During a cutting phase, the goal is to lose as much body fat as possible WITHOUT losing muscle. To do this, you need to focus on eating less, lifting weights regularly, and maybe doing cardio.
But, can you lose fat during a cutting phase without doing cardio?
Yes, you can 100% lose fat, maintain muscle mass, and have a successful cutting phase without doing ANY cardio. That said, losing fat is strictly a matter of being in a calorie deficit, which when cutting without cardio means this deficit comes from decreasing calorie intake, increasing daily physical activity, and lifting weights.
Here’s what you’ll learn in this article:
- Can you lose fat without doing cardio?
- 8 steps to cutting without cardio
- 3 mistakes to avoid while cutting without cardio
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Can You Lose Fat Cutting Without Cardio?
Losing fat is strictly an energy balance issue, with cardio being only one of the ways you can manipulate the energy balance equation to place yourself in a deficit.
Research has indicated that fat loss is 100% dependent on being in a calorie deficit, with that deficit being 100% independent of the methods used for weight loss.
This means that as long as you are in a deficit energy balance, the tools to which you got to that point are no more effective or less effective than the others (1).
So if you want to get into a caloric deficit without cardio, cool, it just means you need to perform other activities (like lifting weights and eating less) to lose weight.
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8 Steps to Cutting Without Cardio
In the below sections we will lay out why cardio is not as critical as people may think during a fat loss phase, and how to optimize fat loss through diet and resistance training so that you can successfully cut without cardio.
1. Lift Weight Frequently
Research done with high level natural bodybuilders has indicated that increased cardiovascular training can interfere with strength training adaptations in a linear manner, meaning that the more cardio (and the harder you go during those cardio sessions) has a direct impact on interfering with strength adaptations and muscle retention during a cutting phase (2).
Therefore, prioritizing resistance training and minimizing cardiovascular training may be the most optimal way to perceive muscle mass during a cutting phase. To minimize this interference, full-body cardiovascular training and low impact alternatives such as cycling, walking, or elliptical can be done, however still pose an interference threat.
Bottom Line: Prioritizing strength training on a regular basis with the goals of muscle retention and growth (in beginners) is key during a cutting phase. Cardio can be used to enhance fat loss in small doses, however it can potentially interfere with muscle rentention and accelerate muscle loss when done too much or too intensely.
2. Eat Enough Carbs
Carbohydrates are often demonized in fat loss circles, with buzz words like “ketogenic” and “low carb dieting” being used to describe effective fat loss strategies.
While decreasing calorie intake can occur from decreasing or eliminating carbohydrates, research has indicated that eliminating carbohydrates or following a very low carb is not the most optimal way to retain muscle mass and improve performance during a cut (3).
Bottom Line: While most people cutting need to be aware that undereating is not the best way to enhance performance, there are ways to optimize your performance and fat loss as best as possible during a cutting phase.
The above research indicates that when strength, muscle retention, and performance are important factors, eating enough carbohydrates and proteins are key.
Decreasing calories as a whole should come from primary decreasing fat and carb intakes, with carbohydrates and protein being prioritized in the diet more than fats.
Looking for more info on nutrition, check out:
- Does If It Fits Your Macros Work For Weight Loss?
- Eat More To Lose Weight? Yes, It’s A Successful Strategy
- How Do Fat Burners Work? And, Are They Effective?
3. Eat Enough Protein
Making sure to eat enough protein to spare muscle tissue loss is a critical nutritional aspect of any cutting phase, with or without cardio. Eating enough protein not only aids in muscle retention, it can help sustain or improve recovery, hormonal production, and satiety (fullness).
Bottom Line: Decreasing overall calories during a cutting phase via diet moderation is key, however research suggest that prudent athletes and lifters who want to maintain as muscle muscle mass as possible during a fat loss phase should eat higher protein and decrease calories through decreasing fat intake, to allow adequate carbohydrates amounts to be ingested to fuel hard training and recovery (4).
4. Drop Calories Intake Slowly
Aggressive decreases in calories during a diet result in weight loss, however the weight loss is often not suitable and can increase the likelihood of you losing more muscle mass than you would during a slower, more methodical cutting phase.
For best results, leaner individuals (under 15% body fat) should aim to lose ½ to 1lbs per week on the scale, and less lean individuals could shoot to lose ¾ to 1 ½ lbs per week.
More rapid weight loss could result in more total weight loss, however the amount of muscle you would lose would be the main difference between the two since fat loss can only happen so fast.
Bottom Line: Decrease calories only when your rate of scale weight loss per week falls below the norms above. If you are losing weight quicker than that, be cautious as you could be losing more muscle than you are hoping to lose (losing muscle and fat will result in weight loss, but may not always lead to decreases in body fat percentages).
5. Mostly Train in Moderate to Higher Rep Ranges
Most people assume that higher reps should be done during a cutting phase to “burn more calories” and increase fat loss.
While doing more work during a workout will aid in calorie expenditure, lifters who are cutting need to view their workouts with the goal of maximizing muscle and strength retention rather than trying to burn as many calories as possible (as the negative energy balance should primarily be achieved through diet).
Bottom Line: Generally speaking, it is best to train using moderate to heavy loads in the 5-10, or 8-15 rep range to maintain general strength and muscle mass, yet still allow for enough training volume to occur to signal that the body needs to retain muscle mass.
Some muscles can even be trained in the 12-20 repetition range as well. Training with varying loads and repetitions (5-20 reps) is probably best if you are concerned with maintaining some strength and muscle mass.
Check out our article Best Rep Ranges For Cutting Weight to learn more.
6. Train Close to Failure on Most Lifts
Training close to failure, but not true failure, is often a key guideline for muscle growth and retention regardless of dutting, bulking, or maintaining weight.
Generally speaking, you want to train muscles close enough to failure that they are forced to adapt, yet not to complete true failure often as that can be very stressful and damaging to the body, impeded recovery (recovery issues often means you can’t train as often), and sometimes central nervous system fatigue.
Bottom Line: During a cutting phase you are in a calorie deficit, which is already a stress on the body. When you are training hard, which is a key component to preserving muscle mass, you need to make sure to train close to failure to force muscle adaptations yet not aggressive enough that your recovery is blunted.
Training most exercises so that you have 1-2 reps in reserve is probably your best bet.
7. Be Realistic About Your Fat Loss Timelines
When trying to improve your physique via cutting, your main goal should be fat loss without the expense of muscle loss.
When people become too aggressive with their calorie restrict or place themselves in too severse of a energy balance deficit (through a combination of aggressive diet restriction practices, excessive training, and over use of cardio), muscle loss is much more likely to be the reason behind scale weight loss (rather than pure fat loss).
Bottom Line: When looking to optimize fat loss and body competitions, diets that have a more conservative rate of weight loss (see ranges above) done over the course of 6-12 weeks seem to be the most effective ways to lose fat.
8. Increase Daily Physical Activity
One of the easiest ways to impact energy balance and not have a detrimental effect of muscle retention or gain is to increase your daily physical activity levels.
This often includes going for more walks, taking the stairs, going for leisure bike rides, or doing outside activities. These are often low intensity, non-planned physical activities that can add up over the day.
I’m not saying that you need to add cardio, but if you have the option of taking the escalator vs stairs, take the stairs.
Bottom Line: This should be viewed as just living an active lifestyle, not as workouts. On days you do not workout, you should still aim to be active in your daily life and eat according to your diet.
According to a meta-analysis study, 10,000 steps a day was confirmed to be an achievable steps milestone that had significant impacts on improving body composition, decreasing blood pressure, and decreasing serum lipid numbers (5).
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3 Mistakes to Avoid While Cutting Without Cardio
When looking to lose fat as optimally as possible (and retain as much muscle mass as possible) while cutting without cardio, be sure to avoid these three common mistakes.
Cutting Calories Too Quickly
Cutting calories is a necessary part of any weight loss and cutting program. Making sure to not be too aggressive with calorie cutting is one of the biggest issues seen with all serious dieters, as they often want to achieve their goal quicker than what is most optimal for fat loss and muscle retention.
Bottom Line: When decreasing your calories, you want to start out with a number that is 300-500 calories less per day than your normal intakes, through decreases in both fat and carbohydrates.
Using the ranges above to determine that rate of weight loss is key too, as this will help dictate the rate at which you decrease, maintain, or even increase your calories per day on a weekly basis according to your weight loss.
Cutting for Too Long
Cutting and dieting are stressful on the body, and while a necessary part of losing weight, it can and does have a point of diminishing returns.
If you restrict calories or are in an energy deficit for too long, you will often lose muscle mass and slow your metabolism to a point where it may be more difficult to keep the weight off in the long run.
Bottom Line: For most people, it is recommended that you diet for 6-12 weeks, making sure it stays within the proper guidelines for rate of weight loss.
Additionally, if you get to a point where you have lost 10% of your starting weight, it is recommended that you enter a maintenance phase to allow your body to adjust to the new set point and allow for adequate recovery from the physiological stress of dieting.
Not Lifting Heavy Enough
Research has shown that both high load (8-12 reps) and low load (25-35 reps) resistance training can build muscle, however if strength retention is your goal during a cutting phase is it suggested that you keep some heavier lifting in your workout program (6).
As discussed above, only lifting heavy during a cutting phase could limit your ability to ro do enough training volume to maximize muscle retention and could impede your recovery (due to limited calories for recovery).
That said, making sure to train with heavier loads (8-12) rep ranges is still necessary for optimal muscle and strength renting purposes during a cutting phase, with and without cardio.
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
Fat loss is entirely depending on being in a negative energy balance, however the method in which you get to become in that energy balance is 100% independent of the outcome (diet vs weights vs cardio)
Cardio should be used only if needed to further enhance fat loss, however should never be done to replace weight training or to the point that it starts to impede recovery or muscle retention.
It is imperative that protein and carbohydrates are prioritized in a cutting diet that is intended to maximize muscle retention and fat loss, with decreases in calories coming from decreases in primiaryl fats and some carbohydrates, never protein.
Strasser, B., Spreitzer, A., & Haber, P. (2007). Fat loss depends on energy deficit only, independently of the method for weight loss. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 51(5), 428–432. https://doi.org/10.1159/000111162
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(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-20
Kiens, B., & Astrup, A. (2015). Ketogenic diets for fat loss and exercise performance. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 43(3), 109. https://doi.org/10.1249/jes.0000000000000053
Phillips, S. M. (2014). A brief review of higher dietary protein diets in weight loss: A focus on athletes. Sports Medicine, 44(S2), 149–153. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-014-0254-y
Wattanapisit, A., & Thanamee, S. (n.d.). EVIDENCE BEHIND 10,000 STEPS WALKING. https://doi.org/10.14456/jhr.2017.30
Schoenfeld, B. J., Peterson, M. D., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., & Sonmez, G. T. (2015). Effects
of low- vs. high-load resistance training on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(10), 2954–2963. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000000958
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.