I’ve mentioned before that I do not think physique competitors are accurate in calling themselves athletes. I say this because athletes train for optimal human performance, while physique competitors train for optimal human appearance.
Looking good on stage very often necessitates following diet and training protocols that are designed to diminish performance – low-carb, tons of cardio, diuretics, etc. Even gymnasts, who are notorious among athletes for pursuing low body mass for a competitive advantage, still eat enough to maintain a weight that makes them lithe yet powerful on the implements and gives them endurance on the floor. Meanwhile, physique competitors are pushing well past the boundaries of reasonable bodyfat ratios to achieve paper-thin skin at the price of not only physical functioning but also mental sharpness. As a bodybuilder, figure or bikini competitor, almost everything you do to look your best makes you feel awful and perform worse.
This isn’t a knock on physique competition. I really do love this sport, and I recognize that pushing past those limits is kind of the point. Developing an extraordinary physique requires some extraordinary measures. But you only enter the danger zone for 4-8 weeks of your prep. What happens the rest of the year?
Maybe you’ve seen this term floating around the web lately. In bodybuilding circles, its been used to explain a method of offseason prep called reverse dieting, which you can see explained by the anti-guru Guru (and progenitor of the metabolic damage / capacity phenomena) Dr. Layne Norton in his vlogged manifesto.
Although reverse dieting isn’t really a new concept (Gaspari was talking about it in the early 90s), the claim that one can “optimize metabolic capacity” (i.e. increase your resting metabolic rate) by reducing energy output and increasing energy intake very gradually, all while maintaining a stable body weight or even losing weight is a bold concept.
I also think it’s misleading, inaccurate, and another example of how physique competitors & coaches ignore the basic tenets that form the backbone of every athlete’s long-term training & nutrition strategy.
But before I go into all that, let’s review some basics.
What is Metabolism, Really?
The word “metabolism” is often used casually to mean a handful of different things. In this case, “metabolic capacity” is referring to how many calories you burn, or the calories out part of the energy balance equation.
There are 2 factors that together can very reliably determine your “Calories Out”:
(1) How much you weigh; and
(2) How much you move.
Number 1 determines your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). In the figure above, this is labeled “bodily functions”. Heavier people just need more energy to survive than lighter people do. While BMR can vary between individuals with same body composition, lean body mass (LBM) is a very reliable indicator of BMR, even in select subgroups such as female athletes.
Number 2 is a process we are all very familiar with. Being physically active requires energy beyond what you burn just staying alive. This is why I added daily cardio to my routine when my fat loss slowed down in the final weeks before my figure competition. It’s also why weight loss programs usually prescribe a combination of diet & exercise. By attacking the energy balance equation from both sides (eating less and moving more), you increase your chances of success.
You are probably familiar with the problem of the weight loss plateau. Often, individuals who have lost a significant amount of weight will be unable to lose those last 5-10 lbs. When they were overweight, their diet may have resulted in a negative energy balance that promoted weight loss. However, their now reduced body mass requires fewer calories. That means no more energy deficit, ergo no more weight loss.
In the bodybuilding world, the term “metabolic damage” has been used to describe something similar. Figure and Bikini competitors have come forward in droves, describing gaining or maintaning weight despite doing hours of cardio per day on extremely restrictive diets (a practice that should theoretically result in a negative energy balance). There is a lot of debate as to whether or not what these women are suffering from is due to having actually damaged their body’s metabolic pathways and reduced their BMR, or is due to a complicated hormonal response to extreme stress. Until there is legitimate experimental research on physique competitors investigating the phenomenon, we won’t be able to pinpoint the true cause.
However, there is some evidence that your BMR can slow down more than you would expect just based on reduced body weight.
Adaptive Thermogenesis: a decrease in energy expenditure beyond what could be predicted from body weight or its components (fat-free mass and fat mass) under conditions of standardized physical activity in response to a decrease in energy intake
Due to a poorly understood process called adaptive thermogenesis, a formerly overweight person’s BMR may even be lower after dieting than the BMR of a person with identical body composition who was never heavier and didn’t lose weight. In practice though, the actual difference is fairly small. For example, a formerly overweight 132lb woman would burn about 120 fewer calories per day than a woman who has been 132 lbs her whole life. That isn’t even a 1/2 cup of plain oatmeal.
Adaptive thermogenesis also takes years to reverse. So far, it appears as though the metabolic adaptations to weight loss are, for all intents and purposes, irreversible. Furthermore, the few studies investigating the phenomenon thus far have been in overweight and obese individuals, not athletes or ultra-lean physique competitors. Therefore, it’s impossible to say whether adaptive thermogenesis can explain “metabolic damage”, and extremely unlikely that reversing these adaptations accounts for the claims Dr. Norton and others have made about enhancing metabolic rate in Figure and Bikini competitors, particularly within the time frame they describe.
The take-home message for competitors and coaches is that lean body mass is a very reliable predictor of the number of calories an individual burns before adding in physical activity. Unless you’ve lost 100 lbs recently, chances are high that a standard formula will give you an accurate approximation of your BMR.
So if the only way to change your BMR significantly is by either gaining or losing mass, why are bodybuilding coaches suggesting that eating more and training less can force your body to “absorb” excess calories in the absence of weight gain?
The Missing Link: Performance-Based Training
This is where the bodybuilding world reveals its disconnect from athletic training. While the average physique coach may obsess over his client’s caloric intake, macros, and meal timing, he often underestimates the role her training plays in determining her energy balance and ultimately her body composition. In particular, physique coaches often overlook the link between nutrition and training intensity, seeing them purely as weights on either side of the energy balance, instead of highly interrelated variables in an athlete’s progress towards her performance goals.
Athletic trainers, coaches and athletes, on the other hand, know that you need to eat to fuel your training. Marathoners carb-load prior to a race. Immediately after weigh in, powerlifters will break out the Pop Tarts and Gatorade for the same reason:
Consuming adequate food and fluid before, during, and after exercise can help maintain blood glucose during exercise, maximize exercise performance, and improve recovery time. —American College of Sports Medicine
Whether you’re running for 4 hours or squatting 800 lbs, you need adequate fuel. It’s the same reason Michael Phelps eats more calories for breakfast than your obese cousin consumes on Thanksgiving. (Obviously the video above is a joke, but apparently Phelps really does eat that much on a typical training day, and he isn’t particularly huge.)
Eating more may not change your BMR, but it does change how many calories you burn. Why? Because it gives you the energy you need to maximize your training potential. It allows you to have more intense workouts and more readily recover from them. Eating at a caloric surplus can even result in building skeletal muscle mass, which can actually augment your BMR, albeit by a very limited amount.
When you gradually increase caloric intake, you aren’t “optimizing your metabolic capacity”. You are finally fueling your body adequately to perform more intense workouts and recover from them. You are optimizing your work capacity.
To illustrate, say you are on a carb-cycling diet. You feel amazing on your high carb day, eating 400 calories more that day than you usually do. Thanks to that extra energy, when you get to the gym you are able to pump out a few extra reps on your weights and really push it with your HIIT intervals or whatever. This not only results in burning more calories that day, but also means you’ve pushed yourself further than you would have normally, improving your athletic ability overall, and giving yourself a greater capacity to burn calories when you train tomorrow.
But you know what you’ve haven’t done? Changed your BMR. Your body didn’t magically absorb an extra 400 calories. It burned them.
What do I mean when I say work capacity? Well, much like pain tolerance, every person differs in how much training they can endure before they become mentally and physically exhausted. Advanced athletes, of course, will be able to train with greater intensity than novice or intermediate athletes. For example, ultramarathoner Pam Reed probably logs more miles during her off-week than your marathoning coworker runs during her peak training cycle. Olympic weightlifters under coach Ivan Abadjiev routinely lifted 90-95% of their one rep maximum multiple times per week, if not every day — a training regimen that would be impossible for most CrossFit Games competitors to even complete, let alone recover from sufficiently.
However, by consistently challenging yourself in a specific domain of athletic performance, be it strength or endurance, and tracking and forecasting progress over time, you will build your mental and physical tolerance for training intensity. But you can’t up the ante if you don’t eat.
Pain ≠ Progress
You especially can’t enhance work capacity if, like many physique competitors, you don’t give a shit about performance. If you follow a new program every few weeks, the only way you keep track of your progress is with weekly selfies, and you measure how much you challenged yourself by how sore you are the next day, how much pump you got, or whether you felt like puking at the end of your workout, then the only thing you are going to enhance is your frustration.
Athletes challenge themselves in terms of seconds, miles, kilos or pounds because those are real numbers that actually mean something: progress towards a goal. When your body gets stronger, faster, more flexible and agile, it can just plain do more stuff. It takes more energy to do more stuff. Ergo, the athlete often requires more calories each day as they get closer to competition, not less. So, if you are a physique competitor, do yourself a favor and stop saying things like, “I don’t care how strong I am, I train for aesthetics”. Instead, try actually keeping track of your progress with real numbers like pounds on the bar, rep maxes, heart rate, and speed. Go ahead and post progress pictures on Instagram, but instead of the same boring abs & chest pose, snap a photo of an excel spreadsheet and let the numbers do the talking.
The Truth In the Myth
Even after all that, I still wholeheartedly agree that physique competitors should eat more to fuel their metabolism in the offseason. And despite its tenuous scientific basis, the “metabolic recovery” protocol prescribes exactly this. It’s even safe to bet that it works as its proponents claim it does, just probably not due to the reasons they describe.
There is no argument from me that a Bikini competitor is going to be healthier, happier and improve her body composition when she switches from a 900 calorie-per-day diet and a fasted-cardio-and-glutes training plan to an adequate level of nutrition and a training plan based on heavy lifting and time for recovery. But her recovery and progress should be recognized for what it is – hard work – and not confused for invisible calorie magic and metabolic voodoo at the hands of an all-knowing Diet Guru. If you are a physique competitor planning her offseason, please don’t fall for the myth that you can train yourself to eventually lose weight on 3500 calories per day by cutting out cardio and adding carbs in 5g increments every two weeks. Plan on eating as much as you need to get stronger, faster, and generally more awesome every day.
If you want to be an athlete, train and eat like one. And for God’s sake, quit it with the selfies and spend that time logging your workouts.