The zig-zag diet is a fascinating concept that has many followers, the idea being that by alternating calorie intake, that one can create a calorie deficit without suppressing the metabolism. This isn’t effective for a couple of reasons.
- Lowering of metabolic rate typically follows a decrease in weight or activity level, which makes perfect sense. A sensible calorie restriction programme doesn’t adversely affect the metabolic rate until one is very lean.
- For a zig-zag diet to be as effective as standard calorie restriction it must create the same deficit as a regular calorie deficit, this often involves days of very low calories to make up for higher calorie days which some find more difficult than ordinary dieting.
So the zig-zag diet is quite average in that respect, however what about when we want to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously? It becomes very useful.
This isn’t the zig-zag diet in it’s ordinary form. It is strategic, it involves calorie restriction and most importantly, it is very effective. So.. How does it work?
It’s quite simple really, acute periods of overeating and undereating allow anabolism and catabolism to occur on a small scale in continual cycles until the effects are very pronounced.
The traditional bulking and cutting cycle usually occurs annually, with a bulk in the autumn/winter months and a cut in the spring/summer months. This is fine, I still see it as a very respectable method of increasing muscle and controlling fat on a year after year basis but this article poses the question, is there a more efficient way?
An approach of add a little, take a little may be better for the average person without a serious time commitment and may in fact be better for many natural bodybuilders. So what are the benefits of this?
You don’t put down as much fat as on an annual bulk-cut cycle but it may be that we can add just as much muscle. There is a clear pattern of muscle accretion after a stimulus, in our case this is the last session in which we trained but this is only brief, if this is the case it maybe that excess calories are unnecessary on non-training days and may contribute to fat gain.
The solution is a diet that gives extra energy when necessary to build the muscle and one that doesn’t pile on calories in times that they won’t be used well. This can be used in a couple of ways, it can be used to maintain muscle mass very well when dieting or it can be used to minimize fat storage when setting out to gain muscle.
When using the zig-zag method it is important to count not just your daily calorie intake but your weekly calorie intake also. Your intake might be high on training days and low on non-training days but it must also show direction, whether that is to gain weight or to lose weight, the overall effect will be determined by the weekly calorie intake.
Applications of the Zig-Zag method
As an example a person wishing to gain muscle mass might eat at maintenance on non-training days and eat 500 calories above maintenance on training days, if a person trains 3 times per week then this will amount to a weekly surplus of 1500 calories per week. Some would consider this a modest surplus but this method is very effective for putting those surplus calories exactly where you want them, into new muscle. The net effect is weight gain and most of that weight is likely to be muscle.
A person who wishes to lose weight and maintain or possibly gain some muscle while dieting would adopt a slightly different approach and this is where you must remember that calorie intake is always important. The same person wanting to lose fat might eat 500-1000 calories below on non-training days and eat 250 calories above maintenance on training days, this would equate to a weekly deficit of between 2750 and 6250, which is between 1 and 1.5 pounds lost per week, this may not sound like a lot but losing pure fat is the best way to go in terms of body composition.
Recomposition is the process by which fat is replaced by muscle by keeping the calories the same and engaging in resistance training to increase the muscle mass relative to the fat mass in your body, this is only really possible on a small scale as while it is possible to lose a lot of fat in a relatively short time, muscle mass is gained slowly and gradually. A person who is untrained may gain two pounds of muscle and lose 2 pounds of fat each month and their weight would stay the same although in the longer term one might find that gaining one pound of muscle per month is closer to average. The appeal of recomposition is that despite the weight staying the same, the body will look far better than if one was to lose two pounds or gain two pounds separately. If you have are a fair bit of fat to lose or muscle to gain then the above methods would be better suited to you.
An example of a recomposition programme would be for someone to consume 500 more calories on each of the three training days and 500 less on three of the four non training days, on the remaining day you would just eat at maintenance. This would keep the calorie intake and the weight roughly the same and providing training, rest and protein intake was adequate, over time fat would be lost and muscle gained.
This is one of the most effective nutritional strategies to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. Try it for just 6 weeks and you’ll be amazed at the differences you’ll see.