Calories are king for fat loss.
To achieve your leanest, strongest body & healthiest hormones and metabolism, we need to go deeper than just "overall calories".
For your hormones, metabolism, lean muscle, and to create a diet that you can stick to long enough to get the results you want, how we cycle your calories is KEY.
Today’s blog takes you through the most effective calorie cycling methods we use to help online clients build their leanest, strongest, most confident selves.
Calorie cycling is periodization of your calories within the fat loss phase - it’s something we do to ensure we're getting you to your ideal body composition in the best place possible metabolically, hormonally, and with your overall health.
Let's dive into my favorite calorie cycling methods to use with online clients ↴
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The 11|3 Macro Split
Any time we’re calorie cycling, the goals are:
1. Prevent as much metabolic & hormonal downregulation as possible. While some of this is just an inevitable part of losing weight, properly cycling calories can also help prevent these negative adaptations.
2. Help keep your training performance at a high level.
The 11/3 split is great for online clients in longer fat loss phases (>12 weeks), because it ticks both of those boxes.
So basically, on the 11/3 split you’re in a calorie deficit for 11 days. This is enough time to create a solid amount of fat loss.
This is followed by 3 days where you return your calories to maintenance levels, with the calorie increase ideally coming from carbs.
Studies seem to show that 72+ hours at maintenance like this can actually help reduce metabolic adaptation.
The increase coming from carbs is important, because the hormone Leptin is most responsive to increased carb intake.
When you start a diet and decrease calories, your body & brain sense the decrease in energy, and try to compensate by decreasing Leptin levels. When Leptin decreases, energy expenditure ALSO decreases, and hunger increases - this is one of your body's defense mechanisms to try to maintain homeostasis.
Obviously you can work through the decreased leptin levels and lose fat, but it does make things a bit more challenging. Increasing carbs - and therefore increasing leptin - is helpful because every 2 weeks, we’re offsetting some of these challenging adaptations.
From the super important “doing some shit you can actually stick to” perspective - this gives you more calories to get more flexible with every other weekend.
Personally, I DON’T like this approach for clients in a shorter fat loss phase (e.g. a client that needs <12 weeks to finish the diet). Over the course of 12 weeks, the client will have spent 18 days at maintenance - NOT losing fat, and will likely add 2-3 extra weeks in a deficit.
In situations like this, where we can achieve your desired fat loss outcomes without being TOO aggressive (generally, this means losing <1% of body weight), the best thing we can do is just get your diet done with, and get you back out of a deficit long-term, instead of dragging things out.
But again, for longer fat loss phases (>3 months), this is a smart approach.
The 5|2 Macro Split
This is my most popular macro split with online clients.
This is very similar to the 11/3 split, but on a weekly basis. 5 days in a deficit, followed by 2 days at maintenance. Again, we’re increasing calories via carbs for the Leptin boosting benefits.
Now, this split isn’t as beneficial for reducing metabolic adaptation as the 11/3 split (it seems that 2 days at maintenance is enough to stop further metabolic adaptation, but not actually reverse some of the effects like the 11/3 would), but it’s a superstar when it comes to adherence.
This split works GREAT for clients that like to enjoy their weekends a bit more, as you’ll have increased calories every weekend.
So while the 11/3 split might be “more optimal” for everyone, we have to remember that clients will ONLY get results if they can stick to their nutrition strategy. This works GREAT for clients that want be able to enjoy their weekends consistently, and lose fat at the same time.
For my online clients that need the “flexible lifestyle” to make their diet sustainable, this is my favorite prescription.
The 6|1 Macro Split
This is a great approach for online clients in shorter fat loss phases (<12 weeks), where our goal is to get the fat off of you ASAP, while maintaining your lean muscle.
Similar to the above examples, here you’re spending 6 days in a deficit, 1 day at maintenance (again with the increase in calories coming from carbs).
Unlike the 5/2 & 11/3 splits the, 6/1 split does very little to prevent metabolic adaptation (which is why it’s NOT a good fit for longer fat loss phases).
BUT, this does give you a chance to refill your muscle gylcogen stores - this will lead to better training performance, and help you maintain (or even build) more lean muscle (so it’s smart to put this immediately before or on your hardest training day of the week).
Plus, the reality of shorter diets is, you’re often in a larger deficit to get the job done on time. 1x/week to get a bit more flexible with your food choices helps a TON when it comes to sticking the diet out.
The Matador Diet
Here, you’re spending 2-3 weeks in a deficit, followed by 1-2 weeks at maintenance.
This is named after the infamous MATADOR Diet Study, that showed better results for subjects that took intermittent diet breaks, than than those that tried to continously diet for the same amount of time.
That said, it’s likely that the intermittent dieting groups improved results were a product of the dieting being “easier to stick to”, than any metabolic or hormonal magic from spending more time at maintenance.
Obviously, with perfect adherence, clients will achieve quicker fat loss results with 8 weeks straight of dieting, than they would with 4 weeks dieting, 4 weeks at maintenance.
But, for clients that have high stress OR have struggled to adhere to diets in the past, this is a great, sustainable approach. All of the time spent at maintenance helps prevent negative adaptations, and makes the diet easy to adhere to.
I most commonly use this approach for online clients in short, aggressive mini-cuts (usually 4-6 weeks in a 20-25% deficit). Here, the goal is QUICK weight loss, while still maintaining all your lean muscle.
Your “low” calorie days are paired with off days, because energy will be much lower on these days.
Your “high” calorie days are paired with training days - you’ll have more energy (meaning you’ll be able to push your training harder), and be eating more calories when your body needs it MOST to maintain muscle (post-workout).
Typically, this equates to 3-4 high days (on training days), 3-4 low days (on off days).
Protein-Sparing Modified Fast (PSMF) Days
This is a strategy that I learned about years ago from Lyle McDonald, and have seen great success implementing PSMF days with my more advanced clients. We used this exact strategy extensively in my client Rachel's transformation to photoshoot lean (CLICK HERE to read the blog that gives you her exact process and strategy).
Typically, when I make a macro adjustment for you, it'll be a reduction of ~5-10% of your weekly total calories - roughly 500-1000 calories for most clients.
Now, obviously these calorie reductions have to come from somewhere. We can either drop a 100-200 calories from every day of the week (which really bums most people out), or we can knock out that entire deficit in one day, and leave food intake the same the rest of the week.
The goal is to keep calories as low as possible, while still hitting your protein goal. Basically, you just focus on eating lean proteins and lots of veggies.
So your day could look something like:
- Fasting until noon (black coffee only)
- Meal 1: Chicken breast + lots of veggies
- Snack: Tuna mixed with non-fat cottage cheese (actually super good)
- Meal 2: Lean ground beef or turkey with seasoning, mixed with salsa and veggies
- Meal 3: Non-fat, plain Greek yogurt mixed with whey protein
Nothing magic about this approach, but it makes the diet much easier to adhere to for most people. When you nutrition coach with me, we always prioritize finding a diet you can adhere to over all else.That's how we create sustainable results.
Like everything in nutrition, the option that will work best depends on you as an individual. I’ve had online clients get great results using each of these strategies - there is no “one-size-fits-all” answer here.
The beauty of working with me as a coach is, I help you create the perfect nutrition prescription for your specific goals & lifestyle. I help you take the guesswork out of this, and finally have the confidence and structure you need in a plan to build your leanest, strongest body ever.
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