The number of sets and reps people use when cutting is not only an issue I see online constantly but it’s actually a personal issue I have with outdated and misinformed advice.
How many times have you seen or heard that you need to lower the weight and increase the reps when cutting to tone up and get ripped.
Toning a muscle isn’t possible, a muscle can grow (hypertrophy) or shrink (atrophy) so this advice was initially built on a flawed understanding of human biology as you can’t tone or shape a muscle and was mainly used by marketing companies to sell fitness products.
Building and retaining muscle are two sides of the same coin and for best results, what works for one area is also going to work for another.
How many sets and reps when cutting? The number of sets and reps you do when cutting should be the same or similar to the amount you did when bulking. A good rule of thumb would be 3 – 6 reps for strength, 8 – 12 reps for muscle hypertrophy, and 12 – 18 reps for muscle endurance.
This article is not going to be a rant though on training terminology, it’s aimed at helping you select the optimal and most beneficial set and rep range when cutting. Cutting is hard enough without putting yourself in a position where you lose some of your hard-earned muscle.
Why Does Cutting Affect Sets and Reps
During a cut, you’ll consume a caloric deficit for a long period of time. This duration can vary and I’ve put together a timeline to show how long you should cut for, but the general expectation is a minimum of 12 – 24 weeks.
The result of long-term calorie deficits is reduced energy, fewer nutrients available to support muscle growth and recovery, and usually and increased energy expenditure through cardio which will impact the energy you have available for resistance training.
All of these factors usually mean that as a cut goes on, you’ll feel weaker, be able to perform fewer sets or reps for a given exercise (due to energy levels), and will likely suffer from a slight loss of strength.
These factors though are usually the result of a long-term cut but some people when they start cutting actually skip to this phase right from the very start, and they do so by choice!
If you are to take one single point away from this article, it should be that the purpose of a cut is to not only lose body fat but equally, you should be striving to maintain as much muscle mass as possible. Muscle is not easy to build and if you want to display it at a lower body fat percentage, you need to retain it when cutting.
Therefore, What you did to build your muscle mass in the first place should be exactly the same as what you do to retain it when cutting.
This is a logical approach to take, some factors will be out of your control as energy levels and the effects of a prolonged calorie deficit take over but the longer you can maintain the same weights, sets, and reps that you used to build your muscle, the more you’ll retain and the better your physique will be as a result.
How Many Sets and Reps When Cutting
It’s impossible to give an exact recommendation for sets and reps when cutting because everyone will have different routines and as mentioned above, what even plan you followed during a bulk should be the same or very similar as the one you are going into a cut with.
Therefore, the easy answer is that your sets and reps on a cut should be the same as what you are currently doing. There are, however, some guidelines you can follow as I appreciate some people might be starting a cut from the beginning with very little training experience.
In this instance, I’ll list out some general guidelines to follow and at the end of the article I’ll also list out an example workout with the framework for how many sets and reps you should do.
How Many Reps When Cutting
The cutting rep range is not a specific number but what I can say is that it’s not 15+ reps per exercise like you tend to see recommended, though admittedly, less so these days. For muscle growth (or retention in this case), there are some factors that will influence your reps range:
- Compound Exercises: A degree of strength training will still be needed even when cutting as strength does have a correlation with muscle size, even though it’s not the only factor. Therefore, ensure you still aim to lift heavy with compound exercises in the 3 – 5 rep range for 3 – 5 sets.
- Time Under Tension: A muscle responds to the length of time that it’s contracted and lengthened under load, this is otherwise known as time under tension (TUT). A good guide for TUT is 45 – 60 seconds to sufficiently activate muscle growth. Therefore, your rep range should be the time it takes you to hit this timeframe. The tempo is important here so make use of 1-2 seconds lowering the weight and a 1-second squeeze at the top of the lift.
- Weight Lifted: A typical hypertrophy training range that also takes into account TUT listed above is training with a weight that is 75%-80% of your 1 rep max. This is coincidentally the amount of weight that you can roughly lift for 8 – 12 reps over the duration of 45 – 60 seconds. If your 1 rep max for the bench press is 225lbs, make sure you are doing sets using 170 – 190lbs to fit the above criteria.
Should You Do More Reps When Cutting
One of the biggest misconceptions in the training world is that as soon as you start cutting you should automatically decrease the weight you lift and increase the reps. This is based on a theory that higher reps will “tone” the muscle and help you get more ripped.
This is arguably one of the most flawed pieces of advice you can follow when cutting and is something that could lead to muscle deterioration rather than muscle retention. More reps are beneficial when training to fatigue the more stubborn slow-twitch muscle fibers of a muscle.
These muscle fibers have less growth potential than the explosive fast-twitch muscle fibers which is partly the reason why sprinters carry significantly more muscle mass than long-distance marathon runners. While the growth potential may be lower, it’s still beneficial to tax these fibers to fully fatigue a muscle and stimulate growth.
What higher reps will not do, is burn more calories or tone a muscle when cutting. There is no evidence to suggest this and due to the higher demand when lifting sub-maximal weights, it’s arguably more energy depleting to lift heavier weights for a few reps.
Regardless of opinion, you should not do more reps when cutting but still to a more balanced rep scheme incorporating some strength work (3 – 5 sets x 3 – 5 reps), hypertrophy work (2 – 4 sets x 8 – 12 reps), and endurance work (3 – 5 sets x 12 – 25 reps).
How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do When Cutting
So, just to finish with an example of how many sets and reps you could do when cutting, I’ve put together an example workout rep scheme below to give you a good idea of how you could structure a workout.
Exercise 1 (warm up)
3 – 5 sets x 10 – 15 reps.
Exercise 2 (compound movement)
3 – 5 sets x 3 – 5 reps (use a few sets to warm up further and work up to your top weight sets).
Exercise 3 – 4 (primary muscle)
6 sets x 8 – 12 reps (3 sets per exercise)
Exercise 5 – 6 (secondary muscle)
6 sets x 10 – 15 reps (3 sets per muscle)
For a posterior focused leg session, this workout could look like the following:
Exercise 1 – Lying hamstring curl (4 sets x 10 reps)
Exercise 2 – Barbell back squat (5 sets x 5 reps)
Exercise 3 – Seated leg press (3 sets x 12 reps)
Exercise 4 – Romanian deadlift (3 sets x 10 reps)
Exercise 5 – Seated hamstring curl (3 sets x 15 reps)
Exercise 6 – Standing calf raise (3 sets x 15 reps)
This routine could be no different than the one you used bulking and it will use challenging rep ranges that build muscle so during a cut have the function of retaining muscle instead.
The worst thing you can do when cutting is throw away months and years of hard work building muscle to suddenly drop the weight, increase your reps, and no longer give your body a reason to hold muscle mass.
The stimulus that forces your body to adapt and build muscle is the exact same as what it needs to then hold and retain this muscle. If you no longer give your body a reason to hold more muscle mass than it needs, you’ll soon lose it.
Therefore, the key take away is do not be in a rush to increase reps, training will get harder in a cut but struggling to match your workout number during a bulk will give your body a reason to hold its muscle mass and make your cut all the more beneficial.
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