You know it amazes me as an Online Coach how many people who are seeking fat loss as a goal are actually starting and expecting to diet for a physique competition at an already low daily caloric intake. I always try to educate clients by making them aware that it is nearly impossible to achieve successful results (and long term success) when they are starting at a point of diminishing returns, so to speak.
In other words, if you begin your diet for a competition at a caloric level that is relatively on the lower end of the scale of what your body needs to achieve fat loss, where do you go from there?
How can you expect to cut any further, and continue to follow a plan that is SAFE for your metabolism and overall health, without having to resort to extremes?
Now, what if I told you that there is indeed a better (and smarter) way of doing things PRIOR to your contest prep, and it requires taking a little step back to focus on recompositioning – and a little reverse dieting.
Let’s take things a little further and use an actual example.
Jane is a 28 year old woman who is 140 pounds at 5’6, and only eating roughly around 1400 calories per day. She’s already someone who’s very active, and hitting the gym at least 5x a week, including cardio each of those days for 30-45 mins.
Let’s also assume that Jane has been eating at this caloric level for some time, and has now hit a plateau. Despite these facts, Jane is about 16 weeks out from her her projected figure competition and needs to begin considering dieting for her show.
The first thing we need to do is take a step back and honestly assess her starting point. If you were to factor in how much she’d really need to simply maintain her weight, with those same training components in mind, she would need to consume around 2144 calories per day (calories determined by the Mifflin-St. Jeor Formula).
This number we’ll refer to as her Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).
Now let’s go on to say that we want to do a moderate caloric deficit of roughly 15% from her TDEE above. That leaves us with about 1715 calories per day to see a good amount of fat loss. Remember, she’s only consuming around 1400 per day, so already she’s eating around 315 calories less than what she should be to see successful and non aggressive fat loss.
Jane has two options to produce further fat loss and get off of her plateau: eat less (lowering calories even more) or training more (creating a greater deficit through exercise). Eating less would mean pushing Jane into caloric levels that may lead to muscle loss, as well as a serious downregulation of her metabolism, as the weeks of her contest prep goes by. Training more in the face of her already low caloric levels may lead to the same result as well.
So what’s Jane to do…
Take a step back and focus on recompositioning, as well as a little reverse dieting.
In Jane’s case, it’s a far wiser idea to simply take a step back and focus on getting her calories up to her projected TDEE to maintain her weight. And in fact, it’s a very simple process for her to accomplish. It simply means adding a small amount of calories back into her diet each week until she finally reaches her calculated maintenance caloric levels.
The process of this is essentially the definition of Reverse Dieting.
The goal for this process is attempting to have a caloric increase, all while keeping fat gain to a minimum. Now, realize that if you’ve been dieting for some time (like Jane has) your metabolism is in a slower state. So adding calories back incrementally will be essential when it comes to keeping fat gain at bay.
In our example, Jane can simply increase calories by 50-100 per day for the first week. After calories are initially raised, it’s simply a matter of working off of bio-feedback to determine what your next steps should be. Jane raised her calories for the first week by 100 calories per day – setting her to now be at 1500/day. Her overall goal is to be around 2144 calories per day, so obviously she has a way to go.
Another factor to consider in this process of Reverse Dieting is energy expenditure.
For the sake of preparing for greater fat loss, just like it’s not ideal to START your diet with calories set particularly low, it isn’t wise to start cardio at a high volume either. Jane is currently doing around 30-45 mins, 5 days a week. So to aid along in our Reverse Dieting process, we’ll simply take Jane’s cardio to 20-30 mins, 5 days a week, and make sure that the intensity of her weight training can handle any difference in total exercise expenditure. This will at least leave what she burns per day relatively the same as it would be with more cardio in the picture.
While Jane is lowering cardio, and ensuring her workout intensity stays high, she can consider setting up her training split in a way that will bring greater focus to creating balance in her physique. So if she has any weak body parts that need to be brought up, this would be the perfect time to take advantage of any hypertrophy that can be attained as her calories increase. This might be a very slight gain being that she’s not in a caloric surplus (the caloric level that creates an anabolic environment in the human body), but any step towards a better package when it is time for her to step on stage is desired.
What’s even better, Jane might even begin to see her body fat drop once again, as the body is in a better state to allow for further fat loss since she isn’t completely starving it. And once this starts to occur, successful recompositioning can be achieved.
If Jane notices that her body is responding positively to the increase in calories and change up in her workouts, then she can safely continue to raise calories each week by 100-200 per day until she reaches her ideal maintenance level (again in this case calculated to be around 2144 calories per day).
This entire process may take a good 4 to 6 weeks to fully complete, but it’s advised that you allow the time it will take as to not cause any gain in fat – as stated above in our original objective.
Once Jane reaches 2144 calories per day, it would be wise to simply stay there for another 4 -6 weeks before embarking on the focus of fat loss again. This additional time at her new caloric level will allow her body to become acclimated to the increase in calories, and learn to function optimally at that level. This way, when she starts to cut calories once again, her body will respond in the way we expect it to by actually seeing fat loss and progress once again.
In conclusion, it’s a wiser idea to take a step back and fully evaluate your approach to the contest prep game.
Prepping for a show DOES NOT have to be extreme, nor do you have to starve yourself. If you take the necessary steps to ensure you are beginning with a starting point that will only set you up for success, you can almost guarantee that your body will better respond during those weeks and months you embark on your diet to stage.