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Cutting: the basics

By Fleur van Griensven

What is cutting?

When people talk about cutting, they mean losing bodyfat while minimizing the loss of muscle mass. Most people cut with a specific goal in mind. Whether that goal is to get in better shape, getting beach ready or for a photoshoot or competition. The one thing to keep in mind is that you should never feel the pressure to cut down for someone else. Always do it for yourself, otherwise it’s going to be hard keeping the motivation and getting the most out of a cutting period when things get tough. At the end of the day it is your body

Cutting the basics

In this article the basics of cutting will be explained. Later, more articles will follow about different methods that can be used when cutting to extreme low fat percentages and whether they are beneficially and it’s up to you to decide whether you want to cut or not.

One aspect is crucial during a cut: being in a caloric deficit. This comes down to the energy balance.The body strives for homeostasis and prefers to keep body weight more or less the same over a period of time. Homeostasis is a state in which the body’s internal environment is as constant as possible even though external factors may fluctuate. The body tries to resist disturbances in the homeostase, which are being done on purpose during a cut. Being in energy balance means that the calories consumed are the same as the calories burned (kcals in vs. kcal out). Stated differently: a state in which you don’t gain nor lose weight (=maintenance calories). The body has several mechanisms to do this, but in the light of this article it is not necessary to know them. With regard to caloric intake: the body doesn’t act on a day to day basis, but more on a weekly basis. That doesn’t mean meal timing is irrelevant, but it is not as important as the energy balance when it comes to cutting. In conclusion, the key for cutting is to get into a caloric deficit and make the body tap into its reserves. Body fat is used to compensate for the caloric deficit.

How to calculate maintenance calories?

The easiest way to calculate maintenance calories, if you don’t know them already, is making use of a specific formula. For example, there is the Harris-Benedict equation, as shown below in table 1. This formula will give the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): the minimal number of calories the body needs when resting. Even when doing absolutely nothing the body needs energy to keep the heart pumping, breathe and for other organ functioning. When the BMR is calculated, an activity factor is taken into account. The activity factor is a measure for how active you are during the day. Doing a lot of sports or heavy work ends up in higher maintenance calories. See table 2 for the activity factors. Realize that it’s hard to predict which activity factor suits your lifestyle best, because it comes down to many more factors in the end. Choose the one which best describes your current activity level.

Keep in mind that these formulas are just estimates of calories needed to maintain a person’s body weight. The Harris-benedict formula accurately predicts BMR with a +/- 14% precision, but is unreliable in malnourished individuals[1]. This probably isn’t the case for any of you. The calculated maintenance calories are a good starting point, but in most cases, need some tweaks here and there. Eat the amount of calories calculated for a period of 2 weeks and check if your body weight changes by using a scale. When body weight stays the same, you know your individual maintenance calories.

Table 1: The revisit Harris–Benedict equation[2].

Table 2: The activity factors to calculate maintenance calories[3].

Creating a deficit

There are two ways (or actually three ways) to get into a deficit. The starting point is always the calculated and/or already known maintenance calories.

  1. Nutrition alone. This is a good way to get a cut going and lose body fat without putting all the cards on the table. After a while people might hit a plateau when no more  body fat is being lost, so it might be a good idea to wait with adding cardio until you hit a plateau.

  2. Activity alone. This comes down to increasing the energy expenditure. Two examples are incorporating cardio sessions and getting more active during the day. However, from a time-consuming point of view it might be better to look at creating a deficit with nutrition at first.

  3. Combination of nutrition and activity. When you are at a weight loss plateau or when you are not willing to drop further in your caloric intake a combination of both can be used.

How much should the deficit be?

Taking the time for a cut is important, because it gives the best chance to maintain muscle mass while dieting. For this reason, don’t try to lose more than 0.5 kg per week[4]. Which comes down to a daily 300-500 caloric deficit (maintenance calories minus 300/500). Why this number of calories? A weekly 3500 deficit equals 1 pound (=0.45 kg) of weight loss. So this will result in a weekly 0.3-0.5 kilogram body weight loss.

How long should you cut?

This is something people should decide for their own. Why? Because a cut can take as long or as short as it needs to be. Everyone has a different starting point and end goal. The guy who is already in decent shape and only wants to lose 2 kilograms, might need 4-5 weeks. The girl who is dieting down for a competition and needs to get shredded to the bone to step on stage, might need 16-20 weeks. Choosing how fast you want to reach your goals is up to yourself, but it might come with a trade-off: muscle loss, extreme hunger and feeling tired.

Most important is to have a clear end goal in mind and be accountable for the choices you make on a daily basis. Are you doing everything in your power to succeed? Set up a plan and follow it all the way through. When it comes to fat loss, accept the fact that losing body fat from specific areas doesn’t exist. Focus on maintaining a caloric deficit and in time even stubborn areas will get leaner.

One last take home message: be patient. If it took several months/years to gain weight, don’t expect to lose it overnight.


[1] Roza, A. (1984). The Harris Benedict equation reevaluated: resting energy requirements and the body cell mass. Am J Clin Nutr, 40(1), 168-82. Retrieved from [2] Calorie intake calculator (2016). Retrieved from [3] Harris Benedict equation: determination of the basal metabolic rate (2016). Retrieved from [4] Nick Cheadle Fitness (2014, January 27). Create your own fat loss diet- like a boss. Retrieved from

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