How to Recycle and Progress Your Nutrition (Just Like Your Lifting)

Why do we jump into crazy diets? That’s like saying “I want to deadlift, so I’m going to deadlift as heavy as I can every day.”

Recycling our lifting programs is a no-brainer. We start small and train the pattern. We go bigger and get stronger. We add speed to become more powerful. We train symmetry and get solid in our movement. Then we take a break, and start back from the beginning, this time at slightly better beginning.

A Good Plan for Progress and Success

A training cycle does looks different for everyone based on the desired goal, but each program has two characteristics in common (we hope) regardless of the intended destination. No matter what, a successful lifting program allows for rest and plans for progression. You would never just skip the beginning and jump into the middle of an intense training program.

So why do we think it’s okay to just jump right into the middle of some crazy restrictive diet and just live there to get leaner? That’s the equivalent of saying “I want to deadlift, so I’m going to deadlift as heavy as I can every day.” This is very obviously not the correct way to go about getting stronger.

There’s a plan to achieving a good max lift. There is backing off during the deload. There is progression. That’s what makes your strength sustainable. Just like in lifting, progressing and recycling your nutrition plans is a great way to go about getting leaner.

A Good Plan vs. a Bad Plan

I mean think about it. Last time you dove head first into a Whole 30 or a paleo challenge, you went back to “normal” life one day later, yes? And then what? Did you wait until you felt fat or guilty enough to do another extreme diet some months later?

I know. Cause I been there, done that, too. And it’s stressful. And frustrating. And definitely does not make for sustainable skinniness.

When we overtrain, we leave ourselves susceptible to injury. Duh, right? Everybody knows that. But when we crash diet we also run the risk of damage. Hormonal damage. And maybe you can adjust something or throw some dry needles on it when you get hurt and get back to business. But there ain’t no quick fix gonna save you when you mess with the endocrine system.

And now we’re talking major annoyances like acne, fatigue, mental stress, muscle loss, and libido loss (oh, hell no!). Oh, and exactly what we were trying to avoid in the first place with all that crazy dieting – belly fat.

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In lifting we say there are two types of cycles. One that is progressive with planned back-off time. This is responsible training. The other is not progressive and has unplanned back-off time in the form of injury or exhaustion. This is totally irresponsible training.

In the nutrition world, we also have two types of cycles. One that is progressive with planned leniency, and one that is extreme with extreme spills off the wagon. That latter cycle doesn’t sound too good, right? You know what else it doesn’t sound like? Successful.

Consider also that there’s gotta be somewhere to go. If you’re always lifting at your highest and heaviest, there’s a natural ceiling. You will stop getting better real fast. If you start out eating the bare bones of what it takes to survive, there’s nothing to cut to make a difference later when you hit a plateau. You simply won’t get better. Because you can’t.

My Simple Plan for Getting Lean

I’m going to outline for you how I got myself nice and lean for a figure competition in three months and then maintained it to hit a second show three months later. Oh, and then through several family emergencies (hello, cortisol!) to a photo shoot another three months later. Take note. It’s very specific.

Phase 1 – First Four Weeks

  • Lots of ice cream
  • Max amount of cheat days
  • Clean eating

Phase 2 – Next Four Weeks

  • Less ice cream
  • Fewer cheat days
  • Cleaner eating

Phase 3 – Final Four Weeks

  • No ice cream
  • Minimum cheat days
  • Cleanest eating

Competition – Followed by a two-week vacation in Los Angeles during which no porkchop, waffle, or cupcake was safe.

Phase 4

  • Lots of ice cream
  • Max amount of cheat days
  • Clean eating

I think you get the idea here. I’m not even trying to sound like an ass. It’s really that simple.

What It Means to Eat “Clean”

You may have to experiment with what the words “clean” and “cleaner” mean to your body, of course. For me, “clean” means I can get away with instant oatmeal with artificial flavoring. There’s still cheese on my burrito bowls at Chipotle. I don’t worry about dairy, like frozen yogurt (and what passes for Greek yogurt in the U.S.). I eat all of the egg yolks. I don’t care about store-bought marinades on my proteins. I might decide I want that ultimate oatmeal cookie with my daily iced coffee. I choose my battles here.

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That’s me.

My “cleanest” diet as a competitor means slower cooking, old-fashioned oats and fresh or frozen blueberries. Frozen yogurt is gone and replaced with a bottled probiotic. Cheese doesn’t make the cut either. I use half the yolks and add egg whites. My proteins get seasoned with freshly made marinades. The oatmeal cookie does not win. I spend the extra time to win every battle here – but only for one month.

You may also have to experiment to find out what your personal cheat threshold is. I can wake up leaner after a whole cheat day a week in Phase 1, one cheat meal a week in Phase 2, and one cheat meal every 1.5 weeks in Phase 3. As long as your body fat isn’t increasing the next day, your cheat plan is probably solid.

Focus on What Matters in Your Nutrition

Nutrition is very individually specific. But as you can see, I built and maintained a stage-ready physique by recycling, and I really didn’t miss out on anything for more than thirty days (like ice cream). And I never got at all specific with things like macros, calories, and portions. Those are complicated ideas my brain does not have the capacity to worry about when I have work, man problems, and walking across a stage half-naked in six-inch heels to deal with. Best to focus on progressively cleaning up the quality of your choices rather than diminishing portions and calories.

As I always say: think practically and do less (not eat less). Because if we don’t have time to deal with macro counting, we definitely don’t have time to deal with being derailed by adrenal fatigue and other fun hormonal setbacks. We got some leaning to do here, okay?

Photos 1&2 courtesy of Shutterstock.

Photo 3 courtesy of Ashleigh Kast.