When bulking up, have you ever found that your size gains hit a plateau, you get fatter than you’re comfortable with, or your ratio of muscle to fat gain is alarmingly out of whack? If you have experienced any of these scenarios, a mini cut might be the solution you need to get back on track and build lean mass ASAP.
A mini cut is a short-term, aggressive dieting phase that helps you build more muscle long-term. Dieting to gain muscle sounds counterintuitive, but the strategy can set you up to make a prime amount of muscle. And if you’re the type of person who gains fat quickly, then mini cuts can keep your body fat percentage in check during a long bulk.
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What Is a Mini Cut?
A mini cut is a short-term fat loss diet designed to produce rapid fat loss.
The two essential characteristics of a mini cut are:
- It lasts for a short duration (2-6 weeks).
- It induces a rapid rate of fat loss.
If a mini cut lasts longer than six weeks, it is a regular diet. For a mini cut to work, the follower needs to be in a dramatic caloric deficit, and one should only eat this way for a short period. This is not a long-term and sustainable strategy to get lean. You follow a mini cut for a few weeks and then get right back to bulking.
Whether you should air on the shorter or longer side of a mini cut depends on how lean or fat you are. Typically, skinnier folks (a.k.a. hardgainers) respond well to an ultra-quick two- to three-week-long cut. People with more body fat on their frame should probably stick it out for the entire six-week cap. Anyone who fully commits to the plan will see results; two to six weeks is enough time to shed body fat if you don’t steer off course.
Worried You Will Lose Muscle on a Mini Cut?
If you’re a hardgainer, it’s understandable that the thought of a mini cut may freak you out. After all, you’ve presumably spent a lot of time in the gym, curling, pressing, and deadlifting your way to more muscle mass. And now you’re reading an article telling you to eat less and focus on fat loss to gain weight? If you’re on the thicker side, you may have little to no anxiety about cutting to gain but find yourself confused about why you should try this strategy?
For one, research out of Dr. Bill Campbell’s Physique Lab found that participants did not lose any muscle mass during a strict two-week diet, and these participants were in a 37.5% calorie deficit. (1) Another study found that athletes following a high protein diet with a 24% calorie deficit for four weeks lost about 1.25 pounds of fat per week without any negative impact on muscle mass, hormone levels, or performance. (2)
So, if muscle loss was a concern for you, take a deep breath, relax and rest assured that you will not wither away on a mini cut.
How Does a Mini Cut Work?
The purpose of a mini cut is to allow you to build more muscle. A mini cut is not a get shredded strategy or an approach designed to get you in bodybuilding contest shape. It is a diet that leans you out enough so you can continue to bulk up without adding more body fat.
Here is a summary of the times when a mini cut is a suitable strategy:
- The number on the scale is moving up quickly, but your gains are primarily body fat.
- You lack an appetite, affecting your ability to eat enough to gain muscle.
- You’re a bodybuilder who doesn’t want to get too far from their contest shape.
- You have an event fast approaching — like a vacation, wedding, or college reunion — and want to drop five to 10 pounds.
Mini cuts shouldn’t be sporadic. Try your best to predict when you may want to add a mini cut into your overall macrocycle instead of dropping your calories the moment your abs start to fade. Your training and nutrition should work synergistically to have a complementary and additive effect by periodizing both your training and nutrition so synch with one another; you can elevate your results and move past the intermediate level to excel.
A key benefit of a mini cut is it’ ability to extend the time you spend muscle building long-term. They are best placed at the end of a consistent building phase. Don’t fall into the trap of yo-yoing between mini bulks and mini cuts. Gaining muscle is a slower process than losing fat, and you need more time to create momentum and significant gains in muscle mass. Your training schedule should reflect this.
Here is an example long-term overview of how to incorporate mini cuts into your training plan:
Mini Cut Example
- Bulking Phase (12 weeks) –Start at 180 pounds, end at 189 pounds
- Mini Cut (3 weeks) — Cut to 183 pounds
- Bulking Phase (12 weeks) — Bulk to 195 pounds
- Mini Cut (3 weeks) — Cut to 189 pounds
- Bulking Phase (12 weeks) — Bulk to 200 pounds
- Maintenance Phase (3 weeks) – Hold at 200 pounds
- Longer Cutting Phase (7-12 weeks) — Find new body weight
The example above illustrates how mini cuts fit into a long-term weight gain plan. Over 42 weeks, our 180-pound person goes from 180 to 200 but dips down in body weight here and there to maintain their leanness. Say they cut 10 more pounds off of their now 200-pound frame, and they’ll have ended their year 10 pounds heavier. And though 10 pounds doesn’t sound like a lot, a lean 10-pound gain will result in a notable aesthetic difference. Think of mini cuts as taking one step back to leap forward two steps.
How Quickly Should I Lose Weight?
This depends somewhat upon your body fat percentage. The fatter you are, the more quickly you can lose weight. While no formula is one-size-fits-all, here are some general guidelines:
- 15+% body fat — lose 1.5-2% of your body weight per week
- 12-15% body fat — lose 1-1.5% of your body weight per week
- 10-12% body fat — lose 0.5-1% of your body weight per week
- Less than 10% body fat — You don’t need to mini cut. Get growing!
How to Calculate Your Caloric Deficit
A pound of fat contains approximately 3,500 calories. To lose a pound a week, you need a daily deficit of 500 calories (500 x 7 = 3,500).
To establish your target deficit, calculate your suggested weekly weight loss percentage. To calculate a two percent loss, you would multiply your body weight by 0.02. For 1.5%, multiply by 0.015. For a 1% loss, it would be 0.01, and so on.
After calculating the weight, you aim to lose, multiply this by 500 to find your daily calorie deficit. To illustrate, here is an example: Bill is 160 pounds and has 15% body fat.
Bill aims to lose 2.4 pounds (1.5% of his weight) per week. To achieve this, he needs a daily deficit of 1,200 calories. This was calculated as follows:
- 160 x 0.015 = 2.4
- 2.4 x 500 = 1,200
Mini Cut Macros
Macros matter. And they matter when you’re depriving your body so drastically of its normal energy levels. Here’s a quick primer on the three macros and how much you need each.
- Protein: It’s essential to consume sufficient protein to preserve muscle mass and manage hunger levels. One gram per pound of bodyweight does the job nicely during a mini-cut.
- Fat: You should keep fat intake high enough to support critical hormonal functions. Eat 0.3 grams per pound of body weight.
- Carbohydrates: Fill the rest of your calories with carbohydrates — an essential macro for energy. To find this number, multiply your protein intake by four and your fat intake by nine, add those two numbers together and then subtract it from your calorie goal. Then, divide that new number by and you’ll land on your carb intake.
Practical Tips to Make Mini Cuts More Effective
Creating a sufficient calorie deficit and consuming an appropriate ratio of macronutrients is vital to a successful mini cut. What food you eat matters too. No food has magical fat-burning properties, but choosing certain foods makes it easier to adhere to the large calorie deficit and macro targets.
With your calories so low, you will experience hunger. That’s part of the process. Accept it. When calories are low, people can cave into cravings and eat foods that taste great but are 100% opposed to their goals. Making smart food choices can help you avoid this scenario.
Opt to eat nutrient-dense, high fiber, low-calorie foods — or foods high on the satiety index. Choose lean protein sources over fatty ones. Replace starches and grains with leafy greens and fruits. Potatoes and rice are easy-to-digest and filling carb sources. Set yourself up for success by staying full on these types of food.
There is a reason bodybuilders have been dieting for decades on foods like oatmeal and egg whites or chicken and broccoli. It’s not because they magically create fat loss, but they help you stay full and hit the most important goal of achieving a calorie deficit.
Create a Calorie Deficit, Not a Nutrient Deficit
The body’s feedback loops consider nutrient intake, not just energy intake to some extent. If you are full of nutrients and full because you have chosen highly satiating foods, you are far more likely to adhere to the diet plan. If you can comply with the program, it will be over before you know it, and you can get back to bulking. If you cheat on a mini cut, you delay your return to mass gaining nutrition.
A simple rule to help you achieve this is to “eat the rainbow;” eat various colored fruits and vegetables. You will get a diverse micronutrient profile at a low-calorie cost if you do this.
The most important factors for a successful mini cut are finding a way to adhere to the required calorie deficit and consuming an appropriate macronutrient ratio each day. (Though it doesn’t beat whole foods, a greens powder supplement may help you hit your micronutrient target.) You can fine-tune things a little further to optimize your results, though. This is where nutrient timing comes in.
Small Details Matter
Nutrient timing is an example of a small detail that can make a big difference when mini-cutting. The goal of your training during a mini cut is to provide a muscle-building signal to the body. While you might not actually build much muscle, you will retain it. In a mini cut we want maximal fat loss and minimal muscle loss.
The best training when mini cutting is doing the type of training that build muscle. This is training with as much volume as you can recover from. High training volumes are best supported by carbohydrates. Carbs are the dominant fuel source for hard weight training sessions. So, it makes sense to consume as many carbs as you can get away with and bias the timing of these carbs to be around your workout.
Having carbs pre-workout will increase the quality and quantity of the training you can do. This means you provide a more powerful muscle retaining stimulus. It also means you can do more overall volume in the gym. More volume equals more calories burned and more calories burned equates to more fat loss.
Carbs post-workout aids recovery. You are more nutrient sensitive post-workout so a greater proportion of the carbs you eat will be shuttled to muscles than fat. You should take advantage of this fact to maximize muscle retention and accelerate your fat loss.
When to End a Mini Cut?
You don’t want to get so lean that you damage your hormones. And you don’t want to stop your mini cut before it becomes effective. Ok, so when is a good place to stop? At the very least, you want to diet to under 15 percent body fat, and ideally 10-12 percent. At 10-12 percent body fat, you won’t be shredded, but you should be able to see your abs in good lighting and when flexing them. Start your bulk here.
Training During a Mini Cut
From a training perspective, it is vital to keep lifting weights. A mini cut is not the time to suddenly begin doing crazy high-rep “fat loss” workouts. Train to stimulate muscle gain and let your diet take care of the fat loss. Short story shorter, the training you used to build the muscle you have is probably the best to keep it.
Mini Cut Training Guidelines
- Key Theme: What built it, best keeps it best!
- Rep Range: Try to keep your reps between 8-15.
- Sets: You should perform volumes that are at and above your minimum effective dose (MED). Knowing your exact MED is tricky but, for most people it is around 10 sets per muscle group a week. Moving closer to your maximal adaptive volume (MAV) is the place to be. Your MAV during a mini cut is different to when bulking because you are consuming fewer calories and this effects your ability to tolerate and recover from training. On average 12-15 sets per muscle group per week has proved extremely effective in my experience.
- How Often: Train each muscle group at least twice per week. Training is the most powerful stimulus to retaining muscle. Training larger muscles twice per week balances the need to create a stimulus to retain muscle mass with enough recovery each week. Smaller muscle groups can probably be trained three to four times per week.
- Set Yourself Up for Success: above all else, the program must be something you can stick to. Pick a plan you’re excited and motivated by. When calories are low and fatigue kicks in you are more likely to train hard with a challenging program you enjoy than one you hate. Also consider logistical issues so that your weekly training plan suits your lifestyle, schedule, work and family commitments. You only have a few weeks to achieve the goal in a mini cut so you need to line everything up to be as efficient and stress free as possible.
The Final Word
Treat your mini cut like a bank robbery _ that is get what you want quickly (fat loss) and then get out (back to bulking) before you get in trouble (e.g., diet fatigue, low hormone levels etc.). Much like a bank robber wants to get the cash and leave before the police arrive you want to lose a lot of fat and leave the scene before the negative consequences (muscle loss and sub-optimal hormonal function) kick in. If you do this right, you’ll be in and out of your mini cut before you know it and back on the run to building more muscle.
- Campbell BI, Aguilar D, Colenso-Semple LM, Hartke K, Fleming AR, Fox CD, Longstrom JM, Rogers GE, Mathas DB, Wong V, Ford S, Gorman J. Intermittent Energy Restriction Attenuates the Loss of Fat Free Mass in Resistance Trained Individuals. A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology. 2020; 5(1):19. https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk5010019
- Campbell, Bill & Aguilar, Danielle & Conlin, Laurin & Vargas, Andres & Schoenfeld, Brad & Corson, Amey & Gai, Chris & Best, Shiva & Galvan, Elfego & Couvillion, Kaylee. (2018). Effects of High vs. Low Protein Intake on Body Composition and Maximal Strength in Aspiring Female Physique Athletes Engaging in an 8-Week Resistance Training Program. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 28. 1-21. 10.1123/ijsnem.2017-0389.
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