Your Go-To Guide For Cutting Fat While Keeping Muscle

Don't lose your hard-earned muscle! This guide and Q&A by Brad Borland shows you how to drop fat and retain muscle.

If you are like any other bodybuilder on the planet you fight for every ounce of hard-earned muscle each and every day you enter the gym. Your diet is on point, your workouts are consistent and your rest and supplement regimen is perfect. Somewhere on the road to your ultimate physique you may find yourself wanting to shed a little body fat to show off that work of art you have toiled over for so long. But do you need to sacrifice a few pounds of muscle mass for the sake of a leaner physique?

In a word: No! By tweaking your diet a little and paying close attention to your macronutrient numbers, you can melt away the fat while keeping your muscular gains. This step-by-step guide will show you how to lean up and stay huge!

Guide To Cutting Fat And Keeping Muscle

Cutting fat? Protein is king!Step 1: Protein is King

You have heard it over and over: amino acids are the building blocks of protein and protein builds muscle – period. Without adequate amounts of protein, you will not be able to hold onto that muscle you are trying to reveal to the world. Keep protein levels around 1 to 1.25 grams per pound of bodyweight (for a 200 pound lifter this would be 200 to 250 grams). Good sources include fish, chicken, lean red meat, turkey, skim milk, low-fat cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, eggs and whey protein.

Step 2: Fat is Your Friend

It can not be stressed enough that fat is essential in your quest to keep muscle while trying to lean up. Dietary fat will actually burn bodily adipose tissue and keep your metabolism in check by regulating key hormone levels such as testosterone. Keep fat intake at about 30 % of your total calorie intake. Good sources include avocado, nuts such as almonds, olive oil-based salad dressings, egg yolks, natural peanut butter and fatty fish such as salmon.

Step 3: Cycle Carbohydrates

Having had a bad reputation for the past few years carbs are essential for normal bodily functions as well as fueling those intense workouts. The trick is regulating the amount and type consumed. For our purposes try out around 2 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight to start (this is 400 grams for our 200 pound athlete). This will be considered your base. Healthy sources include sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, green vegetables, oatmeal, spinach and apples.

Here is the variable in your plan. You will cycle these carb amounts for each week allowing your body to burn fat while still feeding your muscle. This will keep the body off guard to keep burning fat, but enough carbs every few days to keep muscle tissue. This is where a little experimenting on your part will be important. You will have a low carb day for 3 days (0.5 - 1 gram per pound) followed by a medium carb day (2 grams per pound) and finally a high carb day (2.5 to 3 grams per pound).

For our 200 pound example:

  • Low: 100 to 200g (3 days)
  • Medium: 400g (1 day)
  • High: 500 to 600g (1 day)

With a little trial and error you will have to determine if you need more or less low carb days cycled into your week. Do not be discouraged regarding keeping muscle on your frame – keeping protein and fat intakes in check you can be ensured that you will hold onto that hard-earned muscle mass.

You should be losing around 1 to 2 pounds of fat per week. Any more than that then take a day or two of low carb days out of the plan or add a medium day. Any less then add a day or two of low carb days in the cycle and/or possibly delete the high carb day.

Q&A With Brad Borland

Brad, is there any truth to the claim that eating too much protein is dangerous for the body?

There always seems to be a continued resistance against high protein intake especially amongst textbook junkies who have little or no experience in the business of building muscle. As extremely high amounts of protein may be detrimental to health (and not to mention a waste), elevated levels that of which are significantly higher than that of the sedentary population can be a necessity when it comes to both promoting muscle gain and cutting fat. A good rule of thumb is to start at around 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. Some individuals can get away with a little less and some may need a bit more. Experiment for several weeks to see where your level is.

Is it possible to get completely shredded like a bodybuilder and maintain all your muscle mass?

In a word: No. While dieting at a level to get shredded for the posing stage, it is inevitable that you will lose at least a little muscle mass. The body cannot go into an extreme mode of fat burning without sacrificing muscle tissue. The key to minimize this loss is to keep protein and fat levels in check. Keep protein levels high for muscle maintenance and take in healthy fats for energy and hormone balance – namely testosterone.

While dieting  it is inevitable that you will lose a little muscle mass.

For a beginner with an average amount of body fat that wants to build muscle and get shredded, should they do a cutting diet first, or spend some time learning how to build muscle before they try to cut fat?

Your best bet would be to cut the fat first. Reason: As you get leaner, you will look more muscular. The more muscular you become the larger you will look. Plus, being leaner is a much better way to look at the beach or poolside. Once you can see each muscle more clearly, then you can gain muscle mass at a more steady rate – just by increasing calories slightly. You will already have the knowledge to get lean, now you can stay lean and get bigger!

Should you change your training style when trying to cut fat to higher reps and lighter weight, or should you continue to use a muscle building routine?

To hold on to as much muscle as possible while dieting always use the same heavy loads and medium reps as you were using prior. This will ensure you will be able to retain muscle while dieting to cut fat. If you were to use lighter loads, the body would perceive that as a detraining period and compensate by sacrificing muscle. You must still give the muscle a need to be there. Heavy, compound movements such as bench presses, squats, leg presses, military presses, chins, rows and dips should make up the bulk of your program.

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About The Author
Brad has a Master's degree in Kinesiology and is a strength and conditioning specialist, military veteran, cancer survivor and Associate Editor at Muscle & Strength.

193 Comments+ Post Comment

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Posted Sun, 02/22/2015 - 15:40
Neil

Hi! When fat is your friend why should I drink skim milk instead of normal?

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Posted Tue, 01/13/2015 - 17:03
Chris stevens

This article makes no sense. At 400g of carbs @ 4 Cal that's 1600 calories total, add in protein at same rate bumps total calories to 2400, and according to the fat intake of 30% tha would put total daily calories at 3600. I'm a 190# guy who does martial arts and on a good day (meaning intense workout) I can burn that but on an average day I burn about 2500 to 2700. Now I'm a bit older but you only lose about 100 cals per decade and I'm 40 so that means a 20yr old might be burning 2700-2900 on an average day. How can one cut if your consuming that many calories. The science behind these articles never makes any sense.

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Posted Sat, 05/31/2014 - 13:12
Dominic

I am a 16 year old looking to burn fat I weighy around 200 pounds -220 I'm a beginner I'n all this I'm trying to loose my hips and trying get bigger arm muscles any suggestions??

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Posted Mon, 05/19/2014 - 22:54
Leo blasi

If I'm happy at 180 that's my goal weight but I want to lean out do I just maintain weight and keep going or do I cut and bulk stages tell I hit

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Posted Wed, 03/26/2014 - 00:29
Gabby

Hi I'm 19 5ft and my weight is 128 I want to lose weight and get toned what can I use as supplements to help me get to where I want to be which is 105-110lbs or more but be toned ready for summer time

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Posted Wed, 02/12/2014 - 11:56
carol

Please send this story link to my email. Im on an android and it
Wont let me. Love this article.

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Posted Sun, 09/08/2013 - 22:46
Bill

Do you have a nutrition plan for diabetics , it really difficult to know actually how to eat, how many times per day ,what to eat per meal and what size portion

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Posted Mon, 08/26/2013 - 18:08
Jess

Hey, with the carb intake is it for eg. 0.5-1gram per pound per meal? Or for the whole day??

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Posted Sat, 08/03/2013 - 02:23
Janet

Hello,

This is all great advice and a really good artical. Im 28 5' 6" and probly 230 now. I recently had a kid and right after I had her soethings happened and I lost about sixty pounds from dipression with in two months, my body was clearly starved, and when I started to eat as I normally did I gained about 50 pounds back in two months. I've alqways had mucle and had always worked out side, but I havent in about a year and a half. It has drastically changed my body and even how the fat is hanging on me bc of this yoyo. I need a easy diet and work out plan, im very out of shape and get eisily tired out. I miss the great body I used to have. Sorry for the typos but, my phone wont let me edit it. Thanks

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Posted Tue, 07/23/2013 - 20:24
Dean

hi sir..i want to ask for your advice...as for me i having problem to loss fat although i had try to diet...what should i do if i would like to have a massive muscular body...should i cut off the fat first or keep going with building the muscles??..which a better way to do first?..can you give some advises..tq

-Dean

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Posted Mon, 07/08/2013 - 14:49
Nora

Hi Steve,
What should a workout look like to go with this in order to loose the not so friendly fat, and in the end gain some muscle? Thanks!

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Posted Mon, 05/13/2013 - 11:08
Michael Sans

^^^^
Sorry, I meant to post that on a workout routine.

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Posted Tue, 04/16/2013 - 11:56
patrick lang

Hey man, just started cutting and am about to start this method. My only question is does it matter when you eat your carbs? Most in the morning and less during the day or just whenever you can get it in? Most of my meals come after 4pm when I get home.

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Posted Tue, 04/16/2013 - 11:56
patrick lang

Hey man, just started cutting and am about to start this method. My only question is does it matter when you eat your carbs? Most in the morning and less during the day or just whenever you can get it in? Most of my meals come after 4pm when I get home.

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Posted Mon, 03/18/2013 - 20:21
Sue

Im 165lbs and am trying to lose fats and gaining muscles. Had a history of being anaeroxic. Forba start, should i focus on gaining muscle mass so that with more muscles present, my metabolism will increase, or should i aim for losing fat first?

Any articles i can read up on to hve more knowledge?

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Posted Wed, 02/27/2013 - 18:11
Maia

Hi,

Thanks for writing this.

For a beginner female lifter who wants to lose 5-10 pounds of fat, while continuing to gain muscle, would the carb cycling amounts above (1, 2, and 2.5g of carbs) be the same?

Also, how does sugar intake impact fat loss? I read that the body can utilize only 3-6g of sugar at a time. In your opinion, how many grams of sugar per day is fine?

Thanks again.

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Posted Mon, 02/18/2013 - 08:53
kishan

Hi Brad I am a 42 year old man weighing 74 Kgs and I have been doing weights from the last one year atleast 3 times a week. I am planning to start taking whey protein of Syntrax company. How much should I take everyday. My chest is bulky and sags a little how can I reduce the fat on the chest and make it more firm.

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Posted Sun, 02/17/2013 - 18:20
chancef

So based on these calculations I need to eat 228 grams of protein/ day. So is 228 grams of protein like saying 228 grams of chicken or another protein rich food. Or is it saying I need to consume enough chicken to get 228 grams of protein?

Joey's picture
Posted Mon, 02/18/2013 - 15:31
Joey

"enough chicken to get 228 grams of protein" and various other sources of protein

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Posted Sun, 01/06/2013 - 12:18
Ryan

Hi Steve,

First off i would like to say thank you for your great advice and your time spent answering questions. I have a question im sure u have answered but seems everyone's answer is a little different.I am 6'2 245lbs ive lost weight before just by running. Im more serious now and want more results. i started going to gym again and just recently bought whey and creatine. Do you think this a good choice? should i be using supplements? i want to cut alot of fat first then get work on getting cut.

Thanks in advance

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Posted Fri, 12/07/2012 - 11:18
Jim

I just started working out at a fitness center, i'm 63 years old and weihgt 212 pounds. I would like to get down to 185. My question is besides a protein shake,what should my diet be?

Joey's picture
Posted Fri, 12/07/2012 - 11:34
Joey

You'll simply need to take in fewer calories per day than your body needs. You can eat anything you want as long as your'e taking in fewer calories. Having said that, you'd be MUCH better off with a healthy, well-balanced diet. Here is a helpful Fat-Loss Guide:

https://www.muscleandstrength.com/articles/fat-loss

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Posted Mon, 11/12/2012 - 13:34
michelle

This might be a dumb question but...
Is that the amount of carbs with each meal or total for the day?

Joey's picture
Posted Mon, 11/12/2012 - 15:14
Joey

Total for the day.

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Posted Sun, 10/14/2012 - 15:04
Ravirules

Very use ful

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Posted Wed, 09/05/2012 - 16:16
Joseph

Hi there everyone, I am getting started in finding a good workout and nutrition plan to get started on my goals.(Cut my fat and get stronger and gain more muscle)

I was wondering if the article Compound Exercises Only Workout is a good workout plan while I go ahead and follow this cutting fat while maintaining muscle guide. ??????

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Posted Sat, 08/11/2012 - 18:15
Robbie

I'm 5"9 and 190 I'm also diabetic. My weight has gone down from 260 to 190 over the past 3 years. I do cardio 5 times a week and I lift 5 times a week. I've been at 190 for about 6 months. My goal is to maintain myself at around 175. However I can't seem to shake my love handles. Any thoughts?

Joey's picture
Posted Wed, 08/22/2012 - 14:19
Joey

Hey Robbie,

Burning off that last bit of fat will some down your diet. Use the BMR calculator for a rough estimate on how many calories you need to be taking in for fat loss.

https://www.muscleandstrength.com/tools/bmr-calculator

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Posted Sun, 07/22/2012 - 15:17
donut

Hi. I'm 5' 9" and lost 15 lbs over last 2 months with calorie restriction down to 1800 cal/day and regular exercise (4x per week including 20 minutes cardio and weight training). I'm currently 180 lbs. I am very weak. I would like to improve my strength but get even leaner (currently 26% body fat). Should I lose more weight (I'm plateauing at 180) and not worry about the strength right now or increase my calories and put on muscle. I don't necessarily want to bulk up but if this would help me get leaner (even if it means at a higher weight) I wouldn't mind.

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Posted Sat, 07/21/2012 - 14:13
vince

Im trying to lean, muscle and lose lower belly fat. What top 10 foods/snacks do you recommend that i can buy in Jewel or Walmart. Im busy working 6 days a week so theres not really a good time to eat more than 3 meals a day or even cook much for that matter. I could probably snack on sum foods.

thanks

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Posted Sat, 06/23/2012 - 13:30
Miguel

Hi i need to lose weight can you please help me I need to lose about 100 pounds can you please tell me whats the best way to do it or can you give me a plan i can follow please thank you

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Posted Fri, 06/15/2012 - 01:41
Mike

Hi! Great article!
How would you guys breakdown the carb cycle numbers for someone doing HIIT cardio about an hour a day, 6 days a week, with NO weight lifting (Shaun T's Insanity)?
This is important to me because I understand that you have to use the high carb days on days when your pushing yourself the most and low carb days are for less intense days of the week, but Insanity is intense for 6 days a week, and dont wanna risk insufficient carb intake for intense workouts!
I know 140lbs is not a lot, but Im at about 17% body fat, and my abs are covered by my belly. My goal is to get to 10% body at and gain a few more pounds of muscle. Am I being realistic? Thanks in advance guys!

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Posted Wed, 06/13/2012 - 23:47
Maia

Hi Brad,
Thanks for writing the article(s).
I am 40 years old, 140 lbs, 5'6". I am trying to build more muscle strength and simultaneously lose about 5-8 pounds around my midsection. My measured RMR is 1510, my daily caloric intake is around 2200, spread over 6-7 meals (and I still feel hungry).
For the past few months I have been doing an hour of zumba 4 times/week, giving 100%, yet I have not seen the weight loss.
I just found this website, and now it seems I perhaps was not getting the nutrition I needed for pre/inter/post meals/supplements, or I may even be over-training since I treat zumba like interval training.
Recently, I started 2-3 times/week of full body weight training, on the days I do not do zumba.
Can you please tell me how much protien/carbs should I be consuming on the lifting days vs the cardio days?--someone at the gym told me 60g/day, but this seems too low to build muscle.
Do you think my caloric intake is too low since I am still hungry?
After lifting, is there a real window for optimal muscle growth, or are the muscles growing 24 hrs?
Thanks for any advice you have for me.
Maia

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Posted Mon, 06/04/2012 - 21:23
Carole

Hi
I have lost 50kgs in the past three years but the past 12 months,despite what I do, cannot shift any more weight. I am 81kgs and want to get close to 60kgs. I have lost the weight thru balanced nutrition and exercise. It is very frustrating! My weekly routine usually consists of 2 x 9km jogs, 1x pump class, interval training and a high intensity circuit workout. Can u please give me any advice to help me get going again? I still continue to follow my gyms eating programme of carbs,proteins and fats.my heigh is 160m or 5 ft 4. All help gratefully received! Many thanks

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Posted Wed, 05/09/2012 - 23:09
Gato

I was curious. Do these carb cycle rules count for someone like myself whom is a natural endomorph and is carb sensitive?

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Posted Sat, 04/07/2012 - 18:39
Hector

Hi there this article really helped a lot especially because Ill be getting back to the gym and get back in shape. I'm currently a senior looking to look and feel better about myself by hitting the gym lowering my body fat levels and really leaning out. I have a few questions on setting up my caloric daily intake, I'm 18 @ 205lb. 5'6". How many calories should I be taking in daily if I'm really looking to lean out and possibly losing 1.5 to 2 lbs a week? And how should I keep my workouts, I have heard full body workouts Mon, Wed, Fri with HIIT cardio Tuesday and Thursday. And also a split training Mon: Chest and Tris Tues: Back and Bi's Wed: Legs and Shoulders and Do it all over again. With Daily post-workout cardio 3-4x a week. What would be the better workout routine that would compliment on the dieting to leaning out.

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Posted Mon, 03/26/2012 - 14:41
jocelyn vanorden

Brad,

I loved this article. I am a Female, 5'8, and 131 lbs. I was wanting to lean up. I have about 7 stubborn few lbs of body fat left.. a little on my legs, and tummy. i see my muscles shaping though, Rite now i train 5-6 days a week with high intesity 15 - 25 minute training sessions depening on what im proforming. mostly dealing with sand bags, dip stations, dumbells, and alot of body weight movements. By that I mean bupress, reptile push ups, plank, tuck jumps, jump roping etc. So over all i think im pretty well rounded. i eat protein like egg whites, chicken breast, turkey meat etc. any advice for moving away my few lbs of body fat?

Thanks :::) sorry this was long.

-Jocelyn

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Posted Thu, 03/22/2012 - 16:16
wangmian

actually, as a natural bodybuilder , i found it no matter how hard you try or plan,it's impossible for you to keep your muscles size or strength while fat loss, well if the bodyweight you lost is not too much, then you may still keep the strength, but if it is a great amount of weight you've lost, you will no doubt lose your strengh and muscles,for example, if you lose 10kg in two or 3months, come on, it's impossible for you to either keep your muscle size or strength, it doesn't matter how well you train or diet....

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Posted Thu, 03/22/2012 - 05:01
Michael

Hello. I really enjoy the articles and tips. I've never posted anything but thought I'd give it a try. I'm 6'5" 270. I wouldn't say I'm crazy overweight just very large all around. However I would like to lose about 25 to 30 pounds of fat then pack on 10 to 15 pounds of muscle. I currently weight train about five days a week. With moderate to heavy weight. Do you think the best way for me to lose my gut fat would be to add some cardio like jogging maybe like a day or two into my routine? Also (possible stupid question) but would this also help to get my abs to show through. Currently my six pack is a two pack.

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Posted Wed, 03/14/2012 - 14:52
AJ

Hi Steve,
Im 17 5'10 168 and looking to get inshape for summer and I read in one of the other articles on this site that you need a certain amount of body fat % to actually even be able to see your abs. so im trying to start this and cut the fat while keeping my muscle that I have built but it says with fat I need 30% of the calories I should be eating but I dont know how much calories I should be eating per day. What would be an acceptable amount of calories to be eating per day and still be losing like 1 to 2 pounds per week?

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Posted Thu, 02/16/2012 - 12:09
Nick

Hi Brad,

I am 5ft 11 – 30 yrs old and 168lbs. I am generally lean with decent strength from playing sports, but have gathered some excess fat around my stomach.

I have been following your diet for 6 weeks now as well as your advice on training with a few tweaks to suit my lifestyle, but am generally eating per day (six meals):

Approx 2000 calories
165g protein
85-100g carbs
75g fat

I lift weights 3 days a week and cardio for 20-40 mins 5 days a week. My aim is to build muscle and get a six pack
I feel good and my stomach is getting flatter, abs and muscle getting bigger etc, running faster, lifting more etc

I really don’t want to lose muscle (or weight if possible)

My questions are:

1)are my calorie intakes too low?
2)And what are the consequences of eating too few calories ?
3)can I maintain muscle through good amounts of protein?

Thanks in advance!

Nick

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Posted Thu, 03/08/2012 - 10:26
Brad

Hi Nick,
To answer:

1) I don't think so. How do you feel? Are you tired? Listless? Are you keeping your strength or has it significantly decreased? If not you should be fine.

2) A few of those are listed above.

3) Yes! Protein is essential for muscle.

Best,
Brad
www.WorkoutLab.net

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Posted Tue, 02/14/2012 - 05:52
FOYZ

also can you lose fat and keep gaining muscle without having to do cardio in your routine?

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Posted Tue, 02/14/2012 - 05:51
FOYZ

Hi,

I am 5ft 10 and weigh 187 pounds. My aim is to gain big muscle but stripping the fat off my body at the same time so im lean and solid. Most of the fat is on my stomach. I guess i ideally want to look like chris klein when he played captain america.

I have been working out for around a year now. My max bench press is 220 pounds probably 5 reps max. My chest and shoulders are getting quite big now. However, i reckon if i lost the stomach fat and so fat on my chest i would look so much better.
Atm, i am eating medium healthy and taking protein shake once a day. I work out 4 days a week working out only shoulders, back, arms and chest (show muscles).

Is there a way to lose the fat but still get bigger muscles? What kind of diet do i need to go on (lehman terms please).
Can someone give me a quick and easy nutritional meal plan to lose fat and keep the protein intake to repair and grow my muscles. And also a work out for the week for the muscles i have stated?

Thanks

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Posted Thu, 03/08/2012 - 10:30
Brad

Hi FOYZ,
Check out an article on my blog below:

http://workoutlab.net/2011/01/05/building-muscle-and-burning-fat-simulta...

Let me know if you have any questions.

Best,
Brad
www.WorkoutLab.net

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Posted Mon, 01/30/2012 - 20:49
Tim

I need some advice.. I just started my journey of weight loss and muscle growth.. I'm 6'2" and when I started Jan 1st I was 299. Now I am 286. I have good bones and am fairly strong but I've let myself go the past 10 years... I'm 100% focused and I've been eating nearly perfectly.. No alcohol..protein shakes 2x a day and Im at the gym 4-5 days a week.. I do treadmill every time I go. I alternate days between chest and tri's, back and bi's, and legs and abs... I do all exercises with low -medium weight- 12-15 reps with 3-4 sets.. I feel and look better than I have in a few years and I'm ready to take this all the way.. I would like some advice from somebody who is knowledgeable in this area.. I think I'm doing the right thing so far so good... and also, Should I be using a supplement such as Jack3d ? I have used it 3 times and its amazing...or should I use Oxyelite pro? Or neither?? let me know....

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Posted Tue, 01/31/2012 - 12:29
Brad

Hi Tim,

In my humble opinion I would steer clear of those types of supplements for now. Use the most effective supplement around: solid food! Nothing will strip fat away like controlling your diet.

Now, I am not a supplement basher (actually I love them), I just caution people from using them too early on. Let your diet do its magic for now and see how far you can go.

Thanks!
Brad
www.WorkoutLab.net

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Posted Wed, 02/01/2012 - 16:42
Brad

Yes, your buddy is right. Building muscle along with performing cardio is the perfect one-two punch for fat loss.

Brad
www.WorkoutLab.net

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Posted Tue, 01/31/2012 - 16:04
Tim

Ok thank you for the response. Also. I have muscle and my main concern is all around weight loss and toning my body. Should I be lifting weights regularly with cardio?? Or should I just do a lot of cardio 3 or 4 x a week? My buddy says I should lift too because I'll burn more calories in the long run plus rip up the muscles and get into better shape.. What do you think?

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Posted Sun, 01/08/2012 - 17:58
georges

Hey brad, I'm 168 cm, 68kg .. But I look fat, specially my stomach ! It's too big and flabby

My doctor gives me a diet of 2500 calorie

Now I'm confused about training, should I do 3 days weight and 3 days HIIT cardio ? Or 4 day split with HIIt cardio on 2 days off ? What is the best? Thank you for help.