All about Minicuts!
by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist |
Oct 11, 2017
Since I've been posting about my recent experiences with minicuts, quite a few people have been asking me to elaborate on their various features and uses. Your wish is my command!
Obviously a "cut" is more technically known as a hypocaloric dieting phase in which the primary goal is to lose body fat and body weight. A "minicut" is thus a shortened version of a regular cut. How short does a cut have to be to be considered "mini?" While there is no definitive classification, my usual understanding is that any cut of 6 weeks duration or shorter (as few as 2 weeks) can be called 'mini." Anything longer is usually just called a "cut."
Why the 6 week definition? Because the amount of weight and fat you usually lose in 6 weeks or less isn't huge, and individuals for whom large body fat or weight reductions are the highest priority will usually benefit from longer cuts. Kind of like the difference between a weekend and a vacation... those in need of serious stress relief simply won't find it in the weekend time frame and might need a real vacation of a week or longer. So if a minicut doesn't produce very profound weight and fat loss results, what is it even good for?
A common purpose of minicuts, and the one I myself use them for most often is to enhance the muscle gain (massing) process. Gaining weight highly enhances the muscle gain process, but gaining weight also self-limits the muscle gain process. As weight is gained, both muscle and fat gains result. Increasing levels of body fat and the high amount of nutrients chronically eaten to support weight gain both decrease skeletal muscle's sensitivity to nutrients (while fat isn't very affected and can still absorb eaten nutrients just fine). As muscle nutrient sensitivity decreases, the percent of muscle tissue gained with any further gains in body mass goes down, and the percent of additional fat gains goes up. Obviously if this trend continues, the result will be both MUCH more fat mass and not much more muscle mass.
Enter the minicut. By reducing calories for 2-6 weeks, several things are accomplished. First of all, just the sheer reduced presence of nutrients in the blood begins to increase muscle tissue's sensitivity to them, thus priming more gains when a hypercaloric diet is reintroduced after the minicut. In addition, the decreased levels of body fat both enhance the body's proclivity for muscle gain and make room for further gains by reducing the body fat percent down to levels that won't seriously impinge on muscle/fat gain ratios for a while longer, in essence, "buying the athlete more massing time." It's been suggested that best rates of muscle gains (on average, for male athletes, add 10% for female numbers) typically occur between 10% and 15% bodyfat, so if a minicut reduces bodyfat from 13% to 10% in 5 weeks, that individual is more or less back to the starting line for another successful massing phase.
So essentially by reducing bodyfat levels and increasing nutrient sensitivity periodically, minicuts re-sensitize the body to further muscle gains. Kind of like stopping at a gas station and rest area on a road trip. While not moving your car literally forward during the time, it can increase the total distance traveled on the road that day because everyone feels more refreshed.
Why do minicuts and not just the real thing? Like, why not just mass for 24 weeks straight and diet for 16 weeks after that, and repeat? Well, that's a fine way to do things, but the advantage of minicuts is that first of all, they prevent massing from really ever becoming TOO stale. In other words, how productive are weeks 16-24 of a straight mass really going to be in terms of muscle tissue to fat tissue gain ratios? Probably not as productive as they would be if a 6 week minicut was inserted after the first 12 weeks of massing. In addition to this downside of long masses, long cuts themselves have downsides. When weight is lost in lower amounts and over shorter timescales like minicuts, muscle loss is a very small concern and there is almost no diet fatigue developed. You can usually just bounce right into a massing phase after and be primed to continue gaining. But after a longer (12 weeks or more) diet, altered hormone, NEAT, and hunger levels can make re-massing more complicated at best, because you now have to deal with all of the side effects of the long cut while you try to re-start the mass train. To use the road trip analogy, this is like stopping at a hotel for the night (longer cuts) vs. just another rest stop (minicuts). No matter how ambitious you are, some people in your road trip group are slow to wake, take 30 minute long shits and even longer showers, and eat breakfast in what seems to be a comically slow fashion just to piss you off. Your drive never really re-starts as fast as you'd like after longer break. In essence, cutting has its own momentum and re-massing is tougher after longer cuts than shorter ones.
Tips and Guidelines
Here are some general tips to keep in mind for most minicut situations:
- 1.) Ratios between mass durations and minicut durations depend highly on individual factors like body fat gain rates. For example, if you're still lean after even a long mass... keep massing! But if you've gotten quite a bit fatter after even a short mass, a minicut may be in order. A typical ratio might be between 2:1 and 3:1 in massing vs. minicut duration. So if you mass for 6 weeks, you might cut for 3 weeks or 2 weeks depending on your current body fat levels, shooting to make room for the next mass such at it ends below 15% fat in most cases.
- 2.) Because the total weight loss and fat loss is neither high nor gets you extremely lean, it's unlikely that you have to worry about maintenance phases between masses and minicuts to "solidify" the gained muscle like you do between masses and long cuts. You should still take a low-volume maintenance phase every 4-6 months (for a month or so), but you don't need to take a mini-maintenance phase before every minicut.
- 3.) During a mini-cut, you can aim to lose between 0.5% and 1.0% of your body mass per week, with the first week being more due to water loss, of course. In order to maximize results of resensitization, I'd actually recommend closer to 1.0% per week for most people. Your mass, on the other hand, should be no faster than 0.5% per week in gain rates to keep needless fat gains in check.
- 4.) How long to mass and minicut? I think massing unabated for longer than 16 weeks on end makes me skeptical and minicutting for much less than 2 weeks at a time seems to break massing momentum for very little benefit. UNLESS you're enhanced, and then even 2 weeks or less of "tightening up" might be of benefit.
- 5.) Cardio is just fine to do and is recommended during mini cuts, but the training volume should be pretty low, right around MEV and usually not much higher. Why? Because this will keep all the muscle we built (not hard on a minicut) but save our volume sensitivity for massing, cause that's when we'll really want to push things to gain the most muscle.
- 6.) Definitely cut fats as most of your nutrient cuts, but don't be afraid to cut some carbs as well. You won't need as many when training at MEV and the lower carb environment will help make you just a bit more carb sensitive when you re-mass which will make you grow more. Notice: total body fat reductions are MUCH more powerful in creating a carb sensitivity during the minicut... much more so than what ratios of macros you use to lose the fat.
What to Avoid
Just some common flaws in minicut execution:
- 7.) Minicutting too frequently can disrupt massing. Muscle gains seem to have some bit of momentum to them, especially in the presentation of progressive overloads in training. Taking minicuts too often can disrupt this momentum and slow gains. It's kind of like taking days off of work too often... you never really get any good momentum going at work to take big chunks out of projects. Like, for example, how much work gets done during the winter holidays because of this?
How frequent is too frequent? Try to mass for at least 6 weeks on end, preferably as many as 8 for most lifters. And if your body fat levels are under 12%, that should be a big factor in arguing against a minicut just quite yet. Over 12% means that you might run into 15% on the next mass and should consider minicutting more seriously.
BE HONEST with yourself about WHY you're considering a minicut... is it because of a logical decision that such a phase will enhance long-term muscle gain or is it because you're fat-phobic?
- 8.) Don't let minicuts get too long. Cuts have momentum... and if you're getting leaner, you might be tempted to just keep cutting! But how's that going to help you with massing? It won't! It just disrupts momentum even more. When you commit to a minicut as a logical goal... keep it mini!
- 9.) Don't minicut for a couple days, notice you're flatter, freak out that you're losing muscle, and reverse course back to massing. You WILL lose fullness and even a few reps in performance, but that's all due to short-term glycogen levels. As soon as you fill out again in the first couple of days of massing, you'll be as big and strong as ever!