We’re in the midst of the holidays and although many family Christmas gatherings and work parties have been cancelled this year, I personally believe we’ll still do our best to stuff ourselves silly because, well, it’s the holidays. In my eyes, holidays are synonymous with being a pig and to prepare myself for overeating, I usually try to be a bit more strict with my diet early December followed by a longer detox in January.
This year, mostly because of boredom, I decided to do a more formal mini cut from December 7th – December 21st. I realize that this post might be a bit untimely since we’re already at the tail end of the holiday season, but my hopes are that this process can help you any time you are doing a cut in preparation of an event (for example, before a vacation, in advance of a wedding) or just looking to get yourself back on track.
A quick disclaimer as I present in all my articles; this is the process I developed for myself based on research, trial and error, and constant tweaking. I encourage you to take the nuggets of information that seem interesting to you and give them a try, but remember when it comes to fitness, we all need to find a plan that individually caters to our lifestyle and fitness goals. Let’s dive in!
The gym I frequent in Calgary has a fancy body composition machine that takes detailed measurements in addition to just the basics. To track my progress over the next few weeks, I decided to use that tool. Unfortunately, Alberta went into lockdown after my first week into the challenge, leaving me to only capture the metrics from the first week. These metrics also didn’t seem entirely accurate – especially the body fat percentage. However, whatever tool you decide to use, it’s important to continue referencing the same one for consistency.
This isn’t too big of a deal for me anyways. While seeing the changes in the numbers makes the results feel more palpable, I personally prefer to use the photo diary method. The simplest way to track progress is to take before + after photos and body measurements. I’m also cognizant of tracking my energy levels and moods (when I lose a bit of body fat, I tend to feel more energetic and lighter).
One thing to note here is if you’re hitting the gym consistently and training to build muscle, you might see very little changes in weight loss. In fact, you might even see some weight gain because the statement, “muscle weighs more than fat” is tried and true. That’s why I encourage you to track your progress more aesthetically. In sum, if a tangible weight loss number is your main KPI, you may feel a bit discouraged to see minimal or stagnant progress in this arena.
According to the Body Composition tool I used, here are my starting metrics (as of December 7th):
Weight – 144.2 lbs
Body Fat % – 11.8%
Total Body Water – 93 lbs
Dry Lean Mass – 34.2 lbs
Body Fat Mass – 17 lbs
Lean Body Mass – 127.2 lbs
Skeletal Muscle Mass – 72.1 lbs
While I still feel lean around the arms and legs, I definitely want to lose some body fat around the stomach area which is ALWAYS the last to go. In order to track progress, it’s paramount that we record the place we’re starting from. Again, how you want to track this is purely up to you, but the photo method is a great way of visually placing the start of your journey.
Determining Maintenance Calories
If you’re doing a cut for the first time, you’ll want to first determine your maintenance calories and then choose the goal weight you want to lose per week. What are maintenance calories you may ask? This is the number of calories you need to consume in a day to maintain your existing weight, however, it’s not quite as rudimentary as I’m making it seem. It’s great to use a fitness tracking app to help you determine this figure (I use myfitnesspal). The app will prompt you to enter your current weight and height, and then spits out the number of calories you’ll need to consume to maintain your existing weight. Of course, this is a general guideline and doesn’t take into account our resting metabolic rate amongst other factors. However, for most, this tracking app does the trick while also keeping us apprised of our food choices on the day-to-day.
The next step is to choose a weight loss goal. After so much trial and error, I’ve found that anything over a 1lb per week weight loss goal is too restricting and my energy and mood severely suffer. At my starting weight of 144 lbs, I would need to eat 2,190 calories / day to maintain my weight.
For this cut I’m focusing on a 1 lb per week goal, which puts my daily calorie intake at 1,690 calories + calories burned from exercise. With this mini cut, I also plan to include a few more restrictive days (where I wouldn’t normally) @ 1.5 lb weight loss goal (1,440 calories/day) to expedite the process a bit. Since I’m only participating in this cut for 2 weeks, I feel that I can handle a few more restrictive days. A quick caveat: for longer cutting phases, it’s not recommended to cut over 20% of your maintenance calories or you may be at risk of losing muscle mass, suffer from low energy levels, or shift to counterproductive habits.
Incorporating Refeed/Calorie Surplus Days
For this cut, I’m planning on eating in a calorie deficit 6 times per week and including one surplus/refeed day. As aforementioned, eating in a deficit for consecutive days on end can leave me feeling lethargic and hangry. Trust me when I say that no one wants to be within ten feet of me while I’m in that state. In fact, I don’t even want to be with myself.
Where some can handle the lows from eating in a deficit, I can’t…so I don’t. I’ve written about refeed days many times before, but truly believe that they’re so integral to a consistent fat loss plan that it warrants the repetition. So let’s just quickly define what a refeed day is: a refeed day is where you overconsume calories (on purpose) to give your body a break from continuous calorie restriction. The refeed day should be planned (I prefer the weekends) and also controlled. Refeed is not synonymous with a cheat day, meaning you still need to be cognizant about what you’re putting into your body. It’s not a free-for-all to get buck wild with your meals.
Since I run every day and burn around 500-600 calories per run, I’ll usually consume around ~3,300 calories total on my refeed days. An example refeed day would look something like this:
2,190 (maintenance calories) + 600 (calories burned from exercise) + 500 (surplus calories) = 3,290
*This note is for the ladies: I had originally planned to start this cut the first week in December, but was PMSing and naturally had an insatiable appetite. I’m also hormonal and moody so the thought of taking away/severely limiting my mid-afternoon snacks pissed me off and would throw me into a tailspin. The result? An adult temper tantrum. Hard, hard pass. To avoid putting myself and my partner through that hell and torture, I decide to start the week of my period when my appetite declines naturally. Everyone is different so I recommend listening to your body and planning the cut around your time of the month.
Determining Your Macro Split
My rule of thumb for determining macros is always the same. First, determine your protein needs and then break up the calories from fat + carbs. As I wrote in my post What I Eat to Build Muscle and Lose Body Fat, I calculate my daily protein needs by using the formula: 2g of protein per kg of body weight. My weight of 144 lbs / 65kg would therefore amount to 130g of protein per day. From years of trial and error, I know I operate the best off a higher carb, lower fat diet and while I don’t really track my macros after hitting my protein goals, I always end up with a split close to 30% protein / 50% carbs / 20% fat. This doesn’t change on a cut.
The most important thing to achieve fat loss here folks is to be in a calorie deficit. If you’re also training while in a cutting phase, you’ll for sure want to get in your protein intake to support muscle growth. When it comes to calories/fats, that’s really up to you; experiment and see what macro split gives you the best energy and results, and go from there.
Tracking Moods/Energy Levels
I’ve put together a spreadsheet that tracks the following on a daily basis: calorie goal, calories consumed, calories burned (through exercise), surplus/deficit calories, total surplis/defecit (off maintenance), fat(g), protein(g), carbs (g), and in the last row I’ve included a section where I’ve documented some qualitative notes including how I’m feeling that day, my moods, energy, did I fast that morning or eat breakfast, etc. I want to get a more holistic picture on patterns that have emerged from the cut.
The Real Goal
While improving my body composition may be the primary goal, I actually want to use these two weeks as a learning process – an opportunity to experiment with my calorie intake and provide detailed notes on how various calorie consumptions can affect my energy and happiness levels. The challenge gives me something to focus on over the next few weeks while being in lockdown; adding some zest to my daily life.
With any challenge, I like to lay out a few additional rules to abide by during my cut. Feel free to add your own guidelines to your personalized playbook:
- No alcoholic beverages allowed during the cut.
- Must hit my daily protein intake goals.
- Track my calories and macros consumed and calories burned during exercise every day in an excel spreadsheet.
- Train 5-days per week (strength) and run every day. Quick caveat: if you’ve been following my writing, you’ll know that I’ve been on a consecutive running streak for over 3 years, so cardio is a big, big part of my training. My current split is broken down as follows:
- Train Biceps/Back/Traps – 2 days/week
- Train Core – 1 day/week
- Train Shoulders 2 days/week + Train Chest/Triceps 1 day/week (I usually train chest/shoulders/triceps all in one day then break out shoulders into a separate day).
*For training splits, I try to hit the body parts I want to focus on with 2x per week with high volume (30-35 sets total), and for the others, I train 1x per week also with high volume (20-35 sets). This varies every few weeks.
As with the start of any new challenge, the first few days are always the most exciting. I approached the challenge with vigor and enthusiasm. On the first day, I ran 16 kilometers coupled with 30 mins on the stationary bike, which burned more calories than I would on a normal day (~1,200 total). After I complete longer runs, I also find that my appetite is a bit diminished so hitting my calorie goals for the day is usually not too challenging. In fact, I was even in a 607 deficit on top of my deficit off maintenance. This gave me a bit more wiggle room to go over a bit another day of the week.
Surprisingly, I found it easier than ever to stick to my calorie goals. I did more cardio than usual, burning 700-800 calories per day vs. my usual 500 and to my surprise, the additional cardio didn’t result in an increased appetite. It did the opposite. On the days I exercised more, I ended up eating less. I incorporated one intermittent fasting day (Friday), as I set a lower calorie target that day. I fasted in the morning and ate my first meal around noon. By minimizing my eating “window”, I naturally ate less calories throughout the day. I managed to hit my protein goals, with the exception of Friday and Sunday when I ate more carbs (long live Friday pizza nights).
At the end of the first week, I consumed a total of 15,207 calories (averaging 2,172 per day) and burned 5,249 calories through exercise, leaving me in a total deficit (off maintenance total of 15,330) of 5,327 calories. The 5,327 calories translated into a body fat loss of 1.5 lbs lost in the first week. When I did the weigh-in, I saw a loss of 4 lbs, but this could be attributed to the loss of body water and also the other forms of exercise I didn’t track in myfitnesspal (walking, strength training, cleaning, etc.).
Below is a snapshot from excel on how I tracked my metrics:
Diving into the second week, I noticed that my appetite declined quite a bit. The first few days I fasted; on Monday, I didn’t eat my first meal until noonish and on Tuesday, I didn’t eat my first meal until closer to 2pm. The tighter eating window invariably caused me to eat less throughout the day. Aesthetically, I’ve definitely leaned out a bit in my face, arms, legs, and slowly seeing some fat trickle off my stomach (a place I struggle HARD at losing weight).
I did incorporate a few more restrictive days (Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday), but also a few more surplus days (Friday and Sunday). I find it challenging to do two back-to-back deficit days; I’m miserable during the process so try to avoid it. I did, however, find it easier to be more restrictive with calories because my body acclimatized to a lower calorie intake. My stomach felt like it shrunk a bit, so eating meals that would normally make me comfortably full now felt like too much. I brought down my cardio quite a bit this week as well; focusing more on the ~500 calories burned/day range vs. the 800 from the week prior. Mentally, my mind feels a lot sharper. I feel more motivated and productive and have been able to overcome procrastination easier than I normally would.
My sleeping has been okay, but not great. I have noticed on the days I don’t sleep well, I get hungrier and less disciplined with what I put in my body. It’s harder to stay on track and I feel less motivated to stick to the challenge. While I did incorporate a few restrictive days this week, I also had a few more surplus days. Friday was a big eating day for me (close to 2,700 calories consumed) mostly in the form of snacks.
At the end of the second week, I consumed a total of 14,630 calories (averaging 2,090 calories per day) and burned 3,725 calories through exercise, leaving me in a total deficit (off maintenance total of 15,330) of 4,425 calories. The 4,425 calories translated into a body fat loss of ~1 lb lost in the second week. Unfortunately, Since I don’t have access to a scale, I wasn’t able to include my measurements and went back to my analog method of taking photos.
Strategies I Used
This isn’t my first mini cut and certainly won’t be my last. Whether I’m in a cutting phase or trying to maintain my physique, I incorporate some of the strategies listed below that I’ve learned over the years. Mostly from reading and then trialing with myself.
- Focus on high volume foods vs. calorie-dense foods.
- Look at the week holistically, not just a single day. This will provide more flexibility when it comes to your eating schedule (ie. eating out, at a friend’s, etc.).
- Incorporate foods you love and make them enjoyable. Hard pass on chicken, rice and broccoli 3x per day (so dry, so boring, so nasty).
- On the days when you have a larger appetite, try doing more cardio or get more steps in so you can still meet your daily goals.
- Here’s an obvious one: don’t carry calorie-dense foods in the house that are easy to consume in large quantities. For me that includes cereal, peanut butter, nuts, and chips.
- Incorporate a bit of intermittent fasting into your routine to help with calorie restriction (I prefer the 16:8 fasting protocol).
- Now this one should be emphasized in extra bold fond because it’s SO, SO important to any weight loss journey: sleep. I need to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep every night, but this varies from person to person. You know how much sleep your body requires to have a productive day, so it’s important that you’re taking care of yourself. Lack of sleep is the number one saboteur for a lot of weight loss goals. Adequate rest is a very high priority for me and should be for you too.
Now, we get into the exciting part. I’ve included a chart here to show the differences in my body composition over the first week. I obviously wanted to include the end results here, but as I already mentioned, I no longer had access to the fancy body comp machine at the gym due to lockdown. However, I can show you the physical changes through my little weight loss scrapbook!
Start – Once again, here’s where I started:
After two weeks
Although I found it a bit of a pain in the ass to track of these metrics consistently for 14 days overall, I really enjoyed the process. I’ve never gone so far as to track so many metrics on the daily nor have I ever looked at my calorie intake on a weekly basis. I was pretty much exactly on target and even exceeded my daily intake goals some days.
To my surprise, I actually had a larger deficit in week 1 vs. week 2, even though I had more restrictive days. When computing the numbers, I could see that the few cheat meals I had really threw me over my target. It came down to a bowl of cereal (my kryptonite) on a Sunday in week 2.
I was pleased to see that I was able to hit my daily protein goals most days but struggled to hit them on the days with a lower calorie intake. I can see now why so many find it challenging to get their daily protein intake while dieting.
Overall, from a physique perspective, I leaned out around the face, legs, and arms, but made marginal changes on my stomach. I also noticed a bit of muscle loss, but not too much. Genetically, I don’t easily lose weight around the stomach so didn’t get to see as much progress in that area. I am happy overall with the changes and decided to continue for one more week before going back to normal.
Overall, I found this process to be enlightening to say the least. Although arduous, the process of tracking everything that went into my body gave me an interesting perspective on calorie intake and weight loss.
I think it’s important to not just look at calories on a daily basis, but also weekly. This humanizes the process a bit more, giving you much more flexibility to eat intuitively based on how you’re feeling that day – whether you’re extremely hungry and decide to go above your daily maintenance calories, or you’re having a day where your appetite is lacking a bit, so long as the calories all balance out in the end.
Planning surplus days are important, but it’s also good to be flexible, listen to your body, and adjust accordingly. In the second week I had planned a surplus day on Saturday, but was busy so ended up eating in a deficit. I also overdid it a bit on Friday which made me less hungry the following day.
As you can see, I didn’t cut my calories to an extreme level and while it was a big challenge, I didn’t find it stressful nor did I feel deprived. I still ate foods I loved, but just limited my portions a bit more. Skipping breakfast and working out in a fasted state was one of the key strategies I used to limit my calorie intake.
I hope you found this article helpful and enjoyed learning about the process I go through for a mini cut. As always, feel free to email me any follow-up questions and if you want a copy of the .xls spreadsheet I used to track my calories, I’m happy to share. Happy Holidays and wishing you all the best in 2021! 🙂