Weightlifters and athletes need a dietary strategy that’s tailored just for them. This one preserves muscle mass and protects your metabolic rate.
Every fat loss diet is simple. In fact, losing weight is easy. It’s basic calorie math and willpower. Eat fewer calories or burn more calories than your maintenance intake, and excess weight is lost directly. Of course, the devil lurks in the details.
First, you have to choose how you want to count your calories — which “flavor” of calorie deficit is best for you? Low Carb or High Carb? Certain brands of calorie cycling or intermittent fasting? vegetarian? Is anything okay as long as the calories are low enough?
It hardly matters. almost.
Personal preference and dietary tribalism aside, weightlifters and athletes want more than just “losing weight.” You may want to lose fat. Just fat. You want to keep all the muscle you have and maybe even gain a little.
You also need a sustainable diet that doesn’t quickly plateau or fat rebound, keeps your hormone levels and metabolic rate healthy, and doesn’t completely sabotage your fitness performance.
The problem is that most “evidence-based” diets come from studies of overweight or obese people who didn’t lift weights. These people have different needs and goals. Studies done on them typically don’t measure catabolic muscle loss, metabolic rate, or performance.
That’s why a study by Dr. Bill Campbell caught my attention:
- First, it used 27 lean athletes who were a mix of men and women participating in resistance training. Think of those healthy people who want to further improve their appearance and physical fitness.
- Second, the study measured muscle preservation and resting metabolic rate.
In short, the 7-week diet was successful for those who completed it: body fat was lost, muscle was preserved, metabolic rate was better maintained, and gym performance was unaffected.
Two groups were studied. Both performed the same workout. One group followed a typical eating plan — they cut their daily calorie intake by 25 percent for seven weeks. This is called a “sustained diet”.
But we were interested in another group: the nonlinear diet or refeeding group. Here is an overview of the more successful non-linear programs:
- Cut calories by 35% for 5 days in a row, Monday through Friday.
- Restore to maintenance calories on Saturday and Sunday.
- Aim for about 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight throughout the day (1.8 grams of protein/kg of body weight). That means a 200-pound person would consume about 164 grams of protein per day. The remaining calories are divided evenly between fat and carbohydrates.
- When you re-eat at the weekend, you return to your maintenance intake, with the extra calories coming from carbohydrates.
- During weeks 1-3 and 5-7, lift weights 4 days per week. In week 4, only lift weights twice. (It was a retreat week—planned to reduce training volume.) Study participants performed two upper-body-focused workouts and two lower-body-focused workouts per week, excluding week four. The exercises are all basic barbell, dumbbell and machine moves.
- Do low-to-moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (running, cycling, swimming, rowing, etc.) twice a week. Do this at a pace that you can easily carry on a conversation while doing it.
- On weightlifting days, take 25 grams protein powder After training.
In this study, the continuous and non-linear groups reduced their total weekly calories by 25%. The non-linear group just achieved this by dieting “harder” (35% less) during the week and returning to maintenance numbers on weekends by adding carb-derived calories.
While both groups lost fat, those who ate on the weekend lost more, retained their fat-free mass (muscle), and maintained their resting metabolic rate better. In other words, the nonlinear plan prevents catabolism and helps them maintain their metabolism.
This is huge because previous studies in non-overweight athletes have shown that muscle loss (the breakdown of muscle protein) occurs even on a 10-day diet with a 20% calorie restriction.
So, how does the refeeding strategy prevent loss of fat-free mass if total weekly calorie reductions are roughly the same in both groups?
- The calorie increase on these two days may weaken the catabolic environment of the muscles. Maybe it’s not a good idea to be in a caloric deficit for more than five days in a row?
- Two days of carbohydrate supplementation may have resulted in more glycogen being stored in the muscles. This would have resulted in less fatigue and more effort during training.
The extra weekend carbohydrates may induce insulin secretion, which inhibits acute muscle protein breakdown.
Whatever the reason, non-linear dieting is a better option for weightlifters pursuing the goal of improving their physique and body composition.
If you don’t want to take the whole plan, there are still some general strategies you can take home:
- Never go on a diet without lifting weights. That’s what normal people do, and they usually yo-yo.
- Never go on a low protein diet. Cut calories from fat and carbohydrates; keep protein on the high side. If you hate converting between kilograms and pounds, eating about one gram per pound of body weight per day is fine.High-quality protein powders, such as Metabolic Drive® – Consume it as a shake or add it to food – it’s easy to do.
- Calorie cycling and carbohydrate cycling (periodic two-day refeeding) are more effective than linear calorie reductions throughout the diet. Remember, these are not “cheat” days, just short recovery maintenance. That weekend boost is also a good mental and social break from a more rigorous workday, which should help with compliance and consistency.
Also, while it hasn’t been scientifically tested, researchers are interested in seeing what happens when you refeed for 24 hours every three days: fast for two days, raise to maintenance levels one day, fast for two days, repeat.
try it. Your body is your laboratory.
- Campbell BI et al. Intermittent energy restriction reduces fat-free mass loss in resistance-trained individuals. A randomized controlled trial. J Funct Morphol Kinesiol. 2020 Mar 8;5(1):19. PubMed.