Posted 28 February 2012 by Phil Learney

The Ultimate

Cutting Guide

Ultimate cutting guide

Cut, shredded, lean, ripped, whatever you want to call it most people if not all want to get leaner to some degree. Doesn’t change the fact I still hear the terms ‘I don’t want to get too lean’ or ‘I don’t want to get too big’ in many consultations I have.
Following on from my ultimate bulking guide I am now going to  put together a pretty comprehensive guide to stripping down that bulk and get that physique out and ready for hitting the beach.

Some basic ground rules before you think this is the solution to all your problems.
The effectiveness of any nutritional plan is more often than not dictated by the person undertaking it and both their perseverance and willingness to change.

You must change your lifestyle, habits, addictions and approach to life if this is to work.

To cut subcutaneous (body) fat effectively with minimal muscle loss we must:

  1. Create a deficit of total calories through either a reduction in dietary calories or an increase in fuel (calorie) usage.
  2. Increase or stabilise anabolic hormones and decrease catabolic hormones.
  3. Increase or maintain protein and nutrient turnover.
  4. Increase the overall metabolic output of the body.
  5. Strategically and periodically increase leptin levels and thyroid output.

To put a similar approach to cutting

‘Cutting up’ is different in many respects to bulking in that the detail is now what counts and being pretty analytical with your food is what will safely get you to where you want without a notable trade off.  As I’ve said before when it comes to most things, there is always some form of trade off. When it comes to cutting often the trade off is a loss in muscle tissue brought about by a notable caloric deficit and the elevation of catabolic/stress hormones. The key to effective fat loss is to manage the two hormonal states effectively whilst changing fuel usage and maintaining or creating a deficit.
Can fat loss be achieved whilst maintaining or even gaining mass? In my opinion yes and I have seen it happen on many occasion. It requires educated and strategic management of nutrition and fuel usage.

My approach for myself and my clients is different to that of most and I guess the reason for me writing this is to express that approach. I also wished to title this 'the death of the diet' but maybe it’s a little early for that kind of speculation.
Little bit of plagiarising of my own articles here, as some of this info is relevant and in my opinion good.


Insulin manages our hormonal state and part of our natural fluctuation between a state of regeneration and degeneration. Our hormonal and genetic makeup define for us how well insulin is managed at a base level and dietary habits influence it from then on in. Managing insulin is all about stabilising blood sugar and maintaining it through selective ingestion of predominantly carbohydrates.

To understand the more complex roles of carbohydrates besides the storage and transport of energy we must first understand that the bodies’ hormones are largely governed by this 'master' hormone, insulin. Following the consumption of carbohydrates of any type there is a concurrent and specific rise in our blood sugar or blood glucose levels. In response to this rise, insulin is secreted into the body. The excessive or insufficient ingestion of carbohydrates that is common in todays society cause lows and highs in blood sugar levels. The repeated fluctuation of these levels can impact the bodies’ ability to produce insulin and in some cases cause the whole system to shut down. Not only does this have a major impact on the regulation of sex hormones but in the pursuit of 'getting cut' there is a common and drastic trend to exclude or minimise carbohydrates from the diet below the bodies normal requirements. We start messing with sex hormones and we fall deeply into a catabolic (degenerative).

The three bodytypes endomorphs, ectomorphs and mesomorphs are what we will be starting with at our hormonal and genetic makeup level. What we have done with it from then on in is always tricky to define.

To summarise with this:
The suggested base dietary ratios (carbohydrates:proteins:fats) for the various body types are.


In essence this is telling us if we take an ectomorph and they consume 55% of their total caloric intake from carbohydrates they will metabolise it effectively and without gaining excessive fat. Is this 100% accurate, no but it gives a great start point. If we want a steady flow of energy this 55% ratio should be spread evenly throughout the day with a spike in levels only post workout.  In the case of cutting assuming coming from a bulking cycle you will know what those ratios and levels are. If not I would take your current diet, log it accurately and see what level you are at right now. You will see why shortly. Whatever happens you need to honestly know where you start at otherwise you cannot adapt anything.

Point 1. Create a deficit of total calories through either a reduction in dietary calories or an increase in fuel (calorie) usage.

This is the point at which people will dispute the information I am about to give you now for various reasons. Answer me this, are you looking at maximal fat loss whilst preserving muscle tissue? If the answer is yes read on. If you don't care about losing some muscle just keep doing what you're doing.

Let me remind you of the two basic hormonal states. This diagram shows it in relation to blood sugar and its physiological response should it drop below a given level.

If we want to manage composition we cannot drop below the black line and into the red.
For the purpose of explaining this I’m going to use a hypothetical case study. John is an ectomorph who has been consuming a strategic eating plan to build bulk. He is now ready to cut the fat and maintain mass, being an ectomorph if he gets this wrong he will lose what took him a long time to gain. He consumes 3000k/cal per day and guess what he is going to cut without dropping calories. As a reference for those of you that ask the question, John uses no performance enhancing drugs, the relevance of this will become clear later.

He is going to diet for 15 weeks and we have ascertained that his basal metabolic rate simply to survive is a measly 1200k/cal per day. Remember he cannot drop in the red. The second he does all of his goals become compromised.

Firstly I want to give you a little insight into fuels and how they are used.

The essential nutrients (our body can't create but we have constant jobs for them) proteins and fats can be utilised as carbohydrates should our body need them. This is a pathway that your body needs to adapt to in order to become efficient at it. If we don't have enough protein our body steals from itself (lean tissue), if we don't have enough dietary fats our body shuts certain systems down. If we plan to protect muscle tissue whilst giving the option for the body to use another form of fuel (stored fat) we must maintain an anabolic state and consume above maintenance levels of protein. We can stick with our total caloric requirement whilst adapting fuel sources and protecting tissue. How do we burn fat, we burn fat because we not only tell the body to stop storing it, we create a metabolic impact through our training. At this point I must also tell you that when it comes to training more isn't always better. I will explain more later. This article is about the dietary aspect of cutting, why? Ask anyone in shape what’s more important. Diet or training?

Stage 1. Change fuel sources.

This is straight away under the assumption that you will eat only clean foods during this time and stick to the plan.

The best way I have found to do this is by switching fuel sources over a given period. An undulating drop in carbohydrate switching calories to proteins and fats. Here is an example taking my case study down from 413 grams of carbs to 188 over a course of 15 weeks. He is an ectomorph and has a high carbohydrate tolerance so going much lower wouldn't probably be required. A large amount of this 188 grams will be ingested post workout, the rest of it evenly distributed throughout the day.

Stage 2. Creating a metabolic output.

So this is the point where it becomes the argument of calories in vs calories out.
Take calories out of your diet you run the risk of the red zone. Burn more you don't provided you utilise a post workout drink.

I have speculated a very low basal metabolic rate in my case study, 1200 k/cals. Basal metabolic rate is basically what our body needs just to survive. We don't want the body switching into a survival mechanism (red) therefore you can deduct 1200k/cals from the intake straight away and know you will never drop below that. That leaves with a 3000k/cal total intake 1800k/cal to play with and utilise as fuel before we drop into the red.

How does the body burn fat?

By creating this optimal hormonal state (anabolic) we can prime the body to burn fuel that isn't required (body fat). We preserve the metabolically active tissue (muscle) whilst providing an alternative and protective fuel source (protein and fats). This minimises the risk of a surplus of carbohydrates (our raw fuel) and it's conversion to stored energy. As we still ingest the same amount of calories our ability to sustain metabolically demanding workouts still remains possible. We create a calorie deficit with minimal risk and by only increasing output not reducing food intake. Overweight people diet and eat diet and low calorie foods.....need I say more.

Let me show you an example of when more is not always better and a reason I only add cardio into a fat loss program as a last resort and way to burn energy (literally moving, not running, nothing overly strenuous) high intensity cardio is low intensity weights before anyone starts.
John (case study 1) is on a weekly basis going to add a brisk 15 minute walk extra a day to his fat loss regime, that’s all. By week 15 he will be doing 3 hours and 45 minutes of cardio per day!!!! Effective? Read on.

Up until week 7 his body is primed for fat loss, at week 8 it fails and will start to catabolise valuable and metabolically active tissue. This would look something like this:

If this wasn’t a simple enough reason to understand why conventional dieting (dropping calories) doesn’t work I don't know what is.

Also when nutrition has been consistently manipulated for 10-15 weeks and your metabolism is topping out what have you got left? Nothing. You haven’t any more time or energy to do more cardio and your receptors are so fried from all the fat burners you've taken what tricks do you have left?? None. Save the cardio and thermogenics for when you're looking for the details.

When metabolism stalls?

I have a very successful fat loss client who has lost over 45kg of weight and an amazing amount of bodyfat whilst also adding a decent amount of lean tissue. Weight loss if done successfully as in fat will always wave up and down much like the carb cycling I showed above. Infact here is his weight loss chart.....well some of it (ps. I don't log clients weights, he did this using his iphone):

The peaks you see weren't because he went off plan they're because of what I like to call metabolic shifts, his body is adapting to new tissue and making adjustments to compositional changes and his ability to use fuel more effectively.
At one point his weight stalled for about 5 days so the question posed to me was:
'should I reduce my calories and do some more training, maybe some cardio?'

My answer:

'Lets drop out one of your gym sessions this week and I want you to increase your overall calories everyday' very puzzled he went ahead and did it, guess what, he lost more fat and got his metabolism going again. He had stalled because he had waved into the red so I pulled him out of it. My point here is that metabolism and fuel usage in immeasurable to a large extend so at times it needs a push in the right direction.

Strategic metabolic ramping

I wrote about this a while ago when discussing cheat meals. Let me draw your attention to this and will simply cut and paste some of my previous piece as it now ties in nicely.


Leptin is a hormone that basically signifies if we are starving or satiated. In the grey or in the red. Its a bit more complex than this but a whole other article but fundamentally. Someone creating a deficit or on a restrictive diet will lower leptin levels, which therefore sends the signal we are starving (red zone). At this point cortisol goes through the roof, thyroid hormones plummet and a bunch of appetite stimulating hormones fire up to tell you to get your arse back in the grey. Science tells us that after 7 days of restrictive dieting or creating a negative deficit through training (my favourable method) leptin levels drop by about 50%. To raise this back to its normal level will generally take us less than 24 hrs.

Ok, now before you all start getting excited and think that because you’ve spent 7 days dieting or creating a calorie deficit its time to pig out, think again. The higher someones bodyfat is the higher their leptin levels are, the lower someones bodyfat therefore is the lower someones leptin levels will be. The 50% drop is relative to the amount you begin with. If you’re overweight the leptin is there but much like the issue we have with insulin you cannot release and utilise it, the leptin receptors have been de-sensitised. The 50% drop will not be sufficient in someone overweight to warrant a carb/caloric refeed as it’s only relative to the amount they began with. Leptin management is only really of major concern to those that are lean but if utilised correctly can push the boundaries of leanness and ramp metabolic rate significantly.
In a hierarchy of what someone overweight needs to be concerned with it isn’t leptin. As diet improves and insulin efficiency improves leptin receptors will in hand be re-sensitised and it now becomes a useful tool in the quest for fat loss and getting cut.

Thyroid hormone

The thyroid hormones are responsible again in this conversation for basal metabolic rate. It will increase this basal metabolic rate and also impact the metabolism of protein, carbohydrate and fat. This becomes a burnout issue in most cases. Our body has a certain amount of fuel it can process and utilise in one go.

If we take a typical western diet that has 3 meals in it with traditionally the biggest meal being in the evening it would mean at some point this person will overeat in order to meet caloric requirements. If they don’t remember all that happens is leptin decreases and appetite stimulating hormones ghrelin, neuropeptide-y and anandamine increase. So you’re going to be hungry irritable, losing no bodyfat and on a low calorie diet. …..Sound familiar (just incase you really don’t get it muscle will be used as fuel so weight will come down to a point).

So everytime someone overeats thyroid hormones elevate metabolic rate and this leads to heat generation. In someone who regulates metabolic rate successfully overeating will lead to a notable increase in body temp. If this isn’t you maybe the timing of a cheat meal isn’t appropriate. Continuous bouts of overeating or binging will lead to the burnout of the thyroid hormones and once again an indication of underactivity within them. Overeating is not total calories, it is a ‘per meal’ scenario. Therefore 3000 k/cal is not just 3000, it's how it's dispersed and often the reason most of my clients end up eating more calories than they started with.

So…..when to cheat

There is no exact science here but I would quite simply start with some markers.
If bodyfat is in excess of 25% there are no cheat meals as in the onset, someone at this level will make conscious and unconscious mistakes.

  • 15 - 25% bodyfat I would look at implementing a cheat meal every 4-5 weeks.
  • 10 - 15% bodyfat I would apply a cheat meal at least every 14 days without fail.
  • 4 - 10% I would use a ‘re-feed’ or cheat meal every 7-10 days.

What constitutes a cheat meal?

A cheat meal simply has to be an excess of calories and a substantial elevation in carbohydrates if we want to spark up and make use of the above three systems. This does not have to be junk. It can simply be a re-feed. I occasionally just eat my normal structure and throw a 1kg bag of sweet potatoes on every meal in that day. Other times I’ll pick one meal and have a pizza or something like. At present my bodyfat is about 8 - 9% so I use one every 7-10 days and may choose either option. What I can say for sure is that 1 - 2 days post re-feed my metabolic rate is still racing and I am visually leaner. The way this works is that the elevation in calories ramps everything up and for a period of 24 - 48 hours later your body is working harder than ever. Therefore you burn fuel fast!
Pretty neat huh…..but this is an earned right!

Cheat meals need to have a high percentage of carbohydrates in them to be effective and also a hefty hit of calories, double normal intake is a good bet. This ramps metabolic rate, which remember you have primed and will carry over momentum for 48 or so hours later.
There is no definitive way to cut or get lean!! There are stupid approaches and intelligent approaches. I am throwing down my gauntlet as to how I approach people (and myself) when trying to get lean. I keep calories high and burn fuel. I know in the course of a year I can burn 30 - 40kg of bodyfat easily with someone, I can't develop that amount of metabolically active muscle tissue in anyone. I choose to protect muscle tissue and use it to my own and others advantage. I haven’t gained more muscle personally than most other people that have weight trained for the past 15 years, I’ve just lost less and my profit is more!


Written by Phil Learney - Phils Facebook Fan page


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