As a bodybuilder, you spend your time lifting heavy weights, building muscle, and eating a lot of food, and then you step up on stage to show off your physique. Right? At least that’s what a lot of people outside of bodybuilding believe. However, that’s only half of the process, the bulking phase. The other half is the cutting phase, which involves dieting, weight loss, and often hunger and fatigue in the pursuit of a lean and muscular body.
A successful bodybuilding cut takes time, effort, and know-how. You provide the effort, and with the tips in this article, you’ll make your cutting diet as smooth as possible.
#1: Plan Your Calorie Intake
You can plan your cutting diet in many different ways, and one successful cut might look wildly different from an equally successful cut. However, there is one thing you can’t get away from if you’re looking to get ripped.
To lose fat, you need to create a calorie deficit. Your total daily energy expenditure needs to exceed your total daily energy intake.
The optimal size of your calorie deficit depends on two significant factors:
- How much body fat are you carrying? The higher your body fat, the more aggressive your calorie deficit can be without cutting into your lean body mass.
- When’s your diet goal? If you can set your own time points for your cut, you can take as long as you want. But if you’re cutting for a bodybuilding competition, you’ll have to adapt your diet plan to reach your peak conditioning in time for the show.
Losing 0.5 to 1 % of your body weight per week is a good rule of thumb.1 That rate of weight loss ensures you’re losing fat, not muscle. Also, you don’t have to starve yourself to reach it.
A moderate calorie deficit of 500 kcals per day is an excellent middle ground for most bodybuilders. You can start more aggressively without risking muscle loss if you have plenty of body fat. As you get leaner, you probably want to go for a smaller deficit to maintain lean muscle mass or lose as little muscle as possible. Plan your diet to reach your target body fat a week or two before contest day. That way, you can cruise your way to the finish line without having to crash-diet and lose muscle the last few weeks.
#2: Increase Your Protein Intake
During a bodybuilding cut, your diet centers around eating fewer calories, lowering your fat intake, and cutting down on carbs.
In addition, the leaner you are, the more protein you need. That means that you should increase your protein intake further the leaner you get.
When you’re looking to achieve muscle gain and strength during a bulking phase, a protein intake of 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight per day is plenty.4 When you’re cutting, things change. Bodybuilders typically perform both strength training and cardio during a cutting diet or pre-contest phase. They do so while being very lean with little body fat and with the goal of maintaining as much as much muscle mass as possible. These conditions increase your protein needs as well, meaning general recommendations for athletes go out the window.
Aim for a protein intake of 2.3–3.1 grams per kilogram of lean body mass (LBM) per day.1 How much body fat you carry determines if you should be closer to 2.3 or 3.1 g/kg of LBM.
Let’s say you weigh 100 kilograms when you start cutting, with 20 percent body fat. That puts your LBM at 80 kilograms. Eating 184 grams (80 x 2.3) of protein per day would give you enough muscle-building amino acids to prevent muscle loss at this stage. As your cut progresses and you get leaner and leaner, your protein needs go up. Let us assume that you lose 5 kilograms of fat during the next few months, and you manage to do it without losing any LBM at all. Now you need more protein to protect your muscle mass, meaning you have to up your intake to, say, 2.7 g/kg of LBM or 216 grams per day. Once you’re near contest shape, you’ll need those 3.1 g/kg of LBM to prevent muscle loss.
While solid foods should make up most of your total calories, adding a couple of shakes per day might be helpful to get enough protein when your diet plan is so restrictive.
#3: Low-Carb or Low-Fat?
Once you’ve determined the number of calories and the amount of protein for your cutting diet, you need to plan your carbohydrate intake and how many grams of fat to include. Ideally, you want enough healthy fats and a high enough carb intake for optimal health, hormone levels, and performance, but that can be tricky on a strict diet. Something has to go to reach a calorie deficit. But what to reduce? Carbs, fats, or a little of both?
A low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet is effective for weight loss in general. As a bodybuilder, you might want to keep at least some carbs in your meal plan. Going too low in carbs might negatively impact your performance in the gym and increase the risk of muscle loss.1 One study on competitive bodybuilders found that they probably could have prevented some of the adverse hormonal effects and the metabolic adaptation that happened during the contest prep by eating more carbs.5
Some recommendations suggest bodybuilders stay between 20 and 30 % of their calories from fat.6 That is probably ideal during the off-season when the focus is on muscle growth. However, during a bodybuilding cut, such a high fat intake might be unrealistic if you aim for close to 3 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass per day and enough carbs to perform your best. You’d have a hard time creating the calorie deficit you need to lose fat.
Bodybuilders have successfully used both low-fat and low-carb cutting diets over the decades. If you know you respond better to a low-carb or a low-fat approach, go with what works. But suppose you don’t have the experience to evaluate the two alternatives properly. In that case, you might want to go with a middle-ground plan: a moderate decrease in both your fat and carb intake that allows you to keep your protein intake high and still reach your target number of calories. Cut down some on carbs, but not to the point where your performance suffers. Cut down some on fat, but not to the point where your testosterone suffers.
#4: Plan Your Cheat Meals
Are cheat meals of no interest to you even on a cut phase after a long amount of time on a low-calorie diet? More power to you! But an occasional cheat meal can be a welcome break from the rice and chicken after weeks or months on a strict diet and helps keep your sanity. Obviously, you can’t cheat on your diet too much or too often, or you’ll be cheating yourself on your results as well.
The key to making cheat meals work for you instead of against you is to keep them under control and plan them. A cheat meal should satisfy your taste buds and cravings, not be a 10,000-calorie junk food feast. There is no evidence that your body can’t absorb virtually everything you feed it, so such a massive cheat meal or cheat day could eliminate several days’ worth of fat loss. If it happens once, no big deal, but regular, massive overfeedings will have negative effects.
Instead, indulge in whatever you’re craving, but keep it under control. A good rule of thumb is to eat according to your diet plan 90 % of the time, allowing you to eat more freely during the remaining 10 %. By doing so, you can have your cake and eat it too. One or two planned and controlled cheat meals per week won’t prevent you from reaching your fitness goals.
If you do happen to indulge in an over-the-top cheat meal, don’t despair. It won’t ruin your cut and it’s not the end of the world. Forgive yourself and get back to your regular cutting diet right away. Suppose you tell yourself that you’ll get back on track tomorrow or next week. Then one cheat meal can quickly become two or three. Acknowledge that it happened, don’t feel guilty, and continue your cutting as planned.
#5: Refeeds Can Benefit Your Cutting Diet
Refeeds are different from cheat meals or cheat days. A refeed is a brief period where you increase your caloric intake to slightly above maintenance, primarily by eating more carbs.8 The goal of incorporating refeeds into your cutting diet is to keep your metabolic rate from declining and boost your levels of the satiety hormone leptin.
Single-day refeeds probably offer little benefit in the way of fat loss, and multiple refeed days per week is a luxury few bodybuilders on a cut can afford. However, regular refeeds might provide a protective effect on your muscle mass.9 By adding carbs to your standard cutting diet plan, you also fill your muscles with glycogen, which allows you to perform better in the gym for a workout or two. In addition, the psychological effects of breaking up your diet with a refeed now and then can’t be understated. Constant dieting is mentally challenging, and a refeed day allows not only your body a break, but your brain, too.
The leaner you get, the more often you can benefit from a refeed. At the start of your diet, your resting metabolic rate and leptin and testosterone levels are still high from your offseason caloric surplus. At that point, you probably don’t need any refeeds at all. You benefit from more frequent refeed days, maybe one per week, as you get leaner. You might benefit from two refeeds every ten days once you’re shredded, or at least below 10 % body fat.
Ideally, you want to spend as little time in diet breaks like refeeds as possible so as not to extend your overall cut more than necessary but still get maximum benefits both physically and mentally.
#6: Choose the Right Supplements
Nutrition is a vital part of bodybuilding. Getting all the nutrients to support your training during a low-calorie cutting diet is a challenge. If your diet isn’t on point, your efforts in the gym will likely go to waste, especially when it comes to cutting. While dietary supplements aren’t strictly necessary for bodybuilding success, and there are many overhyped or useless ones on the market, some help you reach your goals.
Creatine isn’t a fat-burning supplement, but it helps you with the other crucial component of a cut: retaining muscle mass. Backed by hundreds of studies and without any documented significant side effects, creatine is a positive addition to your bodybuilding strategy plan, regardless of whether you’re bulking or cutting.10
Protein supplements come in many forms: whey protein, casein protein, soy protein, etc. They all serve the same purpose in your supplement stack: boosting your protein intake. During a cut, your protein needs increase, and getting that much protein from foods alone without unwanted calories can be challenging. Protein supplements provide you with, more or less, pure protein and nothing else in a convenient package, making them a crucial part of many bodybuilders’ supplement stack.
#7: Introduce Cardio Gradually
Don’t underestimate the value of cardio during a cut. Controlling your calories with your diet is way more impactful, but adding cardio to your bodybuilding cut supports your fat loss. When starting a cutting program, a common mistake is to do too much cardio too soon. You want to do as little cardio as possible and gradually increase the amount over time.
Weight loss is not linear. Sooner or later, your progress will grind to a halt and you’ll have to adjust your calorie intake or increase your cardio. Your metabolic rate goes down and what was once a calorie deficit no longer makes you lose as much weight. If you go from your off-season bulking phase to your cutting diet by immediately adding an hour or more of cardio many times per week, you limit your options when your initial progress stalls.
If you’re already doing an hour of cardio per day, what are you going to do once your fat loss slows down? Add even more cardio? Before long, hours of cardio will eat into your ability to recover from your lifting and maybe even into your lean muscle mass. You don’t want that to happen.
Instead, start slowly by gradually introducing cardio into your cutting phase. A good starting point is to control your caloric deficit mainly through your food intake and add two 20-minute cardio sessions per week. That way, you don’t have to cut down too much on your caloric intake from the get-go, and you can increase your cardio when your progress slows down without getting overwhelmed.
Once you find your fat loss slowing down, add another cardio session. Now you’re doing three 20-minute sessions per week. Add 10 minutes to each aerobic workout when you hit the next hurdle. Now you’re doing three 30-minute cardio sessions per week, and you can keep alternating between adding a little here and a little there for your entire cut. You keep your energy levels as high as possible by not going all-out with cardio from the start, and by slowly increasing the amount, you can maintain a higher calorie intake and still get leaner.
#8: Fasted or Fed Cardio?
Fasted cardio, meaning performing aerobic exercise on an empty stomach, is very popular among bodybuilders, physique competitors, and fitness athletes.
There is little doubt that performing fasted cardio increases fat oxidation during the training session. Due to hormonal factors, you mobilize more fatty acids and use more fat as fuel, simply put. However, scientific evidence does not support fasted cardio as a superior way to lose body fat.16 17 The body is very competent when it comes to compensating for your efforts to increase the amount of body fat you burn. If you burn more fat during a specific time, like when you do cardio on an empty stomach, it burns less fat the rest of the day, leading to a zero-sum game.
However, there are no studies on bodybuilders performing fasted cardio on a cutting diet. Compared to other athletes and the general population, bodybuilders carry more muscle and less fat, combine strength training and cardio during a cutting phase, and eat more protein. Therefore, even though fasted cardio does not seem to make any difference compared to fed cardio for the average person, that conclusion might not carry over to a bodybuilder on a contest diet.18
In addition, minimal changes in body composition that might be irrelevant or even undetectable for most people might make the difference between winning and losing on a bodybuilding stage.
At the beginning of your cut, when you carry significant amounts of body fat, fasted cardio likely will offer no benefits compared to fed cardio. If you are struggling to get rid of that last stubborn fat during your cut, adding fasted cardio or switching from fed to fasted sessions might be worth trying. There are no downsides, and anecdotal evidence suggests doing so can help you get shredded.
#9: Don’t Drink Your Calories
Liquid calories don’t fill you up the same way whole foods do. They are stealth calories. Your body and brain don’t register that you’ve just poured hundreds of calories down your throat, making it easy to consume even more without thinking about it.
If you regularly drink soda, juice, soft drinks, milk, and other relatively calorie-dense beverages, simply cutting them out might be even enough to kick-start your cut and fat loss.
Assessing your liquid calories is a good idea. They are easy to overlook, and substituting them for solid, nutritious whole foods will stave off much of the hunger you might experience during a fat-loss diet. When you’re on a cutting diet, getting as many calories as possible from filling solid foods makes the whole endeavor much more manageable.
The one exception is protein shakes. Protein is filling, and a protein shake or two might help you reach your protein goals without added calories from fats and carbohydrates, which can be helpful on a strict cutting diet. Protein shakes aren’t essential, but they aren’t the kind of liquid calories you need to eliminate either.
#10: Don’t Sleep on Your Sleep
If you don’t sleep enough for a long time, you’re in for a heap of trouble. Not only do you not function at your peak capacity physically, but you also set yourself up for failure in your bodybuilding diet.
Lack of sleep makes it easier to stray from your caloric target and overeat.19 Even during a caloric deficit, not sleeping enough reduces fat loss and increases muscle breakdown. Several studies show that sleep restriction reduces the amount of fat you lose.20 21
In addition, lack of sleep rapidly lowers both your testosterone and your muscle protein synthesis significantly.22
These things undermine your diet and make it more challenging to get shredded. All good reasons to ensure you get enough sleep on a daily basis. Or nightly basis.
#11: Match Your Training to Your Recovery
As you cut your calories and lose more and more weight, your ability to recover from high-volume training likely goes down as well. Some training days, you’ll find you don’t have enough energy to match your off-season volume and intensity.
While you certainly need to prepare for fatigue during an extended bodybuilding cutting diet, especially towards the finish, depleting your body and your resources more than necessary impairs your progress more than it helps.
As you lower your caloric intake during a cut, it makes sense to lower your weight training volume, too. Make sure you’re not doing too much to the point where you can’t recover. You’re not in the gym to burn calories, but to build muscle or at the least maintain it. You control your calorie intake and expenditure with your diet and your cardio, respectively.
While dropping training volume massively is not necessary, adjusting it to match your decreased ability to recover is a good idea. Instead, focus on training intensity and keeping your strength up. Also, training to failure increases the time needed for recovery.23 Keep that in mind and limit the number of sets you take to muscular failure.
Quality over quantity is an important thing to keep in mind during a strict cut with the goal of keeping your lean muscle while losing fat.
#12: Track Your Strength Levels
Maintaining as much of your hard-earned muscle mass as possible is one of your primary goals during a bodybuilding cut. It can be hard to keep track of your body composition if you don’t have access to the proper tools or lack the know-how to use them.
Common ways to measure body composition include bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) and skinfold calipers. BIA devices for home use are notoriously unreliable, and skinfold measurements require practice and basic knowledge of human anatomy. More reliable ways to keep track of your body fat and muscle mass, like DXA scans and hydrostatic weighing, are not available for the average person.
Tracking your strength during a cut is an easy and relatively reliable way to ensure you’re not losing muscle mass. As long as your strength levels aren’t going down, you can be confident that your muscle mass is intact as well.
The best way to maintain your strength levels while cutting is to stay on your strength programming. Always keep some heavy lifting in your bodybuilding workout routine. Exclusively doing high-rep training with light weights when you’re cutting makes it much harder to maintain your strength and offers no benefits.
Once you’re shredded, you will lose some strength, but fight it as long as possible. Using heavy weights and tracking your training are the best ways to do so.
A workout log makes it easier to track your strength levels and helps you lift as much or more than last time. Train to gain, and it’ll be much easier to maintain. Our workout app is free to download and your best friend for tracking your progress. Click here to read more about it, or use one of the buttons below to download it for free:
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- 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.
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: February 2010 – Volume 42 – Issue 2 – p 326-337. Increased Protein Intake Reduces Lean Body Mass Loss during Weight Loss in Athletes.
- J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S29-38. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation.
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- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: April 2010 – Volume 24 – Issue 4 – p 1074-1081. Anabolic and Catabolic Hormones and Energy Balance of the Male Bodybuilders During the Preparation for the Competition.
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- Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2020 – Volume 42 – Issue 5 – p 102-107. Effectiveness of Diet Refeeds and Diet Breaks as a Precontest Strategy.
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- J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014 Nov 18;11(1):54. Body composition changes associated with fasted versus non-fasted aerobic exercise.
- Strength and Conditioning Journal: February 2011 – Volume 33 – Issue 1 – p 23-25. Does Cardio After an Overnight Fast Maximize Fat Loss?
- Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2020 – Volume 42 – Issue 5 – p 71-78. Fasted Versus Nonfasted Aerobic Exercise on Body Composition: Considerations for Physique Athletes.
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- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017 Dec;117(12):2387-2399. Time course of recovery following resistance training leading or not to failure.