What can maintenance do for you?
- Help overcome fat loss plateaus.
- Help you sustain long term fat loss.
- Help build lean muscle mass.
But it is the one goal that doesn’t get much of a look in.
People are either trying to lose it or gain weight, you rarely hear people say ‘my goal is to maintain’.
It’s not very sexy.
I think this is a problem, I think people NEED to go through periods of maintenance, I think the goal of being weight stable is just as important as going up or down in weight. But, doesn’t that mean we are not progressing, we’re stalling out and wasting our time? It could, but if used correctly going through periods of maintenance could fast track your progress.
Why We Need To Maintain
So why do we need to maintain? Surely as said that means you’re just spinning your wheels? And it does if you’re trying to gain or lose and are just maintaining, but if your goal is to remain at a level weight, then it is productive. And I think everyone should go through periods of maintenance, and I am about to explain why. But before I can tell you why maintenance is magical, I need to go over what happens when we’re dropping or gaining weight.
What Happens When You Lose Weight?
You see when we lose weight our body does a few things that are not wanted. In short our metabolic rate goes down:
- You’re eating less –> Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) goes down.
- You weigh less –> Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) goes down.
- You have less energy –> Your Non Exercise Activity Thermogensis (NEAT) & Non Exercise Physical Activity (NEPA) go down.
- You run cold –> you burn less energy.
- Your hormones fight you:
- Ghrelin up, Leptin down –> You’re always hungry.
- Cortisol up, Catecholamine up, Serotonin down –> You’re a stress head.
- Testosterone down –> Like this just sucks massively for a number of reasons.
- T3 & T4 Thyroid hormone down –> Less energy expenditure.
Lyle McDonalds tells us this straight, losing fat is hard and it sucks. If you want to keep losing fat you’re going to have to come out of your comfort zone. However, as you will see taking time out will only help you in your fat loss pursuits, making it less sucky!
All of these come together to lower your Total Energy Expenditure (TEE). You see our metabolism adapts to what you give it, thus long term caloric deficits lead to a reduced calorie expenditure. Our bodies main priority is to ultimately protect us, it will fight against fat loss. The changes are to be expected, they come with the territory.
Our metabolism will adjust accordingly to the given parameters.
The Magic of Maintenance
As you can see our body doesn’t want to lose weight anymore than we want to diet. The down regulation of our metabolic rate and the difficulty of the diet eventually come together to make our fat loss quest almost impossible. That is where the magic that is maintenance comes in. What happens when we stop aiming to lose weight and aim instead to maintain:
- Energy levels come up.
- Hunger dissipates.
- Performance increases.
- Overall Stress goes down.
Essentially, everything that came down during our diet will come back up. You will feel more like your usual self and start running properly again. However, this doesn’t occur overnight, it seems that you need to be at maintenance calories for at least 3 consecutive days to see everything come back up. A one day refeed won’t cut it.
But what if you haven’t got to your fat loss goal yet and you’re not happy maintaining at your current weight? Well I am not saying this is the end, it could be, but it doesn’t have to be. The length of time you spend at maintenance and how you get there will depend on multiple factors. Think of this as diet periodisation, you’re lowering the intensity to allow yourself to come back stronger.
With many of my fat loss clients I get them having a full diet break eating at maintenance every 3 months or so, of course sometimes that isn’t necessary as they have a holiday or a weekend away at some point and we use those as breaks. I have had people who have been struggling to drop any weight for say 3 weeks or so, who I have then put on diet break for a week. They then come back on the same intake as before yet start to drop weight they couldn’t before, often with less cardio. It may seem like magic, but it isn’t, the body cannot break the rules of physics. The break will have increased all the factors that down regulated enough to allow them to significantly increase their total energy expenditure, thus creating a calorie deficit that wasn’t there before.
Furthermore, I often see people get down about maintaining weight for 1 week. Maybe they’ve had 4 successful weeks, losing a pound on average, then week 5 comes and they maintain. They get all fed up and annoyed, but in reality I see that as a massive win. Maintaining a lower bodyweight is so empowering, it is what most people struggle to do. Studies prove it, people are great at dieting, they can lose weight just like that, but it is the maintaining that is the hard part.
As you can see with the two graphs below, overall the trend has been for calories and weight to come down. However, there have been periods of higher intake, and periods where weight has pretty much stalled. An example where you can see this is in late April and early July, calories came up to around 2300kcal, which is maintenance for this individual, yet weight loss continued to come down after both events.
So when I have clients who maintain for a week I always congratulate them as much as if they dropped a tonne of weight. Plus weight loss isn’t always linear in the short term, you might have one week where your weight even goes up a little, but within the next two weeks it may well drop to an all time low. Just keep that long term goal in mind, and don’t stress, it isn’t worth it and it isn’t productive.
Some of my most successful long term fat loss clients regularly use periods of maintenance, and all of my fat loss clients do have planned periods of staying at the same weight. It’s a no brainer.
Why You Should Maintain Before You Gain
In my book Get Big, Stay Lean I talk about a point at which you will want to think about stopping with gaining, and potentially doing a mini diet to cut back on some of the fat gain that has taken place. But before you go back to gaining weight again I stipulate that there should be at least 2 week maintenance phase, in which no weight is lost or gained. The same would apply if you have got to your goal weight and want to go into a gaining phase.
What is the point of these weeks? Well when we lose weight our body wants to get back to its original self, so by going from a cut to a bulk instantaneously you’re be set to pack on a lot of fat. You want to allow your body to stabilise itself, letting all those things that dip down during a diet to come back up to normal levels.
There is nothing worse than dieting down, to then pack on a load of fat back on.
Maintaining is exactly as it sounds, you’re not changing weight. Your body is in homeostasis, it is staying the same. However, how do you know if you’re at maintenance? My preferred method is to get a person to weigh in a minimum of 4 times a week, doing so under the same conditions:
- Before consuming anything.
- After using the toilet.
- The same scale, in the same location.
- Roughly the same sort of time.
Why is the above important? Well say you weigh yourself at home nude one day, and then the next you’re busy and cannot weigh in till later and decide to do so at the gym, clothed. You could have eaten a load more food, you’re clothes add to your weight, the scale is not your own and may be calibrated differently. That could really throw a spanner in the works. Be consistent with your weigh ins, or you may as well not weigh in.
Assuming you’re following a training programme and therefore your energy expenditure isn’t fluctuating massively week to week, and you have some idea of your calorie average intake, you can just keep these static, and know they’re staying the same.
Once you have got the consistent weigh in approach nailed you will take those numbers and average them out. So if you weighed in 4 times at 177lbs, 179lbs, 177lbs and 175.5lbs you’d do 708.5 divided by 4 to give 177lbs as your weekly average. You would continue this approach for a few weeks, and you will be able to identify whether you’re maintaining weight or not.
You will want to get 4 weeks worth of average weigh ins that do not show an upward or downward trend to know you’re at maintenance. For example:
WK1) 177lbs average WK2) 178lbs average WK3) 176.5lbs average WK4) 177lbs average
You can see there has been movements up and down, but no real trends in one direction. Generally when we are losing weight you’d expect to see a someone downward trend across 4 weeks.
How We Maintain
Got 4 weeks that aren’t trending downward? You can be pretty sure you’re maintaining. What if you are losing weight, how do you go about bringing maintenance? A method I like to use is to 100kcal to 1lb rule; raise your calories by 100 for every 1lb lost. So if you lost 3lbs over the course of the month, raise your intake by 300kcal.
This is taken from the traditional thought that a 3500kcal deficit over the course of the week causes 1lb weight loss, although this idea has been determined to be not 100% true, it is still a decent estimate. So if you lost 3lbs over 4 weeks you would estimate you were in a 10,500kcal deficit over the course of the month, or 2625kcal a week, 375kcal a day. That’s 75kcal more than I am saying to increase by yes, but it is all an estimate and I prefer to undershoot than overshoot, if you still lose after 300kcal a day, I don’t think you will complain.
How To Use A Calculator?
Our bodies are too dynamic and complicated for calculations to be 100% accurate. Different formulas seem to work better for different people. That and the fact there are so many different formulas kinda indicates that they’re not the final word. At best they are an estimate, a prediction of what our calorie expenditure is.
However, you can use them as a starting point. The following calculation is taken from Get Big, Stay Lean and should get you right in the ball park of maintenance:
Body Weight in pounds x 13 to 16
- Factors putting you at the higher range: male, high training volume, active job and low body-fat % (sub 15% for males, sub 25% for females).
- Factors putting you at the lower range: female, low training volume, sedentary and high body-fat % (over 15% for males, over 25% for females).
So if you’re a lean 25 year old male with an office job who works out 4 times per week and weigh 180lbs you would go for:
180 x 14 to 15 = 2520 to 2700
You can then try and land within that calorie range each week, monitoring your intake with your scale weight. Of course macronutrients can impact our metabolism by small amounts, for example the TEF of protein is higher than fat, but I am going to assume you’re eating a fairly similar day to day diet, as most do. If you need help with setting up your diet visit Need to Know Nutrition – Practical Application.
The thing is our maintenance is dynamic, it changes day to day. A massive factor is our lifestyle, if one week your car breaks down and you have to walk to work vs. normally driving, your energy output is bound to increase. That is just one example, but even if two people weigh the same, have the same exercise regime etc. they could have difference maintenance needs, as one may be a real fidget whereas the other might just not move. The Principle of Individuality raises its head again.
The key with using calculations is to not take them as the final word, use them and then adjust accordingly, using the 100kcal to 1lb rule explained above.
Maintenance is Natural
So far you should have learnt:
- Our bodies want to maintain.
- Maintaining weight will help us lose fat & eventually gain muscle mass.
Also you now know that our maintenance is always changing, day to day, week to week, always in flux. This is why we use small adjustments and don’t use calculators as our only tool. Plus our bodies adjust our metabolism towards maintenance, you’ll likely come to a point where you stall, and maintain.
That is what I mean by maintaining being natural. Most people outside of the fitness industry somewhat stick around the same sort of weight. OK, OK I know we have an obesity epidemic on our hands, but regardless there are a lot of people staying the same. That is because their bodies are doing all these small adjustments to keep them there, and these people are not over indulging and are somewhat active.
So when you come to these stable points, don’t be mad, be happy, that you have managed to maintain at a weight that is closer to your goal. By doing these infrequent maintenance periods you’re not only allowing your body to normalise everything, you are also allowing it to adjust slowly and get used to the sort of weight you want it to be. That will allow you to then move onwards and upwards with your goals, whether that be weight loss or gain.
Progress & Maintenance of Progress = Success.
- Starve Mode – Leigh Peele
- Get Big, Stay Lean – Steve Hall
- Introduction to Nutrition and Metabolism – David A. Bender