You know that your macro calculations are just a start point, and you will need to adjust your diet to keep progressing. But what are you likely to see in your body measurement and scale weight progress tracking data? What’s normal? What signals that you’re doing something wrong?
If you know what to expect, you won’t panic when your weight suddenly drops, worry if your weight stalls, or wonder if the reduction in chest circumference is normal or a sign of muscle loss.
It can be damn helpful to know what others who have walked the path you’re on have gone through before you, so this is what this new article is all about — a list of the most common things I’ve observed when guiding clients through fat loss phases over the last ten years.
I hope you find this sample section from 📙The Diet Adjustments Manual helpful.
What To Expect As You Cut
When you cut, your goal should be to drop the fat off while maintaining your muscle mass. You may be able to gain some muscle, but this should be considered a bonus. The fatter you are and the less training experience you have, the greater your opportunity to do so. But any muscle gain achieved while cutting will be subtle, if noticeable at all. This is because you’ll lose fat at a faster rate, and this fat loss happens from all areas of the body, so your limb measurements will not get bigger. On the contrary, you can expect to get smaller everywhere as you lean out.
So, keep your eye on the goal: fat loss, which will be gauged primarily by weight loss. Put your muscle growth goals on hold for a while as you cut. More on this here: Should I Cut vs. Bulk or Recomp?
CUTTING — THE FIRST FEW WEEKS
👉 Your weight may drop much faster than you are targeting. Don’t get excited; it is not all fat loss. This happens due to water, gut content, and glycogen losses. The more you drop your calorie and carb intake, the greater the drop will be. However, if your vegetable intake increases significantly, this will cause more gut residue and have an opposing effect.
👉🏻 Don’t be surprised if you have a relatively large and sudden decrease in the mid and lower-stomach measurements (1.5–2.5 cm, 0.5–1”). This is due to the lower gut content. It will be hard to see any trend in the stomach measurement data during the first weeks.
👉🏼 You may experience an increase in the chest and limb measurements if you have started a new training program. This will be due to muscle swelling (aka ‘the pump’), not muscle gain. If the thought, “OMG, my legs are growing so fast I’m not going to fit into any of my jeans at this rate!” crosses your mind, then you can relax. You’ve just started training your legs properly. This isn’t muscle growth. Fat loss will outstrip any muscle gain, and your legs will be smaller overall.
👉🏽 Hunger shouldn’t be an issue. You may even feel quite full if you have reduced your meal frequency and started to eat more vegetables. But don’t get complacent and think dieting is easy. Enjoy this while it lasts.
👉🏾 Energy levels throughout the day will mostly be unaffected. The diet hasn’t quite kicked in yet. Again, don’t get complacent.
👉🏿 You will probably continue to perform well in the gym. Glycogen stores aren’t yet depleted. Fatigue hasn’t had time to build up into a noticeable recovery deficit yet.
CUTTING — AFTER THE FIRST FEW WEEKS
👉 Your weight will continue to drop, but more slowly. This is because the decrease in weight is now caused by fat loss only. You’ll start to be able to estimate the rate of fat loss.
👉🏻 The drop in stomach measurements will become linear, and you will start to see a trend. As a rough guide, every 4–5 pounds of fat loss will show itself with a 2–2.5 cm (~1”) reduction on the stomach in two or more places. (Here’s how to track body measurements.)
👉🏼 In the 10–20% body-fat range, fat loss tends to happen from the upper abs first and works its way down. At the higher end of the range, you can expect to see more movement in the upper-stomach measurements than the lower; as you lean out, you’ll see more reduction from the measurements at the navel and lower.
👉🏽 At 10% body fat and below, you will see minimal change in the mid and upper-stomach measurements. The lower- stomach measurement and waist measurement will change the most because the fat on your very lower abs and back is coming off at this point. For this reason, visual changes will be hard to notice from the front, especially when getting leaner than 8% body fat when the fat on the abs is pretty much gone entirely.
👉🏾 Above 20% body fat, the measurements seem to drop fairly uniformly across all the stomach measurements. I assume this is because the majority of the fat loss at this point is visceral (the stuff around your organs) rather than subcutaneous (the fat under your skin).
Here are some more body fat percentage pictures.
👉🏿 You can expect there to be gradual decreases in the chest and limb measurements. Don’t take this to mean muscle loss. If you reach your right arm around and under your left armpit and grab your back at chest level, you’ll notice the fat immediately. It’s the same for many places on your body. Yes, fat is concentrated on the stomach, but we carry it everywhere.
👉 You may feel that you look worse as you start to lose definition. This is natural; try not to get down about it.
👉🏻 There will be a gradual shift toward feeling hungry most of the time. Eating will become a pleasure, and foods will become tastier. This is your body trying to get you to eat more.
👉🏼 Those with a lot of fat to lose will see an improvement in their blood markers for disease risk.
👉🏽 You’ll start to feel happier with your appearance as you lean out. But you may start to feel small. (More on this in the next section.)
TOWARD THE END OF THE CUT
👉🏽 You may be the least happy with your appearance. The point just before ab definition comes through is the hardest part of cutting. You’re tired, irritable, always hungry, and you will be your skinniest without the obvious reward. Push through. Bear in mind that nearly all the people you see on the results page are smaller overall, but leanness can make us look bigger when shirtless.
👉🏿 You may experience a loss in libido. Hormonal changes happen as the body winds down non-essential functions like reproduction. Dieting is managed starvation, and your body doesn’t know we are doing it purposefully and aren’t about to die due to a famine.
👉 Hunger will be your constant companion. A celery stick will start to look delicious. Managing your food environment so that you don’t have easy access to tempting treats will be critical. Willpower alone can’t be relied upon.
👉🏻 Training will start to suck. Everything will be more challenging. You’ll be tempted to change things up, but don’t. The prolonged diet has taken its toll on your energy levels. You are (relatively) glycogen depleted. There is also a mechanical inefficiency of being leaner that will affect your big lifts.
HOW MUCH HUNGER AND FATIGUE IS ACCEPTABLE?
As long as you can adhere, this is really up to you. The critical point here is adherence. You don’t want to get yourself in a binge–starve cycle, where the diet is so hard to adhere to that you end up binge eating. The most common pattern is where people are overly strict on the weekdays and throw it away on the weekends. If you find yourself unable to sustain things, increase your calorie intake and accept a slower weight loss rate.
As mentioned, your workouts may become considerably harder toward the end of a cut. If you struggle so much that your strength drops considerably, it may be best to increase your calorie intake and accept a slower weight loss rate.
TRAINING & MUSCLE MASS PRESERVATION
This is a book about diet adjustments, not training. But as it is so important, there are a few things worth mentioning.
👉🏼 Training is arguably the most important tool to prevent muscle loss when dieting; ensuring that we lose weight at a sensible rate is an inseparable part of this. Protein intake comes third to these two.
👉🏽 You don’t have to change your training style when you cut, but you will find it harder to progress. At some point, that progress is likely to stop.
👉🏾 On average, people progress during the first half of the cut and have to work hard to maintain their progress during the latter half. If they decide to get any leaner than 10% body fat, there will often be some regression. But these are just averages, and there are many different factors at play.
👉🏿 Some lifts will progress better than others. Rarely are people equally experienced in all lifts. Expect good progress with any new (or unfamiliar) lift as you gain competency with your technique, but don’t take this to signify muscle growth. People coming back to training after time off can expect to make significant progress also.
👉 The bench press (and pushing exercises in general) tend to suffer the most, but that’s the combination of people generally having more experience here, as well as the loss of fat from the back and chest, meaning the bar has to travel further.
👉🏻 The mind has a powerful effect on the body. Keep a positive mindset. Interestingly, some people tell themselves they won’t make any progress in a deficit, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The inverse can be true also.
👉🏼 Stress and sleep issues will hamper how well you respond to training. Do your best to manage these things. Take these things into account when you assess your training.
👉🏽 Lastly, different people are just different. I’ve seen some guys make progress throughout the entirety of a cut; I’ve seen some people get stuck earlier than I would expect.
Practically then, here is what I say to clients
We’ll diligently implement the progression rules and take what progress we can, but we must accept that it will be harder to come by.
At some point, progress may stop in some lifts. When this happens, it is especially important to not get frustrated and let our form get sloppy cause this is when injuries happen.
Stick to the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) guidelines. Work hard. Stay patient. The muscle gain is going to come in the bulking phase.
Yes, loss of strength can be a sign of muscle loss. But I can’t say I have seen this to any significant degree in my ten years of coaching. If we continue to train appropriately hard, lose weight at an appropriate rate, eat a sufficient amount of protein, and consume enough carbs to sustain our training, we don’t have to worry about muscle losses.
Thank you for reading. To learn more about adjustments for bulking, maintenance, cutting, and the transition phases between them, check out my book, The Diet Adjustments Manual.
Questions welcomed in the comments. 🙏🏻❤️