Putting on the Brakes: Why Your Prep Needs a Reverse Diet!

Posted March 2, 2017 by

Competitors–have you ever felt like you’re on a permanent prep diet? Do you have trouble remembering the last time you consciously increased your calories for an extended period of time, outside of a post-show binge?

Do you also feel like your energy levels, strength and stamina have decreased while your stress levels have increased over time?

Is getting lean and staying there becoming more and more difficult, requiring you to drop calories further and further and/or increase cardio more and more each time you cut?

Bikini athletes in particular tend to suffer this scenario due to the fact that high levels of muscle are not as emphasized of a requirement as other divisions of fitness competition, and thus many women never go into a “bulking” stage that is foundational to programs for bodybuilding, physique and figure divisions.

I strongly believe that bikini athletes on the skinner end of the spectrum (i.e. the vast majority) who want to do well in competition should focus primarily on gaining significant lean mass before they ever consider going into contest prep, to the tune of a year or longer in a bulking phase if possible, depending on their starting point.

However, even when it comes to the cutting side of things, there’s a better way to approach dieting that will have you feeling better, seeing faster results and maintaining more of your lean mass through the cut than the “perma-cut” strategy.

Why a Long-Term Deficit is Inefficient and Unhealthy

Before getting into the better approach to dieting, let’s briefly discuss the main issues with long-term deficits.

In life, everything involves a balance of benefit and cost. Nothing in life is free, right? Dieting is no different. You enjoy weight/fat loss, but it comes at a price. This concept is often ignored by dieters, who simply focus on the weight loss and forget all the negative effects that dieting has on the body.

Bodily functions require energy. The immune system needs energy to optimally protect your body from illness. Your brain needs energy to maintain high levels of focus, memory, and keep your mood stabilized. Your muscles, tendons and ligaments needs energy to recover and repair damage caused by exercise.

Being in a state of deficit, in which you’re eating fewer calories than you burn, is required for fat loss, yes, but it also inevitably leads to your body not getting enough energy to keep all processes in peak running condition. Now, for temporary amounts of time, this isn’t a huge problem… but when it becomes long-term (or permanent, in some cases), that’s when these issues become more and more overwhelming.

Additionally, your ability to lose fat actually diminishes over time for several reasons. Firstly, your metabolism will drop during periods of caloric deficit. This is in part to a reduction in your body weight (less weight = lower metabolic rate), but also studies have shown that the metabolism adapts to long periods of dieting by downregulating slightly (the keyword being slightly, no peer-reviewed studies have supported the concept of “metabolic damage“).

Additionally, fewer carbohydrates in your diet means lower levels of muscle glycogen, which is one of the primary sources of energy during exercise. Thus, your performance levels decrease. Less ability to recover from workouts necessitates a drop in volume–but most bikini athletes are not aware of this and can end up overtraining themselves–which can cause a loss of lean mass. Loss of lean mass means less strength and even less exercise intensity, thereby snowballing the issue. Workouts that used to burn 500-800 calories when your body was fed might only burn 300 calories in a depleted state.

If your workouts are burning fewer calories and your body is burning fewer calories at rest, then as you can imagine, this means in order to keep losing weight you would need to drop your calories even further. Unfortunately, it’s a never-ending game of catch-up because every time you drop your calories, the negative aspects of dieting increase.

Why Reverse Dieting is What the Cool Kids Do, and You Should Too!

Enter the “reverse diet”. Sure, it sounds gimmicky, but when put into practice properly, it will allow you to balance the costs and benefits of dieting to a much greater degree–reducing the negative side effects as much as possible, and improving the consistency and speed of your fat loss.

I personally advocate two forms of reverse dieting–the post-competition recovery diet and periodic “diet breaks” during competition prep.

The former is a bit more involved and lasts longer, because the purpose is to reverse the longer-term negative effects of a full-fledged competition prep diet, which can last anywhere from 3-6 months.

The latter is a shorter term bandaid you can apply at regular intervals to keep themselves sane and keep their results optimized during the actual prep itself.

In both methods, the primary goal is to return to your maintenance level caloric intake as quickly as possible (typically 13-15 times body weight) and to reduce all cardio as low as possible. No matter how low your calories are currently, or how much cardio you’re performing, you will want to immediately jump to maintenance calories and stop all cardio work.

Because you’re eating at your maintenance level, you’re not going to gain body fat during this time. You will likely gain weight, but it will be in the form of increased glycogen (a good thing) and water weight gain (a temporary, irrelevant thing). The reason we also reduce cardio down to zero is because it’s unnecessary if our goal is to eat the same amount we’re burning (cardio would just be needlessly increasing the amount we would eat at maintenance, at the expense of our free time).

Macronutrient adherence can be a bit less strict during this time–staying within your target maintenance calories is crucial, and it’s important to more or less hit your protein needs, but the remaining calories can be split amongst carbs and fat as you see fit, and if you’re a little low on protein here or there it’s not as important as during the “on” portion of your prep.

This is where the two methods deviate: the diet break lasts one to two weeks like this, then you return to a calorie deficit with strict macronutrient targets. For the post-competition reverse diet however, your goal is to begin progressively adding calories (~10% at a time) at regular intervals (every 2-3 weeks) until your body begins gaining weight consistently.

How About a Practical Example?

Let’s assume you’re a 100lb female with a maintenance level of 1,500 calories per day. If you were doing a diet break in the middle of your prep, you would bring yourself to 1,500 calories as quickly as possible and drop your cardio for one to two weeks. You would then return to your diet and add back in cardio, but would likely be able to reduce your cardio and increase your calories slightly from where you left off, while seeing renewed results similar to when you first started your cut.

If you just did your show and are performing a post-show reverse diet, you would bring yourself to 1,500 calories as quickly as possible after your show and remain there for 2-3 weeks. You would weigh yourself at this point to establish a baseline. Weighing yourself immediately after your show would be pointless, since your body would be completely depleted of glycogen and will likely gain several lbs in the first few days of reverse dieting.

From there, you would add around 150 calories to your daily intake every 2-3 weeks, while weighing yourself each week. If your weight doesn’t increase, or increases temporarily, then stalls or returns to the baseline, this is the green light to again add calories at the next interval. If your weight increases each week and doesn’t stop after 3 weeks, that signifies you’ve reached your maximum maintenance level.

Let’s assume this particular female manages to add calories 3 times over 9 weeks–so now she’s eating at 1950 calories per day. Her weight jumped around a little each time she added calories but then remained constant, so now she’s holding steady at 106 lbs. She again adds 150 calories to her intake, but this time notices her weight increases each week by .5 lb. On the fourth week, she’s still gained .5 lbs and now weighs 108.

At this point, the reverse diet is over. Through incremental trial and error she has discovered that her body can handle approximately 2,000 calories at her current weight of 106 and performance level and maintain that weight.

What she does now depends on her goals. If she wants to prep for another show at this point, then she can go right back into a diet and will enjoy a renewed metabolism, energy levels and performance capabilities.

If she wants to add mass during an off season, this is the perfect segue into a bulking phase, as she will already know what caloric level will allow her to start gaining weight at a controllable level.

In both situations, all the negative aspects of dieting will have been managed, either by eliminating them altogether or at least reducing them down significantly.

This “one step back, two steps forward” approach to nutrition is crucial for long term success with advanced levels of dieting. Competition prep requires athletes to achieve levels of body fat that are much lower than nature intended, and thus the body fights this process at an ever-increasing rate unless steps are taken to mitigate these effects.

Before you start your next contest prep, consider going on a reverse diet to give yourself the best possible fat loss advantage up front, and then implement periodic diet breaks to keep those results coming at a consistent rate.

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