Reverse Diet, Maintenance, Or Freedom?
So I wrapped up my carnivore cut three weeks ago, whittling down to a tender bodyweight of 85kg. 12 weeks of intermittent energy restriction produced a hefty 15kg loss, getting me perfectly primed for another long haul at the bulking process. The big question was how to end it, and that gave me three options.
Reverse Dieting – Do I gradually creep the calories back up to my previous maintenance as I wait for the metabolism to wake up? This takes the longest, as much as several months, but might help prevent the post-diet fat rebound. That would be accomplished by preventing bingeing episodes and avoiding big caloric surpluses.
At the same time, reverse dieting is designed to resurrect the metabolic rate to pre-diet levels, overcoming the suppression that would have crept into place over the latter stages of the cut.
Maintenance – Or I could skip the foreplay and hike the calories straight to maintenance levels for a couple of weeks, before transitioning into a straight surplus. It’s quick relief, but comes at the cost of more fat storage. That’s because your pre-diet maintenance will often be a fair bit higher than your post-diet maintenance.
Reward – Pat myself on the back for 12 weeks of hard work, and release the shackles. No tracking, plenty of cheat food, and presumably a large chunk of fat regain.
There were a few things that swayed me towards the eventual choice.
For one, there wasn’t an apparent need for reverse dieting, or any inclinations for overfeeding. I felt pretty damn good for someone who’d just lost more than two stone in three months. Besides the last week, where I tried out a few hail mary days with ultra-lean meat, there was barely any suppression or kickback taking place. Hunger was rarely a feature, sleep was unusually consistent, and mentally I felt serene.
So I wasn’t stumbling over the finish line, I was coasting. Until the last few weeks, I’d been chipping away at the scale while maintaining an absurd amount of calories, averaging between 3000 and 3750 calories. Not a great indication of a metabolism in need of a jump-start.
Secondly, the flaws that are apparent in the reverse diet model. Despite sounding practical, there isn’t any data to suggest that reverse dieting results in less fat regain. It’s a ton of effort to go through in good faith. Reverse dieting can be slow, depressingly slow.
If you went by the standard recommendations of raising carbohydrates by 5-10 grams each week, it could take 4-8 months to get back to your previous baseline. And at what cost? That’s a huge chunk of time that could have been spent on more productive goals, like muscle gain.
Think about it this way, the end of a gruelling cut has you perfectly primed for fat gain. Not so much with muscle. The metabolism has been ground down by sustained spells of catabolism.
- The metabolic rate is suppressed due to lowered T3
- Anabolic hormones like testosterone have been downregulated
- The fat cells are insulin sensitive, so they’re wide open for more storage
- Ghrelin is up, causing insatiable levels of hunger
- Leptin is down, adding to metabolic suppression
- Nutritional deficiencies have probably opened up by now, due to the difficulty of pairing total nutrition with a caloric deficit
- Cortisol is reaching chronic levels, putting the body in a state of catabolism and stress
Psychologically, you’re flirting with a big relapse, and releasing the diet shackles can lead straight to binge episodes that stretch over weeks. Physically, you’re tired, stressed, and feeble. Just keep in mind, all of this is assuming you went through a demanding diet that either lacked total nutrition, stripped you down to a few digits of body fat, or both. The body ends up firmly entrenched in a state of famine.
The reverse diet model takes note of this, but the fix it offers totally misses the mark, causing more harm than good. Calories come back up at a trickle, providing no hint to the body that the famine is at an end.
- Nutritional deficiencies are hard to repair without hyperdosing the necessary nutrients
- The calorie creep doesn’t offer much extra impetus for strength training
- Neither does it offer much to balance the various hormones that make the metabolism tick over
There’s no evidence that the metabolic rate can be fully repaired to pre diet levels through this methodThe clincher here is that the metabolism is tightly correlated to the lean mass you’re carrying. Meaning that the metabolic rate won’t be back to its best until you regain the muscle you’ve lost over the duration of the cut. So you want to be placing the body in the optimal state for muscle gain. Reverse dieting doesn’t provide enough of an impetus to shift out of catabolic mode.
My Blueprint For The First Few Months
Since reverse dieting seems like a colossal waste of time, I decided to simply ramp straight up to maintenance calories, which works out at around 3500 calories. But despite doing my best to keep the diet clean, and mostly succeeding, the weight has piled back on. I’m already up by 5kg.
That’s not maintaining, it’s outright bulking. So the first phase of the plan has missed the mark. Not that I’m fussed. I’m delighted. My strength has roared back to being on the verge of reaching pre-diet levels, despite being 10kg lighter.
The calories were probably a touch higher than 3500, as I didn’t make a point to track calories. Butter came back on the menu, after being shelved in order to create the diet deficit. I initially toyed with the idea of keeping things zero carb across weekdays, but I’ve found that my training sessions have become more reliant on glucose since ending the cut.
A few weeks ago, I’d be stomping through heavy leg workouts with nothing but brisket to fuel me, but doing the same now gives me a mild crash post session. It certainly appears like the metabolism is shifted in favour of using carbs for higher intensities. So to avoid the hypos, I’ve added in a portion of white rice alongside steak for post-workout meals. Hence the significant weight regain from water and glycogen retention.
Why I’m Adding Carbs
This may not be by-the-book carnivore anymore, but even my cut included workout dextrose and weekend carbs. I’ve got no interest in being dogmatic for the sake of it, because this can all get a bit arbitrary. In any case, this is very much a low carb diet, far lower than the conventional bulking style of adding a base of protein, then piling on the sugar till the calorie target is reached.
I don’t count workout carbs as part of total calories or the carb count for that matter, since they’ll just get chewed up by the workout. As long as I’m training hard enough. We’re not exactly swimming in ketones, but they’re probably going to be in and about in the mornings, since I’ll still be fasting for 16 hours and getting through a solid spell of weight training. Both of them are inherently ketogenic.
At the end of the day, I don’t expect to get the full keto package of anti-anxiety and indomitable energy levels. But after spending solid swathes of time over the last year in ketosis, I’m extremely fat adapted. Provided that holds up over the bulk, and there’s no reason why it wouldn’t while I stay low carb, I’ll be able to make the most of both the sugars and fats entering the system.
Last year I attempted to keep things zero carb during the bulk, and that worked until I reached 86kg. After which, it didn’t matter how much steak and butter I piled in. The scale wouldn’t budge. The body just became too efficient at wasting the extra calories. Something that might be explained by the thermogenic effects of saturated fat.
Once I relented, and added in low toxicity carbs, the scale began to move up again. I was gaining muscle while eating some 300-500 calories less than the zero carb attempt. So I’m pre-empting that stall by using carbs from the off.
I’m planning on holding my weekday calories somewhere in the 3500-3800 range, with 4500-5000 calories over the weekend. This setup benefits me for two reasons.
- Status Quo – It’s not too dissimilar to my carnivore cut, just with an extra helping of carbs to jack up the calories and support the muscle building process. Other than that, it’s the same old grind that’s been feeling very comfy.
- Sleep – I’ve had a long-running stand-off with insomnia, which is like down to me being a stress-sponge. Hiking up the calories can often lead to late meals preventing the body from winding down by bedtime. So keeping the calorie count a touch lower over the week should give me a run of acceptable sleep scores.
Right now the weight has been climbing steadily from my post-cut low of 85kg, and I’m going to hold the calories in this range until the gains peter out. I’d rather avoid packing on too much fluff for now.
How I’m Programming Training With DUP
There’s one more piece of the muscle-building puzzle, and that’s the training itself. I’ve spent the last 12 weeks holding up the training volume while steadily dropping down the weights. I effectively had to lay off maxing by the end, since I just didn’t trust my dried up joints to stand up to the test.
As a result, I haven’t lost too much in terms of muscle mass, but the big compounds have taken a beating. The bench press went down from 150 x 1 to 130 x 3. Deadlifts sank from 230 x 1 to 180 x 6. I didn’t bother recording squats, the drop-off was that bad.
So now’s the time to make up the ground, get back the lean mass I’ve lost, and haul the metabolism back up to its best. I’m doing my best to resist the nagging urge to get back to maxing, at least until the joints and tendons get used to heavier loads. This means I’m heading back to Daily Undulating Periodisation (DUP).
If you’re unfamiliar with DUP, that deserves its own article. But I can give you the brief rundown of my favourite training system, and why it works so well at forcing progress. DUP is muscle confusion made into straight science. The body has a great knack for initially adapting to meet new demands, then reacting with mild amusement to your attempts at further upping the ante.
This is known as the Repeated Bout Effect (RBE), and it basically means a consistent stimulus steadily provokes slimmer results. That’s the problem with conventional training, where you saunter into the gym every Monday, then pyramid up the bench press to a top set of 5. It’s a predictable formula that the body quickly gets wise to.
It might at first feel like you’ve hatched up the perfect session, but next week doesn’t hit the spot. One month on, and it’s starting to look like a plateau.
DUP sidesteps the issue of RBE by varying the stimulus each and every week, and not in the bro scientific method of ‘muscle confusion’. Rather than throwing in whatever new exercise that’s been invented on Instagram, you stick with the steak and butter movements. The big compounds. Rather than relying on exercise variety to move the needle forward, you vary the rep ranges.
A whole bunch of other variables get shuffled around as a result. Tempo, explosiveness, muscular fatigue, CNS, tendon load…and so on. The muscles are forced into an unpredictable rhythm, with increasing demands, and they have no choice but to get stronger.
Research backs that up. A study from 2002 compared two groups of lifters over 12 weeks. One group followed a programme with Linear Periodisation (LP), where weights were incrementally added each week. The second group practiced DUP. That group experienced double the results. The bench went up by 28.8%, compared to 14.4%. The leg press was 55.8%, opposed to a measly 25.7%. The results were monstrous.
DUP is also quite flexible, it’s a powerlifting concept that can be easily shifted towards bodybuilding. For example, a classic DUP strength routine could involve the following sets and rep schemes on the bench press.
- Monday – 3×6
- Wednesday – 3×4
- Friday – 3×8
Now that’s still quite a narrow rep range, but that’s fair game for powerlifters, because 8 reps would already be seriously testing their cardio.
And then there’s my version, which can go something like this.
- Monday – 4 x 3
- Wednesday – 4 x 6
- Friday – 4 x 12
That being said, I’m not being too tight on the rep schemes, so I often end up allowing some leeway. Wednesday could end up with me pyramiding up to a top set of 6 reps, rather than making it 6 / 6 / 6 / 6. Friday’s bench press may be 12 reps, but my machine work could be in the 12-20 range. As long as I stick to the formula of very heavy / heavy / moderate weight, I’m good.
Then there’s the matter of actual progression, which is incredibly easy on DUP.
I’ve never been one to take meticulous notes during a session, since I feel it just takes me out of the flow and puts me at risk of undershooting the weights on days where I’m coming in hot. Besides, it doesn’t really matter what I’m using on rope pushdowns on Week 3. I just need to be able to make a mental note of my top sets on the big compound lifts, and aim to increase the volume of Week 3 by Week 4 or 5.
So going back to the bench press, this is how I’ve ramped up so far.
- Week 1 – 130 x 2
- Week 2 – 130 x 3
- Week 3 – 140 x 2
I’m all for maxing out, but it’s bad practice to be risking singles this early on in the bulk. If I don’t quite make 3 reps on the lift, I’ll settle for adding more reps to the same weight. Once I’ve mastered that weight, I move up again. In this case, I should have gone for 4-5 reps on 130 on Week 3. Unfortunately, greed got the best of me.
The Big Lifts After Week 3
- Bench Press – 140kg x 2
- Deadlift – 230kg x 3
- Box Squat – 190kg x 3
- T-Bar Row – 130kg x 3
- Leg Press – 450kg x 4
I’m all for throwing a military press into the mix, once the shoulders get some extra padding. Right now I’d rather save them for benching.
I also use plenty of variations in the big compounds, like the box squat in place of the standard version. These switch-ups let me further challenge the muscles beyond the fluctuating rep ranges. A box squat, for instance, would be more explosive, at the expense of shutting off the hamstrings at the bottom. If I wanted to seriously challenge the hamstrings, I could add in paused squats. It all depends on where my weak points are.The bulk stage feels perfectly poised for some major inroads, and I’ll be throwing in an update in the next month or two. In the meantime, you can follow my progress over on Instagram.
Carnivore Diet Coach And Personal Trainer