Summer is all about slimming down, which means winter is when you can really build bulk. If you want to make muscle though, you have to start eating more—way more. The problem: Jump straight from a caloric deficit to a caloric surplus, and your body will gain not only muscle but also fat.
“If you want to be in an anabolic state and build muscle, you have to fuel this process with calories. Anabolic reactions are endergonic, which means they must be driven by the input of energy,” explains Bill Campbell, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., director of the Performance & Physique Enhancement Laboratory at the University of South Florida.
But if you go straight from a cut to a bulk—adding, say, 1,000 calories to what you’re eating now—the physique-minded lifter faces two problems. First, your body will hold on to any fat it can come by. Second, you’ll actually be less efficient at making muscle.
Here’s why: When you lose weight your fat cells don’t go away; they just get smaller. After weight loss, the cells are primed to be filled and return to normal size, and then replicate, which creates a favorable environment for rapid weight regain, explains Abbie Smith-Ryan, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D., co-director of the Applied Physiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Furthermore, after a cut, your catabolic hormones are running high and your anabolic hormones are low, making it more difficult for your body to build muscle, she adds.
To top it off, your body adapts to a caloric deficit by lowering your metabolic rate. “If you throw in a bunch of calories after a dieting phase while your metabolism is suppressed—coupled with your body’s desire to gain fat back after losing it—you’ve entered an environment where much of your post-diet weight gain will be in the form of body fat,” Campbell says.
How to gain muscle but not fat
Luckily, there’s a workaround. It’s called reverse dieting, and it entails slowly increasing your calories over time to bring you out of a deficit, up to maintenance, and then up to bulk.
“Reverse diets circumvent the fat gain because when you only add in a modest amount of calories over time—which you have to be very disciplined about—you allow your body’s metabolism to increase incrementally, [rather than] ‘overshooting’ its ability to deal with these extra calories and then depositing them as fat,” Campbell explains. Just as the incremental increase lets your metabolism reset, it also allows your hormones to balance out, because they’re not being thrashed from one end of the room to the other in a day.
One thing to note: If you’ve been cutting like crazy for an event and now don’t really care if you gain fat, you can totally just shoot straight from calorie deficit to calorie surplus. But the reality is, most of us do care. Plus, going straight from cut to bulk time and time again (like a bodybuilder might) can take a long-term toll on your hormones and ability to lose weight in the future, Smith says.
In other words, like everything else in life, the healthiest and most sustainable way to go about a physical goal is to ease in and be patient.
What are the downsides of reverse dieting?
There are a few downsides, though they’re pretty minor. For one thing, the process takes a while, so you won’t be able to go from Bruce Banner to the Hulk in a month.
Another downside for performance-minded athletes: Because you aren’t piling on the calories (aka fuel), you’ll effectively suppress your performance for longer than if you rapidly ramp up your caloric intake, Campbell points out.
“When calories are below maintenance levels, performance will usually suffer. It may not manifest itself right away, but, over time, athletes will likely experience more injuries, have decreased strength, power output, endurance, and so on,” he says. “But the alternative also comes with the gaining of more fat, so you need to decide if adding more fat is balanced with a quicker return to exercise performance levels.”
A third disadvantage: After sapping your self-control for months by keeping your diet on lockdown, you’ll need to continue exercising that restraint by easing back into eating more calories. “The biggest complaint is that you can’t go immediately back to consuming large amounts of your favorites foods,” Smith says. Sure, it sounds petty—but if your mantra has been “No pizza till December” on repeat to get you through the fall cut, you’ll definitely have to do some mental adjusting to not go obliterate the holiday buffet.
How to reverse diet
“The reverse dieting strategy is one of extreme patience and discipline, but if done correctly, it can result in a situation where someone is eating a lot of calories and not putting on body fat,” Campbell says. Sounds like the dream, right?
Smith says a guy’s plan depends on a lot of factors—how severe the cut was, how your hormones were affected, how many times you’ve cut and bulked in the past. But, typically, men respond more quickly than women and can add 100-200 calories per week to their total intake.
Campbell has his clients add about 5% of their calories for the first week, and then 5-15% more every week after. He points out that the rate of increase depends largely upon what happens with their weight and body composition—so if you start gaining a ton of fat immediately, go slower.
The best approach is to add just slightly larger portion sizes of the same healthy foods you’ve been eating, especially with your protein sources, Smith says. “You can usually get away with adding more protein more quickly because it requires more calories to break down, whereas fat is more calorically dense.”
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