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Key Takeaways

  1. Calorie cycling is a method of dieting that involves planned increases and decreases in calorie intake throughout the week, typically by eating more or less carbohydrate.
  2. Calorie cycling can make it easier to get and stay extremely lean and gain muscle and strength with minimal fat gain, but it doesn’t have any special fat-burning or muscle-building advantages.
  3. For calorie cycling to work, you also need to set and track your calories correctly and follow a calorie cycling meal plan (which you’ll learn how to do in this article).

“Calorie cycling.”

If you’re a savvy gymgoer who’s rightfully skeptical of, uh, everything you hear, see, and read about getting and staying fit, that sounds like another fitness gewgaw for tricking people into buying useless pills, powders, and PDFs.

And you’d be at least partially right.

Many “gurus” sell calorie cycling as a magic bullet of sorts, a way to “hack” your metabolism and supercharge fat loss while protecting your body against the ravages of “starvation mode.”

Others bill it as a more intelligent and effective application of traditional bodybuilding “bulking” principles, a way to gain lean muscle while staying ripped, and even the “secret” to building muscle and losing fat at the same time.

And none of that’s true.

Calorie cycling isn’t going to deliver you to the promised land, and if you’re a beginner or intermediate weightlifter (up to 4 years of proper eating and training), all you’re going to get from the bargain is complexified meal planning and prepping.

If you’re an advanced weightlifter, however, calorie cycling deserves a spot in your toolbox. When applied intelligently, it can help you minimize fat gain while lean bulking and comfortably maintain low levels of body fat for long periods of time.

Keep reading to find out how.

What Is Calorie Cycling?

Calorie cycling is a method of dieting that involves planned increases and decreases in calorie intake throughout the week, typically by eating more or less carbohydrate.

There are many different calorie cycling protocols to choose from, but most involve alternating between high-, low-, and medium-calorie days throughout the week.

  • On the high-calorie days, you’ll typically consume more calories than you burn (positive energy balance).
  • On low-calorie days, you’ll typically consume fewer calories than you burn (negative energy balance).
  • On medium-calorie days, you’ll typically consume as many calories as you burn (neutral energy balance).

The exact mix and makeup of your high-, low-, and medium-calorie days depends on your goals and preferences.

For example, if you want to lose fat you could maintain a calorie deficit for five days per week and eat at maintenance on the remaining two days to give your body a break. As an advanced weightlifter, this can also help with muscle retention as you get leaner, and especially if you’re dieting to very low levels of body fat.

If you want to gain muscle and strength while minimizing fat gain, you can flip this around and maintain a slight calorie surplus five days per week and eat at maintenance or even a deficit on the remaining two days of the week.

That’s the theory at least. How well does it work? Let’s find out.

Why Do People Use Calorie Cycling?

calorie cycling

The primary reason people use calorie cycling is they’ve heard it’s far superior to conventional bodybuilding diets that have you sustain calorie surpluses and deficits for long periods of time.

With calorie cycling, people usually hope to accomplish one of three things:

  • Drastically increase fat loss by boosting your metabolism, reducing hunger, and improving your workouts
  • Build muscle and lose fat at the same time by maximizing muscle gain for several days and then fat loss for several, with the fat loss outpacing the fat gain over time
  • Make steady muscle and strength gains while staying very lean

Unfortunately, it’s not that cut-and-dried. While not entirely off-base, such promises overstate reality, which is that calorie cycling is a minor improvement over the norm for some people under some circumstances, not a breakthrough innovation set to disrupt the status quo of diet and nutrition.

Let’s start by looking at how calorie cycling affects weight loss, which is its most powerful draw.

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

Is Calorie Cycling Good for Weight Loss?

Yes, calorie cycling is effective for weight loss.

That said, any diet that has you maintain a calorie deficit over an extended period of time will result in weight loss, regardless of when and how you consume those calories. In other words, as long as you eat less energy than you burn over time, you’ll lose weight.

According to some of its proponents, however, calorie cycling augments those calorie deficits by boosting your metabolism and fat burning, allowing you to significantly increase fat loss over time.

This is hogwash.

To understand why, you first have to understand what happens to your body at a cellular level when you lose weight.

When you restrict your calories for fat loss, a number of chemical, hormonal, and metabolic changes take place in your body.

Chief among these fluctuations is a drop in a hormone called leptin which is primarily produced by body fat  This drop in leptin underlies the constellation of side effects associated with dieting generally known as “metabolic adaptation” or more inaccurately “metabolic damage.”

Leptin plays an important role in many bodily functions, but its main job is to keep the brain informed as to how much energy is available for survival. Specifically, it pays close attention to the relationship between the calories burned through basic metabolic function and activity and the calories obtained from food and body fat.

In the short-term (hours, days), leptin rises and falls based on your daily calorie intake. Leptin rises after you’ve eaten a meal and energy is plentiful, signaling your brain to reduce hunger, increase activity levels, and maintain a normal, healthy metabolic rate.

In the long-term (weeks, months, years), leptin rises and falls based on your body fat percentage. When body fat levels are high, leptin levels are high, and your brain responds by increasing how full you feel after meals, how active you are throughout the day, and how high your metabolic rate rises.

In other words, long-term average leptin levels are determined by your body fat percentage, whereas short-term increases and decreases in leptin levels are determined by your calorie (and particularly your carbohydrate) intake.

Once leptin levels get low and remain so for several days, as they do when dieting, this sends a strong signal to the brain that starvation is imminent, and it should take all available measures to increase food intake and conserve energy.

If you’re reading this article, you’ve likely experienced this firsthand.

In the early stages of well-programmed calorie restriction—generally the first four to eight weeks for most people—it’s duck soup. The scale keeps ticking downward, your waist keeps shrinking inward, you’re rarely hungry, and you mostly feel like your normal self.

At about the two-to-three-month mark, though, you begin to feel “it”—the bodybuilding equivalent of “bonking.” Your energy levels, motivation to train, metabolic rate, and weight loss all sag, and your hunger, cravings, and irritability soar.  

As far as your body’s concerned, you’re starving to death and it’s going to fight hammer and tongs to survive. And its prime directive has become the elimination of the calorie deficit that you’re carefully trying to maintain.

Sadly, this is just a home truth of dieting and so long as you’re in a calorie deficit, something you can only manage, not cure.

Now for the good news:

When you start eating more, leptin levels rise, and you immediately feel like someone “turned the lights back on.” In a sense, that’s exactly what’s happening—your body is “rewarding” you for shrinking or erasing the calorie deficit, which it perceives as vital to its survival.

Once you’ve stopped dieting altogether, your leptin levels will be generally lower than they were when your body fat levels were higher, but they’ll still be high enough (and your body will be sensitive enough to leptin’s effects) that you should feel healthy and vital again.

That’s true of the lower body fat levels people pursue for “aesthetics,” as well—10 to 15% for men and 20 to 25% for women. At such levels of body fat, leptin levels stabilize creating a new normal or “settling point,” as scientists call it, and as long as you continue staying active, eating plenty of nutritious foods, and maintaining a reasonable calorie intake, you can maintain such a physique with ease.

What’s more, you don’t need to do anything “fancy” like calorie cycling to pull this off. Maintain a steady and aggressive but not reckless calorie deficit, eat enough protein and nutritious foods, do lots of heavy, compound weightlifting, and minimal cardio, and you should have no trouble getting a lean, athletic body.

What if you want to plumb the lowest levels of body fatness, though? What if you want to get “shredded”? You know, sub-10% body fat for men and sub-20% for women?

This is different and more difficult territory, the stuff of low-leptin nightmares and bogeymen. Once your body fat reaches (or in some cases, approaches) these levels, leptin production becomes vanishingly low.

For many, this inevitably leads to a period of unyielding hunger, lethargy, and irritability, and all too often, is punctuated by a blow-out binge that results in the regaining of much of the fat lost and then some.

There’s nothing much they can do about it, either. If you’re a guy below 8% body fat or a woman below 18% body fat, you’re probably just going to have to choose between being “peeled” and feeling like a normal human.

Remember: most of the leptin in your body is produced by fat cells so the leaner you are, the less leptin you’ll have floating around in your blood.

Aside from injecting synthetic leptin, then—which costs around $1,000 per day—there’s nothing you can do to counteract the leptin-mediated side effects of low body fat levels. You can stick to your guns, but it’ll take its toll in the form of energy, vitality, strength, and hormonal health.

I’ve been there myself a number of times. It’s fun to look “photoshoot ready,” like this . . .

 

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. . . but it’s not so fun to deal with the fallout, which looked like this:

  • I’d lost about 5% of my strength on all of my big, compound exercises like the squat, bench press, military press, deadlift, and chin-up, and I wasn’t getting any stronger despite maintaining my weight.
  • I didn’t have as much drive, energy, or enthusiasm for my workouts.
  • I had to be pretty OCD about my food choices and calorie intake. I couldn’t do much in the way of cheating, and especially not with high-fat foods, so that killed the excitement of going to restaurants and made social gatherings less enjoyable.
  • I never felt fully satisfied from food. I started feeling hungry more often before meals (rare for me), and often felt like I needed to eat considerably more to be satiated.

Plus, I was doing about 5.5 hours of weightlifting per week and an hour of HIIT cardio at the time, so it’s not like I could’ve just exercised more to burn more calories.

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t get shredded—in fact I think most people should experience the process at least once. It’s a game of discipline, perseverance, and delayed gratification, and those are always skills worth honing.

But anyone who says that you can flaunt a “shrink wrapped” physique 365 days per year without sacrificing at least some of your health or wellbeing is lying. And anyone who appears to be doing it effortlessly is either posturing or on steroids.

The latter point is worth emphasizing because with the right drugs, everything changes. All of a sudden, you can maintain ridiculously low body fat levels while enjoying boundless energy, crushing workouts, gaining muscle, and eating a good 20 to 30% more calories than you’d be able to otherwise.

For instance, it’s not uncommon for “enhanced” bodybuilders to spend just 10 to 12 weeks getting stage-ready lean eating upward of 3,000 calories per day (just shy of my lean bulking calories) and doing little to no cardio.

Us mortals, however, have a much harder time of it, but we do get a consolation prize: our bodies don’t eventually and inevitably go to pieces. Steroids are a sexy but harsh mistress that eventually and inevitably wreaks physiological and psychological havoc.

There’s something natural weightlifters can do to ease the pain of low-leptin living, though, and that brings us back to calorie cycling.

We recall that leptin levels rise and fall based on two factors:

  1. Your daily calorie intake (in the short term)
  2. Your body fatness (in the long term)

When you’re dieting to get lean, there’s nothing you can do about number two, of course, but you can exploit number one to temporarily raise your body’s leptin production.

Specifically, by periodically raising your calorie intake—calorie cycling—you can increase your leptin levels for a few hours or even days, and this can alleviate some of the negative side effects of calorie restriction.

Think of it as coming up for a breather before going heads-down for another lap around the pool.

Calorie cycling can help when you’re maintaining low body fat levels as well, but it’s of limited utility because no matter how much food you eat, your body can only produce so much leptin with so little body fat.

Either way, to calorie cycle correctly, you need to follow two rules:

1. You must get most of your extra calories from carbs.

Research shows that eating an abundance of dietary fat has no effect on leptin levels, whereas significantly increasing carbohydrate intake causes a substantial spike in leptin production that persists for as long as you maintain your higher-carb eating.

It’s unclear what effect protein has on leptin levels, but it’s likely insignificant compared to carbs. That said, some research suggests high-protein dieting may improve leptin sensitivity, so it’s a good idea to maintain a high-protein intake when attempting to boost your body’s leptin production.

By getting most of your additional calories from carbs, you also replenish your muscle glycogen stores, which has a positive impact on workout performance and muscle building.

In other words, when you’re trying to boost leptin levels, calorie cycling really means “carb cycling,” as this is the primary macronutrient you increase to raise leptin.

Check out this article to learn more about the science of carb cycling:

The Science of Carb Cycling: How It Works and How to Do It Right (2019)

2. You must eat at maintenance calories for two to three days.

Why not just follow a high-carb diet when cutting or maintaining low body fat levels? If carbs boost leptin levels, couldn’t you just eat plenty of them every day to perpetually bolster leptin production?

Unfortunately, that won’t do the trick because the leptin-enhancing effects of carbs are short-lived. Thus, over time, your average leptin levels will be more or less the same regardless of how much or little carbohydrate you’re eating every day.

A single high-carb meal or day won’t make the grade, either, because it doesn’t raise leptin levels enough to significantly impact your physiology.

You see, it takes at least a couple days (and in some cases, up to a week or two) for your brain to recognize and “trust” the increase in leptin and respond positively, including raising metabolic rate, decreasing hunger, and flipping other switches that make dieting suck less.

Therefore, by raising your calories to maintenance two to three days per week and being in a deficit otherwise, you can make getting ripped significantly more tolerable.

Eric Helms, a natural bodybuilder and powerlifter, coach, researcher, and member of my supplement company’s scientific advisory board is using this exact strategy to prepare for his first natural bodybuilding show in seven years. Here’s where he’s at right now:

 

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While he’s still feeling the effects of his low-calorie diet, calorie cycling is making it easier to stay the course.

Cycling calories also works well for maintaining your hard-earned abs after you’ve reached your desired body fat percentage.

In this case, you maintain a slight calorie surplus on training days (up to five days per week) and a slight to moderate deficit on your rest days—both in the range of 10 to 20%—with the goal of keeping your weekly calorie intake around maintenance.

Also, ideally you’d only raise and lower your carbohydrate intake to accomplish this, but shooting for at least 80% of the increases and decreases from carbs is reasonable.

I’m currently using calorie cycling to maintain, and here’s what I’m doing: My TDEE is currently around 2,900 on my training days (5 per week) and 2,500 on my rest days (2 days per week), putting my total weekly calorie expenditure around 19,500, and I’m eating about 3,100 calories on my training days and 2,000 calories on my rest days, putting my total weekly calorie intake at the same number—19,500.

These numbers are moving targets, of course, but the net result is I’m able to maintain a physique like this . . .

 

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. . . while still progressing in my workouts and feeling satisfied after meals, energized, and sharp.

Some people can achieve the same without cycling calories but most find it easier when they can spend several days per week in a significant calorie surplus as opposed to constantly hovering around their TDEE, going in and out of slight calorie deficits and surpluses.

Regardless of what you do with your calorie and carbohydrate intake while very lean, however, remember this: You’re only managing symptoms and delaying the inevitable.

Your average leptin levels are still going to be quite low, this will negatively impact your physiology to some degree, and the only cure is raising your body fat percentage to a healthier, more sustainable range.

So, the bottom line is calorie cycling is unnecessary when cutting and often counterproductive unless you’re below 15% body fat (men) or 25% body fat (women). If you’re leaner than that and looking to get or stay really lean, however, calorie cycling can make the process more enjoyable.

Is Calorie Cycling Good for Building Muscle?

Yes and no.

If you’re relatively new to weightlifting and looking to build muscle, calorie cycling isn’t for you. So long as you generally eat enough calories and protein, you’re going to make rapid progress, and complexifying the process with calorie cycling will only detract from that.

Even as an intermediate lifter, which I define as someone who’s been training and eating properly for at least two to three years and has achieved around 50 to 80% of their genetic potential for muscle growth, you’re probably better off keeping it simple when lean bulking.

Specifically, you should eat about 10% more calories every day than you burn, do a lot of heavy weightlifting, and once you’re around 15% body fat (men) or 25% (women), cut down to 10% body fat (men) or 20% (women), and rinse and repeat.

As far as muscle building goes, calorie cycling is most useful for advanced weightlifters—people with several years of proper training who’ve achieved 80+% of their genetic potential for muscle growth—who want to make slow, steady muscle and strength gains while staying lean.

And specifically, I’m talking about guys who want to keep their body fat levels in the range of 8 to 12% and women who want to remain in the 18 to 22% range.

The reason calorie cycling works well for these people is once you’ve gained most of the muscle and strength available to you genetically, progress slows down to a lethargic crawl.

After just five years of proper dieting and weightlifting you’ll be lucky to gain a pound of muscle every six months. And by the time you’ve been training as long as I have—nearly 15 years now—I’d probably have to sacrifice one of my kids to the Dread Lord Hillary Clinton to gain a pound or two of muscle in a year.

(As an aside, I could get stronger again because I’ve been stronger in the past, but as far as lean muscle tissue goes, it’d be like trying to draw blood from a turnip.)

What this means, then, is when you start lifting weights, your body’s muscle-building machinery is ready to run at full tilt, whereas later in your bodybuilding journey, it never gets out of first or second gear.

This machinery is metabolically expensive, requiring a fair amount of energy and raw materials to do its job, and the more muscle it’s going to build, the more food is needed. In this way, when you’re new to weightlifting, your body is able to utilize excess calories more efficiently than when you’re more experienced.

Thus, for your first six to even twelve months of weightlifting, you can get great results with a larger daily calorie surplus—upward of 500 calories above maintenance—because of the substantial muscle-building demands being placed on the body. As those demands shrink, however—and they do as you progress regardless of what you do in the gym—your body doesn’t need as many additional calories to meet them.

In other words, it requires a much larger calorie surplus to build 20 pounds of muscle (which many guys can do in their first year under the bar) than a couple pounds. In the latter case, a couple hundred calories over maintenance is sufficient.

For me, this works out to around 3,200 calories per day, as my TDEE is around 2,900 calories.

The good news is while muscle gain becomes more and more elusive as we get bigger and stronger, the smaller calorie surplus required to keep progressing produces less fat gain. So little, in fact, that you can lean bulk for many months before your body fat levels rise high enough to warrant a cutting phase. And if you use calorie cycling when lean bulking, you can go even longer.

By placing your body in a calorie surplus four to five days per week and putting it in a deficit two to three days, you create a kind of “maintenance with benefits” scenario where you’re able to slowly gain muscle with very minimal fat gain. “Gaintaining,” as the kids like to say.

Here’s the gist:

I train five days per week and take the weekends off from weightlifting but usually do 30 minutes of low-intensity cardio. When cycling calories during a lean bulking phase, you want to be in a calorie surplus on the days you train, so this means I’d be in a surplus five days per week.

As the calorie surplus doesn’t need to be large, 300 calories above maintenance would be more than enough, which would result in 1,500 more calories eaten than burned as I wrapped up my final training day for the week and headed into my rest days.

Roughly half of the weight gained while lean bulking is muscle, and my body needs to tap into the calorie surplus to build that muscle, it’s fair to assume that I’d have gained about 750 calories of fat by my first rest day.

Then, I could eat 700 to 800 fewer calories than I burn over the next couple (rest) days to lose the fat gained on my training days without sacrificing any muscle or strength. And the net result of all of this—theoretically at least—would be a very small increase in muscle gain with no visible change in body fat levels.

I say “theoretically” because things never quite work out this well in real life.

For one thing, muscle growth is a process that begins in the gym and completes several days later, not several hours. By restricting your calories even a couple days per week, you tap the brakes on this process and sacrifice at least some of the muscle gain available to you.

Many people find it difficult to stick to the plan as well because it takes some of the enjoyment out of lean bulking. Even if you’re not much of a foodie and are looking to lean bulk correctly, it’s nice to be able to eat a bit off-plan here and there without any real consequences.

When you’re calorie cycling, however, you have to pay closer attention to your day-to-day calorie intake. Additionally, as many people train during the week and take the weekends off, eating in a deficit on rest days can make dinner outings, social events, and the like less enjoyable.

As with everything fitness, however, you don’t have to be perfect to make calorie cycling worthwhile.

If you eat a bit too much on a surplus day or two, you can always eat a bit less on your deficit days to compensate. And if you eat too much on a deficit day, putting you closer to or even over maintenance calories, you can always correct it by eating less on your next deficit day or turning your next surplus day into a deficit day, if necessary.

For instance, let’s say your plan is to be in a 10% surplus four days per week and a 10% deficit the remaining three days, and on your first deficit day of the week, you eat around maintenance. To accommodate this, you can simply eat in a 20% deficit the following day or a 15% deficit the following two days.

Or let’s say your plan is to be in a 10% surplus five days per week and 15% deficit two days per week, and you eat too much on your first deficit day, again putting you around maintenance. Instead of subjecting yourself to a rather large deficit the following day (30%), you can just eat in a 15% deficit for the next two days (one rest day and one training day).

Obviously the fewer “mistakes” you make, the better your results will be in the long term, but so long as you get things mostly right most of the time, you can benefit greatly from calorie cycling.

If you’re wondering about eating in a slight surplus on training days and maintenance on rest days, this can make sense if you’re only training two or three days per week because it’ll noticeably reduce fat gain. If you’re training more than that, however, it’s not going to help much, so I’d recommend either choosing the lean bulk and mini-cut approach or surplus and deficit calorie cycling.

So, the bottom line on calorie cycling for building muscle is this:

It’s unnecessary and often counterproductive unless you’re an advanced weightlifter who wants to stay relatively lean for longer periods of time.

How to Make a Calorie Cycling Meal Plan

calorie cycling meal plan

At this point, you’re probably ready to learn how to put all of this into practice, so let’s get into the nuts and bolts of setting up a calorie cycling meal plan.

There are many different ways to go about it, but I recommend you rotate between three levels of calorie intake, depending on your goals:

  1. A high-calorie day of about 10% above maintenance calories
  2. A low-calorie day of about 20% below maintenance calories
  3. A medium-calorie day of about maintenance calories

There are extreme versions of calorie cycling out there that involve alternating between very-low and very-high calorie days, but I don’t recommend this approach.

While some of these protocols can “work,” they’re far more trouble than they’re worth and usually produce worse long-term results than the more reasonable, moderate method I’m going to teach you here.

If you’re not sure how to calculate your maintenance calories, read this article on your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).

Also, remember that when you’re calorie cycling, you still have to plan and track your macros if you want to get the best results.

How to Make a Calorie Cycling Meal Plan for Losing Weight

Before using calorie cycling on a cut, the first thing to consider is your body fat percentage.

We recall that if you’re over 15% as a man or 25% as a woman, calorie cycling doesn’t have much to offer over “regular” dieting (eating the same calories and macros every day).

If you’re below 15% (men) or 25% (women) body fat, however, then you may want to consider cycling your calories when cutting.

And specifically, I recommend you create a meal plan that provides five low-calorie days and two medium-calorie days. You can arrange these days however you’d like, but I recommend you place your medium-calorie days on or before the days of your hardest workouts.

If you train first thing in the morning, as I do, or in the afternoon, schedule your medium-calorie days so they precede training days, and if you train in the evenings, schedule them on training days.

This way, you give your body enough time to maximize muscle glycogen levels, which will have a positive impact on your performance.

For example, here’s how I’d do it:

  • Monday (Press Day): Medium-calorie day
  • Tuesday (Lower Body Day): Low-calorie day
  • Wednesday (Shoulder Day): Medium-calorie day
  • Thursday (Pull Day): Low-calorie day
  • Friday (Upper Body Day): Low-calorie day
  • Saturday (Rest): Low-calorie day
  • Sunday (Rest): Low-calorie day

And if I trained in the evenings, it’d look like this:

  • Monday (Press Day): Low-calorie day
  • Tuesday (Lower Body Day): Medium-calorie day
  • Wednesday (Shoulder Day): Low-calorie day
  • Thursday (Pull Day): Medium-calorie day
  • Friday (Upper Body Day): Low-calorie day
  • Saturday (Rest): Low-calorie day
  • Sunday (Rest): Low-calorie day

Let’s talk macros next. Here’s what I recommend:

  • Your protein intake should remain at 1 gram per pound of body weight.
  • Your fat intake should remain at 30% of calories.
  • Your carb intake should comprise the remainder of your calories.

So, using myself as an example, here’s how a low-calorie day would look:

  • 195 grams of protein (780 calories)
  • 55 grams of fat (495 calories)
  • 280 grams carbs (1,120 calories)
  • About 2,400 calories

And a medium-calorie day:

  • 195 grams of protein (780 calories)
  • 65 grams of fat (585 calories)
  • 410 grams of carbs (1,640 calories)
  • About 3,000 calories

Once you have your numbers, all you have to do next is turn them into a meal plan that you enjoy and stick to it.

How to Make a Calorie Cycling Meal Plan for Building Muscle

calorie cycling for muscle gain

When you’re calorie cycling on a lean bulk, I recommend the following:

  • Four or five training days per week: Five high-calorie days and two low-calorie days per week
  • Two or three training days per week: Four high-calorie days and three low-calorie days per week

As the size of your surplus on high-calorie days will be smaller than the size of your deficit on low-calorie days, your total weekly calorie intake will more or less even out to maintenance.

If, however, you find you’re losing weight as time goes on, swap a low-calorie day for a high-calorie one. Similarly, if you find you’re gaining weight too quickly, turn a high-calorie day into a low-calorie one.

Where you place your high-calorie days doesn’t matter much and you can move them around week to week, but I like to place them on the same days I train.

I train Monday through Friday and take the weekends off, so here’s how I’d do it if I were lean bulking:

  • Monday: High-calorie day
  • Tuesday: High-calorie day
  • Wednesday: High-calorie day
  • Thursday: High-calorie day
  • Friday: High-calorie day
  • Saturday: Low-calorie day
  • Sunday: Low-calorie day

If you’re training less than five days per week, I suggest you still start with five high-calorie and two low-calorie days per week, then adjust as needed.

If you’re training two days per week or less, then I recommend you follow a different training program if you want to lean bulk.

Let’s now look at how those calories should translate into macronutrients:

  • Your protein intake should remain at 1 gram per pound of body weight.
  • Your fat intake should remain at 20% of calories.
  • Your carb intake should be the remainder of your calories.

For me, a high-calorie day would look like this, then:

  • 195 grams of protein (780 calories)
  • 75 grams of fat (675 calories)
  • 460 grams of carbs (1,840)
  • About 3,300 calories

And my low-calorie days would look like this:

  • 195 grams of protein (780 calories)
  • 55 grams of fat (495 calories)
  • 280 grams of carbs (1,120 calories)
  • About 2,400 calories

Creating the actual meal plan is next, which you can learn more about here if you’re not sure how to do it.

How to Make a Calorie Cycling Meal Plan for Maintaining

When you’re calorie cycling for maintenance, I recommend the following:

  • Four or five training days per week: Five high-calorie days and two low-calorie days per week.
  • Two or three training days per week: Four high-calorie days and three low-calorie days per week.

And for your macros, you can set them up in the same way as when lean bulking.

The Bottom Line on Calorie Cycling

calorie cycling for weight loss

Calorie cycling is a method of dieting that involves planned increases and decreases in calorie intake throughout the week, typically in the form of raising or lowering carbs.

Most calorie cycling protocols involve high-calorie days where you increase your calories and low-calorie days where you decrease your calories, mostly from fat or carbs or both.

Many people claim calorie cycling allows you to “hack” your metabolism so you can . . .

  • Drastically increase fat loss by supercharging your metabolism, reducing hunger, and providing more energy for your workouts
  • Build muscle and lose fat at the same time by using calorie surpluses to fuel muscle growth and calorie deficits to strip away fat
  • Make steady muscle and strength gains while staying absolutely shredded

The truth is that it doesn’t really do any of those things.

When it comes to fat loss, calorie cycling doesn’t offer any benefits until you get below 15% body fat as a man or 25% body fat as a woman. In other words, when you’re lean and wanting to get really lean.

When that’s the case, calorie cycling can make getting leaner more enjoyable, but it doesn’t have any special inherent fat-burning advantages.

When it comes to staying lean, calorie cycling may help you more comfortably maintain low body fat levels than with traditional dieting methods, but it won’t reverse the negative side effects associated with staying very lean.

And when it comes to building muscle, calorie cycling has nothing to offer beginner or intermediate lifters. Unless you’ve already attained most of your genetic potential for muscle growth—which takes five or so years of consistent and proper training and dieting—it’s more of a hindrance than a help.

If you’re an advanced weightlifter looking to make slow, steady muscle and strength gains while staying lean, however, calorie cycling can help. Progress will be slower than if you maintain a constant calorie surplus, but you’ll gain more fat that way as well.

And just to clarify: by “lean,” I mean around 8 to 12% body fat for men and 18 to 22% body fat for women. In other words, athletic and cut but not “peeled.”

If you’re already around this level of leanness and want to make maintenance more enjoyable, calorie cycling can help by mitigating some of the negative side effects of staying lean.

Although calorie cycling doesn’t “cure” these problems, it does prolong the amount of time you can stay very lean before you strongly feel the need to raise your body fat to a higher, more sustainable level.

Want to learn more about effective meal planning for losing fat, building muscle, and gaining strength? Check out these articles:

The Definitive Guide to Effective Meal Planning

Meal Prep Made Easy: How to Make the Perfect Meal Prep

This Is the Best TDEE Calculator on the Web (2019)

The Complete Guide to Safely and Healthily Losing Weight Fast

How Much Protein You Should Eat to Build Muscle

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What’s your take on calorie cycling? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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