After months of eating more food than usual, training hard, and gaining weight you’re ready to lean out. Perhaps you’re curious as to how your strength training workouts should look (or should you even do them at all).
So, should you strength train while cutting? Yes, strength training during a cutting phase is critical to maintaining as much lean muscle mass as you can during this lower-calorie phase. The more muscle mass you can maintain, the lower your body fat gets as you drop weight. Additionally, the more muscle you preserve, the more calories you burn at rest and the more food you can still have (since your burning more) during this already challenging cutting phase.
In this article, we will breakdown everything you need to know about strength training while cutting, how to develop a strength training program while cutting, and how to determine when your cut is going well and when it needs to be tweaked.
Why Should You Strength Train While Cutting?
The goal of cutting is to lose as much body fat as you can in a systematic process that also preserves muscle mass.
Most individuals who cut weight incorrectly fail to properly adhere to slow and steady weight cut programs, which often diminishes their ability to lose body fat slowly and maintain high amounts of muscle mass.
Strength training, especially with heavy to moderate loads (do not fear lifting heavy while cutting) can significantly help you lose body fat, keep metabolism high, and preserve muscle tissue when in a caloric deficit (cutting).
Failure to strength train, especially without significant loading, can result in muscle wasting, loss of strength, and decreased metabolism.
Moral of the story: lifting weights during a cutting phase is CRITICAL, often even more important than cardio.
Related Article: Strength vs. Power: 5 Main Differences You Should Know
Step-By-Step Guide to Strength Training While Cutting Weight
Below is a seven (7) step guide to strength training while cutting. It is important to note that during a cut phase, strength training is essential.
That said, the MOST essential aspect of a cut phase is the diet, which is discussed below as it goes 100% hand-in-hand with the overall training volumes and intensities you select when strength training.
STEP 1: SET A DATE FOR YOUR CUTTING PHASE
Prior to any cutting phase, it’s recommended that you are in a state of calorie equilibrium to best set the baseline for progress.
Often, this baseline is preceded by a bulking phase, in which the individual systematically increases caloric intake that allows for increased body weight at a slow, steady rate of 0.50% of bodyweight per week for 8-12 weeks OR until body fat levels increase above 15% or so.
Bulking during a phase in which you have high amounts of body fat (often 15% or more) can actually be counterproductive, as your body is “too good” at gaining weight, and often means it gains higher proportions of fat than muscle during this phase than normal.
That said, I suggest starting your cut phase 8-12 weeks out from an event/season/date you are looking to feel your best. For example, if you want to look great for summer, be sure to give yourself March, April, and May to cut weight slowly so you can preserve as much muscle mass as possible.
Example Mass-Maintenance-Cutting Cycle
In this example, you could plan to enter a bulking phase in which you gain 0.50% of bodyweight per week for 8-12 weeks (January, February, and March), followed by a 2-3 week maintenance phase in which you need to body to stabilize at that new weight to preserve muscle growth. This maintenance phase is essential.
Midway through April, you can start your cutting cycle, which will run for 8-12 weeks with you finish the final weeks of the cut just as you enter into the summer season!
Related Article: How To Build Muscle After Weight Loss (7 Things To Know)
STEP 2: SET AN END DATE
You cannot cut weight forever, nor should you.
In an ideal world, you can allow for a long, slow cutting phase, one that can be done without drastic measures so that the highest amounts of muscle mass can be preserved.
If you are thinking you can bulk for 12 weeks and cut body fat in 4, you will most likely run yourself into the ground and lose more muscle in the process than if you took 6-8 weeks. As Dr. Mike Israetel of RP Periodization says, “Ultra-Rapid Diets are Usually Bad Ideas”.
If you are 8-12 weeks into a cutting phase, and still feel like you want to cut more, it may be a smart idea to take 2-3 weeks and increase calories slightly so that your body is forced to kick up the metabolism.
Going more than this time period (assuming you bulked for just as long) can actually make your body more resilient to losing body fat (not good for cutting) which will leave you feeling run down, not losing fat, hungry, and probably losing muscle.
So, start with a moderately aggressive cutting phase lasting 8-12 weeks assuming you were bulking for that long as well.
A good aiming point for the cutting phase is to lose 0.75% of body weight per week. Any more and you may actually be losing too much weight, too fast, which can result in losing both muscle and fat. Remember, the more time you have to cut weight, the more muscle you can typically preserve.
Read our article using the If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) Approach To Losing Weight.
STEP 3: CHOOSE YOUR WORKOUT SPLIT
When cutting weight, it’s important that you use strength training sessions to preserve muscle mass. Often, increased frequency (number of training sessions a week) can help lifters burn more calories, keep metabolism high, and enhance recovery from said training sessions.
If you download Fitbod, you can select the “strength training ” goal and the app will program your ideal workout split based on the preferences you set.
It’s important to understand that training more frequently (days per week) does not mean you are to be increasing training volume (total sets per week). These two variables act inversely, which in turn will allow you to often continue to train at higher intensities, still remaining 80-90% of the total volume you were doing, yet still be able to recover muscle tissue even though you are in a slight caloric deficit.
I suggest most lifters choose a 4-5 day workout split when cutting. My go-to splits are either a 4-day (upper, lower, upper, lower) split or a 5-day split that has a lifter training most muscle groups at least twice per week.
Adding some low-intensity cardio can also be incorporated in the split if you need to burn a few more calories, however, cardio IS not necessary for some people (although burning even 200-300 calories from 20-30 minutes of walking after a workout can make a huge difference in being able to eat 200-300 calories more per day and still lose fat).
Check out our article on Can You Get Stronger Lifting Once Per Week?
STEP 4: CHOOSE THE BEST EXERCISES TO BUILD AND MAINTAIN MUSCLE WHILE CUTTING
Preserving muscle mass is key during a cutting phase. Compound movements, ones that stress high amounts of muscle tissue are often used as pillars in any strength training program, with the cutting programs being no different.
As you can see in the sample program below, the movements used during the cutting phase may mirror those used during the bulking phase. It is important to remember that unlike the bulking phase, recovery may be slightly inhibited due to the stress of being in a caloric deficit.
Therefore, individuals must be sure to listen to their bodies and not push too hard so that they can still focus on lifting heavy (ish), doing the movements with proper technique, and not add too much stress to an already metabolically stressful event (cutting).
Keep in mind, you can definitely train hard during this phase, just understand that your body is operating with slightly fewer calories than it needs, so keep your overall intensities moderate to hard rather than training to all-out fatigue/failure.
Check out our article on using Squats For Weight Loss.
STEP 5: SETS, REPS, INTENSITY (WEIGHTS USED)
Despite what many novices (and even some strength coaches believe), lifting heavy is still an essential part to cutting.
Lifting heavy, relatively speaking, is ideal for preserving strength and muscle mass during the cutting phase.
Many novices and ill-informed individuals will lift with “light weights and high reps” thinking this will give them a “toned” look. While this is better than not lifting, this can lead to some muscle loss.
Instead, choose rep ranges for some movements (like the compound lifts) in the lower-moderate rep range to preserve some strength and muscle mass, and others in higher reps range to diversify your overall success.
Below I’ll give you a sample workout that will serve as a good base for your training program.
Related Article: Low Impact Strength Training: 15 Exercises For Beginners
STEP 6: TRACK YOUR PROGRESS AND MANIPULATE DIET
As discussed above, losing up to 0.75% of body weight per week is a safe and sustainable way to lose body fat and body weight without high amounts of muscle loss. I
If your progress is faster than that, you may want to slow down the weight loss, as you will quickly find out you are losing both fat and muscle, which isn’t the idea of cutting. Simply cut out the excessive cardio or add some more food back into the diet until you fall back within the safe weight loss zone for cutting.
If, on the other hand, you are not losing weight, and have been cutting for less than 8-12 weeks, then you might need to either add some additional cardio (step 7) or drop your calories 200-300 calories per day and see if that helps.
If you aren’t losing weight and have been trying now for 8-12 weeks, or longer, please re-read step 2 regarding cutting for too long.
STEP 7: ADD CARDIO IF NECESSARY
Adding cardio into a cutting phase is not necessary, however, it can help in that it burns additional calories.
In some instances, burning 200 calories more a day may be easier than eating 200 calories less per day. That is ultimately up to the individual.
If you are struggling to stay full, and are not losing weight, adding low-intensity cardio can often help nudge you over the fat loss edge.
If you are a fan of high-intensity cardio, such as sprints, High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout, etc, use those sparingly (like 2-3 times a week, max).
Read our article on Steady-State vs HIIT Cardio to find out the differences between the two.
A quick note on HIIT training, adding these into the program can often cause too much stress (remember, your body is already under stress from simply eating fewer calories). Adding too much can actually send your body into a “fat saving mode” AKA ”starvation mode” in which it will start to preserve fat stores (which have twice the amount of caloric energy than muscle tissue) and in turn breakdown muscle mass. Not good.
Looking to take the guesswork out of programming altogether, then try using the Fitbod app, which will design your strength training program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt to your levels of recovery and rate of progress and help you maintain strength and muscle while cutting. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results.
You’ve Reached Your Goal… What Next?
Congratulations! You did it!
Now, that said, it is important that you do not simply go back to eating everything in sight since you’ve lost the weight… or you’ll gain it all back, but this time higher amounts of body fat.
Following a cut, it’s tough to have the control to ease back into eating, but that’s exactly what you need to do if you want to maintain a healthy, lean muscular look and still be able to have flexibility in your diet.
Following a cut, you can up your calories (typically carbs) by a few hundred calories (200-300) initially.
This phase is called a maintenance phase and is extremely important if you’re at all concerned with not blowing back up with more body fat than you started. Doing this slow increase in calories for 3-4 weeks will allow the body to reintroduce itself to more carbs and calories and can often prime the muscles to use that extra energy to increase metabolism and build muscle, rather than simply depositing it into fat stores.
And don’t worry, this maintenance phase will still have you eating more than what you were in the final stages of your cutting phase, so you will be OK!
Again, if you’re interested in using the Fitbod app for your strength training workouts, it automatically adjusts future workouts by taking into account your recovery by using your logged training data and rate of progression.
Sample 4-Day Workout Program for Cutting Fat
Below is a 4-day workout program for individuals looking to lose body fat and maintain as much lean muscle mass as they can.
It is important to note, again, that cutting body fat comes almost entirely from diet, and not necessarily workout styles. I have done excessive cardio and lifted weights and achieved 5% body fat at 170lbs, and later, did the below workout program and dieted without running/HIIT cardio (other than 45 minutes a week TOTAL of incline walking) and achieved 5% at 190lb.
The moral of the story is you do not need to go overboard with “burning calories’ ‘ but rather you need to be diligent and consistent with your eating plan.
What About Rest Periods?
You could do fast circuits, however, that will actually minimize your ability to stress as much muscle mass as you can. Instead, keep rest periods to 90 seconds and really focus on lifting heavier to maintain as muscle mass as you can while in a caloric deficit.
By not running around and doing cardio circuits, you might burn 50 calories or so less than if you did hop exercise to exercise, however, the overall metabolic effect of maintaining muscle mass trumps being in a few extra calories in a session.
In other words, through heavy strength training, you continue burning calories long after your workout is complete.
This concept is covered in more detail in our article on The Powerlifting Diet: Eating For Strength
DAY 1 – UPPER BODY (CHEST, BACK, ARMS)
Machine Chest Flye: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
Incline Bench Press: 4 sets of 6-8 reps, heavy
Weighted Pull Up (or assisted): 4 sets of 8-12 reps
Standing Dumbbell Arnold Press: 4 sets of 10 reps, heavy
Dips: 4 sets of 12-20 reps
Barbell Curl: 4 sets of 8-12 reps
DAY 2 – LOWER BODY (SQUAT FOCUS)
Back Squat: 4 sets of 6-8 reps, heavy
Smith Machine Hip Thrust: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
Bulgarian Split Squat (Quad-Emphasis): 4 sets of 10-12 reps/leg
Seated Calf Raise: 4 sets of 10-12 steps
Leg Extension: 3-4 sets of 10-20 reps
DAY 3 – UPPER BODY (SHOULDER, BACK, AND ARMS)
Cable Lateral Raise: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
Barbell Military Press: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, heavy
Cable Face Pull: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
Dumbbell Flat Bench Press: 4 sets of 10 reps, heavy
Skullcrusher: 4 sets of 8-12 reps
EZ Bar Preacher Curl: 4 sets of 8-12 reps
DAY 4 – LOWER BODY (DEADLIFT FOCUS)
Snatch Grip Deadlift: 4 sets of 6-8 reps, heavy
Dumbbell Single Arm Row: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
Leg Press: 4 sets of 10-12 steps
Calf Raise: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
Reverse Grip Pulldown: 4 sets of 8-12 reps
Hamstring Curl: 4 sets of 12-15
TOTAL SETS PER WEEK
Below is the total amount of sets per week per muscle group. Every week, you could simply increase the total weekly set volume by 1 set, up to 16-18 total sets per muscle group (excluding arms). From there, reset back to lower set volume and increase weight lifted!
Chest = 12
Back = 12
Shoulders = 12-15
Triceps = 8
Biceps = 8
Quads = 12-16
Hamstrings/Glutes = 12-16
Calves = 8
The Fitbod App will take care of these calculations for you automatically.
Cutting is a necessary part of the long-term muscle growth cycle (as is bulking and maintenance periods). Understanding the importance of strength training while cutting and developing a program that incorporates heavy strength training, compound movements, and recovery is key.
It is important to remember that cutting comes down to your diet, with additional high importance of strength training. Failure to preserve as much muscle during this weight loss period can result in weight being lost, which is not only body fat, but also hard-earned muscle.
Using a combination of proper dieting techniques, slow and steady consistency, strength training, and occasional low-intensity cardio are your best bets for achieving the lean, muscular physique you are after.
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.
Mike has published over 500+ articles on premiere online media outlets like BarBend, BreakingMuscle, Men’s Health, and FitBob, covering his expertise of strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, fitness, and sports nutrition.
In Mike’s spare time, he enjoys the outdoors, traveling the world, coaching, whiskey and craft beer, and spending time with his family and friends.