Professional drug-free bodybuilder and powerlifter Jeff Nippard knows a thing or two about maintaining muscle mass. Having earned the title of Mr. Junior Canada for natural bodybuilding in 2012, he’s built a solid reputation for coaching, and he’s passed those serious knowledge gains on to future champions and millions of social media followers. Combining his experience as a successful bodybuilder with his educational qualifications in biochemistry leaves little question about whether or not Nippard knows his stuff. So, when he weighed in recently on a debate that haunts many competitors preparing to take to the stage, it’s best to take notice.
So, is it better to focus on volume or intensity to maintain muscle while cutting? For context, a “cut” is dropping weight by following a diet that supports a caloric deficit. Note: bolding below added for emphasis.
“There’s a lot of debate about whether volume or intensity is more important for retaining muscle on a cut,” shared Nippard in an Instagram post made on Aug. 6th, 2022. “I’ve always been of the opinion that intensity maintains muscle better than volume, and if something has to drop (usually it will, eventually). It’s better to drop volume than intensity.”
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Lifting heavy may seem counterproductive when on a cut because you are significantly restricting your calories. You might feel your strength and energy levels dropping as you eat less. For many competitors, this feeling leads them to lower the weights while increasing rep volume, so they still feel like various muscle groups receive sufficient stimulation.
Volume While Cutting?
Concentrating on quality over quantity at any training stage is an approach shared by bodybuilding icons such as the six-time Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates. He’s advocated that. Often, just one set can be enough to build or maintain muscle mass so long as sets are performed correctly and with maximum intensity. Nippard continues:
Maintaining strength in the four-to-eight rep zone…is one of the best ways to retain…muscle mass…as you get leaner. That high level of tension on the muscle is key for forcing it to stick around.
To follow Nippard’s advice, you should focus on the quality execution of each rep and time under tension rather than reduce the weight to reach a higher but less meaningful volume. The time it takes between cutting calories and experiencing declining levels of strength will differ for each competitor, but there’s no need to dial down the weight as soon as you begin your cut.
Perhaps the most important thing to note is that the 31-year-old Nippard is talking specifically about maintaining muscle rather than making gains. Be honest about what you can lift as your strength dips, but don’t be afraid to go heavy if you can.
In his powerlifting career, Nippard has recorded an impressive Wilks score of 446, based on a 228-kilogram (502-pound) squat, a 151-kilogram (336-pound) bench press, and a 235-kilogram (518-pound) deadlift. He tries to stay close to these numbers, at least initially, even while in the cutting phase.
“Obviously, at a certain point, your strength WILL decline (less body mass necessarily means less power at a certain point), but the goal should be to delay that decline as long as you reasonably can,” says Nippard. “So far, I’m down about 12 pounds on my cut, but my numbers are still hanging on, which is an awesome sign!” Nippard is seen in the post’s accompanying video hitting the bench press while spotted by Brandon Harding. He executed two sets of five reps at 143 kilograms (315 pounds), then stripped it down to 102 kilograms (225 pounds) for a “fun” set of 20.
Featured image: @jeffnippard on Instagram