Do you need a bikini competition refeed?
See if this scenario sounds familiar: Your bikini coach has had you on a super low calorie/carb bikini competition diet nonstop for weeks with NO bikini competition refeed. You made some good progress at first, strength/performance in the gym was okay for a while, energy throughout the day wasn’t too terrible all things considered, and you still liked asparagus. Then as the weeks passed, you noticed a decline in energy, strength, and mood. You weren’t getting leaner anymore, and you were starting to notice a little water retention/bloating. Appetite and cravings were through the roof. Your ass may have even been sagging more than it was a few weeks prior when you were heavier. You were several weeks out from your competition still and not sure if you could make it, let alone look good enough to be competitive. Sound familiar?
If so, what you experienced was very common for anyone on a linear diet, especially one combined with intense training as with contest prep. You were probably told to keep pushing through and that eventually the weight would start dropping again. What you should have been told was that your hormones were all jacked up from over dieting and that you needed a refeed.
There are all sorts of variations of refeeds, ranging from really dumb to very beneficial. We’ll focus on the more common, tried and true version: the full day high carb/low fat refeed. With this version, you basically eat a much higher than normal amount of low-fructose carbs, moderate protein and low fat for a full day. This helps to refill muscle glycogen, turn off catabolism (temporarily), upregulate certain hormones and in many cases shed excess extracellular/subcutaneous water (that stuff around your stomach).
Now before I go any further I want to point out that its questionable whether bikini competitors really need to be dieting hard enough to ever need a refeed. Assuming they’re going into the pre-contest diet as lean as they ideally should be, the diet should be moderate enough that a refeed most likely won’t be necessary. A better approach would be to just find that sweet spot with food intake/training so performance in the gym is still good but you’re getting leaner at the desired rate. But nonetheless…if the symptoms in the first paragraph exist, a refeed is definitely something to consider, so I’ll continue.
So instead of rambling to the point where this turns into another 3 part series that takes me 6 months to finish, I’ll get right into how to set things up. Here it is step by step:
Step 1: Calculate your bikini competition refeed macros. For a refeed to work properly, you need to set it up to be at or a little above what your normal, non-dieting maintenance calories would be. Since you won’t likely put on any fat from just one day of high carbs, you’ll want to err on the side of more calories rather than less. We’ll say 2500 calories to be safe. The vast majority of this should be carbs. Since carbs are protein sparing, protein won’t need to be as high as it is on your normal diet. This will also help keep your stomach from blowing up, since protein takes longer to digest than most carbs. Fat MUST be kept low or you just might manage to put on some bodyfat during the process.
So unless you’re REALLY depleted, you should only need about 4-5g of carbs per pound of lean body mass. Since many of my readers have probably never done a proper refeed, we’ll start small and go with 4g/lb. So a female with 100lbs of lean body mass would consume 400g of carbs during a full day refeed. That’s 1600 calories of the 2500 we’re going for. So we have 900 calories left to work with. Fat we need to keep around 15% of our 2500 calories, so we’re looking at 375 of the remaining 900 calories coming from fat. Fat is 9 calories per gram, so that works out to 42 grams of fat. We now have 525 calories to get in from protein. Protein is 4 calories per gram, so that’s about 130 grams. This should be less protein than you’ve been consuming, but if you have circumstances that have required you go lower on the protein, you should keep refeed protein intake where it has been and just proportionately increase your carb intake to still hit the 2500 calorie target (or whatever your target happens to be).
I should also mention that when you’re eating 400+ grams of mostly starchy carbs, you’ll actually be getting a good amount of protein directly from those starches. This DOES count towards your protein intake for the day, so you really won’t be eating much in the way of animal protein compared to what you were likely eating on the diet. Be sure and use one of the many online databases to get all the macros from all your foods…tagalong fats, proteins and carbs can add up!
Step 2: Plan your meals and go shopping. Meals should be spaced out about 2.5-3 hours apart. This may be hard to do for those with full time jobs, so you may need to refeed on a day off from work. So we’re looking at about 6 meals on refeed day. Simply divide all your macros by 6 and now you have your per meal macros. If you plan to do a depletion workout (see below) the morning of the refeed, you can slip in some very fun high GI carbs at your first refeed (post workout) meal. You would probably get away with this even if you didn’t train, but its 100% guilt free if you did.
Protein sources will need to be very, very lean. Egg whites, 99% lean ground turkey, white fish, skinless chicken breast with all visible fat cut off, fat free greek yogurt, etc. Carbs will need to be primarily starches. If you tend to bloat easily, lower fiber starches will be your best bet (white rice, rice cakes, etc) and you’ll want to watch the gluten. Otherwise, the typical sweet potatoes, yams, brown rice, etc will work well (you should probably still peel the potatoes to bring fiber down a bit). Most people do well with a mix, and some bagels here and there are fine too.
If you know you handle carbs fairly well, all you really have to do is make sure you keep fructose/sucrose/high fructose corn syrup to a minimum. Otherwise you can have any starchy carbs you normally do well with. Worst case if you choose the wrong starches you’ll just be a little puffier for a day or two longer, but you won’t gain bodyfat unless you overdo the fructose or fat.
There should be room for just a little healthy fat such as nuts, nut butters, olive oil, etc…but measure this out VERY carefully. It doesn’t take being off by much with fats to put you over by enough to gain fat during your refeed. Don’t let this scare you into cutting fat out completely though…your refeed will not work as well if you do this.
No veggies or fruits on refeed day. Fiber will already be very high, so more will just bloat you and put you on the toilet all day. You’ll want to drink extra water on refeed day…probably 50% more than normal, or about 6-8qts. This will ensure that the glycogen gets stored as well as prevent any increase in sodium from leading to water retention.
One thing I strongly recommend is figuring out exactly how much of each carb source you need prior to shopping and buying ONLY that amount. That way you’re not tempted the next day to keep carbing it up.
Step 3: Plan your pre and post refeed workouts. If you really need a refeed, you’re likely already depleted enough that this step isn’t crucial. But if its practical to do a 60-90 minute weight training session first thing in the morning it can help a little. You’ll basically be depleting any remaining glycogen in each muscle group and increasing insulin sensitivity in your muscles, thereby causing them to take in more glycogen than they normally would (supercompensation). So you get the full effect of the refeed. Again…its optional…the refeed will still work fine if you can’t fit this in.
If you can fit it in, you’ll want to do a full body workout with 1-2 exercises for each major muscle group. Go with mostly machine training, and choose the ones you seem to “feel” the most in the targeted muscles. Do 3-4 sets of 15-20 reps with no more than 60 seconds rest between sets. Squeeze and make it burn as much as possible…that’s your gauge as to how well you’re depleting. This will be a very tough workout if you’re already depleted enough that you need a refeed.
Even if you can’t fit a pre-refeed depletion workout in, you should DEFINITELY do a post refeed heavy/power workout to take advantage of your topped off glycogen stores. This can be another full body workout, but choose big, compound lifts, starting with your top-priority areas first. Go lower to moderate rep (6-10) and take enough time between sets that you can go heavy each time. This will be done the day after the refeed…no training DURING the refeed as this will interfere with the replenishment process.
If your training is a little more set in stone, just sandwich the refeed in between two normally scheduled workouts. It would be good if you can plan to refeed the day before your weakest bodypart/workout, but if you REALLY need to refeed asap, or only have one day where you can eat every 2.5-3 hours, then just get it done. Again…it will work fine regardless of training setup.
Step 4: Refeed and assess the results. You will almost certainly weigh more the next morning, even if you already look leaner/tighter. This is normal and necessary, and just water/glycogen. You CANNOT put on a measurable amount of fat overnight, so don’t stress over the scale. It will go back down over the next few days as you burn off the newly stored glycogen during training and everyday tasks.
Take a good look at your body in the mirror. Are your muscles fuller and tighter? If not, you may not have gone high enough with the carbs, or you may have had too much fructose. If you’re bloated, fiber and/or gluten may have been too high (gluten can be an issue with refeeds even if you’re not intolerant, since you can ingest so much of it in this scenario). Wait for the bloating to go down and look in the mirror again.
If within a couple days post-refeed you look tighter and fuller, and you don’t have a competition coming up very soon, you may want to ease up on the diet a bit and at least put some more carbs around training sessions. This is really what most bikini competitors should be doing anyway, rather than being so aggressive that they hit the wall and need a big refeed.
A warning about crappy supplements aka “insulin sensitizers”: There are a number of supplements on the market touted to improve insulin sensitivity, thereby causing more of your ingested carbs to be stored in the muscles as glycogen, thereby increasing fat oxidation (burning). A very popular one, ALA or R-ALA is commonly recommended as a complement to refeeds. While this sounds very good, its not that simple. To gain any sort of advantage with increased insulin sensitivity, we need for insulin sensitivity to be increased ONLY in the muscles and not in the fat cells. ALA, R-ALA and all “insulin sensitizers” affect both the muscles and the fat cells, so yes, more of your carbs may go to the muscles, but more may go to fat cells as well, which is not what we want.
If getting technical doesn’t convince you, lets go with common sense: Do you really think the guy at the local supplement shop has the miracle pill we’ve all been waiting for and hardly anyone knows about it? We don’t even have a drug that can do what these supplements claim to do! Save your money. The only thing that increases insulin sensitivity in the muscles without also increasing it in fat cells is training…so train, and then eat 🙂
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