One of the most common obstacles guys run into during a cutting phase is plateauing in fat loss when they are eating less than 2000 calories per day, which is what I consider to be an unsustainable amount of calories for the majority of men.
I get messages all the time from guys who have dropped their intake under 2000 calories per day and cannot get any leaner asking me what to do to break their plateau.
“Derek, I'm cutting on 1600 calories, I am 12% body fat and I want to get down to 7% body fat, what do I do?”
This is the most common mistake I see and it can completely ruin your cut by unnecessarily downregulating your metabolism.
In scenarios like this, the root of the problem almost always boils down to someone cutting their calories way too soon, consequently forcing their metabolism to slow down to prevent what the body perceives to be imminent starvation.
Once you've slowed your metabolism down to a point that you cannot lose fat even eating less than 2000 calories per day, you have dug yourself into a hole that you will need to climb back out of to reach a sustainable diet model again and restore a healthy metabolism.
While there are exceptions to this, the vast majority of men will be very micronutrient deficient and feel starved all day eating less than 2000 calories per day.
The Best Way To Stay Lean With Ease
By far, the easiest way to stay lean without trying is by gaining muscle.
Muscle rips through calories at rest.
This is why many bodybuilders who aren't trying to gain size can walk around with visible abs year round even while eating McDonalds and other crap every single day.
Long term, gaining muscle is what will make each cutting phase far easier, as well as make staying lean with a sustainable daily calorie intake much easier as well.
While it does expend some calories, going to the gym, exercising and doing a bunch of cardio is just a small fraction of your daily energy expenditure.
What is going to determine your energy expenditure on a day-to-day basis is largely going to be your muscle tissue.
The more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism will be.
That is why making the most out of your off-season when you aren't even trying to get lean is critical for your upcoming cutting phases several months away.
Priming your metabolism with a well planned off-season is one of the biggest keys when it comes to a successful cut phase.
Once it actually comes time to cut, the biggest mistake guys make is cutting their calories too soon.
Don't Cut Calories Too Early
Far too often guys will cut their calories far too soon, plateau again, and then cut their calories even more.
As much as calories in vs calories out gets hammered into your head in the fitness industry, a BMR calculator will not account for metabolic adaptation.
Sometimes the issue is that guys have no idea how to count their calories properly and aren't actually in a deficit.
However, this often isn't the case among guys who aren't complete newbies to bodybuilding.
The issue oftentimes among guys who aren't completely new to this is actually that metabolic adaptation is preventing further fat loss due to poor diet choices.
And by poor diet choices I don't mean cheating on your diet.
I mean dieting too hard too soon.
If you cut your calories too quickly, you will eventually end up eating less than 2000 calories per day, still not have achieved the body composition you wanted to, and be wondering what you did wrong, or even throw dangerous fat burners into your protocol to try and milk more fat loss and rip even more muscle off your frame, consequently impairing your metabolism even more.
What A Typical Poorly Executed Cutting Phase Will Look Like
This applies even for those on steroids, as the same mistakes are made by naturals and enhanced individuals who have been convinced that calories in vs. calories out and maintenance calorie calculations are all that matter.
They will typically start at a 500 calorie deficit and be eating around 2500-2700 calories (general example applicable to most).
Fat loss will be great and all will be smooth sailing.
After a few weeks, weight loss will stall and they will assume that they have plateaued and need to cut their calories a bit more.
They will then drop their calorie intake another 300 calories and get down to 2200-2400 calories.
Fat loss starts again, and all seems to be smooth sailing but it is starting to get very difficult to stick to the diet at this point because cravings are starting to heighten severely, and hunger is at an all time high.
Fat loss plateaus after another couple weeks and they drop their calorie intake another 200 calories and get down to 2000-2200 calories per day.
Fat loss starts again, but cravings consume the mind all day and hunger is nearly uncontrollable at this point.
Energy starts to feel much lower and workout quality is starting to suffer greatly.
Another couple weeks passes and they're much leaner, but they still aren't where they want to be.
They plateau again and then cut their calories to 1800-2000 calories.
Fat loss starts again, but at this point they are barely functioning and are still hungry even after eating their biggest meal of the day.
Hunger consumes their mind all day, and just getting through a workout is much more difficult.
Focus and productivity starts to deteriorate as energy levels are very low, and food is all what matters at this point.
They may even cave in and binge eat at this point.
After another week or two, weight loss plateaus again, and I get an email asking what to do.
As you can imagine, this diet model is not sustainable, and it was very poorly executed.
This diet model is what leads to skinny fat physiques and yo-yo dieting.
The Common Mistake That Will Ruin Your Cut And Your Metabolism
Following the typical diet model I outlined above, before you know it you may end up eating less than 2000 calories per day and plateau before achieving the body composition you wanted to.
If you cut your calories way too soon, the problem is that you're forcing your body to adapt and slow down to prevent starving to death.
Your body reacts and adapts accordingly based on what you provide it energy-wise.
That is the same reason why if you're bulking up and you increase your calories to 3300 calories per day you will gain weight for a couple weeks or so, but you will eventually plateau.
Now when you're eating 3300 calories a day, your body is staying the same weight, regardless of the fact that you're in a “calorie surplus” according to BMR calculators and calories in vs. calories out dogma.
The reason this happens is because your body adapts and auto-regulates your metabolism to accommodate its new intake of calories.
When you're cutting, the exact same thing applies.
If you're eating 3000 calories per day consistently and then you cut your calories to 2700 to start your cut, you will lose weight.
The root of the issue rears its ugly head when you wake up one day and step on the scale and see that your weight loss has stalled.
What do most logically do when they see this?
They decrease their calories.
Expectedly, fat loss starts again and everything seems fine.
Then, you wake up in a week or two and plateau again.
What do you do?
Cut calories again?
That's what most will do.
You can see where this goes.
Before you know it you're stalled out at a hardly lean, maybe even skinny fat 12-13% body fat physique eating 1600 calories per day and doing cardio every day for an hour.
Remember, muscle mass is the main thing that will determine how much fat you lose without even exercising.
The goal is to keep as much muscle on your frame as possible.
Depriving yourself of nutrients is the most catabolic thing you can do.
However, a calorie deficit is needed to lose fat, so exactly what should you do to avoid this negative metabolic adaptation and unsustainable diet model?
What To Do When Weight Loss Plateaus
If you're in a 300 calorie deficit and the scale shows that you plateaued for one day, that does not mean that your body has already downregulated its metabolism and needs another calorie cut to continue losing fat.
Your weight may stay the same for three days in a row and then all of a sudden drop a full pound.
That doesn't mean that you suddenly lost 1 pound of fat over a random 24 hour period, but it means that using the scale on a 24 hour basis as a metric of progression does not always reveal everything that is going on behind the scenes in your body.
There are tons of factors at play that are temporary that will greatly impact your scale weight on a day-to-day basis.
These include but are not limited to fluid retention, electrolyte balance, food sitting in your stomach, a piece of crap literally sitting inside you that you haven't dropped yet, among countless other things that can influence your weight.
Just because 24 hours has passed and the scale hasn't moved, it doesn't mean that you've stalled.
The issue is that most guys will see their weight stay the same for a couple days, or potentially even increase by a bit and then assume that they need to cut their calories again.
More often than not, they could have stuck with that calorie allotment for another week and probably milked more fat loss out of that incremental drop in calories.
By cutting calories far too soon and far too aggressively you force your body into a state of preservation.
Your body doesn't care about getting shredded, in fact it wants the opposite, and metabolic adaption will slow your weight loss down if you don't know how to manipulate it.
If you cut down to 1800 calories way too quickly, what's going to happen?
You're going to lose tons of fat at first, but then your body's going to downregulate far quicker than it would have if you had kept your calorie intake higher.
Because of this, you miss out on a significant amount of fat loss that you could have milked out of those smaller incremental drops in calories that you should have done had you not been so aggressive with your deficit.
You will also lose more muscle, which will also impair your fat loss potential.
After a month or two when you plateau, you will be in a position where you can't lose any additional fat eating barely anything as is, and you will have nowhere to go as you've dug yourself into the deepest hole you could be in during a cut.
I know guys that are my weight and height that are eating as much as my girl to get lean.
My girl is 90 pounds!
There are guys at 200+ pounds trying to get down to 7% body fat plateauing in fat loss at 12% body fat eating as much as a girl.
They can't get any leaner because they've cut their calories down to something ridiculous like 1500, and end up doing cardio for an hour per day, on hordes of fat burners, and still can't get as lean as they want.
They dropped from 3000 down to 1500 calories in a matter of weeks as opposed to milking all the fat loss they could have out of each increment.
My general approach to cutting and how I advise you do it is to start with a minor deficit.
Much like how you would approach a lean bulk (but the opposite).
How To Manipulate Your Body's Metabolic Adaptation So You Never Need To Eat Less Than 2000 Calories Per Day
Start with minor deficit of 300 calories.
That is enough to start the fat loss process.
Milk all the fat loss you can out of it, and then once you plateau for a full week you can then assess what the most intelligent strategy to deploy at that time would be for your goals to continue the fat loss process.
Metabolic adaptation doesn't happen overnight.
There's an adjustment period.
But, once your body has adapted, you can be damn sure that you're probably going to need to restrict more calories or increase energy expenditure to continue burning fat.
What I'm trying to hammer home here is that you don't want to do that too early.
Basically, you want to yield the most benefit you can out of each deprivation increment.
Once you ensure that your body has actually plateaued, then you cut calories further (or increase your energy expenditure).
That next cut shouldn't be an extra 300 calories either.
You can start the fat loss process again just by dropping another 100 calories of carbs per day.
You don't need to cut 300 calories every single increment to start fat loss again.
This is what many do though, and this is why they will end up eating less than 2000 calories per day and still be stalling and spin their wheels for weeks eating like a bird.
Guys that know how to diet will NEVER tank their calories from 3000 to 1500 in a matter of 6 weeks unless they had an impending deadline that they needed to crash diet for.
Once you've dug yourself into a hole where your metabolism is so downregulated that you can't even lose fat eating 1600 calories per day with frequent cardio, you have no other move than reverse diet yourself out of the hole to rev your metabolism back up.
You can't expect your body composition changes to be favorable once you have forced yourself to adapt to what your body perceives to be sudden starvation.
Just because a calorie calculator says you are in a huge deficit and you should continue losing fat at X rate, your body does not care.
When metabolic adaptation downregulates your “maintenance calories” to much less than that, numbers on paper don't mean a thing, and your results will show that.
Your body is now in a state of extreme stress to hold onto everything for dear life to prevent you from withering away and dying.
If you are starting to cut, start with the 300-calorie deficit and go from there.
In general (doesn't apply if you have a short-term deadline you need to crash diet for), I like to start with a 300 calorie deficit per day and not change a thing until I've plateaued for a full week.
At that point, I either restrict another 100 calories (usually coming from carbohydrates), or increase my cardio session duration by 5 minutes, or add another cardio session in per week with the same current duration, or introduce a fat burner at the lowest effective dose.
Those are the options.
I either increase my energy expenditure, or I reduce my calorie intake.
When I reduce my calorie intake or increase my energy expenditure, it is in a small increment and then I milk all of the fat loss out of that increment until metabolic adaption causes my body to downregulate again.
Once I can no longer yield any additional fat loss out of that change for a full week, then I look at the next incremental change after that point.
Which would then be another 100 calorie restriction, or increase in cardio duration, or add another cardio session in with no change in duration, or increase my dose of fat burners (if safe), or introduce another fat burner if there is another compound I have not yet deployed that also has a strong efficacy profile.
There are so many options available to start the fat loss process again that you should never be in a situation 8 weeks deep into your cut where you're eating less than 2000 calories per day and plateauing.
If 24 hours passes and I don't lose weight, it's not the end of the world, and it certainly does not mean I need to drop another several hundred calories.
This mistake can ruin months of work as you only have one option once you've dug yourself into a hole like this, and that is to rev your metabolism back up with a sustainable amount of calories.
I strongly advise that you prime your body during each off-season and gain as much muscle as possible (without exceeding 15% body fat).
If you've primed your body correctly and gained muscle during the off-season, you should be able to end your subsequent cut phase as lean, or leaner than your previous cut while eating more calories than you did during your previous cut.
This is one metric I use to assess whether or not a bulk and cut phase was successful or not.