POST COMPETITION REVERSE DIETING: Why it Can Make or Break Your Off-season
by Umo Callins, MS, RDN, NASM-CPT
“My metabolism just would not adjust to the shift.”
The topic of reverse dieting has become more popular and openly discussed over the past few years. When I first started competing four years ago, it was not something I heard anything about when talking to other competitors. In addition, it was something that my coach never brought up at the time. When I was first introduced to the sport of Natural Bodybuilding, I was simply informed that you go through a 16 week preparation phase that consists of a strict diet, lots of cardio and training to get as lean as possible.
My program was prescribed to me and I was told to simply trust the process and do exactly what my trainer at the time instructed me to do. Being the competitive person that I am, I wanted to do my very best at my first show and look the best I could for my wedding shortly after. So, I followed everything without question and kept telling myself to tune out everything I know about nutrition for the time frame I was competing. Being a registered dietitian and knowing what I know made the process extremely challenging because certain things did not make sense to me from a scientific standpoint. Towards the middle of my prep up until the end, my calorie intake was extremely restricted. It did not seem healthy.
After my first competition, I had a few high calorie meals but nothing too drastic because I already committed to a doing another show two weeks later. After my second show, I did not go too crazy with my diet because my wedding was the following month. It was not until my third show that following spring that I realized how necessary it is to ease your way back into increasing calories. I had a hard time transitioning back. I noticed myself gaining weight, specifically fat mass, very easily but I was not making poor food choices. It simply happened from increasing my calories too rapidly from being on a very low calorie diet that unfortunately decreased my metabolism. My metabolism just would not adjust to the shift.
I never was as “lean” as I was in my first show.
From that time on, I noticed that in the shows to come I never was as “lean” as I was in my first show. I could not figure out why because I worked so hard and did not skip a beat with my diet or training yet I still would never come in with a lean and conditioned look.
“I was frustrated because I felt that I was doing everything I could to come in better.”
The judges kept telling me to get tighter and while I knew what they meant, I was frustrated because I felt that I was doing everything I could to come in better. I started taking natural diuretics of every kind, in addition to following the instructions of my coach which was restricting water and cutting sodium. Nothing worked. This led me to start putting what I know into practice and doing my own research.
I started to research competition dieting methods and following many well-known competition prep coaches that worked specifically with Natural Bodybuilders and other physique sports athletes. One of these people was Layne Norton. Being a dietitian, I was extremely excited when I saw his credentials and that he has his PhD in Nutritional Sciences.
“This led me to start putting what I know into practice and doing my own research.”
Like many others, I watched his blogs, read his literature and research, and was completely amazed and relieved about the information I was reading. In my mind I said, “Finally! Some information that’s backed up by research and CURRENT research at that!” From that moment on, everything changed for me.
I finally developed the confidence to put what I know to practice, be my own experiment and was extremely determined to go about my diet the healthiest way possible and do what I knew was best to work for me and how I respond to food. This also gave me the passion to help others that want to compete and steer them in the right direction. I never wanted people to experience what I experienced as an Amateur competitor and early on in my Professional Figure journey. As a registered dietitian, my passion was to one day work with athletes and create meal plans/regimens that will not only help them aesthetically but also their performance and recovery. My desire as a nutrition coach is for every athlete to be the best they can be and keep them healthy.
“I felt and saw a significant difference when I first followed a reverse diet.”
As an athlete (again being my own experiment) I felt and saw a significant difference when I first followed a reverse diet. My energy levels were great. I continued to perform well in my workouts, got stronger, and I maintained a healthy body fat percentage while still packing on muscle mass. For our athletes that followed our recommendations, we saw nothing but great results too.
We were convinced that this was something that should be in every competitor’s preparation plan. I am not going to go into detail about what our reverse diet methods are at Team 180Physique simply because every plan we prescribe is specific to each athlete as all of our athletes are on customized plans that work the BEST for them. I will simply explain what a reverse diet plan is and why it is beneficial.
A sound and effective reverse diet plan consists of slowly adding calories back in to an athlete’s diet (typically mainly fat and carbohydrate calories). The ultimate goal of increasing a person’s metabolism or in other words, getting to the point of being able to consume a higher amount of calories without gaining significant body fat.
It is expected that athletes will gain weight after a competition (we do not recommend staying at an extremely low body fat percentage for extended periods of time) but the weight gain should not be extreme. Some athletes gain 15-25+ pounds shortly after they compete and a lot of times the weight gain includes a significant amount of fat.
The goal for everyone should be to achieve and maintain an efficient metabolism during the off-season and sustain a weight that is healthy for the individual and can be maintained. The way we feel, perform, sleep, recover, our gastric emptying frequency, etc. are all assessment markers of how efficiently our bodies digest and absorb food and eliminate waste. We constantly ask our athletes questions regarding how they feel and if anything has changed for the better or worse. We do not solely look at weight, body fat, or progress pictures to assess their progress. While these are great indicators of progress or lack thereof, there is more to it than that.
It is important for every competitor to be educated in the process of their prep. As prep coaches, it is our responsibility to educate competitors as to why we prescribe their plans a certain way, why adjustments are made and so on. When we do this, it establishes trust, it shows that we truly know what we are talking about and it increases the chances that our athletes will stick to the plans we give them. We always tell our athletes we want them to ask us questions, keep us on our toes, hold US accountable. They pay for our services and expertise and our job as coaches is to make sure they get what they paid for and become a better athlete when all is said and done.
Before we agree to take an athlete on for our prep services, we have a long discussion on all things associated with show prep. One of the topics we spend a lot of time and discussion on is the topic of reverse dieting. We let them know what can happen after their competition is over if they do not follow the specific plan they are given following the competition. We simply warn them of the potential of rebounding and gaining excessive weight, developing an unhealthy relationship with food and in extreme cases food disorders, water retention, hormonal imbalances and much more.
“…contest prep diets do not end immediately after you step off the stage…”
We urge them to understand that contest prep diets do not end immediately after you step off the stage and that we take reverse dieting very seriously. Despite informing athletes of the dangers of not following a reverse diet plan, you will always likely get some athletes that assure you they understand and plan to follow but when the time comes, the discipline they had during their prep diminishes.
We have had this happen to us with our athletes on a few occasions with one being this past spring. This competitor had a great competition experience and did really well at their first show, which happened to be one of the largest Natural Bodybuilding amateur shows of the year. A reverse diet that was specific to their needs and goals was prescribed and agreed upon. Unfortunately, the desire to consume a variety of high calorie foods that typically follows a competition deterred their focus and the athlete started to develop an unhealthy relationship with food. We attempted to reach out to this athlete multiple times.
However, due to lack of communication from this athlete with us and this athlete not being 100% truthful about everything, we were unable to continue to provide them with a plan that they could follow. A plan that could continuously be adjusted to meet their needs. I include this story to make known that athletes also share the responsibility regarding the success of their prep and post prep experience. Athletes MUST communicate with their coaches regularly and be truthful about what’s going on. Coaches can only do so much and often times we are blamed for circumstances that are beyond our control. Simply put, coaches can only help as much as we can with the observations that we make and the information given.
Following a reverse diet plan during the off-season will benefit athletes in so many ways. By slowly introducing calories back, minimizing body fat gain and increasing your metabolism, you should notice that you bring an improved package to every show. You will see improvements in your training.
You will be able to eat more than you used to and each contest prep will be easier to go through.
“The first time you go through a reverse diet it will likely be challenging psychologically…”
Your metabolic function will also improve. The first time you go through a reverse diet it will likely be challenging psychologically simply due to the fact that you may get the urge to veer off your plan but, just like with any other goal, you have to commit to it, give it time and understand your purpose for dong it… to stay healthy and in some cases get healthy again.
Not following a reverse diet can easily make the off-season challenging and lots of unwanted effects of not following a plan can occur such as: excessive body fat gain, decreased metabolism, hormonal imbalances, body image issues, metabolic damage, poor relationship with food, emotional damage and other psychological problems, training setbacks, hindered progress in future contest preps, etc. As you can see the pros outweigh the cons when following a reverse diet plan.
In conclusion, as an athlete and contest prep coach, I have experienced the results of proper and improper reverse dieting. It is a world of a difference and I am happy that more people are starting to realize this and implement it in their plans. If you are an athlete and this is new to you, please make sure that you consult with a professional that is knowledgeable in this subject. Compared to other sports, bodybuilding and more specifically NATURAL BODYBUILDING heavily relies on effective nutrition protocols.
The discipline required to dial in our physiques with nutrition is extreme and demands mental strength. With this being said, we must have the same mindset in our transition and approach to our post competition plan as we do during our contest prep. Athletes in other sports that want to constantly improve and get better realize that the hard work doesn’t stop after they’ve achieved a victory or have given their very best. They understand they must continue to work hard and even harder once their season has concluded. The same goes for us as natural physique athletes. Always strive to improve. Take your post competition season seriously.
Umo Callins | Contributing Writer
Umo is an IFPA Professional figure athlete, Crossfit Level 1 Trainer, NASM certified personal trainer, and practices as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She has competed in natural bodybuilding and physique sports since 2010. As the founder and owner of 180Physique Nutrition and Fitness (contest prep, nutrition consultations, personal and group training, as well as meal plan preparation.) Find Umo at my 180Physique business Facebook page, athlete page Umo Callins IFPA Pro, Instagram: 180Physique, Twitter: 180Physique, contact #: 405.633.1867, website: www.180Physique.com.
Click here to order this issue (Sept 2014) or a monthly subscription.