Body Recomposition and Reverse Diet

Average Reading Time: 13 minutes

In this article, I’ll share my personal body recomposition diet, with insights into dieting and how I fared on my reverse diet.

Dieting is simple on the surface but once you start a weight loss journey, which for most people is actually a fat loss or body recomposition adventure, you’ll realize that’s simple doesn’t mean easy.

The simple part about dieting is your caloric balance. In order to lose weight, you have to be in a deficit. That’s it. How simple is that!

The reality, though, is much more complex than this. You have to be aware of multiple things if you want to make this sustainable and successful.

Preface

2018 was an interesting year for me. The first half of the year, I focused on getting stronger, eating more and also gaining some weight. This was not a problematic weight gain, I still looked rather lean, just a little bit of fluff around the torso, especially those love-handles men usually carry around. Back then I gained weight with around 2800 calories a day and 4 workout sessions a week.


Body Recomposition and Reverse Diet – Personal Experience, Tips & Tricks

By the second half of the year, I decided to go on a body recomposition diet, basically a bodybuilding diet, as if I would get ready for a show. My goal wasn’t to get ready for anything, just to live through a part of the process.

Intention

I did this for the simple fact that I help people get stronger and leaner, but never on a “contest prep level”. As a good coach, at least in my view, you need to make your own experiences. So I did.

In retrospect, I have to admit that I wasn’t in the best spot to start this body recomposition diet in the first place (more about that later). But hindsight is always 20/20. So, to get the best idea of this process I hired a coach myself. I got nutrition advice, macros and calorie suggestions and templates for my workouts.

Start

Here’s how I started the diet:

Body Recomposition and Reverse Diet
Start of the body recomposition diet or contest prep diet

That day I weighed in at 75.3 kg. Visually speaking, this is a rather good place to start for my diet intention. I haven’t measured my body fat % (BF%), but I’d guess it’s around 14%. I didn’t have a specific weight of BF% goal for the prep, rather a visual one.

Ideally, I was aiming to get this “shredded” look and to finally getting rid of my love-handles. That would have brought me way below 10% BF.

Process

During the process of the diet, I checked-in once a week with my coach. I answered a predefined set of questions, send pictures and my weight. Based on these metrics I got new macro and calorie targets. But also suggestions for strength training and cardio.

My goal was to perform as little cardio as possible and get the results based on my resistance training, NEAT and the caloric deficit. During the complete process, I never did more than 2 hours of cardio a week, most of it was LISS on an assault bike.

Initial Phase

The first 8 weeks of the diet were surprisingly easy. I felt good, relatively high on energy and had no problem adhering to the diet suggestions. After these 8 weeks, I hit a very solid wall. I definitely crashed hard.

My body started to respond much less, I had much less energy and the training sessions became a real grind. That’s part of the process of a contest prep diet, though. A bodybuilding diet, which is supposed to get you contest ready, isn’t a healthy thing to do. The next few weeks things just got worse, as I wasn’t at an optimal place, to begin with.

Here’s a picture of me 8 weeks into the body recomposition diet:

Body Recomposition and Reverse Diet
(Note to myself: clean mirror for mirror-selfies!)

Grinding Phase

I continued the diet for another 4 weeks. The grind went on and got harder. In the meantime I got some blood work done, including my total and free testosterone, DHEA and SHBG. I wasn’t expecting too much of an uplifting result in the first place, but the result was much worse than I imagined.

If you go on such an extreme diet, you have to potentially expect to have

  • Low thyroid hormones
  • Low testosterone
  • Low DHEA
  • High cortisol

The reason for these hormones to be lower is that you need energy (i.e. calories) to produce them in adequate amounts. Thyroid usually goes low if you are in a deficit for a longer period of time, as your body down regulates your metabolism. It does this to make you more calorie efficient, as it wants to save you from dying of starvation. This makes dieting harder, which is great for survival, bad for a contest prep diet.

Testosterone and DHEA go down, as you don’t have enough calories to correctly produce them. Ideally, you have enough carbs (doesn’t have to be a high carb diet, though) and definitely enough fats in your diet to produce these hormones. Your body is downregulating them in a deficit because you seem to be in a terrible place to reproduce. You are starving and fighting for survival (caloric deficit over weeks and no end in sight).

Your body wisely concludes that putting offspring in such a dangerous environment is a terrible idea. The best thing it can do is to make it as hard as possible to reproduce.

Low male sex hormones will usually kill off your libido and without a sex drive, you will reproduce much less often, if at all.

Another side effect of low testosterone is that it will get harder to maintain your lean body mass (especially your muscle mass). The advantage of losing muscle or at least not adding any is that your basal metabolic rate might drop even further. This means you need even fewer calories to keep the lights on.

Body Recomposition and Reverse Diet
Here’s me after 12 weeks of dieting

Cortisol is your stress hormone. It is usually highest early in the morning. It’s the hormone that wakes you up in the morning and throughout the day it goes down and flattens out (under ideal circumstances, that is).

Stress, though, will raise your cortisol level again. If you’ve been in a car accident before, a highly stressful event, you’ll remember that you were really present and ready to fight or flight (or freeze).

There are more versions of stress. There could be stress due to deadlines at work, or because you lost your wallet. Maybe you had a fight with a good friend.

All this is stress.

Furthermore, training is stress too. Every time you go jogging or lift some weight, you stress your body. As you can see, not every kind of stress is equal – some feel good others not so much.

Starving, i. e. a caloric deficit is another form of constant stress. Your body is hyper-aware that you need more food and keeps cortisol high, which hopefully will help you to find a few berries or hunt down a deer.

With higher levels of cortisol, you will end up with a reduced quality of sleep. You might wake up in the middle of the night, fully awake. That’s your body hoping to find some food somewhere. The problem with a reduced sleep quality is that your recovery is compromised. This inhibits your training and bad sleep results in

  • Worse recovery, which means less energy;
  • Higher insulin resistance (you kind of get “type 2 diabetes”), this helps you to store fat easier if there suddenly come calories that could be stored;
  • Testosterone gets produced best while you sleep, during deep sleep. With less sleep overall and less good sleep your testosterone levels go down further.

This is a vicious cycle. The only way out of it: stopping starvation, stopping the diet.

Reverse or Recovery Diet

Once you decide to stop dieting down, you will sooner or later eat at maintenance again. Chances are that you don’t want to regain all that body fat you lost in the process of your body recomposition diet.

In order to achieve this, you can start what is known (coined by Layne Norton) as a reverse or recovery diet.

What this does, is bringing – relatively slowly –  your calories back to your maintenance level. In other words: it is the diet after the diet.

And it’s your best ticket to keep as lean as possible while still getting back to a higher calorie intake.

Body Recomposition and Reverse Diet
At my lightest weight during all of the diet (contest and reverse) – 10 weeks into the reverse diet

Before you get all your hopes up: almost everyone will gain back some fat. That said, some fat is not the same as the people you often see after a bodybuilding contest: they gain 10 or more kg within a few weeks.

Without a proper post-contest prep diet plan you will most likely fall into a very extreme version of yo-yo dieting.

For many, the reverse diet is harder than the actual diet, but it’s worth it if you stick to the plan.

Here’s how it works: there are 3 roads, all have there pros and cons:

  1. Slowly (around 50-100 kcal) increase your calories every week
  2. Calculate your theoretical maintenance calories, add your current diet calories, divide by 2 and start from there. Then you follow step 1.
  3. Calculate your theoretical maintenance calories, or go back to your pre-diet maintenance levels, and start from there. Then follow step 1.

Road 1

This is the hardest road to take, as you very slowly increase your calories over weeks and months.

It seems to be by far the best path to take when you try to increase calories while minimizing fat gain. You give your body plenty of time to re-calibrate the system and slowly ramp up your metabolism again.

Another benefit of this very slow increase pattern is that it’s very hard to miss your new maintenance calorie level. I am saying “new” because the diet more likely than not will have reduced your maintenance calories from what it used to be. The difference between actual BMR and calculated/expected BMR can be huge. In a case study done with natural bodybuilders, the difference was 35%; resulting in 690 calories/day less than predicted!

During this long process you might at one point even lose a little more weight, I did lose another kilo on my reverse diet. Or in other words, while I was eating more I was still losing some weight – before you get excited, you will most likely gain it back and that’s OK.

The biggest downside is time. It can take month until you ever get to your maintenance, especially if you keep working out at the gym (which is highly recommended!). This is especially true if you actually performed on stage and the “big day” is long gone and you want your life back.

This slow increase is also mentally a challenge, something you shouldn’t underestimate. It just shows how important it is to have a solid long-term plan to get out of this caloric deficit.

Road 2

This is a more pragmatic way to start your reverse diet, as you bump up your calories a little, but likely little enough to not jump straight into a caloric surplus.

Let’s say you ended your diet at 1600 kcal and your theoretical maintenance calories should be around 2400 kcal. You take the average of the two values, in this case, 2000 ((1600+2400)/2), and start your reverse diet from here.

This gives you an initial boost, which will have a tremendously positive effect on your body and mind (you will be very moody at the end of the diet). It will give you more energy and is a far more sustainable amount of food than before. Now you increase your calories, week by week until you find your maintenance.

The initial bump most likely will end up in some extra fat storage, but nothing too drastic that it will derail you. If you keep in mind that you’ll most likely have more energy too, which will benefit your weight training positively, it will help you to rebuild lean body mass, thus, also positively affect your metabolism.

This is the path I chose for my reverse diet.

Road 3

This will likely be the biggest jump in calories. You can either go back to where you were before your diet or calculate your theoretical maintenance calories and start from there.

As said before, you most likely will overshoot your calories with this approach, because your body tends to adapt the downregulation of your metabolism way more than science and formulas would predict.

This gap will bring you very likely in at least a slight caloric surplus, and thus, end up in fat gain. Depending on how big this gap is, you can quickly gain several kilos within a few weeks.

This will make another body recomposition diet that much harder in the future. As you gained more fat than necessary and didn’t give your body a chance to adapt your metabolism. Simply jumping up in calories won’t initiate that process. You might end up with a lower BMR even years after the diet.

The upside is, that you can eat a lot more (hopefully nutrient-rich) food, balance out your hormones and your mood.

Which Road to Take?

That’s a good question and the correct answer is “it depends”. It mainly depends on you and how comfortable you feel to add back some fat on your frame. It also depends on how much further you can muster willpower/discipline for a potentially very long reverse diet.

To avoid most harm, speaking in the broadest sense of the definition, I would pick either road 1 or 2. This will be a harder journey to take, but down the road, it will be, in my opinion, the more rewarding one.

It will be more rewarding for two main reasons:

  1. You will add less (not no, but less!) fat back
  2. You will bring up your metabolism higher than potentially ever before (I am not done yet, and it is already higher than before)

What I did

As I said above already, I went ahead with my reverse diet and took road 2, while I write this I am 14 weeks into my reverse diet. On a weekly average, I am up almost 900 kcal/day, feeling much better, but still far away from having my hormones fully recovered.

The last time I was that high on calories, I trained maybe a notch less and already gained weight on a weekly basis.

I gained some fat but also a lot of strength back. I am basically back to the weight when I started the reverse diet, but eating on average 900 calories more. Every. Single. Day. I was a hard road and it is still very tough, I often feel like I am undereating by a lot but it is worth the hard work. The long-term benefits outweigh by far the short-term struggles.

Here’s a chart of my body recomp diet:

weight loss isn’t a linear progression – usually you go up significantly in weight before you go down again

The dotted line is the overall weight trend during the complete period. The painted area is when I started the reverse diet. I also added a trend line, simply to illustrate that I was, in general, losing weight. That said, you can see clearly that weight loss isn’t a linear thing, it is truly a trend.

While I was trending down, I still “gained” weight on 5 different occasions. That is why you should never be too focused on the number on the scale on a daily basis, but rather on your average weight, pictures, BF% and body measurement changes. These are a much better indicator of positive or negative change (depending on your goals).

Body Recomposition and Reverse Diet
13 weeks since the reverse diet started – up 800 kcal/day – up 1 kg since starting the RD

If the initial goal of your diet was to get rid of as much fat as possible, because you simply had too much or because you’re a bodybuilding athlete, I highly discourage you to take road 3. If you have a history of yo-yo dieting I strongly encourage you to take road 1 combined with a very solid program of resistance training.

As said, this will lead to the most post-diet fat gain and won’t let you rebuild your metabolism in a way that you need it to be in order to have a healthy diet practice later on. It will also make any potential future diet easier because you can start your deficit from a higher total calorie level.

Binge Eating

I want to tackle binge eating for a second. It is a big problem in any caloric deficit diet. The longer you’re in this hypocaloric state, the more your body finds ways and mechanisms to get you to

  1. store fat more easily
  2. Make you hungrier
  3. Make you spend less energy

This can result in binge eating and can have devastating results. You can add fat from one humongous meal and with the lower metabolism, you can quickly have a surplus of 3000 kcal or more.

In very extreme cases you might even build new fat cells, which will potentially upregulate your body weight setpoint (i.e. your “normal” weight for which your body will try to find homeostasis will be higher than before).

Unfortunately, these huge meals are common practice for people stopping their diet. Especially if they want to celebrate a victory on stage. My tip: have your beer and eat what you feel like until you’re full.

It’s going to be enough food to make you mentally happy, you’ll be satisfied and it won’t derail you on your post-diet journey. The following day you jump back on the plan and start with your reverse diet.

What’s next for me?

In order to understand where I am going next and why you need to understand where I am coming from.

I’ve been eating in a deficit, on purpose and on accident, for years. As I have been competing in a relatively small BJJ weight class, several times a year, I aimed to stay as close to it as possible.

This way I was able to make weight relatively easy, but over time I paid the price for it. The biggest and first issue back then was a lack of energy. From there on it got harder and harder to recover from my training sessions.

In the end, I felt burnt out from competing at all, as all the hard work in the gym resulted in very bad performances in competitions. To me it’s one thing to lose but I know I did my best, had a good fight and lost to the better man that day.

But knowing that I was the more skilled and stronger fighter and still lost because I simply hadn’t the energy anymore – not even for the first fight, was frustrating. That said, it was my fault entirely.

Back to the drawing board

I took a step back and had to reassess my situation. What I didn’t understand and realize at all was to what extent I was undereating on a daily basis. On a high-calorie day, I might have had 2500 calories. On such a day I did 10k steps, one hour each of resistance training and BJJ. That wasn’t even close to being enough.

Once I took a step back from BJJ, I trained harder in the gym. My body was telling me on several occasions that I needed to change something – I simply didn’t know what or how. But in all honesty, I didn’t actually listen.

Training and working out was my way of dealing with a lot of stress. In a way it was my therapy, it still is and most likely ever will be. Once my body realized that I wouldn’t listen it made me listen (I dislocated my shoulder from a simple stretch).

I had to take some time off, had a chance to look closer at my life and make changes. I eat a lot more nowadays and train a lot smarter, sleep and rest more. And still, old habits die hard, I went on this body recomposition diet – when I had no business in doing so. Then again, it made me realize even more how much I had to give me, my body and my mind, time, energy (spiritual, emotional, nutritional) and love to heal. And that’s what’s next.

Project Big Stefan

My goal is to heal, in every possible sense of the word. One of the things that I need to do is eat more, build up my metabolism, build up a bigger frame.

This will get my hormones to a much better level in the long run. It will also shed a lot of light into a lot of darkness, which I finally admitted myself to face.

Life has been a rollercoaster and it’s been one hell of a ride. Now there’s a new track ahead, and it would be great if you would follow me on this journey. I will record it with blogs and vlogs.

Follow me on Project Big Stefan (inspired by Ben Pollack). Make sure to subscribe to my mailing list and to YouTube to be part of the journey.

Thanks for reading this, I am grateful for your time. If you took away something off my journey, share it with your friends.

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