How to Do Weight Training while Cutting
The “rules” for productive weight training while cutting are not as clear cut as they are for nutrition. There are however a few basic principles that any productive workout routine for fat loss must be based on. We’ll discuss these principles in today’s article.
By the end of this (long) post you’ll have a good understanding of why muscle growth is slowed down during a cut and how our training may need to change to match our diet and sub-optimal recovery. You’ll also find a few workout routines I like for cutting.
Let’s dig in. We’ll start with some context first.
What makes muscle grow?
Before we explain how nutrition affects our training, I think it will be helpful for beginners to first understand the causes of muscle growth. This section will explain why they probably shouldn’t train like their favorite youtuber/fitness model when cutting.
The causes of muscle growth are not yet completely understood. We have about 90-95% of the picture. The best categorisation of these causes I found in one of Brad Schoenfeld’s papers. In that paper he concluded that the 3 main factors leading to muscle hypertrophy are:
- Progressive tension overload (lifting heavier and heavier weights over time)
- Muscle damage (micro-tears of muscle fibers that necessitate repair)
- Cellular fatigue (pushing a muscle to its metabolic limit through high reps)
Out of the three, progressive tension overload has the most profound effect (by far). So although you can stimulate growth through muscular damage and fatigue, if you’re not progressively lifting heavier and heavier weight you’re not going to grow very well.
That is because you’re not targeting the growth “pathway” that matters most for myofibrillar hypertrophy.
Two types of muscle growth
In the scientific community it is generally accepted that there are two types of muscle growth:
- Myofibrillar hypertrophy
- Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy
Myofibrillar hypertrophy refers to the actual growth of the muscle fibers while Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy refers to the growth of the non-contractile tissues found in muscle (glycogen, triglycerides, water, minerals, etc.).
The way we train (the number of reps we do, the weights used, the rest periods, etc.) determines which type of muscle growth we’re stimulating the most.
Lifting heavy weights in the 4-10 rep range, with long rest periods mainly generates myofibrillar growth. The reason for this is because after you’ve made your neurological adaptation and your exercise technique is efficient, the only way to get stronger is to get bigger muscle fibers.
Lifting lighter weights for 10-15 reps, with short rest periods generates more sarcoplasmic growth than myofibrillar. This type of training depletes high quantities of muscle glycogen which forces the super compensation of the glycogen stores to better handle future workouts.
The key point here is this: Only a small percentage of the overall muscle growth comes sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. That is because you quickly max out the amount of glycogen the muscles can hold. Afterwards, the only way to continually add muscle size is to get stronger.
Probably 70-80% of the overall muscle growth a natural can get will come from the increased size of the muscle fibers. Usually you can only gain about 6-10 lbs with pump training. For this reason the main focus of your workouts should be strength gains, not fatigue, DOMS, or burns.
Muscle Growth when Cutting
In the previous section we concluded that the type of training you do determines the type and degree of hypertrophy that occurs. Now let’s see how nutrition fits in all of this.
You may have heard that you cannot gain muscle when cutting; or if you can, the rate of growth is significantly reduced. That is true. The reason for that is because a large part of the nutrients necessary to create new muscle tissue are restricted. Although training stimulates the same degree of growth, nutrition doesn’t “permit” the adaptation.
The availability of nutrients is the reason you gain muscle faster during a bulk than during a cut, using the same workout routine. From the total amount of nutrients we eat our bodies must get:
- The energy needed to maintain life (breathing, body temperature, pumping blood, etc.)
- The energy expended through daily activities (any type of movements outside of training)
- The energy expended through training
- The nutrients necessary for recovery
- The nutrients necessary for growth
So you can see that it’s difficult to cover all 5 points while eating a deficit of calories. Usually by the time you get to number 4 or 5 you’ve used up all the available energy.
That’s completely the opposite of what happens during a surplus. When you’re bulking you’re deliberately eating enough calories to cover the energy cost of living, exercise, recovery, and muscle growth.
Training while Cutting – What to do
Ok, now that you’ve seen why muscle grows and how nutrition affects our progress, you’ll understand the logic behind the practical recommendations we’ll discuss next:
1. Focus on Strength Training not Pump Training
When cutting, our main focus should be strength training.
The reason for this because pump training relies on high carbohydrate intake to work. The only way you can super compensate muscle glycogen is if you eat a lot of carbs. So while cutting, there’s no point in depleting your glycogen stores too much (unless you’re doing some sort of cyclical dieting).
Oh and sometimes else worth mentioning here is that high rep training doesn’t lead to local fat loss. As Eric Helms one time said: “If high rep training led to local fat loss, every teenager would have one normal forearm and one shredded forearm.” You can’t beat this argument haha.
Strength maintenance = Muscle maintenance
A big mistake some people make when leaning down is to reduce the intensity of their workouts and increase volume. Remember from the previous section that progressive tension overload was the main factor that got your muscles to their current level. If you now remove the stimulus, you’ll lose the adaptation.
On the other hand if you keep the weight on the bar the same, you can maintain all of your muscle mass even if you reduce the volume by two thirds.
2. Focus on just a few compound movements
For a lower volume routine to be efficient, it must be based on compound movements.
The key exercises that will bring you the most bang for your buck are: Weighted Chin-ups, Incline Bench Press, Standing Shoulder Press, Squats, Deadlifts/Hang Cleans.
*Squats and Deadlifts can be replaced by other exercises after you’ve reached the leg development you’re happy with.
Beginners and intermediates will be able to make strength gains on these main movements even while cutting. This will lead to muscle growth.
On the other hand intermediates to advanced lifters may not be able to progress because of the reduced energy intake. That’s fine. If their strength remains the same and their body weight is going down, they are still improving their relative strength (which is the key to a great looking body).
A workout routine I like to use when cutting is this:
- Weighted Chin-ups – 5, 6, 8 Reverse Pyramid Training
- Deadlifts – 5, 6, 8 Reverse Pyramid Training
- Barbell Rows – 6, 6, 6 Straight Sets
- Calf Raises – 3 sets to failure
- Incline Bench Press – 5, 6, 8 Reverse Pyramid Training
- Flat Bench Press – 5, 6, 8 Reverse Pyramid Training
- Biceps Curls – 10, 10, 10 Straight Sets
- Bent-over Flys – 12, 12, 12 Straight Sets
- Standing Shoulder Press – 5, 6, 8 Reverse Pyramid Training
- Squats – 5, 6, 8 Reverse Pyramid Training
- Lateral Raises – 12, 12, 12 Straight Sets
- Skull Crushers – 10, 10, 10 Straight Sets
- Calf Raises – 3 sets to failure
This is a routine suitable for intermediates.
3. If you’re going to do cardio, do Low Intensity Steady State (LISS) or low impact High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
Cardio is not necessary for getting shredded but it helps in certain situations. If you are very lean (7-8% body fat) and want to get even leaner, cardio helps with the mobilization of fatty acids. Also, it allows you to eat more food which can be a great psychological relief.
Outside of those situations, the whole point of doing cardio is burning calories. And if that’s the case then we should choose a type of cardio that doesn’t interfere with our recovery and strength progress.
LISS would be the best choice in my opinion. 45-60 minutes of walking burns 200-400kcal (depending on the weight of the person) and your muscles don’t need recovery after that. In addition you don’t need to go to the gym to do it which saves you time.
HIIT would be the second best choice. 20-25 minutes of HIIT would burn about the same amount of calories without needing much recovery. Also, because HIIT is very similar to weight lifting, it won’t interfere with your workouts.
It’s best to avoid high impact cardio (when your legs repeatedly hit the floor) because it creates much more muscle damage and may sap your recovery capacity if done in excess. Please note the “in excess” part. 2-3 sessions of 20-30 minutes per week are completely fine.
Training while Cutting – What not to do
Now let’s see what we should avoid doing.
1. Don’t increase your training volume
As we said before, high rep training doesn’t lead to localized fat loss. Training techniques like super sets or drop sets may cause a good burn but they don’t lead to better fat loss and are also inefficient for maintaining muscle mass.
If your recovery is reduced because of the caloric deficit, it makes no sense to increase your volume.
2. Don’t lift weights to burn calories
This ties directly into the previous point. It’s not worth increasing your training volume just so you can burn 200-300 more calories.
Your recovery capacity is reduced because of the energy deficit so a high volume routine would not bring you any benefits. In fact it may negatively affect your strength.
You don’t want to deplete your muscle glycogen every workout because you’re not eating enough carbs to replenish it.
3. Avoid training to failure (or don’t do it at all)
Hitting failure in your first sets overburdens your central nervous system and can make you weaker for the rest of the workout. If your nervous system cannot keep up with what your muscles can lift, muscle loss happens as a consequence of never being able to apply adequate stress/perform optimally.
Also you shouldn’t use forced reps. In order to maintain or gain strength while cutting you must perform each rep on your own. Once you have someone step in and help you lift the weight, you are training yourself to become weak.
4. Don’t train heavy two days in a row
Some people are able to training heavy two days in a row without losing performance but from my experience the most consistent progress comes with an every other day lifting set up.
Training every other day allows for much better neural recovery. It also creates a desire to train because you never get burnt out from the gym. This psychological shift is much more important than some people think.
When you lift 4-6 days per week, you’re going to be lifting under different conditions each session. Somedays you’ll feel strong and powerful and other days you’ll feel wiped. Somedays you’ll be excited going to the gym, other days will feel like a drag.
5. Don’t do moderate intensity steady state cardio (especially high impact)
If conditioning is not too important for you and you only want to get ripped, then you shouldn’t do a lot of moderate intensity steady state (MISS) cardio. MISS would be things like running, cycling, or swimming at a moderate intensity and long distances.
A number of studies have shown that aerobic exercise and weightlifting produce different adaptations in the body. Cardio trains endurance, while lifting weights trains explosiveness. If you try to progressively overload both of them, it’s hard to make progress in either one.
3-4 session of 20-30 minutes of jogging a week is completely fine and won’t influence your training in any way. But, 3-4 hours of running every week usually negatively impacts progress in the gym.
6. Don’t change your workout routine too often
Consistency and not variety is the key success.
It’s a mistake to change your routine too often. Working out is also a skill and if you change the exercises you do too often you won’t have time to learn them properly and make progress. You should also keep the order of the exercises the same and should not change the rep range often.
The temptation to modify your routine, add in new stuff, or improvise as you go may be high but resist it. You don’t fix what’s not broken.
What’s your opinion on strength training while cutting? Do you have any questions? Anything else to add? Let me know in the comment section below!
- Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res.2010 Oct;24(10):2857-72. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e840f3. [PubMed]
- Matthews M. The Definitive Guide to Muscle Hypertrophy [muscleforlife]
- Goldberg AL, et al. Mechanism of work-induced hypertrophy of skeletal muscle. Med Sci Sports. 1975 Fall;7(3):185-98. [PubMed]
- McDonald L. Categories of Weight Training Series [bodyrecomposition]
- McDonald L. Weight Training for Fat Loss. [bodyrecomposition]
- Donnelly JE, et al. Muscle hypertrophy with large-scale weight loss and resistance training. Am J Clin Nutr. 1993 Oct;58(4):561-5. [PubMed]
- Ballor DL, et al. Resistance weight training during caloric restriction enhances lean body weight maintenance. Am J Clin Nutr. 1988 Jan;47(1):19-25. [PubMed]
- Goldberg AL, et al. Mechanism of work-induced hypertrophy of skeletal muscle. Med Sci Sports. 1975 Fall;7(3):185-98. [PubMed]
- Helms E. Why We Grow: Separating Fact from Fiction and Focusing on the Details that Matter. [3dmusclejourney]
- Helms E. Is a caloric deficit different than a caloric surplus? [YouTube part 1] [YouTube part 2]
- Helms E. The role of the CNS (central nervous system) in weightlifting [3dmusclejourney]
Do you want to build a lean and wiry physique like Michael Fassbender in 300?
For this type of look you’ll have to build a solid base of muscle development and then get really, really lean while staying very strong!
I highly recommend you check out the Warrior Shredding Program. This is the definitive program for dropping fat while building hard, dense muscles.
I’m currently on Phase III of Visual Impact Muscle Building by Rusty Moore. I find it hard to stick with his diets which his recommendation are breakfast and lunch take a serving of protein shakes and dinner with chicken cut up salads. Since I read lots of articles from Kinobody and yours. I started IF for about 2 weeks from now. I feel really energized and more focused in the fasting part! I appreciated that a lot. And Rusty mentioned HIIT + LIT after every workout. That’s like a 2 days on 1 day off workout routine. Which I run for 20 mins HIIT and 10 mins of LIT literally burnout.. I find it hardly to go for the cardio parts after workout Everytime and the diets are brutal! Should I sticking as what he stated in the book or should I do the IF, 3 days split workout and 45~60mins of normal walking…
I did phase 3 of VI as well for a while. I found a lot of flaws to it, the biggest one being the massive calorie deficit you end up in.
The workouts are decent, I really liked training with 2-3 reps. But I feel the routines could use some improvements as well.
Check out this series of articles. This is what I’d do:
Get Shredded without Losing Muscle
Best Food Choices when Cutting
Meal Frequency & Food Distribution when Cutting
Aggressive Fat Loss in an Enjoyable Way! (for real)
Weight Training while Cutting
Cardio for Fat Loss – Why and How
Hey Radu, in currently deloading after 14 weeks of bulking. I trained 6 days a week alternating upper and lower sessions each day. Progressive overload in weights and reps every session. After my deload, I want to start cutting, how do you advice reducing volume in terms of sets and reps and what is the “minimal amount” of sets and reps I can do per day to maintain mass without losing strength? Thankyou!
Is there anywhere in South Africa where your book is available to get quicker?
I don’t have a book out yet. I use and promote the Kinobody programs and they are available for instant download anywhere in the world.
Can you please explain Reverse Pyramid Training vs. Straight Sets?
Yes, check out this article.
Nice Post, very well explained.
Thanks a lot.
Thanks! Glad it helped 🙂
Hey, I have what some may consider a good problem, my legs are massive(23″ while 10% BF), and at a point where I don’t want to build muscle on them any more. It was mentioned in this article that once your legs are at a size you are happy with you can cut out squats and deadlift for other exercises. My question is what are those exercises? I enjoy doing compound movements for my legs but my body proportions are way off at this point. Thanks!
Haha…yeah you could say that you have a good problem… ^__^…anyway ..due to the fact that i would really love to be where you at now…(OBVIOUSLY I AM NOT) and since it looks like you have a genetic pre-desposition to get really muscular legs what i would do at this level and stage would be this… 2 times (3 at MAXX!!) would be to go REAlly heavy on squats and deadlifts… with as much as weight you can handle at your best form that would be able to produce at BEST 4 reps and NO MORE THAN 4 sets… 5 sets for you even would be overkill as things seem to point out that way… what this approach will do is that you will almost never stop getting stronger(except if you are on a cut) while the muscle size will remain the same…OHH and eat at maintanance on those days in case you want to eat at a surplus some other days to stimulate growth on other lets say lacking body parts… Take care!!
Do these concepts apply to women as well?
How do i do all of their with body weight?
hey radu iv’e been watching your videos and they’re great and i was wondering if you could help me out?
What do you think of Crossfit? Can you get a Warrior and, eventually, a Greek God physique doing Crossfit / running / and doing some exercises on your own (like calf raises and ab work)?
Everything you put out is great and very informative / helpful. Thank you!
Very very nice post. Awesome videos.
Congrats man, please keep it up.
Hope you’re doing well. I’m new here, so I have 3 questions cause I’m confused a bit. I’m around 185cm and 80kg, and I somehow calculated (measured my waist + internet) I have 20% body fat, so basically now I started cutting to 75kg.
So, are the following correct?
1) The procedure is:
– cut until I can see my abs properly (8-10% bf)
– start bulking until I reach 85kg (185cm-100)
2) When cutting, I should do strength training (high weight, low reps) because it grows muscles but at the same time increases the metabolism to burn fat. Also, I should eat lean food to reduce fat intake.
3) Is the workout routine you mentioned in the post sufficient during the whole cutting phase? Can it be also used during bulking, or should it be changed?
man can u give us some info into focus on one lift ??
i wanna cut and all my other lift apart of the bench are great. how do you maintain all your lift while increasing only one either while your cutting or bulking up
Nice radu thanks
Nice content. What and when do you do for ab & lower back training?
Hello Radu, i got a question (actually 3) , you always say to train strength LOTS of strength, but what about the end of your workout when you’re weak, is it alright to train lighter?, more like doing 12-14 reps instead of 6-8, also about super sets, you said they aren’t any good, but what if i wanna fit in 2-4 excercise for each body part but you don’t really have time for it since you’re training strength and taking more rest, one last thing is, when i train triceps i’m trying to get a right form but when doing so i end up doing lots of reps, so what is better, broken form and less reps or right form and more reps? what do you recommand me doing about this 3 topics?, also i really appreciate your free infromation about this topic since more trainers would charge lots of money for it.
So i play on a proffessional soccer team in Sweden and I am from the US and want to be in the best shape possible; however, i do run about 5-6 hours a week because of training and games. How do i continue to cut up and be in the best shape possible for my sport while still lifting weights? If thats possible?
Hey Radu! Thanks for all the awesome content! I started the warrior program and did it for about 5 weeks. then I saw your video about prioritization. I paused the warrior shred and tried that this week, but I feel a bit confused. The two sort of contradict. So when push comes to shove, which one would you recommend to do for a cut? Two sets of reverse pyramid at high weights or 8,7,6, drop, weeks as you laid out in your prioritization video? I’m at a calorie deficit regardless.
[…] be explaining the types of exercises to do when cutting/bulking or maintaining weight, but Thinkeatlift has a post that explains what to-do and what not-to-do… specifically during the cutting […]
[…] Thinkeatlift has a post that explains what to-do and what not-to-do… specifically during the cutting phase of your diet, and a brief explanation on muscle growth. […]
Which exercise do you recommend to use insteod of the barbell squat and the deadlift ?
I feel that instead of barbell squat we can do pistol squats or bulgarian split squats but what to do instead of the deadlift ?
What about reps and sets ? Keep them the same like in the above routine and only change the exercises ?
10 sets of 10 reps on biceps?
12 sets of 12 reps on lat raises?
Thought it was supposed to be lower reps higher weight… I am confused-
Please explain.. .
Thanks for this wonderful.
I’ve been struggling to find solution to a genetic issue with my body – my legs (especially quads, hamstrings and glutes) accumulates mass easily. If I weight train them – they gain muscle easily, if I skip leg day – they gain fat easily.
Want to gain overall muscle – but with thinner legs. Is it feasible?
Deadlifts and barbell squats are two of my fav exercises while i am in a cutting phase.
I’m looking to start the warrior programme soon, after a few weeks of AFL, my question is would an A B A workout still work, A being chest/shoulders and B being back, they would also involve secondary isolation work, can’t work lower legs as I’m on physio
As a general rule, to build muscle you need to be in a calorie surplus, and to lose fat you need to be in a deficit. So if you want to hold on to your muscle while taking in less energy than you re burning, you need to work your muscles.