Physique athletes are often very familiar with two distinct phases of training. You’ve got bulking, which is a period of eating and training to gain lean muscle mass. Then you have the cutting phase, which involves a diet dedicated to losing body fat.
But too often, athletes think of these phases very separately in their minds. There may be little interaction between the strategies an athlete uses during muscle growth phases and fat-loss phases. Enter prime cuts — a method designed to bridge the gap between the separate approaches to bulking and cutting.
The prime-cut method combines hypertrophy strategies with mini cuts to create a launchpad for rapid muscle growth. Learn everything you need to about this method here — and learn how to make it work for you.
- What Is the Prime-Cut Method?
- Prime-Cut Training
- Prime-Cut Nutrition
- Who Should Do Prime Cuts?
- Who Shouldn’t Do Prime Cuts?
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
Prime cuts are all about maximizing long-term muscle growth. The prime-cut method combines two powerful physique-enhancing strategies:
- Primer Training Phase Principles
- Mini-Cut Diet Strategies
The “prime” aspect of the method refers to training designed to prime you for muscle growth. A good primer phase creates the greatest window of opportunity for you to make progress in muscle-building long-term.
Primer workouts address many of the factors that normally limit growth — for example, muscle imbalances and faulty motor patterns. These workouts make hypertrophy training more effective so you can build muscle for longer without hitting a plateau.
On the nutrition side of things, the cut component will focus on mini-cuts. These mini-cuts are short-term, intensive diet phases that emphasize long-term muscle growth. Placed after a muscle-building phase, mini-cuts can help you lose fat, keep your muscle mass, improve insulin sensitivity, and upregulate your appetite.
All of these factors combined — primer training plus mini cuts — are meant to help you get into the best physiological condition to pack muscle on quickly.
The first component of a prime cut is the training primer. This type of workout aims to help manage your risk of plateauing and potential injury.
These workouts don’t just emphasize the muscle-building movements themselves. They also focus on mobility training and combating muscle asymmetries. By making your body as resilient as possible, a primer will help you develop the work capacity you need to handle higher-volume training in the future.
This increased volume is a significant driver of muscle gain. Ultimately, these primer workouts set you up to dramatically increase your volume over time. You’ll be shoring up your weak links and making sure that your range of motion and movement patterns are all at optimal efficiency. You’ll be building both short-term gains and lifting longevity.
A primer phase workout comprises four distinct sections. Each section addresses the following:
You’ll start improving your stability during your warm-up. You will prepare your body for optimal performance and also help prevent potential pain and injuries during subsequent blocks of your session.
To achieve this, your warm-up needs to create the mobility and stability you need to perform the exercises that make up your workout.
For maximum efficiency, everything you do in your warm-up should focus on enhancing your workout. You don’t need to waste time on random foam rolling, stretching, mobility, and activation work in the hopes that something will help. Instead, perform a warm-up specifically catered to optimizing your workout.
For example, if you can’t stand on one leg and do a single-leg Romanian deadlift, you probably shouldn’t be slapping five plates on the bar and deadlifting on two legs. Likewise, if you can’t hit depth on a light goblet squat during your warm-up, you’re not yet prepared for max-effort back squats.
Your warm-up might look different from day to day. On a good day, you can nail a warm-up drill in one or two sets and move on to the next. But other days, when stress levels are high or you’ve hunched over a desk for hours, you might need to run through a warm-up two or three times before you have the desired mobility and stability.
The first section of the main workout in training designed for maximum hypertrophy focuses on skill. Developing a skill is best done before you’re excessively fatigued.
To best develop your skills and set yourself up for serious muscle-building, perform your skill-based exercises right after your workout. Use the following guidelines:
- Use lighter weights relative to your heavy sets;
- Avoid approaching muscular failure with these sets;
- Take longer rest periods;
- Perform more sets than you do with your heavier training.
These criteria allow you to maintain high quality with your skill-based work. The lifts used in this section will form the foundation of your hypertrophy training. This investment of time in fine-tuning your skill on the lifts will pay back big dividends.
During this segment, you’ll focus on variations of squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows.
If you only move in one direction — say, up and down through squats — you may be strong, but not well-balanced. If your chest is much more developed than your back, you might have good bench press numbers now. But they’re bound to plateau sooner than you may think, not to mention a huge strength imbalance may expose you to greater injury risk.
By achieving stable ratios between muscle groups and movements, you can help manage your injury risk and build a solid foundation to reach a higher peak. Structural balance requires you to achieve balanced strength ratios across your body. That includes front to back, from side to side, and between your upper and lower body.
Unilateral movements can help achieve structural balance. Use dumbbells, kettlebells, and cable machines for unilateral work here. Ensure you’re getting a good balance of work between your left and right sides (both arms and both legs), back and front back sides (chest and back; hamstrings and quads), and your upper and lower body.
The final section of a primer workout is the strength output segment. The goal is to challenge the target muscle at the ends of your range of motion and push that muscle to failure.
A muscle is typically strongest in the mid-range of motion. At either extreme — fully lengthened or fully shortened — your strength tends to drop noticeably. That’s one reason many injuries may occur when you’re at the extremes of your range of motion. This is especially true of the lengthened range. Building strength here may help fight off those kinds of injuries.
In addition to building strength in the long term, this training segment is where a lot of muscle will be born. Many athletes leave gains on the table because they can’t push their sets hard enough. Building muscle often requires you to push close to failure.
To push yourself as hard as necessary while maintaining safety and good form, select exercises that provide external stability. By this stage in your workout, fatigue is high. You have a diminished ability to stabilize your own body.
You have already challenged stability earlier in the session. With external stabilizers, you can push your muscles to the max without worrying about stabilizing yourself. Wasting energy on trying to stabilize at this stage will take away from the goal of maximizing the output of the target muscle.
Muscular fatigue should be the limiting factor here — not coordination or stability. To accomplish this, choose externally supported exercises that allow you to fail safely. Exercises like leg extensions, machine rows and presses, and upper body isolation exercises like pec flyes or straight arm pullovers all work well here.
The key is that the exercise must allow the target muscle to be the limiting factor rather than stability. The set should only stop because that muscle doesn’t have any output left. After all, it has been maximally recruited and fatigued.
In addition to your primer workouts, the key component of the prime cut method is nutrition — specifically, mini-cuts.
Past the absolute beginner stages, you need to gain weight to pack on a significant amount of muscle mass. If you train and eat strategically, a good chunk of the weight you gain will be muscle.
As you continue eating in surplus, the ratio of muscle to fat gain may shift. You may begin building more fat than muscle. That may be counter to your muscle-building plans.
That’s where a mini-cut comes in. An intentional mini weight-cut can help solve this issue and put you back in a prime position to build more muscle.
A mini-cut is a short, aggressive fat-loss phase. Your typical mini-cut lasts two to six weeks. It won’t get you shredded, but it can get you lean enough to be in a position to gain muscle mass as quickly as possible.
With a mini-cut, you can extend the duration of your next bulk by allowing you to start it in a leaner position. You can bulk for longer without reaching a body fat level that you are uncomfortable with or interferes with your capacity to build lean muscle. Mini-cuts also allow you to dedicate more weeks per year to muscle gain.
A traditional approach of bulking for around 20 weeks and dieting for 12 weeks can be sub-optimal here. Restricting your food, especially for that length of time, is typically not sustainable — even the most disciplined of athletes can get derailed, lose muscle mass, or even develop disordered eating habits. (1)(2)(3)
By utilizing mini cuts, you can shift this to only two to six weeks of dieting for every 12 to 16 weeks of bulking. When you extend this process over months and years, mini-cuts can dramatically shift the time you spend actively pursuing muscle gain.
Mini Cut Macros
When doing a mini-cut, you want a calorie deficit, not a nutrient deficit. To achieve this, focus on eating a whole-food diet and avoiding processed food. Choose lean protein sources and prioritize a wide variety of veggies. Focus your fat intake on healthy fats.
Get your fair share of macronutrients, too — proteins, carbs, and fats. To get the nutrition you need from your mini-cut, check out BarBend’s macronutrient calculator.
You’ll account for your activity level and goals when inputting your information. Be sure to use the macros calculator to readjust your intake to account for bulking when you’re not doing your mini cuts.
Figuring out the next steps for your optimal training and nutrition program is a key piece of progressing in your training. Whether you’re looking for that classic X-frame or want to pack on muscle to support a 500-pound deadlift, read on to see if prime cuts are for you.
Athletes at a Physique Plateau
If you’ve hit a physique plateau, the prime-cut method may be the next thing you try out. Sometimes, it’s tough to tell whether you’ve stopped building muscle because of your training, nutrition plan, or both.
Prime cuts help set you up for maximal muscle gain in your training and nutrition plan.
On the training end, you’ll pay extra attention to mobility, skills, and a balanced approach to training. These are crucial areas where athletes often have shortcomings that lead to plateaus. Primer workouts make these foundational aspects of training a priority, thus giving you a firmer base on which to continue building muscle.
In terms of nutrition, the mini cuts give you a break from longer restrictive eating habits that are generally much more difficult to sustain. By giving yourself a shorter window for your cutting phase, you’re setting yourself up for a quicker, more efficient lean-out that will have you back to building muscle very soon.
Athletes Looking to Gain Muscle
For athletes in the business of making gains at lightning speed, prime cuts are a great option. There’s no one way in strength sports to guarantee particular results, but the prime-cut method optimizes your nutrition and training cycles to help you spend the most time building mass.
By cutting weight strategically and quickly, you can lean out briefly to see which muscles need more emphasis before heading back into the building phase. Then, the training phase has you finish each session with intense, externally-supported exercises performed to muscular failure. You’ll be priming your muscles to come back much bigger next time.
Athletes Who Don’t Like Long Fat Loss Phases
You might hate restricting what you eat over more than a couple of weeks at a time. Or you like going as hard as you can in the gym, as often as possible. If you don’t want to spend a long time in a fat loss phase, the mini-cuts component of prime cuts may be a good fit.
With mini-cuts, you’ll only spend between two and six weeks in a cutting period. Shorter cuts mean spending less time in caloric restriction and more time training (and eating) for mass.
Just because prime cuts are a solid option for many athletes doesn’t mean they’re appropriate for everyone. If you’re unsure, check in before proceeding.
Let’s face it — when you’re a beginner, you make gains fast. Newbie gains can be intense and very quick, in terms of strength, muscle growth, and fat loss. When you first come to the gym with a well-designed program, you may feel unstoppable because you’re getting strong very quickly.
But eventually, the gains will grind to a halt as your body fully adapts to the stressors of a new training regimen. When you hit a significant plateau that traditional progressive overload techniques aren’t seeming to help, you might start thinking about prime cuts. But by that time, you won’t be a beginner anymore.
Athletes Who Cannot Do Weight Cuts
For many athletes, weight cuts of any duration aren’t feasible. This might be because of a history of disordered eating habits or other issues related to body image. If you can’t safely follow a restrictive diet, you’ll need to skip out on mini-cuts.
Get Primed to Get Cut
In a nutshell, the prime-cut method allows you to thrive on even the most brutal bodybuilding workout. By combining the benefits of a mini-cut diet with those of a hypertrophy-focused training phase, prime cuts help you enjoy a more sustainable training lifestyle that allows you to spend more time on growth than cutting.
With this method, you can become lean enough to stay in a calorie surplus for an extended period. Combined with growth-focused training, you’re in the perfect position to gain muscle as fast as possible — and keep doing it for a long time. So before your next mass gain phase, consider using the prime-cut method to set yourself up for muscle-building success.
- Hill JO, Wyatt HR, Peters JC. Energy balance and obesity. Circulation. 2012 Jul 3;126(1):126-32.
- Helms ER, Prnjak K, Linardon J. Towards a Sustainable Nutrition Paradigm in Physique Sport: A Narrative Review. Sports (Basel). 2019 Jul 16;7(7):172.
- Akkermann K, Hiio K, Villa I, Harro J. Food restriction leads to binge eating dependent upon the effect of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor Val66Met polymorphism. Psychiatry Res. 2011 Jan 30;185(1-2):39-43.
Featured Image: DMITRII SIMAKOV / Shutterstock