Do I need carbs when cutting?

What does “cutting” mean for bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts?

Cutting refers to a phase of dieting and exercise meant to reduce overall body fat while preserving lean muscle mass. The goal of cutting is to shed fat in order to better showcase muscle definition and vascularity. Bodybuilders and physique athletes often go through cycles of bulking and cutting to optimize muscle growth while maintaining low body fat for competitions.

The cutting phase usually follows a bulking phase where the goal is to build muscle, often accompanied by some fat gain. When bulking, calories are in a surplus and macro ratios favor carbs and protein for energy and recovery. Once the individual has gained sufficient muscle, they enter into a calorie deficit for fat loss during the cutting phase.

Effective cutting requires a strategic approach of adjusting calories, macronutrients, and training to maximize fat burning while minimizing loss of lean mass. Nutrition and workouts need to be closely monitored and tailored to the individual to support energy, performance, and fat loss goals.

Why do people cut?

There are a few key reasons people may implement a cutting diet and training phase:

– Preparing for bodybuilding, physique, or figure competitions – Competitors need low body fat to showcase muscular definition, striations, vascularity and leanness.

– Improving aesthetics – Many recreational fitness enthusiasts cut to look leaner and more toned for summer or fitness goals.

– Breaking through a fat loss plateau – Cutting can help stimulate new fat loss from problem areas when usual dieting has stalled.

– Health reasons – Cutting to lose excess body fat can improve cardiovascular health, blood lipids, liver health, insulin sensitivity, inflammation and more.

– Improving athletic performance – Endurance athletes may cut to improve power-to-weight ratio and efficiency.

Whatever the reasons for cutting, the ultimate goals tend to be lowering body fat percentage while retaining hard-earned muscle. For sustainable results, cutting should be done at a reasonable pace with adequate protein, carbohydrates and essential fats.

How aggressive should my calorie deficit be when cutting?

When planning a cutting diet, it’s important not to be too aggressive with your calorie deficit or you risk losing muscle along with fat. Here are some general guidelines for determining an appropriate deficit:

– Begin with a 10-20% calorie deficit below your maintenance needs. For example, if you maintain weight at 2,500 calories, start by eating around 2,000-2,250 calories daily.

– Aim to lose 0.5-1% of your body weight per week. Losing 1-2 pounds per week is a safe rate for most. More aggressive deficits often backfire.

– Adjust your deficit based on your progress and how you feel – increase calories if fat loss stalls for a few weeks or you have low energy impacting workouts.

– Consider a slightly more aggressive 20-30% deficit only for short periods of 2-4 weeks at a time, followed by a maintenance break.

– Monitor your body composition using measurements besides the scale, like how your clothes are fitting, caliper skin fold tests, or DEXA scans if accessible.

The leaner you are, the harder it is to lose additional body fat without also breaking down muscle for energy. Take your time and use the smallest effective deficit for your goals.

What should my macro split of carbs/protein/fat look like when cutting?

When cutting for fat loss, your macro nutrient ratios will shift compared to bulking or maintenance phases. Here are some general evidence-based guidelines for setting macros during a cut:

– Protein: Increase protein intake to around 0.8-1 gram per pound of body weight daily or higher. Getting adequate protein preserves lean mass when in a calorie deficit.

– Carbs: Reduce carb intake to around 2-3 grams per pound of body weight daily. This equates to 200-300g carbs for a 200 pound person. Lower carb intake facilitates fat loss.

– Fat: Aim for around 0.5 grams of fat per pound of body weight daily as a minimum. Dietary fat supports hormone balance and absorption of fat soluble vitamins.

– Ratios: A 40% protein, 30% carb, 30% fat macro split is a good starting point. Adjust as needed based on hunger, energy and progress.

– Calorie deficit: Create your deficit mostly through reduced carbs and fats. Keep protein high to protect muscle. A 300-500 calorie daily deficit is sustainable.

The best macro approach maximizes protein, restricts carbs moderately, keeps fats adequate and creates a small to moderate calorie deficit for steady cuts.

What types of exercise should I do when cutting?

Your exercise routine is a key element of successful cutting. Tailor your workouts to maintain muscle, maximize fat burning and create an additional calorie deficit through training:

– Strength training: Keep strength training intense and heavy 4-5 days per week to force your body to hold onto muscle. Use challenging weights for 5-8 reps per set.

– HIIT cardio: Add in 2-4 high intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio sessions to elevate fat burning through anaerobic efforts. Sprint intervals are effective.

– Steady state: Include 1-3 sessions of 30-60 minutes of low to moderate steady pace cardio to burn extra calories and oxidize fat. This could be brisk walking, easy cycling, elliptical machine, etc.

– Total volume: Your weekly exercise volume might need to decrease during an aggressive cut to accommodate reduced calorie intake. Prioritize intensity over duration.

– Allow rest: Take 1-2 full rest days with no formal exercise to support muscle recovery and nervous system health when cutting. Active recovery only.

Weight lifting, HIIT and steady cardio offer a potent combination to achieve your body composition goals when cutting. Balance training stress with adequate rest for recovery.

How low can I cut my carbs when trying to lose body fat?

It’s common to significantly reduce carb intake when cutting to accelerate fat loss, but there are limits to how low you should go:

– 20-50 grams per day is typically the minimum to support brain function, hormone balance and training performance. This level is called a ketogenic diet.

– Cutting carbs under 20g forces the body into nutritional ketosis and is very restrictive. It likely provides no added fat loss benefit over 50g daily.

– Moderately low carb diets of 100-150g daily often produce similar fat loss results as ketogenic diets with less dietary extremes.

– Aggressive carb restriction can negatively impact thyroid function, leptin levels, cortisol levels and blood glucose management.

– Carbs help restore muscle glycogen, support intense training and offset muscle breakdown when cutting.

– Eliminating certain carb types like fruits, grains and legumes further restricts nutrition.

Aim to cut refined grains, sweets and excess starch sources like pasta and rice, but keep nutrient dense carbs from vegetables, fruits and whole grains as part of a well-rounded cutting diet for health and performance. Moderation is key.

What are good sources of carbs while cutting?

When reducing total carb intake on a cutting diet, focus on getting your carbs from high quality minimally processed sources such as:

– Green vegetables – Broccoli, spinach, kale, lettuce, cucumbers, green beans etc. Provide vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants with minimal calories and carbs.

– Starchy vegetables – Potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, beets, carrots, squash and others supply more digestible carbs for energy along with nutrients.

– Berries – Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries contain antioxidants and fiber with less sugar than other fruits.

– Stone fruits – Peaches, plums, cherries and apricots offer fiber, vitamins and minerals with reasonable carb counts per serving.

– Grapefruit – Provides a moderately low glycemic carb source and high vitamin C.

– Tomatoes – In addition to vitamins and minerals, tomatoes offer lycopene and other beneficial plant compounds.

– Citrus fruits – Oranges, grapefruit and tangerines contain key nutrients and antioxidants along with natural sugars.

– Apples, pears – Moderate carb fruits with antioxidants like quercetin that benefit health and fat loss.

– Ancient grains – Quinoa, steel cut oats, buckwheat, amaranth and others offer more protein, fiber and micronutrients than refined grains.

Do I need pre-workout carbs for energy during cuts?

Consuming quality carb sources around workouts can benefit performance and recovery on reduced carb cutting diets by:

– Maximizing available glycogen to fuel strength training and high intensity cardio when carbs are lower overall.

– Providing glucose to help prevent catabolism and support muscle protein synthesis post-exercise.

– Blunting cortisol, the catabolic stress hormone elevated by training.

– Spiking insulin to shuttle amino acids and glucose into muscles, enhancing the anabolic response.

– Replenishing electrolytes lost through sweat to reduce fatigue and cramping.

To leverage these benefits, time peri-workout carbs as follows:

– 30-60g of carbs 30-60 minutes pre-workout such as from fruit, rice cakes or oatmeal. Can add 10g of BCAAs.

– Another 30g of fast-acting carbs with protein immediately after training, like whey and a banana.

– A whole food meal with quality complex carbs and protein within 60-120 minutes post-workout.

Even on lower carb cutting diets, pre/post training carbs improve performance, recovery and progress.

Can I build muscle on a cutting diet?

It is challenging but not impossible to build some muscle while in a calorie deficit cutting diet by following these strategies:

– Ensure high protein intake of at least 0.8-1g per pound of body weight daily from lean sources. Protein provides the amino acids to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.

– Continue strength training 4+ days per week with progressive overload through increased weight and volume over time. Strength training drives the adaptive response to build muscle.

– Include focused training for lagging muscle groups at the start of your sessions when you’re fresh.

– Reduce cardio duration to avoid excessive calorie burn that makes building difficult. Shorter HIIT is better than steady state.

– Accept slower strength gains – If you gain 5 pounds on your squat over 6-8 weeks of cutting, that’s solid progress.

– Time peri-workout carbs to support training performance and recovery.

– Get adequate sleep nightly to promote muscle repair and growth. Shoot for 7-9 hours.

– Consider supplements like creatine, betaine and beta-alanine to enhance strength output.

– Be patient – Focus on retaining muscle first and view any growth as a bonus. The enhanced muscle definition you’ll achieve while cutting can create the visual appearance of increased size.

Can I build muscle and lose fat at the same time?

Simultaneously building significant muscle mass while losing fat is extremely difficult due to conflicting nutritional demands. However, it’s possible to make modest progress in both goals by:

– Entering the process at a higher body fat percentage above 15% for men and 25% for women. More fat provides fuel for muscle gains.

– Eating in only a slight calorie deficit of 10-20% below maintenance levels. Too large of a deficit stalls muscle gains.

– Setting a slow target rate of fat loss around 0.5% of total body weight per week. Avoid fast cuts.

– Ensuring protein intake is very high, ideally 1-1.5g per pound of body weight daily. Increase protein further in a deficit.

– Lifting heavy weights with low reps to prioritize strength and muscle gains over endurance.

– Doing minimal cardio for fat loss, only 1-2 short HIIT sessions to avoid overtraining.

– Limiting cutting periods to 4-6 weeks. Take a maintenance break before starting another focused cut.

– Using targeted supplements like creatine, beta-alanine and carnitine to augment gains.

– Getting very high quality sleep for 7-9 hours nightly for optimal recovery.

– Being patient and tracking weekly progress photos, measurements and strength gains.

Getting significantly leaner while gaining substantial muscle is unrealistic. But with smart programming and the right diet, modest simultaneous progress is achievable.

What carb cycling strategies can I use when cutting?

Carb cycling varies daily carb intake rather than keeping it static. This technique can assist fat loss during cutting by:

– Providing higher carb refeeds 1-2 days per week to restore leptin and thyroid hormone. This supports metabolic rate.

– Strategically timing higher and lower carb days around workouts to optimize fueling, recovery and fat burning potential.

– Adding diet variety and flexibility so carbohydrate restriction is more sustainable long-term.

– Preventing fat loss plateaus by avoiding metabolic adaptation.

Effective carb cycling setups for cutting include:

– High (150g), moderate (100g), low (50g) rotation based on training days.

– 5 high carb days at 2-2.5g per pound, 2 low days at 0.75-1g per pound.

– Alternating low and high carb days with protein and fat consistent daily.

– Scheduling higher carb days for leg and back workout days, lower carbs on chest, shoulder and arm days.

– Carb refeeding every third or fourth day with 1.5-2g per pound of carbs.

– Incorporating a cheat meal weekly with minimal fat but higher carb and protein foods.

Carb cycling provides cutting diet variety while fueling workouts, allowing refeeds and promoting continual fat loss.


Cutting can be an effective strategy to reduce body fat and improve definition. But avoiding common mistakes is key to maintaining hard-earned muscle:

– Don’t cut calories too aggressively. Use smaller calorie deficits from carb and fat intake only. Get sufficient protein.

– Reduce carb sources like grains, sugars and processed foods but keep nutrient dense carb foods. Don’t go extremely low carb.

– Time quality peri-workout carbs to support training intensity and recovery.

– Use heavy, progressive strength training to force muscle retention along with shorter, intense cardio.

– Make conservative calorie cuts and take periodic maintenance breaks to make the process more sustainable.

– Be patient – it takes consistent work over weeks and months to get maximally lean while minimizing muscle losses.

Cutting requires diligence and consistency, but the results are worth it. By following a well-planned diet and training program, you can reveal your physique’s true potential.

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