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Gain Muscle and Lose Fat: Improving the Zig-Zag Method

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The zigzag diet is an intriguing concept with many adherents because of the way you can create a calorie deficit by alternating your calorie intake without suppressing your metabolism. This is not effective for several reasons.

  1. The decrease in metabolic rate usually follows a decrease in weight or activity level, which makes perfect sense. A sensible calorie restriction program will not adversely affect your metabolism until you are very lean.
  2. For a zigzag diet to be as effective as regular calorie restriction, it must create the same deficit as a regular calorie deficit. This often involves very low calorie days to make up for higher calorie days, which some find more difficult than a regular diet.

So the zigzag diet is pretty average in this regard, but what if we want to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time? It will be very useful.

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This is not the zig zag diet in its usual form. It’s strategic, it involves calorie restriction, and most importantly, it’s very effective. So.. How does it work?

It’s really quite simple, acute periods of over- and undernutrition allow small-scale anabolism and catabolism to occur in continuous cycles until the effects are very pronounced.

The traditional stuffing and pruning cycle usually occurs annually, with stuffing in the fall/winter months and pruning in the spring/summer months. That’s fine, I still see it as a very respectable way to build muscle and control fat year after year, but this article begs the question, is there a more efficient way?

An add-a-little, a-little-take approach may be better for the average person without a serious investment of time, and may in fact be better for many natural bodybuilders. What are the benefits of this?

You’re not losing as much fat like an annual bulk cut cycle, but we may be able to add just as much muscle mass. There is a clear pattern of muscle gain after a stimulus, in our case this is the last session we trained in, but this is only brief, if this is the case excess calories on non-training days may be unnecessary and can contribute for fat gain.

The solution is a diet that provides extra energy when it’s needed to build muscle and a diet that doesn’t accumulate calories during times when it’s not being used well. This can be used in a number of ways, it can be used to help maintain muscle mass very well while dieting or it can be used to minimize fat storage when you are on your way to building muscle.

With the zigzag method, it is important to count not only daily calorie intake, but also weekly calorie intake. Your intake can be high on training days and low on non-training days, but it also needs to show some direction, whether it’s gaining weight or losing weight, the overall effect being determined by weekly calorie intake.

Applications of the Zig-Zag method

muscle building

For example, a person wanting to gain muscle mass could eat 500 calories above maintenance requirements on non-training days and training days. If a person works out three times a week, that equates to a weekly surplus of 1500 calories per week. Some would consider this a modest excess, but this method is very effective for putting those excess calories exactly where you want them, into new muscle. The net effect is weight gain, and most of that weight is probably muscle mass.

lose fat

A person looking to lose weight and maintain or possibly gain muscle while on a diet would take a slightly different approach and this is where you need to remember that calorie intake is always important. The same person wanting to lose fat could eat 500-1000 calories below maintenance needs on non-training days and 250 calories above maintenance needs on training days, this would equate to a weekly deficit of between 2750 and 6250, resulting in between 1 and 1.5 pounds loss means per week, that might not sound like a lot, but sheer fat loss is the best way to go in terms of body composition.


Recomposition is the process of replacing fat with muscle by keeping calories the same and doing resistance training to increase muscle mass relative to fat mass in your body. This can only be done on a small scale, since it is possible to lose a lot of fat in a relatively short period of time, muscle mass is built slowly and gradually. A person who is untrained can gain two pounds of muscle and lose two pounds of fat every month and their weight would stay the same, although over the longer term you might find that gaining a pound of muscle mass per month is more average. The appeal of the recomposition is that despite the same weight, the body will look much better than if you lost two pounds or gained two pounds separately. If you need to lose quite a bit of fat or gain muscle, then the above methods are better for you.

An example of a recomposition program would be someone consuming 500 more calories on each of the three training days and consuming 500 fewer calories on three of the four non-training days, eating only at trickle charge for the remainder of the day. This would keep calorie intake and weight about the same, and with adequate training, recovery, and protein intake, fat would be lost and muscle built over time.

This is one of the most effective diet strategies for losing fat and building muscle at the same time. Just try it for 6 weeks and you will be amazed at the difference you will see.

Thanks to Theo M Whittington

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