There are two main periods in a bodybuilding cycle. One where you try to put on as much quality muscle as possible, which is often referred to as bulking or the offseason. The second period is when you try to get as lean as possible, in what’s known as the cutting cycle or competition season. This article will go through how to set your diet- and training plan for a bodybuilding cut.
Bodybuilders are amongst the leanest athletes in sport when it comes to competition time. Men often sit well below 10% body fat and women can drop down close to 12%, if not a little lower in some cases. To get this lean requires a commitment to embrace the bodybuilding lifestyle, but there are definitely ways to make the process a little easier if done correctly.
How to cut for bodybuilding
To lose weight and body fat, you need to create a calorie deficit. This means you need to be burning off more energy than you take in.
Now, before you can create an energy deficit you need to work out how much you’re eating on average throughout the week. A simple way to do this is to try to track your daily food intake, along with your daily weight, and see what the average is for the week.
This could be as simple as downloading a food tracker app, recording what you eat each day and taking the average for the week. At the same time, you should weigh yourself each morning and look at your average over the week. This will give you an estimate of your weight, as it’s normal to fluctuate on a daily basis.
Next, you need to create a calorie deficit. To lose approximately 1lb of fat, you need a 3500K/Cal deficit throughout the week (for example 500 K/Cal less each day, as 500X7=3500K/Cal.) To lose 2lbs (approximately 1kg) a week, simply double the daily calorie deficit.2 It’s okay to lose fat a bit quicker in the initial stages when body fat is on the higher end. As you start to get leaner, the rate should slow down, as you don’t want to lose hard-earned muscle.
There are 3 main ways to lose body fat:
The diet that you follow will make the biggest difference to your fat loss. Training and general activity levels will contribute slightly to energy expenditure. Lastly, cardio can be added in a systematic way to help increase energy expenditure.3
So, the two sides of the energy balance equation are energy intake (how much you eat and energy expenditure, how much activity and exercise you get in) and a combination of less food and more exercise. These work in tandem to get you bodybuilding-lean.
Cutting diet plan
Almost any diet can contribute towards your cutting phase if you have a large enough calorie deficit in place. Whilst there are no foods that will make you fat on their own (all foods contain calories), there are some foods that become more important during a cut and will make the process a lot easier. To get bodybuilding-lean requires extreme dedication and sacrifice.
As mentioned above, calculating and sticking to a calorie deficit is the first step when starting your cut. Decide on the rate of weight loss you want — usually, 0.5 to 1kg per week is a good place to begin. This means you will need to be on a daily deficit of 500-1000Kcal. 2
So, what could this look like if you weigh 90kg and were eating 3000K/Cal per day on average and wanted to lose 1kg of fat per week? You need to create a daily deficit of 1000Kcal per day.
This would leave you with 2000K/Cal worth of food per day.
The next step will be to look at your macronutrients. There are 3 macronutrients — protein, carbs and fats.
Protein: This is arguably the key macronutrient. Protein is responsible for maintaining lean muscle mass when cutting, aiding recovery from training. It also has the added benefit of keeping you full for longer. This is because it often takes a while to chew and digest solid proteins, which helps curb hunger hormones.
Protein also has a high thermic effect of food, meaning it takes a high amount of energy to be broken down, which is great during a cutting phase. A protein target of 2-2.4g per kilogram of bodyweight each day will be good for most people on a bodybuilding cut. 3
Let’s keep with our example of weighing 90kg. We have 2000 Kcal per day and our protein target is 2.0g/kg. This gives us 180g of protein to eat each day. 1g of protein has 4Kcal, so this protein comes up to 720Kcal.
Fats: These are a key component for your health and are an essential part of your diet. That means that you have to get in dietary fats on a daily basis. Without fats, many metabolic processes would shut down. Fats are responsible for producing powerful muscle hormones like testosterone and for absorbing many vitamins and nutrients. 4
Daily fat targets are usually set as a percentage of daily calories. The recommended amount of fat can be anywhere from 20% to 30% of your daily calories. Towards the end of the cut, fat intake might drop below this recommended amount for a small time because calories often get so low and protein needs to be kept high to maintain muscle. The shorter this period is, the better for your health.
Looking at our example above, we can take 20% of 2000Kcal and this gives us 400Kcal a day coming from fat. To calculate how many grams of fat we need, we divide the 400 by 9, as each gram of fat has 9 calories. So in this example, we have 44g of fat in our diet plan.
Carbohydrates: They are the primary fuel source for bodybuilding training. Many people falsely believe that you need to drop carbs to get lean. If carbs are dropped too low, training intensity will go down, which could lead to muscle being lost. Most of our fruit and veg is in the form of carbs, so they play an important role for energy, health, recovery and immune function.7
Back to our 90kg, 2000 Kcal example:
We currently have 180g of protein (720 Kcal) and 44g of fats (400 Kcal). To work out carbs needed, we take our starting calories minus the calories from protein and fat we already have planned in.
2000-720-400=880Kcal. To get the amount of carbs you will need divide 880 by 4 as each gram of carbs has 4 kcals. So this leaves us with 220g of carbs per day. Our calorie and macro split looks like 2000K/Cal; 180g protein; 44g fat and 220g carbs per day.
A lot of people don’t know what type of foods they should be eating when going on a cut. Even though this might be controversial to a lot of people in the fitness industry, a calorie is still a calorie and there isn’t a specify food that makes you fat. This, however, is only a small part of the big picture.
Hunger can be a real issue when going on a serious cut. And whilst it might not be the food you eat that makes you fat, there are some foods that don’t do much to keep you full for longer and leave you wanting more. These are often your more refined sources that light up the pleasure responses in your brain.
If you’re lucky enough not to get too hungry, then your cut you can be a lot more flexible in your food choice. If, however, this becomes an issue (and it does for most people), then sticking to single-ingredient, whole-food sources might be a good idea.
Stick to lean, complete proteins like chicken, fish and lean meats. For fats, choose healthy sources like oils and avocados, with a small amount of saturated fats from meat and dairy.
If the majority of carbs come from vegetables and other high volume sources like potato, oats, etc., then there is a good chance hunger will be kept away as much as possible.
If cravings come in, you can always plan the odd treat into your diet, as long as it fits your macro target — just be sure to remember that you may trade off some tasty foods with being hungry.
A lot of people make the mistake of changing their training too much when going on a cut. Traditionally, most muscle is gained in the 8 to 12 rep range. 6
What you don’t want to do when starting a cut is to suddenly drop the weights and only use a high rep routine. This is a recipe to lose hard-earned muscle gained during a bulk. What you want to do is train with the heaviest weight you can within the 8-12 rep range and stick to what helped you put on muscle in the first place. 6
Your weightlifting workouts should be used to help keep your muscle mass as high as possible, not to lose body fat. Your diet and cardio should be enough to help you lose the weight and get into the shape you want. 3
Mealtimes don’t play a big part in a bodybuilding cut but they could be useful to keep hunger at bay. Since the usual protein goal is high (at least 2g per kg), it might be easier to spread protein over a few meals in the day, to get the most anabolic effect possible. 3
Whilst you could place your carbs around your workout to help perform better, this might not always be the best option. If you do this, you might be hungry at other times when those carbs could be of better use. The main aim of the diet is to get you lean, and the best way to do this is to combat hunger and eat your foods when you are the hungriest. Meal frequency and -timings don’t matter a huge deal, so choose a frequency and timing split that keeps you full and the hunger at bay.
Protein might be the exception and there should be a minimum of 2 protein meals and a possible maximum of 6 per day.
When should I start cutting?
If you’re thinking of getting on stage, it’s better to give yourself more time than less. Most people don’t realize how much body fat they carry and to get on stage takes getting cut to a whole new level.
If you are in good shape and fairly lean, then perhaps your bodybuilding cut should start 16 weeks out. This will give you time to ease into the last few weeks without needing to rush things and lose muscle. If you aren’t in such good shape, the process could need up to 6 months of multiple cutting- and diet-break cycles.
Seek a coach or an experienced bodybuilder to give you an honest opinion of where you currently stand and rather err on the side of giving yourself more time to diet. The result will be worth it.
Take home message
A bodybuilding cut can be one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences you could ever do. It truly becomes a lifestyle diet which requires extreme dedication. You get to see all your hard work in the gym come out on display for all to see. The most important thing is to set up a calorie deficit and get enough protein in. The number of carbs and fats you get could vary from person to person, depending on dietary preferences. Hunger could become an issue, so choose both foods and timings that keep you full and satisfied.
Our articles should be used for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you're concerned, consult a health professional before taking dietary supplements or introducing any major changes to your diet.
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2. Hall, K. D. (2008). What is the Required Energy Deficit per unit Weight Loss? International Journal of Obesity (2005), 32(3), 573–576. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ijo.0803720
3. 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
4. Liu, A. G., Ford, N. A., Hu, F. B., Zelman, K. M., Mozaffarian, D., & Kris-Etherton, P. M. (2017). A healthy approach to dietary fats: understanding the science and taking action to reduce consumer confusion. Nutrition Journal, 16. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-017-0271-4
5. Mitchell, L., Slater, G., Hackett, D., Johnson, N., & O’connor, H. (2018). Physiological implications of preparing for a natural male bodybuilding competition. European Journal of Sport Science, 18(5), 619–629. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2018.1444095
6. SCHOENFELD, B. J., CONTRERAS, B., KRIEGER, J., GRGIC, J., DELCASTILLO, K., BELLIARD, R., & ALTO, A. (2019). Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 51(1), 94–103. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764
7. Slavin, J. L., & Lloyd, B. (2012). Health Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables1. Advances in Nutrition, 3(4), 506–516. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.112.002154
Grant is a sports nutritionist and certified strength coach. He has multiple postgraduate diplomas in nutrition and strength coaching as well as a Master’s degree in Sports and Exercise Nutrition, with a specific focus on protein. Grant has worked in the fitness industry for well over a decade and has helped coach professional athletes and sports teams, as well as the average gym-goer looking to get in the best shape possible. He now spends most of his working time teaching fitness professionals and coaching people remotely.
He’s a big believer in practising what he preaches and has been involved in resistance training and martial arts for over 20 years. In his spare time, Grant enjoys being with his wife and daughter as well as the family dogs and catching up on the latest Netflix series.