This article has been recently updated with a few additions. Enjoy.
You may think your life is a never ending fat loss journey. The truth is, if you understand maintenance, fat loss should be a simple and short journey. If you can learn how to nail maintenance you will learn how to nail fat loss. Intrigued? You should be.
What Defines Maintenance?
Maintenance is eating at, or close to, your days caloric needs. Everyday we expend a certain amount of calories. This can vary based on training, weight, general activity, etc. Eating at maintenance means you are eating your expenditure during an assumed time window (24 hours).
You will know you are in maintenance if your weight/body composition (once already in a fed state) stays roughly the same from day to day. I will talk in more detail about that aspect in a later section.
People’s Biggest Mistakes With Maintenance
1. Thinking maintenance is a free-for-all.
The average person’s deficit isn’t as large as they think it is. The average persons “maintenance” or refeed usually ends up with them being in a surplus. The result leaves you frustrated and with lack of results. Focus and celebrate maintenance days on the same level you do deficit days.
Larry hits a deficit of 20% for the days he is in a deficit. (Most assume a good 5-15% higher of a deficit than is actually taking place.)
Larry’s “Maintenance” attempts equates to 15% higher than actual need on normal days and an occasional 30-35% higher intake on “Cheat Days” or “binging episodes.”
Some months, Larry only has 7-8 deficit days worked in. If we say 16 are “Maintenance” assumed days and the other 6-7 are binge days, where does this put Larry?
To give that to you in a simple numbers game (note these are all arbitrary numbers):
Larry’s Maintenance: 2400
Days in Selected Month: 31
Days in Deficit: 8 at 20% = -3840
Days in Assumed Maintenance: 16 at 15% = +5760
Days in “Cheat” or “Binge” Mode: 7 at 30% = +5040
Grand Total = 6960 Caloric Surplus (Roughly 2lbs of potential fat gain)
Even with “dieting,” Larry is ending the month in a gain. These are moderate numbers, by the way. Many of you can attest to having a good 1000+ calorie day here or there in binge mode.
While these numbers paint a more black and white picture of the situation, they do lend to an example of why maintenance takes just as much focus and care as fat loss does.
2. Thinking it is time to eat nothing but crap again.
Here is a big glowing neon light all of us professionals can agree on—doughnuts and cake do not a diet make. At least not if it’s all you eat. However, it should be noted that “healthy” food in high amounts, does not make a deficit magically. Being “done” with the diet doesn’t mean you are welcoming surpluses again.
3. Not accounting for activity changes.
If Sunday is a lazy Sunday, then you might not get to eat as much. Lazy days means lazy calories. And hey, that isn’t a bad thing. Nothing wrong with resting and vegging, but make sure your hunger fang knows that. This is also the same for increased activity. If you are moving around like crazy, you deserve more food.
4. Not taking into account weight regain.
At any given moment you are carrying a good amount of expendable weight. When you go into a deficit, a large portion of that expendable weight goes away. You lose water, food volume, and glycogen. It doesn’t matter if you’re low carbing, keto, or not—these things happen. If you are on a keto/low carb diet, you will loose more water weight (and therefor have to take the regain back into effect).
What happens when the diet is done?
The expendable weight will come back, as it should. There is a small degree of water weight you can lose permanently, but this is only a small portion of your overall weight.
At any given time during a deficit program, you can be off of your actual weight in the negative by 3 to 10 pounds (or more depending on your starting point). This can be even higher for men or woman of higher body fat levels. Whatever weight you lose quickly in that first weeks, don’t count it. The majority of that weight will come back. This is even more so if resistance programming is involved.
5. Not getting low enough in body fat for the rebound
If you try to hit at maintenance and understand a certain amount of weight has to come back on, you may need to get a bit leaner to compensate. Meaning, if your goal is to look how you look at 120, you may need to go down to 117 so that when the “Deficit Weight Re-gain” comes back, you still like your look. Yes, you may have a few bloated days here and there, but instead of liking your body three days out of a month, you handed yourself 16+ at bare minimum. This also keeps you from feeling like you are dieting all the time because all you are doing is avoiding water that you have to carry.
6. Not choosing a realistic maintenance
If you think you can maintain shredded all year round, it isn’t happening. There is a level of lean you can keep, and a level of lean that can’t. Generally these levels are…
To understand body fat levels more, you can read this post.
7. Not having the goods in the first place.
It doesn’t matter how lean you get, if you don’t have the muscle, you won’t have the definition.
A lot of times, especially with men, I see them fight and fight to get the six-pack when I can take one look and see they don’t have one underneath their skin to show. Abs are often thought of in the terms of a sheet, so this analogy should work well with your brain. Plus it is really simple and short.
1. Imagine there is a bed in the middle of a room.
2. Imagine that on that bed lays a pea. I want you to cover that pea with a thin sheet. Can you still see the pea?
3. Now put a extra large bags of frozen peas on the bed and cover it with the same sheet. Can you still see the peas?
I rest my case.
8. Not remembering how hard the deficit was/is.
It is easy when you are caught up in the highs of eating and enjoying yourself, how hard it is not to enjoy yourself. Remember, you are removing stored solid material from your body. That is not easy. If it was, we wouldn’t have all the scams and excuses that surround fat loss in the first place.
Don’t eat in surpluses on a regular level or you will end up back where you started.
9. Expecting the weight loss to fix everything.
Health, vanity, and a fit body is only a small piece of an extremely large puzzle. It is important, but it isn’t everything. If you look at it as such, you only have disappointment waiting on the other side and before you know it “Screw it!” will bleed from your lips in the form of doughnut jelly.
3 Simple Techniques For An (almost) Fool-Proof Maintenance
As I discussed before, most people think maintenance means the end of nutritional awareness. It is true that some people will fall out of a deficit and into maintenance with little problems. But, most people need a full plan so that they don’t end up where they were before or worse, higher. Since this is usually the fate of dieters, here are three tips you will need.
1. Weigh or take pictures of yourself at the end of the month for three days in a row.
Why three days? This will allow you to see any possible scale or bloat fluctuations. You will then compare your composition or number results to your prior months. You should either be the same size or increasing in definition or mass. If you are losing mass/weight or gaining it on a noticeable level, something needs to change with your program and diet.
2. Consider allowing for a fast or deficit day a week.
This may not be needed if your numbers and eating are pretty close. However, if you find you are a creature of overeating on large levels or are having a tough time still getting your footing, this is a great plan. Allowing for one large deficit day will put a dent in reasonable surpluses. Some people like to look into fasting protocols for their one day a week.
3. Don’t turn a blind eye or rationalize
I may be beating a dead horse, but the truth is fat gain doesn’t happen in a day. Fat gain happens in small moments that move from week to week. We tell ourselves things aren’t a big deal, that it is just water, or that 2-3 pounds is easy to take care of. The next thing you know, 2 pounds have become 20 and the disappointment becomes a 2 ton truck of guilt on your soul. Don’t let it get to that point. Don’t bow down your head. Don’t give up so easily. Your happiness can depend on it and ultimately, your life.
If you take away anything from this article, it should be this:
As long as you master maintenance, the days you choose to eat in a deficit will count for something. Do you understand what that means? It means as long as you don’t screw up maintenance, if you hit enough low days, you will get there eventually. I say this a lot to clients and in phone consults, but it is true. Don’t focus on the deficit until your understand the maintenance. It is truly a great gift to fat loss.