Training Board is…

Training Board is basically my gym notebook.

In theory, I can also blog in a more public spirited way about weightlifting, nutrition, weight loss, etc. But mostly, I just use this blog to track my workouts. And surfing.

If anything I have posted seems useful to you, let me know with a comment.

About Me

I'm a level I "sports performance certified" USAW coach, and I train, and work as a trainer at Asheville Strength and Conditioning, a great little gym here in Asheville, N.C.

I work with clients who want to get strong and fit, and am especially happy with helping older or detrained individuals.

My own training now is more focused on developing strength and using basic lifts and classic strength and conditioning techniques. A lot of the older portions of this blog deal with CrossFit and reflect my journey into fitness self-awareness. I first discovered CrossFit, back in late 2008. I learned a lot from CrossFit's "fitness as sport" model of training -- and benefited tremendously from training with my friends at CrossFit Asheville -- and furthermore I must credit my interest in CrossFit for opening my eyes to the larger world of training for strength athletics, Olympic-style weightlifting, powerlifting, and other arcane approaches to moving the Iron around.

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Health Reports • October 25, 2009, at 11:21 am

My Experiment with Calorie Cycling

At the close of four more weeks on the “Never on a School Night Plan,” I want to reflect, very briefly, on how my program is going, but only with respect to my calorie cycling and body composition goals. Everything else remains on target, but this is the one area that requires monitoring and analysis so that I don’t go astray. (For my most recent report on this plan, see my blog of Sep. 27th; for the original plan, see my post of Aug. 23rd).

Calorie Cycling and Body Composition

For about 9 weeks I have been experimenting with consciously cycling my average daily calorie intake. The idea is to try three week cycles, two weeks of higher calories followed by one week of lower calories. The hope is that this program will allow me to build lean mass and lose fat, while my weight cycles up and down between 175 and 180 lbs.

At the beginning of this process (the weigh in on Aug. 22nd), I weighed 182.0 lbs, and clocked in at 13% body fat. Today, I weighed in at 177.5 lbs, with 12% body fat. This is excellent news, since it allows me to demonstrate the effectiveness of my program over the nine week period. It hasn’t been a straight line, but the trend is clear. If you want to see the ups and downs, take a look at my weight chart.

During the past nine weeks, my overall average daily calorie intake has been around 3140 calories, which is about 140 calories more per day than it would be were I always to hit the middle of the defined ranges for two weeks of building (3000-3200 calories, i.e. 3100 per day) and one week of cutting (2700-2900 calories, i.e. 2800 per day).

That said, during that same period, even though I was over my target calorie amount, I lost mass, averaging a -0.1 lb. change per week. At the same time, I have averaged a +0.1 lb. gain in lean mass per week on this program, simultaneous with a -0.2 lb. loss in fat.

This is really good news as far as my long term goals go. If I can sustain these averages, I will likely reach my targets for body composition by June (around 175 lbs and 10% body fat).

Am I Really “Calorie Cycling”?

The truth is, I have only sort-of followed the intended pattern of cycling.

For instance, last week was supposed to be a “cutting” week, but my average calories were in the “building” range, unchanged from the week before. I missed my target every day, and ended high for the week.

Nevertheless, week to week I have managed to vary my average daily calorie intake. In the past nine weeks I have indeed had three weeks in which my average daily calorie intake was less than the overall average and one week that was quite close to the overall average (weeks ending: Aug. 29th, average 2760 cals/day; Sep. 12th, avg. 3080 cal/day; Sep. 19th, 3100 cal/day; Oct. 3rd, avg. 2645 cal/day).

Do I Need New Target Ranges for the Cycle?

It seems clear is that I am very close to a working formula and my target ranges are quite close to where they should be.

I think that I probably need just to bump up my building week averages slightly, and drop down my cutting week averages slightly, so that I am working on a 6-week average daily calorie intake of approximately 3200 cals/day.

What I am thinking is to redefine “cutting” and “building” ranges as follows: from now on “Cutting” will be 2750-2950 cals/day (i.e. 2850) and “Building” will be 3250-3450 cals/day (i.e. 3350), resulting in a six week average (assuming I meet these target ranges) of 3183 cals/day. These totals may need to creep up slightly as I add muscle mass.

Why Do I Think Calorie Cycling Might Work?

It might be worth it to say one word or two about why I think cycling calories might work for my goals, which is to simultaneously cut fat and build muscle.

Most sources of information suggest that you really CAN’T build muscle and lose fat at the same time, but that you have to cycle between periods of building and periods of cutting.

Some trainers suggest madcap, almost daily modification of diet, offering plans where you have, for instance, three different dietary modes eaten on different days depending on your training schedule (e.g. Kelly Baggett at Bodybuilding.com).

Other trainers embark on extended building phases, where heavy eating combined with heavy lifting leads to new muscle growth, and then add rapid cutting phases, where, if they are lucky, they shed the fat but not the new muscle they’ve built. This is the standard competitive bodybuilding approach.

Some websites suggest that “carb-cycling” is the way to go. You eat low-carb most of the time, and then high carb sometimes, and this burns the fat but builds muscle. For example, see this article on Squidoo.com.

Some guy named Dave Vower argues that you should just eat lots of small meals per day as the way to build muscle and lose fat, while maintaining a 40% carb, 40% protein, 20% fat macro-nutrient content to your food. This just sounds like a too-low fat, too high-carb version of the Zone diet to me.

Overall, I think that the most interesting theory about simultaneous muscle building and fat loss is the notion that short-term calorie cycling tricks your body into burning excess fat on lower calorie days, while giving your body a chance to build new muscle with the extra calories on higher calorie days. Some people attribute this to a hormonal response to rapid changes in calorie levels (the hormone in question being Leptin). One article on the subject that is pretty interesting is by Doug Lawrenson on MuscleandStrength.com. Lawrenson argues for either a weekly anything goes cheat day or for a three day cycling period, with a low, medium, and high calorie in sequence, jumping 300 calories per day.

As with all these things, you gotta take everybody’s plans with a grain of salt.

My Calorie Cycling: A Modest Hypothesis, A Moderate Approach

My basic plan is to allow my body weight to cycle up and down, anywhere between 180 and 175, and hope that body composition improves because of my good nutritional foundation (Paleo-Zone) and good workout techniques (CrossFit!).

I hope that when I eat higher calories during “building weeks”, I build lean mass, because of my lifting and met-con training routine (CrossFit). And I hope that when eat lower calories during “cutting weeks,” I drop fat mass because of the quality of my nutrition (Flexible-Paleo-Zone).

All the while I am monitoring my progress to make sure I don’t regress in terms of body composition. If I do start regressing in body composition, then I will have to really reconsider this whole routine. And if this routine proves NOT to allow for progress in body composition over the long term (looking at my results after 24 weeks, for example), then I will just abandon it. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

4 comments to My Experiment with Calorie Cycling

  • Hi Matt! I like a good experiment so I appreciate all the effort you’re putting into this one. Couple questions/comments though.

    1. How did you decide on the calorie intake? and the 2.5x fat?
    2. Oct 25 entry on your chart seems to have a typo 13% BF ? Should be 12% as you mention above?
    3. Based on your weigh in date, and your last measurement, it appears that you are losing lean body mass. 0.87*182 = 158.3 lbs in August. Now, .88*177.5=156.2 lbs. So it looks to me like your are losing fat and muscle at nearly an equal rate. Am i missing something?

    Cheers! and thanks for putting so much effort into documenting all of this. Steve

    • No Steve, you’re not missing anything. It should be 12% on Oct. 25th, that was where I was at. I’ll fix that.

      I totally messed up my math when I was looking at average gain and loss… I used a calculation based on the wrong column in my spreadsheet. Basically, I looked at the average of the change, week to week, in lean mass, and I saw an average of +.1, but this was an average of delta, of change. There were weeks where I measured a positive lean mass gain… enough weeks to put the average change in the positive. The problem is most likely my scale… which only measures body fat changes by the whole percentage point. For me, I have to lose 1.8 pounds of fat before a percentage point changes. And while I lose that fat, the scale basically reads it as equal body fat and muscle loss.

      I have to refigure all these numbers. :-( There’s no doubt that I have lost muscle mass along the way.

      But at this point, my sole intention is to drop fat and gain muscle, so I am trying to fine tune my diet to get where I want to be.

      I arrived at the calorie totals from basically trial and error. I go a little hot on protein, eating more than 1 g per pound of lean mass daily. Maybe I shouldn’t do that? Anyway, I usually eat protein and carbs in a 3:4 ratio, but sometimes I go colder on carbs, and eat them in a 1:1 ratio. Then I add fats to get to a calorie range where I maintain weight and feel good. But the truth is, for instance, this week, I’m not meeting those calorie goals. My body is telling me they are too high.

      So all of this is in flux.

      I’d love your further thoughts.

  • More thoughts on this:

    Steve, you were right to be confused, but I solved the mystery.

    It’s true that in the range I specified (Aug. 22nd to Oct. 25th), I had apparently lost lean mass. But overall, I’m gaining lean mass. I measured 9 weeks of change, lined up with the dates.

    That means that the first item in the list of changes was change from the previous week!

    The previous week, Aug. 15th, I had measured bodyweight at 178.5 and lean mass of 155.3.

    Then, on Oct. 25th, I weighed in at 177.5, one pound less, with lean mass of 156.2, 0.9 pounds more.

    That was the figure I was really working with, and it explains how I had somehow apparently lost lean mass from Aug. 22nd to Oct. 25th, but reported an average change in lean mass of +0.1.

    Myself, I often get confused by lean mass readings, because a difference of 2-4 pounds is a normal variation in terms of your daily bodyweight. Sometimes the scale reads a little high (maybe the bowels are full, or water retention is higher), sometimes the scale is a little low (maybe I’m dehydrated, or haven’t eaten much that day). But that sort of variation in pounds measured on the scale is usually NOT correlated a meaningful variation in lean mass found on the body.

    Obviously, I weighed a little high on Aug. 22nd, at 182, since I was 178.5 on the 15th, and then was 178 on the 29th.

    No way did I “gain” three and a half pounds one week, and then “lose” four pounds the next. No way I was actually “gaining” and then “losing” three whole pounds of lean mass. That’s why I always emphasize… it’s the trend we must look at, and the averages of many points of data.

    Friends tell me: hey “I lost three pounds last week,” and I say, hey, “I lost three pounds TODAY.”

    The real question is: how does what you weigh right now compare to what you weighed a year ago today? or six months ago?

  • Matt – well if we go back 6 months on YOUR data, there’s not doubt you’ve been doing something right! I’ll just tell you what my experience has been in this area. Very simply, if my calorie deficit was too great, i lost fat and muscle, if it was “moderate”, i was able to gain some muscle and lose some fat over a 8 week period. BUT, kinda small changes even though i was doing the dunk test. Specifically I saw 2.6 lbs muscle gain and 1.7 lbs fat lost. But, before that i was losing muscle and fat (straight PZ) and after that i was gaining fat and muscle (PZ with too many nuts i think) That was 6 months ago and i don’t think i’ve made substantial progress since then – so don’t think I know what i’m doing in this realm either. Like U, i got from ~ 15% to ~8% really fast just doing PZ and adding some fats as i got leaner (standard recipe). Growing muscle, on a diet that does not grow fat (or even reduces it), seems really difficult. Your efforts are inspiring me though! And again, thanks for documenting things! Steve

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hi mom!