Bodybuilding, from an outsider’s perspective, may look easy — you eat lots of food and lift tons of weights to get as muscular as possible, right? Well, not exactly. That’s the first half of the equation — the building phase. A large part of a bodybuilders’ prep is spent cutting fat from their frame to showcase the muscles they developed in the gym. This is also known as the cutting phase.
Simply put, all the bench pressing in the world won’t win you any Olympia trophies if there’s a layer of flubber covering your pecs. The less fat on your frame, the more pronounced and vascular your muscles will be.
At the same time, you don’t want to sacrifice all the muscles you worked hard for. Losing weight from fat while holding onto muscle is a fine art, but it can be done. In this handy guide, we’ll dive into how bodybuilders properly “cut” on their path to stepping on stage to make sure they’re lean and muscular at the same time.
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To present the best package on stage, elite bodybuilders typically get down to around five percent body fat. Anyone looking to build a typical beach body (think Daniel Craig as James Bond) will only need to get their body fat down to around 10 percent. Dieting down to below 10 percent body fat — specifically close to five percent — can even be potentially harmful should only be done under the supervision of certified personal trainers and nutritionists.
One 2013 study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance found that some bodybuilders’ heartbeats drop to 27 beats per minute when the average BPM should be between 60 and 100 (1). A slower than average heart rate is associated with fainting, low and high blood pressure, and even heart failure. The same study also found men’s testosterone levels dropped significantly during prep. Body fat helps facilitate your body’s hormonal functions. Fat is also a source of energy for your body, so if it’s at low levels, you may experience fatigue.
The aforementioned study showed health markers returned to normal after prep — just one reason why bodybuilders aren’t always walking around in show day shape all the time. Really, competitors peak for their show and then gain some weight back.
Also, getting your body fat percentage down to five percent (heck, even 10 percent) takes a lot of dedication. Your workouts last around an hour. However, to reduce your body fat, you need to train — but also sleep, recover, keep your stress levels in check, and, most importantly, stick to your diet. It’s a 24/7 job.
Fat loss shouldn’t occur overnight. A 2017 double-blind study found that slow, progressive weight loss was better from a body composition standpoint, and another from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition states that losing half to one percent of body weight per week was the best way to drop fat while retaining muscle (2)(3).
To do that, you’ll have to do some simple math to figure out your daily caloric intake. We’ve covered this before, but here’s a quick recap: First, find out how many calories you need to maintain your weight. This number will vary depending on your size and muscle mass. You can also use our handy calculator to find your ideal starting point. And remember that the number you get is exactly that, a starting point. You’ll need to adjust as needed.
The number you got using the calculator should be roughly 150-200 calories less than you need to maintain weight. This ensures slow and steady fat loss that won’t sacrifice your hard-earned muscle. This number will be increased as show day nears — make sure you’re subtracting calories mostly from carbs and fats — though by how much will depend on your starting point, overall goals, and the length of your cut.
At this point, you should be pretty familiar with macro splits — the distribution of calories from protein, carbohydrates, and fats. While everyone’s will be different, the International Society of Sports Nutrition’s recommendation is a good starting point: 2.3-3.1 grams of protein for every kilogram of lean body mass, 15-30 % of calories from fat, and the rest from carbs.
As bodybuilders begin to restrict their calories, protein intake will become more vital than ever to ensure muscle retention. Protein is, after all, the building block of muscles. More importantly, protein has been shown to increase satiety (the feeling of being full). (4)
Protein also increases the rate of thermogenesis or the process of burning calories through the act of digestion. So this makes your job of burning calories easier without having to do anything but eat.
Just as important as the amount of protein you eat is when you eat it. While the anabolic window — or the time period in which protein and carbs are more rapidly absorbed following an intense workout — might be a nonfactor for enthusiasts, experienced bodybuilders should consume protein within an hour after a training session. For this, having a protein shake on hand can be useful.
At the same time, look to evenly distribute your protein throughout the day. Studies have shown this leads to increased protein synthesis and improved body composition. So if you require, say, 200 grams of protein per day, look to get at least 40 grams each time you eat. (5)
Whereas carbs and fats will be cut as you progress, protein must remain high up until show day.
Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred energy source, so it’s important to consume them throughout the day and especially before any workout to have energy to train.
Furthermore, carbs are important for your muscles’ appearance. When you eat them, your glycogen stores are replenished. Glycogen will give your muscles a fuller, more appealing look. Put another way, they’ll help your biceps look like mountains rather than molehills.
Some bodybuilders advocate for carb-cycling, or the act of alternating carb intake every few days. So you might eat low-carb on Monday and Tuesday, then go high-carb for one or two days before switching back. Supporters claim this improves muscle gain, metabolism, and fat loss. And while there’s some evidence of this, not enough studies have been done to back up its effectiveness, so most of the evidence is anecdotal. (6)
Close to a show, a bodybuilder will drastically reduce their water and carb intake to empty the muscle. This will create a flat look, but the skin will wrap around the muscle. Some folks describe this look as “shrink-wrapped.” Then, the night before the show, the bodybuilder will eat a lot of quick-digesting carbs to fill the muscle back out, but with no water obstructing the appearance. Anyone looking to just look good on the beach doesn’t have to worry about this method.
As previously discussed, fat — both the type you carry on your body and the dietary one — is vital for hormonal function, including testosterone, which plays a key role in building and retaining muscle. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are also fat-soluble, meaning they need fat to work within the body.
In other words, eating fat will help you lose fat. However, you don’t want too much fat. After all, one gram of fat packs nine calories, five more than a gram of protein or carbs. Fat is very calorically dense.
Anyone who follows Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Instagram knows of his legendary cheat meals, filled with double-dough pizzas and mile-high pancake stacks. The People’s Champ isn’t just doing this for show — cheat meals are an important part of any bodybuilders prep.
Typically, these meals — sometimes called reefed meals — are higher in carbs and fats and are meant to keep your glycogen stores at optimal levels. Several studies have also shown they increase leptin, the hormone that tells your body it’s full, and rev up your metabolism. (7) There may be some weight regain after a cheat meal, but most of that will be water weight that can be quickly shed. (8)
One study points out the important fact that people prone to emotional eating should avoid cheat meals, as it could lead to overeating and derail your overall progress. (9) Also, not everyone needs a cheat meal. Bodybuilders generally stay pretty lean in the offseason compared to most people. So, they can afford a couple of thousand extra calories. However, if you have a fair amount of weight and fat to lose, a single cheat meal — depending on what you eat — may be enough to take you out of your weekly caloric deficit.
It should go without saying, but while you’re cutting fat, you’ll still want to hold onto your muscles, and the easiest way to do that is resistance training. Of course, this will help you build muscle when you’re in a caloric surplus, but studies have also shown that weightlifting will also help the body maintain lean muscle mass while you’re in a deficit. (10)
Speaking of deficits, incorporating some cardio into your routine will help you burn more calories much quicker than weightlifting alone. When bodybuilders are deep into a cut, they’ll often add one cardio session per day to their routine in addition to weight training. One can only reduce their caloric intake so low before experiencing fatigue or putting their health at risk. Adding a cardio session allows you to burn more calories without further restricting your intake. Think of it as a tool to save for further into your cut.
Whether you’re preparing for a bodybuilding show or a photo shoot, some dedication and know-how will help you get to your target body fat percentage. Here are some other cutting and diet articles worth checking out.
Featured image: Labedev Roman Olegovih/Shutterstock