Reverse Dieting for Strength: Eat More, Build Muscle, and Burn Fat?

What is Chronic Dieting?

I am as guilty as anyone, spending a good chunk of my adult life obsessing about getting lean and toned. Along the way, I made countless mistakes: over restricting calories, spending 2+ hours per day on the elliptical, cutting sugar and all grains (cutting all carbs except vegetables, actually); all because I was convinced by magazines and diet books that this was THE way to get the body I wanted! Despite the fact I knew these methods were completely unsustainable, I convinced myself if I could just get lean, I’d figure out a way to say there. As you can guess, I was so wrong.

I’ll be honest, when starting a new diet, it’s kind of fun to prepare, commit, and see the scale drop week after week. Then, just when you think you have found the secret, you have everything figured out, and life is good, your body stops cooperating and your weight plateaus. See, we’re not meant to be in a caloric deficit for long; our bodies actually have multiple, built-in mechanism to protect against weight loss. Dieting is also incredible fatiguing, both on the body and the mind, often resulting in increased cortisol levels which disrupt a myriad of hormonal balances. Now imagine putting your body through this hell of stress over and over again all year long and you are now an official chronic dieter.

We all know at least one chronic dieter in our lives. They are the ones that are typically concerned with being lean while simultaneously wanting to build muscle and gain strength (I am allowed to say this because I used to be one of them). Now, from the outside looking in, it is easy to see what the issue is. It should go without saying that in order to get as strong as possible, you need to eat in a calorie surplus. Can you get strong while dieting? Yes, to a point, but it’s not optimal.

So what is a chronic dieter? A chronic dieter is someone who is always on a diet every time you talk to them. They spend more than 75% of the year in a calorie deficit, often jumping from one diet to the next, fad-diet or not. Their main concern in life is to be shredded and lean.
Now I’m not saying it’s bad to cut weight, but if strength is your primary concern you want to spend the majority of time in a calorie surplus. This type of environment allows for your body to meet all of its daily activities (i.e. digestion, respiration, hormone secretion, etc.), then shuttle any extra nutrients towards protein synthesis in your muscles.

What is Reverse Dieting

Ironically, it wasn’t until I quit restricting my diet and obsessing over my progress – or lack thereof – that I was finally able to see a change in my physique. I stopped fighting against my body and took a shot at reverse dieting, a process by which calories are slowly increased back into the diet over a long period of time.

The opposite of reverse dieting would be the typical yo-yo diet method, where one heavily restricts calories, immediately loses a bunch of weight (of which, an undesirable amount comes from lean body mass), then plateaus, throws in the towel due to fatigue and depression, then immediately falls back to pre-diet eating habits. You can guess what happens next because you’ve seen it a million times: the dieter will then gain all or even more of the weight that was lost back, but this time their body composition is even worse. Why does this happen? Because your body doesn’t have enough time to adjust and process the excess calories after such a drastic calorie deficit. Your metabolism is so slow and broken that it has no ability to handle all the excess calories, so it stores them as fat.

Reverse dieting works to counteract this yo-yo dieting effect. The primary goal of this method is to bring your impaired, post-diet metabolism back up to speed, but it also offers a host of other benefits that can help you both mentally and physically.

When you see the term reverse dieting you might just think it involves eating more, but it’s a bit more nuanced than that. It doesn’t’ mean you should down bagels and doughnuts and jars of peanut butter until you no longer feel deprived. Rather, you increase calories strategically and in a planned fashion so that you give your metabolism ample time to adjust. Again, the point of this method is to increase your slow (and very efficient) metabolism, so that you don’t have to continue eating sub-1600 calories per day for the rest of your life.

The rate of increase in calories should be no more than 100 calories per week. This might seem like a very slow increase to you, especially after being deprived for so long this might seem impossible to you, but it is essential! If you’ve ever switched overnight from a caloric deprivation into an extended smorgasbord, (i.e. the typical yo-yo dieter), you now know why this rate needs to be so slow.

Again, your metabolism is so slow after a strict diet, that constantly grazing can lead to some serious fat gain in a short period of time. Reverse dieting, on the other hand, can help you experience not only an increased metabolic rate but also so serious muscle building, hypertrophy effects. If you plan it just right, you can enjoy eating more and building lean muscle, all while staying relatively lean through the process.

Now, you’re probably thinking, I’m sure this method works great for ripped 20-year-old guys who spend 4 hours in the gym every day, but there’s no way this will work for me… Well, I have news for you, a reverse diet can work great for anyone who falls into one or more of the following categories:
You have been strictly dieting on very low calories for a very long time and you are no longer seeing fat loss results (i.e. sedentary job, exercise 2-3X per week)

Your metabolism is so slow and wrecked that you can’t cut a single calorie more or exercise for a single minute more without falling over dead (i.e. treadmill bunnies, endurance athletes)

You train hard, but still feel low energy and fatigue during the day (i.e. CrossFitters and other Strength Athletes)
You hate your diet, your motivation is at an all-time low and your workouts feel like a torture session (i.e. Physique and Bodybuilder competitors)
Reverse dieting has been found to successfully repair metabolisms that have been severely damaged by chronic dieting, overexercising, or a combination of both.

Maybe you have never actively “dieted” a day in your life, you are above that, but instead, you are on the “Paleo” or “Low Carb” bandwagon. You should still understand that these methods of eating can be very restricted and lead to a decreased metabolic rate over time. This is especially important for women to understand: if you have been chronically eating Paleo or Low-carb, you are most likely seeing some negative side effects such as reduced energy, fatigue, even a loss of your menstrual cycle These are all red flags that your body is downregulating a lot of necessary bodily functions that are designed to keep you energetic, happy and fruitful.

If you can relate to one or more of the examples above, it would behoove you to learn about reverse dieting and perhaps begin experimenting with it so you, too can start to see it benefits.

How to Eat More Food

Self-explanatory, yes, but just a bit more food each day can have a profound effect on your mind and physical energy levels. Suddenly, there’s no more worrying about when and where your next meal is going to come from. You can go to lunch with friends, attend a dinner party, and even go to a summer BBQ without worrying about deviating from your perfectly portioned meal plan.

Worry leads to Stress, which leads to Fatigue, which results in Misery & Unhappiness

Eliminate the worry, and suddenly you are a happy, energetic human being again! When I was dieting, I dreaded going out with friends because it was simply a test of willpower – could I resist the bread bowl, a big dinner, drinks, and decadent dessert? It was a situation I ended up completely avoiding because I wasn’t willing to screw up all my hard work.

You begin to think that you are above everyone else because you are sacrificing so much to live this lifestyle. But after a while, living in a deficit, while training to extremes, going to work, and trying to maintain your relationships, is hard work and eventually wears you down. Once I began to reverse dieting, life was no longer about deprivation and, instead, was more about freedom, adventure, relaxation, and moderation. Shifting your mindset out of a deprived state gives you the ability to relax around food quality and quantity and, in return, helps you think less about food. Reverse dieting gives you the ability to eat to the point of satisfaction, then be done with it!

Focus On Other Things Besides Food

Once you start transitioning out of a calorie deficit, you begin to eat more, which literally mean more energy! When you provide your body with an increased amount of energy, you can now focus on training, work and your relationships with newfound motivation. No longer was I dragging my feet all day, avoiding small talk with coworkers, feeling annoyed with guests at the house, fighting hunger pangs and fatigue – instead I was approaching these things with so much energy and motivation that my boyfriend literally asked, “what have you done with Stesha?”

Mentally, the transformation was even more pronounced. See when you cut carbs (which usually occurs when people try to diet), you cut glucose, which means fuel for your brain and nervous system suffers the most. As little as a week after adding in more carbohydrates, I noticed my patience and open-mindedness went through the roof. I was more focused and laid back and actually looked forward to social gatherings with friends and family. I found myself in a better mood, and I was much more talkative and pleasant to be around. In short, I felt like myself again…

Adopt an Abundance Mindset

After restricting food for what seems like 10 years, I was terrified of giving it up. I thought that, if I can’t lose weight at the number of calories I was eating now, imagine if I were to increase them – I’d gain weight like crazy! I thought that I was an exception to the rule – a victim. I thought that genetically I had a slow metabolism and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Well, I was exactly right! Except my metabolism wasn’t naturally slow, I trained it to be that slow. I was also terrified of what people might think if I were to gain weight, such as I was:

“losing control”,
“didn’t know what I was doing”,
“gave up”,
“unworthy of love and friendship”.

Yes, this is the thought process I was having in my head.

But you know, those remarks never ever came, instead, they were all created in my head as a false-reality. To the contrary, what actually happened, is that my boyfriend and friends were extremely relieved that I had come out of my coma and now allowed myself to have a good time and enjoy food again. They embraced that fact that I was able to join them and enjoy a common experience over a meal together.

The process of reverse dieting has actually made me realize that there is only one person that truly cares about my size: and, well, that person would be me. It wasn’t until I fully understood this and saw proof in it, that I was truly able to adopt an abundant mindset towards life and heal my chronically deprived attitude towards food and fun.

How to Train For Performance

Traditionally when I trained, the sole purpose was to burn off the calories that I ate that day – the more the better. At my most, I think I was attending 3 group classes at the gym plus even more time on the elliptical after that. To really top it off, I’d try to go the entire time without eating anything, I’d imagine my fat cells burning and providing my body with the necessary energy to get through my workouts.

As you can imagine, this level of extreme volume on a low calorie, low-carb diet produced some significant fat loss results, at first; but it eventually leads to fatigue and a plateau in weight loss. The fact that I continued this for 6 months is really spectacular…I primed my body to survive on minimal calories, perform a shit ton of work, and store everything. Unfortunately, my body composition began to resemble that of a “soft” runner. There was no glycogen in my muscles and I looked flat and un-athletic. I started to resent working out, yet, at the same time, terrified of giving it up and gaining weight.

When I slowly began to add calories back in, I quickly realized that I hadn’t been giving my body enough fuel. It was like a light bulb went off and I was in disbelief of how I was treating myself. Instead of just going through the motions, I quickly began to shift my mindset from burning calories to increasing strength. Suddenly pull-ups, dips, and heavy squats were my main focus, rather than wasting 2 hours on the elliptical.
As I increased my carb intake, I began to see my muscles fill out overnight – I enjoyed looking in the mirror and seeing the results of my hard work – I was motivated to continue working out and eating more! As a strength-oriented athlete, you know from experience that training for hypertrophy and strength is way more fun than wasting away on the treadmill – you get to eat more, set new PRs, and witness your body’s ability to do amazing things.

How to Stay Lean:

Now that you are well-versed in some of the benefits that will arise from reverse dieting, you should also know that slowly increasing your caloric intake while simultaneously increasing the volume of resistance training, will lead to optimal levels of muscle hypertrophy unique to this period of dieting transition. When you are increasing your calories coming out of a restrictive diet, your body’s instinct is to store those calories! However, if you are lifting weights and eating plenty of lean protein, your body will store those extra calories as muscle tissue, and it is quick to do so!

I have found that this is one of the most optimal times to add lean muscle mass to your body with minimal fat gain. It is far more effective at helping you stay lean that training solely for fat loss. By giving your body the fuel it needs, it will reward your hard training with fat-burning, lean muscle.
You deserve to experience the results your training has to offer. By adding in some calories back to your diet, you will see that both the quality of your workouts, body composition and life soar through the roof!