Illustration showing an overweight man cutting fat and revealing his muscle underneath.

The Cutting Guide: How to Burn Fat While Building A Bit of Muscle

Cutting is when you burn fat while keeping your muscle. You may even be able to gain a bit of muscle while cutting, especially if you’re overweight, out of shape, or new to lifting weights.

  • Bulking: eating excess energy to gain weight and facilitate muscle growth.
  • Cutting: eating in an energy deficit to lose weight and facilitate fat loss.

Whether you’re bulking or cutting, the goal is to be strong, muscular, lean, and healthy. That means you need to focus on hypertrophy training, eating a good diet, getting enough sleep, being active, and living a healthy lifestyle. That will mitigate muscle loss, keep your bones and tendons strong, mobilize “stubborn” fat, and keep you healthy.

What sets cutting apart from bulking is that your primary goal is to lose fat. The best way to lose fat is to eat less energy than you’re burning, forcing your body to burn body fat to supply the missing energy. This is called a calorie deficit. Eating fewer calories is the easiest way to get into a calorie deficit, but you can also create a deficit by being active.

Let’s dive into the details.

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Illustration showing a skinny guy who bulked up like a Hollywood actor.

Hollywood Bulking Transformations ARE Realistic for Skinny Guys

There are a ton of articles talking about how Hollywood body transformations are unrealistic. There’s some truth in that. Most guys are overweight. For them, even just dieting down to a healthy body-fat percentage can be surprisingly difficult.

Most Hollywood transformations are coming at it from the other side, though. From the naturally skinny side. From our side. These actors aren’t losing a dramatic amount of fat, they’re building an impressive amount of muscle, and they’re doing it suspiciously fast.

Many of us can do that, too.

Let’s dive into it.

Dive In
Illustration showing two skinny guys with different bone structures and muscle-building genetics.

The Grey Truth About Skinny Muscle-Building Genetics

There’s a war raging in the natural muscle-building community. The white warriors are fed up with nihilistic blackpill hardgainers who give up on building muscle before they even start. They argue we should set lofty goals and fight to accomplish them, genetics be damned. After all, they started off skinny, too. They worked hard, gritted their teeth through the struggle, and succeeded to such a tremendous extent that they became famous for their physiques.

The dark doomers argue that those with the best muscle-building genetics are the most likely to rise to the top of the fitness industry. These hypertrophy gurus stand there on their genetic pulpits and preach the value of willpower, determination, and discipline, ignoring the fact that their genetics are what allowed their hard work to bear such impressive fruits. Only a very small fraction of their audiences will see that same degree of success, leaving the rest feeling dysmorphic and disillusioned.

There’s truth on both sides. No matter how thin we start, no matter how slender our bone structures are, and no matter if our hardgainer metabolisms incinerate nine-tenths of our calorie surpluses, we can still build muscle. If we progressively overload our lifts, eat enough food, and cleverly adjust based on the progress we’re making, we’ll get results.

But our genetics do indeed influence those results. Even among naturally skinny dudes, we all have different bone structures, different muscles that lag behind, and different muscles that pull ahead, causing us to build bodies that look rather different from one another.

I think it’s important to talk honestly about genetics. Not in an overly pessimistic “blackpill” way. It’s true that everyone can bulk up. But not in an overly optimistic “whitepill” way, either. We all have genetic weaknesses that we need to account for and genetic strong points we can leverage.

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Illustration showing a skinny guy bulking up by becoming stronger.

Should Skinny Guys Get Strong to Get Big?

A bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. If you want to get big, you’ve got to get strong. That was the main bulking dogma when I was first trying to bulk up, but I didn’t understand it properly, and my results left me feeling confused. Everyone was preaching some variation of:

  • The best way to build a bigger chest is to build a bigger bench press.
  • Nobody who does chin-ups with two plates around their waist has skinny arms.
  • If you get strong at the compound lifts, you’ll be big.

But if any of that is true, what’s going on with massive bodybuilders being outlifted by much smaller powerlifters? Why do some guys with a three-plate bench press barely look like they lift? How is that tall, skinny guy deadlifting 500 pounds?

Is getting stronger really the best way to build muscle?

How do you become big and strong?

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Illustration showing a bodybuilder resting between sets.

How Long Should You Rest Between Sets to Build Muscle?

Rest times are often brushed aside. You’ll hear that they matter, sure, but that they aren’t one of the more important factors—that they’ll only have a negligible impact on your muscle growth. That’s not necessarily true.

If we look at the research, using proper rest times can double your muscle growth or, if you do it the wrong way around, cut your muscle growth in half. 

But it’s not quite as simple as long or short rest times being better for building muscle. Thankfully, there’s more than one way to unskinny a cat.

Let’s dive into it.

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Cartoon of a bodybuilder using the mind-muscle connection while doing dumbbell biceps curls.

Does the Mind-Muscle Connection Actually Increase Muscle Growth?

Most bodybuilders absolutely swear by the mind-muscle connection. They slow their reps down, really focusing on squeezing the target muscle, feeling it do the work. The idea is that the better their connection with the muscle is, the better they’ll be able to engage their muscle fibers, and so the more muscle growth they’ll be able to stimulate.

On the other hand, most people who train for strength and power couldn’t care less about the mind-muscle connection. Even when they’re trying to bulk up, they lift explosively to maximize performance. To them, tension doesn’t come from the mind, it comes from the weight on the bar and how fast they can move it.

The argument for the mind-muscle connection is anecdotal. It comes from bodybuilding culture. But if we look at all the biggest and strongest people in the world, the anecdotes and recommendations really go both ways. That makes things tricky. Should we listen to the bodybuilders or the strength athletes? Both?

Fortunately, there are two studies that help shed some light on the situation.

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Cartoon of a bodybuilder doing cheat biceps curls with bad technique.

Lifting With Momentum is Good, Actually

Lifting with momentum has a bad reputation, especially among bodybuilders. The concern is that if you lift explosively, or if you cheat, or heave, or swing, then you’ll make some parts of the lift too easy on the muscles you’re trying to train. I disagree with that idea, but there is a small grain of truth there. Sometimes.

What’s rarely mentioned, though, is how if you use momentum wisely, it can help you gain more strength, athleticism, and even muscle mass.

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Illustration showing a bodybuilder lifting weights explosively and then lowering them slowly and under control.

How Fast Should You Lift & Lower Weights?

If you lift weights slowly, you can keep tension on your muscles for longer, but you won’t be able to lift as heavy.

If you lift weights with a normal tempo, you can lift more weight, but you won’t be keeping tension on your muscles for as long.

If you lift weights fast, you’ll engage more muscle mass and increase your performance, but you’ll also increase momentum, and it will be harder to maintain a strong mind-muscle connection.

So, how fast should you be lifting and lowering weights? And how should your lifting tempo change if you’re training for strength, athletic performance, or muscle size?

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Illustration showing a bodybuilder doing the bench press with a flat back and with an arch.

How Does Arching on the Bench Press Affect Muscle Growth?

Most people arch when they do the bench press, especially if they come from a strength training or powerlifting background. It shortens the range of motion and gives our shoulders better leverage, allowing us to push more weight. But what if you aren’t a powerlifter? What if you aren’t just trying to move more weight, you’re also trying to build more muscle? Should you be arching? Or does it turn the bench press into more of a decline press, biasing your lower chest, leaving your upper chest high and dry?

A new study by Cudlip and colleagues compared muscle activation when benching with a neutral spine versus benching with an arched back. It looked into back and triceps activation, as well as upper and lower chest activation.

So, what did they find? How does arching your back affect muscle growth when benching?

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Illustration showing a man getting a hernia from doing a one-arm dumbbell row with his knee up on a bench.

Athlean-X Says One-Arm Rows Cause Hernias. Do They Really?

In one of Athlean-X’s latest videos, Jeff Cavaliere makes the argument—again—that the one-arm dumbbell row is the worst back exercise. He argues that if you put an asymmetrical strain on your groin, it can give you a hernia. And so, because the one-arm dumbbell row uses an asymmetrical stance, it causes hernias. But is any of that actually true?

The dumbbell row is a popular lift. So are other lifts that asymmetrical strain our groins, such as split squats and landmine presses. None of these lifts have a reputation for causing injuries of any kind, let alone hernias. But smoking was popular, too, and look where that went. So who knows. Maybe a quiet killer has been hiding in your workout routine all along, waiting for the right moment to stab you in your side.

If you want to build muscle, you seek out a strength coach. And that’s no problem. That’s what Marco does best. He’s even had similar clients to Athlean-X, including college, professional, and Olympic athletes. But he’s not a physiotherapist. He wasn’t focused on their prehab and rehab. He was tasked with bulking them up. He’s not afraid of dumbbell rows causing hernias, and after a decade working as a strength coach, he’s never seen it happen. But it’s also slightly outside of his area of expertise.

So I reached out to Greg Nuckols, who connected us with Dr. Jason Eure, DPT. Not only does Jason have a similar education to Athlean-X, but his education is more current, and it’s technically one notch higher. Jeff Cavaliere has a Master’s degree in physical therapy (MPT), whereas Jason is a full doctor (DPT). Plus, he’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), and he’s coming from Stronger by Science, which is about as reputable a source as you can get in the fitness industry.

We asked him: are one-arm dumbbell rows dangerous? Can they cause hernias?

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