I’m sure you’ve seen or even participated in a short term body transformation or fat loss challenge at some point. These usually come in the form of a 30 day, 60 day or 90 day transformation challenge. With drastic measures you can definitely lose a great amount of body fat in a short period of time however this is not an optimal strategy and is not how you should focus on a long term cut.
How long should you be on a cut for? The length of a cut will depend on your starting point but to get truly lean at <8% body fat will take several months of dedicated dieting. You can however see significant results within a 12 week period.
When on a cut you need to think about more than just fat loss, you need to consider muscle retention, hormonal balance and even how safe a crash diet can be. This article will walk you through the time frame of a successful cut and give you the tools needed even if you want to make a quick body composition change.
Purpose of a Cut
The main purpose of a cut is of course to lose excess body fat and improve both your health and physique as a result. There are countless methods available for weight loss that takes into account diet, weight training and cardio and the vast majority will have some merit that means once applied you should see some results.
The main issue you will typically come across is the time frame that a proper diet gets crammed into, unless it’s a medical necessity you should not be in a rush to lose as much weight as quickly as possible. Whilst this seems like it’s the exact approach that you should be taking it’s the mindset of a quick fix that will often lead to disappointing results and setbacks.
There will always be success stories for those that have excelled at a particular task and for every 100 people that do a short term body transformation on a cut, 1 – 5 of them in the upper percentile will respond well and have outstanding results. What you don’t see is the other 95% who see average to little progress or further still the 5% that struggle massively and see no results for their efforts.
The purpose of a cut should be to lose the maximum amount of body fat in a given period of time whilst maintaining muscle mass and making sure it’s sustainable in the long term. This sounds like a very strict set of criteria but if you want to go on a cut to look physically better then this is the optimal approach to take.
When Should You Start a Cut
How long should you be on a cut for will depend on when you decide to start a cut.
There are a few occasions when you should start a cut and all will vary depending on the individual circumstances though most will fall into a broad set of categories. To know if you should start a cut consider the following questions:
Are You New to Training and Over 15% Body Fat?
People often start what’s known as a bulking phase when new to weight training, this is because the main focus behind this motivation is to build muscle. Your starting point when new to training however should always be from the same point, this generally applies to most people and that is to start from a low body fat percentage in the 10% – 12% range.
Anything under 10% takes a very dedicated cutting phase and most beginners would not have the knowledge or experience to effectively get under this percentage. This is not an issue however and the main aim should be 10% – 12%.
There are a few reasons for this, the first is that once you start lifting weights and getting stronger in the gym it’s possible to lose body fat whilst starting to build muscle anyway, complete beginners are in a preferential position because the increased activity should be enough in the early stages to kick start the fat loss process.
You also want to start building a physique from as low of a body fat percentage as possible because this will make the next phase of dieting and training more optimal. At lower body fat levels you are more receptive to nutrient intake meaning carbohydrates for example will be shuttled and stored in the muscles (provided you stimulate them adequately through training) instead of being stored as body fat.
If You Want to Start a bulk
This ties in with the point above however is also relevant to a more advanced gym goer. Before starting any dedicated bulking phase your body needs to be primed for optimal results and the most sure fire way for this to be the case is by starting at as low a body fat percentage as possible.
This is an extreme example that more will not be able to relate to (myself included) but the best results seen on a bulk are from those that are coming fresh from a bodybuilding or physique competition. Starting from a very low body fat level <10% means that you have had to restrict calories to get to this level.
The human body operates in survival mode and most of the time we tend to dampen our hormonal signaling (being heavily overweight is a good example), when deprived of calories you will almost be hitting a reset button, those that are coming fresh from a competition will find the grow significantly within the first month of training again because you are better able to partition nutrients.
The more sensitive your body is to nutrient uptake the better the results you will see. If you are overweight then chances are any surplus calories will be stored as subcutaneous fat, if fresh from a calorie deficit however then you will hardwired to uptake nutrients more optimally and prioritise muscle groups being training.
Your starting position for a bulk should be optimal so think of the cut down as a reset phase for your body to prime yourself for an optimal bulking phase. Again look to get close to 10% body fat or potentially below before starting a bulk.
If You Are Finishing a Bulk
This is the most obvious one but… most people don’t actually know at what point to finish bulking. There are no set guidelines for a bulk, for a cut it’s quite easy to see at 10% body fat that you are lean, defined and with certainty will have lost body fat. With a bulk however it’s not so visually obvious how much muscle you have put on because it will likely be covered by a layer of body fat!
That is a tricky scenario however, there are two levels to which is recommend stopping a bulk. As with most things in life there comes a point of diminishing returns meaning that eating and training more will result and a lower proportion of progress as a result, this is literally known as the law of diminishing returns.
The tricky part is that all humans are different and therefore responds differently, my first rule for starting a cut after a bulk is therefore when your top set of abs is no longer visible. Not everyone, but most will tend to store fat in the hips, lower back and lower abdomen area so if you have poor genetics you could have belly fat at a low body fat percentage.
The top set of abs however should act as your guide, as soon as these are no longer visible then this is the point you are likely holding too much body fat and need to go on a cutting phase to prime your body again.
The second rule for starting a cut after a bulk is once you get to 15% body fat or above. At this level and over you are certainly going to see diminishing returns for your bulk and will at this point start to partition nutrients more towards fat storage than you will within the muscles themselves.
** Note – the above points are only really relevant if you want to improve the physical appearance of your physique, if you want to prioritise getting stronger then you should be bulking until again you see diminishing returns for your efforts.
Setting a Cutting Goal & Timeframe
Setting a cutting goal is crucial for determining how long you should bulk for and for setting a plan and time frame to get there. The basis of setting your goal should be on a steady fat loss target of 1lb – 2lb fat loss per week.
Unless you are over 20% body fat and have a lot of fat to burn then anything more than 2lb fat loss a week is an unrealistic goal and mindset to have as the lower your body fat levels the harder it becomes to lose the next pound of fat which will therefore impact your motivation.
For body composition goals it’s always best to aim for a body fat percentage level rather than a scale weight number, eg “I want to get under 10 stone”. The reason for this is because it’s impossible to tell at what weight you will look lean unless you’ve done it before.
Getting to 12% body fat and below will do wonders for your physique and this is a level that is comfortably manageable for most lifestyles. From this point you can adjust your goals and aim for a lower body fat percentage depending on your mindset and reason for cutting in the first place but I’d always suggest setting a body fat percentage as a target.
That’s not to say that there is not a benefit to just losing scale weight, if you focused on a steady target of losing 1lb per week then that is a strategy I could get behind and endorse, a realistic target like that will eventually lead to fantastic progress and is sustainable.
My main concern is when you set a goal of burning fat as quickly as possible and then your body adapts, for a cut you need to use the different ‘tools’ sparingly. If you immediately come out the blocks on low carb <50g per day in a hefty deficit then you will certainly shift a few pounds early on but then what happens when your body adapts?
The human body always adapts as it’s a survival mechanism, if you started at <50g carbs and then plateau what next, there are only so many drastic changes you can make so it’s important to set realistic goals for this reason.
As far as timeframes go for most it’s best not to put a deadline on it and work specifically towards the steady weight loss target of around 1lb per week (can get away with more in the beginning) and trust the process.
Whilst there are a few reasons for this one of the key ones is muscle retention, if you are reading this and are using terms like ‘cut’ then you should already be and active gym goer with a focus on weight training. The more weight you lose in a short period of time the more it comes from your overall structure which includes muscle mass.
Timeframes should be based on a process to develop the best physique possible rather than arbitrary numbers like lose 10lbs in 2 weeks so focus on the smaller aims and processes that will then result in the best progress.
Initial Cutting Phase
The initial cutting phase will be the first month (or 4 week period) and will be your body recomposition phase. Regardless of what level you are at physically or what your experience is everyone will need to go through an initial transition phase which is no different for cutting.
What I mean by this is that your body needs a set period of time to adapt and adjust to a new stimulus that you place on it. As mentioned the human body functions in survival mode and gets really good at adapting to your everyday routine and but expending no more energy than needed.
If you don’t work an active job with manual handling of lift weights then your body has not reason to carry a large amount of muscle mass. Some of course are naturally lean and have high levels of muscle mass with no training but they are the exceptions that are blessed with good genetics physically.
Another visual example to prove this point is to keep an eye out for road cyclists, not just your everyday person on a road bike but the proper cyclists, the ones who will have full latex clothing, a streamlined helmet and will be matching the speed of the cars that they are cycling by.
What you’ll notice is their calves are significantly larger than normal, this is simply the result of the human body developing to match the demands of cycling everyday as a commute.
For most however, you will notice that your body adapts and stays at a comfortable level to match your lifestyle and most of which won’t require any particular level of development above average, or stand out options should we say.
Therefore as soon as you starting a cutting phase there will be a period of a few weeks in which you need to learn what your body adapts to. I’ll keep emphasising this but unless you are heavily overweight, in which case just raising your energy expenditure alone will reap results then you’ll need to find what works for you personally.
The initial cutting phase is therefore the trial and error period.
If you set your calories at 2,500kcal and walk 8,000 steps each day for a week but lose 5lbs then you know you’ve either set calories to low or energy expenditure is too high. The first month should be about developing a routine that will allow you to lose body fat for an extended period of time without using all the cutting ‘tools’ at your disposal.
Your first step should be determining your maintenance calorie requirements and then simply dieting in a calorie deficit of 300kcal below maintenance.
You then want to set a step target and carry on with your training and cardio routine as you normally would, again don’t use up your tools too early and include HIIT cardio into your routine 5 days per week to speed up the process.
Then it is about tracking your weight and calories daily and making the adjustments needed until you know roughly what level will result in a steady and more importantly sustainable rate of fat loss.
Middle Phase of a Cut
This is the most boring phase of a cut but should also be the easiest in terms of mental and physical strain. For this phase you will simply be in cruise mode and looking to maintain fat loss at a steady rate.
Once you have your starting point from the first phase then here you will be making minor adjustments on a weekly process to keep the rate of fat loss steady. What you’ll be focusing on is step count, total calories consumed and then a macro breakdown as well.
With that being said you should not be feeling tired or deprived of energy so for this phase you should still be training hard in the gym and focus on still trying to get stronger from workout to workout. This will of course be harder to do the further you get into a cut but by focusing on it during this phase you will also be working to prevent any loss of muscle mass.
When it comes to making adjustments to continue the rate of fat loss on a cut you need to small calculated adjustment without doing anything drastic. By this I mean don’t cut your calories by 1,000kcal because you went a few days without losing any weight.
You need to be more systematic and controlled in this approach. A good approach would be for each adjustment needed, drop 100kcal – 200kcal, decrease carbs by around 30g and/or increase steps by 1000.
These are rough guidelines to give you an idea of the numbers that you need to be looking at, it’s nothing drastic but each adjustment will be enough prevent stagnation whilst still leaving you with the ability to continue making adjustments over time.
Final Phase of a Cut
The final phase of a cut is the hardest but will yield the best results. For the average person doing a cut for a holiday or special occasion etc then this will be 10 – 12 weeks in. I know I said I’m not a fan of this approach but for most this is the timeline you will be working towards.
The more time you can give yourself for a cut the better the results will be however I can appreciate that dedicating 6 months of the year for a cut is very difficult and will therefore 12 weeks often ends up being the target.
If you are starting from a heavily overweight position however then you’ll need to accept that life changing transformations are not a short term possibility and that you’ll need to stick with it a bit longer.
To see a range of timelines for a cut or body transformation I recommend checking out RNT Fitness who specialise in body transformations and don’t stick to the industry template of 12 week transformations.
The final phase of a cut refers to when you are individually close to you leanest physique. Calories will be low, cardio will be high, you’ll be weak in the gym and tired/irritable most of the time.
That is true only if you are searching for very low levels of body fat, however, like bodybuilding competition or photo shoot standard.
If you just want to get in good shape and have visible abs then you should be aiming for 10% body fat and won’t need to worry about the difficulties that come with a full cut.
Timeline For a Cut
- Get your current weight and download Myfitnesspal (not essential but HIGHLY recommended)
- Calculate your maintenance calorie requirements and subtract 300 calories, this will be your starting daily calorie intake for your cut
- Calculate your macro requirements for the cut and also put this into Myfitnesspal
- Pick a daily step target between 5,000 – 7,000 steps which is roughly 30 minutes per day depending on your stride length
- Track your weight and calories daily for the first week and look at your average at the end of 7 days. By looking at an average it will cancel out any weight fluctuations through water retention etc.. and also give an accurate reading for calories consumed
- If there is a minimal change in your averages then you know this is a good starting point
- This will be your first week of fully tracking your weight and macros to make sure you are on course for a steady and progressive weight loss.
- You shouldn’t feel any effects of a calorie deficit and should have energy levels as normal
- Training should be as normal again feeling no negative effect
Weeks 3 – 10
- This will be your maintenance/cruising period.
- You’ll make weekly adjustments to either calories consumed, daily step targets or a combination of both.
- The reason you’ll make changes to calories and steps is because these are easily quantifiable variables, if you do 500 extra steps while keeping all other factors the same and lose weight then you know this has worked. If however you say you’ll try harder in a weight training session then this will have no direct quantifiable figure that you can attribute or change. It’s best to change the variable that you can control for maximum progress.
- In terms of the changes you should look to either reduce calories by 200, increase steps by 1000 or a combination of both.
- In terms of reducing calories I’d take more from carbs, followed by fats and try to keep protein as high as you can.
- You should see significant results over this period just by following this plan
Weeks 11 – 12
- This will be the most difficult period however it’s the one that if you dig deep will provide the best results
- Here you should only have a few pounds left to lose in order to have a leaner than average physique, it really can take as little as 12 weeks before friends and family start to notice significant changes to your physique on a cut
- The downside is that calories and in particular carbs will likely be quite low now in order to facilitate further fat loss, as a result energy levels and mood will be low in comparison
- It’s important to remember that this is a very temporary state in order to get a desired look, once the hard work is done you can raise calories to a level that will give an achievable year round look
- This final period is what’s known as a peak week (taking specifically from competitive bodybuilding or fitness photoshoots), if you want to learn advanced dieting hacks for this final phase then I’d recommend looking up peak week in a search.
Whilst the timeline will vary for most depending on a number of factors, the above is what you can expect if you are committing to a cut and should therefore not be deterred by a few days of no progress, just stick to the process and results will come.
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