May 09, 2021 10 min read

We all know abs are made in the kitchen, right? While exercise is a vital part of reaching your fitness goals and improving overall health, nutrition should be treated with the same importance.

Whether you’re a bodybuilding professional or just enjoy a frequent gym session, it is likely you have heard the terms “cutting” and “bulking” in reference to dieting techniques. 

Understanding the difference between a cut and a bulk is simple. Bulking uses strenuous training and a calorie surplus to maximize mass gain while prioritizing strength and muscle over aesthetics.

However, if you’re looking to get absolutely shredded, a cut may be the best route for you. The process of bulking usually comes relatively easy, but cutting is where things can become difficult.

Counting calories, different food with written quantity of calories

What is a Cut?

Though the specifics of each cut vary greatly from person to person, all share a common goal: lose as much body fat as possible while maintaining as much muscle as possible. You might be surprised that losing body fat while attempting to retain muscle gains is no easy task. 

What separates cuts from most other diet plans is the personalization of macros and calories accompanied by continued weightlifting. Protein will likely be a big priority and there will be a goal to consume fewer calories than you might be used to.

Much like bulking, training is still very important. However, while training in a bulk will help you achieve massive gains, training in a cut is primarily imperative to minimizing muscle loss rather than to build muscle. You are likely to find a plethora of prescribed cutting plans for you to follow online.

However, these fail to account for your individual needs and biological makeup. While these can be a good starting point for beginners, in the long run your cuts and bulks should be very personalized.

How to Cut

The first hill to climb when doing a cut is simply getting started. Often, it is easy to delay such an endeavor, with the famous last words being “I’ll start tomorrow!” It can sometimes be motivating to build a plan for yourself, outlining your personal goals and timelines.  

In your plan, you should determine your maintenance calorie level, or the caloric intake that neither makes you lose or gain weight. Determining your maintenance calories is not easy, and even the averages science has calculated for males and females are shown to be drastically off.

While there are numerous calculators and formulas available online, determining this number may take some experimenting on your own. Your cutting goal will need to be somewhere below your maintenance number, but not low enough that you run the risk of losing substantial muscle.

A good rule is to strive to lose no more than 0.5-1% of your body weight per week.

For most people, this weight loss will happen at a 300 to 500 calorie deficit. Since training is still a priority, you’ll need to fuel yourself with enough energy (calories) in order to efficiently work out, so aiming for the most severe calorie deficit is not always ideal. 

After you have determined your daily calorie goal for deficit, you’ll want to determine your macronutrient goals. In other words, what percent of your calories should come from carbs, fats, and proteins. Most bodybuilders in a cut will aim to consume about 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day.

This is not only because sufficient protein helps preserve muscle mass, especially in a calorie deficit, but also because without enough protein your appetite will likely increase due to your body’s need for an adequate amount of amino acids. This appetite increase would obviously be very counterproductive for anyone undergoing a cut.

Reaching a sufficient protein intake each day can be quite difficult, regardless of a cut. You can make the process easier by incorporating a high-quality protein powder supplement into your meals.

Most in a cut aim for fats to make up about 15-30% of their daily calorie intake. This would make fats the least-consumed macro of all, but fat should still not be neglected.

Fats help absorb important vitamins and can be a good source of energy. Fats are also imperative for many functions in our bodies, such as the production of hormones like testosterone. Of course, aiming for your fat consumption to come from quality sources, such as unsaturated fats, is preferable for overall health. 

This leaves the rest of your calories for carbohydrates, which are essential for fueling those tough training sessions. Many diets aim to eliminate or limit carbs, but for those in a cut, carbs are highly beneficial. Like protein, carbs only 4 calories per 1 gram, making them a good choice for curbing appetite when in a deficit.

When Should I Cut?

If you’re fresh to weight training and dieting, a cut may be extremely difficult, but not impossible. However, for most new weightlifters, a cut won’t be necessary since the sudden increase in activity and building muscle are likely to trigger fat loss.

Furthermore, if you are starting your weightlifting journey at a low level of body fat, a bulking phase might be more beneficial to achieve some muscle hypertrophy prior to embarking on a cutting phase. 

Bodybuilders know cuts are not sustainable long-term, so they strategically place them a few months out from an event, such as meets or competitions in which you need to appear as shredded as possible.

Close up of a tape measurement and body fat caliper

How Long Should I Cut? 

Now that we have laid out the basics, the next issue most people find hardest to tackle is determining how long their cut should be. While bulks are easily sustainable for long periods of time for most people, cuts are not. It is important to know a cut that is too short may not yield many benefits, and a cut that lasts too long can be overall very damaging to the body. So where is the sweet spot?

The truth is, there is no definite answer. The length of a cut is determined by your individual goals and needs while being sure to give yourself a realistic timeline. You will need to know your end goals, such as your body fat percentage goal, measurement goals, or weight goal, and use this to formulate your timeline. 

For example, if you’re aiming to lose about 1 lb per week and want to lose a total of 15 lbs, then you’ll obviously need about 15 weeks, or roughly 4 months, to complete your cut. If you are starting at a higher weight with a higher body fat percentage, you may be able to safely lose more than the recommended 2 pounds or less per week.

However, as you lose weight, your progress will naturally begin to slow down. However, if you are not at a higher body weight, a deficit that results in 2 pounds per week or more lost puts you at risk for losing far more muscle than necessary. Furthermore, the longer the cut, the more muscle mass is lost overall since it is impossible to avoid muscle loss, so keep this in mind. 

Most bodybuilders do not exceed cuts of 4 months but usually do at least 2 months. This is because you will need enough time to provide decent results but not overextend yourself with a long-term restrictive diet. Our bodies are highly adaptable, which can result in a long-term cut being unsuccessful.

If your goal seems unachievable, it may take two cutting phases with a bulking phase in the middle to reach your goals in a healthy manner and on a sustainable level. It is not out of the ordinary to be doing bulk phases and cutting phases on a loop, of course with some rest phases. 

In the end, you’ll want to choose a timeline that works best for you and is not too difficult to maintain (though, like most diets, cuts do require some determination and dedication).

Additionally, keep in mind goals for a cut are typically physique-focused rather than prioritizing numbers such as weight, which can have no real meaning in the end, so it may be helpful to track body fat percentage or body measurements rather than the number on the scale. Tracking your weight in tandem with another measurement may be best.

Things You Should Know

While cuts are a common method for fat loss, there are numerous pros and cons to engaging in one. In order to successfully complete a cut, it may be helpful to know what to expect. 

Pros of Doing a Cut

In addition to the obvious fat loss, there might be some hidden benefits that can help you determine if a cut is right for you.  

  • Increased Muscle Definition: Due to fat loss, any pre-existing muscle will be more apparent since there is no fat to crowd the muscle separations. This will give you that shredded look. 
  • Better Range of Motion: Because cuts mainly target fat, you are likely to gain increased motion due to the loss of any extra fat mass. You may notice this both in cardio sessions as well as certain weightlifting movements, like bench press. 
  • May Improve Insulin Sensitivity: Like any healthy diet and lifestyle, those on a nutrient-rich cut may experience a boost in their body's sensitivity to insulin, which helps the body more efficiently absorb vital nutrients. 

Cons of Doing a Cut 

Of course, as with any diet, there are some downsides to look out for. While these may not be inherently bad, being aware of their potential presence can make the daunting process of a cut much easier. 

  • Loss in Muscle: For the most part, you'll lose a percentage of your muscle mass when on a cut due to the body's need for energy. When in a deficit without the proper amount of energy, your body will seek the aid of both your fat and muscle storages for the boost it needs. This is combated by continued weight training and sufficient macronutrient consumption. 
  • Decreased Testosterone: Because a cut will require you to lower your fat intake, it is typical to feel a decrease in testosterone levels. Testosterone is the hormone responsible for sex drive, strength, body composition, and other important bodily functions. This decrease in testosterone production can potentially be combated by the use of supplements, such as t-boosters. 
  • Can Decrease Bone Density: Any weight loss method via calorie deficit can harm bone construction. This is mostly because a restrictive diet may result in insufficient amounts of calcium and vitamin D. However, taking supplements and continuing to work out can reduce or prevent a decrease in bone density. 
  • Trouble Sleeping: Since you'll no longer be able to indulge in a midnight snack while cutting, it is likely you'll experience going to bed hungry at least a few times during the process. Of course, your body will eventually adapt, so unless you begin experiencing severe trouble sleeping over a long period of time, patience is key.
Muscular Mature Man Doing Aerobics Elliptical

Tips for a Successful Cut

When it comes to cutting or bulking, it is typically the former that proves hardest for most. While there is no magic way to successfully complete a cut other than true discipline, there are some things to remember that may help you along the way: 

  • Stay Hydrated: We all know water is extremely important for maintaining good health. This is especially true for anyone who is highly active or undergoing a diet, such as a cut. Not only will proper hydration help you through intense workouts, but it can also help with suppressing appetite and cravings. If you’re used to getting your calories via liquids, such as sodas, you may be surprised by the drastic change that can happen just by supplementing water for these caloric drinks. 
  • Try Meal Prepping: Meal prep is all the rage these days, and for good reasons. During a cut you should maximize the number of meals cooked at home since there is no guessing game with calories. Furthermore, eating fresh foods free of excess oils, salt, and sugar is overall the healthest choice for anyone. Where most people fail is when they’ve had a busy day with no time to cook meals at home, thus resorting to fast food options. Meal prepping helps eliminate the possibility of life getting in the way by keeping meals ready in your fridge all week long. 
  • Cardio: Incorporating cardio is one of the best ways to ensure a caloric deficit, especially if you find yourself struggling. If your calorie deficit is already quite high, meaning you are eating significantly under your maintenance, cardio may not be necessary. 
  • Eliminate Unnecessary Calories: There can be a lot of hidden calories in cooking oils, sauces, gravies, and soft drinks. Even some salad dressings have over 100 calories per serving. Cooking at home is a good way to monitor and help minimize calories from these sources and ultimately aiding you to lose fat. 
  • Maintain Mental Composure: Diets such as cutting can be psychologically damaging to those not in the right headspace. If you find yourself getting overly obsessed with calories or exercise, it may be a good idea to take a step back and reevaluate what matters. If your mind is not in the right place, it is likely your cut won’t yield all that you hope. In some cases, working with a nutritionist or mental health professional may be best. 
  • Refeed Days: We all have cravings. Sometimes, those in a cut may partake in cheat meals. However, over the top cheat meals that turn into cheat days and then cheat weeks should be highly avoided. What you should really aim for are "refeed days". Refeed days purposefully and strategically up your caloric intake to keep your metabolism on its toes. Carb intake tends to be prioritized on refeed days due to the ability carbs have to increase fat-burning processes in the body. In addition, these days can be good for mental health, satisfying intense cravings, and rest. The frequency of these days depends on your body and long term goals.

Last Thoughts

Knowing how long to cut for maximum results is just one part of a much larger whole. Reaching your goals requires both knowledge and execution. If you’re asking the question of how long you should cut, it is likely you are going at it for the first time. Nothing good comes easy, so be prepared for less-than-ideal scenarios along the way. 

Doing a cut is vital to getting shredded and reaching the muscle definition you’ve always dreamed of. It can be difficult to endure a cut on your own, which is why many people utilize the plethora of that are available to anyone looking to get jacked.