Even though you are fighting primal physiological survival mechanisms, you can biohack your fat loss while doing your best to maintain muscle.
1) Lose 1.5 pounds or less per week
As this may seem like torture, losing weight slowly will retain muscle mass and keep your metabolism as optimal as it can be. Crash dieting quickly is very hard to stick to and in most cases is unsuccessful long term. Aim for cutting 50-100 calories per day every 1-2 weeks. A calorie deficit can be created by cardio or a decrease in calories. For example: Week 1: eat 2,000 calories. Week 2: add in cardio. Week 3: eat 1,900 calories and so on. Remember that leaning out happens even though you may not be tipping the scale so pay close attention to body composition and progress pictures. See Cut Phase: How Much to Lose and How to Cut Calories.
2) Use cardio sparingly
Keep on strength training and use cardio as needed. Steady state cardio puts your body in a catabolic state not only breaking down fat but breaking down muscle as well. You want to, at the very least, maintain muscle mass while losing fat. Having muscle increases your resting calorie burn. Bonus! If training for a bodybuilding contest, you already have the lifting part down. Now try not to get too excited and up the cardio too early. You may find yourself at a plateau too far out from your contest and not even close to being ready for show time. See It’s Not Nice to HIIT for information on how to use cardio and Competition Articles for info on diet, training and resources.
3) Eat protein and keep carbs high
A good rule of thumb is to keep protein intake at 1-1.5 grams per pound of body weight, fat around 20-30% of your caloric intake and fill in the rest with carbs. This is optimal for energy output, muscle building/maintenance and fat burning. Calculate your macros here How Much to Lose and How to Cut Calories.
4) Keep in cheat meals/ refeeds
I take two viewpoints on cheat meals and refeed days depending on the individual. They can be beneficial mentally and physically for that day to rev up the metabolism and keep things moving along.
If you are following in IIFYM (if it fits your macros) diet, then cheat meals are kind of silly. Reason being, cheat meals are for the foods you don’t get to eat all week with a bit higher calories. When you can fit in any foods you want throughout the week, then no need for a cheat meal. In some cases, my general clients like to eat out once a week with their family or friends, I may give them a meal where they don’t have to count macros, just enjoy that meal but don’t get crazy. This is still part of long term fit choices.
If it works well for you, keep in a cheat meal once per week so you can take a little break physically and mentally. Remember it’s a cheat meal, not a cheat day.
Then there are refeed days. This is a more structured day where you eat a larger amount of carbs to refill glycogen stores, blunt cortisol and raise leptin short term when dieting down. The carb intake for that day is usually set around 1.5 x that of your cutting diet or 20-50% more calories above daily caloric cutting diet levels. Fat stays low and protein the same or a little lower. This will vary greatly person to person as metabolism, workout and diet programs differ.
You may see an increase on the scale the day after a refeed due to refilling glycogen stores (which also pulls water into the cells). But this will decrease over the next few days. If you hear of someone eating on obscene amounts of carbs on refeed day without gaining fat, then their daily calorie levels are too low throughout the week. Spreading the calories out over the week is better than staying super low all week just to have one monstrous refeed day. If I do have a refeed in a clients plan, I generally add 100-150 carbs for that day.
Center high carb meals around your workouts and keep fat low on refeed days as well (if it isn’t already).
Pro’s and Con’s of refeed:
When in a deficit, especially a deep one, one refeed a week will raise leptin levels for that day but its usually not enough to tell your body you’re not starving. A few days of refeeding will but then you risk putting fat back on. Not ideal when cutting for a show or dieting in general. But there are still benefits to a short term 5-24 hour refeed such as replenishing glycogen stores, creating an anabolic environment in your body, eating things you really want to eat and giving you a psychological break more than anything.
I don’t always add refeed days to client plans. It depends on the client and their goals. If I can take the total weekly calories consumed and spread them out evenly over the course of a week, they don’t have to deal with the mental and physical highs and lows of changing their diet from day to day. Which leads me to my next point.
5) Cycle Carbs
Carb cycling is a method used to help deplete glycogen and mobilize fat where total weekly carbs are split up into high, medium, low and/or zero carb days over the course of the week. Daily protein and fat usually stay the same. Cycling carbs is best used when carbs and calories begin to get low or you need a push to get below normal body fat levels (20-24% for women and 12-18% for men).
Coordinating carbs with your workouts are important as this gives your body high carb days centered around workouts that require building important muscle groups for that individual as well as giving you the most energy for intense workout days where low or zero carb days will be centered around off days.
Some structure the order of high, med and low carb days like this:
- High day
- Medium day
- Low day
- High day
- Medium day
- Low day
- Refeed day
- High day
- High day
- Med day
- Zero day
- Zero day
or like a million other combos.
Carb cycling coordinated with a workout plan focused on building shoulders, back and legs.
- Refeed day- Saturday: Shoulders & Back – heavy
- Med day-Sunday: Legs-Heavy
- Med day-Mon: Chest & arms – Heavy
- Med day-Tue: Shoulders & back – high rep
- High day-Wednesday: Legs & Abs -high rep
- Med day-Thursday: Chest & Arms – high rep
- Low day- Off day – Friday: off day diet.
See more on Carb Cycling in this article. Click here.
Carb cycling can be beneficial but also unnecessary. You can read more in a two part carb cycling post How to Cycle Carbs: Part 1 and Carb Cycling Part 2: Is it Really Necessary. It all depends on the individual.
6) Try a ketogenic diet
If you need a diet switch up or if you are cutting for a show, utilizing a keto diet can be very helpful as, especially for a competitor during the last portion of a cut phase (6 weeks out-ish) into a contest for the extra push.
Caloric intake may stay the same but the ratio of macro-nutrients (protein, carbs, fat) changes where fat becomes 70% of the diet, carbs go to 30 grams or less per day and protein intake will be lowered a bit. Protein in excess can be converted to glucose (aka gluconeogenesis) in the body which negates the whole point of the keto diet.
Protein: 1 gram per pound of LEAN body mass. Not total weight.
Carbs: 30-40 grams or less. count fiber as a carb.
Fat: Fill in the rest of the calories with fat.
130 pound women: 110 pounds lean body mass : 1400 calories
Protein: 110 grams per day
Carbs: 30-40 grams per day (included fiber)
Fat: 94 ish grams per day
Once your body is in ketosis after 2 or more weeks, it is beneficial to add in 1-2 refeed days that are low fat, higher carb if you are highly active or bodybuilding 5-6 days per week.
Draw backs you may experience while your body is fat adapting include brain fog, dizziness, fatigue, headaches and frequent urination. Increasing salt intake, eating potassium rich foods and taking a magnesium citrate or magnesium glycinate supplement as well as adding in MCT oil and exogenous ketones will help with the side effects.
Switching up eating higher fat helps to increase leptin and growth hormone levels, decrease cravings and spare protein (good for muscle retention). These are all major bonus benefits that are needed after having dieted down to low body fat levels. The keto diet is a nice push to the end.
7) Don’t forget to reverse diet!
You have a few options when it comes to getting back to previous maintenance calories after dieting down.
First, reverse dieting is a method where you slowly increase calories and decrease cardio giving your metabolism a chance to build back up. Why do you need to do this? Because your body is very efficient at keeping you alive and adapts to the calorie deficit you were in. I feel it gives bodybuilding competitors guidelines and structure after a contest so that they don’t go ape shit and eat everything in sight just because they can, which happens all the time. Then they are left 20 pounds heavier than when they started. Turning around to diet this back off won’t work right away. Your hormones (ie: your metabolism) need time to normalize.
On the flip side, once you have met your fat loss goals, if you eat until you are full, not over eat, you will only eat the calories you are expending. With this option, I also give guidelines. I tell my clients to eat clean and avoid foods that are easy to over eat on like bread, pasta and of course sugary treats. This way, you can get a break from counting macros, being hungry and eat what you need while avoiding over eating. It’s hard to binge on apples, almonds or sweet potatoes compared to pasta and cookies. When eating in this fashion, you will only eat what you need. You may eat less than when you started prep because your metabolism has slowed a bit but it will normalize over time.
8) Get sleep
And last but certainly not least, one of the most important factors for your health, recovery and fat loss is to get in not only enough sleep but good quality sleep. There are a lot of factors that go into getting good quality sleep and some major hindrances include stress and artificial light! Why? Because cortisol. Your stress hormone. When you are stressed, cortisol is high. When you are exposed to artificial light after the sun sets, your body won’t kick on melatonin to ready you for sleep, in turn, cortisol stays high all night and meltonin doesn’t come up at all! BAD NEWS!
Read more in this article 4 Ways to Avoid Blue Light and Boost Metabolism (research proves it) to find out simple ways you can get the best quality sleep and boost fat loss!
I love to track my sleep quality. It keeps me motivated to make sure I do what I can to optimize sleep! I have the Oura ring for accurate sleep tracking and heart rate variability among tons of other fitness data. Enter “HeatherGF2” for a 10% discount. I IG story my Oura Ring adventures all the time.
Why did I choose a ring over a bracelet for a fitness tracker? Well, this smart little ring does not emit EMF unless I connect it to the app on my phone and download data. Super important to my health!! The EMF pollution is bad news bears.