If you want to avoid a world of dietary pain, take this to heart:
When it comes to diet advice, the fancier it sounds, the more likely it’s complete bullshit.
That is, the more a dietary strategy deviates from, ignores, or claims to circumvent or “hack” the fundamentals of energy and macronutrient balance, the less likely it is to actually work.
The rather boring truth is dieting is more a numbers game than anything else.
Once you fully understand those principles and how to apply them, you can take your dietary destiny into your own hands. You’ve got it made.
How does calorie cycling fit into this? What legitimate benefits does it offer and what’s just hype used to sell more junk PDFs?
Let’s find out.
Calorie cycling is a systematic method of raising and lowering daily calorie intake. The specifics of how often you change and by how much are dictated by your goals and preferences.
For example, someone wanting to lose fat might maintain a calorie deficit for 5 days per week and raise intake to maintenance on the remaining 2 days to give their bodies a break.
Someone wanting to build muscle and strength while staying lean might flip this and maintain a slight calorie surplus for 5 days and use a moderate deficit on the remaining 2 days to lose the fat gained during the week.
The theory is simple enough, but does it offer any real benefits?
Yes and no.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with calorie cycling. It’s a viable dietary strategy and one I recommend in my book for advanced weightlifters, Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger.
The problem, however, is how most “gurus” present it. Like intermittent fasting, calorie cycling is often sold as a panacea for all your fat loss and muscle building woes–the “secret” to body recomposition.
This simply isn’t true. In fact, it may make you more likely to fail in your quest to get fit.
You see, calorie cycling just isn’t as universally practical as many people claim. Here’s what I mean:
Instead, you should keep it simple: maintain a moderate calorie deficit, eat plenty of protein, use plenty of resistance training and scanty amounts of cardio to maintain muscle and drive fat loss, and use the right supplements to speed up the fat loss process.
When you restrict your calories and place your body in a calorie deficit, you also impair protein synthesis. Lower protein synthesis rates means less potential muscle growth, so cycling between days of surplus and deficit as a newbie is more or less counterproductive.
Instead, you’ll do better maintaining a slight calorie surplus 7 days per week, otherwise known as “clean bulking.”
Some people will point out that you burn more energy on your training days than your rest days. If you’re going to maintain a true, steady calorie surplus of let’s say 10%, wouldn’t you need to eat quite a bit more on training days than rest days?
For example, my basal metabolic rate is about 2,100 calories. On my training days, when you take into account all physical activity, I probably burn about 2,800 calories. On my rest days, however, I probably burn somewhere around 2,500 calories.
If I were to maintain a daily calorie surplus of 10%, wouldn’t I want to eat about 3,100 calories on my training days and ~2,800 calories on my rest days?
Sure, it sounds theoretically optimal but in actual practice, I’ve found it offers no noticeable benefits over simpler, linear dieting (fixed calories/macros every day).
I’ve found it easier and just as effective to keep it simple: start your daily intake at 110% of your average total daily energy expenditure, adjust up or down until you’re gaining 0.5 to 1 pound per week (men, about half of that for women), and continue eating that amount every day. Even if you’re in a slightly larger surplus on your rest days, it doesn’t cause any noticeable difference in terms of fat storage.
By doing this you find your body’s “sweet spot” for maximizing muscle growth while minimizing fat storage–something you have to do regardless of how fancy you get in your diet planning (formulas and numbers are great but they rarely work exactly as planned because metabolisms and genetics vary).
Occasionally I do get people asking if they can reduce intake on rest days while clean bulking, usually to get a break from all the food. This is fine so long as it doesn’t slow down or stop the weight gain.
I mentioned earlier that I recommend calorie cycling in a book of mine, Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger, and now we’ll talk about why.
Based on my research and experience with my own body and working with thousands of people, I’ve concluded the following:
Calorie cycling is best suited to advanced weightlifters looking to progress in their lifts while maintaining a low body fat percentage.
And by “low,” I mean sub-10% for men and sub-20% for women.
Personally I’ve used calorie cycling and workout periodization for months at a time and hit new PRs across the board while staying around 9% body fat.
In a sense, a good calorie cycling protocol creates a “maintenance with benefits” situation where you use calorie surplus days to get a bit more out of your training and calorie deficit days to balance your weekly energy intake and prevent fat gain. On a weekly basis, you’re in a surplus much longer than a deficit, and the net effect is slow but steady “lean gains.”
This is particularly useful for people that have achieved the lion’s share of their genetic potential in terms of muscle growth and are now looking to stay lean for long periods of time while still continuing to progress in the gym.
For those people still looking to maximize strength and muscle gains, however, I wouldn’t recommend this approach. The unfortunate truth is as a natural weightlifter, you can be really lean or really strong but not both. Being “shredded” doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice all your strength, but you’re never going to be at your strongest and most anabolic when you’re really lean.
Let’s now talk about how I use calorie cycling. To take a page from my own book, here’s how it’s done:
1. Start by calculating your weekly intake target. This is simply your TDEE as calculated earlier, multiplied by 7.
2. Your caloric target on your deficit (rest) days is simply your BMR, which will put you in a mild—10 to 15% caloric deficit.
3. Break this rest day’s calories into the following macro ratios: 45% calories from protein, 25% from carbohydrates, and 30% from fats. (One gram of protein and carbohydrate both contain about 4 calories, and one gram of fat contains about 9.)
You reduce your carb intake on rest days because you simply don’t need the extra carbs, and the increased fat intake is good for increasing insulin sensitivity and boosting anabolic hormone production
4. Multiply your rest day calories by the number of weekly rest days, and subtract this from your weekly target. This is the total number of calories you will split among your training days.
5. Divide the sum by the number of weekly training days for your caloric target on your training days.
6. Break this daily caloric intake into the following macro ratios: 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, 20% of calories from fats, and the rest from carbohydrate.
7. Work your meal plan over so you hit these daily targets. To make this easier, I like to stick to the same types of foods but increase or decrease portions to fit my intake needs.
This might sound complicated, but it’s actually quite simple. Here’s an example (I round numbers up/down to keep things simple, making sure I’m not rounding all up):
Weekly Calorie Expenditure (Intake Target)
2,800 x 7 = 19,600
Rest Day Calories (BMR)
Rest Day Macros
(2,100 x 0.45) / 4 = 240 g protein
(2,100 x 0.25) / 4 = 130 g carbs
(2,100 x 0.30) / 9 = 70 g fat
My Weekly Rest Day Calories
Weekly Training Day Calories
19,600 – 4,200 = 15,400
Training Day Calories
15,400 / 5 = 3,100
Training Day Macros
190 g protein
(3,100 x 0.20) / 9 = 70 g fat
(3,100 – (190 x 4) + (70 x 9)) / 4 = 430 g carbs
(In case you’re wondering how I calculated the carbs, I simply subtracted my protein and fat calories from the daily total, and divided that by 4.)
So, all I have to do is eat 190 grams protein, 390 grams carbs, and 85 grams fat on my training days, and 240 grams protein, 130 grams carbs, and 80 grams fat on my rest days, and I will be able to not only stay lean but also continue to build muscle and strength.
A training day, by the way, is a day on which you lift. If you only do cardio or a low/moderate amount of other physical activity, treat this as a rest day (a little larger deficit won’t hurt).
Once you start cycling your calories, keep an eye on your weight and body fat percentage because you’ll likely need to tweak calories up and down some based on how your body actually responds. You’re looking to gain anywhere from 0.5 to 1 pound per month (men, half that for women) with no significant change in body fat.
Calorie cycling is a worthy addition to your dietary toolbox, even if for nothing more than the enjoyment of eating less food a couple days per week.
It’s not going to “change the game” or supercharge your gains, but it makes good sense when applied intelligently to the right goals and circumstances.