Nutrition

How to Cut for Beginners

What is a Cutting Diet?

Cutting has become part of the mainstream vocabulary in recent years. The fascination with striations and six packs is at an all-time high and getting ripped is an obsession many can’t shake off.

Being ‘in a cut’ means to be in a calorie deficit with the primary goal of lasing body fat to reveal a muscular frame that lies beneath. To lose weight you must take in less calories than you expend.

The positive is a cutting diet really is that simple.

Woman holding an ipad with 'how to burn 70 calories' on it
So why are calories important?

You just need to expend more energy than you take in over a consistent period of time. That can be down to a calorie controlled diet, or by incorporating more cardio into your daily routine.

The negative is that dieting for an extended period of time is wearing. Your energy levels are lower, your performance suffers and mental exhaustion is far more commonplace.

I hate cutting personally, I never do it for more than 6- 8 weeks at a time because my goal(s) are strength / performance related. So I try to avoid it.

Cutting vs Bulking – What’s the difference?

Cutting is the relatively recent (bodybuilding-led) phenomena of being in a calorie deficit for an extended period of time.

To be in a cut, you need to be at below maintenance calories for an elongated period of time with the sole purpose of losing body fat. Typically you’re around 10-25% under your maintenance calories over a 6 – 12 week period, starting around 10% under and employing incremental increases every week to consistently drop 1-2lbs of body fat a week.

To ensure you don’t lose muscle mass when you’re cutting you need to keep you protein intake sufficiently high, usually around 0.8g / gram of bodyweight. 

The quality of your protein absolutely matters. Eggs and good quality meat tend to be the most satiating form of protein, whilst proteins from vegetable sources are much less satisfying and harder to digest.

Carbohydrates and fats aren’t anything like as important as protein when conserving muscle mass or losing weight. When cutting I keep protein(s) high – usually around 200g a day – and have around 1500-2000 calories to play with that I split between carbs and fat.

Pie chart of the optimal macronutrient breakdown on a training day
Optimal macronutrient breakdown on a training day

Ideally on a training day you would eat slightly more than a non-training day. Increasing your carbohydrate consumption by 10-20% depending on the intensity of your workout.

Non-training days are perfect for a higher fat diet. Your body produces insulin to help convert excess carbohydrates into glycogen (the storage of carbohydrates in muscle cells) or fat stored in fat cells. Insulin promotes the storage of nutrients and prevents the breakdown of protein, carbs and fat in the body.

Pie chart of the optimal rest day macronutrient breakdown
Optimal rest day macronutrient breakdown

So dropping your carbs and slightly increasing your fat can improve your body’s reaction to carbohydrates as an energy source.

Manipulating your consumption of them can increase your energy levels at the right time, whilst reducing your body’s insulin creation.

But at the same time, if you are in a calorie deficit that’s all you need to do to lose weight.

In simplest form, bulking just means eating enough to be a calorie surplus (typically around 500 calories above maintenance) whilst training.

The added calories over your nutritional maintenance allow you to train harder, lift more weight and gain more muscle given the excess in fuel and nutrients.

To learn more about bulking, this bulking guide for beginners should help you setup a sample bulking diet, understand calorie counting and the best calorie dense foods for gaining size.

Bulking is the simplest way to gain size and strength, and will allow you to follow the following guides to a T:

1. How to Increase your Bench Press

2. How to Increase your Squat

3. How to Increase your Deadlift

4. How to Increase your Clean and Jerk

5. How to Increase your Snatch

Should I Cut or Bulk first?

This is very personal and entirely depends on what your goals are as an athlete or individual.

As a beginner you can gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. It’s arguably the only time this can happen, so enjoy it while it lasts.

If you take training more seriously and have significant strength, sport or composition type goals, you’ll need to decide whether to bulk or cut beforehand.

If you want to look more aesthetically pleasing then cutting is the way forward. You can still gain muscle in a slight calorie deficit and an 8-10 week plan including:

Will give you the added confidence you might be looking for on holiday or in the changing rooms.

We’ve all been there, don’t worry.

But if your goal(s) are strength or sport focused, then you need to either be in a bulk or at maintenance caloric intake to gain muscle or have enough energy stored to perform at your best.

Now Read: Periodisation 

High intensity training with weights at or around 80-90% of your 1RM is incredibly stressful on your body and your CNS.

Combining this with sport / athletic training means your maintenance calories will go up anyway.

The more you do the more you need to eat to perform at your best. Period.

But as a general rule, if you’re around 20% body fat or more as a man, 25% as a woman then I would cut first. If you’re lower than that and have loftier goals than how you look, then eat to perform.

Start with maintenance calories as a minimum and eat intuitively from there.

If your goal was 2,700 calories to start with and you’re still starving, add 200 calories of good quality calories, eat enough volume in the form of fruits and vegetables and up it steadily to mitigate unnecessary fat gain.

How many Calories should I eat when Cutting?

If you live an active lifestyle, then I find around 15kcal / lb of bodyweight is ideal for maintaining weight.

For example, a 200lb active man would need around 3,000 daily calories to maintain their current weight. If you were looking to lose or gain weight you typically adjust that by 10-15% either way.

To lose weight: 2,550 – 2,700 kcal / day

To gain weight: 3,300 – 3,450 kcal / day

One of the most common mistakes I see in beginners when looking to lose or gain weight is their starting point. You have to leave yourself room for progression.

Cutting should be an 8 – 12 week process and if you start at 20% under your maintenance calories, it becomes a) incredibly draining b) anger inducing and c) a negative impact on your life.

If you were looking to gain muscle you don’t want to gain too much excess fat, so you start off slowly and build up. Each week you would add roughly 50 good quality calories to mitigate fat gain.

The same principle applies when cutting.

You start at 10-15% under maintenance and reduce it by 50 calories per week for up to 12 weeks or so whilst keeping your protein high – 0.8g / lb of bodyweight is ideal for muscle maintenance.

How to setup your Macros when Cutting?

So based off the above you know how many calories you’re looking to consume a day. Now you need to work out the optimal protein, carbohydrate and fat breakdown.

Optimal Macro Breakdown for Cutting

If you spend a couple of weeks tracking what you currently eat, figure out what your current macros are roughly. I typically like to stick to something like the below for losing weight:

  • 40% Carbs: 250g – 1000 calories
  • 40% Protein: 250g – 1000 calories
  • 20% Fat: 75g – 675 calories

I’m sure you’ve read a lot of nonsense throughout the years about carbs and losing weight. Yes they aren’t as satiating as fat and they do increase your body’s insulin output, which promotes nutrient storage and stores the energy as glycogen in your cells which gets burnt off before fat.

But this is still largely irrelevant to the average Joe. The student. The fat lad. The receptionist.

Carbs aren’t your enemy. Eating too much and bullshit fad diets are.

Eating a relatively high proportion of carbs means the volume of food you can eat is much higher than if you went for a high fat, low carb diet. And that’s important.

Feeling full is probably the most important thing when in a calorie deficit and vegetables are your nerdy best friend in your time of need.

But you should know that protein and fat are more satiating than carbohydrates as they take longer to be fully digested. Quicker acting, lower quality carbohydrates like high sugar drinks, chocolate bars or certain fruits that have high fructose levels that take almost no time to be digested and burn out much quicker.

So high carb is fine, but don’t fill it with shit. Whole grains, vegetables and good quality protein sources should make up the majority of your diet whether you’re cutting or bulking because they’re packed full of essential nutrients.

How long should I cut weight for?

Personally I never cut for longer than 8 weeks, but my goals are predominately strength orientated.

I try to always be in good shape so that I never need to cut for too long if I feel the urge too. The urge usually comes after a stag do or a couple of long work weeks full of pints and pizzas.

Burgers and chips in a takeaway tray
Enjoy it, give yourself a diet break when cutting, but stay on course

Obviously these things are great, but you need to pay your dues sometime.

If you are very overweight, then increasing your exercise and reducing your calories can only be a positive.

If you need to lose 100lbs + you’re not going to do it in 12 weeks. Safely at least. A good rule of thumb is 1.5-2lbs / week. If you’re looking to lose 20lbs, then 10 – 12 weeks is perfect.

If you’re only looking to lose 10lbs then you could do it in 5 – 6 weeks at the same rate. Or you could still take 10 weeks and only lose a lb / week. I think this is too slow, but whatever suits you.

How do cutting workouts differ from Bulking workouts?

Well think about it logically.

Being in a bulk means you are in a calorie surplus and calories equal energy.

Having a surplus of energy means you can do more. Period. In this context that means at a higher intensity, volume or both when compared to cutting style workouts.

Being in a calorie deficit requires you to step off the gas a little. You can’t be cutting for a significant period of time and expect to hit PR’s. It just isn’t going to happen.

You need to tailor your workouts accordingly. If your energy levels are low you need to decrease intensity, volume or both. Otherwise it becomes very hard to stick to your diet.

If you workout too hard, you need to consume more calories. If sticking to your macros becomes too hard then tone the workouts down a little. The goal is to lose fat and maintain muscle mass. Not to continue gaining strength whilst losing weight.

Unfortunately that isn’t going to happen. Unless you’re a complete beginner.

Key Differences between Bulking and Cutting Workouts

Cutting Bulking
Lighter weights (lower intensity) Heavier weight (higher intensity)
Higher rep schemes (12 +) Strength training (low rep sets)
Greater emphasis on muscular contraction and ‘the pump’ Additional hypertrophy 
Added cardio Higher overall volume

How much Cardio should I do?

Again there’s no hard and fast rule, but you’re not trying to out-train your diet. You’re trying to supplement your fat loss with a little additional cardio.

A sign on the ground pointing towards a gym
Remember, you can’t be in the gym all the time

If you’re in a calorie deficit of 500 under your maintenance each day, you shouldn’t be able to do much cardio. Certainly not a huge amount of HIIT.

Anywhere up to 300 – 400 kcal 3 times a week would be ample.

Of course you can do more and if you love running, cycling, boxing etc. then you absolutely should and you’ll be able to eat more whist getting leaner.

If I want to go on a long run or have a long higher intensity session then I’ll compensate and add in a few more calories without obsessing over it too much.

The Best Foods to eat when Cutting

My favourite foods for cutting are typically high protein, filling and good value. I’d also give this article on the best powerlifting supplements a read.

The below list are things I always keep in my fridge that you should to:

Protein

High quality, filling protein sources are essential. Protein and fats are far more satiating than carbohydrates, but fat has 9kcal / gram and protein has 4kcal / gram. A much less calorific (and flavoursome!) way to stay fuller for longer.

Grilled chicken and vegetables diet meal
A high protein, low carb chicken dish

You need to eat enough protein to not want to go on a mass killing spree all the time. But chicken breasts and egg whites are fucking disgusting, so I have no time for those things. Unless it’s covered in delicious hot sauce like cholula or siracha. Everything else I can take or leave.

  • Eggs: Whole eggs have around 5g of fat and 6g of protein. Egg whites are for bodybuilders or mental cases. Eat the whole egg for the nutritional benefit and because you still need some fat in your diet.
  • Whey protein: Whey protein tastes delicious and comes in ridiculous flavours so you can’t get bored. In the last 2 weeks I’ve had cheesecake and birthday cake varieties that taste legitimately good. Buy some good quality powder and get your sweet fix that way.
  • 0% Greek yoghurt: If you’ve never had a junk bowl then I pity you, I really do. A 500g tub of 0% Greek yoghurt has up to 50g of protein in and less than 300 calories in some cases. Add some berries, sugar free syrup or something that actually tastes good if you have calories leftover.
  • Chicken thighs: Chicken breast is disgusting and I vowed to never eat it again. Supermarket chicken is also disgusting, so unless it’s good quality I don’t buy it anymore. Thighs are more palatable because they have a higher fat content, but that’s my choice. As it can be yours.
  • Salmon: I love fish. And salmon is the king of fish (that’s reasonably priced and I can get from the shop down the road). A typical salmon fillet is around 15g of protein and 12 of fat. But it’s always delicious.
  • Beans, lentils and pulses: Largely disgusting and beans make me gassy, but I’m a sucker for beans, rice and some form of meat or egg. A good value, filling lunch that’s high in protein and farts.
  • Soy milk: Great in smoothies, amazing macros and creamy enough to be worthy of the calories.

Carbohydrates

You love pasta right? Well so do I. And pizza and bread. But they’re much higher calorie options than the below, less filling and harder to fit into your macros.

A bowl of cooked white rice
Rice is quick, simple and deliciously bland

So you can definitely still have some. But by filling up on shitty green vegetables and sweet potatoes you”ll have more macros left for tasty stuff at the end of the day.

  • Rice: Low calorie, cheap and a great conduit for soy sauce, hot sauce, lemon, crispy onions, sprig onions etc. Surprisingly egg fried rice can be a great meal when looking to lose weight. But I agree rice on it’s lonesome is horrific.
  • Oats: Oats are low GI, filling and high fibre. They take hours to digest and are a great source of energy pre or post workout in particular. Add a little sugar free syrup (or honey if you’re feeling adventurous) and berries for a sweet treat that doesn’t suck.
  • Sweet potatoes: Potatoes get a bad rep for some reason. Only the sweet kind is evangelised in the fitness world and I’m never sure why. Obviously I’ve done exactly the same thing here, but when in Rome. Low calorie, tasty and can be bunged in a microwave for 2 minutes. What’s not to love?
  • All green vegetables: Packed full of micronutrients, low calorie and high volume. We previously discussed the importance of volume in a caloric deficit. You need your stomach to feel full as it mimics satiety. Add as much lettuce, spinach, cucumber etc. as you can fit in a bowl. Low calorie dressing and voila. A less horrible salad.
  • Berries and lower calorie fruits: Smoothies are great obviously. But there are overly saccharine fruits that can add 50+ unfilling grams of sugar to your snack. berries are predominately low calorie (4-10 grams of sugar / 100) when compared to something like bananas (potentially 20+ grams of sugar / 100). Pick your fruits wisely and add them to smoothies or junk bowls for some sweet volume.

Low Calorie Treats

Yes I am aware low calorie treats are more often than not shit. But you need to find low calorie treat options that aren’t too high in sugar so you could theoretically eat them every day. Ice cream substitutes and sugar free syrups are my pathetic dream.

A bottle of tabasco hot sauce
Calorie free flavour for those horrible lunches
  • Low calorie mousse: Little pots of aero mousse (not a sponsor) tend to be around kcal per pot which is great. Yeah they’re unfilling, but you need to have a little actual sugar now and again. Pro tip; mars bar ice creams are 2/3 less calories than an actual mars bar.
  • Sugar free jello: Yup, pretty synthetic, but add it to oatmeal or Greek yoghurt for high volume, low calorie pudding that genuinely hits the spot.
  • Halo Top / Breyers ice cream: Fake healthy ice cream. We’ve all been crying for this for years and Halo Top especially is the business. 300kcal for an entire tub (compared to 1200 plus for Ben & Jerry’s is exceptional. The peanut butter cup flavour is amazing for 300 calories, so there’s really no downside.
  • Sugar free syrups: calorie free coffee and dessert syrups. Mental flavours from brown sugar cinnamon to banana cream pie. What’s not to love?
  • Protein bars: Largely disgusting, but when you find a good one it’s a lifesaver. A good one can’t be high sugar, too high in fat or to rubbery. Pulsin bars are my favourite as they taste incredibly clean.
  • Hot sauce: If you don’t like spicy foods everything becomes a little harder. Low sugar hot sauces like Cholula or Nando’s peri peri are absolute life savers for any bland, banal salad.
  • Low calorie dressings: Another quick win for your tastebuds. I’m all about simplicity when eating at work or early in the week and a good dressing goes a long way. Find a couple you like and always have them to hand.

What Supplements should I take when Cutting?

I’m not the best person to ask about this as I rarely take any supplements. But there’s no magic fat burner that actually works.

Green tea, slimming pills and caffeine aren’t going to do shit. If you’re in a calorie deficit then then might give you an additional 0.5% (maximum), but I’d say none of them are worth it.

Green tea tastes like piss, caffeine is just a thing that comes with coffee and slimming pills are for marketable teenagers and TOWIE plebs.

Forget about them. Establish your caloric maintenance, workout how much cardio you want to do and incorporate an adequate level of resistance training to maintain muscle mass without pushing your body too hard.

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12 thoughts on “How to Cut for Beginners”

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