If you’re striving for a leaner physique with great muscle definition, then you’re going to need a workout plan that helps you lose fat while retaining or building muscle.
The best cutting workout plan for shedding fat and building muscle involves lifting weights at least 4 times a week and training with enough volume and intensity to encourage your body to adapt. You also need to be in a calorie deficit, losing no more than 1% of your bodyweight each week.
Below, I will break down everything you need to know about cutting workout plans, why cardio should only be a small part of your training, and how your macronutrients play a big role in your diet success. I will also share with you my favorite 4-day cutting workout plan!
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What Is A Cutting Workout Plan?
A cutting workout plan is an exercise routine to help you lose fat and retain muscle during a dieting phase. The best workouts to help preserve muscle while cutting are resistance workouts like lifting weights.
The goal of these workouts should not be to burn as many calories as possible, but rather to maintain muscle mass. Although you will still burn calories during these workouts, they will focus more on moderate (10-20 reps) to heavy (5-10 reps) loads and longer rest periods.
Cardio is not necessarily needed as long as you are lifting weights and eating in a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than your body needs to maintain weight).
This, of course, varies, which is why it is important to understand the impact traditional cardio exercises and cardio-focused HIIT workouts may or may not have on fat loss (and muscle retention).
Related Article: 10 Best Cardio Workouts for Fat Loss
How Do Workouts Help With Cutting?
Workouts can help with cutting in a variety of ways including preserving muscle and strength, improving body composition, and encouraging a faster metabolism to make fat loss easier.
When cutting, the biggest issue many lifters face is loss of strength and muscle mass. This happens more easily because they generally have less energy to put toward training when their intake is reduced.
Continuing to lift weights during a cutting cycle will help to minimize strength loss by signaling to your muscles that they still need the capacity to lift heavier loads. You can think of this as if you use it, you don’t lose it.
Preserving strength may not necessarily cause you to lose weight faster but it will help you to retain more muscle, which can help you lose weight more easily.
Retain More Muscle
Lifting weights helps you to maintain your muscle mass during a cutting phase for the same reasons that you preserve strength; it signals to your body that you still need that muscle so your body is more likely to keep it.
If you don’t train during a cutting phase, you will still lose fat but you would likely also lose muscle.
If you lose muscle while cutting, you won’t look as good because you won’t have any muscle tone and you will burn fewer calories per day, making weight loss more difficult.
Helps to Recomp Your Body
We all know that person who lost a lot of weight on the scale but ended up still looking flabby and soft. This happens when you have little muscle mass to begin with or when you lose a ton of muscle in the process of losing body fat.
Losing muscle and fat at the same rate during a cutting cycle usually happens when weight training is not prioritized (or when you lose weight too quickly). This causes you to look soft and flabby despite being lighter on the scale.
If you want to look more toned as you lose weight, you need to focus on only losing fat (not muscle). The process of losing fat while retaining (or gaining) muscle is called body recomposition.
To do this, you need to lift weights and accept that your weight on the scale may not change as drastically as someone who is losing fat and muscle, but I promise that you will be better off.
Keeps Metabolism High
Lastly, muscle is a more metabolically active tissue, meaning that it costs your body more energy to retain muscle. Fat on the other hand just sits there and does not require any extra energy.
This is why having more muscle mass can help you burn more calories (even at rest), which means that you can eat more calories and still lose weight.
For example, let’s say two people both weigh 160 lbs but one has significantly more muscle mass than the other. The person with more muscle mass will be able to maintain their weight and lose weight by eating more calories than the person with less muscle mass.
Therefore, prioritizing strength workouts while you’re cutting can help you burn more calories per day and help you lose fat more easily.
Too often people lose muscle during a cut, and as the weeks go on they find that their metabolism slows down (burn fewer calories per day). The slower your metabolism gets during a cut, the harder and harder it will be to lose weight, as you feel you will barely be eating any food and still have no results.
7 Considerations For Building A Cutting Workout Plan
Below are seven factors every lifter and coach should consider when building a cutting workout plan.
Aim to perform 3-5 sets per exercise, as this will allow you to provide a higher amount of training volume (total work delivered to the muscle tissues), which is key for maintaining and building muscle.
Most workouts should include anywhere from 6-8 total exercises, which means your total sets per workout should be ideally between 18-40 total sets.
Of these sets, you want it to deliver 6-10 total sets per major muscle group that you are training that day.
For example, in the workouts below, each one provides 6-10 total sets for the muscle groups trained on each day.
The leg + arm day delivers 6-10 total sets of quad work, 6-10 total sets of hamstrings and glute work, and 6 total sets of biceps and triceps work with each exercise having 3-5 sets.
When cutting, you want to make sure that you are doing enough total volume (sets) to ensure you are delivering still enough to signal to the body that you need to maintain your muscle (and not to burn it for energy).
You also need to make sure that you are training the muscles with both heavier and lighter loads, as this will help you minimize strength loss as well as retain muscle.
I recommend that you perform roughly 50% of your reps in the 8-15 rep range. You can then spend another 25% in the 3-8 rep range to preserve strength, and the other 25% can be spent in the 15-30 rep range to build muscle endurance.
Regardless of your rep range, you want to always train close to failure. The only exception to this is if you are training less than 5 reps.
Since you aren’t eating enough calories to recover optimally, I don’t recommend you train to complete failure for heavier loads (<5 reps). Instead, leave one or two good reps in the tank as training to failure with very heavy loads in very low rep ranges can be extremely taxing on the body.
When training during a cutting phase, your main goal should not be to gain strength, as this type of diet is not conducive to gaining maximal amounts of muscle or strength (you need to be eating at maintenance or in a calorie surplus for that).
That said, you still need to train with as heavy of a weight as you can for whatever rep ranges you are training that day.
Seeing that most of your workouts should be done between the 5-15 rep ranges, you should normally be using loads that are between 60-80% of your 1 rep max on your known 1-rep max lifts (bench, squat, deadlift).
For accessory movements (i.e. lunges, pull-ups, shoulder press), focus on choosing a weight based on your rep ranges.
For example, if your goal is to do 8-15 reps on a particular exercise, then choose a weight that allows you to do so. If you can do more than 15 reps, then choose a heavier weight; if you can’t do 8 reps, then choose a lighter weight.
Training at the right frequency is important while cutting because you need to train often enough to maintain your muscle and strength, but not so often that you can’t recover.
It will be more challenging to recover while you’re cutting because you will have less energy to put toward recovery. Some people will feel better training less frequently for slightly longer workouts, whereas others may feel best training more frequently with shorter workouts.
If you train 4 days per week, you can train each muscle group twice per week and get most workouts done in 60-75 minutes.
If you can train 5-6 days a week, you can spread out the volume you do in four days to make your workouts shorter (45-60 minutes).
Training more frequently (5-6 days/week) often allows you to train harder in each session as you are not as tired, but some lifters find it difficult to make it to the gym this often.
Ultimately, whatever frequency you can stick to consistently throughout the duration of your cut is the best option for you.
5. Types of Activity (Weights vs Cardio in the Gym)
When cutting, the main goal is to lose body fat WITHOUT losing muscle. Seeing that cardio does very little to preserve muscle, lifting weights should take up the majority of your workout time (80% or more).
When weight training, you want to aim to get most of your training done with compound exercises (i.e. squat, bench, deadlift), as they allow you to train a lot of muscle at once, help to increase the overall work you perform in a workout, and can be the most time-efficient exercises.
That said, isolation exercises (i.e. Bicep curls, tricep extensions, rear delt flys) do also have a place as they often allow you to train a muscle directly and to failure, even when you may feel fatigued.
For example, high-rep squats are great for building muscle; however, they can be very fatiguing on the entire body and mind and are more difficult to recover from.
You may find adding in leg extension and hip thrusts after a few sets of squats can provide you with more training stimulus without totally zapping all your energy (because, remember, you are in an energy deficit, which means you have limited amounts of energy from your diet).
6. Training Splits
Training splits should allow you to train all major muscle groups (chest, back, shoulders, arms, and legs) twice weekly. Some of the best splits are:
- 4-Day Total Body Split: This total body split trains all muscle groups in the same session, typically all one exercise per muscle group, for 3-5 total sets. This allows you to train muscles every session without getting too sore.
- 4-Day Push Pull Split: This is a push-pull split, and it can be a great way to train all muscle groups. This can be challenging for stronger lifters as you will do squats on the push day and deadlifts on a pull day, which can be very taxing on the body to recover. If this is the case, try a 4-day upper-lower split.
- 4-5 Day Upper Lower Split: I like this upper lower split for lifters who train four or even five days a week, as you can alternate between upper and lower body sessions.
This is the split I selected for the example below. You can add a fifth day by doing either another upper or lower body workout, whichever you want to do more of while cutting.
- Push Pull Legs Split: This is another 6-day workout split that has you train upper body push muscles (chest, shoulders, triceps) one day, upper body pulling muscles (back, traps, rear shoulders, biceps) on another day, and legs (quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes) on a third day. You will do each workout twice per week.
Related Article: If You Only Workout 3 Days a Week, Do This Fat Loss Routine
7. Activities Outside of the Gym (Lifestyle)
One of the big things you can do to help you lose fat during a cutting workout program is to focus on increasing your daily step count and activity outside the gym. Going for leisure walks, getting 8,000 or more steps a day, and just being active outdoors all adds up to increased caloric expenditure.
You don’t even need to work up a sweat when doing these, which is a great thing. It is this low-intensity activity that can have a drastic impact on your fat loss, as it helps to burn more calories throughout the day without spiking hunger levels.
Aim to get at least 8,000 steps in a day, every day of the week, in addition to your workouts (do not count steps that you take during your workouts towards that 8,000).
Sample Cutting Workout Plan To Shed Fat & Build Lean Muscle
Below is a sample 4-day cutting workout plan to help you shed fat and maintain or build muscle.
This workout program has you training each muscle group twice per week and focuses on training in all rep ranges. Most exercises found in the plan are compound in nature, however, there are some isolation movements for smaller muscle groups.
Note: if you are already lean (under 10% for men and 15% for women), you will need to be in a calorie surplus (bulking) to gain muscle.
Day 1: Lower + Arms
This workout has you performing lower rep lower body exercises (5-10) reps to develop strength and muscle.
- Trap Bar Deadlift: 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 90-120 seconds between sets
- Barbell Front Squat: 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 90-120 seconds between sets
- Barbell Hip Thrust: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
- Weighted Step Up: 4 sets of 8-10 reps per leg, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
- Cable Bicep Curl: 3 sets of 8-10 reps, superset with cable triceps pushdowns
- Cable Triceps Pushdowns: 3 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Skullcrusher: 3 sets of 8-10 reps, superset with dumbbell incline curls
- Dumbbell Incline Curl: 3 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets
Day 2: Upper + Abs
This workout has you performing lower rep upper body exercises (5-10) reps to develop strength and muscle.
- Barbell Flat Bench Press: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Incline Chest Press: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
- Lat Pulldown or Assisted Pull Up: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets
- Cable Row: 4 sets of 8-10, resting 60 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3 sets of 8-10 reps, superset with dumbbell lateral raises
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets
- Cable Crunch: 3 sets of 8-10 reps, superset with hanging leg / knee raise
- Hanging Straight Leg or Knee Raise: 3 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets
Day 3: Lower + Arms
This workout has you performing higher rep lower body exercises (5-10) reps to develop muscle and increase overall training volume (amount of work performed, which can increase caloric burn and muscle growth).
- Barbell Back Squat: 3 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 90-120 seconds between sets
- Leg Press: 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 90-120 seconds between sets
- Barbell Good Morning: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
- Barbell Hip Thrust: 4 sets of 12-15 reps per leg, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Hammer Curl: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, superset with dumbbell triceps extensions
- Dumbbell Triceps Extension: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets
- Cable Triceps Pushdown: 3 sets of 12-15 reps, superset with cable bicep curls
- Cable Biceps Curl: 3 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets
Day 4: Upper + Abs
This workout has you performing higher rep upper body exercises (5-10) reps to develop muscle and increase overall training volume (amount of work performed, which can increase caloric burn and muscle growth).
- Incline Dumbbell Row: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 45-60 seconds between sets
- Reverse Grip Lat Pulldown: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 45-60 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Flat Bench Press: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 45-60 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Incline Chest Press: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 45-60 seconds between sets
- Barbell or Smith Machine Shoulder Press: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 45-60 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 45-60 seconds between sets
- Decline Crunch: 3 sets of 12-15 reps, superset with ball slams
- Ball Slam: 3 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 45-60 seconds between sets
How To Eat On A Cutting Workout Plan
Below are some factors you need to consider and be aware of when eating on a cutting workout plan.
To lose body fat, you need to place yourself in a calorie deficit, which means eating less than your body needs to maintain weight.
The calorie deficit you should aim for is 10-15% less than your maintenance calorie intake (maintenance calorie intake is the number of calories you need to eat to maintain your weight).
If you’re not sure how many calories you need to maintain your weight (and therefore how much you need to be in a deficit), use this calculator.
You want to decrease your maintenance calorie intake by 10% in the first week of your diet and track your weight loss.
For example, if you maintain your weight by eating 2500 calories per day then your calorie deficit target would be 2250 calories per day to start.
After 2 consistent weeks at that calorie intake, if you are not losing 0.5-1% of your starting body weight per week, you can decrease your calorie intake by another 5%.
You will proceed this way, only decreasing your intake by 5% every week if you do not pace with the .5-1% body mass loss per week.
Note: if you are overly aggressive with your rate of weight loss, you will run the risk of losing more muscle (and not any more fat), so it’s better to stay on track with this rate of loss.
Your macro split is the specific breakdown of nutrients that are contributing to your calorie goal. The three macronutrients are protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
I recommend following a 30% protein, 20-40% fat, and 20-40% carbohydrate macro split to start, adjusting as needed based on how you feel and your rate of weight loss.
The macronutrient you need to prioritize while cutting is protein because consuming a sufficient amount of protein is crucial for maintaining muscle and recovering from training.
As you decrease your caloric intake throughout your cut, your protein intake should remain high and you should decrease your carbs and fats instead.
Carbs are your body’s preferred energy source so if you’re noticing that your energy is low and it’s affecting your training, then try and have more of your carbs before your workout to boost your energy levels.
Fats are the least important nutrient for performance and weight loss; however, they are important for hormonal health, so it’s important not to drop your fat intake below 15% of your total calories.
For example, if your calorie target is 2250 calories then your fat intake should not be below 338 calories which is 38 grams of fat (fat has 9 calories/gram).
Examples of Foods to Incorporate
When cutting, you want to prioritize food that is nutrient-dense but not necessarily calorie-dense. Having calorie-dense foods will leave your stomach feeling empty.
Below are some of my go-to foods to incorporate into my diet when cutting broken down by macronutrients.
- Egg Whites
- Greek Yogurt
- Chicken (breasts, skinless thighs)
- Beef (85/15, 90/10 protein to fat)
- Pork (chops, loins, not bacon or belly)
- Protein Powders (make sure that a serving provides at least 20g of protein)
- Fruits (whole or cut fruits, no juices)
- Vegetables (includes potatoes, not fried, of course)
- Berries (berries are super filling, and you can have a lot of them)
- Light Bread (higher in fiber, fewer calories, can eat more slices)
- White or Brown Rice (both are fine)
- Rice Cakes
Keep in mind fats are very calorie dense and do not provide much volume (the foods do not take up a lot of space in your stomach) compared to carbs.
For example, a serving of peanut butter (the size of a golf ball) is 200 calories. For 200 calories, you could have 2 cups of berries, 1 banana, and 1 rice cake. The carb sources offer more satiety than a scoop of peanut butter and provide a great energy source for hard workouts.
If you are looking for some fat sources, I want to encourage you to pay attention to your portion size, as it is very easy to overeat fats:
- Fats that are found in the proteins you are already eating (chicken, pork, beef)
- Nut or Seed Butter
- Nuts and Seeds
- Trace fats in other foods you eat
- Trace fats you are already eating when cooking foods (cooking sprays, oils, butter, coconut oil, MCT oils)
Your pre and post-workout nutrition does not need to be anything too drastically different than your other meals. You should focus on higher protein foods, as well as carbohydrates.
The main thing to pay attention to when cutting is that your post-workout meal should have the highest amount of carbohydrates and the lowest amount of fats relative to the other meals of the day.
This is to help ensure recovery from your training session and muscle repair and retention.
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 Fitbod for free.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I Build Muscle And Lose Fat At The Same Time?
If you are someone who has more than 15% body fat (men) and 18-20% (women), you should be able to lose fat while gaining muscle especially if you are a beginner. However, very lean and advanced lifters will often need to commit to gaining muscle in a calorie surplus.
Can I Cut Without Losing Muscle?
Yes, however many people fail at this. First, they cut calories too drastically, opting to lose weight (fat and muscle) faster rather than slowly losing only fat. They also do not train enough or as hard as they should. Lastly, they are not eating enough protein (and carbs) to fuel hard training and recovery.
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.