If your goal is to get shredded, your main focus during a cut should not be just weight loss, it should be fat loss with muscle maintenance.
Losing weight doesn’t necessarily mean your body composition (the fat to muscle ratio in your body) is improving. That is because some of the lost weight may actually be muscle mass.
Crash dieters often experience this disappointment. They lose weight fast in an effort to lose fat fast but discover than they look just as soft and flabby as before even though they are 5-10lbs (2.5-4.5kg) lighter. Here’s what I mean:
I’m sure this is not your goal physique.
From this article you’ll learn why some people lose muscle when they diet and what you need to do to avoid that. Actually, if you’re a beginner or intermediate, by using this system you’ll not only avoid muscle loss, you may actually be able to gain some muscle while leaning down!
Let’s get started!
*Please note that these recommendations mostly apply to the people who want to drop below 13-14% body fat (22-25% for women) because that’s the point where losing muscle mass can become an issue. If you have a lot of fat to lose, you really don’t need to concern yourself with more than maintaining a caloric deficit and eating a decent amount of protein.
How to avoid muscle loss on a cut
1. Set a Moderate Caloric Deficit
Most people know they have to eat fewer calories than they burn to lose fat. However, some take it to extreme, eat very little calories and as a result experience strength and muscle loss. That is because a very large energy deficit decreases protein synthesis rates and negatively affects training performance.
Set a moderate deficit. A good deficit restricts only enough energy to force your body to burn body fat, but not enough to interfere with muscle recovery and growth. That usually means 20-25% under maintenance.
How do you set the deficit?
For fat loss you should eat between 9.5 and 13 kcal per pound of body weight everyday.
- Those that are very active (manual labor + weight training and sports) should use the top range of the interval (12-13 kcal x bw in lbs).
- Those who are very sedentary (only weight training at the gym and just sitting down the rest of the time) should use the lowest end of the interval (9.5-10.5 kcal x bw in lbs)
- Those who are mostly sedentary (only weight training at the gym and daily brief walks) should use the low end of the interval as well (11 kcal x bw in lbs)
- Those moderately active (weight training + walking and sports from time to time) should use the middle range of the interval (11-12 kcal x bw in lbs)
- Those who are significantly overweight should use the low end of the interval (9.5-11lbs) regardless of their activity level because in the beginning they can lose fat fast without negative effects. When they reach a “normal” weight, they will decrease their energy deficit.
A guy weighing 165 lbs who trains 3 times a week, walks to work or school and plays sports in the weekend would set up his calorie intake like this: 165 x 11 = 1815 kcal a day. (he is moderately active so he goes with 11 kcal)
A guy weighing 240 lbs who has a desk job and does little to no physical activity would set up his calorie intake like this: 240 x 9.5 = 2280 kcal a day. (he has a lot of fat to lose so he goes with the lowest number)
A guy weighing 170 lbs who works in constructions and goes to the gym 3 times a week would set up his calorie intake like this: 170 x 13 = 2210 kcal (he burns a lot of calories due to his work therefore he must eat more)
How do you create the calorie deficit?
The calorie deficit should be created primarily through the diet and not cardio. That is because excessive cardio interferes with weightlifting performance.
The caloric deficit already has negative effects of the anabolic hormones and decreases protein synthesis therefore creating most of your deficit through cardio would only serve to increase the risk of muscle and performance loss.
A good rule of thumb is to create 80% of your deficit through diet modifications and only 20% of it through cardio.
2.1 Eat enough protein (and a good balance of fats and carbs)
Optimal protein intake plays a major role in preventing muscle loss during a cut (or supporting muscle growth in the case of beginners/intermediates).
When you lose weight, the body losses more amino-acids that it retains and for that reason you must eat more dietary protein.
“Think of your caloric deficit as a lion that’s about to eat you. If you give the lion another source of meat, you might be able to get away without getting bitten.” Armi Legge
Studies show that 1-1.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight is ideal for fat loss. That’s what I recommend also.
So a 165 lbs male would eat about 165 grams of protein a day. A guy weighing 176 would eat about 175-180 g of protein a day. It’s really simple.
This formula does not apply for those significantly overweight. Protein is important for the maintenance of lean mass but in their case a big part of their body weight is fat. For them I’d recommend a smaller intake of protein, about 0.8g per lb of bw. So a guy at 220 lbs would eat 220 x 0.8 = 175g of protein a day. When he gets to a lower body fat level, he can increase his protein intake.
What about fats and carbs?
Fats are important for basic health. A diet very low in fats leads to hormonal imbalance, including testosterone. On the other hand, a high fat diet does not support muscle growth and strength (because it doesn’t leave much room for carbohydrates) and is also bad for satiety (fats are the most nutrient dense nutrient).
For this rease I recommend you set fat intake at 25% of total calories.
This moderate intake is enough to stimulate anabolic hormone release and also leaves plenty of room for carbs.
So the 165lbs guy who eats 1815 kcal/day will eat 1815 x 0.25 = 453 kcal from fats. This means 50g of fat because 1 gram has 9 calories (453 / 9 = 50).
The rest of the calories will come from carbohydrates which will preferably be the dominating macronutrient. This is mainly because carbohydrates support recovery and high intensity muscular work. Think of carbs as fuel for high intensity anaerobic workouts.
Carbs also support good hormonal balance. They have a great impact on leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite and metabolism. High carbs will also support testosterone production and promote relaxation and better quality of sleep (some people can’t sleep if they go low carb).
To calculate carbs multiply grams of protein by 4 and grams of fat by 9 and then add these two numbers together. Next, subtract this number from total calories. Take that number and divide it by 4 to get grams of carbs per day (1 gram of carbohydrates has 4 calories).
Let’s take the 165 lbs male again and find out his carb intake. He eats 165g of protein (660 kcal), 50g fats (450 kcal) from the total of 1815. 1815 – 660 – 450 means he has 705 kcal left for carbohydrates. 705 dived by 4 means 176g of carbs.
Final numbers for this example
So the final diet numbers for the 165 lbs male who is moderately active are: 1815 total calories from 165g protein, 50g fats and 175g carbohydrates.
2.2 Maintain Training Intensity
Training your muscles with the same intensity is the most important factor for maintaining muscle mass during a cut. It’s more important that adequate protein intake for this purpose.
The reason for this is because your muscles were forced to adapt to their current level by lifting heavy weights. If you remove the stimulus that caused the adaptation (the heavy weights), then you will lose it.
According to Lyle McDonald, when the goal is muscle retention the total workout volume can be reduced by 2/3rds as long as the intensity stays the same. Put another way, you could maintain volume and frequency at the same level but if you cut intensity, you will lose the adaptation.
Now that doesn’t mean we should reduce volume by 2/3rds, it’s just good to know that we can. An energy deficit is also a recovery deficit so if we’re losing strength on a cut, changing to a lower volume routine may be beneficial.
A routine I like for cutting is the one below. It allows for strength maintenance (or sometimes gains) with very little volume.
Monday – Back and Shoulders
- Weighted Chin ups: 4-6, 5-7, 6-8 reps (Reverse Pyramid)
- Standing Barbell Press: 6, 8, 10 reps (Reverse Pyramid)
- Wide Grip Cable Rows: 10, 12 reps (Reverse Pyramid)
- Dumbbell Lateral Raises: 3 sets of 10-12 (Straight Sets)
Wednesday – Legs and Biceps
- Sumo Deadlift: 3 sets of 6 reps
- One Legged Squats (Pistols): 2 set of 6 reps per leg
- Standing Barbell Curls: 6, 8, 10 reps (Reverse Pyramid)
- Standing Hammer Curls: 3 sets of 6-10 (Straight Sets)
- Standing One Leg Calf Raises: 3 sets x failure
Friday – Chest & Triceps
- Incline Barbell Bench Press: 6, 8, 10 reps (Reverse Pyramid)
- Flat Barbell Bench Press: 6, 8 reps (Reverse Pyramid)
- Rope Extensions: 3 sets of 6-10 (Straight Sets)
- Rear Delt Flye: 3 sets of 10-12 (Straight Sets)
Nutrition directly affects training performance
The reason macros and training intensity share the same level on the pyramid above is because nutrition is the fuel for training. You cannot have good physical performance without good nutrition.
3. Use Refeeds
Refeeding is a planned increase of calorie and carbohydrate intake during a diet. Refeeds help counteract some of the negative metabolic adaptations caused by dieting by acutely rising leptin levels. They also help maintain good gym performance by refilling muscle glycogen.
How to set up a reefed day
In this program we’re going to have a reefed day once a week, preferably in a training day. In that day we’re going to eat 30% more calories than usual, all that surplus coming from carbs.
If you’re eating 1815 kcal in a normal day, you’re going to eat 1815 x 1.3 = 2360 kcal in your reefed day. Protein and fats remain the same and carbohydrates are increased.
Eating carbohydrates is the most effective way to increase leptin levels. In addition to that, carbs refill muscle glycogen stores which are responsabile for fueling your workouts. If you eat fats instead of carbs during a reefed day, you’re not getting these benefits. So be careful to choose clean starchy carbs such as potatoes, rice, pasta or low-fat cereal.
Be careful not to overeat though. If you eat more than 30% extra calories you’ll start to do more harm than good because you’ll offset the deficit created during the week.
How important is the refeed day?
Remember the nutritional pyramid? Nutrient timing is closer to the top which means is not that important for the average guy.
Refeeds may help increase metabolism and improve gym performance slightly but they are nowhere near as important as hitting your macros and staying consistent. Some people don’t use them at all simply because their nutrition throughout the week is on point. Refeeds become more and more important as you get leaner but for those above 10% body fat, they aren’t very important.
Also, to really help reset the drop in metabolism caused by dieting we may need to eat above maintenance for more than a single day. That would be inefficient for us because the diet would take longer or we’d have to eat very little on the other days to offset that surplus.
If for some reason you happen to overeat on a random day of the week, you can count that as the reefed day.
What are your thoughts on cutting without muscle loss? Have anything else to add? Any questions? Hit me up in the comment section!
Is your goal the lean & ripped “Hollywood”actor physique like Brad Pitt in Fight Club?
If so, you must lean down to get awesome muscle definition.
I highly recommend you check out the ShredSmart Program. You’ll find the exact meal plans and training routines you need to follow to get there.