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The Transition Phase Between Dieting and Gaining

I received a question in my having to do with manipulating calories and macronutrients for optimal transitioning from gaining to dieting phases and vice versa and this seemed like an excellent impetus to write about this topic in some detail.

Because while a lot of people tend to jump back and forth from one to the other (often, I think, spinning their wheels a bit), taking a more long-term approach, a nutritional periodization of sorts, can be beneficial in terms of working with rather than against the body’s inherent physiology.

Gaining to Dieting: The Pre-Diet Phase

Way back in the early days of bodybuilding you would hear physique athletes talk about a “hardening phase” which was meant as a transition from their off-season bulking to their contest diet.  Now, in hindsight, it probably had as much to do with switching out their drugs from heavy androgens to more anabolic compounds to reduce water retention but it basically entailed “cleaning up the diet” to prepare for the actual contest prep.

This was always kind of ill defined but probably had to do with food choices, taking out most of the junk and eating “cleaner” whatever that actually means.  Guys would report losing a bit of fat while still gaining a bit of muscle (perhaps the LTDGE which I really need to write about sometime although the switch in drugs was probably part of it too) and, well, hardening up.

And while this idea has sort of fallen out of favor, I think it has a lot of merit and bears revisiting.  I even wrote about it fairly extensively in The Women’s Book Vol 1 where I called it the Pre-Diet Phase.  This was meant to entail a 2-4 week span where calories were brought to estimated maintenance and training was adjusted to prepare for a formal dieting phase.

At least within the context of women’s dieting, this is primarily to keep women from doing what they too commonly do: cut calories way too hard and add too much cardio all at once which causes all kinds of problems.  Women can actually cause problems with their menstrual cycle and thyroid function with as little as 5-7 days of excessive cardio and calorie restriction and the Pre-Diet Phase is structured to help avoid that by only allowing one or the other to change at once.

But the same concept still holds for men in my opinion even if the hormonal effects aren’t quite as significant (i.e. men don’t have a menstrual cycle, although some of them sure act like it).  People often forget that growth and recovery is an on-going process and jumping straight into dieting out of a gaining phase often prevents maximal growth from occurring during that phase.  A two week transition phase just makes sense.

Dietary Changes in The Transition Phase

So far as diet, the changes that occur kind of depend on what the previous diet looked like.  Obviously calories should be brought to maintenance.  A good rough estimate is 14-16 cal/lb current bodyweight but this can vary depending on activity.   Women will generally use the lower values and men the higher.

Protein should either stay the same or go up slightly since protein requirements are increased while dieting.  How much protein depends on the person’s body fat percentage but for a male lower than 15% body fat, I’d recommend perhaps 1.2 g protein per pound of lean body mass (NOT total weight).   Women or men with a different body fat percentage would use slightly different values.

That leaves manipulations in carbohydrate and fat and how much each would be reduced depends on the previous diet.  Someone on a high-carb/low-fat diet will be reducing carbs. Someone eating a ton of dietary fat will be reducing fat.  Many will be doing about half and half.

Bodybuilders have long used a carbohydrate intake of ~1-1.5 g/lb for dieting purposes and this is a good starting point.  Fat makes up whatever is left after calories, protein and carbs are set and this will likely end up being about 25-35% of the total calories or roughly 0.41-0.6 g/lb.

Training Changes During the Transition Phase

As well, if training for the diet is going to be adjusted, for example adding metabolic work or reducing the volume of heavy work, this is the time to do it.   Jumping straight into high-rep training when you haven’t been doing it is murderous and you can use the transition phase to gradually bring in depletion work.

Reducing heavy volume gives the body a bit of a deload so that the person is recovered going into the diet.  So long as intensity, and here I mean weight on the bar, is maintained, volume and frequency of training can be cut by about 2/3rds with no loss of muscle mass.  Someone doing 6 heavy sets per muscle group could do only 2 for maintenance.  I’m not saying automatically go to 2 sets.  I’m saying that volume can be reduced a bit to make sure the dieter is completely recovered before the real work starts.

If cardio wasn’t being done, this is a time to bring it in gradually.  Start with 20′ low intensity work three to four times per week in the first week and increase it to maybe 30′ in the second week.  I am firmly of the belief that the whole “Cardio burns muscle” crap is from people jumping from zero cardio into hours right off the bat.  The body will lose the ability to effectively use fat for fuel when calories and carbs are high and aerobic activity is low and it takes a few weeks for it to relearn how to use fat for fuel well.

Reducing carbs along with adding a bit of higher repetition depletion work (maybe 1-2 sets per muscle group) will bring muscle glycogen down.  T, along with gradually increasing cardio, helps to “retrain” (for lack of a better word) the fat burning pathways.

So the diet will end up being higher in protein with moderated amounts of carbohydrates and low to moderate dietary fat (anywhere from 25-35% depending on dietary preference).  Two to four weeks of this will put the body in a solid position to lose fat effectively and efficiently.  The only next step will be to reduce calories to put the person into a deficit to start the actual diet after this phase is over.

Summing Up the Gaining to Dieting Transition Phase

  1. Bring calories to estimated maintenance (~14-16 cal/lb)
  2. Increase dietary protein slightly (~1.2 g/lb LBM for men below 15% bodyfat or women below 22%)
  3. Reduce carbohydrates to moderate levels (~1-1.5 g/lb)
  4. Reduce dietary fat to low- to moderate levels (25-35% total calories)
  5. Bring in aerobic activity gradually
  6. Reduce volume of heavy training to maintenance levels
  7. Add metabolic training is desired

Sample Transition Phase Diet Set-Up

So let’s say we have a lifter who is 180 lbs with 15% body fat.  Doing some basic body composition calculations, he has 153 lbs of lean body mass and 27 pounds of fat.

  1. His estimated maintenance calories are 15 cal/lb or 2700 calories/day.
  2. Protein will be 153 lbs * 1.2 g/lb = 183 g/day. At 4 cal/g this is 730 calories.
  3. Carbs are 1.5 g/lb which is 180 lbs * 1.5 g/lb = 270 g/day.  At 4 cal/g this is 1080 calories.
  4. 2700 calories per day – 730 calories – 1080 calories leaves 890 calories of fat.  At 9 cal/g that is 98 grams.
  5. 98 grams of fat / 180 lbs = 0.54 g/lb which is right in the range above.
  6. His diet is 2700 calories/day with 183 grams of protein, 270 grams of carbs and 93 grams of fat which is
    27% protein, 40% carbs and 32% fat.  If desired, protein could be raised a bit and fat brought down to hit
    the magical 30/40/30 ratios.

Dieting to Bulking: The Full Diet Break

So that’s the transition into dieting (and of course, if someone is on a time schedule to get into shape the above has to be factored into the time frame of when to start the diet), but what about transitioning from dieting to gaining?   Here the issue is that, following a diet, the body is primed for fat regain.  There are endless metabolic adaptations ranging from a reduced energy expenditure to increased potential fat storage to decreased fat oxidation.  I’ve been writing about these for as long as I can remember.

I’d note that there is an oft made claim that dieting down increases the amount of lean body mass gained in a surplus but this is not correct.   Naturally lean individuals gain a larger proportion of lean body mass when they gain weight but this is untrue for the dieted down due to the changes in their physiology.

A similar claim is often made by post-contest dieted bodybuilders who report this amazing anabolic rebound after their contest diet.  They seem to gain LBM and fill out with no measurable fat gain like crazy.  Which is true except that all they are doing is regaining any lost muscle, glycogen, etc. that makes it look like they are blowing up size wise.  They never end up bigger than they started and it’s not true anabolism if you’re just regaining what you lost (and mostly glycogen and IMTG there).

After a contest diet, the body is about as non-anabolic as it can be hormonally.  Every aspect of the system is biased towards partitioning calories towards body fat.  Research on the topic shows that the initial gains are just glycogen and water with preferential fat gain for at least the next 4-6 weeks.

Dietary Changes in The Transition Phase

In any case, jumping straight from dieting back into a calorie surplus is a huge mistake and will only result in excessive fat gain.  The safer approach is to first bring calories back to estimated maintenance first; this is just my Full Diet Break concept but applied to transition into gaining rather than to continue dieting.     Here I recommend using 14-16 cal/lb current weight with a ~10% reduction as a safety valve.

There is an adaptive decrease in energy expenditure that occurs during dieting that makes the estimated maintenance too high.   So if our lifter has lost 10 lbs of fat (and no lean body mass since they dieted well) and are at 170, their new maintenance would be 170 lbs * 15 cal/lb 2550 calories.  But I’d adjust this down by 10% or 250 calories to take into account the adaptive metabolic rate decrease.  So 2300 calories would be a better target at least as a starting point.

It would be ideal to hit it sooner, like bring calories to that level immediately after the diet is over and then keep it there for 2 weeks.  This can cause a lot of people mental stress and pretty enormous water retention.

For nutcases, bring calories up every few days but don’t take any longer than 2 weeks to get back to estimated maintenance.  It would be even more ideal to stay at that calorie level for another 2 weeks to give the metabolic adaptations time to dissipate further (it can take a solid week for T3 to exert it’s full genomic effects for example) but not everyone is that patient.

So far as macros, although technically protein requirements go down as calories go up, I would recommend keeping protein intake at the same level as during the diet.  This is mainly for calorie control.

Hunger can be pretty enormous after a diet is over and keeping protein high helps to control this.  Also keeping protein intake high when weight gain occurs after a diet not only limits total weight gain but ensures that more of it is from lean body mass.  This effect will be even more pronounced if proper weight training is being done.

So far as the other macronutrients, one critical aspect is that carbohydrate intake should be brought to 120-150 grams per day as a minimum (1-1.5 g/lb would be a good rough estimate for all but the most non-behemoth men).  This has to do with hormonal effects on leptin and especially the thyroid axis.  Keeping carbohydrates too low won’t allow optimal recovery of the conversion of T4 to T3 in the liver.  Carbs can be higher but they can’t be lower.

How much dietary fat will be increased will then depend on what the total calorie intake is along with how high carbohydrates are raised.  Given the tendency of dietary fat to be stored in the post-diet phase, keeping dietary fat intake a little bit lower (perhaps 20-25% of total calories) makes some good sense.  So long as fat gain is not occurring at the adjusted estimated maintenance, calories can be brought gradually higher.

Dietary Changes in The Transition Phase

So far as training, this would be a time to eliminate HIIT if is being done and at least reduce aerobic work for recovery.  Keeping in some can help to burn some calories to offset any loss of food intake control and maintaining some during the next gaining phase can have it’s own set of benefits.

Metabolic/depletion training can also be eliminated and replaced with a gradually increasing volume of heavier work.  The intensity here can be reduced; since calories are at maintenance, muscle won’t be lost and this acts as a nice deload/ramp back up into the gaining phase.  The intensity of training will come up gradually during this phase so that, when the transition phase is over (again, 2-4 weeks) and calories are raised slightly above maintenance (no more than 10-20% above maintenance).

Summing up the Dieting to Gaining Transition Phase

  1. Bring calories to estimated maintenance minus 10% (14-16 cal/lb – 10%)
  2. Maintain dietary protein initially at 1.2 g/lb LBM
  3. Raise carbohydrates to a minimum of 150 g/day
  4. Keep dietary fat lowish
  5. Reduce aerobic exercise
  6. Eliminate metabolic training
  7. Increase volume of heavy work but with submaximal weights

Sample Transition Phase Diet Set-Up

So let’s say our lifter from above finished their diet with a 10 pound fat loss.  They are now 170 lbs with 153 lbs LBM and 17 pounds of fat.  The Full Diet Break would be set up this way:

  1. 170 lbs * 15 cal/lb = 2550 calories – 10% = 2300 calories target.
  2. Protein will be 153 lbs * 1.2 g/lb = 183 g/day. At 4 cal/g this is 730 calories.
  3. Carbohydrate will be set at 1.5 g/lb or 255 grams/day.  At 4 cal/g this is 1020 calories.
  4. 2300 calories – 730 calories – 1020 calories = 550 calories from fat.  At 9 cal/g this is 61 grams of fat.
  5. So the diet break diet will be 2300 calories, 183 grams of protein, 255 grams of carbohydrate and 61 grams of fat
    which is 30% protein, 45% carbs and 23% fat.

Final Comments About Transition Phases

For many readers the above may not only seem like a lot of work but they will rebel against the fact that it interferes with their impatience towards reaching their goals.  When people want to lean out they want to lean out NOW. Spending 2-4 weeks in a pre-diet phase (where small amounts of fat may still be lost) is time spent not leaning out.

But it’s still a better idea, in most cases than jumping straight into dieting (mini-cuts would be a primary exception).  Let the gains from the previous training cycle stabilize and retrain your body to use fat more effectively and the diet will work better.

The same is even more pronounced for the dieting to gaining transition.  While everybody wants to get back to eating after the diet is over, rapid fat gain will be the result until at least some of the metabolic adaptations to dieting has been allowed to dissipate.  The hardest part of this transition is actually doing it.

When the diet ends, there is often a psychological switch that flips that make it harder to restrict calories than during the diet itself; this is just compounded with the metabolic adaptations.  But if the person wants to avoid just getting rapidly fat again, it’s critical to do this to the best of your ability.

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