When should you start a cut? A cut in physique development terms is when you enter a fat loss phase. Most will have different aims and goals when going on a cut however the ideal time to cut for most people is once you go over 15% body fat.
There are two main phases of physique development, there is a bulking phase in which you consume a calorie surplus for an extended period of time in order to facilitate muscle growth. Then there is a cutting phase in which you consume a calorie deficit for an extended period of time to facilitate fat loss.
This is a basic example of physique development as a lot of people might prefer to just maintain a lean physique year round which involves consuming a maintenance number of calories however for most gym goers you will typically have a period when you go through the bulking and cutting cycle.
A common question, especially for beginners, is when should you start a cut.
What Is a Cut
A cut, better known as a fat loss phase, is a dieting and training routine with the aim of losing weight primarily through fat loss.
The process of building muscle for the most part involves consuming a calorie surplus and a common side effect of this is that you will gain some excess body fat in the process.
It’s possible to commit to a lean bulk which is a process of consuming a very small calorie surplus in order to reduce the amount of fat gained when trying to build muscle however this is a very long term and patient approach to dieting.
It’s more likely that you have been in a higher calorie surplus or are new to training and have a higher body fat percentage so have found this article to help you decide if you need to cut.
As mentioned a cut involves consuming a calorie deficit and/or raising energy expenditure through weight training and cardio in order to burn fat and ultimately have a leaner physique to demonstrate your muscle mass.
The motivations behind a cut will be different from person to person which in turn means the starting point will be different. A more advanced individual might not want to lose visibility of their abs at any point during the year whereas a beginner will just be focusing on putting muscle onto their frame.
Whatever the motivation for your cut is will determine when you should start a cut.
What Is the Aim of Your Cut
What the aim of your cut is should be a key question that you need to consider before going on a cut as this will heavily influence not only the length of your cut but also by how much of a deficit you will need to go into.
Someone training for a bodybuilding show will need to go into a very deep calorie deficit in order to achieve very low body fat levels of <8%, this will be highly taxing on your mental and physical well being.
Someone just looking to get in shape for a holiday however may only need to get to 10% – 12% body fat percentage which is much more easily achievable for everyday life.
Therefore you need to have an ideal goal in mind when going on a cut, developing a physique takes a great deal of planning, you can’t just wing it on a cut and this is one of the key reasons why fad and crash diets are so damaging.
Crash diets work, but only because of the calorie deficit aspect. Consuming soup 5 x per day is not a magic fat loss diet, if you consume less calories than you need to maintain weight then you will lose weight.
The key word from that paragraph is losing weight, when on a cut you should not be concerned with losing weight but on specifically losing fat and there is a difference.
Building muscle is a long a difficult process and the aim of any cut regardless of what your end goal is should be to lose body fat while maintaining muscle mass in the process. This is absolutely the key to a successful cut.
Therefore you don’t want to necessarily select a scale weight as your end goal as this will be a driver for chasing weight loss over fat loss, instead you want to be focused on losing body fat. A good aim for most will therefore be to get to 10% – 12% body fat.
I’ve mentioned that this is achievable for most gym goers with other life commitments like family and work however it’s also a good level of body fat to demonstrate leanness and generally be in good shape.
Once you know what you are aiming for on a cut then you can consider at what point you should start a cut.
When Should You Start a Cut
The tricky part about starting a cut is deciding on when you should start a cut. If you are reading this and even in a 50/50 mindset about when you should start a cut then chances are you should start right away.
That’s a very general opinion though, if you want to know a more specific starting point then you should start a cut if you are over 15% body fat.
This is the top end of the spectrum in my opinion unless your goal is to build as much strength as possible, in that case you likely won’t be considering a cut. 15% body fat however is the point for most when the benefit you get from a calorie surplus start to diminish.
In the early stages of a bulk at lower body fat levels you will be able to optimally utilize the surplus calories that you consume meaning they will go more towards building muscle than being stored as fat (this varies from individual to individual and will be based on the size of the calorie surplus).
It will however get to the point where in order to add more weight your calorie surplus will need to increase as well, what most might not know is that muscle grows at quite a slow rate, 0.25kg/0.5lbs per week in untrained individuals.
Therefore no matter how big the calorie surplus you simply can’t force your body to partition it directly to the muscle and it will start to get stored in the form of adipose tissue (body fat).
The heavier you get and the greater the calorie surplus the more this will start to be stored as body fat. Training is not a linear process but works in peaks and drops, once you get to around 15% body fat you will start to utilize nutrients less optimally.
Again everyone is different and will respond to training and dieting differently but as a good guide, anything over 15% body fat and it’s time to cut. Don’t get ahead of yourself and try to build muscle at this body fat percentage as you’ll just be spinning your wheels.
Focus on getting down to at least 12% body fat first (10% would be ideal) before you consider going through a muscle building phase.
In the early stages it’s still possible to build muscle even on a cut as your body tries to adapt to the new training stimulus of lifting weights and starts the chemical process of protein synthesis. That’s a bit more advanced than the purpose of this article but just for ease of mind you can still build muscle on an initial cut so don’t be deterred by the thought.
Should I Bulk or Cut If I’m Skinny Fat
I’ve pointed out the time when you should start a cut however there will still be people in the awkward stage of skinny fat.
Skinny fat is when you don’t necessarily weigh a lot (not considered overweight by modern guidelines like BMI) however at the same time have minimal levels of muscle mass.
Two identical people could weigh the same, have the same characteristics however one could have significantly more muscle mass than the other and therefore look to be in much better shape. This is the deception of skinny fat.
Just because you are not overweight by general standards does not mean that you should be jumping straight into a bulk or muscle building phase. Someone that is skinny fat essentially has a higher body fat percentage when compared with muscle mass.
These are individuals that usually have skinny arms and legs but are holding fat stores in key areas like the waist, lower back or hips. If this describes yourself then again you will need to cut before starting a bulk even though you feel that you need to gain weight.
I’ll keep preaching it but get down to around 10% body fat before starting any cut and at least make sure your abs are visible first. It’s pointless trying to build muscle if you don’t have the correct starting point to work from.
To sum up if you are not sure at what point to start a bulk then 15% body fat and above is a key indicator to start or my preferred recommendation is for anyone to cut to around 10% body fat before starting any muscle gaining phase, this is especially important for beginners.
It’s difficult to get an accurate body fat reading but using a full body scale found in most gyms or pharmacies will give a good indicator, it doesn’t need to be 100% accurate but will give you a good idea of where you are currently and then where you need to get to.
If your interested in taking this further then check out Jeff Nippard’s video on getting below 8% body fat or Precision Nutrition’s case study
If you are looking to make changes to your physique by either losing body fat, building muscle or looking to maintain a lean physique then sign up to my weekly newsletter below. Each week I send out actionable tips to help you lose that extra 1lb of fat or build that extra 0.5lb of muscle mass on a weekly basis.
If you sign up now you’ll also receive my 28 day body recomp program completely Free. This ebook will be sent straight to your inbox and will provide an intense 28 day program aimed at helping you lose up to 8lbs of body fat whilst also building 2lb-4lb of lean muscle mass in just 4 weeks.
Don’t worry if you’re not ready for an intense program just yet, my weekly newsletter will give smaller tips that when implemented daily, will stack up over time and see you transform your body with seemingly minimal effort!