When I use reverse dieting to transition back into my offseason, I slowly add macros back into my diet while also slowly minimizing the amount of cardio. Although this sounds easy, it’s honestly very hard to do and I have to remind myself to take it slowly. Reverse dieting is often recommended for bodybuilders and physique athletes to prevent binge eating after a show. I know that I need to reverse diet in order to avoid overeating all of the food I’ve been dreaming about for so many weeks. It’s not a bad thing to indulge in some post show treats, but you don’t want to completely throw your show diet and cardio out the window. Stopping cold turkey can put a lot of strain on your body and can have some very negative side effects.
The problem is if you go way too far off the deep end—a planned cheat meal here and there turns into non-stop eating of large surpluses of food throughout the week after the show. Once you fill the muscles up after a few meals, you will quickly start to spill over into the fat cell. I have seen people in the week after a show put on 10-20 lb! Yes, some of it is water weight, but a good amount of it is fat. After a show, your metabolism has slowed down from dieting for several weeks and it has difficulty processing excess calories, so it stores a lot of the calories as fat. This is also known as a post-show rebound weight gain, which many competitors experience. Don’t undo all of your hard work and put on several pounds of unnecessary fat. One, it’s hard on your body to gain weight that quickly, and two, your next show prep will be even longer if you put on more weight than your pre prep starting weight.
Another thing to be wary of is sodium intake. Most people minimize their sodium intake during the dieting phase and many people remove sodium entirely from their diet the week leading up to the show. Some people also water load, remove water, take water pills, etc. Once the show is done, they hardly drink any water and their sodium intake skyrockets through the roof. The change from consuming very little sodium to taking in excessive amounts of sodium is very hard on the kidneys. This can cause severe water retention, or edema, in the tissues of the body. Edema is especially common in the feet, ankles, and legs. In these cases, your legs appear puffy while you may also feel tightness and possibly some pain in those regions. There are a couple ways to help alleviate the excess edema:
• Keep your feet elevated.
• Avoid standing/sitting for a long period of time.
• Get some cardio in to help remove excess water from your body.
• Slowly implement sodium back into your diet.
Reverse dieting is a slow and methodical process. You must be patient, and you must understand that weight and fat are not always one and the same. Extra calories can result in modest weight gain, but you are not going to gain fat eating under your maintenance calories. Instead, this added weight gain, if any, will be intracellular water retention, otherwise known as muscle glycogen.
This is good weight. It is fuel for your muscles. It will boost your energy in the gym and help increase your strength, and it will make your muscles feel fuller. If there is an increase in weight, it usually happens the first couple of days after increasing your calories and then levels off and starts decreasing again toward the end of the week. Weigh yourself, but pay closer attention to the way you look and feel. If you notice that you’re looking puffy and your weight is dramatically increasing, check to see if your calories or sodium intake is too high. You can’t just jump back into full offseason within a couple days, just as you didn’t get show lean in a couple days either. If you take your time, your post show weight gain won’t be all fat and your body will return to homeostasis sooner as it won’t be struggling to tolerate the excess calories or sodium.
Reverse dieting works—and works well. It’s important because it will restore a slowed down metabolism; it will fill the muscles back out and start to repair lost muscle, making for a much more appealing physique; and it will keep you lean in the offseason so you don’t have to diet so long and hard next time. Although competitors don’t need to be “lean” in their offseason, most would benefit by being within 20 lb. of their stage weight. I personally try not to be more than 15 lb. above my stage weight because I’m taller than the average bikini competitor. (Most are about 10 lb. above stage weight in their offseason.) You might find some top bodybuilders and classic physique competitors out there who are 30+ lb. over stage weight in the offseason, but they are more often than not being monitored by a nutrition coach.
I’ve found that the best approach to reverse dieting has been to:
1. Slowly add calories and sodium back in to my diet.
2. Consume enough water to keep my body hydrated.
3. Get in regular exercise.
4. Slowly decrease my cardio.
I’ve noticed it takes about two to three weeks for my body to fully return to its offseason set point. At this time I no longer have to do any cardio, I can consume my two daily mass gainer shakes and larger amounts of calories, and sodium intake no longer affects my body negatively. So talk to your coach before you implement a new program and be kind and patient with your body. Giving your body time to heal after a show will allow you to compete for a long time down the road. You’ll come back stronger and your offseason can be an improvement season instead of “lose excessive fat gained” season.