PROLOGUE: can you even have a prologue for a blog post? Anyways. This started out as a piece on cutting without losing lean body mass. While it still does this, it now also functions as a comment on the state of nutritional and exercise science, statistical chicanery, and the supplement industry. If you want the TL;DR, skip to the section “OK, rant done”.
On with the show
There are about as many strategies to cut as there are people trying to do so, and probably double that amount of useless supplements hawked by guys on enough trenbolone to float a ship.
And believe me, I get it. I still have a 1kg sack of dextrose sitting in the cupboard from when I thought that carb back loading was the holy grail of cut protocols.
Because the hardest thing about cutting isn’t the counting of calories, or the feeling of hunger, or having to explain to your friends why you’ve switched to vodka soda instead of your usual ale and a pack of scratchings.
The hardest thing is the cold fear that stalks you like your shadow’s shadow, whispering in your ear as you’re going to sleep, as you’re heading to the gym, as you’re waking up….
- Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
- ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum ishi krimpatul.
The fear that you are going to lose all your gains.
And you could, but only if you do it badly.
What follows is an attempt to cut (turr hurr) through the heaping piles of garbage published by the supplement industry, and outline a cutting strategy that will preserve the maximum amount of lean body mass possible. In theory it is quite a precise science, though practicing it requires a bit of wiggling, but it will help you to dial things in as much as possible.
But why would I want to cut?
Because you’re in a weight class sport dummy. If you can move down a weight class without losing much strength, you’re gonna be blowing people out of the water. With the exception of Holly Mangold and Rezazadeh, nearly every weightlifter worth a damn is lean as heck.
Say, for example, you’re a male sitting at 85k, with approximately 20% body fat. A cut down to 10% without a loss of lean body mass would move you to the 77k weight class. Plus you’d have abs and stuff. Your squat might not go up all that much during the time it would take, but assuming you spent the time dialling in technique, your total probably would. Instead of being a mid range 85k lifter, you’d be a competitive 77k lifter. And the best part; a cut like this isn’t even that difficult hunger wise. It just takes attention to detail.
OK, OK, I’ll cut. What do I do?
So glad you asked. I hate to be One Paper Mcgee, but most of the literature on this seems to be based off of one piece. If you’re familiar with nutrition science, you’re aware of the difficulties facing those trying to do good science in the field. For those who aren’t, I’ll spare you the nitty gritty, but the underlying enemy of nutrition science,
other than the seeming lack of personal pride, ambition, or professional shame in the citation hungry rabble constantly fantasizing about being featured on Dr Oz that seem to be doing it, is the inherent difficulty in getting a metabolic ward study done. Metabolic wards, the gold standard in nutrition science, involve all food input and output being weighed and measured, and all exercise and activity being monitored. It’s expensive, and it is hard to find subjects willing to do it. To make up for this, most researchers simply ask people to self report, and then analyze the data. Since everyone lies, the data collected via this method is notoriously unreliable. If you’d like an example of how bad nutrition science is done, pick up a copy of The China Study, or research the seven countries study by Ancel Keys.
All of which is a slightly long-winded way of saying that I don’t think it’s generally a good idea to base your whole protocol on a single paper, even though I’m going to. It happens a lot, and can lead people to false conclusions. For one thing, you can make statistics say just about anything you want them to. For another, published science can be useless. This is why it’s important not just to read the abstract of a pubmed article and then hop on to your favourite fitness site and troll everyone. Methodology is more important than results, and ignoring the context in which a paper is made is stupid.
One classic example of this is the difference between an in vivo study, and an in vitro study. In vivo (latin: within the living) studies are done on whole organisms. In vitro (latin: within the glass) studies are done on cells outside of their normal biological context. In vivo studies are expensive and difficult. In vitro studies are cheap and easy. You can take one specific gear from the Rube Goldberg machine that is a living organism and study it. In vitro studies are useful because they allow scientists to cast a wider net of research. Rather than committing the time and resources to a full in vivo study, they can test the waters first to see if they’re even on the right track, like sticking your big toe in to the bath water. This is the purpose of an in vitro study.
However, since the majority of the population is about as scientifically literate as a brick, and a stupid brick at that, in vitro studies get built up by the media and published as being something that they’re not. An entire room full of huffpost editors putting lipstick on pigs while talking about god particles at CERN.
Take the plethora of facebook posts one sees about the newest cure for cancer. I just saw one on marijuana, so lets focus on it. The link lead to a new-age blog, which had essentially reblogged a huffpost article, which in turn cited this study: http://ar.iiarjournals.org/content/33/10/4373.abstract#corresp-1
Give it a read if you’d like. Researchers found that applying cannabinoids to leukemia cells drastically decreased their viability when they were transferred to drug free mediums. So basically, they got a bunch of leukemia cells in a culture that contained cannabinoids, transferred them to a different culture that did not contain cannabinoids, and found that the cancer cells were less able to successfully divide.
Great. Sounds awesome, and a promising field for further study. But it shouldn’t be seen as a war cry for everyone with leukemia to start toking; we need to do an in vivo study to see what happens to these leukemia cells within their normal biological context.
Otherwise, we have no idea whether or not the body would metabolize THC in to the studied cannabinoids and deliver them to the cancer cells in sufficient doses to achieve the effects noted by the researchers. We have no idea if it would deliver them at all. Finally, we have no idea what effect the presence of any endogenous or exogenous compounds would have on their effectiveness. So many questions.
I can take a culture of leukemia cells and pour brown sauce on them, and I’m willing to be that they would become less viable as a result. Doesn’t mean that the new cure for cancer is a visit to the chippy.
OK, rant done
I am, however, going to be Ol’ One Paper Mcgee on this. I’m doing this because anecdotally, it seems to work. Anecdotal evidence is garbage and unscientific, I know, but there is something of value to be found in the thousands of n=1 self reporting studies we can find online. Until more metabolic ward studies are done, it’s hard to have a gold standard for this kind of thing, so finding a well designed paper and looking at the broscience zeitgeist for a mass of supporting anecdotal evidence will have to do.
So here’s the paper in question. If you don’t feel like paying to access it, hop on over to your local library and then access it from there.
It analyzes most of the data that we have on the subject, and comes to the conclusion that the body can cover a caloric deficit of 69.75 calories per kilogram of fat mass before using LBM as fuel.
Lyle McDonald, who is the bees knees for this stuff, does a fairly good job of putting this all in to practice, so I’m going to just block quote him and give credit where it is due.
Our 180 lb man at 15% starts his diet. He has27lbs of fat and can sustain a maximum deficit of27lbs. * 31 cal/lb = 837 calories…So now we check in 8 weeks later, he’s down 12 lbs., almost purely of fat (we’ll ignore any small LBM losses). His new numbers are 168 lbs. with 15 lbs. of fat = 9% bodyfat. Maximal sustainable deficit = 15 * 31 = 465 cal
Assuming his maintenance is still 15 cal/lb (not automatically a safe assumption), his maintenance requirements should now be 2520 calories. But the adaptive part of metabolic rate reduction has probably dropped him a good 10% below that. So let’s say his maintenance is 2250 cal/day or so. 2250 cal/day – 465 calories = 1785 calories. So, not much of a reduction from his previous 1863 calorie/day diet. Basically, the drop in his maintenance levels over the course of 8 weeks offsets the fact that he can’t sustain as much of a deficit and is now leaner. Of course, his fat loss has also slowed to just under a pound/week.
Now 4 weeks later, he’s dropped about 4 more pounds of fat. His new numbers are 164 lbs. with 11 lb of fat = 6.7% bodyfat. Maximal sustainable deficit = 11 * 31 = 341 cal His maintenance will have dropped further, let’s say 14 cal/lb (people’s daily activity tends to go down due to the hormonal changes from extreme dieting) and a 15% adaptive reduction which brings him to 1951 calories/day. Reduce by 341 to get 1610 calories/day. He will need to reduce daily calories by a couple of hundred (from 1785/day to 1610/day) to achieve the maximum deficit but his fat loss will be down to 2/3rds pound per week.
Ok, step back for a second: the above calculations aren’t meant to be the holy word of god, there are a lot of estimates upon estimates being made, especially my guesses as to the changes in maintenance level and how big of an impact the adaptive component is having. The adaptive component is a big question mark with not enough data for my liking. Tracking morning body temperature gives a rough guideline: for every 1 degree drop in morning temperature below 97.8 degrees, your metabolism is suppressed by about 10%. This was more to illustrate what I meant by ‘net deficit’ with changes in both fat mass and maintenance requirements.
But, again, the above seems to scale roughly with reality. As people get leaner and leaner, fat loss slows drastically. To keep it moving, they have to either cut calories further or increase activity, both can cause muscle loss.”
What I find most interesting about this approach is that it takes in to consideration the reduction in TDEE that weight loss has on a person, and the metabolic slow down that accompanies food scarcity. Though the difference between TDEE and total caloric intake slowly narrows as fat is lost, TDEE continues to go down as weight comes off.
So, the step by step goes something like:
- Take a shirtless selfie to document progress.
- Weigh yourself, preferably before breakfast but after your first bowel movement.
- Calculate your BF%. A review of the methods to do so is outside of the scope of this article. Try a bunch of different ones and take the average.
- Calculate your TDEE. A review of the methods to do so is outside the scope of this article. I favor the ones here http://iifym.com/tdee-calculator/ but the more sources you have the more precise your average will be.
- Total Fat Mass = bodyweight x BF% ÷ 100
- Total caloric intake on diet = TDEE – (Total Fat Mass (in kilos) x 69.75).
- Re-weigh once every few days, ideally at the same time of day, and with the same “intestinal loading” as you had the first time.
- Adjust caloric deficit as needed.
- Continue taking shirtless selfies every two weeks or so.
While cutting, keep intensity up. This isn’t a good time to be doing volume sets, but there is no reason to scale down at the top end. Conditioning, if it must be done, should be kept brief and strength biased. No 30 minute WODs. Keep it short and snappy. Keep protein high, and keep fat low. It’s not that I don’t like keto, I just think it’s easier to work out when you have some glycogen floating around, and type II muscle fibres, the ones we train specifically, prefer glycogen as a fuel source. Keep a food journal or use a calorie counting app to make sure you’re being accurate. If you’re going to drink, keep it to spirits and soda, and no, Tuaca does not count as a spirit. Also, that thing about the selfies: not a joke. It is an extremely valuable data metric to have in body recomposition. If you are losing a shit ton of weight but you’re still flabby, you are probably doing things really, really badly; refer to the Tuaca comment above.
When to hit the big red button
If your performance is decreasing dramatically, you are cutting too many calories, and need to recalculate or figure out why everything is going wrong.
If you are putting on weight, you need to recalculate or figure out why everything is going wrong.
If you are losing weight and strength, but still look flabby, you need to stop doing mainsite crossfit, recalculate, and see why everything is going wrong.
If you notice a severe decrease in your grip strength, it is a sign of CNS fatigue. Either eat more or train less.
If you are a man and you stop getting morning wood, you can expect a visit from the gainz goblin. Eat more. Likewise if you are a woman and you stop menstruating. Both of these symptoms are signs that the body is extremely unhappy with what you are feeding it. Please eat more in either case.
Just frickin do it already. It’s not that hard.
Alpert, SS – A limit on the energy transfer rate from the human fat store in hyphagia. J Theor Biol. 2005 Mar 7;233(1):1-13
McDonald, Lyle – The Answer: http://forums.lylemcdonald.com//showpost.php?p=139222&postcount=3 Retrieved on 2/02/15
Scott, Katherine Ann et. al – Enhancing the Activity of Cannabidiol and Other Cannabinoids In Vitro Through Modifications to Drug Combinations and Treatment Schedules. Anticancer Research Oct 2013 vol. 33 no. 10 4373 – 4380