Progressive overload on a cut is a concept that usually gets ignored once you are finished with a bulking cycle.
Once you’ve been in a calorie surplus for a long period of time (6-12 months) and have been making steady progress with weights there comes a time when you are ready to lose that excess body fat and see how much muscle is underneath.
You’ve probably read that when you’re on a cut and in a calorie deficit you will lose strength, won’t have as much energy, need to include more pump work etc…
Instead of following the same program that got you results in the first place you will now be ‘lifting lighter weights for more reps’ to really get shredded and make the most of the cut. If you adopt this mindset and follow this methodology then chances are you will lose every ounce of muscle that you worked so hard to build in the first place.
Why do you need to aim for progressive overload on a cut? Progressive overload is essential when it comes to building and maintaining muscle mass, your body adapts to the level of intensity placed on it. If you don’t stimulate it with the same intensity that it took to build this muscle you won’t then be able to maintain this muscle mass when on a cut.
There’s no denying that when you’re in a calorie deficit you will at some point see a slight decline in strength and energy levels, it’s unrealistic to think that you could consume 1,500 calories daily and match your performance when you were consuming 4,500 calories (bit of an extreme example).
You can however minimize any potential loss in strength and muscle mass and focusing on progressive overload is one technique that will help.
I cover more strategies to maintaining muscle mass on a cut here
The Different Types of Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is based around the principle of continually placing the body under more stress than it has previously endured in order to force adaptation.
Muscles adapt to the stress they endure on a day to day basis, a lumberjack will have well developed and muscular forearms, a cyclist will have developed calf muscles and a ring gymnast will have rounded shoulders and muscular arms.
The people in these examples are not training these muscles specifically to have this desired effect, it’s a result of the body adapting to a repeat stimulus over time. Therefore if you don’t give muscles as reason to develop and grow then your body will remain the same and this is where the principle of progressive overload comes in.
The most popular use of progressive overload is lifting heavier weights over time. If you start out with a bench press of 90lbs and within a year you’re pressing 225lbs then it’s almost a certainty that your physique will reflect this, it’s one of the reasons why it’s a test in the NFL Combine because if you’re still only able to press 90lbs then there’s a strong chance you don’t have the physical structure to make it in the NFL!
Keeping a log book and tracking your exercises every session will allow you to constantly challenge your body and increase the weights on a frequent basis.
There is of course diminishing returns on the rate in which you can keep increasing your weights, otherwise everyone would have a 500lb deadlift as standard. This then leads onto the next method of progressive overload which is increasing volume.
If you’ve been stuck on the same weight for a while and are struggling to increase it further (law of diminishing returns) then your next focus should be increasing the volume of this exercise to further progress.
This can be done by adding more sets, reps or a combination of both. If you are doing 3 x 8 (3 sets, 8 reps each set) sets of pull ups and are not yet strong enough to add weight then you’ll want to first look at adding reps, so you now aim for 3 x 9, then 3 x 10 and so on, though try to max this at a set of 12 reps as after that you are working more for muscular endurance instead of growth.
Once you are comfortably banging out 3 x 12 but still not ready to progress the weight your next target will be to add sets so your final target for this progression will be 4 sets of 12 reps.
If you’ve progressed to this level then you will ready to move up the weight and start the sets and reps back at 3 x 8 with this new weight. This is a great strategy to use once you start to plateau and will ensure you are constantly progressing and forcing your body to adapt.
The final form of progressive overload is a combination of two factors which aim to increase time under tension for the targeted muscle (this is a concept too large to cover in this article) and these are either extending the length of a set through tempo or reducing rest periods between sets.
Each are a form of progressive overload in that they make the muscle work harder within a set period of time. The rest period is quite self explanatory, if you take a 1 minute rest between each set then simply reduce this down to 50 seconds, then 40 seconds, then 30 seconds to do the same amount of work but in a shorter period of time.
Keep in mind that 30 seconds is a very short rest period and if you are doing heavy deadlifts for example this will not allow sufficient time for your central nervous system to recover so will not be beneficial, try to keep this technique to exercises when you are working in the standard hypertrophy range of 3 sets of 8-12 reps.
Tempo is how long it takes you to perform a rep, a bicep curl with a 1010 tempo means you take 1 second to curl the weight, take no time to hold it at the top, take another second to lower it and then immediately go back to curling it.
To utilize progressive overload you could work up to a tempo of 1120, this would be a 1 second curl, 1 second contraction at the top and then two seconds to lower it with no break at the bottom. If following the first tempo method of 1010 for a set of 10 reps it would take you 20 seconds to finish the set, when working up to a tempo of 1120 it would take you 40 seconds.
This technique would mean your muscles will be doing more work with the same weights (providing you keep the rest periods the same) and this is a key factor in stimulating muscle growth.
How to Maintain Strength During a Cut
The key to maintaining strength on a cut will be keeping a log book of all weights, sets and reps for every exercise you have in your program and then at a very minimum trying to match this from workout to workout. I say at a minimum because the main focus will still be on trying to progress from a previous session.
When you first reduce calories and enter a deficit you won’t just lose strength overnight, you should still be pushing workouts hard and factoring in some form of progressive overload.
It’s not until you get deep into a deficit that you should feel the burden of your workouts and when this happens instead of automatically dropping the weights it would be better to maintain the weights, reps, rest etc.. but reduce overall workout volume.
Weights will certainly feel heavier and you might drop a few incremental weights on certain lifts but dropping a set of bicep curls to reduce volume will do more for your physique then if you started squatting at 30% less than usual because the weight ‘feels heavy’.
The best strategy to adopt to maintain strength is to focus on two key exercises per workout and do everything to maintain the weight on these key lifts throughout your cut. If you are benching 225lbs and deadlifting 405lbs then this is the weight it took to build your muscular foundation in the first place so you want to stick with it.
If you want to then incorporate so lighter pump work you can do this on your isolation movements, just aim to maintain strength on those select few exercises that will maintain overall muscle mass.
Choosing a Progressive Overload Method During a Cut
The type of method you decide on for progressive overload during your cut (though always keep this flexible as all are effective strategies for building muscle) will depend on a number of factors.
The first is how long you will need to be in a cut, if you are doing a mini cut for 2-4 weeks then you barely need to deviate from your usual training and can just add in some cardio on top of a calorie deficit.
If however you need to lose a lot of body fat or want to get incredibly shredded (<10% body fat) then your deficit is going to be a lot longer and you will need to be more strategic.
The first priority will be to maintain strength on your cut by following the strategies from earlier, losing a significant amount of strength will likely result in a loss of muscle to an extent so you want to protect this by trying to maintain the same weight on your key exercises.
Next you want to consider the overall volume of a workout, try to keep reps and sets within a similar range and if it gets to a point when you are struggling to finish a workout with a high level of intensity then just look to drop some of the accessory work that you might include for vanity or ego related reasons.
A squat is a multi joint compound movement, maintaining weight, sets and reps on this will do a lot more for your physique in a calorie deficit than a set of leg curls for example. Structure your workouts so that you hit rep and set targets on the main lifts and if necessary just cut out some of the accessory work.
Finally energy will get to a point where workouts are just simply grueling and you are going through the motions when on a significant calorie deficit, for this reason I wouldn’t try to go all out on every set whilst having minimal rest periods as you likely won’t have the energy reserves available for this.
It’s best to stick to your weight, sets and reps targets and if needed take a slightly longer break rather than trying to reduce it.
You can do separate cardio session for metabolic and fat burning benefits so whilst on a cut it’s better to prioritize strength maintenance over reducing the rest periods if it comes to a choice between the two
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Also check out:
How to program progressive overload – https://barbend.com/6-easy-ways-programming-progressive-overload/
The principles of progressive overload – https://www.gronkfitnessproducts.com/blogs/updates/the-principle-of-progressive-overload-how-to-keep-getting-stronger-bigger