Cheater, Cheater, Cookie Eater

It happens every time I'm faced with an eager young bodybuilder determined he's going to grace the stage of the Mr. Olympia someday. He looks me right in the eyes and takes a solemn vow of "junk food abstinence." I laugh and remember my first bodybuilding competition and taking a similar vow. I swore in blood that from twelve weeks out I wouldn't eat anything other than the lean foods the wise freaks at the gym insisted were bodybuilding gospel and then gradually carb up.

That vow lasted a solid eleven weeks, then without so much as a warning, I cracked. When the dust had settled I'd gorged a super-sized Original Cookie, three sleeves of Fig Newtons, and a pound of semi-sweet chocolate chips chased down by a gallon or so of cola. Deflated and guilt stricken, I was convinced I'd blown my chances of winning the show and would now see my bloated belly transformed into baloney rolls of fat. Imagine my surprise when I woke up the next day looking ripped, pumped and veiny. It was then I realized there was much to learn.

The Rules of Cheating

Are there any "rules" to cheating? You bet there are! I find that unless bodybuilders are closely monitored, they cheat as often as a blue-chip CEO! Then they blame their mom and dad for "fat genetics." Go figure. But there is a precise science to cheating that involves insulin manipulation as much as psychological satisfaction. In lay terms, you must get your metabolism white hot, then place a cheat meal or two on the metabolism. This has the effect of throwing gas on a fire!

The following are precise strategies for the bodybuilder or competitive athlete to set up the game to win. These are guidelines for shedding an average of 1% body fat per week and keeping it off – long term! The benefits include:

Keeping your body composition within a few percent of contest-ready shape year round.

Advantageously manipulating hormones and neurotransmitters for predictable gains in strength, size and power.

The psychological advantage of "control," which I've found to be as rare as Bruno Magli wingtips amongst competitive bodybuilders.

Keep in mind that these are not the guidelines for concurrently shedding fat and gaining muscle mass, or the preferred method of longevity training for mainstream buffs. For those recommendations, see my previous Iron Dog columns or my new book entitled The Promise.


Set up twelve weekly body composition appointments on the same day and time of day with a qualified strength coach or exercise scientist. "Qualified" means at least ten years of field experience or 4000 skinfolds under his or her belt.

You're probably not going to find a qualified technician at a health club or gym. Contact your local university's exercise science department or one of T-mag's strength coaches in your local area. Another tip is that for a bodybuilder, the minimum number of skinfold sites is seven (up to thirteen for pre-contest bodybuilders). If your technician suggests otherwise, find someone else.

This step may be considered to be an outright pain in the glutes for most of you, however, those that do it will have a whopping advantage over those that don't. If there's absolutely no one around to test your body fat for you, see T-mag's article on body composition testing here.

Along with the body comp, take a full body, high-definition digital photograph. I've found this to be extremely educational and motivational in accessing muscle imbalances as well as local and global compositional changes.

For the first 28 days, sensitize the metabolism for the big cheat. Here's what to eat:

After 28 days (or whenever you're within 3% of your competition percentage) figure out your cheat meal frequency. (See below.)

Factors Influencing Cheat Meal Frequency

Training experience, individual body chemistry and your food choices will all have an influence on your cheat meal frequency. For instance, fast-twitch muscle fibers are glycolytic or glycogen dependant. The more fast-twitch your genetic composition or the thicker your type-II fibers, the more junk-food carbs you can handle without spilling over into fat. In this case you can get away with an all day pass to Krispy Kreme.

Start at a frequency of one cheat meal every seven days. Your body-fat loss should accelerate the following week. If you follow the guidelines and it doesn't, then something metabolically isn't right, i.e., the thyroid is way off, drug interactions, etc. In that case, contact a qualified sports-medicine doctor or endocrinologist.

Each week increase the cheat meal frequency by one meal (see sample schedule below) until the sum of your umbilicus, suprailliac and subscapular skinfolds increases by 1 mm or greater from the previous week. Simple add those three sites each week and compare. This slight increase indicates one cheat meal too many, so subtract one cheat meal and you'll have figured out your cheat-meal frequency.

Now your system becomes science. So for instance, when you're in a mass or strength phase switch from white proteins to red proteins like steak and whole eggs. This will provide the extra calories needed to fuel muscle growth without unwanted fat gain or the toil of counting calories. Need to trim down a bit? Just cut down the cheat frequency by one or two. You now own your metabolism! Here's a sample cheat meal schedule:

Number of cheat meals and day of week:

Week 2 – Sunday (1) and Wednesday (1) [Meaning one cheat meal on Sunday and one on Wednesday.]

Week 4 – Saturday (1), Sunday (2), Wednesday (1)

Through trial and error I've found this schedule to work best for most athletes, but there are other schedules that'll work well too, so if you have a party on a Thursday night, just swap Wednesday for party night.

Cheating Tips to Speed the Metabolism Without Spilling Over to Fat Gain

After the initial Spartan, 28-day "priming" period:

Eat food that you've been craving and don't feel guilty! Remember, you're raising your metabolic rate and refilling the muscle bellies and liver with ATP.

Consume at least 14 grams EFA's (essential fatty acids) each cheat meal.

Eat between 150-250 grams of carbohydrates per cheat meal in order to re-charge active T3 levels due to liver ATP depletion. A combination of complex and simple carbs are best, but there's no cut and dried rule here so enjoy.

Take 200 mcg chromium, 50 mg magnesium citrate, and 1 gram of vitamin C at each cheat meal. (Personal note: The addition of 1 g of the type-II diabetic drug Metformin is very helpful in increasing glucose uptake into the muscles. Read Dan Duchaine's Body Opus for details.)

Modify, but for heaven's sake, don't avoid alcohol, saturated fats or fruit consumption. All reduce insulin sensitivity somewhat but since this is a long-term approach, you gotta be real.

Leading up to cheat-meal time, maintain meal frequency.

This plan may seem a little complex, but think of it as a "thinking man's guide to cheating." Set up those skinfold appointments and have fun with those cheat meals!