Dramatic changes often work against you and that is a big theme in the “Science Lab” seminars. For more information about how to become a Science Lab member Click the link and it will give you more details.
In my last article, I wrote about why it’s important to pay attention to how you’re performing, looking and feeling to dynamically alter the composition, timing and quantity of what you eat throughout the day. In short, I believe that diet protocols based around arbitrary macronutrient cycling neglect too many important factors to be truly useful for your average person who has a job, a family and a life outside their training. I’m not making excuses for you; I’m asking you to be realistic and to understand that no methodology can accommodate for every situation and that it pays to be flexible. You can apply these techniques across hours, days, weeks, months, even years to strike an optimal balance between anabolic and catabolic states that will allow you to perform and look your best.
The Irrationality of Modern Dieting
I’m going to assume you’re familiar with concepts like “bulking” and “cutting” as they relate to nutrition. These practices owe their roots to natural cycles that we observe in other species; bears get fat and hibernate, insects undergo metamorphosis, trees flower and then go dormant. It stands to reason that human beings might benefit from the same treatment; why not spend your winter growing bigger and stronger? You can then dedicate the summer months to stripping off the fat you’ve added and do it all over again. The problem is that the hormone fluctuation occurring in these organisms is a response to environmental changes that are reinforced over the course of several weeks or months; there is no conscious decision to become a butterfly or to produce fruit. Everything happens, like clockwork, to the rhythm of light, temperature, and energy availability.
Although it may be hard to admit, you and I are living in an artificially created reality. We’re at the top of the food chain and we no longer struggle with energy availability; we can eat as much as we can afford to, and we don’t have to kill anybody or anything for it. Some of us work night shifts and most of us probably stay up late watching television or surfing the Facebook; we don’t rely upon light and dark to tell us when to sleep or eat. We can control the temperature of our dwellings with the flick of a switch and there is never any need to pack on extra weight so that we don’t starve to death through the winter. I’m sorry to say, but the concept of seasonal bulking and cutting makes absolutely no sense in context to the way most of us live. It isn’t supported by biology and aside from a few specific situations it isn’t an optimal way to approach nutrition.
Building It Up to Break It Back Down
I keep telling you to “listen to your body” to determine whether or not the plan correlates with the reality of your nutritional requirements, or if it needs to be revised/thrown out entirely. I’ve explained to you what that means as far as a typical day goes, but the same principles can be applied over the course of many weeks to gradually direct homeostasis and build muscle/lose fat. “Wait!” you cry, “Didn’t you just say that bulking and cutting is a bunch of horse manure!?” I certainly did, but I’m not talking about spending six months systematically overfeeding yourself so that you can systematically starve yourself for the rest of the year. I’m talking about alternating periods of strategic, intuitive overfeeding with periods of maintenance eating to elicit positive feedback (muscle gain without much fat); we’re not going to do it by some arbitrary suggestion and we aren’t going to lose sight of the most important part of being an athlete; performance. In practice, performance will be a primary indicator of what exactly we’ll do with our nutrition. We’ll live by our observations of the unbeatable trifecta of autoregulation: look, feel, and performance.
General Adaptation Syndrome: Shock and Resistance
When you take a look in the mirror, reflect upon your lifts and ask yourself how things are going (“How’s life?”) and decide to embark upon a diet to either lose fat or build muscle, you’ve got to stick to your guns. The length of time required to shift your metabolism in one direction will be individual and based on hundreds of intrinsic/extrinsic factors. For the sake of hypothesis, we’ll work in a 4 week window. Initially, your body will enter a state of shock; it will do weird things and it will let you know that something’s different about the stimulus it’s receiving from the environment. While it’s necessary to create some kind of disturbance to elicit adaptation, you don’t want to overwhelm your ability to handle the stress. Start off small and work your way up/down; you can try to hurry the process by jumping the gun, but it is unnecessary and harmful in the long run.
After the initial stages of shock subside and a few weeks pass, your body will begin to react by attempting to cope with the stress of your dietary manipulation. This is the resistance stage of adaptation, where you’ll finally start to see something happening. What transpires may not exactly correlate with what you’d expected, but if you’re lucky, the feedback you receive from your body should be positive. If you’ve been overfeeding for the past few weeks, you should feel like a beast and notice some increases in muscular size and strength; if you’ve been underfeeding, you should be leaning out, your performance may stagnate or decrease, and you may be at least a little bit tired of it all. There’s also the possibility that after three weeks, you haven’t observed any changes at all. Either way, this is where things get interesting.
Homeostasis: Recovery or Exhaustion
When we’re talking about building muscle or losing fat, it’s easy to misunderstand that while they are opposite effects, they are both the result of the body’s stress response mechanism. In its own way, the process of growing is just as stressful as shrinking is. It’s the difference compared to “the norm” that counts. After the body has adapted to deal with or eliminate the stress stimulus, you have three choices; you can either begin to recover towards baseline, exhaust the system’s ability to cope and burn it all down, or you can introduce a new stimulus.
Now, it’s important to note that in the event your attempts to evoke an adaptation made no observable impact, you may have already been at the third stage when you began; it’s possible that you have already developed resistance adaptations to this particular stressor. Like it or not, reducing your caloric intake may not have done anything for you because you were already underfeeding to begin with! In contrast, there’s a chance that you didn’t gain any weight by overfeeding because you were (surprise) already overfeeding.
Let us, for the sake of our hypothesis, say that a month has passed and you’ve either adapted to the stimulus you provided by manipulating your nutrition, or you’re sitting there scratching your head as to why it didn’t work. You built some muscle and gained some strength in the big lifts, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. Perhaps your quads are starting to pop and you’ve got veins in your forearms…But you’re not exactly the spitting image of Rich Froning. What do you do next?
Putting It All Together and Moving On
You’ve got a few options, but it’s up to you to decide what’s best. You could very easily choose to keep eating how you’ve been eating for the next couple weeks and allow your body to recover and reach homeostasis. If things held steady, you could then consider the macros you’ve been eating over the past several weeks your new “maintenance” nutrition plan. From here, you could attempt to start all over again and create another shock by overfeeding/underfeeding to a greater extent. That could work, but there’s a catch; while you may adapt to a more extreme stimulus, it’s also probable that you’ve already exhausted your body’s stress response mechanisms.
Recklessly plunging deeper into a caloric deficit (especially as an athlete) or piling on the energy when you witnessed no cumulative effect over the course of four weeks could end in disaster. You could develop a metabolic disorder and waste a lot of time, money and emotional energy trying to force open a door that just won’t budge. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result”. The most productive thing you can do if this happens is to take it for what it’s worth and return to your old plan. Take a look at your performance; when was the last time you hit a PR? Was it really a good idea to try to lose more body fat when your deadlift hasn’t budged for six months? What about your physique? Could you stand to put on some muscle, or are you a little on the soft side? It may be time to reassess your entire strategy and let your metabolism heal.
What I would ultimately recommend is that you objectively analyze the progress you’ve made after 4 weeks of gradually manipulating your macros towards your goal and then establishing a new baseline. Don’t aimlessly bounce from one extreme to the next. Take a week or two to reflect and go through your checklist: determine if you look better, if your performance has rebounded or continued to improve, and if you feel like you were successful in accomplishing what you set out to do. After everything’s settled down, the next place to go is (ironically) backwards. Provided you’re ready, you’ll spend a few weeks underfeeding, mobilizing fat, improving your insulin sensitivity, leaning out and reducing inflammation only to rebound and achieve a super-compensatory anabolic state. The overfeeding period that follows will add lean mass, increase your basal metabolic rate and accelerate fat burning for the next underfeeding period.
Throughout all of this, I cannot stress enough the fact that you have to look at what’s going on in the gym, in the workplace, in your bedroom, in your head and in the mirror to plot your next course of action. It could take you far longer than 4 weeks to start seeing results from your efforts, but it could take less. You may find that longer periods of overfeeding work better for you; maybe you’re extremely active and you get wicked lean on 2 week underfeeds. The most important take away from all of this is that while human metabolism is extremely flexible, it’s still a homeostatic system influenced by dozens of factors you may not normally consider. It doesn’t always do what you want it to do; it’s not black and white, but through trial and error you can learn to hit the switch and accomplish your goals without adhering to arbitrary programming.