Most recommend taking the following steps to burn fat:
- Estimate your daily maintenance calories.
- Eat 10-20% fewer of those calories each day.
It is not a wrong recommendation, and I explain myself how to do this in my programs. However, there are many reasons to use a cyclical approach, and it is precisely what we will see in this article.
Suppose your maintenance calories are 2,500 per day. That is the energy your body needs to perform its daily functions: basal metabolism + thermogenesis + movement. More detail.
If you want to lose weight, you must eat below that level, creating a deficit that your body will cover using its fat and glycogen stores.
Calculating a 20% deficit, your daily calories to lose fat would be 2,000.
The conventional strategy is limited to repeating these calories every day creating a constant deficit, as the following table shows.
Although it is a valid approach, it makes sense to incorporate cycling strategies, both for physiological and psychological reasons. Let’s look at some examples.
Examples of cycling (in definition)
At a physiological level, it is recommended provide more energy and carbohydrate on training days, both reducing rest days. If you train four days a week (for example Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday), you could raise the energy on those days and reduce it on the rest.
Additionally you can incorporate a fast on Sunday, having a single 600-800 calorie meal.
This cycling strategy is my favorite in the definition phase, and as you progress it can be complemented with a stronger recharge every so often, another cyclical strategy to improve long-term results.
Other people, however, have no problem following the diet during the week but I know they get out of control weekends: dinner with friends on Friday, cinema with popcorn on Saturday and paella with mom on Sunday. In these cases they could restrict calories a bit more during routine days (say Monday through Thursday), and leave more calories for the weekend.
It is not the optimum physiologically speaking, but if it helps you improve adherence it is perfectly valid. Despite the deficit on training days we can raise the carbohydrate a bit to minimize performance impact.
In all cases you could also consume more protein on training days (and not just more carbs), but as long as you stay in the proper range it will have little impact.
In the three examples shown, the total calories and macros will be the same throughout the week (14,000 calories), so in theory the final results should be the same. But in practice, proper cycling can optimize results:
- Better quality of workouts and less fat accumulation on rest days.
- Less impact of excesses of the weekend having created a greater caloric deficit the previous days and facing those days with low glycogen.
- Less metabolic slowdown over time by interspersing days without energy deficit (detail).
- Greater adherence by adjusting the intake according to the social life or general preferences of each person.
Example in maintenance
The previous approaches are oriented to a definition phase, and therefore consider a global caloric deficit. If you are more or less at your weight you should use your maintenance calories (2,500 in this example).
In this way your weight will not vary but you will be able to improve your body composition: losing fat and gaining muscle (with proper training).
And cycling can help you achieve this body recomposition, increasing calories and carbohydrates on training days and reducing both on rest days. In this case, we incorporate a greater deficit on Sunday, being able, for example, to do a 16/8 fast with only two meals.
Do you need to count calories?
Not strictly. All of the above approaches can be done more or less intuitively. For example:
- On training days, have oatmeal or lentil porridge for breakfast and add more generous portions of potatoes or rice to your meal.
- On rest days, eat a couple of eggs for breakfast and moderate starches throughout the day. Or if you prefer, skip breakfast (or dinner).
- You can also use the post-workout protein shake to adjust calories and macros. By not taking it on rest days you are already cycling. Here I detail mine.
That being said, if you don’t progress as you wish your intuition may be wrong, and counting calories for a few days will help you adjust your meals.
Summary and conclusions
Routine provides necessary structure to our lives but also we require some variability. Just like we need to alternate periods of light and dark, or hot and cold, we benefit from including days with more food and days with more restriction.
Our ancestors did not eat the same calories every day. Some days they practiced forced fasting and others ate as much as they could.
The cyclical approaches allow simulating this variability according to the needs and preferences of each person, optimizing results and improving adherence to diet.
In addition to the weekly cycling we can consider one more global. It is advisable to consume more carbohydrate for the summer Y less during winter (even doing a ketogenic diet cycle) and incorporating fasts from time to time. Less routine, more life.