The purpose of cutting (fat burning) phase of bodybuilding is to decrease the amount of fat from our body (mainly from underneath the skin) to show how muscles really look like.
Training for fat burning or muscle definition consists of 2 elements:
- Weight training (benching, squatting, etc…),
- Cardio (treadmill, bike, jogging, walking or playing sports).
Weight training during this cycle serves us mainly to maintain muscle mass (keeping muscles big).
Cardio is for burning the actual fat. However to achieve the best results (big muscles with low body fat) we have to combine them.
During this cycle we will not lift weights to change the shape of our muscles. They will not be growing and we will not be burning fat by lifting weights either, not directly anyway.
We perform training with weights just to spare musculature that we have built during muscle building phase or in other words to lose as little muscle as possible; because when we are on a diet (calorie deficiency) we will lose some muscles along with fat. So as during hypertrophy cycle we gain some fat along with muscle mass. Unfortunately it’s unavoidable.
However with a proper weight training, diet and cardio; we will burn fat and spare as much muscles as we can. As a result we will see the real definition (shape) of our muscles. That’s why cutting phase of bodybuilding is also known as training for definition. When we achieve really low body fat level we will look really ripped, shredded and impressive.
Generally weight training during cutting phase is the same as during mass building, maybe with a few small differences. You can literally use the same workouts as when you were building muscles. However here are the main principles anyway:
1. Intensity – lift heavy
To keep muscles big you have to lift heavy. If you’ll train with light weights your muscles will be getting smaller. Heavy weights = big muscles. Of course do it with the proper technique, it’s far easier to get an injury when dieting.
I recommend training between 75%-85% of 1RM. Don’t make this common mistake of doing up to 20 repetitions with very light weigh. You’ll make your muscles smaller; it simply doesn’t work for natural bodybuilders.
2. Number of repetitions
Number of repetitions doesn’t really influence (speed up or slow down) fat burning process. However to train with quiet heavy weight and stimulate muscles enough we do between 10-6 repetitions in each set.
As with muscle building training we start from 10 repetitions, take a rest, do 8 with heavier weight and then lats 6 reps with the heaviest load after another break.
3. Volume – amount of sets and exercises
As I stated earlier weight training’s purpose is to maintain (spare) muscle mass during fat burning cycle. Our muscles will not be growing. For this reason we don’t need as many sets or exercises as during mass building training.
To maintain muscle mass during cutting we can divide our training nearly in half or to be sure just 1/3rd of our workout can be taken away. In practice, we simply do 1 exercise less for each body part.
So if we did 3 exercises for chest for hypertrophy, we do 2 instead. If we performed 9-12 sets for each muscle group we can do 6-8.
So generally I recommend lowering volume a bit: 2 exercises for each muscle group in 6 to 8 sets.
4. Strength losses
Because you’ll be in calorie deficiency (fewer carbohydrates) you’ll not have as much energy to train and your strength slowly might be going down. That means that you’ll not be able to train for the whole cutting period with the same weights. Probably every few weeks you will have to lower the weight because you’ll not be able to do as many repetitions as you should.
Don’t be discouraged by that. Everybody’s strength is going down while dieting so don’t hesitate to lower it a bit when you have to. But don’t rush it either. Go down very slowly, only when you can’t do 10-6 repetitions. If you are not able to perform more than 8-4 reps for example you know then that you have to lower the weight a bit on the next workout.
Generally the rest of training is the same. You train like you wanted to build muscles – use free weights, each body part once a week, compound exercises mostly. Still short, but intense workouts. The only difference I think there is that we do 1 less exercise for each body part. It’s just not needed. Muscles will not be growing anyway. Although it is possible it’s very uncommon.
Cardio (aerobics or HIIT)
Cardiovascular training (cardio) is a second part of fat burning training. This is the form of exercising which has the most influence on fat burning process.
The most common forms of cardio training are:
- Riding a bike (real or stationary),
- Using elliptical machine or cross trainer.
The best would be to change these activities from time to time. It will provide bigger shock to your body, and train your muscles more equally. Note that bike or stair master targets only your legs where rowing hits also the upper body.
Aerobic training is an activity done at a steady-peace like riding a bike at the same speed for several minutes. The breathing is steady, there’s no sprints, hills or slowdowns during it.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is an activity done as fast as you can for several seconds and repeated after a short break. Good example would be few sets of sprints (you run as fast as you can for 15-20 seconds, then you rest for a minute; repeat it few times). Although HIIT is a great tool for burning the fat I’ll not be describing it here. I’ll post a separate article about it. Below I’ll explain how to perform the aerobic training only:
Fat is actually being used as a fuel (being burnt) the most when we perform low or moderate intensity aerobic activity. It means that whether we jog or ride a bicycle we shouldn’t do it very intense. We should be able to breathe or have a conversation while doing it. If we can’t it means we are going too fast and we should slow down a bit. Of course don’t be too easy on it either, it should be challenging.
If you are using cardio equipment at your gym and it measures your heart rate (HR) try to stay between 60-70% of your maximum heart rate.
2. Training frequency
Too much cardio has its drawbacks. You might think that by doing more cardio you’ll burn more fat. It doesn’t actually work like that.
If we start jogging or swimming 5-6 times a week our body will try to adapt to these activities and start to lose muscle mass to become faster or to increase the endurance. We don’t want it. That’s why we should keep cardio to minimum.
To perform cardio for fat loss we recommend doing it once, twice or maximum 3 times a week if you really have a slow metabolism.
3. Workout time
Aerobic sessions should last minimum 30 minutes and no longer than 1 hour. I recommend starting from 30 minutes or even less if you are not able to; and week by week increase the time to finally reach 60 minutes.
Adding cardio to your weekly weight training will bring great results in fat burning process. Alternatively you can play some sort of sports instead (basketball or soccer) or try HIIT – few sets of sprints (4-10) every other week. Many people swear by it and believe it’s far better than longer aerobic sessions. I think it just depend from individual.
Training is extremely important during fat burning cycle. Lifting weights spares our musculature (keeping muscles big) while cardio speeds up and burn the fat itself. Combining it with a proper cutting diet will bring really good results.
Cutting cycle should last around 12 weeks. Staying too long on a diet can slow down the metabolism and therefore fat loss itself. If you have very much fat to burn and planning to stay longer on the diet (16 or maybe even 20 weeks) take a break in the middle or after 10 weeks and just eat normally for a week. Don’t go insane during this time though. Eat clean because you don’t want to put on 10 lbs of fat in one week either.
As I stated earlier you don’t need any special routine to train for definition. You can use any program you’ve used to build muscles with, just lower volume a bit and add some cardio; however to give you better idea I’ve prepared a special fat burning workout you can use during cutting cycle.