How often have you been told by a trainer or read that in fitness you can only pick one goal? You’re either looking to cut fat and tone, or you’re looking to gain muscle. And how often have you tried to do exactly that, just to have the success that first month then start to see your hard-earned muscle disappear during your diet or as you bulk you find you’re starting to get fat? For 90% of the population that will always be the case unless you’re on drugs or you’re new to fitness. Our bodies haven’t changed much from our Neolithic ancestors, your body wants more fat and less muscle, it’s the way it is programmed. No, I’m not going to sell you on a diet or workout program, but I’m going to show you the science behind how our bodies react when we are either bulking or dieting and how to use that to your advantage, so you can make a more informed decision on how to go about training to reach your goals.
First and foremost, if you’re new to fitness, what you read here isn’t all too important for you through the first six to twelve months. Just by doing the bare basics in diet and training will net you positive results until you reach your set point in strength, muscle, and fat percentage. A set point is a range of body weight (body fat and muscle in particular) that your body naturally defends using the hormone, hunger, behavior, and other physiological mechanisms. Ever wonder why after reaching a specific goal you find yourself back to where you were months later, that’s because the body manipulates you so to get back to your set point. There are ways to change the bodies set point, but that discussion is for another time.
Let’s first look at what happens when we diet; Well the first thing is blood glucose and insulin levels are going to be reduced which is a good thing because it allows for the release of fat into the blood. Then the body will increase dopamine and adrenaline production temporarily which will also help in releasing more fat into the blood. As that’s all going on as you diet, the body will first use up the stored fat in the muscles and liver. This is a good thing because the body stores glycogen (glucose) within muscles and organs, once that’s depleted, the body will now start using the released fatty acids for energy. Another positive initially is a short-term resistance to Insulin, which will help with fat oxidation.
Unfortunately, at some point, depending on how extreme your diet it could happen within days or a week, a lot of bad things will start to occur; leptin (regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger), Ghrelin (regulate energy balance by increasing hunger), Peptide YY (reduces appetite), and other hormones start to tell your brain that you’re not eating enough. We all have different tolerance levels to these hormones, so depending on how extreme your diet is and your tolerance to these hormones, you might not notice negative result right away.
Firstly, the drop in Leptin will adversely affect the liver, muscle, and fat release. While the reduction in insulin is a positive for fat release, it reduces testosterone (women also have testosterone). With a decrease in testosterone, we get an increase in Cortisol which enhances muscle breakdown as well as protein conversion to glucose in the liver (which makes protein no better than carbs). Also with a lack of glycogen in the muscle and a drop off in energy, protein synthesis (conversion of protein to muscle) is decreased causing muscle loss. The increase in fatty acids released into the blood also have a negative effect on the thyroid (Hormone that regulates our metabolism) where the body becomes more resistant to it. All the negative aspects that occur when dieting serve two purposes; to slow the rate of fat loss, and to prepare the body to put fat back on at a faster rate when food becomes available.
Let’s now look at what happens when we try and gain weight. For the most part, everything that happens when you diet just works in reverse accepts it doesn’t work as hard to stop us as it would when we diet. As said before the body protects against being lean in fear of starving, it really doesn’t care if you gain, it welcomes it. So, we increase our calories and carbs, what’s going to happen? Leptin will go up along with insulin and peptide YY, and ghrelin goes down. With increased carbohydrates, you increase both liver and muscle glycogen, you get improved protein synthesis, an increase in testosterone, and a reduction in cortisol. With an increase in insulin, muscle insulin sensitivity is enhanced even more by exercise (this is where muscle growth then occurs). Changes in liver metabolism will improve Thyroid sensitivity, along with improvements in nervous system output, which will then help to increase metabolism.
So how do I increase all the advantages of training and limit the disadvantages? The best way to do this is cycling carbs where you have days where you increase your caloric intake and days where you decrease. But before doing that you have to first figure out your maintenance calories, which is basically a net of energy used and caloric intake in a given day that allows you to stay the same size. You can do this starting with a standard 40/40/20 split for protein, carbs, and fats. At maintenance you should be eating about 1 gram of protein per pound, so for this example, we will use a 200lbs person. That means you need 200g of protein and carbs and 100g of fats. To calculate calories, multiply carbs and proteins by 4 and fats by 9, that would give us 800/800/400 which is a total maintenance of 2,000 calories. We now have a base of 2,000 calories, eat this amount every day for a week and keep your energy output consistent. At the end of the week in the morning weigh yourself, if you gained drop everything by a total of 250 calories (100/100/50), repeat the same routine the next week until you find that you neither gained nor lost weight, and that is your maintenance level.
The next piece you need to figure out is your workout routine or split. Knowing that is important because it will help you to figure out the proper way to cycle carbs. If you choose to do a single muscle group per day then your cycle would flow on a week to week bases, where for five days your depleting carbs using low resistance and high reps, and the next five days your carb loading using high resistance intermediate to low reps. If you chose to do three full body days a week, then you might carb deplete days 1-3 with one workout made up of low resistance high reps, then eat maintenance on day 4 with an intermediate rep and resistance day, Carb load on day 5 which would be an off day, day 6 carb load with a low rep high resistance workout, and day 7 eat maintenance. Figuring this part really comes down to schedule and what you think ultimately works best for you.
Now that you have your maintenance calorie level and a workout split, you can start to experiment with cycling carbs and moving towards gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time. The beginning is really all an experimental phase. As said before, we all have different tolerance levels to various hormones, and we all lose or gain at different speeds, and that’s something you will have to figure out as you go through the process. Remember the object is not to lose any weight, we want to gain muscle and lose fat, meaning whatever you lose in fat you should gain back in muscle.
Let’s look at how it all works during a 3-day full body split. Because of time constraints to deplete glycogen in the muscle, the carb depletion phase will be a little harder. The cycle would look something like this; Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday you would consume 1,000 calories. Monday and Wednesday would be cardio days, and Tuesday a full body workout that would consist of low resistance, high rep ranges, and 30 seconds to a minute rest between sets. During this period your body is releasing fat into your bloodstream and depleting glycogen in the muscles. On Thursday you would increase your carb intake pre-and post-workout giving you 2,000 calories for the day. Prior to Thursdays pre-workout meal where you increase carbs, glycogen in your muscle should completely be depleted, you’ll be able to tell by how flat you feel and the lack of a pump or motivation to workout.
Thursday should be the day your body starts telling your brain you’re starving and all the bad stuff we discussed earlier starts to occur, which is why we start to increase carb intake in the afternoon. Friday will be a day where you consume 4,000 calories, two times your maintenance. From Thursday afternoon through Friday several things are happening; first, we are now feeding the body so all the hormones that tell the brain you are starving are decreasing, but because you depleted glycogen the body is still releasing fat. So even with all that food you consume on Friday, the body is still burning until glycogen in the muscle is replaced. On this day allow yourself a few cheat meals and some donuts. Saturday, you should feel amazing and your muscles should look very full because you have feed glycogen back into them. During Saturday’s workout, you should feel full of energy and really strong, that’s why this is the muscle building phase. You will consume 3,000 calories with a large pre-and post-workout meal. The workout again should consist of high resistance, low reps, and 1-3 minutes of rest between sets. Saturday the body is now in an anabolic state and growing muscle. Sunday is an off day and you should just rest and eat your maintenance of 2,000 calories.
The body is an amazing creation of evolution, its main goal is and will always be survival, and that hasn’t changed much from our ancestors. By understanding how it works during moments of underfeeding and moments of overfeeding you will be able to manipulate it to reach your goals. We are not all created equal, some of us gain easy, and some lose easy, are hormone tolerance is different, and what exercise routines work for one person might not necessarily work for you. Fitness is and will always be about experience, trial and error, and understanding your body and what works best for you. Hopefully, everything I have shown you over the course of this article will help you along to your path of finding your dream physique.