One thing that I see often when people go on a cut is that they lose a lot of muscle mass. This is a problem that I had myself during my first cutting phases and it’s something that I’ve since then learned to avoid.
Now sure, maintaining all of your muscle when cutting is extremely hard, but your goal should always be to keep most of it.
So with that said, how do you maintain muscle while cutting? To successfully maintain most of your muscle while cutting here’s what you need to do:
- Set up a moderate calorie deficit
- Maintain a high training intensity
- Eat enough protein
- Don’t overdo cardio
- Get good sleep
- Eat mostly a wholesome nutrient dense diet
- Stress less
These seven keys follow a hierarchy of importance, meaning that number one is most important while number seven is least important. In this guide we will address each of these seven keys one by one.
Aim For Fat Loss Not Weight Loss
If you want to get shredded, your main focus during a cut shouldn’t be to simply lose body weight, it should be to lose body fat while maintaining muscle mass.
Simply losing weight doesn’t necessarily mean your physique is improving, because some of the weight you lose might be muscle mass.
Most people who go on a crash diet often experience this. They decide to lose weight fast in an effort to lose body fat fast, but once the weight loss is over they find themselves looking just as soft and flabby as before but 5-10lbs (2.5-4.5kg) lighter. Here’s a picture of what I mean:
I’m sure you don’t want to end up like this after your cut.
So, to ensure that you’re losing body fat and not muscle mass when cutting, apply the following seven keys into your fitness plan and you’ll end up with a shredded physique.
Want to watch video instead? Check out this one:
Key #1 – Set Up a Moderate Calorie Deficit
The first and most important thing to set up correctly is your calorie deficit.
The size of your calorie deficit determines how fast you lose body weight, which is also a very important factor behind muscle maintenance.
In fact, a well set up calorie deficit restricts only enough energy to force your body to burn body fat, but not so much that it interfere with muscle recovery, growth and causes hunger.
So, how do you set up a moderate calorie deficit? Well, you got two options:
Option 1 – The Good Enough Deficit
A good calorie deficit for most people looking to get “summer lean” at around 8-10 % body fat is the following:
20-25% below maintenance
This is a good number to start of with and you will see good results using it, but to get the best results possible I recommend basing the size of your calorie deficit according to your body fat percentage.
Option 2 – The Best Deficit
You don’t have to do this, but doing so will speed up fat loss for people who are a bit on the fluffier side and hence can get away with a larger calorie deficit. And it will also help people who are on the leaner side preserve more muscle since they can’t use a large calorie deficit as doing so would severely hurt their muscle protein synthesis and training performance, leading to muscle loss.
In other words, to get the best results possible you shouldn’t use a generic calorie deficit number. So, if you want to set up your calorie deficit according to your body fat percentage, here’s what to do:
Step 1 – Estimate your body fat percentage
Finding out your body fat percentage dead on is hard. Not even the best body fat percentage tools in the world, such as; DEXA scans, Bod Pods, and Calipers etc. can pull it of 100 %.
Luckily though, in order to set up an optimal calorie deficit for the goal of fat loss, you only need to be within a certain range. And that’s why it’s enough to get an estimate only.
And fortunately, there’s one tool that can do this easily and conveniently. It’s also surprisingly accurate for most people, with a standard error deviation of only +/- 3%.
This tool is called the US Navy body fat percentage formula, and here’s a link to it (opens in a new window):
Calculate your body fat percentage and then move on to step two.
Step 2 – Set up your calorie deficit based on your estimated body fat percentage
Now that you know which body fat percentage range you’re in, it’s time to set up your calorie deficit based on that range.
Now, smarter people than me, like trainer and blogger Andy Morgan, have experienced by working with hundreds of clients that the optimal rate of weight loss should be based on the following body fat percentage ranges:
|Body Fat %||Fat Loss/Week|
|~1.1 kg (2.4 lbs)
~0.9 kg (2 lbs)
0.45-0.7 kg (1-1.5 lbs)
0.45-0.6 kg (1-1.3 lbs)
0.35-0.45 kg (0.75-1 lbs)
0.2-0.35 kg (0.45-0.75 lbs)
~0.2 kg (0.45 lbs)
So, let’s say that you estimated yourself to be somewhere in the 15-20% body fat range. This means you can potentially lose 0.45-0.7 kg (1-1.5 lbs) per week without risking muscle loss.
Now, exactly which rate of weight loss you choose should first be determined by what you think you will adhere best to. Losing 0.7 kg per week will be tougher than losing 0.45 kg per week.
Secondly, if you’re closer to 20 % body fat then you would be more safe aiming for the higher number, both when it comes to muscle retention and adherence. And vice versa if you believe you’re closer to 15 %.
If you want to read more about this strategy and how you can use refeeds to effectively slow down your rate of weight loss over time to achieve optimal results, then read this post next.
How to find out your maintenance calories
Determining your maintenance calories is simple. Assuming 60 minutes of physical activity per day, most people burn 15 calories per pound of bodyweight per day.
Now this is just an estimate and it’s very unlikely that these numbers will be dead on. However, it’s a very big chance that you’ll be within shooting distance of the number you calculated.
To solve the error in calculation you can simply lower your maintenance level calories with 10% if you’re losing weight too slowly, and increase by 10% if you’re losing weight too quickly.
Eventually you will be able to find your approximate maintenance level calorie intake.
Key #2 – Maintain a High Training Intensity
Strength training is the most important factor for muscle maintenance during a cut. Lifting weights is what provides the signal for muscle to be retained even if you’re in a big calorie deficit or eat low amounts of protein.
Training intensity (the weight on the bar) is what matters most for muscle maintenance. Your muscles were forced to adapt to lifting heavy weights, which means that if you reduce or remove the weights that caused the adaptation, you will lose the adaptation.
In fact, one of our most scientifically educated and experienced fitness experts in the industry Lyle McDonald said that you can maintain all your muscle mass even if you reduce training volume by two thirds as long as training intensity remains the same.
In other words, you could maintain volume and frequency at the same level but if you cut intensity, you will lose out on muscle mass.
Most people believe that once you start cutting you should turn to high rep pump training, but this is a big mistake since you cut out intensity for less effective volume.
Strength Training Recommendations When Cutting
- If you’re not lifting already, first thing is obviously to start lifting. If you’re just getting started lifting you’ll be able to build bigger muscles even while you’re cutting.
- If you’ve been lifting for a while then keep your training the same when cutting. There’s no need to make adjustments with your training unless you lose strength.
- If you lose strength and have all other things in check outlined in this article, then you can drop training volume a bit and see if you’re able to recover and in doing so maintain your strength.
Key #3 – Eat Enough Protein
According to Dr. Eric Helms, who’s done extensive research on protein intake for caloric restricted lean athletes the optimal protein intake when cutting lies between 1.8-2.9 grams per kg (0.8-1.3 grams per lb) of body weight per day.
However, the protein intake has been highly exaggerated in the fitness industry, even higher numbers than the top range of Eric’s findings are very common.
The belief is that; since protein (amino acids) are the building blocks of muscle, a higher protein intake during a cut, must also mean better muscle retention. And also that a higher protein intake means better satiety.
This simply isn’t true though…
First of all, eating protein doesn’t stimulate muscle growth, training does. Amino acids (protein) just allow the growth to take place after training has stimulated it.
Secondly, higher intakes of protein only help with satiation up to a point. Eventually as you raise proteins – carbs and fats must come down to still maintain a caloric deficit. And if carbs and fats come down too much, so does satiation.
And finally, by utilizing intermittent fasting (which I highly recommend), you require even less total protein to cover both the muscle loss and satiation problem following a calorie deficit.
So, unless you’re looking to compete in a bodybuilding or physique show at an extremely low body fat percentage, it’s beneficial to keep the protein intake at the lower end of this span.
For these reasons I recommend eating:
1.8-2 grams per kg (0.8-1 grams per lb) of body weight per day.
This way you will make room for more carbs and fats which comes with these four incredible benefits:
- Higher testosterone levels
- Better training performance
- Tastier meals
- Improved well being
I’ve written more about these four benefits here.
Key #4 – Don’t Overdo Cardio
Usually when people start cutting they think; “since it’s cutting time, it’s cardio time.” But this thinking is a bit misleading.
The fact is that when you’re cutting you should try your best to do as little cardio as you can get away with.
The reason for this is that most types of cardio is highly stressful to the body, which means that the cardio you do can make you unable to recover from your more important strength training, leading to strength loss.
With that said though, cardio can still be very helpful for calorie burn, but in order to be so it needs to be controlled and done moderately.
A good recommendation is to let your diet stand for 80% of your calorie deficit and cardio only 20%.
By doing this you will make sure that you’re not bumping into recovery problems and start losing muscle mass.
Another good way to burn more calories is to do low intensity cardio like power walking or taking slow bike rides etc. This will help with calorie burn but won’t stress the body nearly as much as more intense cardio.
To avoid making this into a book rather than a blog post, I recommend that you read about cardio when cutting here. In the post you’ll learn exactly how much, what types, and when you should do your cardio when cutting.
Key #5 – Get Good Sleep
Sleep is very important for muscle retention and growth during a cutting phase.
It’s during sleep that the majority of recovery from hard training takes place. In fact, research has shown that when someone is sleeping enough it promotes muscle growth, but when someone is sleeping too little it actually causes muscle loss, even without a calorie deficit in place!
In a study on sleep and fat loss, researchers found that when dieters got a full night’s sleep, they lost the same amount of weight as when they slept less. However, when they got adequate sleep, more than half of the weight they lost was fat (this was in non-resistance training people). On the other hand, when they got inadequate sleep, only one-fourth of their weight loss came from fat.
The dieters in the study also felt hungrier. When sleep was restricted, dieters produced higher levels of Ghrelin, a hormone that triggers hunger and reduces energy expenditure.
One big reason why sleep is important for muscle growth is because of Glycogen storage. Glucose is the simplest type of sugar, and the only type that the body and muscles can use as energy. All kind of carbs that we eat first has to be broken down into glucose by the body before it can be used or stored.
In order to build muscle effectively we want our glycogen stores in both our muscles and in our liver to be topped off as often as it’s possible. Stored glycogen acts as a buffer of glucose and topped off stores signals the muscles that there are enough energy available to provide good recovery and muscle growth.
Okay cool, but where does sleep come in?
Well, sleep is the most powerful glycogen storage factor of all. During a good nights sleep your glycogen stores will become topped off which effectively promotes recovery. This is especially important when cutting as well, since glycogen stores will be lowered by the diet alone.
Another huge reason why sleep is important is because it releases a lot of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) into the bloodstream. HGH is one of the primary compounds that allows muscles to recover and grow. Among other functions, our bodies need HGH available to be able to utilize the amino acids present in the protein we eat, and sleep help with this more than anything else.
Furthermore, this study showed that good sleep results in increased levels of testosterone and reduced levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Other research has even seen that cortisol levels may stay elevated until the following evening when you don’t get enough sleep. Cortisol is already elevated slightly from the calorie deficit, so poor sleep equals high levels of cortisol.
So, if your goal is to lose fat, skipping sleep is like poking sticks in your bicycle wheels. In other words, get enough sleep and you will retain more muscle when cutting.
You can read more about sleep and it’s influence on muscle growth in this post.
Key #6 – Eat Mostly a Wholesome Nutrient Dense Diet
To preserve muscle when cutting it’s important to avoid micronutrient and fiber deficiencies.
Certain vitamins and minerals are important for supporting training performance, recovery and normal functioning of the body. Fiber are important for digestion. A slower digestion of food, at least outside of the training window, leads to better muscle growth and fat loss.
If you develop deficiencies when cutting (which is a higher risk) muscle loss is inevitable if the deficiency continues long-term.
To avoid deficiencies make sure that your diet mainly contains wholesome nutrient dense foods such as potatoes, starches, avocados, nuts, veggies and lean protein sources etc.
What about junk foods?
Often when people start cutting they turn to the classic bodybuilding meals of having chicken, rice and broccoli day in and day out. Even though this approach can work well, as long as they’re in a calorie deficit, it’s often not sustainable long-term.
Eating like this is extremely restrictive and very few people can sustain it for long. Even if you eat a more varied diet with more food choices than just chicken, rice and broccoli, often the biggest struggle people experience when they start cutting is not that they have too little healthy foods to eat, but that they believe they can’t include any junk foods at all.
Having an exclusive mindset, where you don’t allow for any junk food, is often negative in the long-run… Especially if your goal is to build a lean and muscular physique that’s also a part of your lifestyle.
If you instead have an inclusive mindset towards your diet, you can remove tons of stress, and also enjoy life as much as possible while you improve your physique at the same time.
For example, want to eat from the cake at your mother’s birthday party? Then no worries, just include it. Want to go see a movie with your friends and have a bit of junk food? Again, no worries, just include it. Want to eat some chocolate or chips during the evening? Once again, just include it!
Allowing yourself to eat some junk when you want too, or when there’s a special event taking place, will make your fat loss becomes more effortless. Personally, if I know that I can make room for some tasty stuff every now and then I actually find that my fat loss becomes rather enjoyable.
Now this might sound weird, after all how can you include these things without eating too many calories?
Well, in order to eat these things you must learn how to count your calories and protein so that you can control your intake, which is a whole article in and of itself. So, if you want to learn this, I recommend reading this post next.
Don’t Overindulge on Junk Foods
It’s important to know that you can’t overindulge on junk foods. In order to stay healthy, energetic and happy you must ensure that you’re getting in enough wholesome nutrient dense foods as well, this is especially important when you’re cutting.
To find good balance between eating enough wholesome nutrient dense foods while still allowing for some junk foods, I recommend sticking to the 80/20 approach of dieting.
As you can see in the picture, the 80/20 approach is when you eat 80% wholesome nutrient dense foods and allow for 20% lower quality junk foods.
This approach is great because you can still include some lower quality foods making your cut more enjoyable, while still getting both your macronutrient and micronutrient needs to effectively preserve muscle mass from eating mostly higher quality foods.
Key #7 – Stress Less
Stress causes similar problems as poor sleep. Stress can make fat loss and muscle maintenance difficult for several reasons.
Stress causes the body to produce more of the hormone cortisol. Chronically elevated cortisol acts very catabolic, meaning it effectively break down amino acids, your muscles.
Ideally, the only stress you should allow in your life is the stress provided from your training and your inevitable calorie deficit. However, this isn’t possible for most of us since we have a job, school, family and/or other obligations that can be stressful at times.
But stress is something that can be managed, and when it comes to stress we are often times our own worst enemies. Stress is an emotional response to various circumstances, which means it can be controlled. The better you can control your mind and emotions in “stressful” situations, the less stress you will actually experience from these situations.
Tips For Reducing Daily Stress:
Tip 1: Try to remind yourself on a consistent basis that nothing has meaning, except the meaning you give it!
Tip 2: Learn to realize when you’re stressed so that you can have a chance to do something about it.
Tip 3: Become more tolerant. Spilled out your coffee? Oh well, it happens. Someone cut you off in traffic? Some people are jerks. Your computer stopped working? Stay calm, you probably have warranty anyway.
Tip 4: Get organized. Feeling overwhelmed by tasks is one of the biggest causes of stress. To minimize this, use to-do lists. Get your thoughts out of your mind and put them on paper. Once this is done, clear out anything that’s not important and focus on the most important tasks.
Tip 5: Stop procrastinating. Procrastination creates tons of anxiety. A great way to beat procrastination is using the Ivy Lee method. With this method you basically create a to-do list where you list the most important 6 tasks you must do in the order of importance. Start your day with the first task and don’t move to the next one until it’s finished. This takes away the anxiety of a fixed schedule while still maintaining productivity.
Tip 6: Minimize your time using social media. Constantly thinking about what other people are doing or what they think of you is very stressful. Use social media to keep up with your friends but don’t spend a lot of time on it.
If you make these seven things work you will maintain your muscle mass when cutting and get the best results possible. Now, there’s a lot to learn about each thing so feel free to take a few weeks to browse around on the website and put the pieces together.
Or if you want a more stress free method, do what I should have done earlier in my fitness journey, and get yourself a step by step course to follow. For fat loss I recommend Radu Antoniu’s ShredSmart Program. I’ve used this program for a couple of years and in my opinion it’s the best fat loss program out there, mainly becuase it allow me to enjoy my life while getting ripped in the meantime.