The first thing that many people will do when cutting is, besides from dropping calories, they will also start to drop their weights in the gym.
The reason for this stems from classic training principles from old school bodybuilders that would lower the weights and increase the reps in an effort to get more shredded. This is not however based upon much scientific reasoning and is something people did simply because the well known bodybuilders were doing it.
What the general public aren’t often aware of however is the role that performance enhancing drugs play when maintaining muscle mass for pro bodybuilders. Even if you are aware of it you still follow these principles unless you have a coach or personal trainer that can tell you otherwise.
Should you still be lifting heavy while cutting? You should still lift heavy while cutting in order to preserve the muscle that you built through a bulking phase. Lifting heavy is a relative term though, you should lift heavy in relation to trying to lift the same weights you used when building your physique.
If you are reading this then chances are you are not cutting with the help of performance enhancing drugs, I have minimal knowledge on the subject and purely focus on techniques to help regular guys improve their physique through a basic principle of training, eating right and getting enough rest.
If you’ve previously read or seen that lifting light weights for high reps will get you shredded then you need to re-evaluate that viewpoint if you want to build a decent physique. That’s because even when cutting you will still need to lift heavy relative to your level of strength.
Should You Still Be Lifting Heavy While Cutting
When building muscle you need to follow a pretty basic process to see results. Consume nutrient dense foods in a caloric surplus to fuel training sessions and repair muscle tissue afterwards, get sufficient rest/recovery to again repair and grow muscle tissue and finally get progressively stronger over time to force the body to adapt and change.
Our physiology means that when faced with a demanding task we adapt and grow to the required level. Two people might experience different levels of muscle growth if they both work up to a 400lb squat and deadlift however the certainty will be that both will experience muscle growth.
You simply can’t gain a large amount of muscle mass if you don’t push your body to grow and constantly challenge it through the principle of progressive overload.
Progressive overload, even on a cut
For most lifting naturally you will need to get strong and start lifting heavy weights, these are not weights that society defines as heavy but are instead weights that are heavy relative to your level of strength.
If you can only bench press 135lbs for 6 reps when you first start training but work upto 315lbs for 8 reps as you become more advanced then there is no doubt you will have built up a solid amount of muscle mass within the process.
If you then went back to lifting 135lbs do you think your body will maintain the same level of muscle mass as it did at a 315lb bench press?
The answer is unfortunately not and that is because the body only likes to adapt to a comfortable level in order to preserve energy, it’s a survival mechanism we all have. The more lean muscle mass you have the more energy you require on a day to day basis just to support it.
This isn’t ideal from a survival mechanism and therefore you need to constantly give your body a reason to maintain muscle mass which is where resistance training comes in.
When you are cutting however, then you will be in a caloric deficit and it will gradually get more difficult to maintain your level of strength when energy levels drop. This is when I say you should lift heavy relative to your level of strength.
You should focus on maintaining your lifts as much as possible while cutting as this is the key to preserving your muscle mass for the duration of a cut. Nothing is worse than bulking up, building muscle mass over the years and then cutting too hard and losing some of your well earned gains.
Why You Need to Maintain Strength While Cutting
As mentioned, maintaining strength is absolutely crucial when it comes to preserving muscle mass on a cut.
Whilst it’s inevitable that you will lose some strength in the cutting process, if you minimize the decreases in your log book as much as possible then you should maintain muscle. If you lose a rep or two at a certain weight then this is much better than dropping the weight each session.
Decreasing the weight each week just because you don’t feel strong is now how you will preserve muscle mass, instead you should look to keep the weight as heavy as possible each session and sacrifice losing reps.
This mentality will mean that you lift heavy enough to push your body each workout rather than dropping the weight which will have a snowball effect and mean that you only lift as heavy as you ‘feel’ you can which is not ideal when cutting.
Instead focus on beating the logbook each session and even though you are unlikely to hit new pb’s it will still be enough to stimulate your muscles sufficiently.
This is why lifting heavy or lifting light when cutting is a misleading term to follow, these mean different things depending on who you ask. I personally find a 400lb deadlift to be heavy as this is close to what I max out at however I also weigh just over 180lbs, a heavyweight lifter weighing 250lbs and over would find this to be a moderate warm up weight even when cutting.
Maintaining strength should therefore be your focus, this is specific to the individual and therefore you can consider it to be lifting ‘heavy’ while cutting.
Can Strength Increase While Cutting
One thing you might wonder whilst trying to maintain strength on a cut is if you can actually increase strength while cutting.
For some, this might be possible in the early stages of cutting when your body has not yet had a chance to feel the effects of an extended calorie deficit however for most a cut will simply be a battle of trying to maintain strength as much as possible.
This is especially true when you start getting deeper into your cutting phase and not only are calories on the low side but you will also be increasing energy expenditure through steps or cardio sessions.
There is one common instance when you can get stronger on a cut however and that is during your first ever cut or recomp phase. When you first get started training you should always aim to get to an ideal body fat percentage before you ever consider ‘bulking up’ and I’ve got an article that outlines this process in more detail here:
What is the ideal body fat percentage to start a cut?
The reason for this is that the higher body fat percentage you start a bulk with the less optimal your progress will be as you are not hormonally primed for building muscle.
Therefore when you first start a recomp phase you’ll be dropping calories however your starting weights in the gym will be so low (I’m making assumptions here, some might naturally be very strong) that you can still get stronger even on low calories.
I made the example earlier of someone bench pressing 315lbs which would be hard to maintain when cutting, a beginner bench pressing <100lbs however will have plenty of room to get stronger even on a cut.
This is because you’ll neurologically start to develop motor pathways for muscle fibre recruitment as you learn to lift and your body becomes more efficient at recruiting these muscle fibres. In the early days of training, just learning to maximally contract your muscle groups against an external load will have a significant impact on your strength progress.
It’s therefore the neurological adaptations that will allow beginners to get stronger while cutting even though they’ll be in a calorie deficit.
How Often Should You Lift While Cutting
Another factor to consider while cutting is how frequently you should be lifting, especially as your ability to recover diminishes and the heavy lifting starts to take a toll.
When it comes to training for muscle growth and physique improvement in general the frequency is always king. When training for strength and the percentages you lift are closer to a 1 rep max then more rest is required however, when following a hypertrophy approach you want to be in a state of protein synthesis as often as possible.
This means stimulating a muscle group every 48-72 hours (this depends on your training level, the more advanced you are the more frequently you need to stimulate a muscle group).
Protein synthesis is a muscle building process that is switched on when a muscle is placed under tension which causes metabolic stress [Source]. This process then keeps your body in a muscle building state (utilizing digested proteins to repair and grow the muscle group) for 48-72 hours afterwards.
You therefore want to be in this process for as long as possible and therefore should be training 4-6 days per week.
It’s important to keep in mind that your recovery capabilities will be limited while on a calorie deficit and therefore the aim of each session is to stimulate the muscle groups but not annihilate them.
This means you should try to maintain strength and lift heavy however do so whilst keeping your training volume low. High frequency combined with high volume will quickly lead to burnout and you’ll spend more time in a catabolic (muscle breakdown) phase than you will an anabolic (muscle growth) phase.
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