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Reverse Dieting

January 15, 2015 | 0 Comments
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You have pushed yourself through months of dieting, hours upon hours of cardio and literally dragged yourself across the gym floor to finish your workouts, all with the goal of achieving your dream, lean physique. And now it’s all over, the competitions are done, the photoshoots are complete and that deadline date on the calendar has passed. It’s now time to back-off and recover.

But how can you gain back some normality without ruining your hard earned physique and end up having to diet just as hard as you did the first time?

Enter the "Reverse Diet".

While most people will immediately cut out cardio (who wouldn’t right?!), and begin consuming all of their favourite treats that were excluded from their transformation diet… that’s a BIG mistake!

Just as your nutrition, training and cardio were meticulously structured leading up to the competition or end-date, the best approach at the end of a transformation diet is to define clear goals and follow a structured plan that will set you up for success in future diets and competitions.

The Dieting Analogy

Let’s start with a simple analogy that highlights the importance of reverse dieting after a prolonged period of being in a caloric deficit;

"Imagine that your body is a car and your metabolism is the gearbox/transmission. By the end of your competition or transformation diet you have effectively slowed your metabolism down to the point of idling in 1st gear. Now what would happen if you tried to change into 5th gear from 1st and go speeding off? The car will stall and be in all sorts of trouble, just as your body and metabolism will if you try to push it straight back into a huge caloric surplus right away. To successfully build your metabolism back up to ‘speed’ you need to gradually increase your caloric intake and gradually decrease your cardio, just as the car is required to change from 1st gear to 2nd to 3rd and so on in a structured, progressive manner."

Now that you’ve got your head around that, let’s dig a little deeper and take a closer look at the details of the reverse diet.

What Happens During Prolonged Dieting?

During a period of extended caloric restriction such as a pre-contest or transformation diet, your body will eventually switch into "starvation mode", more correctly termed "metabolic resistance". Due to the reduced intake of food and calories during a transformation diet your body will seek to reach a new state of homeostasis by adapting to become extremely efficient at using energy and slowing down your metabolic rate.

For the competitive bodybuilder and fitness athlete this stall in metabolic rate, and hence fat loss, is undesirable and often leads to drastic and often dangerous drops in caloric intake combined with ridiculously high volumes of training and cardio… because, well surely, "working harder" is the only solution.

Those few iron willed individuals will push through to the very end of their diet, but at some point the starvation, sleep deprivation, loss of libido and lack of fat loss becomes too much for most. Having no defined goal following a prolonged pre-contest regime or transformation diet, combined with a lack of training motivation and an appetite that would put Augustus Gloop to shame… the post-diet blowout is almost inevitable.

The Post-Diet Blowout and Metabolic Damage

Once you make the decision to cease the prolonged dieting phase or "starvation" diet there is often the desire to engage in post-diet binge eating and forgo any measure of daily caloric intake (eating what you want, when you want). The combination of dramatically increasing calories and a severely suppressed metabolism will ultimately result in rapid increases in bodyfat without effectively recovering your metabolic rate. 

This phenomenon known as a "post-contest blowout" is an undesirable and even dangerous situation that can make it very difficult for you to achieve low bodyfat levels in the future. It is not uncommon for athletes to gain 5-10kg in the week following a severe competition diet. But that’s not the worst of it… what often comes next is mild depression as you are unhappy with your rapid fat gain. And so begins another extreme cycle of the "eat less and exercise more" approach in order to try to mitigate any further fat gain, further damaging your metabolic rate to an almost unrepairable state. You now have what has been commonly referred to as "metabolic damage".  

So how do you successfully repair your metabolism and still look good in the mirror? Is it even possible?

The good news is YES, it is. With a well structured reverse diet, of course!

What is Reverse Dieting?

As the name suggests reverse dieting is a structured process that shifts away from what is typical of a contest-prep or extended transformation dieting phase. The primary goal of a reverse diet is to minimise bodyfat gain whilst rebuilding your metabolic rate and increasing your caloric intake. By doing so, you will also slowly increase your metabolic capacity, making future attempts at fat loss much easier and more sustainable.

The scientific explanation of reverse dieting can be quite overwhelming for most, however there are essentially 4 goals:

Minimize Fat Gain

The primary goal of the reverse diet is to allow for healthy weight gain while minimizing unwanted and unnecessary increases in bodyfat. Following a transformation diet there will inevitably be some increase in bodyweight due to increased carbohydrate intake and increased fluid retention… But 5kg in a week is not acceptable, nor is it "pure muscle gain" despite what many may have you believe. The goal is not to deliberately add weight for sake of seeing the scales increase. You should strive to maintain a lean body composition, monitored by means of weekly progress pictures and measurements just as you did during the transformation diet phase, without compromising your body’s ability to gain back its normal functionality and health markers such as increased sleep, increased libido, reduced hunger and improved recovery. 

Increase Calories

Reverse dieting is designed to progressively and sensibly move you from a state of low caloric intake (caloric deficit) to a state of caloric maintenance or above maintenance intake (caloric surplus) whilst minimizing unwanted and unnecessary increases in bodyfat.

Decrease Cardio

As part of reverse dieting, you should be shifting away from the multiple hours of cardio required for a pre-contest diet, to as little as possible whilst still maintaining a low level of bodyfat. 

Increase Performance

As calories increase and cardio decreases on a weekly basis your workout strength and performance should also begin to increase with the goal of breaking personal records and repetition maxs at a lighter bodyweight. It’s easy to see that an 80kg competitor lifting the same weights as their former 100kg self has a far greater strength to bodyweight ratio and likely greater muscle density.

The typical shift from contest-prep transformation diet to a reverse diet can be illustrated below:


Extremely Low Bodyfat (5%) —–> Low Bodyfat & Normal Health Markers       

Low Caloric Intake               —–> Maintenance or Surplus Caloric Intake 

High Cardio Volume             —–> Low Cardio Volume

Decreased Performance       —–> Increased Performance

How To Reverse Diet Successfully?

When it comes to increasing caloric intake after a transformation diet, it is always best to err on the side of caution rather than racing out of the blocks. A solid approach to structuring your reverse diet is to begin with manipulations to both your carbohydrate and fat intake to help gradually increase your energy level and normalise your hormonal levels. 

To begin the reverse dieting process add 10% to your daily carbohydrate intake each and every week following the end of your transformation diet. For example if you were consuming 150 grams of carbohydratess per day at the end of your transformation diet, you should add an additional 15 grams (10%) to your daily caloric intake at the beginning of each week.

Similarly for fat, you want to take it slowly, by increasing your fat intake by only 5% per week following the end of your transformation diet. For example, if you were consuming 50 grams of fat per day at the end of your transformation diet, you should add an additional 2.5 grams (5%) to your daily caloric intake at the beginning of each week.

As your caloric intake is gradually increased from week to week it is also important to begin reintroducing a greater variety of foods and nutrients that may have been restricted during your transformation diet. This can be as simple as reintroducing 1-2 nutrient rich whole foods back into your diet every week. For example reintroducing avocado and apples during week 1 of the reverse diet process will help provide sources of fats and carbohydrates along with valuable vitamins and minerals. This can also be beneficial in gradually reducing both the physiological and psychological stresses associated with restrictive diets.  

When it comes to reductions in cardio, a similarly slow and structured approach is always best. Let’s say at the end of your transformation diet you were performing 5 low intensity steady state (LISS) sessions of 40 minutes for a total of 200 minutes per week, plus 3 high intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions of 15 x 30 second intervals for a total of 45 intervals per week. During the reverse diet process you should decrease both your low intensity and HIIT cardio by 10% per week. So for the 200 minutes of total LISS this will be a reduction of 20 minutes at the beginning of each week and for the HIIT this would mean removing 4-5 intervals each week.

The key is to be patient and make small consistent adjustments to caloric intake and cardio whilst monitoring fluctuations in weight from week to week.

Here is a overview of the reverse diet process:

Final Week of Contest/Dieting

Total Daily Calories: 1850

Protein: 200g

Carbs: 150g

Fat: 50g

Steady State Cardio: 5 x 40 minutes

HIIT Cardio: 45 Intervals per week (3 sessions)


Week 1 Reverse Diet

Total Daily Calories: 1932

Protein: 200g

Carbs: 165g (+15g carbs per week)

Fat: 52.5g (+2.5g fat per week)

Steady State Cardio: 5 x 36 minutes (-20 minutes per week)

HIIT Cardio: 41 Intervals per week (-4 intervals per week)


Week 2 Reverse Diet

Total Daily Calories: 2014

Protein: 200g

Carbs: 180g (+15g carbs per week)

Fat: 55g (+2.5g fat per week)

Steady State Cardio: 5 x 32 minutes (-20 minutes per week)

HIIT Cardio: 37 Intervals per week (-4 intervals per week)


Week 10 Reverse Diet

Total Daily Calories: 2588

Protein: 200g

Carbs: 285g (+15g carbs per week)

Fat: 72.5g (+2.5g fat per week)

Steady State Cardio: 1 x 20 minutes (-20 minutes per week)

HIIT Cardio: 5 Intervals per week  (-4 intervals per week)

Although a very conservative increase of 82 calories per week is used in the example above, after 10 weeks there is a considerable increase in total daily carbohydrates of 135 grams and total daily fats of 22.5 grams that will help fuel performance and normalise hormonal levels with very minimal fat gain. 

These numbers used are a general guide and provide a great starting point for anyone looking to implement reverse dieting, however individual differences mean some people may need to be even more conservative increasing carbohydrates by only 5% per week whilst those who can rebound quickly from a diet may be able to get away with larger increases of 20%-30% each week with minimal bodyfat gain.

Is Reverse Dieting For You?

For competitive physique and fitness athletes who have reached significantly low bodyfat or are experiencing a significantly depressed metabolism reverse dieting is a MUST! However it can also be beneficial for people who fit any of the following criteria: 

  1. People who have been in a caloric deficit for a prolonged period of time
  2. People who are eating extremely low amounts of calories without any weight loss
  3. People who are experiencing hormonal problems associated with severe caloric restriction

Anyone that fits the criteria above should implement the process of reverse dieting for a minimum of 10 weeks. During the reverse dieting process if a consistent bodyweight is recorded over 2 consecutive weeks it is likely that you will have found your maintenance calorie level.

At this point the decision is yours to either continue with the process of reverse dieting, with the long-term goal of slowly increasing your metabolic capacity, or to push back into a caloric deficit and begin another transformation diet.  

If you chose to begin another transformation diet we recommend cutting no more than 15% of your calories to begin with. You will now have a sound starting point for weight loss that will enable you to keep calories as high as possible whilst still losing bodyfat, who wouldn’t want that?!

So why not implement some structure after your transformation diet and experience the full benefits of reverse dieting… You’ve got nothing to lose… except for a post-diet blowout!


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