Cutting weight may not be the answer for long-term weight loss goals, but if you’re looking to lose body fat and increase muscle mass for an event that’s 2-4 months away, then doing a cut might be a strategy for you to consider.
What is Cutting Weight?
Cutting weight refers to the practice of intentionally losing weight in preparation for a competition or event. When someone says they are in a “cutting phase” of training, this often refers to a phase of training that requires specific nutritional and exercise interventions that will result in maximizing muscle mass, while also decreasing body fat.
Cutting weight is the opposite of bulking or clean bulking.
Who Should Cut Weight?
What used to be a practice reserved for bodybuilders or athletes in sports using weight classes is now a practice that has been adopted by any individual looking to obtain a certain body composition to prepare for an event, a holiday, or a vacation. Cutting weight typically requires 2 to 4 months of consistent adherence to personalized nutrition and training plans to be effective and safe (Helms, Aragon & Fitschen, 2014).
How to Cut Weight: 8 Tips for Success
- Set goals
- Track progress
- Schedule your workouts
- Meal prep/plan ahead
- Train to build muscle
- Maximize Daily Calorie Burn
- Focus on the timing of the cut
- Drink plenty of water
Tip 1: Goal Setting
It’s hard to be successful if you don’t define success! Set a goal that’s SMART:
• Specific: What do you want to accomplish?
• Measurable: How will you measure success?
• Action-oriented: What will you do to accomplish your goal?
• Realistic: Can you accomplish your goal in the specified amount of time?
• Time-bound: What’s your target date? Give yourself 2-4 months, depending on where you’re starting out.
Setting a SMART goal will help you develop your action plan (i.e., the nutrition and workout plan that will help you reach your ideal body fat percentage goal).
Tip 2: Track Progress
Cutting takes laser-focus, and one of the best ways to stay on track with your plan is to track your behaviors. There are endless nutrition and fitness tracking devices and apps on the market, so find one that works best for you and stay accountable to your plan. If after 2-3 weeks of sticking to your plan you’re not seeing the results that you think you should be seeing, it’s a great time to re-evaluate and make small adjustments.
NASM has many calculators, like the BMI calculator, that can give you feedback on a wide variety of metrics.
Tip 3: Schedule Your Workouts
Nothing is less effective than the workout that never happens. If you’re not used to a regular workout schedule, taking the time to schedule your workouts (with a trainer or with yourself) can help you adhere to your program.
One easy way to make your workout a priority is to put it on your schedule first (before scheduling other events and activities) and make workouts non-negotiable. When you’re setting up your schedule for the week, prioritize your workouts so that everything else gets shuffled in behind them.
Tip 4: Meal Prep/Plan ahead
It’s easiest to stick to a meal plan when you do the cooking yourself. Pick a day each week to cook meals in advance. If you’re fancy, you can even measure out your portions for each meal and separate them into containers so that they’re “grab and go” meals during the week. Taking 1-2 hours on a weekend to meal prep will save you loads of time and effort during a busy week!
If you know you’ll be eating out a few times, do your research ahead of time to see exactly what you’ll order at the restaurant. This will give you extra time to check the calorie count on menu items, determine any subs that need to be made (like dressings/sauces on the side, or steamed vegetables instead of a starchy side), and save you the stress of having to make those decisions at the table with other people.
See also: How to Meal Prep for Weight Loss
Tip 5: Train to build muscle
One of the goals of a cutting phase is to maintain muscle mass during a calorie deficit. Muscle Development Training is the best way to help you attain this goal. (Note: Muscle Development is Phase 3 of the OPT Model, so it’s recommended that you perform Phases 1 and 2 as precursors to this more advanced training phase).
In Phase 3: Muscle Development Training, you’ll perform 6-12 reps of each exercise for 3-6 sets with 0-60 seconds of rest between exercises. To maintain muscle mass, you’ll want to do strength training 3-4 days a week, using a split routine on any back-to-back training days to avoid over training.
Tip 6: Maximize daily calorie burn
A calorie deficit is necessary for any weight-cutting program. In addition to your nutrition plan and strength training, you can increase your overall calorie burn by increasing movement throughout the day.
You can do this by tracking your steps (see how many you get on an average day and set a goal to increase it by 5-10%), getting up for a few minutes for every 30 minutes seated, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, etc. These small changes can help you burn hundreds of extra calories per day without adding an extra workout.
Check out the NASM Calorie Deficit Calculator.
Tip 7: Timing is everything
Consider the time that you’ll be cutting. Is it during a major holiday or when you have a vacation planned? Set yourself up for success by trying to choose a socially low-key time to do a cut.
Tip 8: Drink plenty of water
Increasing your water intake will help you flush out excess water weight, keep you hydrated (duh!), and may prevent false hunger pangs. Shoot for 11.5 cups/day for women and 15.5 cups for men (IOM 2005).
See also: Hydration and Fitness
Calories, Protein, Carbs, and Fat Intake for Successful Weight Cutting
Helms, Aragon & Fitschen (2014) recommend the following nutritional strategy for cutting weight safely: Choose a calorie range that will allow you to lose .5 to 1% body weight per week (if you weigh 150, you’d aim to lose .75-1.5 pounds/week). To preserve muscle during a calorie deficit, you’ll want to consume 1-1.4 g of protein/pound of body weight. If you weigh 150 pounds, your protein goal will be 150-210g of protein.
Next, choose a fat goal of 15-30%, depending on personal preference and the results that you see. Finally, fill your remaining calories with carbohydrates. Ideally, you’ll consume 4 equal meals per day for best results.
NASM has a calorie calculator to help you do the math.
Why Cutting Is Effective for Short-Term Weight Loss
Cutting keeps you intently focused on a more stringent exercise and nutrition routine than what you might stick with long-term. Because it’s stricter, you’ll see results. Because you likely won’t live in a calorie deficit forever (I also don’t recommend that), the results are temporary. This is, however, a safe and effective strategy to get the physique that you want for an upcoming event or competition.
Is Cutting Weight Dangerous?
Cutting weight becomes dangerous when you try to lose too much weight too quickly. Some sports, like wrestling, require weigh-ins before the competition to determine weight class.
Some athletes resort to unsafe methods to lose weight (like diuretics, diet pills, sweat suits, intentionally dehydrating themselves, etc.) to maximize weight loss (Barley, Chapman & Abbiss, 2019). Techniques like these are unsafe and not recommended. A gradual, planned-out weight cut over 2 to 4 months can be both safe and effective.
Barley, O. R., Chapman, D. W., & Abbiss, C. R. (2019). The Current State of Weight-Cutting in Combat Sports-Weight-Cutting in Combat Sports. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 7(5), 123. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports7050123
Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., & Fitschen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11, 20. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-20
Institute of Medicine (2005). Dietary reference intakes for water, potassium, sodium, chloride, and sulfate. Washington DC: The National Academies Press. https://doiorg/10.17226/10925.