Go From A Bad to Good Maintenance in 6 Steps

Photo Credit: Alexas_Fotos

Maintenance is when you have moved from a negative or surplus calorie zone into a neutral zone. In other words, you aren’t gaining or losing on any large or noticeable scale—you are at maintenance. Technically it isn’t possible to always land at “zero” on the surplus/deficit scale. Still, no noticeable budge in either direction within a few weeks span of time is a good indication that you are in maintenance.

The last sentence above is extremely important because there are a lot of people who feel they are working very hard toward their goal (fat loss or muscle gain) but are not seeing any change. For whatever reason (be it errors in measuring expenditure/intake or metabolic adaptation), this means you are in maintenance. This means you can’t rationalize your efforts or lie to yourself about your results. This is one of the most important things you need to understand about your body composition; knowing this can save you a lot of heartache.

You Are Either In or You Are Out

I say this all the time to my clients, members, and friends: don’t f**k around. You are either in maintenance or you aren’t. Playing these games with yourself can only lead to feeling like you live a life of dieting frustration. All you are doing is lying to yourself while doing harm to your body and mind.

If you really have been “dieting” down the whole time, all you have done is cause a metabolic adaptation. You are just avoiding the inevitable refeed that needs to take place. If you think you are dieting down, you are just making it harder on yourself and creating a mental frustration that will leave you jaded. The same is true for gaining muscle mass.

Don’t Create Negative Cognitive Patterns

When you constantly tell yourself you are working toward a goal and you continuously “fail” at that goal, you create a negative cognitive pattern. You are telling yourself, over and over again, “I can’t do this.” You are telling yourself, “I fail at this.” And the more you do this—the more you “try” and fail—the harder you make it on yourself. The mind believes very clearly when it can’t do something, no matter how it started believing it.

Think of when you tried to achieve a physical feat and failed. Take a simple game of Red Rover. The rules of the game are simple. A line of people with their arms connected are standing in front of you, and your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to run as hard as you can to where you perceive the weakest link to be and bust through. “Red Rover, Red Rover, send YOU on over!” Like a bolting car you run with all of your might toward the arms of your competition. You reach your destination only to be slammed to the ground in defeat by two tightly joined arms.

How do you react the next time you play and attempt to break through? How do you feel now that you have landed flat on your back on the ground in vicious defeat? You will be more cautious and trust yourself less. You may hesitate by running with less speed. You may believe, because you failed to break through one set of arms, you will fail to do so again. Some people will rise to the challenge and others will quit the game. Be it Red Rover or a diet, the more it doesn’t work for you, the more you are trained to believe it will never work.

Retraining the Bad Pattern

Chances are you have already created negative patterns in your mind. Chances are you already may not believe in yourself or in the fact that dieting can work. Don’t worry, there is still plenty of time to retrain these patterns and the course of your thought processes. To help, I have provided these simple steps to follow in order to achieve your goal.

Step 1 – Face the Harsh Truth

I don’t care if you write a letter, leave a comment, start a log in the forums, call your mother, or shout it in the middle of the street. You need to be honest about everything—lies you tell yourself, your victories (small or large), and your justifying. Live in the reality of what you have created for yourself. No shame, no drama…just honesty.

Step 2 – Wipe the Slate Clean

Once you understand your past—leave it there. What is done is done. You need to wipe the slate clean and give yourself a ticket to ride toward a new life.

Step 3 – Set Up a Program for Yourself

It doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t even have to be new. What it does need to be is realistic. Take into account the intensity of your goal and what you feel best serves your outlook. If you need pre-made programs, check out The Fat Loss Troubleshoot.

Step 4 – Accept That Results Will Happen When You Do the Right Things

I’ll leave it at that.

Step 5 – Constantly Set New Goals

One goal doesn’t help solve anything because achieving your goal means ending your motivation. What is the point of living in this world if not to work toward something or to create better (whatever that means to you). Constantly set and challenge yourself to new goals, be it in weight or the game of life.

Step 6 – Accept Maintenance for What It Is

No one is perfect. That would be boring. We are all always changing, affected, human, and emotional. If you have an off day—so be it. Just acknowledge it for what it is. Sometimes maintenance lasts a day and sometimes it lasts for months. Just see it for what it is. Enjoy time off when you have it and be proud of the hard work you do. Acknowledge that not eating over and staying in the middle is a victory all own its own.

Celebrate the victory of maintenance; because in maintenance, you truly learn to have control over your life.


  1. Foxy
    October 4, 2010 at 7:34 am

    I don’t ever know when enough is enough. I either binge or I restrict. I didn’t alwaus use to be that way!!!! What can I do to actually eat at maintennace?

  2. Clement
    October 4, 2010 at 7:57 am

    I certainly can identify with this. At the moment, I’m struggling with following my plan. I have career-defining exams coming up and the stress and late nights are really not ideal for achieving my fitness goals. However, it’s precisely that which I need to accept – the limitations and difficulties that I would face. 

    I want to improve body composition so I’m eating in a surplus on training days and a deficit on non-training days. I will keep my weekly caloric intake at maintenance, so I don’t lose muscle or gain fat. I’m hoping that by using this calorie cycling approach, I’ll be able to achieve my goals. No carb cycling or anything confusing – I will start with the basics.

    As I’m currently in Craig Ballantyne’s Turbulence Training Transformation Contest, I’m looking for something to enhance my “winning” mentality. Your article really put things in perspective: all I have to do is set clear goals, follow the plan and not fall off-track until the contest is over. Then, I will set myself another plan for maintenance and then more body recomposition and improvement of fitness for my sport.

    • Leigh Peele
      October 4, 2010 at 4:21 pm

      Good luck on your challenge. People can’t move to C without starting at A.

  3. syra
    October 4, 2010 at 9:14 am

    I love the red rover analogy! That couldn’t be a better description of what I used to feel like when dieting in the past. I was constantly in limbo and never really understood what to do.

    • Leigh Peele
      October 4, 2010 at 4:22 pm

      My brilliance knows no metaphorical boundaries!

    • Karen
      October 4, 2010 at 4:40 pm

      Haha I felt the same why. I hated that game as a kid by the way :).

  4. cassondra
    October 4, 2010 at 9:32 am

    Thank you Leigh. This comes at a great time as I sort of fell off the wagon last week and I did not eat at a maintenance level, or a deficit. I spent the better part of the week feeling bloated. This helped me put things into perspective.

  5. Lori Rypka
    October 4, 2010 at 10:24 am

    Thanks, Leigh.

  6. Natalie
    October 4, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Honestly I had to reread the title – I think a part of me was hoping for “6 Ridiculously Easy Steps.” Yeah right. But, breaking things into your 6 steps is indeed helpful, because I can see more specifically where I get stuck: 2 & 3. Why bother really planning when I know I won’t follow the plan anyway (when I get hungry/tired/stressed at the same time), that is the feeling. Step 1 and 4-6 all make sense to me, but I don’t get Step 2. How is it that simple? I feel like I’m compelled by my body. It does not want to change. What my body wants is to recoup the extra cals after a good day or few days, once I have been pretty active plus get tired and stressed. Maybe this is what Clement calls accepting your reality. But I don’t get how to move from acceptance to wiping the slate and changing, breaking out of maintenance. I feel like my body dictates maintenance. Not to just whine but yep it’s frustrating.

    • Reka
      October 4, 2010 at 11:35 am

      X10000 Nat

    • Leigh Peele
      October 4, 2010 at 4:30 pm

      There is a whole truckload of things to talk about in your post. I guess if I had to zone in on one thing it would be – How does the concept of recouping calories work in your mind exactly? What does this mean to you?

      • Natalie
        October 4, 2010 at 5:17 pm

        Actually I don’t really think about recouping calories, I just sometimes (meaning predictably, every 1-3 days) eat a lot of high cal foods but don’t gain weight. Like eating a sensible meal then lots of chocolate, nuts, ice cream, sweet things, and I can’t seem to reason my way out of it, at least not consistently. It’s like autopilot, I barely even taste the food. If I avoid buying junk I will eat nuts, dried fruit, bread etc, but that route actually bothers my stomach more than seemingly less healthy food. But I don’t end up gaining weight, so there seems to be homeostasis.

          October 5, 2010 at 12:31 pm

          I think “wiping the slate clean” means saying “what’s done is done, it is complete, I am complete and not still guilty about it.” The past is done. Today is new. I have the present and the future and no baggage about what I can’t do or did wrong. A kindness to yourself, from which you can build on with the power that you can break through the Red Rover arms.

        • RG
          October 5, 2010 at 6:51 pm

          I experience something similar to Natalie, that when I try to eat in a deficit, the first 2-3 days are okay and then -bang- I overeat enough to undo the prior few days. I have to say, though, that when I have successfully lost weight, I still had that initial stage of HUNGRY before I got to the even-keeled. In my head, what is happening is that my body is used to getting all needed calories from food, and it has to kickstart into burning fat calories. The first few days it’s working off glycogen stores and the food I give it, and then it runs out of glycogen. But I don’t know if that’s what’s happening biologically.

          • Natalie
            October 5, 2010 at 8:27 pm

            Reflecting a bit more on this topic, I think ‘wiping the slate clean’ for me means a new story. Otherwise various fears help perpetuate the status quo rather than change. Such as fear that if I don’t eat now, I’ll end up eating more later, or be tired later, or something, it’s not the most rational impulse. RG, I like your idea of reminding yourself that you still have plenty of cals: stored in fat, ready to be burned. Also, personally I have felt more compulsive about food since going on hormonal birth control almost 2 years ago, and recently stopped, still in transition. Those hormones did not agree with me, too many headaches. Claiming they affected my appetite is more subjective. But subjectively, that is my feeling, and also a chance for a clean slate story. I’m already starting to feel different, saner, subjective or not.

            • bluetamarai
              October 6, 2010 at 10:40 am

              I miss you on the forums, Natalie! Lots of stuff to think about…

          • Leigh Peele
            October 6, 2010 at 3:51 pm

            Everyone’s timeline is different. As well, the effects. If this restriction crosses 30% the effects usually intensify. If having a continuous problem with relying just on your “will power” then you may want to pick a more moderate deficit approach. That or pick a cycling diet that works with your problems and just try to control the increase days better.

            • Natalie
              October 7, 2010 at 9:59 am

              Thanks! Helpful to think of fine-tuning the cycling and moderating things where needed. Uh rather than feeling I’m going crazy, that my body won’t listen to reason or planning. I think it’s true there are times when I need to up the cals a bit during the day to fuel activity, and other times where I need to simplify what I eat and focus on controlling my appetite. Sounds like the harsh truth: actually I could manage things better, and that would reduce the drama and help me go beyond step 2.

  7. bathory
    October 4, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Step 2 is my nemesis.

    • Leigh Peele
      October 4, 2010 at 4:31 pm

      Obviously Step 2 (not to be confused with the amazing and Oscar worthy film Step-Up 2) needs more attention.

  8. Kelli
    October 4, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    “Acknowledge that not eating over and staying in the middle is a victory all own it’s own” Preach it, preach it, preach it!!!!”

  9. Fuller
    October 4, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    I may have a different problem because I can’t ever achieve the addition of muscle mass. Thoughts?

    • Leigh Peele
      October 4, 2010 at 4:32 pm

      More info? Age, weight, results, training experience, etc. All these things matter.

  10. Carrie
    October 4, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    GREAT post, Leigh! The In or Out section has been very relevant to me for the last year and I’m pretty darn happy with myself for accomplishing #6.

    This year I’ve accepted that it’s okay to be in maintenance, and maintenance is a heck of a lot better than a surplus…for me anyways! If I end up spending the rest of my life in maintenance, at least my pants aren’t getting tight, they’ll still fit!

    I will be bookmarking this one to share with people often.

  11. Steve Daniels
    October 5, 2010 at 3:59 am

    Before I focused on losing the fat, I had never really thought at surplus, restrict or maintanence, I just ate what I wanted and snacked (my kryptonite). However, now that I’m in your contest, it’s good to actually think about what I’m eating and how it affects me in the long run.

    I like to think that I follow the steps now and now that I have a plan to lose weight, it seems to be working and I have no reason to change it. I’m in the refeed part of the plan now, so now that I’m all topped up with fuel (which made a big difference in the gym), I’m ready to make some big drops again over the next couple of weeks.

    You speak the truth, now be a prophet and preach to the masses.

    October 5, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    This is one of your best posts, Leigh!

    Step 4 – Accept That Results Will Happen When you Do the Right Things……….
    Being a rebel for so much of my life… Doing what I say I will do is the hardest for me. Just takes a moment of spontaneity to eat over my meager calories. Having my week be a checkbook to be balanced, so if I rebel/eat too many cal I can eat less tomorrow has really worked for me.

    Right now I’m rebelling about counting, logging, weighing my food. So my weight is at maintenance. I am not overeating at all. I am “dieting,” but not losing, so as you say, because my calories are too high for fat loss, I am in maintenance. So I am watching this. Seeing what /how much I am eating that allows for maintenance. Not making myself wrong; just looking and watching at the size of the portions, the # of portions and snacks per day, how many days in the week had extra snacks… So for me maintenance has been “dieting with a little extra.” That is interesting concept.

    It’s been leading me to think that the approach of “being on a diet” vs “I don’t believe in diets” The problem with dieting is that when you reach your goal you STOP dieting. Then what do you/I always do? Go back to what I know. Overeating. This time maintenance is going to be forever. Yet I well know that I am always vulnerable to a month of going unconscious and binging and so easily the 10/15 lbs come back, and so hard they are to come off again. So looking at “when I think I am dieting, wow it seems like it is maintenance” tells me a lot about what maintenance looks like.

    It looks like my diet WITHOUT the weighing and 100% accountability of logging and totaling numbers! That is okay. Wow, maintenance is dieting with a few more calories! Maintenance is being conscious every day and every meal, just like dieting is. Wow!

    And dieting is just a smaller portion of maintenance

    thanks again for your effort to think, your skill at putting your thoughts into words that are clear, humorous, honest and kind.


    • Leigh Peele
      October 6, 2010 at 2:25 pm

      Maintenance is being conscious every day and every meal, just like dieting is. Wow!

      100% yes and this is usually why people have such a hard time and feel so cheated. For most people they gained t

  13. Stacey Regan
    October 5, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    I just realized I am an expert at maintenance. I’ve been in this mode for 25 years, and I’m not kidding. Weight never fluxuates more than 5 pounds, clothes always fit, etc. It’s time to really start “dieting down”….. Maybe with this realization I can finally reach my goals.

    Thanks for putting this into personal perspective!

  14. bluetamarai
    October 6, 2010 at 10:45 am

    I’m with Stacey… I’m pretty damn good at maintenance. And also at feeling “okay” with where I’m at. Especially now that I’m down 10+ from when I started when I discovered you, Leigh.

    But the frank reality is that there’s a little more work to do. I just need to hunker down in Step 4 for a while and be okay with that!

    Thank you, Leigh!!! bYou continue to rock, hardcore.

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