Useful Links: A Comprehensive Guide to Your First Bulk
A goal without a plan is just a wish.
Weight loss diets are all the rage, but most people don’t succeed.
I wanted to write this article to change this outcome for you by answering the following questions:
What’s the purpose of a “cut”, and how does it fit within your physique development process?
A “cut” is a common term used in the bodybuilding world to refer to a fat loss phase. I’m going to use the two interchangeably throughout this article.
The purpose of a cut is to reduce your body fat.
For example, many people start their physique development process with a cut because they want or need to lose fat for health-related reasons. When I began bodybuilding in 2018, I did a four-month cut, too.
In addition, some people undertake cuts even when their body fat levels don’t pose any risk to their health.
For instance, if you’re serious about sculpting a great physique, you’re probably going to do at least one dedicated muscle-building phase, or “bulk”, which inevitably comes with some body fat gain. At the end of this phase, you’ll likely choose to cut in order to remove the extra body fat and reveal your newly gained muscle.
Lastly, some athletes may need to resort to occasional cuts in order to “make weight” for a competition. For example, a male powerlifter weighing 97 kg, who wants to compete in the IPF in the under 93 kg weight class, will need to lose at least 4 kg before his meet.
However, since I specialise in physique development, the rest of this article is going to assume you want to cut for health- or physique-related purposes, not for athletic endeavours.
How do you plan a cut?
I’ve noticed that most people tend to plan their cut based on one or both of these factors:
For instance, they may plan to cut “until they hit 180 lbs” or “for 12 weeks”.
This may not be the most productive course of action for your very first cut.
For one, setting a weight goal works best if you’ve been at that weight before, especially if you have physique shots from that time.
In this scenario, the goal would be to hit 180 lbs again, but not for the sake of the number in and of itself, which is meaningless. Rather, the intent is to compare pictures: if you look leaner and more muscular at 180 lbs now, then you know that what you’ve done in the time between the two sets of physique shots, was productive. This can be really useful data for the future of your physique development journey.
For example, at the end of my four-month cut in 2018, I weighed 97 to 98 lbs. I’ve recently lost 21.5 lbs for a photoshoot, reaching the exact same bodyweight, but my look is quite different:
However, if this is your first time trying to hit 180 lbs, you can’t be sure that you’ll look and feel the way you want to at that size. In fact, you may discover that you prefer yourself a little heavier or a little leaner.
You’d only be pursuing this goal for the sake of a number on the scale, which may not benefit either your physique or mental health.
Similarly, planning a cut based on the number of weeks you want to diet for, is only really useful if you’ve done it before, and it yielded the results you wanted the first time.
If you don’t even know whether you can stick to a diet for a certain number of weeks, you may be setting yourself up for failure unintentionally. In the end, unless you have a deadline, it doesn’t matter how long your diet takes, as long as it’s successful.
Instead of basing your cut on an arbitrary goal weight or a number of weeks, you can use this planning method for your very first cut:
If you hit your desired level or leanness before or by the time you’ve lost 10% of your starting weight, then you may decide to enter a lifelong maintenance phase or to commit to a muscle-building phase or “bulk”, which you can read more about here.
But, if you have more fat to lose, why wouldn’t you just keep dieting until you get there?
It may not sound like much, but losing 10% of your bodyweight is a big freaking deal.
For one, research shows that, for those with obesity, losing this much weight is associated with improvements in important health markers, like your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and in conditions like type 2 diabetes.
Moreover, many studies have demonstrated that, even under the best possible circumstances – that is, when following an appropriate diet and exercise program, and receiving professional counselling – 10% tends to be the maximum amount of weight most research subjects seem to lose successfully.
Last but not least, the longer you diet for and the more fat you lose, the harder it gets to continue getting results.
First off, following a diet for months is a psychological challenge.
Fat loss requires compromises: for example, you likely can’t eat out as often or eat as much chocolate as you would when you’re eating at maintenance calories. Whilst this is fine in the first six to eight weeks, it can become more and more difficult to stay disciplined when the diet drags on for 10, 12, 20 weeks or more…
In addition, over the course of a diet, the body is subject to a host of negative consequences of caloric restriction, collectively known as adaptive thermogenesis or metabolic adaptations.
As a result of these adaptations, your body becomes more efficient at expending energy. This means that you now burn fewer calories doing the exact same amount of physical activity that you were doing before the diet started.
If you’re burning fewer calories, then your caloric deficit is going to get smaller over time, and you’re going to lose fat more and more slowly, until eventually you’ll hit a plateau.
To keep going, you’ll need to either eat less or move more, but making either adjustment may become too much of a stretch if you’ve been dieting for a really long time.
For example, you may feel fine going from 1800 to 1700 calories per day in Week 3 of your cut. On the other hand, going from 1400 to 1300 calories per day in Week 26 is going to hit a lot different…
For these reasons, continuing to diet after losing 10% of your bodyweight may be counterproductive, resulting in burnout and frustration.
When you’re burnt out and frustrated, you’re more likely to overeat and lose your hard-earned progress. When you lose your progress, you’re more likely to give up and never try again because you feel like you keep failing, and despair that you’ll never lose weight.
Therefore, to maximise your chances of losing fat and successfully maintaining that loss, a more effective approach is to cut until you achieve a 10% bodyweight loss – or until you’ve dieted for so long that you’re struggling with consistency on a regular basis – then take an extended period of time at maintenance (which I call the “Recharge Phase”) before you start another cut. To read more about maintenance or Recharge Phases, click here.
How do you prepare for a successful cut?
I work with a lot of clients whose starting goal is fat loss. Since dieting is very popular, it’s common for a new client to think we’re going to jump straight into a caloric deficit from Day 1 of coaching.
However, whilst dieting is popular, not many people succeed.
The reason is that not many people are good at it. Dieting is just like playing guitar, writing, driving, and so on. Without practice, you’re going to fail.
That’s why I don’t start a client’s fat loss phase until we can check all of the following boxes:
1. You know your maintenance calorie range.
With one-on-one clients, I usually run a Kickstart Phase in order to find out a client’s maintenance calorie range. As an alternative to the Kickstart Phase, you could use a calculator to speed up the process. However, in my opinion, the benefits of this initial phase far outweigh the drawbacks, especially if this is your first cut.
Namely, this phase can help you learn:
2. You’re hitting your maintenance calories and macros consistently.
Eating at maintenance is easier than eating in a caloric deficit because you have more calories available. So, if you can’t hit maintenance calories, you won’t have much of a chance of running a successful cut.
To learn more about my four favourite methods to hit your calorie and protein targets, check out this article.
3. You have a solid lifting schedule…
… And you rarely skip workouts.
Although training isn’t the number one priority during a cut (more on this later in the article), you’ll need to keep lifting regularly in order to avoid losing muscle mass and to potentially build more.
4. You can get as much good quality sleep as possible.
In the context of fat loss, a chronic lack of sleep makes it harder to have the headspace to stick to a diet. To add insult to injury, even if you were to stick to it, a greater proportion of the weight lost could come from muscle instead of fat.
I’m always harping about the benefits and negatives of sleep on your fat loss and muscle gain outcomes for a reason. It’s a freaking game-changer.
However, most of us live busy, stressful lives, so your sleep is unlikely to ever be “perfect”. And it doesn’t need to be for you to be ready for a cut.
If you’re sleeping well enough to wake up energised most days, you’re good to go. If you always feel like death warmed over, you’d likely be much more successful with your cut after improving your current sleep routine.
5. You can keep your stress to a manageable level.
The ideal scenario for any endeavour, including a cut, is to have zero stress.
Obviously, that’s impossible.
However, you wouldn’t want to be in a season of your life where you’re dealing with an extraordinary amount of stress. Christmas, Thanksgiving, moving house, going on a four-week vacation, or settling into a new job, aren’t great times to diet.
A cut involves some inevitable physical and mental strain, which adds up to everything else that’s going on in your life. Leave your cuts for times of “standard” stress.
In addition, even under circumstances of “standard” stress, strive to create an effective stress management routine before your first cut. If you haven’t figured this out yet, the diet is likely to go out of the window as soon as the proverbial shit hits the fan.
What are your priorities during a cut?
Having already discussed number 2 and 3, I’m going to focus on nutrition here, as this is the single most important component of a successful cut.
First off, in order to lose body fat, you need to create a caloric deficit.
The most successful method is to reduce the amount of calories you eat first and foremost. A secondary step is to increase the amount of calories you burn with extra physical activity, be it daily steps or cardio.
You can calculate an appropriate caloric deficit for you using the formula in this article.
For an easier formula, you can sign up for my newsletter by clicking here, and I’ll send you a nutrition guide with a simple calculator.
However, cutting isn’t just about calories.
In order to maintain or build muscle, keep your energy levels up, and prevent your hunger from skyrocketing, you need to consider where those calories come from, too. Therefore, your macronutrients (“macros”) also play a crucial role. You can read more about macros and how to calculate yours here.
Lastly, the kind of food you eat, when and how you eat it, and how frequently you eat your meals and snacks, all contribute to making the diet easier to adhere to. Read more about these here.
What can you expect from your first cut?
Setting realistic expectations will help you develop a resilient, more successful mindset for fat loss. In fact, mindset is so important that I made an entire free email series about it, which you can sign up for here.
In no particular order, these are the main expectations I equip my clients with before their first cut:
1. You may not be satisfied with your physique at the end.
This isn’t true for everyone. In general, I’ve found that clients with less body fat to lose, who are also keen to build more muscle, are less satisfied after their first cut, simply because their physique change isn’t so dramatic as if they’d lost 30 lbs or more.
In addition, they don’t yet look as muscular as they want.
I experienced the very same feeling when I dieted for my first photoshoot in 2021. After a year and a half spent bulking, I still didn’t have the muscle mass I needed to look as lean and buff as I aspire to.
For one, looking lean doesn’t come solely from fat loss. If you weigh less, but you don’t have a lot of muscle mass, you won’t look very lean; you’ll just look smaller.
Unfortunately, muscle growth takes a freaking long time. Therefore, you’ll need to spend years doing consistent hypertrophy training to achieve truly outstanding results.
Finally, dieting is a skill. Your first, second, and maybe even third cuts won’t be your best ones. Every time you diet, you learn something new and you can push yourself harder.
So, if you aren’t happy with your physique after your first cut, don’t throw in the towel.
You’ll get there.
2. Your weight doesn’t go down linearly.
Some weeks, you’ll lose weight at the pace you expected. Some weeks, you won’t.
This can wreak havoc on your psyche, so take time to educate yourself about how your weight may go up and down on both a daily and weekly basis. Lucky for you, I have a full article on this very topic.
Moreover, if you’re still struggling with your scale weight, consider one of the following strategies:
3. The longer you diet for and the more weight you lose, the harder the diet becomes.
Yes, even if your calories and macros stay exactly the same.
For the majority of my second photoshoot prep this year, I dieted on 1500 calories per day. However, I wasn’t as hungry, tired, and food-focused in Week 1 as I felt in Week 20, even though I was using all of the evidence-based strategies I know of in order to minimise the mental and physical challenge.
There’s no way to prevent a cut from becoming more and more demanding over time.
So don’t skip your diet breaks and Recharge phases, or it will come back to bite you in the butt.
Lastly, if reading this rundown of long-term expectations was helpful, you can also check out this in-depth article about what to expect from your first two to four weeks of cutting.
Thanks for reading. May you make the best gains.
To receive helpful fitness information like this on a regular basis, you can sign up for my newsletter by clicking here.
To learn how to develop an effective mindset for long-term fat loss success, you can sign up for my free email course, No Quit Kit, by clicking here.
To listen to my podcast, click here.
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An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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