Natural bodybuilders who want to be ripped will sooner or later reach a fat loss plateau. This means that despite a very low energy balance, you no longer lose fat. The cause is metabolic adaptation, which causes the body to save on energy. Of course, you can lower your energy balance even further, but that may affect your training performance and recovery, heralding muscle loss. An apparent impasse, for which there are fortunately solutions. Five proven strategies.
Refeeds are short periods during a calorie-restricted diet in which you deviate from your diet by eating more calories (especially carbohydrates).
The main purpose of a refeed is to protect muscle mass. This was recently demonstrated in the first study on refeeds conducted specifically among experienced strength athletes [ xiii ] . To this end, a refeed must last at least two to three days – one day or a single meal is not enough to reverse any of the matabolic adaptation [ i ] .
Refeeds require an accurate estimation of your nutritional needs and an accurate control thereof by means of a calorie app. After all, an excess of extra calories can lead to fat storage, especially in a situation of metabolic adaptation. In addition, you should monitor that you get the extra calories mainly from carbohydrates. These are the most effective in restoring hormone levels and replenishing the glycogen stores in your muscles [ ii ] .
A refeed is a conscious, sophisticated diet strategy. So it is not a reward or escape moment, such as a cheat meal or cheat day.
2. DIET BREAK
Instead of a refeed you can keep a diet break. That is more or less the same as refeed, but for a longer period of time: usually one to two weeks, sometimes even longer. As a result, you can largely, or even completely, reverse the physical adjustments (read: disadvantages) as a result of dieting. In particular: metabolic adaptation (which means that you have to go lower and lower in calories and as a result your testosterone level drops), depletion of glycogen stores in your muscles (which means you have less energy for strength training) and often also the mental fatigue of dieting.
Just like refeeds, diet breaks can contribute to the maintenance of muscle mass. In addition, they may make it easier to keep cutting for a long time. Don’t take breaks too often, though: fat loss expert Eric Trexler recommends a 3 week on, 1 week off protocol should be feasible [ v ] .
You can also use diet breaks to gain (back) some muscle mass and thus turn it into a ‘minibulk’. In that case, a small calorie surplus is required, in combination with overload in your training.
Diet breaks may not add value during short cutting cycles (‘minicuts’). Then you’re probably better off going straight for your target.
For non-bodybuilders, diet breaks don’t seem to make much of a difference in the end result of the diet. Whether or not to use it is therefore mainly a matter of personal preference.
3. FASTING ONE DAY A WEEK
Although metabolic adaptation is inevitable, you don’t necessarily have to take a refeed or diet break when the going gets tough.
For example, fasting is a way in which you can reduce calorie intake without having a direct effect on your metabolism. In fact, short-term fasting can actually speed up your metabolism a bit [ vi ] [ vii ] [ viii ] [ ix ] . This is probably based on a survival principle: when your body notices that there is no more food coming in, it wants to give you extra energy to look for food. To that end, it increases the secretion of certain hormones such as adrenaline, giving your metabolism a boost.
It is unclear how long this increase in metabolism will last, but logically it is only very temporary. It is probably best to limit fasting to a maximum of 24 consecutive hours and limit it to once a week [ x ] . After a day of fasting, continue your regular diet, with the same energy balance as before the fast.
Although an effective method, there are also some snags to fasting.
In the first place, a whole day of not eating is not easy, especially if you are not used to it. It can have a significant effect on your mood and requires a lot of perseverance.
Secondly, the method does not seem very suitable for bodybuilders who train (almost) daily. It is obvious that you should not train on a fast day, but fasting all day could also affect your performance during your training the next day.
In addition, we should note that multiple studies have not shown significant benefits of alternate day fasting over linear diets (excluding any health benefits of fasting) [ xi ] . With most regular forms of alternate day fasting, however, you eat normally on non-fasting days, while we present the fast here as a small ‘shock therapy’ within an already heavy calorie-restricted diet. It is therefore something that you could only do during those last heavy stretches, for example.
4. ONLY EATING AROUND TRAINING
The above three are non-linear diet strategies, in which you break the line of gradually eating fewer calories. The fourth and final strategy is intended for people who do want to continue to diet linearly and thus continue to cut calories.
The strategy is based on the 16:8 protocol of intermittent fasting, in which you fast for 16 consecutive hours in a day and therefore consume all your food within a ‘window’ of 8 hours. The crux is to make sure your workout falls right within that window, ensuring you have a big meal both before and after your workout. You eat nothing for the rest of the day.
Fasting for a large part of the day can save you a significant amount of calories. This, of course, on the condition that you do not compensate too much in the eating window. However, you will have to meet your entire daily protein requirement (1.8-2 g/kg body weight) in those eight hours . That might look like this:
16:00 large protein-rich meal
19:00 exercise (60 m)
20:30 large protein-rich meal
23:30 small protein-rich meal (e.g. cottage cheese)
By concentrating your nutrition around your training, your training and recovery immediately afterwards may not have to suffer much from that extra calorie reduction. Eating a hearty, carbohydrate-rich meal several hours before your workout can optimize your exercise performance, according to bodybuilding coach Mike Israetel [ xiv ] . A high carbohydrate intake is also a good idea immediately after training, says Israetel (during your entire cut, by the way) [ xv ]. On the one hand because you may then be very hungry, on the other because, according to some studies, those carbohydrates may be stored more easily as glycogen (the energy stores in your muscles and liver) than as fat. In addition, you make sure that both your pre- and post-workout meal contain a good dose of protein (at least 20-40 grams per meal).
Intermittent fasting according to the 16:8 protocol does mean that your body does not take in nutrients for 16 consecutive hours to increase muscle protein synthesis. It is unclear whether and to what extent this negatively affects muscle growth and/or maintenance. After all, the many studies on intermittent fasting focus on the effects on either fat loss or health – not on muscle growth and maintenance. In addition, the effect of timed food intake should not be exaggerated. During your training, you not only use carbohydrates that you have recently consumed, but also the stock that is stored in your muscles as glycogen.
You can also take this strategy less extreme, for example by consuming one or two protein shakes during the fasting window . Of course, it is then no longer real fasting and you therefore do not benefit from any positive health effects.
Fasting or semi-fasting during a certain part of the day is not a long-term solution for the consequences of metabolic adaptation. If you do it for some time, your body will adjust to the overall energy balance of the day just as well. Eventually you will still have to insert a refeed or diet break.
5. PROTEIN-SPARING MODIFIED FAST
Yet another fasting method is the protein-sparing modified fast (PSMF). This comes down to a low-calorie diet, but with an intake of sufficient protein (~2 g/kg/d). By maintaining the protein intake, you prevent loss of muscle mass, even though you eat next to nothing besides those proteins.
With a PSMF, you ensure that you consume four to five protein-rich ‘meals’ per day, spread evenly throughout the day, each containing a ‘shot’ of 20-40 grams of protein. So you follow the rules of protein distribution for bodybuilders. The only difference is that each intake contains as few other macros as possible, so as few carbohydrates and fats as possible. Each meal then only consists of, for example, a few eggs, a few pieces of chicken breast, a protein shake or another low-calorie but protein-rich food source. To provide your micronutrients, take a multivitamin.
A PSMF does not differ much from ‘normal’ fasting, because you consume at most about 800 kcal a day. It is therefore not a long-term diet strategy, all the more so because you also have to do your workouts. For a short period of time though, it can be an efficient way to break a fat loss plateau.
- [ i ] https://youtu.be/0BYOflCkhXU?t=3560
- [ ii ] https://youtu.be/sU1S0KoFr9Y?t=1230
- [ iii ] https://youtu.be/_VNTaBO5K9I?t=340
- [ iv ] https://youtu.be/SeslRPi4VWI?t=3990
- [ v ] https://youtu.be/0BYOflCkhXU?t=3543
- [ vi ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4516560/
- [ vii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5783752/
- [ viii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2186256
- [ ix ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8172872
- [ x ] https://youtu.be/_VNTaBO5K9I?t=525
- [ xi ] https://youtu.be/0BYOflCkhXU?t=3710
- [ xii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30395050
- [ xiii ] https://www.mdpi.com/2411-5142/5/1/19
- [ xiv ] https://youtu.be/KP3ej9mFAD8?t=302
- [ xv ] https://youtu.be/KP3ej9mFAD8?t=469