet. Daily creatine supplementation can help bolster performance during heavy lifting in particular, (15) which is crucial for maintaining muscle.
However, note that creatine is sometimes associated with bloating or extra water retention, which may alter your appearance even if you’re quite low on body fat. This side effect varies tremendously from person to person.
Training for bodybuilding while in a caloric deficit will look remarkably similar to your standard workouts. You don’t need to flip the script on your approach to the gym just because you’re trying to shed some fat.
- You should continue to train normally for as long as you’re comfortably able to.
- If you start feeling negative effects of prolonged caloric restriction, begin trimming down your training volume.
- Keep your intensity high and weights heavy for as long as you safely and reasonably can.
- Cardio is optional, but is a great way to kick up your overall calorie burn.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly of all, remember that “getting shredded” — which most would consider as having clearly-visible six-pack abs, pronounced vascularity, and defined muscular striations — isn’t mandatory if you aren’t working towards a physique show or competition. And even then, you wouldn’t be barred from entering just because your lower back isn’t feathered out.
Losing fat is a great way to make your physique more pronounced and defined, but it doesn’t say anything about your merit or worth as an athlete or as a person. You don’t need to commit to a long cut just to consider yourself a bodybuilder.
Cut to the Chase
While losing body fat is (on paper at least) as easy as doing a bit of napkin math in the kitchen, adhering to a proper cutting diet for weeks and months is a tall order.
But if you want to show off the hard-earned muscle you’ve built in the weight room, shedding some body fat is one fantastic way to bring your gains to life.
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