The ‘Primer Phase’ – the unsung hero of nutritional periodisation


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What the hell is a ‘Primer Phase’?

It’s something that without an exciting name like ‘primer’ most would turn their nose up to.

— but they really shouldn’t.

It’s what most would call maintenance.

Maintenance….isn’t that another word for stalling? Staying the same? Not progressing?

No, kinda, no — when we maintain weight, we’re not changing our body composition, but that doesn’t mean we’re not seeing progress, and in fact, this phase ‘primes’ for future progress. This is an often overlooked but very important part of phase potentiation, what’s phase potentiation? — each phase builds upon the next, in a sequential fashion to bring about THE BEST results.

^ we see this with training (going through hypertrophy phases, and then making this muscle strong through strength phases- read more) but it also holds true for nutrition.

I first came across purposefully eating at maintenance from Lyle McDonald, this came in the form of refeeds and diet breaks (longer periods of refeeding). However, more recently I read about maintenance phases [1] (essentially extended diet breaks) from Mike Israetel and how they play a key role within nutritional periodisation.

Missing out on the maintenance phase is kinda like missing out the skip when playing hop, skip, jump.

You’re just not doing things right.

What is Maintenance?

Our maintenance comes about when our Calorie inputs equal our Calorie outputs.

Or in other words, we take in the same as we burn, there’s no extra energy to store, and there’s no need for our body to burn energy from our bodily stores.

This means:

1.] Your body fat levels are remaining the same

2.] Your muscle mass is remaining the same

This doesn’t mean:

1.] You can expect your weight to remain the same daily or even weekly or monthly 

2.] You cannot make progress

Lets start with 1 ‘you can expect your weight to remain the same’, this is simply because our bodyweight fluctuates day-to-day.

Due to multiple reasons explained in-depth here.

What you can expect however is for it to drop 1 to 2% up or down, and then hold there (remember women need to track over longer periods of time, due to their hormonal cycle- read more here). This depends on where you’re coming from, for example if you’ve been massing and now maintaining you’re dropping Calories, this will lead to an inevitable drop in weight, whereas if you go from cutting to maintenance, you increase food, which leads to the opposite; weight gain, this is largely due to glycogen and water.

For example:

  • Eating 3500kcal and massing – weight = 182lbs
  • Move to 3000kcal to maintain 
    • Week 1 weight drops to an average of 181lbs
    • Week 2 weight drops to an average of 180lbs
    • Weeks 3-4 weight stabilises around 180lbs (just over a 1% drop from massing)

So onto number 2 ‘you cannot make progress’, what many do not realise is you can and should still make progress when you’re maintaining, and in fact if we take a long-term view you realise this phase primes you for future progress (as previously discussed).

Whilst muscle growth requires a Calorie surplus and fat loss requires a Calorie deficit (for most), gaining strength does not. In fact you can still get stronger during a Calorie deficit, this is because Calories are not required to ‘grow’ your strength, like they are for muscle.

Therefore, during your primer phase you should expect:

1.] Your weight to drop (1-2%) and then maintain within a tight range

2.] Your strength to improve (assuming training is set up appropriately)

Pit stops for Body Composition

Flying from the UK to Australia takes a long time, because it’s a long journey.

During this flight, there is usually at least 1 stop over.

This is to allow the flight staff to take a break, for the aeroplane to be re-fuelled and let to the passengers stretch their legs. If the pilot tried to skip this the staff would kick up a fuss, the passengers would get anxious and eventually the aeroplane would run out of fuel. Heck I’ve done this journey, I’m a calm guy but even I couldn’t stand for a direct flight.

The overall consequence would be for the aeroplane to crash, never making it to it’s destination.

However, flying from the UK to Spain is only a couple of hours, it’s a short journey.

There is no need for a stop over, and in to have one would actually piss off the passengers and make things worse.

–> Not all journey’s require a primer phase

In much the same way when we seek to change our body composition, in the direction of muscle growth or fat loss, depending on the length of our journey, we must take pit stops.

This is down to something called the ‘set point theory’.

Basically; our body likes to remain the same, and will defend it’s current state. When we push it away from this, it fights back, much like the flight staff get agitated if you skip a stop over. If you stay on the journey for too long, the body will start pushing back, and the longer you go for, the harder it will push.

Thus, our journey gets tougher and tougher.

Just like the aeroplane runs out of fuel, we run out of fuel if we keep gunning for fat loss; we get lazy, hungry, tired and just like the aeroplane may see some parts malfunction. If we push muscle gain for too long, we are at more risk of injury, we don’t respond as well to high volumes and just cannot keep going.

If we decide to keep going, without taking a break to maintain, our progress will slow….and eventually crash and burn, just like a flight from the UK to Australia. However, if we only have a short trip to make, say we need to lose 5lbs over 6 weeks, we can do so without a break, just like a trip from the UK to Spain.

The purpose of the ‘Primer Phase’

Hopefully the above analogy gave you an idea as to why we need to maintain now and then, to prime for further progress.

To allow our body to settle, refuel, and prime ourselves to continue our journey.

However, that all sounds pretty wishy-washy right? I can certainly give you the hard science behind the reasons for this phase, which of course is very much related to our set point and these phases are needed for the best fat loss and muscle gaining results because:

1.] Attempting to lose fat continuously for too long leads to:

  • Increased hunger
  • Increased fatigue
  • Decreased Performance
READ  The Omniscient (all knowing) Dieter

==> All leading to: exponential muscle loss risk.

2.] Attempting to gain muscle continuously for too long leads to:

  • Decreased insulin sensitivity
  • Increased injury risk
  • Increased fatigue

==> All leading to: exponential higher fat gain, injury & overtraining risk

Watch out for the next parts of this series:

  1. Using Primer Phases for Fat Loss

  2. Using Primer Phases for Muscle Gain

What Next?

Want to learn more about Primer Phases? We have you covered with an in-depth ebook!


Do you need any help with the above, feel free to drop me an email here.

Read more like this:

  1. RP Diet – Mike Israetel et al
  2. The Magic of Maintenance
  3. An easy way to boost your metabolism
  4. Why you’re not losing weight on under 1000 Calories

Join my free facebook group or add me on snapchat (revivestronger) and ask your question there, I will respond asap. Or if you’re after a fresh training programme I have a free 4 week plan using DUP that you can download for free here.

One more thing…

Do you have a friend who would love the above? Share this article with them and let me know what they think.

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