Most of the people I work with aren’t really prepared to do what it takes to get shredded. Which is cool. I know exactly how they feel. But every now and again I get someone who really wants to cut it up. This post is for them!!
I’ll explain the four simple steps the best natural bodybuilders in the world use to set macros for cutting, why setting calories is the tricky bit and how you’ll need to adjust over time. Let’s dig in.
Macro for Cutting in Four Simple Steps
Setting macros for cutting really isn’t complicated on paper. You just start with the totally calorie allotment, then set protein, then set fat and finally carbs. This is a tried and tested formula bodybuilders have use for decades.
Here’s my visual explainer in a simple waterfall chart:
This chart is a novel presentation of the best formal description cutting I’ve ever seen. It comes from a paper by Eric Helms, Alan Aragon and Peter Fitschen:
Let’s run through this example, and then I’ll talk about customising it for.
1: Set calories
In this example we have a 200 lbs male that is maintaining at 3,100 calories a day. He subtracts 500 calories to get to his starting value of 2,600 calories a day, and adds a little cardio. Alternatively he could use a percentage like 20%, in which case he would have subtracted 620 kcal from 3,100 to get 2,480. He could also use a calculator or bodyweight multiplier, but it’s not accurate.
2: Set protein
Protein is a structural macronutrient, so it is set relative to bodyweight rather that as a percentage. A common range for physique athletes is 0.8-1.4 g/lbs (1.8-3.1 g/kg). That’s grams of protein per pound each day. In this example our 200 lbs male gets 220 grams each day (1.1 g/lbs). Using 1 g/lbs is a great simplification for most people.
3: Set fat
Fat can be set relative to bodyweight or as a percentage of calories. Some typical ranges are 0.25-0.5 g/lbs (0.6-1.1 g/kg) or 15-30% of calories. In this example we go for 0.4 g/lbs yielding a fat target of 80 grams of fat a day.
4: Set carbs
The remainder of the calories are filled with carbs. In this example that is 2,400 – 200*4 – 70*9 which we round to 240 grams a day. Carb allotments are by far the most variable among competitors. People with high energy expenditures, and great insulin sensitivity, can often cut on hundreds of grams of carbs a day while others end up below 100.
Ok. That’s the basics. It’s really simple on paper. But in practice it’s tricky because you need to realise two things:
- Calorie needs vary enormously between people
- Calorie needs change as your diet continues
Setting Calories is Tricky
The reason bodybuilders track their maintenance before they begin cutting is that calorie needs vary enormously between people. If you aren’t prepared to track before starting you can make a guess with a calculator or a bodyweight multiplier but please be aware this is just a rough estimate.
Calories need vary hugely!! Take a look:
If you know your maintenance then by all means cut 500 calories or 20% from it, that’s a great start.
But a lot of people reading this won’t know their maintenance.
For beginners I prefer a more aggressive 25% deficit because it gives people a little wiggle room for missing their target. To give you a rough idea of where a 25% deficit is likely to take you I’m going to show you what the distribution of calorie targets looks like for 382 women and 264 men looks after I’ve applied a 25% deficit.
Calorie Targets for for Women
Here’s the female distribution after a 25% deficit has been applied.
Let’s look at the key points in terms of different needs.
- low energy needs: target range 1,200-1,500 calories
- average energy needs: target range 1,500-2,100 calories
- high energy needs: target range +2,100 calories
The calorie target for an average woman trying to create a 25% falls into a 1,500-2,100 calorie target range. Women with low energy needs will be forced to eat 1,200-1,500 to achieve this deficit. While high energy need women can lose well at +2,100.
Calorie Targets for Men
Here’s our male distribution after the 25% deficit has been applied.
Here’s what we can see for men:
- low energy needs: target range 1,600-2,000 calories
- average energy needs: target range 2,000-2,700 calories
- high energy needs: target range +2,700 calories
The bulk of our men create a 25% deficit on 2,000-2,700 calories. High energy need men will do well at +2,700 while those with low needs will need to jump straight in below 2,000.
Expect to Adjust Your Macros Over Time
If you’ve set your diet up well you’ll begin to lose 0.5-1% of your bodyweight per week. Ideally men want to push it closer to 1% to begin with (so 2lbs/week for a 200lbs guy) while women often need to be content with less as the have less energy to play with (1lbs/week is good going).
As your cut progresses you can expect weight loss to slow down as your body adapts to protect itself. You total daily energy expenditure can easily drop by +500 calories during a diet that results in significant fat loss (<10lbs). To keep things progressing you’ll need to cut calories by reducing carbs or fat.
The following graph is one of few documented natural bodybuilder preparations and show’s how macros changed over the course of the trainees prep.
In this preparation, as with many top bodybuilders, the adjustments to macros were surprisingly subtle:
When rate of weight loss slowed, a 5 to 10g reduction in daily fat or carbohydrate intake was implemented to maintain weight loss.
This type of gradual 50 calorie cutting is only possible with remarkable adherence. In this case hitting all macros with 5 g each day. For less elite trainees a good rule of thumb for a downward adjustment is to cut 25 grams of carbs, or 10 grams of fat. This small 100 calorie adjustment forces you to be patient, ride out water weight fluctuations and avoid the race to the bottom that can ruin adherence.
At this point I’m sure some readers are considering trying these macros?
Don’t do that!!!!
Can you remember how crazy the variation in calorie needs is? You need to set your own macros!!
To show you what it really takes here is where 3DMJ athletes bottomed out in their various preps.
See the huge variation?
One of the women dug all the way down to 1,000 calories to get the job done. Whereas a couple of the men got stage lean on a remarkably high 3,000 calories a day.
Also note the vast majority of variation between individuals comes from the carbohydrate intake. The relatively low fat intake reflects the fact that 3DMJ coaches often try to protect carb intake to power workouts. Some other coaches would insist on higher fat intake.
I know that was a lot of charts, so let’s some up:
- Start calories at 500 calories (or 20%) below maintenance
- Set protein at 1 g/lbs of bodyweight
- Set fat at 0.4g/lbs of body weight (or 25% of kcals)
- Set carbs equal to the remainder of calories
- Adjust to keep losing 0.5-1% bodyweight/week
Don’t waste your time worrying about why other people can cut on more calories than you. You don’t have there genetics, you don’t have their job and you don’t do their workout routine. So don’t expect to share there diet.
Expect it to get progressively harder as you lean out.
There’s a reason why so few people get ripped to shreds 😉