If you want to FINALLY create the leanest, strongest, and most confident version of yourself in 2020, you MUST have a plan.
Going into the year hoping for good results, without a specific strategy will give you the EXACT same results as every other year.
But not to worry - in this blog, I’m going to show you EXACTLY how I would periodize an entire year of nutrition and training for you in my online coaching program.
My online clients get great results, because we have a plan and structure for MONTHS in advance - reverse engineered from your end goal, to where you are now. (We literally map out the next 6-12 months of working together on the initial strategy call.)
We also implement periodization - strategic nutritional & training phases with different focuses (e.g. reducing training stress, pushing fat loss, practicing nutrition maintenance, etc.). is a KEY part of what we do in online coaching to help you build your best body ever, and is MUCH more effective than a non-periodized approach.
Now, realize that everything I do as your coach is fit specifically to your lifestyle, goals, and needs - that’s how we make your results SUSTAINABLE. So view the following as a template to build your 2020 strategy from, NOT the exact recipe.
Achieving specific results requires a specific strategy. BUT, I guarantee having the structure this blog provides alone will make an amazing difference for your results in 2020.
This strategy will work for a plethora of different people - really, if you’re someone that’s looking to get leaner, stronger, and more confident, this periodization strategy will likely work for you.
That said, I want to define a client avatar, just to give you an idea of the example client we’re applying this strategy to and WHY these changes are needed.
Jen. In her mid-30’s. She’s had a decent amount of training experience in the past, and actually coaches a few clients of her own on the side. But, since her most recent child was born (a few years ago), she’s had A LOT of trouble with consistency - both with her nutrition and training, and is 10-30lbs heavier than she’d like to be as a result.
Sick of constantly feeling like she’s letting herself down and not practicing what she preaches to her clients, Jen realizes she needs accountability and structure.
Here’s the strategy we create for her:
January 1st - Mid-January
Nutrition - Primer phase
When a new client starts nutrition coaching with the goal of fat loss, their nutritional periodization starts before we focus on fat loss, with The Primer Phase.
Now, the length of the priming phase depends on the clients experience, lifestyle, exact goals, and nutrition and training history - so this is very individualized to the client. In Jen’s case, as she IS experienced with nutrition & training, we don’t need too long here.
That said, here's a broad overview of the what and why behind The Primer Phase:
→ Building a Foundation - The reality is, most new fat loss clients aren't ready for an intense fat loss phase right out of the gate.
More often than not, simply giving someone fat loss macros and saying "GO!" leads to failure.
As a new client, you generally need time to be educated on proper food choices to fuel your body, how to track macros accurately, managing life stressors, training and recovery, and how to identify and change behaviors and habits that have held you back in the past.
This is the low-hanging fruit that we can clean up right away. For relatively little effort, you'll achieve a much better place mentally and physically. You'll also now have all the education and a good grasp of the tools we'll be using in your fat loss phase.
→ Recovering From Your Last Diet - Depending on how long ago you dieted and how lean you got, a primer phase is a must to set you up for another successful fat loss phase.
The recovery of many hormones such as testosterone, cortisol, and thyroid hormone, along with your metabolism and regaining lean mass (a big part of your metabolism) can take anywhere from 2 to 6 months. Jen hasn’t dieted in a long time - another reason her primer phase is only a few weeks.
→ Breaking Free From The "All-or-Nothing Mindset" - The primer phase is also a time I use to educate clients on the dangers of all-or-nothing thinking.
The reality is, no matter how disciplined you are, at some point in your diet you'll feel like you've "failed" - be it from missing your calorie goal, or seeing progress at a slower rate than you'd like.
With the wrong mindset, this temporary "failure" usually leads to you quitting the diet altogether.
The primer phase helps us avoid this, educating online clients on the idea of consistency over perfection, and teaching you to become focused on the process, knowing that this will lead them to your desired outcomes.
→ Optimizing Metabolic Capacity - To use an analogy I learned from Cliff Wilson, you can think of metabolic capacity like the gas tank of your car.
Anything you can do to create fat loss is "in the metabolic gas tank"... the amount of cardio you can add to your routine, and the amount of calories you can deduct from your intake.
When a new client starts coaching maintaining their weight on relatively high calories and low cardio, they have a very full metabolic gas tank.
However, if someone starts coaching looking for fat loss, but already eating extremely low calories and doing tons of cardio, their tank is empty. We can't create more fat loss without it being very detrimental to the client's hormones, psychology, lean muscle, and health.
If this is the case, you need to spend some time in primer phase, focusing on refilling your metabolic tank by increasing calories and decreasing cardio before starting a fat loss phase. Starting a trip with an empty gas tank means you won't make it very far before things stall.
Training - 3x/week full body training + step goal (7k/day).
Jen has been inconsistent in the gym over the last few years.
She’s experienced, and used to even train 6x/week. BUT, the most important thing here, is that we start here with a training strategy she can adhere to extremely consistently.
Basically, we want to start at her “minimum effective dose” - the amount of training volume we know will get her results, but also she can FOR SURE stick to.
When you start online coaching, but have a very limited amount of time like Jen does, a 3x/week full body training split is often perfect. In her position, we know we can create a large amount of fat loss quickly, simply by getting her nutrition & training dialed in.
This means that we DON’T need to implement cardio yet to get Jen quick changes. But we do need to make sure that she’s consistent with her daily movement outside of the gym. We know that Jen will soon be in a calorie deficit to push fat loss. As a defense mechanism against fat loss, your body actually subconsciously down-regulates movement - as you eat less, you move less… and fat loss slows.
So if you’re not paying attention to daily movement, then fat loss can often stall despite eating fewer calories (thanks to the decrease in movement).
This is exactly why when you start online coaching with fat loss goals, we set a movement goal.
Here’s how I’d generally program a 3x/week full body training split for an online client.
Mid January - Mid March
Nutrition - Fat Loss Phase
Jen crushed it in the primer phase. Now that she has all of the necessary habits in place, is eating plenty of protein and calories, adequate food quality, and consistent training, we know she’s ready to push for her short term goal - fat loss.
Now, the length (and therefore periodization) of your fat loss phases depend on how much fat you're looking to lose - but generally, a good speed rate of weight loss is .5-1% of your body weight per week, which usually equate to .75lbs - 2.5lbs of weight per week.
Losing slower than this often makes it hard to keep client motivation high, as changes week to week are barely noticeable… but going too fast is also a bad idea for most.
→ Slower rates of weight loss are associated with the ability to build/maintain (depending on your training experience) more muscle - You're able to eat more food, train harder, and do less cardio with. This leads to better training performance, recovery, strength, and muscle. In turn, when you hit your fat loss goals you'll have a body that looks leaner, feels stronger, and a faster metabolism (due to increased muscle).
→ Reduced Stress On Your Body - Fat loss is very stressful for your body - both physiologically and psychologically. Extreme diets can drastically alter many hormones and your overall health.
With the above recommendations, we can conclude that Jenny will need ~5 months total to achieve her fat loss goal.
Now, when you diet, you experience something called metabolic adaptation - which is your metabolism and hormones down-regulating as a response to you eating fewer calories and your body getting smaller/lighter:
- Since your body is smaller, it requires fewer calories to fuel basal functions. Thus, your Basal Metabolic Rate is lower.
- Moving your smaller body requires less energy, so you burn fewer calories via exercise. The Thermic Effect of Exercise is lower.
- You're eating less food, so you burn fewer calories during digestion. The Thermic Effect of Food is lower.
- NEAT decreases. In a subconscious effort to maintain homeostasis and prevent fat loss, you'll move less. As you take in less energy (calories), you’ll naturally expend less energy. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis is decreased.
- The hormone leptin decreases. When leptin drops, your body reduces energy expenditure, and levels of Ghrelin (the hunger hormone) rise. Obviously, this makes you hungry, making dieting more difficult. The increased hunger signal is another mechanism your body uses to try to maintain its body fat. Evolutionary, it makes sense for your body to want to hold onto body fat, as periods of food scarcity could be in the near future.
- Cortisol levels rise. Cortisol is the “stress hormone”. While some cortisol is good, the devil is in the dose. Since dieting is a stress, dieting is associated with increased levels of cortisol. Constantly elevated levels of cortiosl lead to MORE ghrelin release, poor training recovery, and poor sleep (which leads to even more hunger, and even fewer calories burned.)
The longer you diet, the more pronounced all these adaptations get.
To add to all of the physiological adaptations, dieting is just very hard psychologically. Honestly, this is the BIGGEST problem that stalls people fat loss - you're just sick of dieting, and not able to adhere consistently enough to make progress.
Now, while nutritional periodization as a whole is a very big part of regulating these adaptations and staying healthy, caloric periodization within your fat loss phase is also important.
There are a few tools I implement within an online client's fat loss phase to get them to the end of the phase in a much better place muscularly, psychologically, and hormonally.
In this case, we’ll have Jen following an 11/3 Macro Split.
Here’s how it works - for 11 consecutive days, you'll be in what should be a solid deficit for you - this is where your fat loss is created. This will be followed by 3 consecutive days at your maintenance intake. Spending at least 3 days at maintenance has been shown to help reduce some of the negative hormonal & metabolic adaptations to dieting.
Calories are increased via carbs, because carbs most directly effect the hormone Leptin. When we diet, leptin drops quickly (especially for women). As a result, energy expenditure decreases, and hunger increases. 48 hours+ of increased carb intake actually increases leptin. This strategy keeps you in a better place hormonally and metabolically as you diet, and is one of my favorites to implement for the women I coach online.
Training stays at 3x/week for now - when it comes to fat loss, nutrition is BY FAR the biggest difference maker, and we’ve already made some massive changes by implementing the fat loss phase.
Now, it’s VERY important here that we’re tracking multiple metrics to measure Jen’s fat loss progress.
One of the BIGGEST mistakes I see people make in their mission to build a leaner, stronger body - they're not tracking their progress, and thus have no idea if what they're doing is actually working or not.
When you start online coaching, we track ALL the following metrics, to be sure we’re everything we’re doing is pushing you to be your leanest, strongest, and healthiest:
→ Weight - You should be tracking your weight (at least 3x/week). Weigh yourself at least three times per week. First thing in the morning, before eating or drinking, and after using the bathroom.
Don't get caught up in weekly weight changes. Look at the trend over multiple weeks/the month.
You're still aiming to lose .5-1% of body weight weekly, but don't worry if this doesn't show up on the scale every week. Most SHOULD see a monthly trend of 2-4% of total body weight lost, but obviously there ARE exceptions here.
The scale should generally show a downward trend for fat loss clients (depending on whether you're losing or simply recomping), but you can't always trust it as a true measure of progress. This is ESPECIALLY true for women, as hormonal fluctuations can cause drastic changes in water retention.
→ Body measurements - Body measurements give a much more accurate picture of progress. They're also a bit more time consuming, so don't take them as often as weight. Online clients typically take these once per week.
Take the following measurement once per week, at the same time you weigh in. For accuracy, measure in centimeters with a soft tape measure.
- Chest. Take a circumference measurement, with the tape at the level of the nipples.
- Navel. Take a circumference measurement of your torso with the tape 2" above the navel, at the navel, and 2" below the navel.
- Hips. Take a circumference measurement around the broadest part of the hips.
- Thigh. Take a circumference measurement around the broadest part of the right thigh.
- Arm. Take a circumference measurement around the broadest part of your right bicep (flexed).
→ Progress Pictures - Your body at the start of a diet is like a full roll of paper towels.
If you pulled a single sheet off daily, would the roll ever look any different to you?
Nope. The daily changes are tiny.
But if you pulled a sheet off daily for three months, the paper towel roll would be a much different size.
Same concept with you. You'll never look in the mirror and notice a big difference from the day before. This is why progress pictures are important - they give you a better view of the visual changes you've made.
- Take progress pictures front/side/back in a lighting and time of day you can replicate easily.
- Retake with similar lighting/time of day monthly.
→ Training Numbers - Like mentioned, every single online client that I write a training program for tracks their weights lifted in a tracked sheet I send them along with their fully-customized training program. We can both see this sheet 24/7.
This helps us be sure that your nutrition isn't just getting you the fat loss results you want - it's also fueling your performance in the gym to help you build a stronger version of yourself.
→ Biofeedback - this is another part of online coaching that is always very individualized to your goals & needs. But generally we’re tracking things like stress, motivation, mood, cravings, etc.
Tracking biofeedback allows us to take into account ANYTHING that could be impacting your results - not just nutrition and training. This is an essential part of why my online clients get such great results - we take your whole life into account.
Mid March-Late March
Nutrition - Diet Break
Jen has seen some GREAT changes over the last 2 months, dropping 11lbs, lots of inches, and gotten MUCH stronger.
BUT, the last two weeks of the diet, here adherence to the nutrition plan has been a bit lower. In her biofeedback, we see that hunger and cravings are MUCH higher than normal, and motivation has fallen off a cliff the last two week.
This is normal after an extended period of dieting, and tells us it’s time for Jen to take a diet break.
A diet break essential provides the same benefits as a the 3 days at maintenance we talked about earlier - reduced hunger, increased energy expenditure, and reduced diet fatigue - but on a much larger scale.
A diet break is 4 days or more with calories at maintenance intake, again with the increase coming primarily from carbs. Diet breaks have a much greater effect on your hormone levels and metabolism than refeeds, due to the increase time frame (most client's diet breaks last 1-2 weeks).
No changes yet. Jen has been super consistent, and has mentioned she’s feeling ready to take on more training soon. We also know that she’s still well within the amount of training volume she can recover from.
Nutrition - Fat loss phase
Now that Jen is in a great place metabolically and hormonally, it’s time to push the fat loss again.
Jen wants to feel great in a swimsuit by this summer, and her body has changed A LOT already. We know that by the end of the cut, she should be nearly as lean as she wants.
Now, through this fat loss phase, our goal with Jen is to keep her calories as high as possible while still losing .5-1% of bodyweight per week. Especially with the increase in training volume coming up (see below) which we know will lead to an increase in calories burned, plus her consistent progress last phase, we likely won’t need to decrease calories much across the course of this phase.
Training - 4x/week upper/lower split
Jen has seen GREAT progress so far. Now that she’s super consistent with 3x/week, recovering well, and feeling motivated to train more - we’re going to increase her training volume to 4x/week Upper/Lower. We also know this will speed up her fat loss a bit, and make sure we have her as lean as she wants by summer.
Towards the end of this phase, mid May-Mid June, we also add a low-intensity cardio day AND fat loss focused finishers to speed up fat loss a bit more (Jen prefers to add exercise as opposed to decreasing calories).
Here's a sample of how I program a 4x/week upper/lower split for online clients:
Nutrition - Maintenance Phase
By this point, Jen is feeling lean, strong, and confident as hell. As she wraps up the fat loss phase, it’s ESSENTIAL that we make sure she knows how to maintain these results long-term. My BIGGEST goal for online clients is giving them the education and tools to SUSTAIN these results forever.
This is why post-diet maintenance phases are crazy important, and a huge piece that most are missing from the typical yoyo dieter's nutrition protocol.
The reality is, after a long fat loss phase, your body is primed for fat gain:
→ As we lose weight, our fat cells shrink - Smaller fat cells produce less leptin, which leads to an increased appetite (as leptin decreases, ghrelin, the hunger hormone - increases) and drastically decreased energy expenditure.
The above, paired with a few other changes to your shrinking body and fat cells creates an environment that promotes fat storage.
→ Post-weight loss, your body wants to restore it's previous weight - You experience this "want" as excessive hunger signals and low energy. This combo makes eating excess calories hard to avoid - IF you enter the post-diet phase without a plan. The weight regained is preferentially stored as body fat.
→ Body Fat Overshooting - It’s also thought that you can INCREASE the number of fat cells you have by gaining weight too quickly, this is called body fat overshooting. This increases the odds that you’ll regain more fat than you lost.
Plus, the negative changes that come with shrinking fat cells - increased hunger, less energy expenditure, etc. - will be amplified next time you try to lose, due to having more fat cells.
Basically, all of the hormonal and metabolic adaptations, your decreased body mass, and your body being so far from it's previous set point add up to you being really damn hungry, and your body preferentially storing excess calories as fat.
Now, does any of this mean that you should be scared to lose weight?
It just illustrates the importance of a.) Having a plan for the diet AFTER the diet. (A huge focus for all nutrition clients.) b.) Understanding what is going on with your body after losing a lot of weight.
These negative adaptations won’t last forever, and with smart nutritional periodization, you CAN maintain a lean, strong body.
As implied by the name, a maintenance phase is simply a time where focus on maintaining your new leaner body post-diet.
Here's what we do:
→ Increase calorie intake to your NEW maintenance intake - You have a new body. It's smaller, and different hormonally and metabolically than it was at the start of your fat loss phase. You likely won't be able to maintain your new body composition on as many calories as you could eat to maintain your old, heavier body.
→ To find your new maintenance intake - We know that 1 lb of fat loss require a deficit of ~3,500 calories. Thus, if you've been losing an average of 1 lb per week, we know you're in a weekly deficit of ~3,500 calories, or a daily deficit of 500 calories (3,500/7=500). We'll apply this logic to find your specific maintenance, and increase your macros to match that.
From here, as your hormones and metabolism start to normalize, you'll start burning more calories.
My goal as a coach is to help you maintain during this time period - losing weight would be counterproductive in a maintenance phase. So the fact that you'll start burning more means I'll also likely have to give you frequent macro (but relatively small) macro increases to keep you maintaining.
→ You're just going to chill at maintenance - I push most of my clients who have gone through a lengthy weight loss to spend 1-2 months in a maintenance phase, at least.
Some key changes happen during the maintenance phase that make your results more sustainable:
- Hormones like thyroid, leptin, and testosterone increase.
- Your energy levels, and the energy you burn through non-exercise activity thermogenesis increase.
- Hunger decreases.
- The chronic stress on your system dissipates.
Basically, your system normalizes, and your body gets used to this new weight. Everything starts to feel normal again over time, and your body stops fighting you so hard to regain the weight you lost.
Your body really doesn't like change. It wants to return to it's old normal as quickly as possible.
So the maintenance phase is a must to allow you to cement a new normal for your body. This is also a very important time for you to create new habits - the lifestyle that you lived before got you the body composition you had before.
Periods of practicing maintenance allow you to learn new habits and behaviors around your food choices, training, daily movement, dietary flexibility, and what your entire lifestyle will need to look like to maintain this new body.
The maintenance phase is a key part of what we do in our work together to make sure that you can sustain this new leaner version of yourself long-term.
Nutrition & Training - Lean Gains
Jen was STOKED about the way her body has changed - but realizes that she needs to build more muscle to create the physique she wants long-term.
One of the MOST impactful things the ladies I coach do to create leaner, stronger bodies - SPEND TIME FOCUSING ON EATING MORE CALORIES AND BUILDING MUSCLE.
This is a HUGE thing that most people are missing in their mission to build a lean, strong body. (Missing this essential piece is also why most people spend YEARS chronically dieting, but never getting as lean as they want.)
Say you're 155, with 20lbs of fat mass & 135lbs of lean mass. If you gain 5lbs of lean muscle (now 160lbs, 20lbs fat mass, 140lbs lean mass), your overall body fat percentage still decreases.
You look and feel leaner, even though you haven't had to lose any more fat.
This is why when a client is near the "floor" of their body fat settling point (can't lose anymore fat without fighting extremely hard), we'll switch to a smart lean gains approach, with an emphasis on building lean muscle without adding excess fat. This works extremely well for both the men and women I've coached.
In a lean gains phase, you’re aiming to gain .25-.5% of body weight per week. Body measurements will give you an idea of what muscle groups are growing, as well as how much your waist is growing - we’ll increase or decrease calories accordingly.
When you enter a lean gains phase, our goal is to gradually drive training volume (think: number of hard training sets) up. If done properly, this WILL lead to more gains (but like everything else, the devil is in the dose here).
As you increase training volume, you increase the amount of growth stimulus you’re hitting your muscles with. You’re also increasing calories burned. Both of these mean your body has an increased need for recovery resources (food).
If we DON’T increase your food intake, but continuously increase training volume, you’ll eventually start to lose weight as a result of all the volume burning tons of calories. While great for fat loss, you’re likely NOT building muscle here.
On the flip-side, if we just keep increasing food intake and don’t increase training volume, you’ll start to gain excess fat.
We gradually drive up both training volume and carbohydrate intake simultaneously. The extra food is helping you recover and grow from the extra volume. The extra volume is helping the extra food be shuttled to muscle, NOT fat storage.
Now, the thing with volume is - if you just take a MASSIVE jump in number of hard sets, your body won’t be able to adapt to the sudden increase and you’ll get worse results.
Volume needs to be increased gradually.
In Jen’s case, we spend the first 6 weeks following a 4x/week Upper/Lower split. This is followed by 6 weeks in a 5x/week Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower glute specialization phase.
This shorter period of increased volume leads to quick muscle growth, but we want to make sure that we don’t spend TOO LONG here, as clients recovery will start to suffer.
Nutrition - Mini-Cut
Jen is going on a beach vacation in early December, and wants to feel her all-time best.
Now, with the smart lean gains approach she’s been following for the last 3 months, Jen is still super lean - we know that we can get her feeling AMAZING with a few weeks of a strategic mini-cut.
This is an aggressive fat loss phase, with the goal of dropping body fat quickly. Since Jen doesn’t need to lose much fat here, we want to get in and get out as quickly as possible.
A mini-cut is in such a short time-period (usually 3-6 weeks), so you don’t need to worry about muscle loss, or most of the other negative adaptations that come with longer diets (but also, a mini-cut isn’t a smart idea if you have more fat to lose OR don’t already have a solid amount of lean muscle).
Generally, you’ll start in a 20-30% deficit, with the goal of losing ~1.25% of your total body weight per week. Adjust your deficit (+ or - 5-10%) depending on your rate of weight loss.
Training - 4x/Week Upper/Lower + 3x/Week LISS Cardio
We’re dropping training volume. Jen is in an aggressive deficit, so she doesn’t have enough “recovery resources” to recover from intense 5x/week training. 4x/week training + 3 LISS sessions makes sense here - enough training stimulus to maintain all her muscle, while the low-intensity cardio burns calories AND promotes recovery.
Nutrition - Maintenance
Jen has a CRAZY holiday season coming up. In the past, the holidays have been the time where she “fell off the wagon”.
But this year, instead of setting unrealistic fitness goals for the holiday season, she’s simply focusing on maintaining all this year’s progress. This is a strategy I take with A LOT of my online clients during the holidays - they make GREAT progress the other 11 months of the year, and focus on maintaining during a time when they used to regress dramatically.
This mindset shift makes a MASSIVE difference in clients being able to SUSTAIN their results year round.
Training - 3x/Week Full Body
Jen loves her training by this point, but her schedule for the month of December doesn’t allow for 4x/week training.
Plus, we know that she can still make SOME progress following a 3x/week full body split (you can actually maintain your current muscle on 1/3rd of the training volume it takes to build).
Come January, Jen is at her all-time leanest, strongest, and most confident, and ready for another year of amazing results.
And that’s how I’d periodize an entire year for a new online client.
Having a plan is ESSENTIAL.
Imagine how much worse this would have gone if Jen just said... “
I want to lose fat this year... hope it goes well.”
This is the mistake SO MANY people make every new year... setting goals, without a specific, individualized, and PROCESS-FOCUSED strategy to achieve them.
- Not tracking biofeedback
- Not taking body measurements
- Not periodizing your training
- Spending TOO LONG in a deficit
- Not using diet breaks
- NEVER spending time in a calorie surplus
You get the idea. Strategy and periodization is important.
There's no better investment than a coach with thousands of hours under their belt to expedite the process, and plan all of this out for you.
Most importantly, you’ll get consist as hell.
Let’s be real - none of these concepts are mind-blowing... or anything you HAVEN’T heard before.
As someone that coaches a lot of coaches, most of my clients know WHAT to do - the consistency and accountability to actually follow through on that is what they’ve been missing in the past.
If this sounds like you, investing in a coach will be life-changing.
It’s time to finally follow through, build the body you want, and create the most confident version of yourself in 2020.
CLICK HERE NOW to apply for online coaching with me.
About The Author
Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the online coaching business Bairfit. His Instagram is noticeably missing any calf pictures.