Katie’s in the best shape of her life. She’s 26, and recently she dieted down for a photo shoot. Tanned up, lean, and slender she’s just got the pictures back and she looks phenomenal. After always being picked on for being the chubby kid at school, she took matters into her own hands, started reading up on nutrition, hit the gym and worked her arse off for two years solid to get into awesome condition.
But she’s miserable.
With so much going for her, you’d think Katie would be on top of the world, but she isn’t.
It’s a strange phenomenon, but when you reach a long-term goal, life can feel pretty empty. You’ve worked at something for so long, and while there’s that feeling of elation that you’ve accomplished a goal you’ve set yourself, at the same time, you’re sad it’s over. Even worse, you’re not sure where to go next.
These feelings are amplified when it comes to reaching a physique goal too. Especially when you’ve just got lean.
You dieted down, endured day upon day of low calories, pushed yourself through gruelling cardio sessions, and sat there some evenings counting down the hours until bed so you could go to sleep in order to wake up and eat breakfast. Yet this effort was worth it, when you got to your goal. Perhaps you just about managed to see your abs for the first time, did a photo shoot like Katie here, or even stepped onto a bodybuilding stage. Whatever, that strife paid off.
But now, there’s only one way to go –
Introducing the Reverse Diet
Reverse dieting is the process by where you gradually increase your calorie intake after a sustained period of dieting.
The idea is to slowly reintroduce extra calories (usually in the form of carbs and some fats) so that you can help your metabolism recover from low-calorie dieting, and start to build some muscle. When you diet, your metabolic rate and the hormones that govern your metabolism drop right down, so suddenly adding in calories too quickly can cause you to store a lot of excess body fat — not something you want when you worked so hard to get lean.
While there are some arguments against this method of reverse dieting (mainly by those who feel it’s unnecessary, and that a better approach is to go straight back to a theoretical maintenance calorie level for a few weeks, then start increasing further) it’s generally favoured by the majority of natural bodybuilders and physique competitors.
This article isn’t particularly intended to address exactly how to reverse diet, so I’ll point you to some great resources instead –
But Here’s The Problem
Even though reverse dieting is designed to keep you lean while “repairing” your metabolism, and building lean mass, it’s not all sunshine and roses.
At some point, you WILL gain some fat.
It won’t be a noticeable amount in one go, but you will look one day, and think “huh, where did that bicep vein go?”
This is where things start to get tricky.
You get an overwhelming urge to start dieting again, terrified by the thought of gaining back all the fat you lost. It sounds like some kind of weird hippy shit, or the kind of thing you’d think of an over-emotional female saying after falling off the wagon of her Body By Vi diet, but it’s true. Even the most hardy, macho guys and girls can freak out and start having ridiculous thoughts.
I remember the email I sent to my coach about 4 weeks into my reverse diet –
“woke up yesterday morning with a definite lower ab pouch. I can pinch a crap-tonne of what seems to be fat and my quads are really puffy and a lot less vascular. No idea why – it just did literally happen over night and a couple of people even commented on it”
Yup. I was that fucking egotistical and emotional. Here’s the response I got –
it’s just water likely. you didn’t add fat overnight, especially while dropping weight… that would mean you lost muscle… which we know didn’t happen =)
Which basically equates to – “Wake up, and stop being such a baby. What you just said happened is physiologically impossible and you know it,” but in a much nicer way.
These drastic thoughts are commonplace though, and are the sole reason why many people screw up their reverse diet. They either think “I’m getting fat, I need to cut calories again” which not only completely stops progress in its tracks, but can be detrimental in terms of health. Or, they think “well, if I’m getting fat and I’m still on a fairly low calorie intake, I might as well go the whole hog and start eating 600 grams of carbs a day.”
If this sounds familiar, you need some failsafe ways to stick to your reverse diet, and overcome the mental mind games your changing body shape can play on you.
1. Eat for Performance
Before, the purpose of your diet was to lose body fat. Now, tell yourself that you’re eating for performance.
Your body needs fuel to support all the new muscle growth that’s about to happen. You’ll set new PRs, and get fitter, stronger and faster throughout your reverse diet, so embrace those calories. This is one of the reasons why I took up powerlifting. It gives you a focus during the off-season, or “bulk” and means you have a reason to eat more.
2. Look at the Long Game
How long are you going to be bulking for? When’s your next shoot, show or competition? Chances are, it’s not going to be next week, so don’t worry if you do get a bit fatter. This leads us on to point #3 –
3. It’s Okay to Not be Shredded
Magazines and the media have A LOT to answer for here.
Guys are hit in the face all the time with pictures of ripped models on the cover of fitness magazines, and the scrawny fellas with abs in Abercrombie ads, while women probably get targeted even worse with pictures in adverts, articles, and the aforementioned magazine articles, along with constantly being reminded how Victoria Beckham has a 23″ waist, and that a “thigh gap” is this season’s must-have.
Unfortunately, due to the media and public’s perception of what it means to be “in shape,” many people in the fitness world feel that they need to walk around at ultra-low body fat percentages year-round. What it’s important to realise though, is that even the models here don’t look like this all the time. Just like you, they diet down to look their “best” (ie. leanest), hold this condition for a short space of time, then go back to being more “normal.”
I’ll divulge a little personal tale here….
Just after Christmas, I’d been reverse dieting/bulking for a little over 6 months. I’d not added much fat, but certainly wasn’t in shoot-ready condition. I was going on a family holiday, which involved spending some time round a pool, wearing just swimming shorts. In the changing room before stepping out to the pool, I was shit scared, and a bit pissed off with myself. I wondered why I’d not dieted for this holiday, and cursed myself for not having the forethought to organise a mini-cut.
All this disappeared in a flash when I stepped out of the door though.
Firstly, I realised I was going against my mantra that it’s not good to be ripped all the time, and was whinging like a bitch. I gave myself a good stern talking to for that. Secondly, within 30 seconds, I realised that even though I didn’t think I was “in shape” I was still in better shape than pretty much everyone else around.
Okay, that sounds incredibly self-centred, narcissistic and conceited, but here’s the thing – if you lift weights, look after yourself and give half a damn about your diet, you will undoubtedly be leaner, more muscular and healthier than 99.9% of the population. To you, you might be skinny-fat and weak, but to everyone around you, you’re probably an adonis.
4. You’re Being Healthy
Being lean might look great, but it’s not all that healthy.
Check out my previous blog “The Ugly Side of Looking Pretty” –
5. You Got Lean Before, You Can Do It Again
Dieting is a pretty simple process. Sure, there are certain complexities to it, but at a base level, you need to expend more calories than you consume. That’s it.
If you got lean using an approach once, it will work again. You’re not going to have to go through a whole new process of figuring out whether you function better on high-carb low-fat, or low-carb high-fat. You won’t need a drastically different calorie intake from first time round, and your weight training and cardio are unlikely to need much tweaking.
In fact, reverse dieting back up will make getting lean EASIER next time round.
By building lean tissue, upping your calorie intake and ramping up those carbs, you go through a process known as metabolic adaptation. This essentially means your maintenance calorie intake is higher, due to the fact you now have more lean mass (it takes more calories to preserve muscle than it does fat), meaning you’ll be able to cut on a higher calorie intake.
The Bottom Line
There will be times during a reverse diet when you think about jacking it all in, and either bingeing, or going back onto some extremely restrictive cut. This is particularly true in the early stages of a reverse diet, where your calories aren’t much higher than they were when you were cutting. People equate “bulking” with burgers, milkshakes and ice cream, but if you’re still only on 200g of carbs, or 50g of fat per day, you’ve not got much room for foods like that in any satiating quantity. You spent every evening of your diet watching food porn, and now, even though you’re not getting leaner, you’re still having to forego those foods that are calling your time. Reverse dieting takes balls.
But you’ve got to stick with the plan. Have a word with yourself, and realise that what you’re doing is best. Not only in terms of body composition, but also when it comes to your general health, and your mentality. Keep a close eye on progress, realise you don’t have to be 5% body fat all the time and start enjoying what you’re doing. Because if you’re not enjoying it, something’s gone wrong.
Need a hand planning your reverse diet? Hit me up at http://www.healthylivingheavylifting.com/online-coaching/bulking, calories, diet, reverse diet
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