4 Reasons Why Reverse Dieting is the Way to Go
It’s been less than a week since my most recent men’s physique fitness contest. It was held in Hermosa Beach, CA, and presented by the United Natural Bodybuilding Association (subdivision of the IFPA). I followed this contest with a 3-hour photoshoot the next day in San Diego. This brought my 20 weeks of formal preparations to an end.
So what does it mean to be at “the end?”
My outcome, my goal, my objective has been reached, completed, fulfilled. So what now? The strict dieting is done, the extra cardio conditioning gets greatly reduced and I’m taking some time away from lifting for a short break until my body and mind rebound a bit.
Related: Learn How to Use Reverse Dieting
But “the end” does not mean going off the deep end, throwing everything to the wind and just winging it for days, weeks or even a month. I say this as the theme of this article is to make very clear my personal perspectives and perhaps even offer insights to what I feel many should be aware of about post-competition diet adjustments and returning to normalcy.
What Next? After Contest Prep Ends
I have been getting hit from all angles. This started before the show, and continues even more so now that it’s over. Predictions and assumptions of how, “I can just go back to eating whatever I want.”
Let me say right now: you would think so, yes. It is perfectly logical to want to eat like a crazed bear out of hibernation after 20 weeks of dieting. At its hardest I was at just about 1,700 calories/day for almost three weeks, while doing two hours of training five times a week (or more).
I can attest to the fact that I actually wanted to eat a hibernating bear many times during the final weeks. While it holds true that every hard-dieting competitor who has been down to low single-digit body fat levels must start to eat more food after their contest prep ends, this does not mean you go ape$hit and eat everything within reach.
Acutely in the day or two post-show or even the week/weeks post show. There are several reasons why I feel a competitor should be cautious with going nuts on the cheats, splurges and cravings at this time.
First, the part I agree with: One or two meals post-show eaten the night of the show, and a nice breakfast the next morning — GO INDULGE! Have a bacon cheeseburger, chili cheese fries, a milkshake and love it! Go home with your veins popping and a nice food-baby (with abs) and enjoy your deep sleep.
The next morning go ahead, grab a full stack of blueberry buttermilk pancakes and use all that “butta.” Don’t forget the real maple syrup. Savor that heavenly plate of goodness! Eat till you feel full, but not overly-stuffed. Trust me, don’t go there. After these couple indulgences — of which your body likely needed to some extent anyway (and your mind) — pull in the reins and get back on a pre-peak week diet.
Yes, back on a pre-peak week diet. Eat foods you are used to eating in amounts similar to what you were eating before peak week (peak week assumed as unique week all by itself and not a true reflection of the week’s dieting down hard before it).
Here are the reasons I put forth to justify why using a strategic reverse diet approach in the week and weeks post-contest are essential to one’s health, fitness levels, mindset and early-stage transitions to an effective off-season.
4 Reasons Why a Reverse Diet is the Way to Go
#1 – Calorie Overload Creates Fat Gain
Overloading tons of calories (good or bad) back into your body above and beyond your already-suppressed metabolism (RMR) is capable of handling will only lead to quick accumulations of body fat which you don’t need from a health standpoint, let alone your fitness appeal.
#2 – Your Digestive Capacity is Reduced
Your digestive capacity is also reduced in that the volume of food, types of food, its breakdown, assimilation, partitioning and exposure to, is suppressed from the long diet period it just came off of.
#3 – Your Hormone Levels Are Suppressed
Your hormones are suppressed on many levels, including anabolic-based ones like testosterone. Your metabolic hormones and hunger regulating hormones are wacked way out of normal: leptin, ghrelin, CCK, NPY, T3 and T4, TSH, Adiponectin to name some key players.
This state of wackiness makes for a sluggish metabolism, super-high appetite, lower levels of NEAT and decreased insulin sensitivity among other issues. this makes it a very bad time to go tossing down crap tons of junk foods and/or excess calories.
#4 – Stranger Danger!
Your gut and all its many parts – stomach, small and large intestine, pancreas, colon, etc. – are going to be on high alert and sensitive to new foods it has not seen for weeks or even months. This may include dairy (lactose), fruits (fructose) wheat/flour, sugar or fats (pending the diet composition you were on during prep).
Even if you handled them just fine pre-diet period, their minimization or pure absence can warrant a negative response if eaten too often, too quick or in too large of a dose right after a diet ends. This can manifest in symptoms ranging from irritable bowel syndrome, gassiness, bloating, heartburn, diarrhea, acute sensitivity, intolerances and even food allergies not before had.
Not everyone will see these happen, but in my experience, most who do go off the deep end for too long wind up seeing many of these not-so-fun outcomes.
The Worst Time to Binge – After Extended Dieting
So if these four reasons do not make it pretty clear as to why the window immediately following a long, hard dieting period is perhaps the worst time to go on a days, or weeks-long binge of “eat whatever/as much as I want,” then see below for what some “think” are valid reasons. I have heard many more as well.
“I earned it/deserve it.”
“I need to eat a ton quickly to gain weight back to normal.”
“It’s the best time to rebound after a show and grow more/faster because you soak it all up.”
“It’s the only way to get your metabolism and hormones spiked back up.”
I can’t say I agree with any one of these, as none have merit or proof of any kind other than self-justification. Some with genetic gifts can likely get away with it just fine but these are the rare 2% and guess what, you are not one of them!
Given the four reasons I laid out, these claims for why it’s OK to go let the gates fly off the hooks just does not hold water. Empirically, I have not seen things go so well for the very people I have most often heard use such phrases post show/diet.
So with that said, let me now give my thoughts on what you should do post-show or after an extended period of dieting, via formal reverse dieting. Given you did or do have one or two good splurge meals post-show/diet and now you’re one to three days post, you’re back on your pre-peak week diet plan and this is where you begin.
How to Eat After a Long Diet
Progressively add calories. Progressively increase calorie intake in week-to-week increments of ~100-300 calories, pending weight change. This is very individual as some will need to add more calories faster and some slower. But calories MUST increase over time post-show to get to or above maintenance levels sooner than later.
Slowly add old foods. Slowly add the foods you were eating pre-contest diet back into your normal daily intake. Be particularly cautious with items common to cause allergy, sensitivity and intolerance like dairy, fruit, nuts, shellfish and wheat. Certainly be careful with processed foods or common “junk foods” as these are not items one should be inhaling (or even are designed to handle) in large amounts and/or high frequencies.
As a general rule, a peer of mine, Brad Dieter, PhD, owner of ScienceDrivenNutrition.com, and I believe that most competitors who have actually dieted down to “stage lean” should be back to within ~5% of their pre-contest bodyweight within four to eight weeks, with six weeks being the norm. This also assumes the person started with a REASONABLE body composition in the first place.
In my opinion, this is no higher than 14% for men and 19% for women, based on my experience working with clients ages 40 and under. They do not need to be at these pre-contest levels within that four to eight weeks, but certainly do not need to exceed them either.
Many people will be at or above maintenance levels of calories and be leaner and lighter than they were before contest prep began. This is what you want to have result — a leaner person (healthier also) with a higher calorie need/demand. Without going too much further into reverse dieting. I will urge all interested in that topic to hear it debated by the very best pros in the business in this amazing round table discussion on YouTube.
I will close out with an example, using my own post-show experience leading to this week, where I now begin (as of this writing) day one of my off-season training and diet program.
I took the two days following my show 100% off from gym.
The day of the show I did not train either, of course, and most of the final five days leading to the show were shorter, easier pump-based workouts with minimal-to-no cardio (again, peak week being a unique week and not a formal training week of prep). So with the time off and plenty of good sleep I feel 100% ready and energized to get back in the gym with almost 100% effort workouts (playing it just safe enough not to get hurt the first week back).
The night after my photo shoot I had an amazing meal out with friends and tracked nothing. Take a look for yourself. It was epic! I ate till full, not stuffed. I savored every bite and thoroughly enjoyed it. The next day I waited until I had my appetite kick in, which hit me about 10 a.m. and I went out and had an amazing Denver omelet with cheesy hash browns, cottage cheese and a fruit cup.
From that point on its been back to my “normal” diet, which for me, as both a practicing/preaching fitness professional and a sincere personal lifestyle choice, keep to a pretty natural/wholesome, unprocessed and made-from-scratch diet year-round… with a few small treats thrown in there of course! Live a little right!?
My “normal” diet — what I was eating and how I ate before the contest diet began – was simply most of the foods I ate during prep as well, just more of them – much more. Simply being able to eat more food and not measure/weigh everything to the gram is by itself a huge plus. Having the flexibility of swapping more foods in and out again is awesome as well.
If I enjoyed these foods before the diet began, why would I not enjoy them as much or more after the diet ends? I wasn’t eating burgers, pizza and ice cream very often pre-diet, so why at the worst time in my metabolic time line would it be reasonable to load them in without restraint or limits? These are the realities of post-contest dieting and a return to “normalcy.”
Like anyone else after a show, I can’t wait to get back up to my off-season normal intake of 4,000+ calories per day, which allows me more food, more options, new recipes and more room for occasional “fun foods.” But just being able to eat for my body’s basic needs versus a sustained calorie deficit alone is a huge relief and it feels amazing! This being just days post-contest (albeit five days of carbing way up as well) and I already feel worlds different then I did seven plus days before show time.
Take this all in, use it, toss it, whatever. At least consider what I have said and see how it may apply to you if you’re going to compete, know someone about to compete or want to know what the hell you’re supposed to do when the big day comes, goes and ends. Start by making your end the transition to a smart start.
About Joshua Hockett
Joshua Hockett is a regular UNBA mens amatur physique athlete since 2003. He also powerlifts within the USAPL in the 93kg raw division since 2008. Josh has his BS degree in Kinesiology from Wisconsin Milwaukee and his MS Exercise Science from Wisconsin La Crosse.
Joshua has credentials from the NSCA as a CPT, CSCS, and TSAC-F. He holds a NASM corrective exercises specialist certification as well as a CISSN, USAW and TRX STC certification. For almost the past 5 years, Joshua has worked as the civilian afloat fitness and nutrition director for both the USS Ronald Reagan and now the USS Essex located in San Diego, CA.
He is also the co-host and creator of the just launched website and podcast “Train-Fight-Recover,” and can be reached at www.joshuahockett.me.