Gaining Muscle and Losing Fat: The ABCDE Diet Experiment

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Gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time is often held up as the Holy Grail of body recomposition. A desirable goal, that advanced or even intermediate trainees are now told is only possible for beginners or those using chemical means.

Today’s post examines the rather lengthy sounding Anabolic Burst Cycle of Diet and Exercise or ABCDE, an eating program devised in the late 1990s by scientist/bodybuilder Torbjorn Akerfeldt, the ABCDE promised to promote both muscle growth and fat loss amongst drug-free trainees. Publicised in detail by Muscle Magazine in 2000, the diet quickly became the de rigour form of eating for gym goers across the world…at least initially.

Though simple in design, as we shall see, the ABCDE proved to be hugely ineffective for some as reports of excessive fat gain were numerous. Nevertheless, some have achieved good recompositions using the approach, making it worthy of our attention.

ABCDE Diet for Dummies

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In its simplest form, the ABCDE diet can be understood as a series of caloric cycles each month consisting of bulking and dieting. Regarding the former, trainees in the bulking cycle would consume roughly 140% of their maintenance calories for two weeks before switching to a cutting cycle of 90% of their maintenance intake.

Now given that the diet’s originator,  Torbjorn Akerfeldt was a scientist by nature, his explanations were much more learned and nuanced than mine given above. With this in mind, I have spliced together some of Akerfeldt’s key claims about the diet made during a series of interviews with Muscle Mag’s Bill Phillips.

Why Bulking is Necessary…within reason!

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Overfeeding your body is actually more anabolic [causes more muscle growth] than training with weights! Unfortunately, overfeeding also produces an undesirable increase in fat mass, which is contrary to what most bodybuilders seek—they work to build a lean, muscular physique, not simply one that takes up more space.
The tricky part of developing my new theory, which I’ve been working on for years, was to find a way to harness the body’s natural “calorie-induced” anabolic potential while somehow finding a way to not increase bodyfat stores significantly. The secret is acute calorie cycling or ABCDE.

But won’t the body simply adapt to the ABCDE’s cycles?

I don’t think it can. As long as you drastically increase calories, then reduce calories during each cycle, the body has to respond the way it’s programmed to. I would recommend that someone keep doing high- and low-calorie cycles, back to back, as long as they continue to gain muscle with each cycle.

…Basically what I’m saying here is that we have a small time window of about 14 days–long enough for muscle hypertrophy to occur, while short enough to keep a substantial amount of fat from being stored in the adipose tissue.

What can I expect?

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 During the two-week bulking phase, you can eat just about anything you want, which is actually fun–guilt-free ice cream and Swedish meatballs! If you begin an overfeeding program after a diet, within a matter of days, you’ll notice an increase in muscle fullness and strength. It’s absolutely “drug like” the way your body changes so rapidly.

The dieting phase is fairly difficult, but restricting calorie intake for just two weeks is nothing compared to what many bodybuilders do–starving themselves for two, three, or even four months to get ready for a photo shoot or contest. Every time I get hungry, I always know it will be only a matter of days before I can eat just about anything I want again. This helps compliance a great deal.

During my dieting phases, I have been able to lose virtually all of the fat I gained on my bulking cycles while dropping only a couple pounds of lean mass. You might think of the ABCDE as a two-steps-forward, one-step-back program.

 

If the Bulking Phase is something of a free-for-all, what nutrient partitioning should the low-calorie phase have?

As you know, fat loss is all but impossible in the presence of elevated insulin levels—a high-carbohydrate diet will severely inhibit fat oxidation. Also, if you followed a high-carbohydrate diet during the low-calorie phase, the accompanying increase in fat oxidation would make you put on a lot of fat during the next bulking phase.
Nevertheless, carbohydrates also have some very important properties during a hypocaloric diet, such as keeping GH and IGF-1 primed. Therefore, it’s almost necessary to perform “microcycles” for optimal results.

How do I calculate my Calories?

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A rough guideline–a place to start–would be to take your bodyweight times 12 [to approximate maintenance-calorie intake for an individual who’s not extremely active] and add 1,500 calories to this number. For example, a person who weighs 200 lbs, like yourself, would consume about 4,000 calories a day during the bulking phase [200 x 12 = 2,400 + 1,500]. On the low-calorie phase, I would recommend consuming a number of calories equal to your bodyweight times eight. That would be about 1,600 calories [200 x 8 = 1,600].

This is just a rough place to start–a person’s activity level [whether they have desk jobs or are construction workers could make a big difference] and a person’s muscle mass and metabolism also come into play. If a bodybuilder is following this recommendation and not gaining weight during a bulking phase, I would recommend increasing calorie intake by 500 calories a day, for a week, and if a substantial weight gain is not realized, I would take it up 500 more calories the next week.

Likewise, if someone is not losing bodyweight on the low-calorie phase, I would recommend decreasing calorie intake by 300 calories a day, per week.

What About Meal Frequency?

I’m a proponent of frequent feeding–I think you should eat every three hours or so during the day for optimum results. This would mean you’d consume five or six meals a day.

Tracking your Progress

I would highly recommend that all those who try this system keep track of their calories as best they can, simply by writing down what they eat each day, the time they eat it, and do their best to calculate how many calories they’re consuming–this data could be recorded in a notebook or journal. Having a record of what you’ve done will allow you to troubleshoot your program very effectively. If you’re not gaining a significant amount of weight [at least three pounds a week during the bulking phase], then you need to increase your calorie intake. During the cutting phase, if you don’t lose weight, you need to consume less calories. It’s very simple to make adjustments on this program.

In addition to keeping a journal, it would also be very beneficial to keep track of your body composition and actually maintain an updated line graph [like the one shown below] to gauge your progress.

 

How Should I Structure My Training on the Diet?

This is an area that can also get quite complex, but for the time being, I think it would be sufficient to say that during the bulking phase, you should avoid aerobic exercise and conduct heavy, intense weight-training sessions. As energy, strength, and recovery levels will be heightened during this period, you might be able to train with weights five days a week. When I’m on my high-calorie/bulking phase, my strength literally goes up every workout. During intense weight training, your body further stimulates the release of testosterone and growth hormone.

During the dieting phase, it is very important to include aerobic exercise, and the best time to do this is in a fasted state; i.e., in the morning, before breakfast. Recent studies at my lab strongly support this. I have experienced excellent results doing 40 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise 4 days a week–I keep my pulse around 120 beats per minute. During aerobic exercise, your body is more likely to stimulate the production of fat-burning chemicals like epinephrine.

During this low-calorie phase, I would expect one to see good results training with weights 3 days a week, doing a more moderate-intensity program—for example, conducting 3 sets of 8-12 reps on standard exercises like dumbbell bench presses, lateral side raises, incline curls, triceps pushdowns, etc. Remember, your training goals during the low-calorie phase are to lose fat while maintaining as much muscle tissue as possible.

Do You Recommend Any Supplements?

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As far as supplements go, creatine, HMB, glutamine, Vitamin C, and chromium would all be extremely useful as long as they are used properly.

 

Unsurprisingly, given its relative simplicity (at least compared to the Body  Opus Diet!), Torbjorn Akerfeldt’s approach seemed relatively appealing for bodybuilders. What tipped its marketability into overdrive was the results Akerfeldt claimed were possible

During my last 2 bulking phases, I gained 7 and 6 lbs, respectively, and during both cycles, the amount of lean mass to fat was 3:1. Of course, some of the lean mass is increased cell volume from the extra glycogen; remember, when you start overfeeding, your body stores macronutrients in every available compartment–you store protein as muscle, fat as triglyceride in adipose tissue, and carbohydrate as glycogen, which enhances strength and muscle size.

…I have a number of “gym buddies” who I’ve had experimenting with the system, and their results have been very similar to mine. On each cycle, you’ll gain between two and five pounds of muscle, which, for someone who has been training for over a decade, like I have, is a phenomenal thing to experience.

Combined with Akerfeldt’s claims that mass muscle gain was possible cam Bill Phillips’ own experiments with the diet. At the end of his two-week experiment, Phillips reported almost staggering results:

 At the end of two weeks of dieting, I hit the scale again. I weighed 199.5 lbs, but what’s really interesting is that my bodyfat dropped from 7.8-7.1% during the whole cycle–the 28-day period. So, I actually gained muscle and lost fat. And, looking in the mirror, I could see it. I had greater vascularity, my abs were more cut, my legs were more striated than they’d been in a long time, but to be honest, I felt “flat.” However, that didn’t last long. Today is the third day of my second bulking cycle, and I swear to God I feel like I’m loading up on Dianabol. Over the past three days, I’ve gained five pounds, and it ain’t fat!

Phillips’ guinea pigs/friends also experienced similar results

I’ve already got several friends started on this program. One of them, whom I work out with often here at our EAS/Muscle Media corporate gym, is Scott Blankenship, who is in charge of security. On his first bulking phase, he put on 9 solid pounds! He went from 207 to 216 lbs, and his max bench press during that 2-week period alone went from 290 to 315 lbs. The guy had never bench pressed more than 300 lbs in his life, and I personally spotted him when he slammed 315 up like the weight was made out of Styrofoam. On his dieting phase, he ended up losing only four pounds. So, on his first 28-day cycle, he put on 5 solid pounds! He and I are on the same bulking schedule, and he’s gaining size again like crazy, too.

What could go wrong?

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Considering that Phillips’ final evaluation on the ABCDE approach was that it ‘works-big time’, it may seem odd to comment on the diet’s failings. Nevertheless, despite Akerfeldt’s success with this approach, mass numbers of gym goers experienced often disappointing outcomes.

While the bulking phase often went off without a hitch (who doesn’t like eating more eh?), dieters often found it difficult to switch to the cutting stage with any sort of effectiveness. What often happened was that the bulking stage was done to a tee, while the dieting stage saw excess calories being added in to combat physical and mental fatigue. The end result? Fat and muscle gain.

Should we confine the ABCDE Approach to the Rubbish Bin?

Not exactly.

As some have shown, the ABCDE approach can be effective when modified to one’s own needs provided the right temperament is there. While some found the dieting phases gruelling and overly complicated, it was a breeze for others. As is often the case, no one-size fits all approach exists.

If you’re interested in learning more about the diet, I suggest checking out this 1999 T-Nation article on a modified approach, while anecdotally, I know people have found more effective than the original plan.

In the mean time, happy eating!
Sources

Original Muscle Mag Interviews. Found here.

Successful ABCDE Transformation. Found here.

T-Nation 1999 Modified Approach. Found here.

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