With the sun soon setting on cold, dreary weather, the mind turns unavoidably to the approach of warm summer days and, for many of us, beach season. With it comes the excitement of prepping your body for that bikini, board shorts—or if you're daring, Speedo—you purchased months in advance. You focused on building muscle mass over the winter, but soon enough, it'll be time for all that sexy to come out of hibernation.

How to structure your cutting program is one question. When to start is another, and in some ways, it's just as important. Unfortunately, there's not a single answer I can give you since, as you might expect, it depends on your unique body and lifestyle. What I can do, however, is help you plan out a healthy approach to cutting weight that won't leave you scrambling for answers or feeling miserable with a crash diet.

Answer these five questions in the order I have them here, and you'll be well on your way to chiseling a body that's worth a double- or even triple-take.

Question 1: How Much Fat Do I Need To Lose?

One pound of body fat, you may have heard, is equal to approximately 3,500 calories. That number doesn't do justice to the full complexity of the systems involved in human fat production and loss, but it's a surprisingly effective benchmark—provided you use it right. The more pounds in fat you want to lose, the greater amount of time you will need to safely and truly shed fat weight, not mere water weight, or even worse, muscle.

Posing in the gym


A general guideline that works for many people is to aim to lose body fat at a pace of 1 pound per week without resorting to extreme dieting. That means eating at a deficit of approximately 500 calories per day. Set your calendar accordingly. If you have 10 pounds or fewer to lose, you should start at least 2-3 months out. If you have more than 20 pounds to torch, begin your cutting phase 4-5 months prior.

Sure, a more aggressive diet can achieve weight loss in a fraction of the time, but research and experience have shown there are limitations to how deep in calorie debt you can get before you wreck your metabolism.

For men, it's thought to be below 1,500 calories; for women, it could fall below 1,200 calories of deficit. And besides, if your diet is so extreme that you can't stick to it, that in itself is wasted time and effort!

Question 2: How Does My Body Respond To Caloric Deficit?

If this is your first time cutting in general, you're probably not familiar with how your body responds to eating fewer calories than you consume. Some people can feel just fine, while others find that at least initially, they feel, well, not so fine.

Just remember that nothing happens in isolation. Chemical imbalances can send a cascade of deleterious effects throughout the body, and if you're telling yourself to ignore the warning signs, you can quickly find yourself downright miserable. Your body's appetite- and weight-regulating mechanisms may react negatively to reduced calories by making you feel hungrier, messing with your hydration, affecting mood and energy levels, and even disrupting your sleep.

Eating a healthy meal in the gym.


Luckily, there are steps you can take to help avoid these sorts of extreme scenarios. One is to keep your protein intake high to preserve muscle mass as you continue eating at a deficit. Another is to regularly monitor your body for any major abnormalities. A third, perhaps the most important, is to prioritize sleep. I know you've heard it before, but losing sleep really will hamper your fat loss.

In almost all cases, the leaner you are when you start dieting, the greater the chance that you will end up peeling off muscle mass with too extreme of a diet. Plus, the lower your current body fat levels, the more stubborn a further drop in body fat will be. For men with single-digit body fat levels in men or women in the mid-to-low teens, this is especially the case.

Be sure to cushion your cutting phase with an additional few weeks to preserve as much muscle as possible, and to decrease the risk of rebellion from your body.

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Shortcut to Shred
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Question 3: Am I Mentally Prepared To Succeed?

Aside from any physical struggles, reaching your ideal physique through a stricter eating regimen is never a walk in the park on a mental or emotional level. It requires extraordinary planning, hours of meal prep and training, regular dates with a diet comprised often of less-than-exciting foods, intense self-regulation, and an iron will.

There will be times when your body and mind will conspire against you and make fierce attempts to sabotage your efforts. The world will try to woo your carb-depleted brain with intoxicating temptations such as syrup-smothered pancakes, perfectly juicy burgers, and chocolate-dipped bacon. Yes, that exists!

Pancakes with syrup

Some people can stay lean without feeling the need to cheat; if you're not one of those people, don't feel like you're doomed to a monastic meal plan. Just be strategic! Consider incorporating a carb re-feed day, or one cheat meal per week to keep your sanity and generally alleviate the stress of cutting.

Cheat meals allow you to relax your psychological white-knuckle grip on your diet, but just as importantly, they can help reboot weight-regulating hormones like leptin that will help continue chipping away at fat.

Remember that when losing fat, hunger is normal. That's part of the adventure, but it doesn't have to be the whole story. It's what you do 90 percent of the time that produces results in the end. Set realistic expectations, and you'll be able to stay committed to the end.

Question 4: Am I Prepared For Potential Setbacks?

In life, there are few precious things we can control. Luckily, the way our body looks is often one of them. However, all it takes is one setback to rip away that feeling of control and leave us feeling helpless. That's why it's important to anticipate any roadblocks along your path to sun-kissed glory.

Look at your calendar. Perhaps you have a family event, extended travel for business, or some other big obligation that will pry you away from your kitchen and gym. Don't let these well-known enemies sneak up on you! They can make it difficult to stick to a cutting regimen, sure, but that doesn't mean you have to let your previous hard work go down the tubes during this time. Your success hinges on recognizing the obstacles ahead of time and accounting for them.

Meal prep

You might extend your cutting regimen or break it up into four-week cycles. If you're going to travel, it's not uncommon to prepare an extra bag brimming with prepared meals, protein powder, and appropriate muscle-fueling snacks.

If there's an event that will flow with alcohol and wonderful food, schedule that event as a cheat meal, but don't let it suck you into a black-hole of indulgence. Take the time to plan ahead, and you'll be strong in the face of any temptation.

Question 5: For How Long Should I Cut?

Once you've established your answers to the first four questions, you're finally ready to decide on a timeframe that's right for you.

The common timelines here are designed to give enough breathing room for healthy expulsion of unwanted body fat, while allowing for the inevitable dance around obligations. Customize them to your end goal and you should find them fairly generous.

  • For 10 pounds or less, start cutting 2-3 months ahead.
  • For 20 pounds or more, start cutting 4-5 months ahead.
  • Add 1-2 weeks for any major foreseeable obstacles.
  • If such extended time is not on your side, I recommend at minimum six weeks for any cutting program. Don't leave it to the last minute.

Once you decide on your timeline, consider these programs to provide you with some structure and guidance in your efforts. They're all different lengths and intensities, so match them up to the time you have at your disposal.

You were systematic in building all that muscle, so don't put your gains at risk by taking a haphazard approach to fat-loss. It'll all be worth it when it comes time to disrobe and reveal a pina colada-dropping physique.

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About the Author

Shannon Clark

Shannon Clark

Shannon Clark is a freelance health and fitness writer located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

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