Mini Cut: A short, aggressive diet phase. The goal is to lose as much body fat as possible across 3-6 weeks without losing muscle mass.
Now, counter to what you would think... the primary goal of a mini-cut isn't fat loss... it's actually to allow you to build lean muscle longer/more productively.
We use mini cuts to keep your body partitioning nutrients most optimally (more calories are being partitioned towards building muscle, less towards fat storage).
If you're chasing your best body composition ever, mini cuts are an important tool to have in your belt.
Today's blog is your complete guide to properly implementing mini cuts for rapid fat loss and more lean muscle.
Why Implement Mini Cuts?
Basically, mini-cuts allow you to spend more time in a productive building phase... a.k.a. what 99% of you who can’t achieve the lean, strong body composition you’re chasing are missing.
For women and men alike, spending 6-12 months focused on fueling your training + recovery properly and building lean muscle will make a BIG difference in your body composition.
Let’s say you just got super lean for the first time ever with the help of Online Coaching, and have 20lbs of fat left on your body.
You still don’t look as lean or strong as you want... but your hormones & energy levels are zapped. You can't realistically lose any more body fat and expect to sustain that level of leanness. We know that at this point, your physiology is strongly pushing back against you getting any leaner.
So, we decide it's time for you to start your first building phase.
You go through 8 months of building —> 8 weeks of cutting —> end up back near where you started, with 20lbs of fat left on your body.
But, now (thanks to the building phase) you have an additional 8lbs of lean muscle on your frame.
So even though fat mass is the same as before, your body fat percentage is lower, and your body composition is much different.
My online client Kathy is a great example of the changes that can happen here:
The picture on the left isn’t long after a photoshoot we got her super lean for.
After this, she spent months focused purely on eating more and maximizing performance in the gym, with a special emphasis on glute gains. This means she was consistently dialed in on:
—> Consistently eating in a slight calorie surplus, and gaining ~.25-.5% of her body weight per week
—> A higher carb approach to optimize training & recovery
—> Improving on a set-by-set basis weekly within her training
—> Training 5x/week
After months dedicated to building, she was feeling a bit too fluffy, and it appeared that her body fat percentage might be drifting outside of the optimal P-Ratio (more on this shortly).
So we dropped her into a mini-cut, where she quickly dropped 6lbs in 4 weeks.
As you can see, in both pictures she's the same weight, but body composition is much different.
This is exactly why I’m always convincing online clients to commit to building phase. “Convincing”, because the thought of seeing the scale increase is scary for most (I get it!), but this is 100% necessary for anyone chasing their all-time best body composition.
But anyways, mini-cuts = more successful building phases due to something called...
Your Partitioning Ratio or P-Ratio is the ratio of muscle to fat gained when your body weight increases. Within a certain body fat percentage range, your body will be shuttling more of the calories you take in towards building muscle, and less towards fat storage.
On the flipside, outside of these ideal body fat percentage ranges, your body will be gaining exponentially more fat than muscle with every pound that you gain.
I've found that (like everything within Online Coaching) there is lots of individual variability here. But in general, the most optimal body fat ranges will be:
—> 10-15% for men
—> 18-30% for women
Too far below or above these marks, and a much greater percentage of the overall weight you gain will be fat.
So aside from the fact that most of us don't want to feel overly fluffy during a building phase... excessive body fat will actually make the process of achieving your best body composition ever less efficient.
Mini-cuts are a tool that we intersperse into building phases to allow you as an online client to maintain an optimal P-Ratio, without killing the overall momentum of the building phase.
Determining Rate Of Loss
One of the most important things to consider here is how fast you're losing weight.
Again, we're pushing you to lose as quickly as possible without losing muscle mass.
But, how quickly you can lose here really depends on how lean you are currently. The leaner you are, the smaller the percentage of body weight lost per week needs to be. When you're already leaner, you're at a higher risk of muscle loss, as your body has less stored energy (a.k.a. fat) available to burn, making muscle a more likely candidate than for an individual with more body fat.
I like Revive Stronger's general recommendations here:
—> Men at ~10% body fat | women at ~18% body fat should aim to lose ~.5% of body weight per week during a mini cut
—> Men at ~15% body fat | women at ~25% body fat should aim to lose ~1% of body weight per week during a mini cut
—> Men at ~20%+ body fat | women at ~30%+ body fat should aim to lose ~1.5% of body weight per week during a mini cut
So once we determine your ideal rate of loss, we'll need to determine...
Determining Size Of Deficit
This really goes hand in hand with your rate of loss, because the size of your calorie deficit 100% determines how quickly you lose fat.
So now that we know how quickly you should be losing per week, we use that info to determine how many calories you need to eat to achieve the desired rate of loss.
We know that generally, creating a calorie deficit of ~3,500 calories will lead to ~1lb fat loss. So, eating 500 calories below your maintenance calorie intake every day for 7 days, should lead to about a pound of fat loss (500 x 7 = 3,500).
For example: If you weigh 150lbs, and are aiming to lose 1% of body weight per week (1.5lbs/week), you'll need to be in a weekly deficit of ~5,250 calories.
So first, you need to know your maintenance calorie intake (the intake you maintain your current body composition at).
If you're already tracking macros, (something all of my online clients in building phases do), we'll already have a but idea of where your maintenance calories are.
But if you're not sure, you have a few options here:
OPTION 1: Use this calculator.
OPTION 2: Multiply your bodyweight by 13-17. (13 would be a sedentary office worker, 17 would be an extremely active construction worker.)
OPTION 3: Start tracking everything you eat in MyFitnessPal (don't change your diet from the norm), and take the average of the total calories you eat for 4-6 days.
Regardless of which method you used, you should now have a number that is roughly you maintenance calorie intake.
Using the example above: If you're aiming to lose 1.5lbs per week (which requires creating a weekly deficit of ~5,250 calories), and your maintenance intake is 2,300 calories - then we know that to hit your weekly deficit goal, you need to be eating ~1,550 calories per day.
While calories are king if you're strictly chasing fat loss... any time you're looking to build or preserve as much lean muscle tissue as possible, your macro intake becomes just as important as your calories.
Without the proper macros, it's much less likely that your mini cut will go well - which is why my online clients undergoing mini cuts always follow specific, individualized macro prescriptions.
—> Set protein intake between 1 - 1.5g per lb of body weight (multiply body weight x1-1.5).
When you're in a mini cut, adequate protein is essential to maintaining muscle. Plus, it keeps you full, and has the highest thermic effect (calories burned during digestion) of all the macros.
1g/lb of body weight will ensure that you hit your protein needs for maintaining your muscle. You can push closer to the 1.5g/lb mark to help reduce hunger (if needed).
—> Most should set fat at .3 grams/lb (multiply body weight x.3).
For optimal hormonal function and health, most of us need at least .3g fat/lb of body weight. Dipping below this point for too long can potentially cause hormonal issues, and fatty acid deficiencies.
But past this point, fat isn't as satiating for most as lean protein or fibrous carbs. It's also the most calorie-dense macro, coming in at 9 calories per gram. Plus, it doesn't have the training performance or recovery benefits of carbs... so it makes sense to keep fat lower in this scenario.
—> Fill your remaining calories with carbs.
Carbs from whole-food sources will help keep you full, improve your performance in the gym, give you more energy, and speed up your recovery from training. Since your ability to train intensely is helpful to maintaining your muscle during the mini cut, keeping carbs high here is smart.
How you time your nutrients has a big impact on your training performance and recovery. Over the course of a 6 weeks, a lot of shitty training sessions + sub-optimal recovery VS. a lot of well-fueled workouts + optimal recovery = a big difference in your body composition at the end of the mini-cut.
So, for online clients like you entering a mini cut, here are my recommendations:
—> Protein Timing Across The Day - It's true that calories are the primary driver of weight loss or weight gain. But for optimal lean muscle growth, you need to consider muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Muscle protein synthesis is basically the process of your body turning dietary protein into actual lean muscle.
Consuming protein (with the most optimal amount being 25-50g) increases muscle protein synthesis for ~3-6 hours.
So, to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis through your day, it's most optimal to spread your protein (and meals) across 4-6 meals, with 25-50g protein at each.
—> Pre-Workout Meal - What you eat pre-workout is key for kick-starting the recovery process, and helps fuel your body through intense training.
To prevent as much muscle protein breakdown (the opposite process of muscle protein synthesis - muscle protein is being broken down) as possible, and create optimal circumstances for recovery/growth, you should consume ~25-50g of protein in this meal. If you really don't have the option to eat a pre-workout meal (e.g. you workout super early), I'd recommend at least drinking a protein shake before hand. This will digest very quickly, and shouldn't give you issues.
If you have time to allow the meal to digest pre-workout (>1 hour), adding ~25-50 grams carbs to the mix is smart. A mix of carbs from starch and fruit gives you a combo of faster and slower releasing carbs to fuel you through the workout.
We want to avoid too much fat in this meal, because it will slow digestion, and have you feeling sluggish during your training.
A solid pre-workout meal could look something like:
- Greek yogurt (slow digesting protein)
- Whey protein (fast digesting protein)
- Oatmeal (starchy carb)
- Berries (carb from fruit)
Typically, you'll feel best eating this 1-2 hours before you workout. I like to split the difference here and go with 1.5 hours pre-workout. Eating this meal too close to your workout will have you lifting with food still digesting in your belly, making you feel sluggish.
—> Post-Workout Meal - As far as protein, aim to eat another ~25-50g of protein within an hour post-workout (as it will have been about 3 hours from your previous bolus of protein at this point).
With carbs, insulin sensitivity is highest post-workout. (Basically, your body will most efficiently use carbs for muscle-building purposes at this time.) So it makes sense to time lots of fast-digesting carbs post workout (e.g. white rice, spotted bananas). This is the most important time to consume carbs, as far as timing goes - so especially in a mini cut (where carbs will be relatively limited), load up here.
On a similar note, an intense training session will trigger a stress response. Basically, when you experience stress, cortisol (the stress hormone) rises and your nervous system enters a sympathetic state or “fight-or-flight mode”. In this state, your brain perceives an imminent threat, and slows or stops all bodily processes but the most vital to either “fighting or fleeing”. This means processes crucial to your recovery - food digestion, hormone production, and muscle repair itself - are slowed or essentially stopped.
So obviously, to optimize recovery, you want to get out of a sympathetic state as fast as possible post-workout, and get into the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” state. Here, your body focuses on nutrient absorption, repairing damaged tissues, etc.
The beauty of timing your carbs post-workout like this is, carbs help decrease cortisol levels. So consuming carbs post workout will help you create a better environment for building lean muscle.
Similar to the pre-workout meal, we want to keep fat low here. Fat would slow your body's ability to digest the nutrients you just took in.
—> Pre-Bed Meal - We also want your body to have some protein available throughout the night. ~1 hour before bed, eat 25-50g protein from a slow digesting source (casein powder, greek yogurt, cottage cheese).
Mini Cut Calorie Cycling Strategies
Calorie cycling is essentially periodization of your calories within the mini cut. While not a "must" per say, it’s something I've found helps online client tremendously when it comes to overall adherence and training performance/recovery in the mini cut. (Check out THIS BLOG for a complete breakdown of my favorite calorie cycling strategies to use with online clients).
—> High/Low Days - Here, your “low” calorie days are paired with off days, because energy will be much lower on these days.
Your “high” calorie days are paired with training days - you’ll have more energy (meaning you’ll be able to push your training harder), and be eating more calories when your body needs it MOST to maintain muscle (post-workout).
Typically, this equates to 3-4 high days (on training days), 3-4 low days (on off days or less taxing training days).
So taking it back to our example from before: If you're aiming to lose 1.5lbs per week (which requires creating a weekly deficit of ~5,250 calories), and your maintenance intake is 2,300 calories - so we know that to hit your weekly deficit goal, you need to be eating ~1,550 calories per day, your high/low strategy could look something like....
MONDAY: UPPER BODY
1,705 Cals | 150g Pro | 175g Carb | 45 Fat
TUESDAY: LOWER BODY
1,705 Cals | 150g Pro | 175g Carb | 45g Fat
1,345 Cals | 150g Pro | 85g Carb | 45g Fat
THURSDAY: UPPER BODY
1,705 Cals | 150g Pro | 175g Carb | 45g Fat
FRIDAY: LOWER BODY
1,705 Cals | 150g Pro | 175g Carb | 45g Fat
1,345 Cals | 150g Pro | 85g Carb | 45g Fat
1,345 Cals | 150g Pro | 85g Carb | 45g Fat
—> Protein-Sparing Modified Fast Days - This is a strategy that I learned about years ago from Lyle McDonald, and have seen great success implementing with my more advanced clients. We used this exact strategy extensively in my client Rachel's transformation to photoshoot lean (CLICK HERE to read the blog that gives you her exact process and strategy).
The idea here is, instead of keeping calories pretty low across the entire week, we can knock out a big chunk of your weekly deficit in a single day, and keep calories higher the rest of the week.
The goal is to keep calories as low as possible, while still hitting your protein goal. Basically, you just focus on eating lean proteins and lots of veggies.
So your day could look something like:
- 50 of whey protein + coffee in the morning.
- Meal 1: Chicken breast + lots of veggies
- Snack: Tuna mixed with non-fat cottage cheese
- Meal 2: Lean ground beef or turkey with seasoning, mixed with salsa and veggies
- Meal 3: Non-fat, plain Greek yogurt mixed with whey protein
Nothing magic about this approach, but it makes the mini cut much easier to adhere to for most people. When you nutrition coach with me, we always prioritize finding a diet you can adhere to over all else. That's how we create sustainable results.
Duration Of Mini Cut
So now that you have all of the logistics down, the question is...
"How long should I do this for?"
—> No longer than 6 weeks.
Past this point, you'll be at a much higher risk of muscle loss (which is very counterproductive to the mini cut's goal of helping you maintain as much lean muscle as possible). If you have a lot of fat to lose, you absolutely can lose fat aggressively for longer periods of time - but that's outside the scope of this article, which is specific to online clients in building phases. (I'd recommend you check out The Rapid Fat Loss Protocol.)
—> No shorter than 3 weeks.
It's nearly impossible to tell how your body is changing on the first two weeks of a diet. That's exactly why it's incredibly rare that I adjust an online client's nutrition plan in the first two week - we just need more time to see how your body really responds to your current macro intake, and for the deficit to compound. So short timeframes don't make much sense here.
And really, if you can achieve the amount of fat loss you want in <3 weeks... you probably don't actually need to implement a mini cut yet. Keep focusing on eating more and building.
Making Nutrition Adjustments
Now that you understand the above, this is pretty simple.
Your protein and fat intakes are already set at "essential" marks.
So if you're not falling in line with the desired rate of loss (either losing too slow or too fast), you'll primarily be adjusting calories via carbs up or down until you reach the desired rate.
That said, if needed (e.g. you can't fathom dropping carbs any lower) you can temporarily drop fat below the .3g/lb mark (something I've had to do with online clients in the past), but I wouldn't recommend it for more than a few weeks.
Training During A Mini Cut
The reality is, training during a mini cut doesn't change much from how it does during your building phase.
It's super important that you continue to hit your muscles with adequate training stimulus... otherwise, your body could decide that this calorically expensive tissue (lean muscle) isn't worth keep around during this period of calorie scarcity.
—> For intermediate trainees, I’d recommend training 4x/week with an upper/lower split.
This split allows for adequate volume to stimulate lean muscle growth across the week, hits your frequency needs, and will let you emphasize building lean muscle & strength simultaneously (although this is much less likely to happen during a mini cut).
For more on how I program the upper/lower split for online clients, check out this video ↴
—> For more advanced-intermediate to advanced trainees, I’d recommend training 5x/week with either a Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper split, a Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower, or an Upper/Lower/Push/Pull/Lower split.
Your volume needs for progression will be higher as a more experienced trainee, so this split allows you to match that.
I'd check out The 7 Training Program Templates All Coaches Need for programming templates.
Cardio During A Mini Cut
Losing fat requires eating fewer calories than you burn in a day... but calories are our body’s major fuel for recovery.
So when you're eating less, your “recovery resources” are more limited. Meaning your can only hit your body with so much training stimulus before it becomes counterproductive.
So, to successfully mini cut, you'll want the primary stressor on your system to be your training - that’s the stress that’s going to stimulate muscle maintenance.
Aside from this, the goal should be to do our best to keep other stressors to a minimum, so they don’t “steal” recovery resources from your muscles.
This means it’s generally smart to use low-intensity cardio as a fat loss tool (rather than high-intensity variations), as it’s much less stressful on the body (and actually can help promote recovery).
Now, like everything within online coaching, my cardio prescriptions vary depending on the individual. But generally, I’ll prescribe 2-5 cardio sessions per week, 30-40 mins each, doing something like incline walking, riding the assault bike, or rowing at a heart rate of 120-140 beats per minute.
The more active you are as an individual, the less cardio you’ll need. (Some online clients don’t need any.)
However, if you’re more sedentary (e.g. you work a desk job, and average 3,000 steps per day), the reality is, you’ll likely need more cardio to achieve the fat loss you’re chasing.
Finally, it’s smart for us to track your daily movement in the form of a step goal. This allows us to factor in everything that could be affecting your body composition, and make sure you don’t accidentally decrease movement and stall fat loss.
When Shouldn't You Do A Mini Cut?
As you've likely gathered, the mini cut is a tool we use for a very specific goal within online coaching, and is not something that should be used by everyone. Especially if...
—> You've dieted recently, or are struggling with cycles of drastically overeating & under-eating.
It's easy to look at mini cuts as a way to "cheat the system" and smash food for a period of time, because you'll "make up for it later" with the mini cut. This only promotes disordered eating, and is not at all the purpose of a mini cut.
—> You've been building for <3 months.
The reality of a building phase is, you likely will have to spend a bit of time feeling fluffier than you'd like... but long-term, it's key to adding lean muscle to your frame and achieve a body composition that's both functionally strong and aesthetic.
That said, if you freak out the first time you notice your abs aren't quite as visible and start a mini cut... you can quickly fall into an unproductive cycle of constantly alternating between cutting and building, which never allows you to acquire the momentum needed to truly change your physique in a building phase.
And that is how we implement mini cuts within online coaching.
Achieving a body that's both functionally strong and aesthetic is not an easy process, which is why most people have failed without investing in a coach, and becoming extremely committed to the process.
If you’re ready to commit to a fully individualized nutrition & training strategy, click here now to apply for online coaching with me.