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New Approaches to PCT – Part II: Nutrition

PCT nutrition: not exactly a fascinating subject, so allow me to apologize in advance for this article reading like stereo instructions. Eating right is hard enough when you’re motivated, pharmaceutically enhanced, and turning heads every time you stroll down the beach. As you’re probably aware, it gets much harder when your muscles start to shrink – that freakish vascularity disappears, and the flab around your midsection settles comfortably back into place. Without even considering hormonal factors, the body changes alone are enough to kick-start the dreaded post-cycle depression. But hopefully you’ve read Part I: Supplementation by now, so you’re well on your way to defeating the PCT blues.

For starters, Part II of this article will be lacking in research studies and citations for a very good reason: universities and pharmaceutical companies don’t pay good money to figure out how to retain as much muscle and strength as possible after coming off a cycle of anabolics. Even those institutions that conduct anabolic research do so with the assumption that subjects will continue using said drugs (thus lining their proverbial pockets) for the remainder their natural life. This article will be based on the theories of those who have blazed trails for the modern bodybuilder, as well as the research of the leading names in performance nutrition today, i.e.: Lyle McDonald, Dr. Barry Sears (save your flames for the time being) and others; naturally including myself.

So who am I, you ask? Am I some hulking behemoth, with garden-hose vascularity running throughout my body and dehydrated-beef like striations abounding in every single muscle fiber? No. I am simply a recreationally bodybuilder; a man with a passion for the sport, a forty plus hour-a-week job, and a family to take care of. During the beach season, I try and get down to 6% body-fat. During the winter, I transform into a large mammal. Essentially, I am very much like most of you. In that sense, I am more qualified to write an article on post-cycle nutrition than some IFBB pro or fitness model that has twenty-four hours a day to prepare and eat meals, workout, and sleep. Now that we’ve got the formalities out of the way, it’s time to get down to the nuts and bolts of the nutritional approach to this PCT program.

Post Cutting-Cycle Nutrition

As it’s currently September, most of you are coming off a cutting cycle. It is quite common after cutting (especially in endomorphs), to put on muscle, or at least the appearance of it through glycogen re-compensation. This effect, though short lived, comes in handy for the first two weeks of PCT, as it aids in keeping up strength and workout intensity in the absence of anabolics. The main purpose of PCT nutrition post-cutting is to minimize fat gain HEALTH.

The best nutritional approach to accomplish this goal is an isocaloric diet, utilizing a 40/30/30 macronutrient ratio. Dr. Barry Sears first pioneered this approach in his Zoneâ diet. The Zoneâ diet is backed by numerous research studies that show a significant increase in thermogenesis in addition to lowered insulin secretion (1). Although many bodybuilders prefer a slightly higher protein and lower fat intake, i.e., 40/40/20, this choice varies depending on phenotype and individual preference. [AUTHOR’S NOTE: I prefer the term “phenotype” to “body type.” As they both basically describe the outward appearance of a person, “phenotype” just sounds more intellectual. Credit is due here to Loki, as he is the first author I know of to use the phrase “phenotype” in describing the endo/ecto/meso body types]. I personally find the 40/30/30 ratio better for keeping mental and physical energy levels up. If you do a lot of manual labor or other physical activity outside of the gym, 40/30/30 may be a better choice. Given this nutrient ratio (your post-cycle macronutrient based on 2500 calories a day), you’d wind up with 190g. of protein, 80g. of fat, and 250 g. of carbs. Endo and mesomorphs should be eating at maintenance, or slightly below during PCT depending on individual goals and calorie expenditure. Please note the italics around the word “slightly”—we’re still dealing with PCT nutrition. The initial bloat from ending a cutting diet/cycle is short lived and muscle catabolism is still a major issue. Restricting calories by more than 10% would be ill advised. While supplementation will help minimize muscle loss, nutrition is still the cornerstone of proper PCT. Keep in mind that many people overestimate their caloric expenditure, especially post-cycle.

There are a host of hormonal imbalances during PCT that reduce the calories you burn, including – but not limited to – low test, high cortisol, high estrogen, and lower thyroid levels (even if you don’t use T3). Depending on phenotype, LBM, and body fat, 1800 or 2000 calories would be more reasonable. This variance is also why some choose the 40/40/20 ratio, as it allows for more protein with less overall calories. For ectomorphs, I would highly advise eating a slightly hyper-caloric (10-15% above maintenance) 40/40/30 ratio. The reason being, in case you ectomorphs hadn’t noticed by now, ectos should be more concerned with retaining LBM than putting on fat. Mesomorphs obviously fall in the middle, and your nutritional approach should reflect that middle ground.

The Case Against Cyclical Dieting Post-Cycle

Cyclical diets are a phenomenal way to achieve ultra-low body fat levels, train for endurance events, and super-compensate muscle glycogen, with or without anabolics. However during PCT, the training intensity and drastically varying calorie intake involved in cyclical diets will delay hormonal recovery. These diets work best when an optimal (or enhanced) hormonal balance exists in the body. One exception may be Lyle McDonald’s “bulking variation” of his Ultimate Diet 2.0. Without giving away the prized information available in his book (Lyle’s site, forum, and books are available here), it’s basically a less intense version of the original diet and training plan. However, I would still recommend using an isocaloric diet for the first three weeks of PCT, until your hormonal feedback mechanisms start to normalize.

Post Bulking-Cycle Nutrition

If you’re all swole’d up from aromatizing compounds, plan on loosing between six and ten pounds of water. The supplements mentioned in Part I prevent water loss to a degree, but it will happen. Water weight loss isn’t as much of an issue with non-aromatizing compounds. Your main goal post-bulking is to hold onto that hard-earned muscle, and nutritional approaches are just as important as training and supplementation. Again, either isocaloric approach mentioned above should be utilized post-bulking.

Obviously, a hyper-caloric diet is a necessity here. Calorie increases along the lines of 10-15% for endo’s, 15-20% for meso’s, and 25-30% for ecto’s are a good starting point. Of course, if you’ve been bulking you’re probably already eating at this level. The only dietary changes should be in the types of food you consume. Due to the nutrient partitioning effects of anabolics, when on a bulking cycle you can get away with eating foods that would otherwise just make you fat. Post-cycle, you need to clean up your diet for both for health and body composition reasons.

Final Thoughts & Suggestions

Besides the changes in calorie intake and differences in phenotype, dietary principles for proper PCT are pretty much the same for all phenotypes, whether after a bulking or a cutting cycle. One important thing to keep in mind is that blood pressure and cholesterol/triglyceride levels are most likely through the roof post-cycle. Use of other (illegal and therefore not condoned by the author) compounds such as clenbuterol, T3, HGH, or any of the myriad bodybuilding drugs can further complicate post-cycle health concerns. Sodium, animal fat and cholesterol intake should be monitored and reduced. Meal frequency should stay the same: three meals, two snacks, one post-workout drink, or anyway you see fit to get in five-six meals a day. For recreational bodybuilders with actual lives and jobs to tend to, meal preparation is of the utmost importance, and also the utmost pain in the ass.

There are a few tricks that make preparing five-to-six meals a day a bit easier though. Cottage cheese and boiled eggs are easy to prepare ahead of time, have a decent shelf life, and make a convenient, high protein, albeit boring breakfast. Empty water/soda bottles (dried on a windowsill or heater) and a funnel make great, leak-proof, disposable shaker bottles, and can be prepared the night before work with protein, oatmeal, BCAA’s, or just about anything that doesn’t require refrigeration (just don’t add the water until you are ready to consume your concoction).

As far as protein powder is concerned, Micellar Casein and milk protein isolate are preferable to whey for PCT purposes as they are slower digesting and thus more anti-catabolic. Protein bars are king for convenience, but expensive and often made with inferior products, with a few exceptions. Some of my personal favorites are Chef Jay’s Tri-O-Plex® bars for their taste and the satiety they provide, and Zone® bars for their price ($10 for a box of 15 at Walmart®)

In addition to convenience, some foods can actually help with PCT in more ways than one. Avocado is loaded with phyto-nutrients shown to lower cholesterol, protect the prostate, reduce body weight and reduce hepatic fat, thus improving liver function (1, 2). Oats and other high-fiber products contain phyto-nutrients and vitamins such as niacin that help reduce cholesterol. Fish and nuts are loaded with heart-healthy EFA’s. The lesson here is simple: put in the effort to choose your food wisely and prepare it ahead of time.

The only exception to my urging of either a 40/30/30 or 40/40/20 isocaloric diet is in the post-workout drink, which should be either 60/40/0 or 75/25/0. Many bodybuilding “gurus” are proponents of high glycemic carbs post workout while some prefer low-glycemic carbs. Being a major proponent of “middle ground” myself, I choose a mix: something along the lines of 40g. dextrose, 30g. oatmeal, and 40g. protein.

The nutritional approaches outlined in this article are not new or groundbreaking. In fact, much of it is common sense. So why then is it part of my series: “New Approaches to PCT?” This article is simply part of the whole. When the “common sense” nutritional guidelines in this article are combined with the supplement regimen outlined in Part I, and the training recommendations that will be featured in Part III, they form like Voltron to create a three-tiered attack on post-cycle muscle wasting, hormonal imbalances, and health problems.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:I realize that Part III won’t be out until October, so feel free to PM me on the forum with any questions or suggestions you may have about post-cycle training principles. I apologize for the inconvenience, however the article needed to be split up into three sections.

References:

1: Carol S. Johnston, PhD, FACN, Carol S. Day, MS, and Pamela D. Swan, PhD. “Postprandial Thermogenesis Is Increased 100% on a High-Protein, Low-Fat Diet versus a High-Carboydrate, Low-Fat Diet in Healthy, Young Women.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol. 21, No. 1, 55-61 (2002)

2: Naveh E, Werman MJ, Sabo E, Neeman I. “Defatted avocado pulp reduces body weight and total hepatic fat but increases plasma cholesterol in male rats fed diets with cholesterol.” Department of Food Engineering and Biotechnology, Technion, Israel. Journal of Nutrition. 2002 Jul;132(7):2015-8.

3: Colquhoun DM, Moores D, Somerset SM, Humphries JA. “Comparison of the effects on lipoproteins and apolipoproteins of a diet high in monounsaturated fatty acids, enriched with avocado, and a high-carbohydrate diet.” Dietary Department, Wesley Hospital, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Am J Clin Nutr. 1992 Oct;56(4):671-7

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