Whether you’re a competitive or casual bodybuilder, good conditioning is essential to display the fruits of your labor in the gym. You’ve been training hard to build muscle mass, and now it’s time to go on a cutting diet to lose that body fat covering your abs and get lean and shredded.
But how long do you need to cut to reach your goals? In this article, you’ll learn how to plan your cutting diet to lose body fat while maintaining your hard-earned muscle.
Bulking and Cutting: What’s the Difference?
You have likely heard the terms bulking and cutting. They are two dietary strategies for improving your body composition. Unless you’re new to bodybuilding, you have probably implemented them both.
Bulking means combining strength training and a caloric surplus to add body weight, mainly in the form of muscle mass. Ideally, you want as little as possible of that weight gain to be fat. However, even the most successful bulks will result in at least some fat gain.
Cutting is when you reduce – “cut” – your body fat to make your muscles more visible and defined. Unlike standard weight-loss regimens, a cutting diet emphasizes maintaining lean body mass through dietary manipulation and intense resistance training.
Most people find the bulking phase easy and enjoyable, while cutting is often more difficult and miserable. After all, most of us enjoy eating more than going hungry.
How to Do a Bodybuilding Cut: The Basics
You can’t follow a generic weight-loss diet or randomly cut your calories if you want the best possible results. You need a diet tailored to your own body and needs, which requires planning. A detailed diet plan includes how many calories, how many grams of protein, how many grams of carbohydrates, and how many grams of fat you should eat each day.
Step One: Planning Your Calorie Intake
First things first: how many calories do you need? To lose fat, you need to create a calorie deficit. You can tailor many parts of your cutting diet to your personal preferences, but you can’t get away from the need for a calorie deficit. Your bodybuilding cut will fail if you don’t consistently eat fewer calories than you burn.
The first thing to do is determine how many you need to maintain your body weight. Without knowing your maintenance level, you can’t know how many calories you need to lose weight and body fat. Getting this number right is notoriously tricky, but fortunately, there are tools to help.
Use our calorie calculator to estimate how many calories you need to consume for weight maintenance.
The key word here is estimate. While equations for estimating calorie requirements are reliable on a population level, your individual needs will invariably differ a little. Or a lot. However, they are helpful to give you a rough starting point. You probably need to experiment a bit to figure out exactly how many calories you need. If your body weight is stable over a week, you’re good to go.
Once that’s done, it’s time to determine the caloric intake you need for cutting.
A good rule of thumb is to lose 0.5 to 1 % of your body weight per week.1 Keeping it slow and steady ensures that you lose fat, not muscle. If you have a lot of fat to lose, you can go faster, but you will get more hungry and risk losing muscle in the process.
To lose a kilogram of body fat, you need to burn around 7,800 calories more than you eat.2 Assuming your weight loss comes only from fat, a calorie deficit of 500 kcals per day would result in a half-kilogram fat loss per week. That’s a mathematical model, not reality, though. Real life is dynamic, and so is your body. It adapts to a calorie deficit and will fight you when you try to lose weight.
I still recommend a moderate caloric deficit for most bodybuilders, around 500 kcals. That’s a good starting point to keep losing body fat at a steady pace while having enough energy left for high-intensity workouts. It ensures you lose more or less only fat while maintaining your muscle mass.
If you have a lot of body fat to lose, you can increase your calorie deficit to 1,000 kcals per day. You’ll lose weight faster, and it’ll still be almost all fat because having a lot of body fat during a diet protects your muscles.
As an example, let’s say you weigh 80 kilograms and need 2,500 calories for weight maintenance. A good starting point for your cutting diet would be reducing your daily food intake to 2,000 calories.
Step Two: Planning Your Protein Intake
Protein is the most critical macronutrient for a successful bodybuilding cut. Your body uses protein to build muscle, and when combined with weight training and a good workout routine, a high-protein diet helps preserve your muscle mass during a cut.
When you’re at or above your calorie needs, you need between 1.6 and 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.3 During calorie restriction, like when you’re cutting, that requirement increases. In addition, the leaner you get, the more protein you need just to keep your hard-earned muscles mass.4
Most bodybuilders will respond best to a protein intake of 2.3–3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass (LBM) per day during the cutting phase.4 Most recommendations are based on total body weight, but if you’re on a bodybuilding cut, basing your calculations on LBM is more exact, and a good idea. At the start of the cutting phase, you can aim for 2.3 grams per kilogram of LBM per day, gradually increasing your intake as your cut progresses and you get leaner.
For example, if you weigh 80 kilograms and estimate you’re carrying 10 kilograms of body fat, your LBM is 70 kilograms. That means you’ll be eating roughly between 160 and 220 grams of protein per day. Each gram of protein provides you with four calories per gram, meaning you’ll get 640–880 calories per day from protein. Assuming you’re aiming for 2,000 calories per day total, you have 1,120 to 1,360 calories left to spend on carbs and fat.
Step Three: Planning Your Fat Intake
Fat is an essential macronutrient, a good energy source, helps you absorb nutrients, and is crucial for hormone production. As a bodybuilder, you want to make sure you get enough fat for all those things.
There is no definitive amount of fat you should be eating daily. Consuming 15–30 % of your calorie intake from fat is a good idea to ensure you get enough to stay healthy while maintaining your levels of anabolic hormones as well as possible.15 Your testosterone levels will drop during a cut, but by getting adequate amounts of healthy fats, you do what you can to fight it.
Fat is the most calorie-dense nutrient, providing nine kcals per gram. Let’s say you opt for 20 % of your calorie intake as fat. If you eat 2,000 calories per day, that means you’ll be getting 400 calories from fat each day. Since 400 / 9 ≈ 45, your fat intake is going to be 45 grams per day.
Step Four: Planning Your Carbohydrate Intake
Carbs are the preferred fuel for high-intensity training. Planning your carb intake is the final step when calculating the nutrient intake for your cut. This one is easy. Your carb intake is the number of calories left after calculating your protein and fat intake. Going with the examples above, you have 720 to 960 calories left. Each gram of carbohydrate provides you with four calories, meaning your cutting diet calls for 180–240 grams of carbs per day.
For a more detailed guide to tracking your macros, check out or comprehensive guide:
Case Study: Natural Bodybuilding Contest Cut
A 2015 study documented the cutting program of a 21 year-old amateur bodybuilding during the 14 weeks he prepared for his first competition.6
The table below shows his energy (kcal) and macronutrient (g) intake over the 14-week period of study.
As you can see, he lowered his calorie intake week by week while keeping his protein intake high. His fat intake remained relatively constant, meaning he controlled his weight and fat loss mainly by manipulating how many carbs he ate.
Cutting Is Not a One-Size-Fits-All Endeavor
The above recommendations are just that: recommendations. They will suit most bodybuilders, but undoubtedly, some will find that they respond better to a diet and cutting plan that falls outside of the standard recommendations.
For example, some bodybuilders eliminate carbs entirely from their diet, using a so-called ketogenic diet to reach contest shape with excellent results. While a low-carb or ketogenic diet works for some bodybuilders, others find it hard to perform their best in the gym when going too low.
Other dietary strategies than the ones in this article are by no means incorrect. Still, unless you already know you respond better to a specific diet, the ones outlined above are great ways to reach a defined and muscular physique.
Adapting on the Fly
Keep in mind that your calorie requirements will change as you lose weight. A lighter body requires fewer calories. As you get leaner and your body weight goes down, your metabolic rate goes down and you’ll need to re-calculate your calorie intake or up your cardio. Likely, you’ll be reducing your energy in stages during your cut.
How Do You Know When It’s Time To Start Cutting?
If you’re new to bodybuilding, you probably don’t need to think about cutting unless you’re carrying excessive amounts of body fat. Taking up strength training and following a balanced diet usually results in losing some fat while building significant amounts of muscle.
If you’re starting with low amounts of body fat, you’ll likely see better results from a bulking phase to optimize muscle gains before even considering a cutting cycle. We’re not talking about dirty bulking where you eat everything that comes your way, but a reasonable caloric surplus that allows you to add quality muscle tissue without too much fat gain.
On the other hand, if you’re overweight and starting bodybuilding, a cut would make more sense. Bulking would add more body fat and make a future cut even more challenging. Besides, as an overweight beginner, you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time.7
When you have some training experience or if you’re a competitive bodybuilder, it makes sense to keep your body fat levels in check during off-season. Excessive bulking makes your cut longer and unnecessarily challenging. There is no scientific evidence for a specific upper limit of body fat that makes further bulking purely detrimental. However, if you’re competing in a bodybuilding contest or aiming to get shredded, you don’t want to start your cut with too much fat for several reasons.
- You’ll make it much harder for yourself to reach the proper level of conditioning in time.
- A super-long cutting phase means less time you could be building muscle. You don’t want to spend six months dieting where you’re, at best, able to maintain the muscle you’ve got.
- Dieting is just not very fun. Sure, it’s enjoyable to see yourself get shredded. Training is much more fun when you have plenty of energy, though. Staying on a cutting diet for extended periods is mentally and physically challenging and drains your energy levels.
Purely anecdotal evidence suggests staying at or below 15 % body fat for men and around 25 % for women during the off-season. That is a good compromise between being able to add muscle mass and not having to diet overly long for a competition, potentially losing valuable lean muscle mass in the process.
How Long to Cut for Bodybuilding
Figuring out how long your cut should be can be challenging. You want your rate of fat loss to be on point so that you reach your target body fat as planned.
Determining when it’s time to start cutting depends on several factors.
- How much body fat do you need to lose? The more fat you’re carrying, the longer you need to plan for your cut to be. Rushing it with a large calorie deficit helps you lose weight faster, but you also increase the risk of losing muscle in the process. A successful cut means losing body fat, not muscle.
- What’s your goal? Is it a bodybuilding competition, a vacation, or just looking good in general? If you’re entering a bodybuilding competition, you’ll be aiming for a very low body fat percentage and have to adjust the length of the cut accordingly. Getting in shape for a vacation in the sun is likely less challenging if your main goal is having visible abs on the beach.
- If you have five kilograms of body fat to lose and aim for a weight-loss rate of 0.5 kilograms per week, you need at least ten weeks to reach your goals. If you have ten kilograms to lose, you can likely lose a kilogram per week without worrying about muscle loss, in which case you’d also be cutting for at least ten weeks.
Notice the “at least” above? Weight and fat loss are not linear. They will slow down over time, and you’ll need to adjust your diet or cardio accordingly. Sometimes your weight loss will stall, and other times it will drop more than expected. That’s perfectly normal, but it means you can’t trust pre-cut calculations completely. Add a couple of weeks to your cutting diet to make up for deviations from the plan. If you reach your target body fat a few weeks before the competition or whatever you’re dieting for: great! You can cruise all the way to your goal and make it easy to time your peak conditioning.
If this is your first cut, it’s exceedingly hard to time your cut to reach your goal exactly on time. Often, when you reach the body weight where you expected to be in the shape you’re aiming for, you’ll find that you still have a ways to go. As you get more experienced, you’ll be able to hit your target body fat in the planned time frame. But it’s always better to be safe than sorry and to expect your cut to take longer than expected.
For the majority of bodybuilders, aiming for a calorie intake that allows you to lose 0.5–1 % of your body weight weekly is likely the best way to a successful cut.
What that means in terms of the length of your cut will depend on how lean you are when you start dieting. If you stay in relatively good shape during off-season, a 2–4 month cut is reasonable.1 To maintain as much muscle as possible, it’s likely better to err on the side of caution and take it slow. And, if you have more fat to lose, prepare for a lengthy cut.
Training on a Bodybuilding Cut
While it is beyond the scope of this article to go into the training part of a bodybuilding cut, these are some tips to make it more successful.
- Train to gain, and you’ll make it easier to maintain. It’s challenging to build muscle on a cutting diet, but that’s not a reason to change your hypertrophy training. High-intensity strength training keeps your muscle protein synthesis elevated, which helps you maintain your lean mass.
- Don’t turn your weight training into cardio. You control your fat loss with your diet, and if you need to burn additional calories, throw in a few actual cardio sessions instead. Your main goal in the gym is to stimulate muscle growth, not burn calories.
- While it’s natural to lose some strength during a cut, try to fight it as best you can. High-intensity weight training tells your body that it needs to keep its muscles even though it’s not getting all the food it wants. Maintaining most, if not all, of your strength is an excellent way to tell you’re not losing muscle.
Tips and Tricks to Make Your Cut More Effective and Enjoyable
- Avoid drinking your calories. Solid foods are more filling and make you less prone to hunger attacks. A protein shake is fine because protein is the most satiating nutrient, but in general, stay away from juices, sodas, and the like, in favor of solid meals.
- Consider adding some cardio. You’ll train your body to utilize fat as fuel more effectively. In addition, burning calories through cardio lets you eat a little more and still lose fat. Don’t overdo it, though. Your diet is what makes or breaks your cut. Two to three 20–40 minute cardio sessions per week are enough for most bodybuilders.
- Meal prep! You take the guesswork out of eating by preparing your meals. You always know what you put into your body and how many calories you’re getting. Also, meal prepping for several days or a week in advance saves time and energy during a period when you might be low on both.
- Certain supplements can help you get shredded and retain as much muscle mass as possible during a cut. The best ones, backed by scientific evidence, are creatine, whey protein (or soy protein isolate, if you prefer a vegan-friendly alternative), caffeine, green tea, and capsaicinoids. Check out our in-depth analysis for more information, with references:
How Long to Cut for Bodybuilding: Summary
- There is no definitive answer to how long you should cut. The length of your cut depends on your leanness. The leaner you are, the less time you need to reach your target body fat and weight. If you’re overweight or have been bulking excessively, expect to spend more time cutting to reach your goals.
- Aim for a calorie intake that allows you to lose 0.5–1 % of your bodyweight weekly. A relatively slow rate of weight loss likely optimizes fat loss and retains as much lean muscle as possible compared to shorter and more aggressive cuts.
- A calorie deficit of 500 kcals per day is a good starting point, especially if you don’t want to mess about with exact calculations. It’s neither too high nor too low a calorie deficit for most bodybuilders.
- Most bodybuilders get the best results from getting 2.3–3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass per day, 15–30 % of their calories from fat, and the rest of their calories from carbs.
If you want to learn more about cutting and getting in shape in general, not just bodybuilding-style cutting, check out our comprehensive guide:
Track Your Progress With the StrengthLog App
The length of your cut is only a small part of reaching your fitness goals, but timing it right can make a big difference in your results. Tracking your workouts makes it much easier to ensure your training is on point during your cut.
It’s almost impossible to keep track of your progress without a workout log. Our app StrengthLog is 100% free to download and use as a workout tracker and general strength training app. All the basic functionality is free – forever.
You’ll also find a bunch of training programs and workouts in the app. Many are free, but our more advanced programs and workouts are for premium users only.
Want to give premium a shot? We offer all new users a free 14-day trial of premium, which you can activate in the app.
Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition volume 11, Article number: 20 (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation.
- International Journal of Obesity volume 32, pages 573–576 (2008). What is the required energy deficit per unit weight loss?
- Br J Sports Med. 2018 Mar;52(6):376-384. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults.
- Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2014 Apr;24(2):127-38. A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: a case for higher intakes.
- Strength and Conditioning Journal: August 2010 – Volume 32 – Issue 4 – p 80-86. Strength Nutrition: Maximizing Your Anabolic Potential.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition volume 12, Article number: 20 (2015). A nutrition and conditioning intervention for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: case study.
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 58, Issue 4, October 1993, Pages 561–565. Muscle hypertrophy with large-scale weight loss and resistance training.