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Why leg day can also be cheat day

Leg day can be strenuous, as you're working out some of the largest muscles in the body. So should you follow that with a large cheat meal?

Don't neglect your leg day.
Don't neglect your leg day. (Istockphoto)

The stray pieces of advice that fly around a gym, and become sage wisdom over time, has a name: bro science. Much of it is wrong, and the ones that may be right should not be followed blindly either. One of the most talked about bro science tips is that you should combine your leg day with your cheat day (in case you are on a diet, whether to gain or lose muscle and/or fat). This tip comes from another tip, which is that one uses more calories on leg day than any other gym day. 

The latter is correct. Multiple research shows that the lower body is made of large muscle groups and it takes more calories to get them moving and lifting and running. The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body and is involved in every leg day, whether you are doing squats or deadlifts or lunges or running. 

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“A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology tracked athletes’ energy expenditure and metabolism after a series of heavy resistance moves. Their results showed that after 90 minutes of training (including compound lifts such as squats and deadlifts), athletes’ metabolic rates – the amount of energy expended – skyrocketed and continued to do so for several hours after,” states an article in Men’s Health titled 5 Reasons Why Leg Day Is So Important.

This isn’t to say you cannot burn the same number of calories by doing an intense upper body workout, but the heart and brain have to work harder on leg day. Which probably also makes it such a perfect day to have a sloppy burger. But there are a few things you could do to make this even more worth it. The first is making sure there is some form of high intensity work during the leg day.

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“Repeated cycling sprints can cause a dramatic reduction in muscle glycogen. For example, Hargreaves et al. (1997) measured a 47% drop in total muscle glycogen after just two 30-s sprints. The use of muscle glycogen during sprinting exercise is more rapid than during resistance exercise. A 30-s sprint may use as much muscle glycogen as 5-6 sets of multiple-repetition resistance exercise,” states a study on exercising titled Dietary Carbohydrate And Performance Of Brief, Intense Exercise, published in the Sports Science Exchange 79 Volume 13 (2000) - Number 4.

Now compare this to basic human biology. The human body is more sensitive to insulin following an intense workout, which helps breaking down a heavy meal for the recovery and rebuilding of muscle, while replenishing glycogen stores which one can deplete using exercise cleverly. A  blog on supplement and fitness product website Kaged, titled Time Your Cheat Meals For Maximum Results, talks about the window when the body is best ready for a cheat meal. 

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“This normally lasts for around 4-6 hours [after the workout]; however, it’s drastically increased for the first 60 minutes. So, if time permits, aiming to consume your cheat meal within the first 60 minutes or at least, the first 6 hours should be a goal. In research, they’ve seen glycogen replenishment be over 25% higher within this window, which can be quite significant if you are knocking back 500 grams of carbs.”

Which brings us to how some aspects of bro science might be correct. It also seems that this concept of leg day being the best cheat day is also meant to motivate people to workout. But it is worth noting that a cheat meal can also be smartly manoeuvred to get more from it. Spreading a cheat day over an entire week is another tip from those who prefer a stable metabolism and evenly-intense workout days.  

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A lot of people think about leg day and its effects. An article titled The Ultimate Guide To Leg Day Nutrition on tackles this brilliantly. It suggests that you do a leg workout after at least one or two meals in the day, which means by afternoon or evening, and have a protein shake immediately to switch the body to “an anabolic atmosphere” before eating more slowly digestable foods. 

“An hour or so later, proceed to chow down on a large amount of food. I encourage you to prioritise carbohydrates during this cheat meal or refeed as your body is highly receptive to them immediately after a workout. A high-fat meal will slow down digestion and potentially limit carbohydrate replenishment,” it says.

So after your next leg day, you know what to do.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator, podcaster and writer.

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