Steve Hall is the founder of Revive Stronger, and a competitive bodybuilder and powerlifter
Nobody likes to diet for longer than they need to. If you’re pretty lean and just want to strip off some fluff before you get back to gaining, you aren’t going to want to spend three months in a cutting phase – and even if you are happy to diet for the long term, at some point metabolic drop becomes a concern. So is there a better way to approach things?
My preferred solution is the mini-cut. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a cut, but shorter in length, and typically as aggressive as possible for fat loss without risking any muscle loss. I define it as 4-6 weeks, so a mesocycle in length, which means that it works really well with block periodisation. There are more aggressive approaches out there, but they don’t guarantee retaining lean tissue. A mini-cut is essentially used to either give you a kickstart into a longer cut, or to kickstart a bulk or mass-gain phase: to clean up, essentially. That’s how it’s most effective.
The biggest mistake people make with the mini-cut is to think of it as a silver bullet. Like anything that works, they’re not particularly sexy: they’re effective but there’s nothing magical about them. Entering a mini cut in an already-dieted state, where you haven’t had time to recover from a previous diet, is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. You enter the mini-cut and you’re already ramping things down aggressively.
A related mistake is to be in a bulking phase and then go straight into a mini-cut: I prefer to have a ‘primer’ phases where you allow the weight you’ve been looking to gain over your mass gain period to settle. A lot of people go from bulking straight to cutting and lose some of the mass they could have gained as it beds in. As we know, there’s a delayed training effect, you do all the hard work now and later you’re stronger: the same happens with muscle gain and fat loss – you do all the work, but your body’s in such a stressed state that it doesn’t actually adapt until later. So by leaping from one phase to the next with no ‘bedding in’, you lose out on that adaptive period.
The next key is to understand is what kind of calorie deficit you can sustain. To set an individualised calorie deficit, my approach is threefold:
1. You identify how fast you can lose weight and maintain muscle
2. You identify how large a deficit you can realistically sustain
3. You use 1 and 2 to give you an appropriate calorie deficit
The idea of losing 1-2 pounds a month isn’t very individualised to a person or their bodyfat. The calorie deficit sweet spot for me is based on percentage: for most people, that’s 1% of total bodyweight loss per week. People who are a bit fatter might want to shoot for 1.5 or 2%. If you’re sub-10% then you’re shooting more for 0.5% and a mini-cut probably isn’t for you.
So: establish the % of bodyweight that’s appropriate for you to lose, find that in lbs – so 1% of 200lbs would be 2lb – then multiply that figure by 500. Take your answer from your current maintenance intake, and you’ve got a theoretical calorie deficit. I say ‘theoretical’ because you have to look at what you can realistically sustain, both psychologically and environmentally: if you have a stable life and you’re psychologically prepared, you can handle a larger deficit than someone with a lot of stress in their life and a demanding career. Remember: your figure from above is the maximum deficit you should aim for. Less is an option.
Once you’ve got your baseline intake set, I tend to follow the 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight rule, alongside 0.3g per pound of fat – this works in 90% of cases. The carbs are simple: that’s all the calories we have left at our disposal. I’d recommend getting 80% of your intake from ‘clean’ or ‘wholesome’ foods – I’m not getting into an argument about what these are, because realistically, you already know.
Optimally, I prefer 3-5 meals a day, with protein at each and carbs ‘sandwiching’ your workouts to ensure maximum protein synthesis and ensure recovery. Workouts should focus on muscle: that means working in the 8-12 rep range, with muscle groups trained twice a week and progressive volume increases. Autoregulation, both on a set-by-set and weekly basis can help, if you’re prepared to use it. I don’t see cardio as required at all, but if you want to do it, keep it at low intensities – around 70% of max heart rate.
Before embarking on a mini-cut, you should do a ‘primer’ phase of training in which you keep the volume low and the calories at maintenance – you’ll be in a low fatigue state and primed for hypertrophy training. After that, you can easily go into your next mesocycle, whether that’s cutting or mass gain. If that all sounds good, give it a try – and if you’d like more guidance, maybe the mini-cut coaching course is for you. Read more about it here.