As you may have noticed, getting shredded isn’t easy. In fact, many bodybuilders would argue that trekking the arctic in the midst of a winter storm would be easier than getting shredded for summer! Okay, perhaps that was a slight over exaggeration, but you get what we’re trying to say.
Basically, building muscle while burning fat simultaneously is one of the hardest processes in the world. Many have tried, and many have failed, to build a summer body that was characterized by low body fat percentages, deep cuts, striated muscles, six pack abs, vascularity, and aesthetics.
When we start dieting and cutting down, whether for a vacation, a contest, or a photo shoot, we begin full of great intentions and our motivation levels are sky high. A few weeks in and once we get a whiff of pizza as we tuck into yet another Tupperware of steamed white fish and broccoli, we begin to question whether or not we need abs at all and whether this “cut” is worth it at all.
In the world of bodybuilding, cutting is generally considered the toughest process, but it’s also the most rewarding if you stick with it and get it right. But how does one go about performing a successful cut and is there anything to be done to make life easier? This guide should reveal all.
Bulking or Cutting – Which One First?
Assuming that a bodybuilder has bypassed the maintenance stage, typically a bodybuilder will undergo two processes during the year. He will either be bulking, or cutting.
# Bulking Phase
Bulking is performed during the off-season. The off-season for a competitive bodybuilder is a significant frame of time during the year when he doesn’t have any upcoming photoshoots or contests to diet down for. The off-season is when a bodybuilder does his growing. The aim of a bulk is to slap as much muscle mass and size onto your body as you possibly can, over a significant amount of time. There is no set duration of time for bulking because it’s all dependent on how long you want to bulk up and make gains before you start dieting down and getting shredded.
Some bodybuilders after gaining their pro-card for example, will take an entire year off from competing so that they can focus solely on building muscle and increasing in weight so that they can compete with the bigger boys. During this time they will consume calories well above what they need for maintenance, they’ll lift heavier weights, they’ll up the intensity in the gym, and they’ll train harder so as to build as much mass as possible. That’s the fun part.
# Cutting Phase
Now comes the hard part – cutting. Cutting is a meticulous process whereby a bodybuilder will very slowly and surely start stripping away excess water and body fat so as to reveal the lean muscle tissue they built while bulking, which was hiding under said water and fat. The aim of a cut is to slowly and surely lose body fat so as to preserve lean muscle tissue.
A cut can last as long as the bodybuilder chooses, though most competitive bodybuilders will begin dieting down roughly 12 – 16 weeks out from a contest or photo shoot, so as to slowly and surely losing a small amount of body fat each week and to make the necessary adjustments accordingly. The final results of a successful cut should be a significant drop in body fat, a lean and ripped physique, vascularity, a great set of abs, and a feeling of accomplishment and pride.
To Cut or NOT to Cut?
When it comes to bodybuilding, before you decide to start following a specific diet or training regime, you first need to establish whether or not you should be bulking or cutting. Some bodybuilders that are preparing for a contest will begin their diets a number of months in advance. Assuming that they didn’t go crazy whilst bulking, hopefully they won’t have too much body fat to lose, in which case they can begin, say, 12 weeks out and look to drop between 0.5 and 1 kg of fat per week.
Remember, cutting is nothing like crash dieting. The aim of a cut is to lose body fat slowly so as to preserve lean muscle. But how do you decide whether to cut or not? Well, some deciding factors include:
1. Blood pressure
Cutting and dieting down isn’t just about looking good. We also need to lose body fat for health reasons as well. Bodybuilders aren’t the healthiest bunch of individuals, and they will be the first to tell you as much. While they eat healthy foods, because of the intensity in which they train, and the size that they carry around on their frames, their joints sometimes suffer, and their blood pressure may also increase.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, as it is better known, is sometimes called the “silent killer” by health experts. This is because of the fact that there is no obvious way of diagnosing high blood pressure because there are no obvious symptoms. Being overweight and carrying too much body fat can lead to an increase in blood pressure. Some big and bulky bodybuilders carrying a lot of mass will suffer from hypertension, which puts them at risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease, heart attack, renal damage, and much more besides. Going on a gentle cut will help lighten the load, as it were, and will take some of the stress and pressure off of your heart.
Body dysmorphia issues are now a great deal more real than ever before, especially considering social media is now plastered with airbrushed fitness models claiming that looking like them is easier than ever. These models look awesome and they certainly clearly display what you can look like if you cut successfully, but not everybody wants to be that lean.
Some guys would be happy to simply get down to a healthy body fat percentage in which they feel comfortable in their own skin. If you’re not feeling confident about yourself because of how you look, going on a cut could be a fantastic way to rectify this. By cutting body fat and toning up you will begin to look leaner and more defined, which in turn should boost your self-confidence and have you feeling better about yourself.
If you’re a competitive bodybuilder, either amateur or pro, you’ll know that a cut is essential if you wish to stand any chance of winning. You’ll have hopefully worked incredibly hard when bulking, and will have put some great size onto your frame, without getting too fat. But now it’s time to cut. The aim of a bodybuilding contest is to show up as lean and shredded as possible. You need to be vascular, symmetrical, and aesthetic, whilst still carrying a lot of muscle mass. If you have a competition approaching, a cut is vital.
4. Vacation or photo shoot
Another couple of deciding factors when it comes down to determining whether or not you should be cutting are whether you have an upcoming vacation or photo shoot to prep for. If you’re looking to head away on vacation to somewhere hot and sunny, you’ll probably want to hit the beach looking lean, ripped, and tanned.
A lot of gym-goers will actually treat an upcoming vacation like a bodybuilder would treat an upcoming competition. When you hit the beach, you don’t want to be bloated and puffy, you want to be lean and shredded, so a cut could be exactly what you need.
The same principle applies to a photo shoot. You don’t need to be a fitness model to have a photo shoot booked in. Regular everyday individuals often have professional photo shoots conducted and whether you are clothed or topless, it still pays to cut and diet down so as to look your best in front of the camera. Remember, they say that the camera does add 10 pounds, so just bear that in mind when deciding whether or not you need to cut or continue bulking.
The 11 Rules of Ripped
On paper, cutting is simple as it’s basically a process whereby you gradually reduce your calories, you remain in a slight deficit, and you do plenty of cardio as well as lifting. In reality however, cutting is anything but easy or simple.
There’s a lot to know and understand when it comes to cutting, and if this is your first cut, we want you to be as successful as you can be. Here are some cutting rules for getting ripped:
1. Get enough protein
When cutting, if you think you’re getting enough protein, you’re probably wrong. Protein is essential for the growth and repair of muscle tissue. As a bodybuilder, you’ll know that your primary objectives when cutting are to lose fat, and preserve muscle. When you diet, you create a caloric deficit. Any caloric deficit means that some muscle loss is inevitable. Your primary goal however, is to keep muscle loss to a minimum. This is where it becomes important to consume enough protein, to help keep you in an anabolic state so that you can hold onto your lean muscle mass as you burn fat.
2. Try to eat every three hours
The key to a successful cut is to eat small and healthy meals little and often. Rather than just three regular-sized meals, bodybuilders will instead consume around 6 – 8 meals per day. These meals are generally small, low in calories, rich in protein and very healthy. One, and possibly two of these meals, can also come in the form of a protein supplement shake.
3. Try to eat simple carbs after you train
During a cut, carbs are important, but primarily you should go with fibrous carbs like those found in fresh vegetables. Complex carbs are ideal, but it doesn’t mean that simple starchy carbs like those found in white potatoes, rice, and pasta, should be avoided completely.
After working out, your muscle cells are crying out for glycogen, proteins, and amino acids and starchy carbs help to create that much-needed insulin spike after training which helps to shuttle nutrients into your cells. After training, carbs with a high glycaemic index such as white rice, pasta, potato, and fresh fruits, should be consumed to help spine insulin levels and get everything where it needs to be much quicker. Alternatively, you could simply add a scoop of dextrose powder to your protein shake.
4. Don’t forget your post-workout shake
Protein supplements are very beneficial during a cut. In terms of importance however, the optimal time to consume a protein shake is immediately after finishing a workout. After smashing the weights and pumping some serious iron, your muscle cells should be severely depleted of glycogen, nitrogen, amino acids, and the proteins and nutrients needed to initiate protein synthesis. You need to get these nutrients into your cells as quickly as possible.
A whole food source of protein after training isn’t recommended because your body will take longer to break the food down and absorb it. A whey protein shake mixed with water however, is absolutely perfect. Whey protein is a rapid absorbing protein that can quickly be absorbed by the body. As we mentioned previously, if you add a scoop of dextrose to your shake, or consume some simple carbs, the protein and glucose will be absorbed by your muscle cells even quicker.
5. Drink plenty of water
If you’re cutting, put down the chemically-enriched “diet” sodas and drink fresh water instead. Too many bodybuilders looking to cut fat and persevere muscle will drink chemically-sweetened beverages just because they’re sugar-free and very low in calories. The chemicals used in these drinks are very bad for you and have even been found to slow the metabolism. This in turn means that you’ll find it harder to lose fat.
On the other hand, water is absolutely ideal. Water hydrates the mind and body, it promotes athletic performance, it boosts energy levels, it regulates our hormones, it boosts the metabolism, it helps to prevent muscle fatigue and cramp, and much more besides. Basically, water does the exact opposite to what chemical-laden diet beverages do for you. Studies have even found that drinking cold water as opposed to room temperature water will have a slight thermogenic effect on your body so you’ll burn off even more calories than usual.
6. Don’t go fat-free
One of your two primary objectives of a cut is to lose body fat. Because of this, far too many bodybuilders out there will panic and will decide to adopt a fat-free approach to dieting to try to speed up the rate in which they burn fat. The truth is that fat-free dieting actually has the exact opposite effect on your body, as it makes it harder for you to lose fat.
You see, we need a little healthy fat each day in order for us to function properly and to perform at our best. If you find yourself taking in no fat whatsoever, all this will result in is you experiencing more hunger than usual, and your feeling tired and lethargic. A little fat is needed for the regulation of anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone. On top of that, it’s also needed for ensuring that our major internal organs perform as they should. You need a little fat to provide you with the energy needed to get you through your workouts, especially considering the fact that you’ll be working at a caloric deficit so strength and energy levels will be low.
7. Resist the urge to snack
Cutting really is an art form. You need to be methodical and meticulous, both with your training and with your diet. Every calorie and macro needs to be tracked and accounted for and snacking is very risky. A small handful of nuts for example, may not seem like much to most people dieting, but to a bodybuilder, that small handful of nuts could be the difference between waking up bloated or waking up shredded. A few calories here and a few calories there might not seem like much at the time, but they all add up.
8. Don’t go crazy with the cardio
Cardio is a crucial part of any successful cutting regime, but the main issue with cardio is that people often try to do too much, too soon. The idea is to slowly but surely lose body fat over the course of several weeks/months. Cardio is an integral part of any fat loss regime, but the main issue is that it can also hinder recovery and even muscle tissue if you perform too much of it.
Most bodybuilders during a cut will perform steady state cardio, either in the form of a gentle walk or a very light jog on the treadmill. They’ll perform around 4 – 5 steady state cardio sessions per week. Others however, swear by HIIT.
High Intensity Interval Training requires the bodybuilder to alternate between rounds of slow and steady cardio and fast-paced, high intensity cardio. So, they may walk for 60 seconds on the treadmill, before speeding it up and sprinting as fast as they can for 60 seconds. After this, they’ll walk for 60 seconds and will repeat the process over and over again for around 20 minutes max. When it comes to cardio, whatever you do, don’t overdo it if you’re looking to cut successfully.
8. Prep like a G
If you’re looking to cut, please do not even think about trying to cut unless you’re committed to prepping your meals for the week ahead. As we mentioned earlier, in order to cut you need to be consuming 6 – 8 meals per day. The last thing anybody will want to be doing when they’re tired and hungry, is prepare 6 – 8 meals every single day, even if one or two of them are protein shakes.
Set aside a few hours per week and cook your meals for the week in advance. Batch cook off a series of protein sources, some carb sources, and vegetable sides and portion the meals up in Tupperware containers before storing in the fridge or freezing them. Having basic healthy meals prepped during the week will make your cutting journey so much more easier and straightforward.
9. Remove yourself from temptation
Some days, you’ll find it incredibly easy to diet and avoid junk food. Other days however, when hunger kicks in and the cravings rear their ugly heads, you’ll find it a whole lot harder.
We’re only human, and we all make mistakes now and then. Some of you will break your diet during a cut, and while not ideal, as long as you get back on track as soon as you can, it won’t be the end of the world. However, if you’re hungry and craving junk and you know for a fact that there’s a stash of cakes, cookies, and candy bars stashed away in your kitchen, you’ll find it much tougher to resist them.
If there are no temptations in the house however, you won’t be tempted to cheat on your diet and give in to your cravings. Before you start a cut, we recommend donating all of your junk foods and treats to a more worthy cause, and ensuring that your home remains junk-free for the majority of your cut. If you fail to do so, you’ll make life much harder than it needs to be when you’re trying to get shredded.
10. Train hard
When you’re cutting, you will be in a caloric deficit and you may find yourself feeling tired, weak, and lethargic. This is not ideal when lifting weights but you must keep reminding yourself of how great it’ll feel when you’re shredded and have smashed your goal. When training, you can’t afford to tone back the intensity or effort, especially when pumping iron.
Okay, as carbs and calories will be lower than they were when bulking, your strength will take a hit, that’s to be expected. Instead of doing less however, you instead adapt. If you can no longer bench press 225lbs for 10 reps, lighten the load and train to failure in your chosen rep range with a weight that you are comfortable with. Most bodybuilders will adopt a lighter weight, higher rep approach to working out. Always give 100% effort, always keep up the intensity, always push yourself, and always continue to make improvements, even if it’s something as basic as 1 more rep than you performed last week.
11. Peak week
When you’re cutting for a contest or photo shoot, the objective is to show up looking full, defined, vascular, hard, and shredded. This is where it pays to understand what peak week is and how you can use it to ensure you look as fantastic as possible when you need to look your best.
– What is peak week?
Peak week is basically the final week before a bodybuilding contest or photoshoot, when bodybuilders make minor tweaks and adjustments to their diets, training, and lifestyles in order to ensure that they look as fantastic as possible on stage, or in front of the camera.
You see, in the final week before your contest/shoot, diet is now your primary objective. You’ve spent the last several months/years, training your butt off and hopefully making gains, and so by now there’s nothing more that you can realistically do to improve your physique through training alone in just one week.
When you tweak your diet however, there’s heaps that you can do. Something as basic as drinking a small glass of wine before going to sleep for example, could be the difference between you waking up looking full, dry, and shredded, or you waking up looking bloated, puffy, flat, and watery. Peak week is very much a matter of trial and error, and if you do things correctly in these final few days, you could look better than you ever imagined when you step on stage or in front of the camera.
– Training and cardio
We mentioned how your primary focus during peak week should be on what you’re eating and drinking, but that doesn’t mean that you should sit on your backside for the next 7 days and not pick up a dumbbell or barbell.
When training, for the first 3 days of the week you should train as you normally train, except for the fact that you should drastically reduce the amount of weight that you lift. In fact, experts recommend that you lift 80% less than you would normally lift. The idea here is basically to force blood and nutrients into the muscle and to get a good pump. For the next 2 days you should stick with light weights but perform circuit training and work one muscle group per exercise, aiming for 15 – 20 reps per set. Here, aim for 60% of what you would normally lift, rather than 80%.
In terms of cardio, do nothing but very gentle walking. Anything more could be counterproductive. On day 6, you should basically only be performing 30 minutes gentle cardio, and training with extremely light weights, just again, to force blood into the muscles.
– A word on legs
When you train legs, you know how brutal leg training is. Most experts agree that you should start tapering off your leg training around two weeks before you’re due to compete, and for the final week you should do no leg work whatsoever. Your legs will get a very gentle pump from walking, but in truth, that’s all you need to be doing to work the legs.
You can’t possibly build any more muscle or improve your legs any more for this final week, so follow the advice of the experts and don’t work your legs in the final week before your contest or photo shoot.
– Sodium and water
During peak week, the amount of water and sodium you consume will determine how great you look on the day. The idea when competing is to show up looking as full, dry, and ripped as possible.
Bodybuilders do restrict water intake for the final week of their cut leading up to the contest, but often they’re wrong to do so. They think that by drinking less water, they will store less water under their skin and will therefore look drier and fuller. The truth is that dehydration will have the opposite effect.
Sodium influences how we store water in the body, though going low-sodium isn’t necessarily the smart thing to do. Experts recommend that you stick with the same amounts of sodium and water that you’ve been consuming for X amount of days/weeks leading up to the contest.
By restricting sodium intakes, all you’re doing is shocking your body and this is the last thing you need before stepping on stage, as it could result in cortisol secretion, water-retention, and hormonal imbalances. In fact, sodium is vital for blood volume, so if you go low-sodium you can say goodbye to vascularity and crazy muscle pumps which make you look harder, leaner, and fuller.
Carb cycling is essential when it comes to peak week, and it’s here where a lot of bodybuilders blow it. On day 1, keep complex carbs high and ensure each meal has a complex carb source. As each day goes by, gradually reduce the amount of carbs that you consume, until you get towards the end of the week where you’re only eating carbs in a morning for breakfast.
The night before the contest however, is where you can manipulate your carbs. Before going to bed, most bodybuilders will consume a high carb meal. This is because your cells will be depleted of glycogen, and so your muscles will look “flat“. When you go to bed after a high carb meal, you’ll look bloated and puffy and you’ll worry you’ve blown it. However, you need to trust the process. When you wake up the next day, the glycogen has done its job and your muscles will now look bigger, fuller, harder, and rounder and you’ll look drier and more vascular than ever.
On the day of the show, only go with a moderate carb load. We’ve seen bodybuilders cramming pizzas, donuts, and bagels down their necks a few hours before stepping on stage, and wondering why they didn’t make the first callouts, despite looking bloated and washed out.
6 – 8 hours before pre-judging begins, you should consume around 30 – 70g of carbs every 3 hours. If you struggle to gain mass, you should aim for closer to 70g, whereas if you’re an endomorph that carries mass easily, aim for closer to 30g. Go with carbs that you know you can digest easily.