You've made it. You've reached your goal. You've got visible abs and a very lean lower back. Love handles no more!
It took a lot of effort, discipline, and time, but now you're here. So now what? What do you do when you've finished your diet? How do you transition out of a diet, without blowing it?
The Mental Shift
One of the biggest factors when ending a diet is your mindset. After a prolonged hypocaloric phase, it's instinctual to want to binge. You basically have to fight your genetic code if you want to optimize your transition.
Don't lose your momentum though. All too often I hear guys (and gals) say, "Crap! Where did all my hard work go? I dieted my ass off for 16 weeks, then one week of eating like shit and I now resemble the Michelin Man!"
Obviously, a lot of this is due to water and glycogen rebound, but you get my point. You can't go from a very restrictive diet to a very loose one and not expect to pay the price.
Having at least a rough plan for your transition can mean the difference between continuing to look awesome while you achieve your new goals, and looking like a slob while accomplishing next to nothing.
"Where do I go from here?" The answer will depend on your goals, your metabolism, and your timeline. Let's take a look at each:
Goals: If you want to gain a substantial amount of muscle in the most efficient way possible, you're going to need to delve into a hypercaloric state pretty quickly and stay there for a while.
Metabolism: Homer Simpson will have to approach the end-of-diet transition much differently than Michael Phelps will!
Timeline: If you need to be lean again soon – photo shoot, competition, Baywatch cameo, etc. – then obviously you'll need to keep things tighter than if you're going to be spending the next six months at the North Pole. Conversely, if you want to add 10 pounds of muscle before you compete again twelve months from now, keeping ripped abs for too long will only hinder your progress.
What Happens Physiologically When You Increase Calories and Carbs
When you transition from a hypocaloric state (i.e. less calories consumed than you burn via activity and metabolism) to a hyp ercaloric state (i.e. more calories consumed than you burn via activity and metabolism), a lot of cool things happen physiologically. Most of them are associated with an increase in carbohydrate intake, but calories in general are important too.
Let's look at some of these things:
Insulin: With an increase in carbohydrate intake comes an increase in the hormone insulin, which is both anti-catabolic and anabolic. But as you know, insulin is a double-edged sword. It can also pile on body fat quickly if managed improperly.
SHBG: With an increase in insulin comes a decrease in SHBG (steroid hormone binding globulin), which basically means that your body has more freely-available testosterone. More testosterone equals more muscle and less fat. Good combo!
Thyroid (metabolism): Adding calories, especially from carbohydrate, helps support optimal thyroid production. This means more efficient calorie-burning.
Serotonin: An increase in carbohydrate consumption will increase serotonin production. Serotonin is the "feel good" chemical in your brain. Who doesn't want to feel good? Carbs can be addictive though, so proceed with caution. Serotonin is like a drug, but better. There's no middle man; it's just straight feel good.
Glycogen and water: Carbohydrates are hydrophilic, meaning they attract water – approximately 4 grams water per gram of glycogen – so as you add them to your diet your body holds on to more water. So carbs not only provide better energy for training, they also help provide better leverage too (and a more cushioned muscle, which reduces the risk of injury).
Remember, carbs aren't just used for energy, but also for growth. Just because your workout uses "X" amount of carbs for energy to perform (say 40 grams, for example), that doesn't mean that 40 grams is the optimal amount of carbs needed for maximal growth. It would be more, just like protein needs are much higher than what's actually synthesized to muscle on a daily basis.
After a prolonged diet, insulin sensitivity is definitely heightened. You can eat more carbs, and have more of them go toward building muscle than you could otherwise. But this sensitivity only lasts for a while. If you boatload carbs for too long, they'll quickly end up contributing to adipose stores as well.
Insulin sensitivity is something that you can change in the short term, but not permanently (well, maybe with Indigo-3G®). If you're an FFB, a former fat boy, you still need to be judicious with carbs after your diet.
A Note On Set-Point Theory
Set-point theory is the notion that the body has an internal thermostat that regulates body weight and body fat levels, among other things.
Some believe that you can change your set point over time, like staying leaner for longer will help your body learn to "stay lean." Or, staying bigger for longer will help your body "learn" to stay big. While this may be true in some regards, there are way too many variables involved to make this a very useful tool.
But even if set-point theory doesn't hold much physiological validity, it has psychological validity. Staying at a leaner weight for a longer time teaches you about discipline and the bodybuilding lifestyle. For those who struggle with the "lean lifestyle," the lessons learned here are tremendous.
Types of Diets
Now let's look at the best ways to transition out of different types of diets:
- Carb Cycling: A carb-cycling diet typically uses high and low carbohydrate days, and possibly some moderate days as well. Deep in a diet, it's rare to have more than one, perhaps two, high days per week. To transition out of a carb-cycling diet, the basic premise is to gradually add in more high days per week, and also taper back cardio.
- Keto Diet or Targeted Keto Diet: A keto diet is basically a zero-carb diet (just protein and fat) and usually involves some sort of periodic "refeed" with carbohydrate. This is usually done about every 5 to 7 days. To transition out of a keto diet, gradually add in carbs at select times (meal one, pre and post-workout), and also reduce cardio.
- Steady State Diet: This is a diet where calories are steady day-to-day, and are gradually reduced each week or so as the diet progresses. Again, you'd gradually add carbs (and fat) in at select times while reducing cardio.
Tips For All Types of Diets
With all the diet types, you'll be increasing calories mostly from carbohydrate and focusing on special times for those carbs – usually the first meal of the day and during the peri-workout period.
You'll also want to increase calories with higher fats. Focus on a good mix of monounsaturates, essential fatty acids, and high quality saturates like grassfed beef and wild-caught salmon.
Greater meal frequency is another useful method. Simple add an extra meal or two per day.
Nighttime feedings can also be a very effective way to add calories for growth. A protein shake (2-3 scoops of Metabolic Drive®) with a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil or macadamia nut oil would be perfect.
If you're hell-bent on amassing the most muscle possible in the shortest amount of time, cardio can be counter-productive to your goals.
For mass freaks, I recommend keeping it to bare minimum: no cardio if you have at least a good metabolism. But, don't screw off on your diet in the offseason!
For those who want to stay leaner (and slightly compromise the speed of muscle gains), then keeping in some cardio while growing is probably a good idea. The amount will depend on your metabolism, your specific goals, and how your diet is set up.
Most will do at least three sessions per week, 20-30 minutes each. These should be moderate intensity primarily, though one high-intensity interval session per week in the offseason is probably a good idea, especially for natural trainers.
Some guys "love" cardio and will do five or more sessions per week in the offseason, around 30 minutes each. These guys look better year round, but usually don't change too much year to year.
If you've been using a lot of fat burners, it would be wise to wean off of them as you transition out of your fat loss diet. Something along the lines of reducing by 50% for one week, then reducing that again in half for a second week, then going completely off.
This will give your adrenals a break, and also allow your body to "de-acclimatize" to the fat burners so the next time you diet they'll be effective again.
This would also be a good time to introduce some special peri-workout nutrition now that calories and carbs are higher. Supplements like Mag-10®, BCAAs, FINiBAR™, and Indigo-3G® are all excellent additions.
Putting It All Together
- Assess your goals and mentality. (Do you want to stay lean?)
- Assess your metabolism. (Do you put fat on easily?)
- Put together a rough game-plan. (Adding in calories at strategic times, reducing cardio to a comfortable level that's consistent with your goals.)
- Implement your plan, monitor using pics, bodyweight, training (strength, energy, etc.), and adjust as necessary to keep progressing towards your goals.
With the right plan and some discipline, you can end your diet, avoid unnecessary fat gain, and be ready to conquer your next bodybuilding goal!