This article has been recently updated with some additional information. 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 process. 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 daily caloric need. 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 this 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 person’s “maintenance” or refeed usually ends up with them being in a surplus. These results cause frustration and don’t lead to the desired outcome. Focus and celebrate maintenance days on the same level you do deficit days.
Larry hits a deficit of 20% on his deficit days. (Most people assume a deficit of 5-15% higher than actually takes place.)
Larry’s “maintenance” attempts equate to 15% higher than his actual need on normal days and an occasional 30-35% higher intake on “cheat days” or when he has binging episodes.
Some months, Larry only has 7-8 deficit days worked in. Say 16 days are assumed “maintenance” and the other 6-7 are binge days, where does this put Larry?
Here it is as a simple simple numbers game (note these are all arbitrary numbers):
Larry’s Maintenance: 2,400
Days in Selected Month: 31
Days in Deficit: 8 at 20% = -3,840
Days in Assumed Maintenance: 16 at 15% = +5,760
Days in “Cheat” or “Binge” Mode: 7 at 30% = +5,040
Grand Total = 6,960 Caloric Surplus (Roughly 2 pounds of potential fat gain)
Even with “dieting,” Larry ends the month in a gain. These are moderate numbers, by the way. Many of you can attest to having a good 1,000+ calorie day here or there in binge mode.
While these numbers paint a relatively black and white picture of the situation, they illustrate an example of why maintenance takes just as much focus and care as fat loss.
I give many more fat loss number game tips in The Fat Loss Troubleshoot and Starve Mode, if interested.
2. Thinking it is time to eat nothing but crap again.
Here is a big glowing neon sign 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 magically make a deficit. Being “done” with the diet doesn’t mean you are welcoming surpluses again.
3. Not accounting for activity changes.
If Sunday is a lazy day, 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 out, but make sure your hunger pangs know that. This is also the same for increased activity. If you are moving around like crazy, you deserve more food.
4. Not taking weight regain into account.
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, eating a keto diet, or doing nothing—these things happen. If you are on a keto/low carb diet, you will lose more water weight (and therefore have to take the regain back into account).
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 with higher body fat levels. Whatever weight you lose quickly in that first week, don’t count it. The majority of that weight will come back. This applies even more if resistance programming is involved.
5. Not getting low enough in body fat for the rebound.
If you try to hit 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 pounds, you may need to go down to 117 so that when the “deficit weight re-gain” happens, 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 hand 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 being shredded all year round, it isn’t going to happen. There is a level of lean that can be kept and a level of lean that can’t. Generally these levels are…
To understand more about body fat levels, 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 in men, I see them fight and fight to get a six-pack when I can take one look and see there isn’t one to show underneath their skin. Abs are often thought of in 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 there is a pea on the bed. 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 pea?
I rest my case.
8. Not remembering how hard the deficit was/is.
It is easy to forget 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 a surplus on a regular basis or you will end up back where you started.
9. Expecting the weight loss to fix everything.
Health, vanity, and a fit body are only small pieces of an extremely large puzzle. These things are important, but they aren’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 jelly doughnut.
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 problem. But most people need a comprehensive plan so they don’t end up where they were before or worse. 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 a fast or deficit day each week.
This may not be needed if your numbers and eating are pretty close. However, if you find you are a creature who overeats 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.
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 add up 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 remove; but 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 your head. Don’t give up so easily. Your happiness, and ultimately your life, can depend on it.
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 this means? It means as long as you don’t screw up maintenance, if you hit enough low days, you will get there eventually. I constantly tell my clients this because it is true. Don’t focus on the deficit until you understand the maintenance. Understanding this is crucial to succeed in your fat loss journey.
karlitaApril 4, 2011 at 12:55 am
Excellent article! And i love your take away point – that is how i have been trying to loose the last pounds – switching between maintenance and deficits (it’s very slow but it works!).
Leigh PeeleApril 4, 2011 at 3:04 am
It is a very simple, but effective way of doing it with minimal stress and side effects. It isn’t “sexy” but it sure works for the average person.
SallyApril 4, 2011 at 4:41 am
I love the pea analogy. That makes so much since.
Thanks for this post, I really needed it today!
JenApril 4, 2011 at 4:44 am
This goes in the top of my favorite articles…ever! I am glad to see you didn’t back off content, because this one was amazing.
I have a question – You have mentioned somewhere that your metabolic rate doesn’t have to decrease with fat loss. Is this going to be a different answer for somoene who are very very overweight? Is there a rate or number involved? I want to know for my parents.
Thanks Leigh! You are the best!
LoriApril 4, 2011 at 6:05 am
Thanks, Leigh. Great article. I’m looking forward to the maintenance “challenge” some day soon.
MerR2D2April 4, 2011 at 6:35 am
great article, just when I needed it!
aklakouApril 4, 2011 at 12:14 pm
Love it. Please do occasional articles/posts on maintenance, Leigh. The transition is so important and so poorly understood.
I transitioned to maintenance 5-1/2 months ago and haven’t gained an ounce back. I know if I just moved from a deficit to “I’ll just eat whatever I want,” this would not have happened. I still weigh myself daily, look at my average weight twice a month, and track my food 6 days a week.
It helps a lot to be aware that your body wants to put the weight back on. For the first 3 or 4 months, I was constantly cold and much hungrier than I would have thought. I didn’t give in to my body’s pleas to eat in a surplus. Those symptoms have largely subsided now, but I am still fairly hungry at least once a day. The composition of my diet, more than the calories, seems to affect my satiety. I like a small dessert every day, so I’m probably hungrier than if I never ate sugar. I hope to move away from tracking eventually, but I think it will be many more months before I begin that transition.
Chris MiyachiApril 4, 2011 at 12:48 pm
Leigh – yes- I very much needed this article.
Would you still have a rebound if you did a 6C program?
LowellApril 4, 2011 at 12:54 pm
I will be the first to admit that I screw up maintenance. I always think I deserve more than I do and hate to feel deprived. Is there anything wrong with having two low days a week so you can have more room for being bad?
BradApril 4, 2011 at 1:53 pm
Thank you for my wife. She needs this article like I don’t need a headache anymore.
Lisa PlattApril 6, 2011 at 12:01 pm
This is such a great article Leigh! I am the Lisa that called into The Fitcast last Sunday and was talking to you about re-feeds. I have been stuck for about 6 months after losing 120 lbs. and this makes great sense and explains it so well! Thank you!
Leigh PeeleApril 8, 2011 at 3:23 am
It was great talking to you Lisa. Keep us all updated.
M RogueApril 7, 2011 at 12:41 pm
This is very useful, it’s easy to forget such a simple yet effective reminder. Thank u so much!
CateApril 22, 2011 at 4:05 pm
Thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart, for addressing the issue of maintenance. I’m one of those people who lost weight, slacked off, and regained it in the ways you described. Now I’m back at square one but I am determined to never come back here again.
Keep up the great work, Leigh!
Ask Leigh: Episode 40 – The Art of Maintenance | Leigh PeeleMay 12, 2011 at 3:03 pm
[…] To read this article please go here: https://www.leighpeele.com/a-lesson-in-the-art-of-maintenance […]
sandyOctober 14, 2013 at 6:50 pm
Is it just a matter of total calories consumed per day?
What if i go light on breakfast and go heavy on dinner and STILL be below my 2,200 daily requirement?