How Much Muscle Do You Lose on a Cut? Zero If You Follow This Rule

Workout Plans | Written by Nathan Petitpas | Updated on 6 April 2023

A muscular man posing in a dark room with smoke or chalk in the air asks himself, "How much muscle do you lose on a cut" since he wants to run one more cutting phase.

The answer to “How much muscle do you lose on a cut” can be zero if you follow this one rule of cutting slowly and ensuring adequate volume is met in the gym.16

As you may know, the weight lifting world refers to a “cutting phase” as is a period where lifters aim to lose weight by eating less — but if done too quickly, those hard earned gains will partially wither away. 

Sure, muscle loss may seem inevitable in any cutting program, but it really is possible to lose fat and keep muscle if done right. 

Is it Normal to Lose Muscle When Cutting?

When cutting, it’s actually quite common to lose muscle since many people cut too aggressively. In fact, muscle loss is a common phenomenon across the board for bodybuilders, athletes, and casual fitness enthusiasts alike. In fact, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that 20-30% of the weight most dieters lose comes from lean body mass (LBM), or everything in the body that is not fat — including muscle.

However, this projected muscle loss isn’t a reason to be concerned (and it’s definitely not a reason to skip out on cutting) since with the right techniques, anyone can learn how to lose fat and not muscle during a cut!

Why Do Most People Lose Muscle When Cutting?

At their core, muscle gain and fat loss are counterproductive to one another because lifters have to consume fewer calories to cut weight, but with too few calories, the body will start to burn muscle in addition to fat.

Have you ever seen images of people starving? Their bodies look like sticks because it’s burning fat, muscle, and even organs to stay alive although this is an extreme case of a caloric deficit.

Of course, there are a few key culprits that contribute to greater muscle loss during a cut. These include the following:

  • Too little protein: Protein is the primary building block for muscles. Therefore, anyone looking to avoid muscle loss during a cut needs to get plenty of protein. One study from Medical Science in Sports and Exercise found that athletes who increased protein intake during weight loss saw significantly lower LBM losses. Even when dieters are in a caloric deficit, it is so important to fuel the body with healthy protein. Protein shakes are good for weight loss, as well as eggs, nuts, quinoa, and salmon.1
  • Too little sleep: Many bodybuilders want to burn the candle at both ends: work hard, train hard, play hard. But too often, that “go-go-go” lifestyle comes at the expense of their sleep. This is a big problem because sleep deprivation can have a negative impact on weightlifting and weight loss results.2 Poor sleep habits put extra stress on the body, causing it to release cortisol (a hormone that helps regulate stress). Cortisol is known as a glucocorticoid — and plenty of research (like this study from Frontiers in Physiology) shows that glucocorticoids are the main driver in muscle wasting.
  • The wrong kind of training: A powerlifting building phase focuses on lifting weights, but not losing weight. During a cut, that focus is reversed, and losing weight becomes the main goal. However, this does not mean that lifters should stop training during a cut. Resistance exercises and high-intensity cardio are necessary during the cutting phase to keep muscles active and prevent losses.

How Much Muscle Do You Lose on a Cut That is a Week or Month Long?

As we mentioned earlier, the answer to “how much muscle do you lose on a cut?” can be (and should be) ZERO. However, lifters who train incorrectly or try to lose too much weight during a cut may notice significant muscle loss.

A muscular guy swinging battle ropes full force in a dark gym with chalk floating in the air and gymnastic rings in the background.

Source: Rido via Canva.com14

Research shows that muscle loss can happen quickly — and fitter people like lifters get hit the hardest. If a bodybuilder goes from an active building phase to an inactive cut, he or she can lose as much as two pounds of muscle in a single week.3

If they keep up that inactivity for a month, that lifter will lose up to eight pounds of muscle along with any fat they’ve shed.

How Many Weeks or Months Should a Cut Be to Retain Muscle Mass?

No one wants to work hard in the gym and build up muscle, only to watch it waste away a month later. Therefore, it should be clear that inactivity is not the best way to cut. Instead, weight lifters should do two things: continue to train (with a modified routine) throughout their cut, and make sure their cut is short enough to retain muscle mass.

The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that low-calorie diets can yield weight loss for up to six months before plateauing. This is why some weight lifters opt to extend their cutting periods for as long as six months. But lifters who want to see sustained, effective weight loss without sacrificing muscle mass need to keep their cuts on the shorter side.

Some weight lifters use “mini cuts” that last just four weeks to drop weight before bulking up again. But to maximize weight loss and maintain muscle mass, a cutting phase should be around six to eight weeks. This allows the body enough time to burn fat without contributing to muscle loss or diet fatigue.

What Are Typical Signs of Diet Fatigue?

When weight lifters are in a cutting phase, they often notice that they have less energy than during periods of muscle growth. There’s a simple explanation for this: they aren’t getting as many calories.

The body burns calories for energy, and a diet limits the amount of “raw material” available for the body to burn. This is why “diet fatigue” — the drop in energy that occurs on a low-calorie diet — is so common during a cut. So when considering how much muscle do you lose on a cut, just know that diet fatigue is a sign to be aware of and when it occurs, it’s usually time to deload and go through a period of maintenance calories. 

Common signs of diet fatigue include:

  • Change in heart rate variability: The average person’s heart rate changes throughout the day due to physical factors (resting vs. active), psychological factors, and many other reasons. But when a bodybuilder is struggling with diet fatigue, his or her heart rate will become less varied throughout the day.4
  • Lack of motivation: Most fitness buffs have a love-hate relationship with their training. The workouts are hard, they hurt, and they leave lifters positively spent — but everyone is still eager to get back for their next session. When diet fatigue sets in, that eagerness tends to disappear. The old energy source (extra calories) lifters tap into to get that next rep is gone during a cut, and that can deplete any motivation to get back to the weights.5
  • Moodiness: Diet fatigue can have a significant impact on mood. This can manifest as a lack of motivation (as we discussed above), insomnia, irritability, and much more.6 Obviously, there are other factors like stress or external situations that can foul a lifter’s mood, but if a lifter feels like their emotions are “off-kilter,” it might be a sign that they are badly fatigued.
  • Decreased appetite: Hunger is a common symptom for anyone on a low-calorie diet, and learning how to distract yourself from hunger is vital for a successful cut. But lifters experiencing diet fatigue often find that they don’t need the distractions because their appetite is gone. This is a sign that they have been dealing with serious fatigue for quite a while.
  • Poor performance: Bodybuilders who find themselves fighting illness, sloppy form, and generally poor performance during workouts need to take a step back and consider whether they are fatigued. Diet fatigue impacts the body’s ability to perform, and trying to train through it can lead to injuries that will set back a lifter’s training (not to mention his wallet — no one wants to pay the sports hernia surgery cost).

A lifter who experiences diet fatigue should consider deloading their strength training. To do this, he or she must lower the intensity of their training below their minimum effective volume (MEV), or the least amount of weight, reps, and sets they need to build muscle.7 Deloading allows the body to bring down fatigue without having to resort to complete detraining.

How Long Should I Run a Maintenance Phase In Between Cuts?

It may be tempting to jump right back into building muscle after a cut. But there is one more thing that has to happen first: the maintenance phase. A maintenance phase is a period that follows a cut, in which a weightlifter focuses only on maintaining his or her weight through their caloric intake – which differs from a deload as deload refers to the volume done in the gym.

A maintenance phase allows the metabolism to recover and renormalize.8 Metabolic recovery is essential to success during the next building phase and any future cuts.

Typically, fitness experts encourage lifters to run a maintenance phase that is just as long or at least half as long as the cut they’ve just completed. Folks who practice an eight-week cut need to maintain their new weight for at least four weeks (but ideally eight) before they can move on to building muscle.

It is still fine — even encouraged — to train during a calorie maintenance phase, but don’t overdo it. Stick within your maintenance volume (MV), or the minimum number of sets, reps, and weight a lifter needs to maintain their current muscle mass.9 While MV varies from person to person (or even muscle to muscle), for most experienced lifters MV can be as low as six working sets per muscle group each week!.10 And if that few sets leave you itching for more time with the weights, don’t worry. Once the maintenance phase is over, you can hit those weights hard and make progress on your maximum adaptive volume (MAV): the volume at which you see the greatest gains.

Will I Lose Any Strength On a Cut? If so, How Much?

Lifters who implement short-cutting phases, keep training (even unloaded training), and keep their weight losses below 1% of their body weight should not lose much strength during a cut.

Lifters who do feel weaker after a cut should take a step back and pay attention to their bodies. In these cases, it’s likely that fatigue or excessive training (beyond their current MAV) is contributing to these losses.

How to Cut Properly Without Losing Muscle or Size

While many lifters find themselves asking, “How much muscle do you lose on a cut,” the question they should ask is, “What’s the best way to cut without losing muscle?” Ultimately, the answer to that question comes down to three things: diet, training, and rest.

A weight lifter’s diet during a cut should lend itself to slow and steady decreases. This is not the time to try and lose 10 pounds in a month (unless you want to risk losing muscle in the process). Strive to lose just 1% body weight each week, but do not exceed a weekly loss beyond two pounds.

While dieting during a cut is about decreasing, training during a cut is about increasing and adapting. Lifters train more often than usual. They push past the caloric deficit to keep their muscles active. They may even adjust their training routine to accommodate their bodies’ current needs. And when the cut is over, they will be hyped to discover that they’ve managed to hang onto those muscles.

Here are some must-know tips that will help you make the most of your next cut.

Dieting Methods to Lose Weight Fast Without Losing Muscle

A white dish full of broccoli, scrambled eggs, bacon and bell peppers on a wooden tray.

Source: anja_i via Canva.com15

Most lifters know that proper diet is essential to achieve desired results. The cutting phase is no exception to this rule; in fact, it is during this phase that diet matters more than ever.

A proper diet during a cut will contain enough protein to prevent the muscles from wasting away, while also giving the lifter just enough energy to get through a workout despite the caloric deficit.

Below are a few tips to facilitate weight loss without losing muscle:

  • Don’t cut too much: The expert advice on cutting weight is to embrace slow losses. Dieters should not lose more than 1% of their body weight each week. Cutting more than 1% can result in greater muscle loss, which ultimately works against a lifter’s long-term fitness goals. The chart below shows just how much bodybuilders can safely lose during a cut without sacrificing muscle:
  • Eat appropriately: We’ve already talked about how valuable protein is for muscle development, so it should be no surprise that protein must play a big role in any cutting phase diet plan. A lifter’s meals always need to be rich in protein, and during a cut that is even more true than ever. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends that everyone get at least 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram they weigh each day (g/kg/day). However, when a weight lifter is looking to cut weight without losing muscle, that recommendation increases to 1.2 g/kg/day. It’s also important to keep carbs in your diet to fuel energy production. Start creating a caloric deficit by cutting fat intake down to 0.3g per pound per day.
  • Keep the cut short: Longer cutting phases are attractive because they promise greater weight loss. But remember: as much as 30% of most weight loss comes from LBM. The longer someone tries to cut weight, the more likely they will be to lose muscle. Instead, commit to keeping all cutting phases down to eight weeks or less. This helps maximize weight loss while preserving muscle, giving lifters the best of both worlds.
  • Eat frequently: The caloric deficit of a cut can really wreak havoc on the body and break down muscles. The best way to avoid this “breakdown” is to fuel up regularly throughout the day. Instead of three meals each day, fitness experts recommend that weight lifters eat at least four times a day during a cut. Each of these meals will be smaller than a typical meal (you are still aiming for a caloric deficit), but they should provide enough protein to fuel muscle development and enough carbs to give the body energy.

Weight Lifting Strategies for a Successful Cut With Minimal or Zero Muscle Loss

It is possible to lose weight fast without exercise in a month. However, lifters who want to minimize muscle loss must continue their lifting routine. The trick is to adjust lifting strategies to accommodate for reduced calories. Here are a few tips to help maintain muscle during a cut:

  • Train effectively: Newbie lifters may feel like weight training should take a back seat during cuts. They might feel like they have to turn their attention to cardio — after all, cardio has long been touted as the key to weight loss success. But before you start asking, “How much do I need to run for weight loss?” or signing up for your gym’s Zumba class, remember this: strength training can still be part of your cutting phase. The trick is to focus on exercises with an ideal stimulus-to-fatigue ratio (SFR). SFR refers to the difference between the hypertrophy adaptations an exercise delivers (aka muscle growth) and the fatigue it generates.11 During a cut, it’s best to embrace exercises that deliver maximum growth with minimum fatigue. These exercises include movements like squats and bench presses.
  • Train often: During a cut, it is important to train each muscle group a little more frequently than during a building phase. Dr. Mike Israetel recommends training each muscle at least two times per week or even three times per week if possible. This is important because the caloric and energy deficit in a cut limits the amount of time your muscles are in an anabolic state (building or maintaining muscle). Lifters who continue to train specific muscles (for example, biceps) only once a week will not benefit from a full week in an anabolic state, and they may even suffer muscle loss in the days before the next week’s workout. Training each muscle multiple times a week mitigates that anabolic loss.
  • Train above maintenance volume: While it can be tempting to take it easy during a cut, training below MV can quickly lead to muscle loss. It’s also important to remember to train all muscle groups throughout the cut. Skipping one muscle can result in uneven losses that will affect long-term progress.
  • Deload when necessary: This advice might seem a bit contradictory to the info above. How can you deload when you’re supposed to train above your MV? While maintaining reps and weights can help you avoid muscle loss, it is also important to pay attention to your body’s needs. It is normal to have less energy after cutting calories, so don’t be ashamed to unwilling to take a break and deload for a few weeks during this phase. There is no reason to be lifting to failure in the middle of a cut! Scaling back your strength training can help fight off fatigue and avoid injury, which ultimately serves any long-term fitness goal.

Carefully training and switching between building, cutting, and maintenance can sometimes feel like a slow process (especially for those new lifters who are desperate to know how long it will take to get a perfect body). But this method is the surest way to lose weight and preserve your muscle mass.

With these tips, you’ll never have to ask “how much muscle do you lose on a cut?” again — you’ll know exactly what to do.

FAQ About How Much Muscle Do You Lose on a Cut

Is it Possible to Gain Muscle While Cutting?

It can be a major dopamine hit to see results in both fat loss and muscle gain. But unfortunately, this kind of dual result is not common for experienced weight lifters. This is because the low-calorie diet needed to cut weight is catabolic, which means it breaks down fats and proteins instead of building them up.12

Beginner lifters experience fat loss and muscle gain because their body is hyperresponsive to their new training routine — a phenomenon known in the gym as “newbie gains”.13 But as newbies spend more time in the gym, their muscles fall victim to the “repeated bout effect;” each rep protects their muscles from subsequent damage, making it tougher to tear fibers and make them bigger.

In other words, don’t expect to gain muscle while cutting unless you’re brand new to lifting. The more experienced a lifter is, the harder it will be to gain muscle on a cut.


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About the Author

Nathan Petitpas

Nathan has been a fitness enthusiast for the past 12 years and jumps between several types of training such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, cycling, gymnastics, and backcountry hiking. Due to the varying caloric needs of numerous sports, he has cycled between all types of diets and currently eats a whole food diet. In addition, Nathan lives with several injuries such as hip impingement, spondylolisthesis, and scoliosis, so he underwent self-rehabilitation and no longer lives with debilitating pain.