So you’ve dieted for 6 months, trained hard, completed a bunch of cardio, peaked for a show, maybe two? And hopefully you’ve won a medal or trophy for all your hard work!? But what comes next? Usually most competitors are required to go through what is called a ‘reverse diet’ which is essentially the process of re-introducing more calories into the diet and reducing the amount of additional cardio/exercise slowly over a period of time to return back to ‘normal’ whilst reducing the severity of weight/fat gain.
What should you expect?
I personally have coached many people to shows, and have even been through the process myself and I can honestly say I have come across a VERY small amount of people who have strictly adhered to a reverse diet/recovery diet post contest. There are many ways you can plan a reverse diet, and I have tried just about every method tailored to the individual to make the process easier to adhere to, but what I have found over time is that it’s not easy, regardless of how easy I make it so to speak. Some people just need to ‘get it out their system’ before returning back to eating healthily again/tracking their calorie intake.
This can come down to a variety of factors but I will list some below:
After a long period of eating in an energy restricted fashion, your appetite is most likely going to be extremely high, for quite a while. The best way to work around this is not buy calorie dense foods and keep things such as Vegetables, Fruit and sugar free/diet sodas in your house so if you do have a tenancy to binge eat or go overboard, it’s a lot harder to do so if you have low calorie foods to do so on and will reduce some of the damage.
Food focus is another big one and this is just another result of calorie/energy restriction for an extended period of time. The longer we go without something, generally the more we want it. Sometimes we get in our head that we need to make up for what we missed out on post contest so we go crazy.
The next factor comes with two means; the first one being that there is no ‘goal’ anymore. The prep is over and you have no deadline to be in shape so it’s very easy to just let go because essentially, why not? We don’t have a goal and we don’t need to be ready for anything.. The second one being that you may not have done as well as you had hoped at your show, so you go on an emotional food rampage. I have seen this happen several times.
The most important thing to note is that all of this is pretty damn common, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it if this is something you have experienced. Coaching clients through this process and having been through it myself numerous times, I know how hard it can be, and the last thing you want to do is punish yourself/be upset about it as it can create a bad relationship with food. What happened is in the past, so it doesn’t exist anymore, so you just have to move on and forget about it.
The Reverse Diet:
The main focus of a reverse diet, as mentioned above is to recover hormonally and energy wise whilst maintaining a relatively decent amount of condition/reducing the amount of fat gain as much as possibe. You are going to gain body fat, that’s not questionable, you cannot maintain a contest conditioned physique year round because 1. It requires far too much discipline and sacrifice to maintain it for longer than 6-8 weeks and 2. It is certainly not healthy for you. Now some people require longer to recover, some don’t. Some people recover quite fast in terms of energy, libido, appetite, performance, digestion, mentality, food focus, metabolic rate and sleep. But some people do take longer to recover, and it’s going be dependant on a few things. These things can be:
- Length of the Diet/Restriction
- Harshness of the Diet/Restriction
- Contest Results/Success
Now I can’t provide a specific recommendation on how many calories you should add back into your diet, or how much you should reduce your cardio because it is very person dependant which is based on the above factors. Some people I will reverse diet faster than others, and some people I will reverse diet slower. This can come down to personal preference meaning some people are ok with faster amounts of weight gain in turn for feeling normal quicker, where-as some people like to maintain their condition for longer, and reverse diet slower which in turns means they have to work a little harder/be a little more restricted than those who reverse diet faster.
Immediate post contest plans(the night of and the day after the show) with my competitors usually range around a similar process to allow them to relax a little bit before getting stuck back into a reverse diet. Here is what I usually recommend to most of, but not all my athletes for their post contest meals/feed:
- Post Stage: Something small, like a chocolate bar, donut or even a healthy meal
- That night: A nice meal and dessert of choice to celebrate with friends/family
- 1 Day After: 3 square meals. What this means is 3 meals the day after the show with no snacking in between. These meals can whatever the competitor likes, and as calorie dense as they like, however they’re not to eat in between these meals. So for most people it might go something like this: Breakfast; Bacon and Eggs with some Pancakes. Lunch; A nice restaurant meal/fast food meal of choice. Dinner; A nice restaurant meal/pizza/pasta of choice with a dessert of choice
- 2 Days After: Commence reverse diet on stated calories/macros/cardio etc.
So as I have said previously, it is not a one size fits all and it depends on so many variables when it comes to the competitor. One thing we just need to keep in mind is that reverse dieting after a contest IS NOT EASY and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about falling off the wagon if you do.
To make it easier, set short term goals such as staying under a certain weight, or performance related goals such as getting X strength back on X lift. It is very easy and not uncommon to feel lost after a body-sculpting contest, but by setting goals, you can make it easier for yourself to stay on track. I personally know a lot of bodybuilders who transition into powerlifting in their offseason to keep them focused on a goal so they’re not spinning their wheels so to speak. It is also very easy to lose sight of your goals mainly because your whole life has been so heavily focused on the one thing(in this case, the contest prep).
Some people can have some anxiety/depression from their post show ‘blowouts’ due to an extreme loss of condition/losing that super lean look, but knowing that it’s not maintainable and having an educated idea of the expectations of what happens post contest, I think helps the process. It is very important to stay on board with your coach AFTER your show or even hire another coach to keep you accountable to someone to help you stay on track. I personally take the time to message my competitors every single day for 2 weeks after their contests to make sure they’re feeling okay and always question how they’re feeling in terms of physical strength, energy, hormones, mentality and just overall feelings. It makes the process a lot easier for the competitor if they have support, so make sure you surround yourself with people who have the right idea about reverse/recovery dieting.
If you have any questions about reverse dieting, need a hand with reverse dieting or just have general questions/enquiries about coaching or any other services, you can get in touch me with me at: