This article is from the new second edition of my bestselling fitness book for experienced weightlifters, Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger, which is now live everywhere you can buy books online.
Key Takeaways Calorie cycling is a method of dieting that involves planned increases and decreases in calorie intake throughout the week, typically by eating more or less carbohydrates. Calorie cycling can make it easier to get and stay extremely lean and gain muscle and strength with minimal fat gain, but it doesn’t have any special fat-burning or muscle-building advantages. For calorie cycling to work, you also need to set and track your calories correctly and follow a calorie cycling meal plan (which you’ll learn how to do in this article).
If you’re a savvy gymgoer who’s rightfully skeptical of, uh, everything you hear, see, and read about getting and staying fit, that sounds like another fitness gewgaw for tricking people into buying useless pills, powders, and PDFs.
And you’d be at least partially right.
Many “gurus” sell calorie cycling as a magic bullet of sorts, a way to “hack” your metabolism and supercharge fat loss while protecting your body against the ravages of “starvation mode.”
Others bill it as a more intelligent and effective application of traditional bodybuilding “bulking” principles, a way to gain lean muscle while staying ripped, and even the “secret” to building muscle and losing fat at the same time.
And none of that’s true.
Calorie cycling isn’t going to deliver you to the promised land, and if you’re a beginner or intermediate weightlifter (up to 4 years of proper eating and training), all you’re going to get from the bargain is complexified meal planning and prepping.
If you’re an advanced weightlifter, however, calorie cycling deserves a spot in your toolbox. When applied intelligently, it can help you minimize fat gain while lean bulking and comfortably maintain low levels of body fat for long periods of time.
What Is Calorie Cycling?
Calorie cycling is a method of eating that involves planned increases and decreases in calorie intake, usually by eating more or less carbohydrates.
There are many calorie cycling protocols to choose from, but most alternate between high-, medium-, and low-calorie days throughout the week.
On high-calorie days, you typically consume more calories than you burn. On medium-calorie days, you typically consume as many calories as you burn. On low-calorie days, you typically consume fewer calories than you burn.
The exact mix of your high-, medium-, and low-calorie days depends on your goals and preferences.
For example, if you want to lose fat, you could maintain a calorie deficit for five days per week, and eat at maintenance on the remaining two days to give your body a break. As an advanced weightlifter, this can help with muscle retention as you get leaner, especially if you’re dieting to very low levels of body fat.
If you want to gain muscle and strength while minimizing fat gain, you can flip this layout around and maintain a slight calorie surplus five days per week, and eat at maintenance or even a deficit on the remaining two days of the week.
Proponents of calorie cycling claim it’s superior to traditional dieting in several meaningful ways, including faster fat loss and muscle gain and fewer unwanted side effects when cutting and lean bulking.
Unfortunately, it’s not that cut-and-dried.
Calorie cycling is a minor improvement over the norm for some people under some circumstances, but definitely not a breakthrough in diet and nutrition.
Let’s start by looking at how calorie cycling affects weight loss, which is its most powerful draw.
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Why Do People Use Calorie Cycling?
The primary reason people use calorie cycling is they’ve heard it’s far superior to conventional bodybuilding diets that have you sustain calorie surpluses and deficits for long periods of time.
With calorie cycling, people usually hope to accomplish one of three things:
Drastically increase fat loss by boosting your metabolism, reducing hunger, and improving your workouts Build muscle and lose fat at the same time by maximizing muscle gain for several days and then fat loss for several, with the fat loss outpacing the fat gain over time Make steady muscle and strength gains while staying very lean
Unfortunately, it’s not that cut-and-dried. While not entirely off-base, such promises overstate reality, which is that calorie cycling is a minor improvement over the norm for some people under some circumstances, not a breakthrough innovation set to disrupt the status quo of diet and nutrition.
Let’s start by looking at how calorie cycling affects weight loss, which is its most powerful draw.
Is Calorie Cycling Good for Weight Loss?
As you know, any diet that has you maintain a calorie deficit over an extended period will cause weight loss, regardless of when and how you consume those calories.
According to some people, calorie cycling augments calorie restriction by boosting your metabolism and fat burning, resulting in more fat loss.
This is hogwash.
To understand why … you first have to understand what happens at a cellular level when you lose fat.
When you restrict your calories for fat loss, several chemical, hormonal, and metabolic changes take place in your body. Chief among these fluctuations is a drop in a hormone produced by body fat known as leptin.
This drop-in leptin underlies the constellation of side effects associated with dieting known as metabolic adaptation, or more inaccurately, metabolic damage.
Leptin plays an important role in many bodily functions, but its main job is to keep the brain alert to how much energy is available for survival. The brain pays close attention to the relationship between the energy burned through basic metabolic function and activity and the calories available from food and body fat.
In the short-term (hours, days), leptin rises and falls based on your daily calorie intake (especially your carb intake).
It increases after you’ve eaten a meal and energy is plentiful, signaling your brain to reduce hunger, increase physical activity levels, and maintain a high metabolic rate; and it decreases as the energy provided by a meal begins to run out and body fat must be tapped, signalling the need for more food.
In the long term (weeks, months, years), leptin rises and falls based on your body fat percentage. When body fat levels are high, leptin levels are high, and your brain responds by bolstering fullness after meals, physical activity levels, and metabolic rate.
When leptin levels are low and remain so for at least several days, as they do when dieting, this sends a strong signal to the brain that it should take measures to increase food intake and conserve energy.
You’ve likely experienced this firsthand. In the early stages of dieting—the first three to five weeks for most people—it’s duck soup. The scale keeps ticking downward, your waist keeps shrinking inward, you’re rarely hungry, and you feel like your normal self.
Sometime around the two-month mark, though, you begin to feel “it”—the bodybuilding equivalent of “bonking.” Your energy levels, motivation to train, and dietary compliance start to sag, and your hunger, cravings, and irritability spike.
As far as your body’s concerned, you’re starving to death, and it’s ready to fight hammer and tongs to survive. And its prime directive has become to eliminate the calorie deficit.
Sadly, this is something you can only manage, not cure. So long as you’re dieting, your body is going to resist your efforts to get leaner.
Now for the good news: When you eat more, leptin levels rise, and you feel like someone “turned the lights back on.” In a sense, that’s what’s happening—your body is “rewarding” you for shrinking or erasing the calorie deficit it perceives as a threat to its survival.
Once you’ve stopped dieting altogether, your leptin levels will be lower than they were when your body fat levels were higher, but they can still be high enough for you to feel healthy and vital again.
That’s true of the lower body fat levels people pursue for “aesthetics”—10 to 15% for men and 20 to 25% for women. At such levels of body fat, leptin production stabilizes, creating a new normal or settling point, as scientists call it. As long as you stay sufficiently active and eat plenty of nutritious foods, you can maintain such a physique with relative ease.
What if you want to plumb the lowest levels of body fatness, though?
What if you want to get “shredded”?
You know, sub-10% body fat for men and sub-20% for women?
This is different and more difficult territory, the stuff of low-leptin bugbears. Once your body fat reaches these levels, leptin production becomes vanishingly low, and for many, this means unyielding hunger, lethargy, and irritability.
There’s nothing much they can do about it, either, because aside from injecting synthetic leptin—which costs around $1,000 per day—there’s no way to nullify the leptin-mediated side effects of low body fat levels besides . . . gaining body fat.
You can stick to your guns, but it’ll take its toll in the form of energy, mood, strength, and hormonal health. Basically, you just have to choose between being “peeled” and feeling like a normal human.
I’ve been there myself several times. It’s fun to look “photoshoot ready,” like this . . .
. . . but it’s not so fun to deal with the fallout:
Losing about 5% of my strength on the big compound exercises. Less drive, energy, and enthusiasm in my workouts. Careful and consistent control of my calorie intake, which meant little in the way of “cheating,” and especially not with high-fat foods. Never feeling fully satisfied from meals despite eating enough to maintain my weight.
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t get shredded—in fact, I think most intermediate and advanced weightlifters should experience the process at least once. It’s a game of discipline, perseverance, and delayed gratification, and those are always skills worth honing.
But anyone who says you can flaunt a “shrink-wrapped” physique 365 days per year without sacrificing some of your health and wellbeing is lying. And anyone who appears to be doing it effortlessly is posturing or using steroids.
The latter point deserves emphasis because, with the right drugs, everything changes. Suddenly, you can maintain ridiculously low body-fat levels, crush workouts, gain muscle and strength, and eat a good 20 to 30% more calories than you’d be able to otherwise.
For instance, it’s not uncommon for “enhanced” bodybuilders to spend just 10 to 12 weeks getting stage-lean, eating upward of 3,000 calories per day (just shy of my lean bulking calories), and doing little cardio.
We mortals, however, have a much harder time of it, but we get a consolation prize: Our body doesn’t go to pieces. Steroids are a sexy but sinister mistress that wreaks physiological and psychological havoc.
There is a way for us natural weightlifters to at least ease the pain of low-leptin living, though: calorie cycling.
Recall that leptin levels rise and fall based on two factors:
Your daily calorie intake (in the short term). Your body fatness (in the long term).
When you’re dieting to get lean, there’s nothing you can do about number two, but you can exploit number one to raise your body’s leptin production temporarily.
Specifically, by periodically raising your calorie intake, you can increase your leptin levels for a few hours or even days, and this can ease some negative side effects of calorie restriction in particular. Think of it as coming up for a breather before going heads-down for another lap around the pool.
Eric Helms, a natural bodybuilder and powerlifter, coach, researcher, and member of my supplement company’s scientific advisory board used this exact strategy to prepare for his first natural bodybuilding show in seven years. Here’s how it worked for him:
While he still felt the effects of his low-calorie diet, calorie cycling made it easier to stay the course.
Calorie cycling can help when you’re maintaining low body fat levels as well, but it’s of limited utility because no matter how much food you eat, your body can only produce so much leptin with so little body fat.
Either way, to calorie cycle correctly, you need to follow two rules:
1. You must get most of your extra calories from carbs.
Research shows that eating dietary fat has no effect on leptin levels, whereas significantly increasing carbohydrate intake causes a substantial spike in leptin production that can persist for as long as you maintain your higher-carb eating.
It’s unclear what effect protein has on leptin levels, but it’s likely insignificant compared to carbs. That said, some research suggests that high-protein dieting may improve leptin sensitivity, so it’s a good idea to keep protein intake high when using carbs to boost your body’s leptin production.
2. You must eat at maintenance calories for two to three days per week.
Why not just eat a very high-carb diet when cutting or maintaining low body-fat levels? If carbs boost leptin levels, wouldn’t this keep leptin production perpetually elevated?
Unfortunately, that won’t do the trick, because the leptin-enhancing effects of carbs are short-lived. Thus, over time, your average leptin levels will be about the same, regardless of how much or little carbohydrate you’re eating every day.
A single high-carb meal or day won’t make the grade, either, because it doesn’t raise leptin levels enough to impact your physiology. It takes at least a couple of days (and sometimes up to a week or two) for your brain to recognize and “trust” the increase in leptin and respond positively.
Therefore, by raising your calories to maintenance two to three days per week and staying in a deficit otherwise, you can make getting ripped more tolerable.
So, in summary, calorie cycling can make cutting more enjoyable, especially when you’re lean and working to get very lean. It’s not a game-changer, but when leptin levels get low, every bit of help counts.
Summary: Calorie cycling can make low-calorie dieting more tolerable by periodically boosting leptin levels, especially as you get very lean (sub 10% body fat for men and 20% for women).
Is Calorie Cycling Good for Building Muscle?
Yes and no.
Calorie cycling isn’t for people new to weightlifting who want to maximize muscle gain. So long as they eat enough calories and protein every day, they’ll make rapid progress, and complicating things with calorie cycling will only detract from that.
Even an intermediate lifter is better off keeping it simple when lean bulking.
He should eat about 10% more calories every day than he burns, do a lot of heavy weightlifting, and once he’s around 15 to 17% body fat, cut down to around 10% body fat. Rinse and repeat until he’s an advanced weightlifter (someone with at least several years of productive training who has achieved 80% or more of their genetic potential for muscle growth).
Only then does calorie cycling become useful for muscle building. When an advanced lifter wants to make slow, steady muscle and strength gains while staying lean (10 to 12% body fat), calorie cycling can help.
It works well for advanced weightlifters because once they’ve gained most of the muscle and strength available to them genetically, progress slows to a crawl.
After four or five years of proper dieting and training, you’ll be lucky to gain a pound of muscle every six months. And by the time you’ve been training as long as I have—nearly 17 years now—you’d have to sacrifice a kid to the Dread Lord Cthulhu just to gain a pound of muscle per year.
We’ll talk more about this in chapter eleven, but basically, when you start lifting weights, your body’s muscle-building machinery is ready to run at full throttle, whereas later in your bodybuilding journey, it never gets out of first or second gear.
Thus, for your first six to even twelve months of training, you can get great results with a larger daily calorie surplus—upward of 500 calories above maintenance—because of the substantial muscle-building demands being placed on the body. As those demands shrink, however—and they do as you progress regardless of what you do in the gym—your body doesn’t need as many additional calories to meet them.
In other words, it requires a much larger calorie surplus to build 20 pounds of muscle (which many guys can do in their first year) than a couple of pounds. In the latter case, 200 to 300 calories over maintenance is sufficient.
The good news is while muscle growth becomes more elusive as we get bigger and stronger, the smaller calorie surplus required to keep progressing diminishes fat gain. So much so that you can lean bulk for many months before your body-fat levels rise high enough to warrant a cutting phase.
And if you use calorie cycling when lean bulking, you can go even longer. By placing your body in a calorie surplus four to five days per week and a deficit on the remaining days, you create a “maintenance with benefits” scenario where you can gain muscle slowly with very little fat storage.
Here’s how I like to do it:
First, you want to be in a calorie surplus on the days you train. The surplus doesn’t need to be large—5 to 10% above maintenance is enough.
Then, you restrict your calories on your rest days to lose the fat gained while in a surplus. As roughly half of the weight gained while lean bulking is muscle, and your body needs to utilize a portion of the extra calories to build that muscle, you don’t need to offset the entire calorie surplus for the week, but only half of it.
For example, my total daily energy expenditure is around 2,900 calories on my lifting days (five per week) and 2,500 on my rest days (two days per week), putting my total weekly calorie expenditure around 19,500.
Thus, if I were cycling my calories, I’d eat about 3,200 on my training days (~10% surplus), producing a total surplus of around 1,500 calories come my first rest day (300 calorie surplus x 5 days).
As it’s fair to assume about half of those surplus calories went to muscle building and the other half to fat storage, I’d eat 700 to 800 fewer calories than I burn on my rest days (about 2,100 calories per day) to lose fat gained during the week.
The overall effect of this is slow but steady progress in my workouts with no visible change in body fat levels. Which is great . . . but not without its downsides.
For one thing, muscle growth is a process that begins in the gym and completes several days later, not several hours. By restricting your calories even a couple of days per week, you tap the brakes on muscle growth and sacrifice some potential gains.
Additionally, many people find it difficult to stick to the plan, because it takes some enjoyment out of lean bulking. Even if you’re not much of a foodie, it’s nice to eat a bit off-plan now and then. When you’re calorie cycling, however, you must pay closer attention to your day-to-day calorie intake.
Also, as many people train during the week and take the weekends off, eating in a deficit on rest days can make dinner outings, social events, and off days less enjoyable.
As with everything fitness, however, you don’t have to be perfect to make calorie cycling worthwhile.
If you eat a bit too much on a surplus day or two, you can always eat less on your deficit days to compensate. And if you eat too much on a deficit day, putting you closer to or even over-maintenance calories, you can always correct it by eating less on your next deficit day or turning your next surplus day into a deficit day.
The fewer mistakes you make, the better your results will be in the long term, but so long as you get things mostly right most of the time, you can still benefit from calorie cycling.
If you’re wondering about eating in a slight surplus on training days and maintenance on rest days, this can make sense if you’re only training two or three days per week, because it’ll noticeably reduce fat gain.
If you’re training more than that, however, it’s not going to help much, so I’d recommend either choosing the lean bulk and mini-cut approach or eating in a surplus on training days and deficit on rest days.
It’s also worth noting that if your primary goal is to stay lean while making gradual progress, you can simplify things and opt for mini-cuts and mini-bulks. This isn’t optimal for maximizing muscle growth, but if you just want to hover around the same body fat percentage while nudging your numbers up in the gym, it can work well (at least for a time).
One reason I like this approach is it makes your day-to-day routine much simpler. You eat more or less the same amount of food every day, and I’d argue the time spent micromanaging the exact amount of calories you’re eating every day to be over, under, or at maintenance would probably be better spent squeezing a few more sets into your workouts, getting a bit more sleep, or doing basically anything else that’s even halfway pleasurable or productive.
So, to maintain body composition with mini-bulks and cuts, I like to lean bulk for 4 to 8 weeks and cut for about 4 weeks to get rid of the minimal amount of fat I gained (if I did it right). In a sense, this approach is a longer-term style of calorie cycling that’s spread over months instead of days.
Another option if you don’t want to overthink it is to simply stay in a slight surplus and deficit a few days per week while keeping an eye on your body weight and strength on your key lifts. If your weight creeps up too quickly or too much, dial back your calories, and if your weight is falling and you’re stagnating in your training, dial them up.
Summary: Calorie cycling is unnecessary and often counterproductive unless you’re an advanced weightlifter who wants to stay relatively lean for longer periods of time, in which case it can help you stay lean while slowly gaining muscle and strength.
How to Make a Calorie Cycling Meal Plan
There are many ways to configure a calorie-cycling meal plan, but depending on your goals, I recommend you rotate between three levels of calorie intake:
A high-calorie day of about 10% above maintenance calories A low-calorie day of about 20% below maintenance calories A medium-calorie day of about maintenance calories
There are extreme versions of calorie cycling out there that involve alternating between very-low and very-high calorie days, but I don’t recommend these.
While such protocols can work, they’re far more trouble than they’re worth and usually produce worse results than the more reasonable, moderate method I’ll teach you here.
If you’re not sure how to calculate your maintenance calories, read this article on your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE):
Also, remember that when you’re calorie cycling, you still have to plan and track your macros if you want to get the best results.
How to Use Calorie Cycling for Losing Weight
In chapter eight, you learned that if you’re over 15% body fat, calorie cycling doesn’t have much to offer over regular dieting (eating the same calories and macros every day).
If you’re below 15%, however, you can benefit from cycling your calories when cutting by creating a meal plan that provides five low-calorie days and two medium-calorie days. You can arrange these days however you like, but I recommend you place your medium-calorie days on or before the days of your hardest workouts.
If you train first thing in the morning, as I do, or in the afternoon, schedule medium-calorie days so they precede training days. If you train in the evenings, schedule them on training days. This way, you give your body time to maximize muscle glycogen levels, which will boost your performance.
For example, here’s how you might do it on the 5-day program:
And if you trained in the evenings, it could look like this:
As for working out your calories and macros, read this article to learn how:
So, using myself as an example, here’s how a low-calorie day would look:
195 grams of protein (780 calories) 55 grams of fat (495 calories) 280 grams of carbs (1,120 calories) Totaling around 2,400 calories
And a medium-calorie day:
195 grams of protein (780 calories) 65 grams of fat (585 calories) 410 grams of carbs (1,640 calories) Totaling around 3,000 calories
Once you have your numbers, all you have to do next is turn them into a meal plan that you enjoy and stick to it.
How to Use Calorie Cycling for Building Muscle
When you’re calorie cycling on a lean bulk, I recommend:
Four or five training days per week: Five high-calorie and two low-calorie days per week Three training days per week: Four high-calorie and three low-calorie days per week
As the size of your surplus on high-calorie days will be smaller than the size of your deficit on low-calorie days, your total weekly calorie intake will more or less even out to maintenance.
If, however, you find you’re losing weight, swap a low-calorie day for a high-calorie one. Similarly, if you’re gaining weight too quickly (more than 0.5 to 1% of body weight per month), turn a high-calorie day into a low-calorie one.
Where you place your high-calorie days doesn’t matter much, and you can move them around ‘week to week’, but I like for them to fall on training days. I train Monday through Friday and take the weekends off, so here’s how I’d do it:
Monday: High-calorie day Tuesday: High-calorie day Wednesday: High-calorie day Thursday: High-calorie day Friday: High-calorie day Saturday: Low-calorie day Sunday: Low-calorie day
And for me, a high-calorie day would look like this:
195 grams of protein (780 calories) 75 grams of fat (675 calories) 460 grams of carbs (1,840 calories) Totaling around 3,300 calories
And a low-calorie day:
195 grams of protein (780 calories) 55 grams of fat (495 calories) 280 grams of carbs (1,120 calories) Totaling around 2,400 calories How to Make a Calorie Cycling Meal Plan for Maintaining
When you’re calorie cycling for maintenance, I recommend the following:
Four or five training days per week: Five high-calorie days and two low-calorie days per week. Two or three training days per week: Four high-calorie days and three low-calorie days per week.
And for your macros, you can set them up in the same way as when lean bulking.
The Bottom Line on Calorie Cycling
Calorie cycling is a method of dieting that involves planned increases and decreases in calorie intake throughout the week, typically in the form of raising or lowering carbs.
Most calorie cycling protocols involve high-calorie days where you increase your calories and low-calorie days where you decrease your calories, mostly from fat or carbs or both.
Many people claim calorie cycling allows you to “hack” your metabolism so you can . . .
Drastically increase fat loss by supercharging your metabolism, reducing hunger, and providing more energy for your workouts Build muscle and lose fat at the same time by using calorie surpluses to fuel muscle growth and calorie deficits to strip away fat Make steady muscle and strength gains while staying absolutely shredded
The truth is that it doesn’t really do any of those things.
When it comes to fat loss, calorie cycling doesn’t offer any benefits until you get below 15% body fat as a man or 25% body fat as a woman. In other words, when you’re lean and wanting to get really lean.
When that’s the case, calorie cycling can make getting leaner more enjoyable, but it doesn’t have any special inherent fat-burning advantages.
When it comes to staying lean, calorie cycling may help you more comfortably maintain low body fat levels than with traditional dieting methods, but it won’t reverse the negative side effects associated with staying very lean.
And when it comes to building muscle, calorie cycling has nothing to offer beginner or intermediate lifters. Unless you’ve already attained most of your genetic potential for muscle growth—which takes five or so years of consistent and proper training and dieting—it’s more of a hindrance than a help.
If you’re an advanced weightlifter looking to make slow, steady muscle and strength gains while staying lean, however, calorie cycling can help. Progress will be slower than if you maintain a constant calorie surplus, but you’ll gain more fat that way as well.
And just to clarify: by “lean,” I mean around 8 to 12% body fat for men and 18 to 22% body fat for women. In other words, athletic and cut but not “peeled.”
If you’re already around this level of leanness and want to make maintenance more enjoyable, calorie cycling can help by mitigating some of the negative side effects of staying lean.
Although calorie cycling doesn’t “cure” these problems, it does prolong the amount of time you can stay very lean before you strongly feel the need to raise your body fat to a higher, more sustainable level.
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