How to maintain muscle while cutting


Main Take-Aways

1. Fat loss and performance don’t go hand in hand. During the cut, you’ll likely see a drop in performance. However, this drop is only for the time-being. Trust the process, because you’ll get it back afterwards.

2. If performance is a priority, then cutting ‘aggressively’ may be a good option. This will allow for less time spent dieting, while getting as much ‘work done’ within a realistic timeframe.

3. The best macro split in this scenario should probably include about 1-1.2 g/lbs of protein, 0.3g/lbs of fats, and as much carbohydrate as you can fit into your remaining calories.

So you want to maintain muscle mass, keep performing at a high level, AND lose fat?

Then listen up, because there’s some good news and some bad news.

The bad news is that you can’t have it all, at once.
The good news is that you CAN have it all, just not all at once.
In this article you’ll learn how to maintain muscle and performance while cutting.
But before you scroll down, give me a sec. Because it’s important to talk about context.
These general recommendations are based on a recent Talking Nutrition podcast episode where we addressed a CrossFit enthusiast’s question. Whether these will apply to you will depend on many factors that a blog/podcast can’t necessarily take in consideration.
That being said, if after reading this you’re unsure what’s going to be best for you, feel free to contact me here. Your goals are your goals, so the approach should be personalized to your specific needs.
Table of Contents

Do performance and fat loss go together?

Let’s start with energy balance (calories in vs calories out), the main driver of your fitness results. Energy balance is what will decide whether you gain, maintain, or lose weight, and whether you’re going to be able to perform at a high level or not.
This is also where we run into a problem..
Eating, or ‘fuelling’ for performance is done at least within your maintenance calorie range, preferably even a slight surplus. We’re trying to get away with as many calories as possible to fully support both performance and recovery.
The same can be said for muscle building. While in some cases (i.e. newbie gains) you can build muscle in a calorie deficit, you typically want to be at maintenance or in a surplus to really facilitate muscle growth.
The issue here is that fat loss requires you to be in a calorie deficit, which is the complete opposite. That means less energy (calories) available to perform, less glycogen stored in your muscles (which is what mostly fuels your training), and less raw material available to restore tissue. 
Now that’s not to say you’re doomed, but there will be a drop in performance and recovery throughout your cut. The good news? You’ll get it back in no-time once you go back to eating enough.
However it’s a trade-off that you’re going to have to be willing to make if you want to lose body fat.

Can you maintain muscle while cutting aggressively?

The short answer, you can! 
But before you start slashing calories, let’s talk about what I mean by aggressive. Because there’s still a limit to how hard you can go, and rushing the process will likely have more downsides than benefits.
The sweet spot for sustainable fat loss seems to be within 0.5% and 1% of weight loss per week. Cutting much faster can lead to muscle loss, which we don’t want.
While it’s hard to give a general recommendation (remember CONTEXT), it can be a good idea to aim for that 1% in this scenario. This allows for a shorter, 6 to 8 week mini-cut, which can be beneficial for a few reasons:
  • The longer you cut, the more the metabolism slows down.
  • Less time spent dieting means more time for optimal performance and muscle gain.
  • It’s relatively easier to adhere to, because the finish line is relatively soon.

Combining fat loss, muscle, and performance

While you might want it all, all the time (hey, we’re all human), you can only chase one rabbit at a time.
The key to combining performance, physical, and health goals is planning ahead for the different seasons of nutrition, aka periodization. We call these phases ‘seasons’ because they’re supposed to come and go.
If you have a general idea of WHEN performance needs to be at the highest level possible, when you have time to recover (off-season), and when you can plan for a cut, then you come up with a rough framework for your upcoming year. This is something we do with our online clients, which I highly recommend you do too.
Participating in the CrossFit Open, doing a competition, or trying to PR? These moments require you to be at your best, and a calorie deficit does not allow you to be at your best.
That being said, it’s probably a good idea to plan for a 6-8 week mini-cut somewhere before you’re supposed to perform optimally. With a few weeks in between to transition from being in a deficit to eating more.
As you go into this mini-cut, remember that fat loss and performance do not go hand in hand. You’ll likely see a drop in performance (how much and when depends). However, this drop is only for the time being. Trust the process, you’ll get it back.

Most Important Macros To Maintain Muscle While cutting

Now that you know what energy balance needs to look like, let’s see where those calories need to come from. If you need a quick reminder, we get calories from protein, carbs, fats (macros), and alcohol (toxin).
In order of importance:
🥇 Protein
🥈 Carbs
🥉 Fats
🧐 Alcohol
Protein is already the most important macronutrient, but especially in this case. Together with the recommended rate of weight loss, protein is the most important thing you need to keep in check to hold onto as much muscle as possible. On the food side of things that is.
The ‘optimal’ amount of protein seems to be about 1g/lbs (2.2g/kg) of body/goal weight, however in a deficit it can be a good idea to aim for about 1.2g/lbs (2.6g/kg).
Carbohydrate is not considered essential because the body can survive without it. However I’d argue that for optimal performance and muscle gain/maintenance, it is most definitely essential. Especially when we’re talking high-intensity sports like CrossFit which consist of mostly glycolytic work, meaning the body relies on glucose (sugar) for energy.
Carbohydrate is very important during this cut for a few reasons:
  • Consuming carbs before training can help you get as much out of your workout session as possible. This in turn will allow you to still send the signal of “We need to hold onto these muscles”.
  • It’ll help you recover and replenish glycogen stores, which is your main fuel tank.
  • Eating carbohydrate spikes insulin, which acts as a shut-off switch for cortisol. This can be a great way to get you back into the rest/digest state after training. This is crucial for recovery and muscle maintenance.

Less important during a cut

Fats are essential and are most definitely very important for hormones health and longevity. They’re just less important for performance, which is why it may be a good idea to bring fats down to a minimum. That way there’s plenty of room to cover your protein needs, and as much carbohydrate as your caloric budget allows for.
The minimum fat requirements for health (1) seem to be around 0.3g/lbs (0.65g/kg) of body weight.
Alcohol (not a macronutrient, but a toxin) can typically be included in an overall healthy diet in moderation. However when performance, fat loss, and muscle are important to you, you may want to consider taking it easy on the drinks. Alcohol can negatively affect fat loss, muscle gain/maintenance, recovery, performance, and more. On top of that, it’s also 7 calories per gram, which in a deficit feels a little too ‘expensive’.
Whether you want to include alcohol in this scenario is completely up to you. Just make sure that you’re fully aware of the potential downsides and make an educated decision with your goals in mind. 
⇒ Learn more about alcohol in our definitive health, weight loss, and alcohol guide.

How often should you train to maintain muscle mass?

While it’s possible to build muscle and gain strength while cutting, it’s just not very likely. Unless you’re a beginner, you’re mostly going to be training to maintain what you’ve already built.
The amount of training needed for to maintain muscle and strength is much lower than what it takes to initially build it. My general recommendation for most people is about 3-5 sessions per week.
Though even training as little as 1-2 times a week (2) seems to be enough to maintain muscle mass and strength during a cut. That’s not to say you have to only train 1-2 times per week, but that does mean it’s ok to go with a little less for the time being. 
Additionally, both a calorie deficit and high-intensity training put the body under a lot of additional stress. Since we’re trying to manage stress to allow for optimal results, it may be a good idea to lower training volume for the time being before ramping it up once you’re done with your cut.

How to maintain muscle mass while cutting

To recap. Even though fat loss, muscle and performance don’t really go hand in hand, you probably don’t have to worry about losing all your gains.
Now real quick, we can’t talk fitness goals without mentioning the unsung hero of literally everything health and fitness.. SLEEP!
Enough and consistent sleep helps you build/maintain muscle mass, lose body fat, keep your hunger and satiety hormones in check (kinda important during a cut), keep motivation high, and more.
⇒ Click here to learn more about optimizing sleep definitive sleep guide
Plan for the different seasons of nutrition, and consider going with a more aggressive mini-cut. Train a few times a week to maintain what you’ve built, make sure to sleep enough, and you probably don’t have to worry about losing performance too much. 
If you enjoyed this article, feel free to check out the podcast episode we recorded on this topic.

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