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.
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