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August 08, 2021 10 min read

So you’ve packed on some pounds during the winter months, eating and lifting more than you ever have before. But now, summer is starting soon and you really don’t want to hit the beaches with your new flub.

With every good bulking phase comes a cut—caloric deficits, cardio, and lots of vegetables are the markers of this bodybuilding phase. However, there’s much more to cutting than just killing yourself on the treadmill and on the dinner plate.

A lot of your cutting strategy is going to come down to how you approached the bulking phase. Did you go balls to the wall in the kitchen, just trying to get as many calories into you as possible? Or did you take a more measured approach?

Whatever bulking decisions you made, getting shredded is entirely possible with the right plan. Avoid some common pitfalls to cutting and keep your eye on the prize, and you’ll be sporting a chiseled physique soon enough.

Bulking, Cutting, and Maintenance

The bulking phase and cutting phase are important because they help you get out of plateaus, and over the long term, you’ll experience better and more consistent gains. Working out without switching things up only works well for newbies, when body composition is just beginning to change.

Close up big body bodybuilder eat big beef steak behind table opposite gray wall

But for those who’ve already spent a few months training hard, the gains are going to come harder and harder. The bulking phase is done with a calorie surplus in order to let you gain more muscle along with some extra fat.

Often done during the winter months so the extra chub is covered in layers, cutting season follows during the summer months when temperatures are warmer, and shirts come off. Maintenance is also a phase, but it depends largely on the individual whether they want to maintain their current physique or progress.

If you’re reading this article about cutting, chances are that you’re not too interested in maintaining the weight gain from your bulking phase.

The Caloric Surplus for the Bulk

Once the gains start rolling in more slowly, it’s time to consider bulking. Normally, it’s recommended that guys only start bulking between 10 to 15% body fat percentage. This is relatively lean, and the leaner you are when you begin bulking, the more you can bulk without too much fat gain.

For this reason, it’s also recommended not to bulk longer than 3 months. This will give you enough time to tweak your diet if you’re not getting the gains you expected. It’ll also give you enough time to reverse some of the negative health effects that might come with bulking.

The extra fat is mostly a superficial issue, but depending on the bulk you do, some of your blood values might fall into dangerous ranges. One example is cholesterol. However, these negative health effects aren’t permanent and can be easily reversed with a solid cutting plan and trimming excess fat.

This brings us to the next question: how did you bulk? There are two main ways to bulk, either the clean bulk or the dirty bulk. The former is focused on eating healthy foods, keeping an eye on your macros, and therefore, seriously limiting the amount of fat you gain over the months.

The latter is exactly what it sounds like: fast food, junk food, everything is on the table. In fact, it’s often called the “see-food diet,” since you eat whatever food you see. Obviously, the lean bulking is going to make your cut a whole lot easier.

Throw in junk food addiction and other things like increased sluggishness due to poor eating habits, and you’ve got a recipe for a very tough cut. That doesn’t mean dirty bulking isn’t without its benefits, but for most people, it’s highly recommended to do a clean bulk—or as clean as you can get it.

Most people fall somewhere in the middle and that’s entirely alright, but don’t be tempted to throw all caution to the wind during your bulk because you’re going to have to pay the price when you try to get shredded again.

When to Start Cutting

Whether you did a lean bulk or a dirty bulk it doesn’t matter. The only thing that’s certain is that now you’ve got some fat loss to take care of, and there’s a good way and a bad way to go about it. Even if you lean bulk for long enough, all the extra calories are going to add up and you’re going to slowly but surely start amassing more body fat.

The right time to start cutting will differ for most people. It’ll depend on how hard you’ve been training, what your goals are, and what your overall activity level is at. It also depends on how comfortable you are with the physique you have, and how mentally prepared you are to start cutting.

When it comes to body fat, it’s best to start cutting in the 15 to 20% body fat range. For women, it’s best to cut in the 23 to 28% body fat range. This will depend on how well your body carries weight and how much training you’ve been doing. If staying lean is important to you, then it’s best to opt for the lower end of this scale.

However, if you know what you’re doing and you want to get as jacked as possible during your bulk, it’s best to try to max these percentages out. The end goal, after all, is to get more muscle. You don’t want to lull yourself into a false sense of security when you’re bulking, but don’t be afraid to push things further if you’re feeling good and know what you’re doing.

And of course, you need to be training hard enough to back these decisions up. Eating a ton isn’t going to get you muscles—it’s just going to get you fat. A good bulk will allow for a good cut—and then next season the process will begin once again, slowly improving your physique.

The Ins and Outs of Cutting

To some extent, cutting is just the opposite of bulking. You’re trying to lose some mass and get into shape again. The main point is to lose the fat, but through a calorie deficit you’re bound to lose some muscle as well (which is why it’s important to train hard and grow muscle as much as possible during the bulk).

In many ways, it comes down to doing the exact opposite of bulking: fewer calories, clean foods (even if you’ve been lean bulking already), more cardio, lighter weights in the gym. However, some of these things aren’t necessarily true, and if they are, it’s important to keep things in mind in order to implement the cut as efficiently as possible.

One problem with the cut is that you might lose too much muscle if you go at it too quickly, with too much of a calorie restriction, or with a massive change in how you’re training. The perfect cut takes more finesse than the perfect bulk (partly due to the discussion around the lean vs. clean bulk) because you’re trying to carve out your muscles without destroying them as much as possible.

Fewer Calories…But How Much Fewer?

The key to a good cut is not to rushing trying to lose body fat. If you rush things, your muscles will feel the pain as much as your fat. And one of the key parts of not rushing things is also sticking to a good calorie intake.

For most people, a caloric deficit of 10 to 25% will be optimal. For example, if you opt for a 20% deficit and your maintenance calories are at 2000 per day, you should be eating 1600 calories every day (since 20% of 2000 is 400, so you just subtract that from your maintenance).

It’s important to keep an eye on how many calories you’re eating since it’ll be easier to tweak your diet if you’re not getting the results you’ve been expecting. Going into an extreme calorie deficit will harm your gains in the gym, and will significantly harm the results of your bulk. However, calories are only part of the full diet picture.

Protein and Macronutrients for Muscle Building

Along with calories come the macros, and you need to make sure you’re keeping them in check. Your protein, carbohydrates, and fats are very important for maintaining your health—and yes, even fat is necessary when you’re cutting.

Although the ratios of the macros might change when you’re dieting (to include less fat, for example), you still want to maintain healthy levels of each.

Looking at the quality of the macros becomes much more important.

If you’ve been dirty bulking, you’re going to want to swap out the refined carbs for complex carbs such as vegetables, brown rice, legumes, and sweet potatoes. And when it comes to protein, you’ll want to be sticking to lean stuff, such as chicken and turkey. Fatty protein like fish is healthy as well, but pork fat is something you’ll want to stay away from.

This touches on another common misconception with the cut—you want to maintain healthy levels of protein intake. Once again, you’re not trying to lose fat as fast as possible because that will cut into your muscle gains in a very major way.

Go into a calorie deficit, but don’t significantly diminish the amount of protein you include in your diet. Doing so might speed up the weight loss process, but it’ll hurt your workouts and weaken your physique.

Carbs to Gain Muscle

Another important macro is carbs. They’re often vilified when we talk about fat loss, but they’re also an important part of your diet. Getting thin doesn’t mean you’re going to have to give up carbohydrates, and you really shouldn’t have to.

Carbs provide you with the necessary glycogen to power your workouts, and therefore, allow you to keep as much of your muscle mass as possible. However, timing is key.

Your body metabolizes carbs differently throughout the day, depending on what activities you’ve been doing. The best time for carbs is just after a workout when your body needs to replenish its fuel stores. Eating them right before bedtime is a bad idea though since they’ll just be stored as fat.

Weight Training on a Cut

When cutting begins, many people start to switch up their gym routine as well, mostly when it comes to the reps, sets, and the amount of weight they use. In general, people start to go lighter in terms of weight, while increasing the number of sets. This is good for muscular endurance and losing fat, but it’s also good for muscle loss.

When you change your training plan along with entering a calorie deficit, you’re not giving your body a very good reason to maintain your muscle gains. Working out this way will make your cut faster, but you also have to be thinking about the reason you bulked in the first place. It’s important to continue resistance training, even though the bulk might’ve stopped.

When you’re working out during a cut, you want to be at least trying to maintain your gains, which means training very similar to how you were during your bulk. You probably won’t be hitting any PRs with your calorie restriction and focus on weight loss, but you should still be trying to go heavy.

You should probably implement some adjustments, depending on how your bulking training plan went, but you also want to send the message to your body that you still need these muscles.

What About Cardio?

Cardio is almost synonymous with losing weight—whether it actually is, is a different question. But overall, cardio is able to burn through a lot of calories and a lot of fat, so it’s a good idea to incorporate it into your cutting routine. However, there’s a caveat.

Often you’ll see people who are cutting, bring in a ton of cardio in order to get through their cutting phase as quickly as possible. This is because cardio uses a lot of energy, which is good in some sense. The more energy that you’re using, the more fat you’ll be burning.

But it’s important to keep in mind that the more energy you expend, the more your performance and strength will suffer when weightlifting. Combine the calorie deficit with excessive energy expenditure, and you’ve got a muscle-eating situation on your hands.

This doesn’t mean that cardio should be avoided—it’s very healthy training to include in your routine, even to a limited extent in your bulks. But going hard on the treadmill is going to eat into your muscles as much as it’ll eat into your body fat, so moderation is key.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is an even better option than steady-state training since it’s easier to both preserve muscle, and keep it lean muscle.

The Supplements to Get You Shredded

Before we start talking about supplements, it’s important to drive home the fact that supplements aren’t meant to substitute the nutrients you’re getting from your diet—they’re only meant to complement your diet, your goals, and your training. Remembering this, we can better utilize supplements to their fullest potential. Not only will our body thank us, but so will our wallets.

3d render of fat burner bottle with pills isolated over white background

We’ll get into the fat-burning supplements in a second, but it’s worth first talking about protein powder. Whey protein is mostly mentioned in relation to bulking and muscle growth since it’s an extremely easy way to not only ingest more calories throughout the day, but it’s also a source of quality protein.

We already discussed the importance of keeping your protein intake at a good level, and protein powder can be a good option. Of course, you don’t necessarily want it replacing (or adding onto) the food you’re already eating, but protein powder is always a good source of protein if you need it.

Otherwise, there are a plethora of fat-burning supplements out there. They work in different ways as well, so it’s important to know what you’re buying. For example, thermogenic supplements raise your core temperature in order to burn more fat.

There are also appetite suppressants that make you less hungry, and supplements that help you train harder in the gym and shred fat through your hard work.

Some high-quality supplements combine several of these into one, allowing for a fantastic method of accelerating your cutting phase.

Routines to Consistently Build Muscle

But when it comes down to the overall success of your cut, things are going to come down to the entire cycle. It’s easy to get lost in the moment—especially when you’re training in the gym—but a successful cutting phase has as much to do with the bulking phase as it does with its own characteristics.

It’s important to implement an appropriate diet plan, workout routine, and general game plan, but you also want to implement it around a healthy lifestyle.

Ensuring that you’re getting enough sleep, eating well, and training hard will lead to gains that last over the long term.

Everyone falls off the horse every now and then, but a solid routine can get you through the rough patches, make your bulks and cuts into major successes, and get you the physique that you’ve always wanted. Cultivating the perfect body isn’t going to come overnight, and the cutting/bulking cycle reminds us of that.