One of the most commonly misunderstood or misguided pieces of advice I’ve seen given to those trying to lean out is to do more reps with lighter weight to develop “cuts”. While you could technically make a connection between doing more repetitions, burning more calories, which in turn creates a higher caloric deficit for you to lose body fat stores, this training specifically does not mean you will develop any new or different anatomic musculature that you did not have before.
With proper diet, a regimented caloric deficit, and a strategic approach, the cuts, separation, striations, and every piece of detail you will hope to find will come out as a result of reduced body fat stores. While training pre-contest or when in a heavy caloric deficit, there may be other reasons for while occasionally training lighter/incorporating drop sets, giant sets, etc may be useful. Let’s take a look at a few things in order of importance.
What BUILT the muscle?
Bodybuilding, physique, and general aesthetics is not necessarily a performance-required sport/hobby, being the strongest and being able to have the highest total is close to useless on all levels. One rep maxes and sport-specific training is not going to be the most effective for hypertrophy (muscle building) goals. BUT, it’s undeniable that heavy, controlled training with good form is generally the most effective training method for building muscle. If you built that muscle with 8-15 repetitions on heavy compound exercises, why would you change that in order to KEEP the muscle there?
This is where the common bodybuilder mindset takes over. We think it’s always one or the other. Train heavy or train light. Cut or Bulk. Stimulating progressive overload and incorporating both hypertrophy-specific training AS WELL as higher repetition training is, in my opinion, the most effective training method, and that goes for whether you’re dieting for a competition or trying to gain size. Keeping your muscles stimulated in different ways is required to give them a reason to keep growing.
It is very common, however, to lighten up on the training simply because as you continually diet, joints become less lubricated and muscles will commonly be more prone to injuries. Due to generally having less muscle from dieting (a necessary evil that we must all deal with), reduced glycogen stores and energy level, it is simply not possible to lift the same weight we did in the off season, regardless. BUT, don’t let this be a reason for you to go from using the 150-pound dumbbells on incline bench to using 50’s!
Recovery: Because your body is in a caloric deficit and undergoing a lot of general stress to get diced up, it is recommended that since you’re going to continue training heavy while under such conditions, that you FOCUS ON RECOVERY. Get enough sleep and make sure that while your diet is still in line with your goals, it is aiding in your recovery in the most efficient possible way to ensure that this training is indeed optimal.
Decreasing rest periods, however, is a good idea to maintain a pump. You will notice the leaner you get, the colder you get, the quicker you are to lose a pump, and the harder it is to generally feel amped up at the gym. A cold muscle is more easily torn and focus may be lost if resting too long. Generally, you can reduce the time in between sets to even as little as 30-45 seconds, but keep training heavy. Again, heavy is relative to the person, the exercise, and the conditions. After a full chest workout, completing your 5th set of dumbbell flyes with 30-45 seconds rest in between will have you using very moderate weight – but make sure that weight you’re using is still HARD to lift!
A great way to warm up is to try to increase your body heat without fatiguing the muscles and burning the glycogen stores that are required to perform the exercises and get the most overall overload that you’re capable of. I like to do a little bit of incline walking before I start with a jacket on, and generally strip down as I get warmer and warmer on warmup sets.