Macros for Cutting: Count Your Way to Fat Loss

As a bodybuilder, you can’t subscribe to the permabulk diet if you want to see the fruits of your labor in the gym. Chances are you’re going on a cutting diet sooner or later.

Whether you’re dieting for natural bodybuilding contest preparation or want to look your best shirtless, knowing how to track and adjust your macros will help immensely. This article provides you with an evidence-based guide to determining the best macros for a successful bodybuilding cut, with real-life examples.

What Are Macros?

Macros are short for macronutrients, the three primary sources of energy in your foods, namely protein, fat, and carbohydrates. When counting macros, you track your daily calories from each macronutrient and allocate them to help you reach your bodybuilding goals. Tracking your calories and macros is more crucial during a cutting diet than during a bulking phase.

macros for cutting bodybuilding

Is a Calorie a Calorie?

You may have heard the expression “a calorie is a calorie.” That’s true in the sense that a calorie provides you with the same amount of food energy whether you get it from a candy bar, a chicken breast, or a spoonful of peanut butter.

However, the saying makes it easy to think that it doesn’t matter from which foods you get your calories. That is very far from the truth.

While calories in vs. calories out determine if you lose, gain, or maintain body weight, where you get those calories affects your health, energy levels, muscle growth, and body composition. You can’t replace 500 calories from an omelet with 500 calories from a fruit salad and expect the same results.

Keeping track of what you put into your mouth is even more important as an athlete or a bodybuilder. When you’re bulking, you want to build muscle, and you’re looking to lose fat during a cut. Body composition is key.

  • Protein provides you with the amino acids you need to build muscle and maintain your lean body mass. Getting enough protein is crucial, or your training won’t give you the results you want. When you’re cutting, you might need even more protein than usual to maintain the muscles you’ve been working so hard for.  Each gram of protein provides you with four calories.
  • Fat, like protein, is an essential nutrient. Your body needs fat to produce hormones like testosterone, keep your cells healthy, and absorb nutrients. Fat is also an important energy source for your daily activities. Each gram of fat provides nine calories.
  • Carbohydrates are the energy source your muscles prefer during high-intensity exercise like strength training. Each gram of carbs provides four calories.

How To Calculate Your Macros for a Successful Bodybuilding Cut

Determining which are the best macronutrient ratios for you is a four-step process.

  1. Counting your calories
  2. Planning your protein intake
  3. Determine how much fat you need
  4. Calculating your carbs

Keep reading, and we’ll go through each step in order with easily understood, practical examples.

Counting Your Calories

The first thing to do is to determine your energy needs. If you don’t know how many calories your body requires, you can’t accurately determine your macros. 

Your total daily energy expenditure consists of three major components:1 2

Your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)

Your RMR is the number of calories you burn daily just by living, even if you’d spend all day and night in bed. It includes the energy cost of organs like your brain, kidneys, liver, and muscles at rest.  Life-sustaining functions like breathing, protein synthesis, and cell production are also included in your RMR.

RMR accounts for about 60 % of the total daily energy expenditure for the average person. For people with physically demanding jobs or athletes who burn many calories exercising, that number can be significantly lower. 

The Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)

Your TEF is the increase in your metabolism after eating. The energy cost of processing and storing the food you eat, in other words. About 10 % of your total daily energy expenditure go to TEF.

The Energy Cost of Physical Activity

This includes every planned physical activity in your daily life, from exercise to walking to work to doing the dishes, plus involuntary physical activity like fidgeting. The calories you burn from everything that is not sleeping, eating, or exercising is called non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT for short.3

If you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight and body fat over time.

To lose weight and body fat, you must be in a calorie deficit, meaning you eat fewer calories than you burn. You can use various macronutrient ratios and get great results, but a calorie deficit is the one essential part of all cutting diets. No macro ratio will work if your calorie intake isn’t on point.

Calculating Your Maintenance Calories

There are several ways to determine your maintenance calories. You can go the manual route, use an established equation to calculate how many calories your body needs, or use an online calculator to do the job. All online calculators are based on such an equation but do the math for you.

According to current dietary guidelines, adult females need 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day, while males need 2,200 to 3,000 calories per day.4

You need more specific numbers than those to plan your cutting diet and to be able to calculate your macros. In addition, they apply to the general population, not to bodybuilders. Your calorie needs and macros won’t be the same as the average more-or-less-sedentary person.

Calculating your maintenance calories by hand requires both time and effort. If you want to do it yourself, you need to track everything you eat and drink for at least a week, preferably two. Track your body weight during the same time. If it is stable, you’re good to go. If you notice that you’re gaining weight, you’re eating more calories than you need. On the other hand, if you’re losing weight, you’re not eating enough and have to up your calories to maintenance levels.

If that sounds like a chore, I don’t blame you. Fortunately, you have more accessible options at your disposal.

You can use an established equation to calculate your maintenance calories. There are several such equations you can use. The Mifflin-St Jeor formula is considered the most reliable for calculating resting metabolic rate.5 It looks like this:

  • Men: (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) + 5
  • Women: (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) – 161

For example, if you’re a 90-kilogram man, 180 centimeters tall, and 30 years old, your equation would look like this:

  • 900 + 1125 – 150 + 5 = 1880

That’s your RMR, your resting metabolic rate. If you spend your day in bed, you need 1,880 calories per day to maintain your body weight. To estimate how many calories you need in a real-life scenario, multiply 1,880 with an activity level factor.

  • Sedentary (x1.2)
  • Work out 1–3 times/week (x1.375)
  • Train 4–5 times/week (x1.55)
  • Work out 6–7 times/week (x1.725)
  • Twice daily training (x1.9)

For this example, let’s assume you have a job that isn’t physically demanding, but you hit the gym five days per week. Your training sessions are brutal, so you decide on 1.6 as a sensible activity factor.

  • 1880 x 1.6 = 3008

That’s your total calories for body weight maintenance! You need 3,000 calories per day for your weight to be stable.

In addition to going the manual route, you can let an online calculator do the work for you. It’s probably the best way for most people, as long as the calculator is accurate. Our calorie calculator is based on the Mifflin-St Jeor formula. All you have to do is enter your sex, weight, height, and age, in addition to your estimated activity level, and it will crunch the numbers for you.

Keep in mind that even though the Mifflin-St Jeor formula is considered reliable enough to use in a clinical setting, it’s still an estimate. No equation gives you an exact number from the get-go. It’s a good starting point for your cutting diet, but be prepared to adjust it on the fly.

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>> Click here to read more about the StrengthLog Calorie Calculator.

How Many Calories Do You Need for Cutting?

That’s the first step done! Now that you’ve established how many calories your body requires for maintenance, it’s time to figure out how many you need for your cutting diet.

As a bodybuilder, there is more to it than just losing weight. You want to lose body fat while maintaining your hard-earned lean muscle mass.

A standard weight loss regimen results in a significant loss of body fat and muscle tissue.6 That’s hardly ideal for bodybuilding purposes.

You have several tools at your disposal to prevent muscle loss during your cut. Two of the most powerful are strength training and your protein intake. However, the size of your calorie deficit is also a crucial factor. A more significant deficit results in faster weight and fat loss but also increases your risk of losing lean body mass.

To lose a kilogram of body fat, you need to burn 7,800 calories more than you eat.7 Assuming you manage to lose only body fat, a calorie deficit of 500 kcals per day would lead to a weight loss of half a kilogram per week, pure fat weight. 

Of course, that’s a static mathematical model and prediction. Your body is dynamic, not static. It adapts and will start to resist your weight-loss efforts.

For a bodybuilder, a weekly weight loss of 0.5 to 1% is a good rule of thumb to ensure maximal fat loss and minimal loss of muscle mass.8 If we go back to the 90-kilogram man in the example earlier, a sensible weight-loss rate for him would be 450 to 900 grams per week. That means aiming for a deficit of approximately 500 to 1,000 calories per day. If we assume that he’s taking the moderate approach, he’d land at a daily intake of 2,500 calories.

The more body fat you carry, the larger the deficit you can handle without risking your lean body mass. You can start your cut relatively aggressively with a substantial deficit, then reduce it over time as you get leaner.

Cutting 500 calories or 20 % of your maintenance intake is a good starting point for most bodybuilders. Your training and diet allow you to lose fat and maintain muscle, meaning most, if not all, of your weight loss will be body fat. If you have a lot of body fat to lose, starting with a 1,000-calorie deficit and gradually lowering it as you lean out is a viable option.

As your cutting diet progresses and your body size and weight decreases, you will naturally burn fewer and fewer calories. That means that you’ll have to adjust your calories accordingly when your current intake is no longer producing your desired results.

The bottom line: cutting 500 calories from your maintenance is an excellent starting point for most bodybuilders.

Calculating Your Macros for Fat Loss

Now that you’ve figured out how many calories you should eat, it’s time to focus on your macros: the calories you eat from protein, fat, and carbohydrates.

How Much Protein Should You Eat?

During a cutting diet, protein is by far the most crucial macronutrient. As long as you track your calories and protein intake, you can let your carbs and fat fluctuate daily and still get great results.

At maintenance calories or above, 1.6 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.7 to 1 gram per pound of body weight) per day is ideal for muscle gain.9 10 

During a calorie deficit, your protein requirements increase. While cutting, bodybuilders lower their calorie intake, reduce their body fat levels to a minimum, and often combine resistance training with cardio to promote fat loss. That means you need to up your protein intake to protect your muscles.

A recent review found that athletes like bodybuilders need 2.3 to 3.1 grams of protein per kilogram (1 to 1.4 grams per pound) of lean body mass per day.11 The leaner you are, the higher your protein intake should be within that range.

Unlike most other recommendations, you should base your protein intake for cutting on your lean body mass or LBM, not your total body weight. Your body fat doesn’t require much protein, and basing your protein intake on your entire body weight might leave too few calories to cover your carbohydrate and fat needs. 

Let’s go back to our 90-kilogram bodybuilder. Using a quality skinfold caliper, he measures his body fat to be 15 % of his body weight. That’s 13.5 kg of body fat, which means that his lean body mass is 76.5 kg. He’s not fat but not super lean either, so he decides on 2.8 grams of protein per kg of LBM per day. 

  • 2.8 x 76.5 = 214.2

In other words, our example male bodybuilder should aim for around 215 grams of protein per day. Each gram of protein provides four calories, which means that 860 of his 3,000 maintenance calorie intake comes from protein. In other words, he’s left with 2,140 calories to spend on carbs and fat.

If you don’t hit your protein target some days and perhaps eat more on other days, it doesn’t matter much. It averages out. Consider it as a guideline, but don’t panic if you don’t read it now and then.

Eating a protein-rich diet while cutting offers several benefits.

  • As mentioned earlier, your protein requirements increase during a calorie deficit. When you eat fewer calories than you burn you enter a catabolic state.12 Your muscle protein synthesis goes down by up to 20 % in just a couple of weeks.13 You can’t avoid a calorie deficit if you want to lose fat, but you can prevent those undesired effects by keeping your protein intake high.
  • A diet high in protein prevents excessive hunger and keeps you full longer during a cutting diet.14 When you’re not walking around hungry, you’re more likely to stay on your fat-loss diet and avoid pitfalls like unplanned over-the-top cheat meals.
  • A higher protein intake increases thermogenesis, meaning you burn more calories simply by eating.15 The difference isn’t huge on a day-to-day basis, but it adds up over time.

The bottom line: aim for a daily intake of 2.3 to 3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass. That amount ensures you maintain your precious muscle mass while shedding body fat and makes you feel fuller for longer. The leaner you are, the more protein you need. You could start your cutting diet at the lower end of that range and increase it as you get leaner.

Keep your protein intake high on rest days as well as training days. You build muscle at least 24 hours after a workout, and you’ll want to ensure your body has enough building blocks at hand.

How Much Fat Should You Eat?

Unlike protein, there is no scientifically based amount of fat you should eat daily for cutting. Some authorities recommend not going below 20–30 % of your daily caloric intake to maintain optimal testosterone levels and hormone production.16 If you eat 2,500 calories like the bodybuilder we used as an example earlier, it equates to 500 to 750 calories, or 55 to 83 grams, from fat.

Getting that amount of fat daily is excellent if it doesn’t compromise your protein and carbohydrate intake. If your diet calls for, say, 1,500 calories, you might not be able to spend 30 % of those on fat. You’d only have a little more than 1,000 calories left for your protein and carbs, which could be less than ideal.17 If that’s the case, going with a fat intake of 15–20 % of your calories is a good compromise.

An exception to these numbers is if you’re on a ketogenic diet. Keto is a viable way to cut for bodybuilding and means removing most if not all carbohydrates from your diet, replacing them with calories from fat. If you’re doing keto, you want to aim for 75 % or more of your calorie intake in the form of fat.

The bottom line: for most bodybuilders, consuming 15–30 % of your calorie intake from fat is a good way to ensure you get enough to maintain your testosterone levels and stay healthy.

How Many Carbs Should You Eat?

The only thing left is to determine how many carbs you need for your cutting diet. Fortunately, that’s an easy final step. Your carb intake is the remaining calories after allocating your protein and fat.

For example, if your diet calls for 2,500 calories per day, and you’ve allocated 215 grams of protein and 80 grams of fat, you have 920 calories left to spend on carbs. 

  • 215 x 4 = 860
  • 80 x 9 = 720
  • 2500 – 860 – 720 = 920

Because each gram provides four calories, you’re aiming for 230 grams of carbohydrates daily.

When you’re cutting and getting leaner, you’ll probably have less energy during your workouts. Keeping your carb intake as high as possible helps you maintain your intensity in the gym. 

In addition, going low on carbs leads to reduced levels of insulin and IGF-1, both of which are related to preserving lean body mass during a cut.18

If and when your weight loss stalls, your carb intake is usually the first thing you reduce further. Most bodybuilder do well to keep as many carbs as possible in their diet, though, unless they are on keto.

Frequently Asked Questions

Let’s do a little FAQ!

Do I Have to Count Macros?

No, you don’t have to do anything. You can still pull off a successful cut simply by cutting down on your food intake, filling your plate with nutritious options, and increasing your protein intake. However, if you’re serious about getting the best results possible, knowing your macros is a big help.

What Are the Best Macros for a Bodybuilding Cut?

Unfortunately, there are no cookie-cutter plans with predetermined “best” macros for everyone. Fortunately, if you follow the steps outlined in this guide, you’ll get close to the ideal macronutrient ratio for most bodybuilders.

If you have cutting experience, feel free to adjust the results to your own macronutrient needs. You know your body best, after all. The two essential factors for a successful cut are the number of calories you eat and your protein intake. You need to be in a calorie deficit to lose fat, and a high protein intake helps maintain lean muscle mass. Your fat and carbohydrate macros are much more malleable, and you can tailor them to your preferences. Bodybuilders have used everything from low-fat, high-carb diets to high-fat ketogenic diets for contest prep and have done so successfully.

How Do I Track My Progress?

You’ve counted macros, prepped food, and put time and effort into your training and diet. But how do you know if those efforts are paying off? Here are three helpful tips.

  • Keep track of your body weight. A scale is a blunt tool, but it shows if you’re eating too little, too much, or just right. If the scale isn’t moving down over time, you’re probably overeating. Your macros might be on point, but you’re not losing fat without a calorie deficit. If your weight goes down too fast, you could be overestimating your calorie intake or underestimating how many calories you burn. You don’t want do drop too fast, or you could lose muscle in the process.
  • Measure your body fat. The scale only shows your weight, but bodybuilding is more about body composition. Regularly measuring your body fat percentage ensures you’re on the right track. Popular methods include using body fat scales and skinfold calipers. Consumer scales that measure body fat are pretty unreliable, but a quality caliper in the hands of someone with the knowledge and experience to use it can be a valuable tool. 
  • Take progress photos. Taking pictures of your cutting phase is a good idea to keep track of your progress. The camera doesn’t lie, as long as you take your photos in similar conditions. Pictures are more helpful than the mirror because you can compare your current status to previous photos. In addition, having photographs of earlier cuts can be motivational when you see the progress you’ve made since then.

What Are Some Good Food Choices for Cutting?

Try to get most of your calories from nutritious foods. A hundred grams of candy might provide you with about the same number of carbs as a hundred grams of brown rice but without anything but calories. By opting for nutrient-dense, mostly unrefined foods, you also get dietary fiber and the vitamin and mineral micronutrients you need for health and performance. In addition, they keep you feeling full for longer, which is helpful during a cutting diet.

macros for cutting

Examples of good protein sources:

  • Milk and dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, quark, casein- and whey protein powder)
  • Eggs
  • Red meat (beef, pork, lamb, game, ostrich)
  • White meat (chicken, turkey)
  • Fish and seafood
  • Soy-based foods (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy protein powder)
  • Quinoa
  • Beans, lentils
  • Nuts, almonds, seeds

Examples of good sources of healthy fats:

  • Fatty fish (salmon, herring, albacore tuna, anchovies, sardines)
  • Avocados
  • Nuts, almonds, seeds
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Olive oil
  • Whole eggs

Examples of good carbohydrate sources:

  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Grains
  • Rice
  • Potatoes, both regular and sweet potatoes
  • Bulgur
  • Quinoa
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Fruits
  • Berries
  • Vegetables

Macros for Cutting: Summary

  • Aim for a weight loss of 0.5 to 1 % of your body weight per week. The more body fat you have, the faster you can cut without losing lean muscle mass. A calorie deficit of 500 calories is ideal for most bodybuilders.
  • Eat a high protein diet. Go for 2.3 to 3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass per day. The leaner you are, the more protein you need to maintain muscle.
  • Consume 15–30 % of your calorie intake from fat. A fat intake within that range keeps your body healthy and helps maintain your anabolic hormone levels.
  • The rest of your calories should come from carbs. Keeping at least some carbs in your diet ensures you have enough energy to hit the gym for high-intensity training sessions.

Maintain a nutrient-rich diet, follow your nutrition plan, train smart, and you should see visible changes in your physique week by week.

Track Your Progress With the StrengthLog App

Tracking your calories and macros is very useful for a successful bodybuilding cut, but your training sessions are where you put your nutrition plan to use. 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:

Download StrengthLog Workout Log on App Store
Download StrengthLog Workout Log on Google Play Store

Further Reading

If you want to learn more about cutting and getting in shape in general, not just bodybuilding-style cutting, check out our comprehensive guide:

Also, don’t miss out on these helpful articles:

References

  1. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: October 1989 – Volume 21 – Issue 5 – p 515-525. Exercise and its influence on resting energy metabolism in man.
  2. J Am Coll Nutr. 2019 Aug;38(6):547-551. The Thermic Effect of Food: A Review.
  3. Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 16, Issue 4, December 2002, Pages 679-702. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).
  4. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025
  5. J Am Diet Assoc. 2005 May;105(5):775-89. Comparison of predictive equations for resting metabolic rate in healthy nonobese and obese adults: a systematic review.
  6. Obes Rev. 2014 Apr;15(4):310-21. Weight loss composition is one-fourth fat-free mass: a critical review and critique of this widely cited rule.
  7. International Journal of Obesity, Volume 32, Pages 573–576 (2008). What is the required energy deficit per unit weight loss?
  8. 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.
  9. Nutrients 2021, 13(5), 1416. Does Protein Supplementation Support Adaptations to Arduous Concurrent Exercise Training? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis with Military Based Applications.
  10. British Journal of Sports Medicine 52(6):bjsports-2017-097608. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Nutrients. 2019 May; 11(5): 1136. Dietary Protein and Muscle Mass: Translating Science to Application and Health Benefit.
  13. The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 140, Issue 4, April 2010, Pages 745–751. Acute Energy Deprivation Affects Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis and Associated Intracellular Signaling Proteins in Physically Active Adults.
  14. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Oct;23(5):373-85. The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss: a critical review.
  15. Nutrition & Metabolism, Volume 11, Article number: 53 (2014). A high-protein diet for reducing body fat: mechanisms and possible caveats.
  16. Strength and Conditioning Journal: August 2010 – Volume 32 – Issue 4 – p 80-86. Strength Nutrition: Maximizing Your Anabolic Potential.
  17. 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.
  18. 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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Andreas Abelsson

Andreas has over 30 years of training experience and is a highly appreciated writer and educator on exercise, fitness, and nutrition. Few people stay more up to date and have a better grasp of the field of exercise science than Andreas.