A mini-cut is a short-term, aggressive fat loss phase. They are a vital tool in your muscle-building toolbox. I know a fat loss phase being good for your muscle-building capacity might seem counterintuitive but, trust me when I say they can be a game-changer for you. Before I explain exactly why they are so effective in aiding maximal muscle gain long-term, let me outline what a mini-cut is (and is not).
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What Is a Mini-Cut?
As I initially outlined, a mini-cut is a short-term dieting phase designed to elicit rapid fat loss.
The two key characteristics of a mini cut are:
- Short duration (2-6 weeks)
- Fast rate of fat loss
Any longer than 6 weeks and it is just a regular diet. In practical terms, my mini-cuts, or the ones my clients undertake, rarely last more than 4 weeks. After analyzing the data on about 100 people I’ve guided through a mini-cut, the average duration is 3 weeks (well, actually the average came out at 3.2 weeks but I rounded down).
This length of time is long enough to see impressive fat loss. The rapid fat loss you achieve in a mini-cut is often visually dramatic.
The short nature of a mini-cut facilitates the second characteristic I identified – rapid fat loss. Being short-term and hyper-focused about your fat loss efforts allows you to go at a rate of loss that would not be sustainable for longer periods of time. How fast? I will provide detailed guidelines in a moment but, the general theme is, as fast as possible whilst maintaining muscle mass. The reason for a slightly vague answer at this stage is because this rate will differ from person to person. Don’t worry, I will fill in the gaps so you know exactly what is best for you a little later in this article.
But Won’t I Lose Muscle if I Diet Aggressively?
Recent research out of Dr. Bill Campbell’s Physique Lab found that participants did not lose any muscle mass during a severe 2-week diet (37.5% calorie deficit). Another interesting study found that athletes following a high protein diet with a 24% calorie deficit for 4 weeks lost about 1.25 pounds of fat per week, without any negative impact on muscle mass, hormone levels, or performance. So, if you’re concerned about muscle loss on a mini-cut, don’t be. Based on the research and my experience you won’t lose muscle mass if you do things right.
Mini Cut Overview
- Short aggressive fat loss phase
- A powerful tool designed to set you up for muscle gain
- Not a long-term "get shredded" diet
- The aim is rapid fat loss and muscle retention, which creates the potential for optimally efficient muscle gain
- Extends the runway for a bulk – creating a bigger window of opportunity to build muscle
- Research shows how effective they are and that no muscle is lost doing them
- Optimal results are shown in people who start out relatively lean and healthy
What a Mini-Cut Is Not:
A mini-cut is not a "get shredded" plan. It’s not a strategy to get in contest shape. Instead, it is a diet that gets you lean enough to be in a good position to build muscle. It’s a "get lean enough to grow effectively" diet, NOT a "peeled to the bone, I can see my internal organs working, stage-ready bodybuilder contest prep" diet.
Why Do a Mini Cut?
The purpose of a mini cut is to allow you to build more muscle. Executed properly they allow you to quickly get back to being in a surplus and gaining muscle mass. Here are some of the key times you might choose to use them:
- An upcoming holiday or event approaching fast that you want to look your best at
- Your rate of progress in a muscle gain phase has stalled and you are gaining an excessive ratio of body fat to muscle to increase in scale weight
- If a lack of appetite is affecting your ability to eat enough and therefore, making it harder to gain muscle
- Getting a bit leaner can increase your insulin sensitivity and improve your Partitioning ratio (P-ratio) - making subsequent muscle gain more efficient
- If you’re a competitor and you don’t want to get too far away from stage condition
- To assess what your physique looks like when relatively lean so that you can identify key muscle groups you’d like to emphasize in future training phases
Benefits of a Mini-Cut
The main reason I love mini-cuts is that they put you in a better position to grow. They increase the runway for the muscle-building phase that follows. This means you can bulk for longer without reaching a body fat that you are uncomfortable with or that interferes with your capacity to build lean muscle. There are other benefits, as well.
Size Can Be an Illusion
A nice bonus benefit that I and many of my clients have taken advantage of is that you look bigger with your shirt off when lean. When summer rolls around and the opportunity or chance of having your shirt off increases this is useful to know. A mini-cut can quickly transform how muscular you appear. Being 170lbs and lean generally looks more impressive than 180lbs and chubby. Mini-cuts can rapidly make you look much better. Use that to your advantage when you might need to have your shirt off. Many of my clients have utilized a mini-cut before going on vacation so they can be more confident about how they look on the beach or by the pool.
Mini-Cuts Create Momentum
Losing fat is much quicker than building muscle. Thus, a properly executed mini-cut provides you with evidence that you are in control of your physical appearance. It provides proof of the concept that smart training and nutrition elicit positive outcomes (shocking news I know). This is very powerful and should not be underappreciated. Many people give up on transforming their physique because they don’t see a change. Investing a bit of time and effort in a mini-cut is very rewarding from both a physical and mental perspective. It builds trust in the individual that their efforts will be rewarded. This was huge for me! The first bit of physique success I had was getting lean. The confidence this gave me encouraged me to push further and pursue increased muscle mass. It took more time, but I persisted because I had the belief from my mini-cut results to propel me forwards.
Get Lean to Get Big
All of the best muscle-building results I’ve seen began when the person was lean. There are two key elements here:
- The length of your building phase can be longer
- Your insulin sensitivity and P-ratio are more favorable and they stay favorable for longer
If you try to bulk up with relatively high body fat at the outset then you’ll most likely not enjoy how you look as your weight climbs (and so does your body fat) or you’ll run into issues with your capacity to gain a desirable ratio of muscle to fat. For most guys that contact me about coaching or training advice, starting out a bulk without mini-cutting will probably end up with them becoming skinny fat.
The Solution to Skinny Fat
Talking of skinny fat, mini-cuts are a phenomenal tool to solve skinny fat. You can quickly strip away the fat and put yourself in a position to bulk up and get big while staying lean.
Short and Sharp
Mini cuts are great because they’re so efficient. Due to their short length, they can be very aggressive. Efficient is good. As a coach, getting a quick result for a client helps build their trust in me and their buy-in to my advice in the future.
Why Do You Need a Mini-Cut?
During a mass gaining phase, you need a calorie surplus to gain weight. If you do everything right, a good proportion of this weight will be muscle. Unfortunately, it is inevitable that some of the weight gains will be stored as fat. This is perfectly normal. Anyone who tells you that you can gain 100% lean muscle naturally is lying. The problem is that over time you gradually gain a higher proportion of fat to muscle. As you reach higher body fat levels your partitioning ratio (P-Ratio) deteriorates.
Your P-Ratio describes the ratio of lean muscle to fat gained as you gain weight. When you are at low levels of body fat your P-Ratio tends to be better. When you have high body fat it is worse. In essence, this means the fatter you get, the fatter you get.
If you are not yet happy with your level of muscle mass but do not lean either this creates a conundrum that lots of lifter’s face. They want more size, but they are getting fatter chasing it. The gains they make in scale weight don’t result in them looking better. They end up fatter! A Mini-cut can solve this issue. A short-term, aggressive cutting phase allows you to rapidly improve your P-Ratio and make your next bulking phase far more productive.
How Fast Should You Lose Weight During a Mini-Cut?
Given that this is a short-term strategy taking you from the top of your bulk to “lean enough” to grow, the risk of muscle loss is very low. Muscle loss tends to only really occur during long-term diets or when reaching extremely low body fat levels. Neither is a concern during a mini-cut.
So, how fast can you lose during a mini-cut?
This depends somewhat upon your body fat percentage. The fatter you are the quicker you can lose weight. As a rule, of thumb I suggest the following guidelines:
- 15+% body fat – lose 1.5-2% of your body weight per week
- 12-15% body fat – lose 1-1.5% of your body weight per week
- 10-12% body fat – lose 0.5-1% of your body weight per week
- Less than 10% body fat – You don’t need to mini-cut. Get growing!
Calculating Your Deficit
Using the time-old information that 1 pound of fat contains approximately 3,500kcal of energy, you can estimate the deficit you need to create to lose at an appropriate weight. To lose a pound a week you would need a daily deficit of 500 calories (500 x 7 = 3,500). To establish your target deficit, simply calculate your suggested percentage weekly weight loss figure. To calculate a 2% loss, you would multiply your body weight by 0.02. For 1.5% multiply by 0.015. For a 1% loss, it would be 0.01, and so on.
After calculating the amount of weight, you are aiming to lose then multiply this by 500 to find your daily calorie deficit. To illustrate, here are two examples:
Bob is 150 pounds and has 15% body fat. Bob will aim to lose 2.25 pounds (1.5% of his weight) per week. To achieve this, he needs a daily deficit of 1,125 calories. This was calculated as follows:
150 x 0.015 = 2.25 lbs
2.25 x 500 = 1,125 kcal
Steve is 180 pounds and has 10% body fat. Steve will aim to lose 0.9 pounds (0.5% of his weight) per week. To achieve this, he needs a daily deficit of 450 calories.
180 x 0.005 = 0.9 lbs
0.9 x 500 = 450 kcal
Protein During a Mini-Cut
The classic 1g per pound of bodyweight will do just fine during a mini-cut. This will provide enough protein to retain muscle mass and it will help to keep you full. This was recently supported by Dr. Campbell’s study from the University of South Florida.
Fat During a Mini-Cut
During a mini-cut fat intake needs to be high enough to support optimal hormonal function. Fat intakes of 0.3g per pound achieve this. After that level has been met I prefer to bias carbohydrate intake so as to support high quality and as high as possible training volumes (more on this later).
Bob is, therefore, having 45 grams of fat per day (150 x 0.3 = 45). Steve meanwhile is having 54g (180 x 0.3 = 54).
Carbohydrates During a Mini-Cut
The remainder of your available calories.
Food Choices to Set Yourself Up for Success
Creating a sufficient calorie deficit and consuming an appropriate ratio of macronutrients is vital to a successful mini-cut. What food you eat matters too though. This is not because any foods have magical fat-burning properties, but because by choosing certain types of foods you make it easier to adhere to the large calorie deficit and macro targets.
As you’ll have gathered, calories will be low during a mini-cut. When calories are low you will naturally feel a bit hungry. That’s part of the process. Accept it. When calories are low people can cave into cravings and eat foods that taste great, but are 100% opposed to their goals. Making smart food choices can help you avoid this scenario.
Choose nutrient-dense, high fiber, low-calorie foods. Foods that are high on the satiety index. Lean protein sources rather than fatty cuts. Green vegetables. Fruits. Choose oats and potatoes as carbs sources instead of rice and cereal. Set yourself up for success by staying full on these types of food. There is a reason bodybuilders have been dieting for decades on foods like oatmeal and egg whites or chicken and broccoli. It’s not because they magically create fat loss, but they do help you to stay full and hit the most important goal of achieving a calorie deficit.
On that basis, I recommend you get at least 80% of your food from what is generally considered “clean” or “whole” foods. You’re an adult – eat like one. You cannot eat like a kid at a birthday party and expect to get lean. By sticking to the 80% “clean” rule you will get sufficient fiber, but to take out the guesswork you want to be getting a minimum of 20g per day. This will keep you functioning well, healthy, and feeling full. All valuable components to a successful mini-cut.
Create A Calorie Deficit Not a Nutrient Deficit
To some extent, the body’s feedback loops consider nutrient intake, not just energy intake. If you are full of nutrients and full because you have chosen highly satiating foods you are far more likely to adhere to the diet plan. If you can adhere to the plan it will be over before you know it and you can get back to bulking. If you cheat on a mini-cut you just delay your return to mass gaining nutrition.
A simple rule to help you to achieve this is to “eat the rainbow”. By this, I mean eating a wide variety of different colored fruits and vegetables. If you do this you will get a diverse micronutrient profile at a low-calorie cost. That’s the ideal combo when mini-cutting.
By far the most important factors for a successful mini-cut are finding a way to adhere to the required calorie deficit and consuming an appropriate macronutrient ratio each day. You can fine-tune things a little further to optimize your results though. This is where nutrient timing comes in.
The goal of your training during a mini-cut is to provide a muscle-building signal to the body. While you might not actually build much muscle, you will retain it. In a mini-cut, we want maximal fat loss and minimize muscle loss.
The best training when mini-cutting is doing the type of training that builds muscle. This is training with as much volume as you can recover from. Think of it this way - what built it best, retains it best. High training volumes are best supported by carbohydrates. Carbs are the dominant fuel source for hard weight training sessions. So, it makes sense to consume as many carbs as you can get away with and bias the timing of these carbs to be around your workout.
Having carbs pre-workout will increase the quality and quantity of the training you can do. This means you provide a more powerful muscle retaining stimulus. It also means you can do more overall volume in the gym. More volume = more calories burned. More calories burned = more fat loss.
Carbs post-workout aids recovery. You are more nutrient-sensitive post-workout so a greater proportion of the carbs you eat will be shuttled to muscles than fat. You should take advantage of this fact to maximize muscle retention and accelerate your fat loss.
As a rule of thumb, I suggest having about two-thirds of your daily carb intake peri-workout (within a window of a couple of hours before and after you train).
How Long Should You Mini-Cut?
As a rule of thumb, it will need at least 2 weeks to lose enough fat to be worthwhile. At the other end of the spectrum, dieting for more than 6 weeks will start to increase your risk of muscle loss. So, 2-6 weeks is the range for mini-cuts. As I said earlier, I have found 3 weeks to be the sweet spot for most of my clients. From a practical perspective, it is long enough to see great progress, but short enough for the end to be in sight. This means they are better able to knuckle down, do the work, and stick to the calorie deficit needed.
Exactly how long you mini-cut for is down to you. You need to get lean enough to be in a good position to build muscle. Your p-ratio improves the leaner you are. From experience, you should be at least sub 15% and it is usually more effective to be sub 12% body fat. If you are about 12% you won’t be shredded, but you should have visible abs with a little flex and/or some favorable lighting.
How Should You Train During a Mini-Cut?
The goal of a mini-cut is to maximize fat loss and minimize muscle loss. The best way to achieve that is to train in a manner that provides a growth stimulus and consume a high protein diet while being in a calorie deficit. In fact, Dr. Campbell advises the following three things to maximize the effectiveness of a mini-cut:
- A high protein diet (1g/pound)
- Resistance training during the caloric deficit
- A short-term diet phase
From a training perspective, it is vital to keep lifting weights. I have found that utilizing training methods that are effective at building muscle is the best way to retain it. A mini-cut is not the time to suddenly begin doing crazy high-rep “fat loss” workouts. Train to stimulate muscle gain and let your diet take care of the fat loss. Long story short, the training you used to build the muscle you have is probably the best to keep it.
Mini-Cut Training Guidelines:
- Key Point: What built it best keeps it best!
- Rep Ranges: Anything in the 6 to 20 rep range can work. I generally prefer the 8-15 rep range for most of the training in a mini-cut. I suggest you make sure every set you do is using a weight that is above 40% of your 1RM.
- Sets Per Week: You should perform volumes that are at and above your minimum effective dose (MED). Knowing your exact MED is tricky but, for most people, it is around 10 sets per muscle group a week. I actually encourage clients to push beyond this as we want to train with the goal of building muscle. Moving closer to your maximal adaptive volume (MAV) is the place to be. Your MAV during a mini-cut is different from when bulking because you are consuming fewer calories and this affects your ability to tolerate and recover from training. I will map out exactly how to find the sweet spot of MED-MAV during a mini-cut don’t worry. At this stage, it’s just a case of understanding the overarching principles.
- How Often: Train each muscle group at least twice per week. Training is the most powerful stimulus to retaining muscle. Training larger muscles twice per week balances the need to create a stimulus to retain muscle mass with enough recovery each week. Smaller muscle groups and newer trainees can probably be trained upwards of 3 to 4 times.
- Progression: just like any phase of training you should be striving for progress. Strategic, incremental, progressive volume increases are a very good idea. Within a mini-cut this is doable but the short duration and low-calorie intake mean you won’t be piling set after set onto your workouts each week. The aim is really to do a little more. Hit another rep, add a bit of weight, do an extra set. These small wins all add up. Have the mindset of training to progress. Don’t get caught accepting performance losses because you are cutting. A mini-cut is short enough that a loss of performance should not happen.
- Set Yourself Up For Success: above all else, the program must be something you can stick to. Pick a plan you’re excited and motivated by. When calories are low and fatigue kicks in you are more likely to train hard with a challenging program you enjoy than the one you hate. Also consider logistical issues so that your weekly training plan suits your lifestyle, schedule, work, and family commitments. You only have a few weeks to achieve the goal in a mini-cut so you need to line everything up to be as efficient and stress-free as possible.
Cardio or Cardi-No?
Cardio polarizes opinion. It seems you either love it or hate it. There is no middle ground. When it comes to a mini-cut you do not have to do any cardio. With that said, cardio can also be a very effective tool to help you reach your fat loss goals.
If you can hit the required calorie deficit without any additional cardio then that is fine. If, however, your hunger levels are sky-high then you can use cardio as a tool to burn some additional calories that allow you to eat a little more and still achieve the planned rate of fat loss. This will largely come down to personal preference. If you prefer to eat a bit more and do cardio to reach your weight loss goal then that’s fine. If on the other hand you dislike cardio and would prefer to eat less to hit the weight loss target that is also fine. From a physical perspective, the difference in results is negligible. From a psychological perspective, the difference could be you sticking to the plan and reaching your goals or blowing off the diet and failing. Pick whichever approach to cardio best suits you and maximize your chances of success.
Another consideration when it comes to cardio is the length of your mini-cut. In my experience, most people can just willpower their way through a two-week mini-cut with no cardio. Those needing 6 weeks, however, struggle to just diet their way to success. Some extra cardio allows them to eat more food, have a bit more variety in their diet, and still succeed in getting as lean as they want.
When it comes to implementing cardio, there are two guidelines I suggest:
- Spend More Time Lifting Than You Do On Cardio. Focus on bodybuilding not ‘body-wasting’ The long-term goal is to build a lean and more muscular physique not become an endurance athlete. The S.A.I.D principle stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. The body adapts to the stimulus that it is exposed to. You should be providing your body with the signal to gain muscle mass. You can achieve this by biasing your time and effort towards weight training. If you find yourself doing more cardio than lifting alarm bells should be ringing.
- Be Extreme! By this, I mean either do very low or high-intensity cardio. Avoid the middle ground. My preference is for low-intensity work. Low-intensity steady-state (LISS) cardio helps increase calorie expenditure and, therefore, a calorie deficit, but it is not very demanding. In fact, it can even aid recovery. I often suggest clients get out for a long walk each day to try and boost energy expenditure without interfering with their ability to recover from their workouts in the gym. On the other end of the spectrum, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be a very time-effective tool to boost conditioning and burn calories. However, it is also very draining. It causes about as much fatigue as hard weight training sessions so I would be very cautious when incorporating HIIT. Many people love the challenge of HIIT workouts and enjoy doing them. When clients tell me this is program them, but only a maximum of two sessions per week. I avoid the middle ground stuff like jogging because this does negatively affect recovery from weight training. Medium-intensity steady-state or MISS takes more time than HIIT, has more of an interference effect with weight training, and leads to more adaptations trending towards endurance training. Consequently, I think it is a poor choice when mini-cutting
When to Mini-Cut?
An important consideration with mini-cuts is where to place them in your overall training plan. This is often overlooked with many people falling into the trap of being reactionary with their use of mini-cuts. They lose a bit of definition, panic, and jump into a mini-cut. You should aim to be strategic and proactive with your planning not random or reactionary.
As I have said in many of my other articles on Muscle & Strength I believe you should take a big picture view to plan your training and nutrition. Furthermore, I think your training and nutrition should work synergistically to have a complementary and additive effect. By periodizing both your training and nutrition so synch with one another you can elevate your results and move past the intermediate level to excel.
The key benefit of a mini cut is its ability to extend the time you spend muscle building long-term. They are best placed at the end of a consistent building phase. Don’t fall into the trap of yo-yoing between mini-bulks and mini-cuts. Gaining muscle is a slower process than losing fat and you need more time to create momentum and significant gains in muscle mass. Your training schedule should reflect this.
I have also identified the benefits of strength, maintenance, or as I like to call them, solidification phases at the end of a bulk to consolidate your gains and avoid the risk of muscle loss when cutting. This is more important for hardgainers than anyone else. Given I often work with guys who struggle to build muscle and would categorize themselves as hard gainers I normally implement a maintenance phase at the end of a bulk before mini-cutting. This is an example of how I tend to set things up for them:
- Building phase 1– 3 weeks – 160lbs
- Building phase 2 – 3 weeks – 162.5lbs
- Building phase 3 – 3 weeks – 165lbs
- Building phase 4 – 3 weeks – 167.5lbs
- Maintenance phase – 3 weeks – 167.5lbs
- Mini Cut – 3 weeks – 162lbs
- Building phase 1– 3 weeks – 164.5lbs
- Building phase 2 – 3 weeks – 167lbs
- Building phase 3 – 3 weeks – 169.5lb
- Building phase 4 – 3 weeks – 172 lbs
- Maintenance phase – 3 weeks – 172lbs
- Mini Cut – 3 weeks – 167lbs
- Building phase 1– 3 weeks – 170lbs
- Building phase 2 – 3 weeks – 172.5lbs
- Building phase 3 – 3 weeks – 175lbs
- Building phase 4 – 3 weeks – 177.5lbs
- Maintenance phase – 3 weeks – 177.5lbs
- Longer Cut to get shredded – 7-12 weeks depending on the individual
For guys that are not hardgainers I am more likely to remove the maintenance phase before a mini-cut. In general, the risk of muscle loss is much lower for them. While I think the risk of muscle loss is relatively low for a hardgainer it’s not a risk I want to take with someone who has always struggled to build muscle mass. For regular dudes, this is not a genuine concern because the scientific data and my experience tell me they can mini-cut without any noticeable muscle loss. Consequently, their schedule looks slightly different:
- Building phase 1– 3 weeks – 180lbs
- Building phase 2 – 3 weeks – 183lbs
- Building phase 3 – 3 weeks – 186lbs
- Building phase 4 – 3 weeks – 189lbs
- Mini Cut – 3 weeks – 183lbs
- Building phase 1– 3 weeks – 186lbs
- Building phase 2 – 3 weeks – 189lbs
- Building phase 3 – 3 weeks – 192lb
- Building phase 4 – 3 weeks – 195 lbs
- Mini Cut – 3 weeks – 189lbs
- Building phase 1– 3 weeks – 192lbs
- Building phase 2 – 3 weeks – 195lbs
- Building phase 3 – 3 weeks – 198lbs
- Building phase 4 – 3 weeks – 201lbs
- Maintenance phase – 3 weeks – 201lbs
- Longer Cut to get shredded – 7-12 weeks depending on the individual
These two examples encapsulate the truth about hardgainers quite accurately in my opinion. Hardgainers can build muscle, but it might take a little longer. I feel the maintenance phases are a vital piece of the jigsaw for hardgainers. Without them, I have seen many guys lose a lot of the muscle they gained. So, if you’re a hardgainer, there is hope. If you take care of all the details and stay consistent you can build the body of your dreams. It might take you longer than the genetically gifted lifter, but you can still make dramatic progress if you utilize the appropriate strategy for you.
In both examples, the bodyweight is climbing steadily upwards. This is worth noting because as I’ve been at pains to say, mini-cuts are not designed to get you shredded. They are designed to get you lean enough to be in a good position to return to mass gaining. They are like taking one step backward to jump forwards two, three, or four. If you decide to skip a mini-cut you might be able to extend your bulk for one more phase of training, but this just extends the length of your diet to get lean enough to bulk again. It becomes a false economy if you let your bulk go too long and your body fat climb too high.
Mini-Cuts = More Muscle
Rather than the traditional approach of bulking for around 20 weeks and dieting for 12 weeks, I think you’re better served to use mini-cuts to allow for a higher ratio of your training efforts to be spent building muscle. Muscle gain is slower than fat loss so it makes sense to skew the amount of time you spend on each to reflect this. Mini-cuts allow you to stack things in your favor for maximal muscle gain long-term.
Rob the Fat Bank
I’ll leave you with one last thought on mini-cuts. Treat them like a bank robbery. This is an analogy I myself stole (or robbed) from my colleague Steve Hall. When it comes to a mini-cut, get in, get what you want quickly and get out before you get in trouble. Much like a bank robber wants to get the cash and leave before the police arrive you want to lose a lot of fat and leave the scene before the negative consequences (muscle loss and sub-optimal hormonal function) kick in. If you do this right, you’ll be on the run to more muscle.