Can You Progressive Overload While Cutting? To Some Extent!

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
October 29, 2022

It’s a pretty common fact that progressive overload is the best way to achieve linear muscular development. This steady growth is (usually) fuelled by a sufficient caloric intake and a high amount of protein eaten on a daily basis.

But what if you’re in the cutting phase, or what is otherwise known as a caloric deficit - should you still try to maintain the trend of progressive overload?

The answer is yes - though you’re unlikely to develop as much mass and strength as you would in a caloric surplus, it is still quite important to maintain progressive overload while cutting, as this will not only help prevent muscle loss but also allow you to continue your physical development, albeit at a slower pace.

What is Progressive Overloading?

Progressive overloading is the term used to describe a method of workout programming wherein the exerciser will progressively increase the total resistance of their exercises over time, thereby keeping the body consistently challenged.

progressive overload

This is one of the most effective methods of achieving growth in the muscles of the lifter, as it provides a constant level of challenge despite the adaptations made by the body. 

This, in turn, will often require that the lifter keep track of their progression and support the adaptations made by their body through proper recovery and diet.

What is Cutting in a Diet?

The term “cutting” refers to a specific method of weight loss employed by bodybuilders and athletes wherein they will intentionally place their body in a state of caloric deficit so as to force their fat stores to be expended in order to maintain regular metabolic function.

cutting calories

Over time, this will appear as their physique growing progressively leaner, with the hope being that their musculature is otherwise unaffected by the caloric deficit and metabolic demands of this dietary practice.

When tracking calories by the number, the cutting diet will most likely feature a deficit that is 250 to 500 calories less than the lifter’s total daily energy expenditure, equating to roughly 1 pound of fat mass being expended per week.

While there are indeed more intensive cutting diets with larger deficits, it is medically inadvisable and generally quite difficult for less experienced dieters.

A cutting diet is usually preceded (or followed) by a bulking diet, wherein the exerciser will instead enter a state of caloric surplus so as to encourage muscle growth at an accelerated pace.

Maintaining Muscle Mass vs Progression and Muscular Development

For the majority of weightlifters beyond an intermediate level, performing resistance exercises during a cutting diet is more about ensuring no muscle mass wastage occurs instead of actually attempting to progress in terms of muscular development.

This is simply because of the diminishing returns effect in regards to natural muscular hypertrophy, wherein the body adapts to resistance and other forms of training stimulus as greater amounts of muscle are developed, resulting in a slower development for more advanced weightlifters.

However, this is not to say that muscular development cannot occur during a cutting diet - simply that it is slower in comparison to being in a caloric surplus, especially for weightlifters nearing their maximum genetic potential.

So, what does this mean for introducing progressive overload programming while on a cutting diet?

Simply that - regardless of your goal, whether it be maintaining mass or actual development - you should still attempt to keep the linear progression of progressive overload in your workout routine, even during a cut.

Factors that Improve Progressive Overload While Cutting

Though progressive overload should indeed still be used while cutting, doing so in an effective manner will require several factors be present so as to prevent any stalling in progression.

These factors primarily revolve around proper recovery and ensuring that the body is supplied with the appropriate amount of macronutrients to fuel muscular recovery, even in the case of a caloric restriction.

One should note that while these factors can certainly improve the linear progression of progressive overload while cutting, it is not guaranteed, and one should temper their expectations as it is entirely possible to make no progress in terms of muscular hypertrophy or strength conditioning.

Protein Intake

One of the most important points to focus on while cutting is adequate protein intake.

bulking protein

Having an insufficient amount of protein in your diet - especially in a state of caloric restriction - can not only stall your progress, but even result in your body consuming your muscle mass as a secondary source of energy, undoing any progress that you have already made.

Generally, it is advised that lifters consume a somewhat higher amount of protein during the cutting phase of their diet in comparison to how much protein they would normally consume while in the bulking phase of their diet.

Accounting for Lower Volume

It’s no surprise that eating less food equates to having less energy, and the skeletal muscles of the entire body are no exception to this idea.

The majority of individuals will find that as their caloric intake is lowered, so too does the maximum volume of repetitions they can perform, leading to failed sets if they are attempting to maintain the same volume as if they were not in a cutting diet.

As such, most strength training programs meant to be performed while in a caloric deficit will feature a lower amount of accessory exercise volume, while still retaining the same volume of repetitions for compound exercise - allowing lifters to recover better despite their caloric deficit.

In turn, this improves the linear development of progressive overload by way of allowing the body to recover due to the lower total volume of each workout session.

Controlling the Caloric Deficit

It goes without saying that inducing too severe a caloric deficit can cause quite a number of negative health effects.

However, having a severe caloric deficit can also directly affect any chance of linear progression during said deficit, as the body will divert any of the energy consumed to the more important organ systems - potentially even catabolizing the cells of the skeletal muscles in particularly extreme caloric restrictions.

As such; while the entire point of a cutting diet is to lose weight and be in a state of caloric deficit, we advise that the majority of natural lifters go no further than 500 to 700 calories below their daily energy expenditure so as to provide enough energy to keep the body out of muscular catabolism.

Being New to Lifting

Due to the “newbie gains” effect, novice lifters or those returning to training after a long period of inactivity will find that they can indeed still progress during a caloric deficit, especially with the incorporation of progressive overload into their training program.

This means that previously untrained individuals will be able to maintain progressive overload despite the lack of available calories - so long as they also follow the general principles needed for muscular development.

It should also be noted that this works up to a certain point only - after sufficient enough muscle mass has been developed, the newbie gains effect will not accelerate the lifter’s physical development, especially in a caloric deficit.

Programming for Progressive Overload in a Caloric Deficit

Programming progressive overload while on a cut is much the same as doing so in a caloric surplus; track the weight at which you perform your lifts and increase them by small increments within a predetermined length of time.

For novice level exercisers, this can be as much as adding 5 pounds per workout session, whereas more advanced lifters may need to slow it down somewhat at 5 pounds a week, or even per month at the elite levels.

There is also the fact that being in a state of caloric deficit has a tendency to slow down muscular development, meaning that even if you have programmed your progressive overload scheme to a fine level, it is entirely possible that your progress can still stall or otherwise slow down unpredictably.

How to Diet for Progressive Overload While Cutting

Though we’ve covered protein intake and how severe of a caloric deficit is needed in order to retain the trend of progressive overload, we have yet to cover how to diet in order to retain said progressive overload.

While it does not quite matter when you eat your meal or whether you divide your eating into multiple smaller sessions, the general advice is that exercisers intake protein within a certain time frame after their workout, while carbohydrates are meant to be eaten prior to a workout so as to aid in recovery and fuel the muscles respectively.

Final Thoughts

So, the answer to whether you can still achieve progressive overload while cutting? A resounding yes, so long as every other aspect of your training is within the correct parameters.

However, it is best to remember that every individual is different at a genetic level, and some lifters will find that they can maintain linear progression far better than their peers despite being in a state of caloric restriction, whereas others will find that this is not the case.

References

1. Roth C, Schoenfeld BJ, Behringer M. Lean mass sparing in resistance-trained athletes during caloric restriction: the role of resistance training volume. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2022 May;122(5):1129-1151. doi: 10.1007/s00421-022-04896-5. Epub 2022 Feb 11. PMID: 35146569; PMCID: PMC9012799.

2. Barakat, Christopher MS, ATC, CISSN1; Pearson, Jeremy MS1; Escalante, Guillermo DSc, MBA, ATC, CSCS, CISSN2; Campbell, Bill PhD, CSCS, FISSN3; De Souza, Eduardo O. PhD1. Body Recomposition: Can Trained Individuals Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time?. Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2020 - Volume 42 - Issue 5 - p 7-21 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000584

3. Peterson MD, Pistilli E, Haff GG, Hoffman EP, Gordon PM. Progression of volume load and muscular adaptation during resistance exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011 Jun;111(6):1063-71. doi: 10.1007/s00421-010-1735-9. Epub 2010 Nov 27. PMID: 21113614; PMCID: PMC4215195.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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