If you’re a savvy gymgoer, you probably think “calorie cycling” sounds like another fitness gewgaw that’s unlikely to help anyone build muscle and lose fat.

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 is basically all sizzle and no steak. If you’re a beginner or intermediate weightlifter (up to 4 years of proper eating and training) who’s looking to build muscle, all you’re going to get from the bargain is complexified meal planning and prepping. 

If, however, you find dieting for fat loss unbearably difficult, and think you’d benefit from structured “diet breaks” from time to time, calorie cycling may be able to help (even if it means fat loss will be slightly slower).

Likewise, if you’re an advanced weightlifter who wants to minimize fat gain while lean bulking, calorie cycling might have something to offer you.

Keep reading to find out what calorie cycling is and how to use calorie cycling for weight loss and muscle gain.

What Is Calorie Cycling (a.k.a “The Zig Zag Diet”)?

Calorie cycling—also known as the “zig zag diet,” “zig zag calorie cycling,” or the “calorie shifting diet”—is a method of eating that involves planned increases and decreases in calorie intake, usually by eating more or less carbohydrate

There are many calorie cycling protocols to choose from, but most alternate (or “zig zag”) between high-, medium-, and low-calorie days throughout the week.

  • On high-calorie days, you typically consume more calories than you burn.
  • On medium-calorie days, you typically consume as many calories as you burn.
  • On low-calorie days, you typically consume fewer calories than you burn.

The exact mix of your high-, medium-, and low-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. 

If you want to gain muscle and strength while minimizing fat gain, you can flip this layout 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.

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Calorie Cycling for Weight Loss

Any diet that has you maintain a calorie deficit over an extended period will cause weight loss, regardless of when and how you consume those calories. 

As such, calorie cycling isn’t inherently better for weight loss than any other diet that helps you maintain a calorie deficit.

That said, the reason some people like to use calorie cycling to lose weight is they find it easier to stick to than other forms of dieting.

You see, keeping to a diet isn’t always a snip.

When you restrict calories for a sustained period of time you trigger a cascade of unfavorable hormonal changes in your body, such as . . .

. . . all of which work to reduce energy expenditure and increase energy intake by jacking up hunger, decreasing motivation to move and exercise, and slowing metabolic rate.

In other words, the longer your diet drags on, the more difficult it is to stick to it.

The idea behind calorie cycling, though, is that you periodically raise your calorie intake to give yourself a respite from these symptoms. Think of it as coming up for a breather before going heads-down for another lap in the pool.

You have many options in terms of how you set this up, with some people maintaining a calorie deficit for 4 or 5 days followed by a 2-to-3 day diet break, and others dieting for several weeks before taking a 1-week diet break.

Typically, you raise your calories to maintenance levels (enough to maintain your body weight) during a diet break. This isn’t a “cheat day” (or week), and it’s still important to control your food intake during these breaks.

Some people also claim that these diet breaks allow your body to right the hormonal or metabolic wrongs that make dieting more difficult, and in doing so, keep dietary bugaboos at bay so you have an easier time losing weight.

While it’s a neat theory, more and more evidence is showing the benefits of calorie cycling for weight loss are more fiction than fact. 

For example, in a study conducted by scientists at The University of Western Australia researchers found that people who took regular diet breaks lost the same amount of weight and had the same metabolic rates as people who dieted continuously.

What’s more, taking diet breaks had no significant effect on hormones that are associated with hunger, muscle mass, and metabolic rate, such as ghrelin, testosterone, leptin, or thyroid hormone.

The only major difference was that people who took diet breaks reported feeling less hungry and irritable and more full and satisfied despite eating in a calorie deficit, and more alert than those who dieted continuously. 

In other words, taking diet breaks wasn’t superior on a physiological level—it didn’t lead to more fat loss, higher metabolic rate, or favourable hormone levels—but it did make dieting feel more comfortable for some of the participants.

While this may be beneficial for some folks, these modest benefits would have to be weighed against the simplicity of traditional dieting: calculate your calories and macros, plan and prep your meals, then stick with it until you hit your target.

Calorie cycling requires you to micromanage the exact number of calories you eat every day to be over, under, or at maintenance, which adds a level of complexity that can be confusing, especially if you’re new to proper dieting.

What’s more, depending on how you set up your zig zag diet, it will probably take you longer to reach your goal weight than it would if you maintained a calorie deficit during your entire diet.

For example, if you eat in a deficit for five day per week, then at maintenance for the remaining two, that’s almost 30% of your time spent not losing weight. Put another way, if it was going to take you three months of dieting to reach your goal weight using a traditional diet, it would take almost four months using zigzag calorie cycling.

Another reason calorie cycling isn’t optimal for everyone is exactly what makes it great for others: regular breaks from dieting.

While some view these breaks as a welcome reprieve and a chance to regroup before another round of dieting, others prefer a more dogged approach where they gut out the diet until the job’s done.

In summary, some people may find that calorie cycling makes dieting feel easier, which may help them stick to their diet. 

That said, based on the weight of the scientific evidence, it looks like this isn’t the case for most people, especially when weighed against the downsides (much more time spent dieting). 

Calorie Cycling for Muscle Gain

Calorie cycling isn’t for people new to weightlifting who want to maximize muscle gain. 

So long as they eat enough calories and protein every day, they’ll make rapid progress, and complicating things with calorie cycling will only detract from that. 

Even an intermediate weightlifter is better off keeping it simple when lean bulking: eat about 10% more calories every day than you burn, do a lot of heavy weightlifting, and once you’re around 15-to-17% body fat (men) or 25-to-27% body fat (women), cut down to a body fat percentage that you’re comfortable with (normally around 10% for men, or 20% for woman).

Rinse and repeat until you’re an advanced weightlifter (someone with at least 3+ years of productive strength training who’s achieved 80% or more of their genetic potential for muscle growth).

Only then is it worth considering using calorie cycling to build muscle. When an advanced lifter wants to make slow, steady muscle and strength gains while staying lean (10-to-12% body fat for men or 20-to-22% for women), calorie cycling is a viable option (but certainly not a “hack.”)

It works well for advanced weightlifters, because once you’ve gained most of the muscle and strength available to you genetically, progress slows to a crawl and your body doesn’t need as many additional calories to continue progressing.

The good news is while muscle growth becomes more elusive as we get bigger and stronger, the smaller calorie surplus required to keep progressing diminishes fat gain. So much so that you can lean bulk for many months before your body-fat levels rise high enough to warrant a cutting phase.

If you look around online for how to lean bulk, the usual advice you’ll see is to maintain a slight calorie surplus of about 10% more calories than you burn every day (including rest days and days you lift weights). 

Calorie cycling for lean bulking works much the same way, except you eat at maintenance or in a deficit on your rest days.

For example, you could maintain a slight calorie surplus for five days per week and then eat at maintenance or in a deficit for two days per week. 

In theory, this creates a “maintenance with benefits” scenario where you can gain muscle slowly with very little fat storage.

Which sounds great . . . but doesn’t quite pan out in practice.

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 of days per week, you tap the brakes on muscle growth and sacrifice some potential gains.

Additionally, many people find it difficult to stick to the plan, because it takes some enjoyment out of lean bulking. Even if you’re not much of a foodie, it’s nice to eat a bit off-plan now and then. When you’re calorie cycling, however, you must pay closer attention to your day-to-day calorie intake. 

Also, 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 off days less enjoyable. 

Finally, it’s debatable how much this really reduces fat gain versus just maintaining a smaller average calorie surplus throughout your bulk. For instance, it beggars belief that a 200-calorie surplus every day would really be any worse than maintaining a 300-calorie surplus five days per week. 

And as I mentioned a moment ago, there are good reasons to think calorie cycling may be slightly worse for muscle growth than maintaining the same calorie intake every day.

One reason to use calorie cycling during a lean bulk, though, is to minimize the damage from periodic overeating.

If you eat a bit too much on a surplus day or two (easy to do when eating out), you can always eat a bit less a few other days during the week to countervail any fat gain. 

How to Make a Calorie Cycling Meal Plan

There are many ways to configure a calorie-cycling meal plan, but depending on your goals, I recommend you rotate between three levels of calorie intake: 

  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 these. 

While such protocols can work, they’re far more trouble than they’re worth and usually produce worse results than the more reasonable, moderate method I’ll teach you here.

How to Use Calorie Cycling for Weight Loss

If you want to use calorie cycling for weight loss, you need to follow two rules:

1. You must get most of your extra calories on higher-calorie days from carbs.

This is because eating carbohydrates favourably affects hormone levels in your body and eases some negative side effects of calorie restriction. It’s also a good idea to keep protein intake high, as this increases your body sensitivity to these hormones which is important for regulating appetite.

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

The hormone-enhancing effects of carbs are short-lived. Thus, over time, your hormone levels balance out, 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 influence hormone levels enough to impact your physiology. It takes at least a couple of days (and sometimes up to a week or two) for your brain to recognize what’s happening and respond positively.

Therefore, by raising your calories to maintenance two-to-three days per week and staying in a deficit otherwise, you can reap the (theoretical) benefits of calorie cycling.

With these rules in mind, I recommend you organize your calorie cycling for weight loss meal plan so that it provides five low-calorie days and two medium-calorie days. You can arrange these days however you 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 or in the afternoon, schedule medium-calorie days so they precede training days. If you train in the evenings, schedule them on training days. This way, you give your body time to maximize muscle glycogen levels, which will boost your weightlifting performance.

For example, here’s how you might do it on the 5-day program:

Weekly-Calorie-Cycling-Meal-Plan-Morning

And if you trained in the evenings, it could look like this:

Weekly-Calorie-Cycling-Meal-Plan-Evening

My total daily energy expenditure is around 2,900 calories on my lifting days (five per week) and 2,500 on my rest days (two days per week), putting my total weekly calorie expenditure around 19,500.

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 of carbs (1,120 calories)
  • Totaling around 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)
  • Totaling around 3,000 calories

This would put me in a calorie deficit of around 1,500 calories for the week.

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 Use Calorie Cycling for Building Muscle

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

  • Four or five training days per week: Five high-calorie and two low-calorie days per week
  • Three training days per week: Four high-calorie 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, swap a low-calorie day for a high-calorie one. Similarly, if you’re gaining weight too quickly (more than 0.5 to 1% of body weight per month), 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 for them to fall on training days. I train Monday through Friday and take the weekends off, so here’s how I’d do it:

  • 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

And for me, a high-calorie day would look like this:

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

And a low-calorie day:

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

FAQ #1: Is calorie cycling good for fat loss?

It can be.

Any diet that has you maintain a calorie deficit over an extended period will cause fat loss, regardless of when and how you consume those calories. 

As such, calorie cycling isn’t inherently better for fat loss than any other diet that helps you maintain a calorie deficit.

However, if you find that calorie cycling makes maintaining a calorie deficit feel easier and it helps you stick to your diet, it’s worth trying.

(Oh, and if you aren’t sure if calorie cycling is right for you or if another diet might be a better fit for your circumstances and goals, then take the Legion Diet Quiz! In less than a minute, it’ll tell you exactly what diet is right for you. Click here to check it out.)

FAQ #2: How do I know how many calories to eat on my high-, low- and medium-calorie days?

All of these numbers are based on your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), which is a mathematical estimate of how many total calories you burn throughout the day based on your weight, height, age, and activity level.

The best way to calculate them is to use the TDEE calculator here.

FAQ #3: Which supplements should I take to speed up fat loss on a zig zag diet?

As long as the total number of calories you consume each week is lower than the total number of calories you burn, you’ll lose weight whether you take fat-loss supplements or not.

That said, if you’d like to speed the process up, there are a few supplements you can take to help. (And if you’d like to know exactly what supplements to take to reach your fitness goals, take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz.)

The best fat-loss supplements for are:

  • 3-to-6 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight per day. This will raise the number of calories you burn and also increases strength, muscle endurance, and anaerobic performance. If you want a clean, delicious source of caffeine that also contains five other ingredients that will boost your workout performance, try Pulse.
  • 0.1 to 0.2 milligrams of yohimbine per kilogram of bodyweight before training. This increases fat loss when used in conjunction with fasted training, and is particularly helpful with losing “stubborn” fat. If you want a 100% natural source of yohimbine that also contains two other ingredients that will help you lose fat faster, preserve muscle, and maintain training intensity and mental sharpness, try Forge.
  • One serving of Phoenix per day. Phoenix is a 100% natural fat burner that speeds up your metabolism, enhances fat burning, and reduces hunger and cravings. You can also get Phoenix with caffeine, or without.

+ Scientific References

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