A cutting stack is a supplement that combines multiple ingredients to help you shed fat while retaining muscle. The best cutting stacks do so by including compounds that boost fat oxidation, repair and rebuild muscle fibers, and support high levels of androgen hormones like testosterone and human growth hormone.
The multi-ingredient approach of great cutting stacks leverages the benefits of many different ingredients, from amino acids to fat burners to testosterone boosters, to achieve the intended effects of the supplement. Here are four of the key benefits you can get from a solid cutting stack formulation.
Cutting stack benefits
1. A cutting stack can boost your body’s fat oxidation rate
Since cutting is all about dropping body fat while hanging on to as much muscle mass as possible, one logical way to move towards that goal is to boost your body’s ability to burn fat.
Fortunately, some of the best-studied and most effective weight loss supplements do exactly this.
Green tea extract and green coffee bean extract are two prime examples: both are known to increase the turnover of lipids in fat cells, which helps explain the finding that overweight and obese people who are given these supplements tend to lose weight (1).
2. Caffeine in a cutting stack can accelerate fat loss
Caffeine is another way to achieve the same effect—while caffeine is not without potential side effects, it is a powerful and effective way to increase your body’s metabolic rate and increase its fat oxidation rate as well.
3. Cutting stacks with amino acids help sustain muscular strength
One of the biggest challenges during cutting is maintaining muscle mass and muscle strength.
Normally, the supplemental strategies that you would use to sustain high levels of muscle mass and muscle strength would involve supplementing with a high-quality source of protein, such as hydrolyzed whey protein or casein protein (3).
4. BCAAs are particularly effective at maintaining muscle mass during a cut
During periods of intensive cutting, sustaining high protein intake is more difficult. One solution is to provide only the essential amino acids for muscle building and muscle maintenance in the form of branched chain amino acids, or BCAAs.
The three branched chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) are known to protect muscles during intensive workouts, and help repair damage as well (4).
Because of their ability to help preserve muscle mass and muscle strength, you’ll find BCAAs in many of the top-ranked cutting stacks.
5. Cutting stacks help you maintain high levels of testosterone
Another problem when cutting fat is maintaining a healthy anabolic hormonal balance to encourage maintenance of muscle mass.
To solve this problem, most cutting stacks will incorporate testosterone boosters like ginseng, nettle leaf, tribulus terrestris, magnezium, zinc, and fenugreek seed.
While the evidence for the efficacy of these testosterone boosters varies, the overarching strategy is the same: elevate testosterone to sustain better muscle strength and (because of the anabolic effects of testosterone) decrease the accumulation of fat.
The research is pretty clear on this front: higher testosterone levels mean higher levels of muscle protein synthesis, leading to larger and stronger muscles (5).
6. Some cutting stacks also aim to boost HGH levels
A similar strategy is at play for human growth hormone, or HGH. With compounds like L-arginine, saw palmetto, and other ingredients designed to elevate growth hormone levels, cutting stacks aim to sustain a healthy hormonal environment that encourages maintaining muscle mass, even when your body is in an energy deficit.
7. Cutting stacks can also help you eliminate excess water
One of the more controversial aspects of cutting stacks is the choice of whether to use one that includes diuretics for dropping water weight.
Water pills got a bad rap several years ago when they were promoted as general-purpose diet pills.
However, completely writing off diuretics isn’t the right idea either—if a major objective of cutting is to cut weight, then diuretics can play an important role in a cutting stack.
Bodybuilders, powerlifters, mixed martial arts fighters, and other combat sport competitors all need to make specific weight classes to achieve their goals.
In most cases, cutting stacks with diuretics are best reserved for people who need to meet specific weight classes for competition, not for people cutting for aesthetic or overall fitness and health reasons.
Cutting stack side effects
The two types of supplemental ingredients in cutting stacks that carry the greatest risk of side effects are stimulants and diuretics.
Watch out for high doses of stimulants. Caffeine, a common cutting stack ingredient and perhaps the best-known and most widely-used stimulant in the world, has a well-characterized set of side effects (6).
These include jitteriness, nausea, irritability, and at higher doses, heart palpitations and other cardiac disturbances. These side effects tend to be higher at doses above 200 mg, though the threshold for the onset of side effects depends on your body weight.
As you might guess, larger people can tolerate a given dose of caffeine better than smaller people. Men also appear to have a lower incidence of caffeine-related side effects, but plenty of men are still affected by caffeine-related issues from supplements that include caffeine.
The side effect profile of other stimulants, like green tea extract and green coffee bean extract, is less well-characterized, but can include digestive problems such as diarrhea and, in rare cases, liver damage (7).
Diuretics in cutting stacks can disrupt electrolyte balance. Diuretics can lead to abnormalities in your body’s electrolyte levels, particularly for potassium (8). Further, they can (and in fact are designed to) lead to dehydration, which poses its own set of side effects.
As discussed above, diuretic usage is not the right call for users of a cutting stack unless it is for a short-term weight cut to hit a specific weight class for competition.
Diuretics carry side effect risks that just aren’t justified if your goal is to drop fat mass and maintain muscle mass, with less concern about what the actual number on the scale is.
Cutting stack dosage
Aim for a 4-6 week cutting cycle to shed fat. Most bodybuilding experts recommend cutting cycles of at least six weeks, though the cycle duration of a cutting stack tends to be shorter, at more like four weeks.
Using a cutting stack for much longer than this will likely not result in substantially greater benefits, and can increase the potential for side effects.
For shedding water weight, shorter cuts are ok. For cutting specifically for competition (where water weight is a greater challenge), cutting cycles tend to be shorter. Some mixed martial arts fighters and boxers only cut for about five days prior to competition—though these cutting cycles lean heavily on dropping water weight via dehydration.
Keep the caffeine under 500 mg per day. When it comes to dosage of specific ingredients, the best guidance available suggests that primary active ingredients, like caffeine, should be limited to only a few hundred milligrams—typically, less than 500 mg per day (9).
With other stimulants like green tea extract, typical doses for maximum efficacy are in the range of about 300 to 1200 mg per day (10).
For the long tail of other ingredients, like dandelion root or uva ursi, there’s far less evidence for optimal dosing. For these ingredients, you’ll have to stick with the dosage that’s recommended by the cutting stack manufacturer.
Cutting stack benefits FAQ
Q: Are cutting stacks good for weight loss?
A:For athletes and bodybuilders, definitely. However, cutting stacks aren’t necessarily the best choice for people who are just looking to lose some weight. Unless you are following a fairly serious training program, you’d probably be better suited by an appetite suppressant, thermogenic, or a natural weight loss supplement.
The reason for this has to do with the physiological effects that cutting stacks target: cutting stacks tend to have stronger stimulants, hormone boosters, diuretics, and muscle-building compounds in them, largely to support athletes who train at a high intensity.
Q: Can you cut fat and gain muscle?
A: Cutting fat without losing any muscle mass is the holy grail of bodybuilding and strength training—unfortunately, it’s not possible for anyone except a rank novice to drop substantial amounts of fat and lose nothing in the way of muscle mass.
However, with the right training programs and nutrition/supplementation strategies, you can maximize the amount of fat you lose and minimize the amount of muscle lost at the same time.
When stacking cutting and bulking phases back to back, you can substantially increase your strength and decrease your body fat percentage over time.
Q: Can you take nitric oxide while cutting?
A: Nitric oxide is a supplement that’s traditionally used for increasing endurance performance and improving strength. Some people also feel that it gives them a “rush” to sustain higher energy levels.
Nitric oxide goes along well with cutting stacks, though it isn’t a core part of the compounds you want in a cutting stack supplement.
Nevertheless, if your sport involves any aspect of endurance or cardiovascular fitness, taking nitric oxide while cutting might be wise to sustain high levels of aerobic fitness.
Q: Can boosting your testosterone help with cutting?
A: Yes, taking supplements that keep your testosterone levels elevated might be one of the easiest ways to use supplements to improve your cut.
Testosterone, in addition to its well-known role in sustaining muscle protein synthesis, is also a potent fat burner—it’s one of the primary reasons why men have lower body fat percentages than women.
So, if a supplement can help keep your testosterone levels elevated, it will definitely help with dropping more fat and holding on to more muscle during your cut.
Related: Our best cutting stack picks
Cutting stacks can make a huge difference when you’re trying to shed fat while retaining muscle. For both weight-class athletes and bodybuilders, a cutting stack can enhance the efficacy of your cutting phase, helping you drop fat faster without losing on your strength gains.
For optimal results, look for a cutting stack that boosts your metabolic rate, supports high levels of androgen hormones, and helps retain muscle strength.