Without properly periodizing your nutrition, you'll never achieve (or sustain) your body composition goals.
Regardless if you're trying to get lean, build muscle, or both... diet periodization is the piece of the puzzle 99% of people are missing.
But let's back up. You're probably wondering...
"What does nutrition periodization or diet periodization even mean?"
Periodization: Splitting a period of time up into blocks. Each block is focused on creating a different adaptation or outcome - but all of the blocks synchronize to push you towards one specific goal at the end of the time period (e.g. squatting a specific weight, reaching a certain body fat percentage).
Basically, periodization means having a strategy deeper than... "Go hard at X until I achieve Y".
Today's blog teaches you how to apply the concept of nutrition periodization for better aesthetics, better health, better hormones, a faster metabolism, and results you can sustain for a lifetime.
Nutrition Periodization For Fat Loss
Throughout this blog, I'll be mentioning the "Phases" of periodization a lot. These phases are just chunks of time devoted to a specific goal.
Over the course of months (or as long as you're coaching with us), we'll cycle you in and out of these different phases. All of the phases support each other (and staying in any one phase for too long leads to stagnation/less than optimal results), and when pieced together properly, synergistically push you closer to your goal body composition. That's periodization.
Primer Phases (Prepare Phases)
One of the most common mistakes most people make, that leads to diets failing?
Jumping right into a fat loss phase.
The Primer Phase (or Push Phase) is not something you hear a lot of coaches or dieters talk about, but it's vital to your fat loss success once you start the diet.
This is where we build your fat loss foundation.
In this phase, we’re doing a lot of psychological and behavioral work to prime your body and mind to create the best fat loss results possible when you enter the Fat Loss Phase.
This starts with...
—> Creating Your Individualized Diet Structure - One of the biggest keys to nutrition success is individualization. This is where we create a diet that you can actually stick to.
When you hop on the initial strategy call with me and fill out your questionnaire, we go extremely in-depth determining exactly what you want to achieve.
The key things we take into account here include:
- Dieting history
- Food preferences
- Personality type
- Desired rate of progress
- Stress levels
- Current biofeedback
- Time investment
- Activity levels
- Preferred style of training
...basically, we’re “determining your tradeoffs”. What parts of your lifestyle are you willing to “trade off” for quicker results, and what needs to stay in place. (E.g. if you aren’t willing to trade off alcohol nightly for rapid fat loss, we know a less aggressive, flexible approach is a better fit.)
—> Ensuring Accuracy In Your Tracking - The reality is, most of us are pretty bad at estimating how many calories we really eat in a day.
It's super common for an online client to start coaching saying something like…
“I’m only eating 1,000 calories per day, and I STILL can’t lose weight.”
...only to find out they're eating twice after being educated on how to track accurately. They’re never intentionally being deceptive, just haven’t been taught to track food intake accurately yet.
Giving someone fat loss macros who doesn’t have the knowledge of how to track accurately is setting them up for failure.
So spending some time on education here is a must. Within coaching, we literally filter through your MyFitnessPal diary, and help you identify anywhere inaccuracy could be slipping in.
—> Finding Maintenance - Before we can prescribe fat loss macros, we need to know what amount of food you can eat to maintain your current body composition. This is what we're determining in the Primer Phase, so you can enter the Fat Loss Phase eating as much food as possible while losing at the desired rate.
As a coach, I use this time to put you through a nutrition assessment - I use your previous food logs to establish an estimated maintenance, as well as identify the nutritional habits (and specific nutrients) you need to put your focus on.
—> Food Choices - A major key to long-term success, it teaching online clients how to auto-regulate your appetite with proper food selection. Basically, we’re teaching you how to choose foods that make you full for relatively low calories.
This literally makes it HARD to overeat.
Once you start to do this habitually, I know you’ve won. Overeating (even after you’re done with your diet and just want to maintain) will become much harder. This makes your new lean much easier to sustain forever.
Although this could be a whole blog in itself, eating to auto regulate your appetite comes down to focusing on the most satiating foods per calorie:
Above is something called "The Satiety Index Of Common Foods", which really helps illustrate this concept. But basically, it's a good idea to build your meals around...
1. Lean protein
2. Fibrous carbs
This is another benefit of being able to see an online clients food logs. We can compare the times you noticed hunger or cravings, and educate you on how to make more filling food choices next time.
—> Consistency With Daily Movement - The biggest difference between the metabolisms of lean and obese individuals?
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (N.E.A.T.).
N.E.A.T. is all your movement outside of the gym that burns calories - pacing, blinking, doing laundry, etc.
Studies have shown there is a HUGE amount of variability in calories burned through N.E.A.T from person-to-person. (Up to 2,000 calories per day.)
When you start a fat loss phase, to counteract this decrease in calories, your body subconsciously reduces N.E.A.T. - this means you’re also burning fewer calories. As a result, fat loss can stall quickly despite eating less than before.
So before we put you into a fat loss phase, we must first ensure you’re consistently hitting a daily movement target (usually a step goal I have online clients track daily in their accountability tracker). This means nothing is left unaccounted for when it comes to your fat loss success.
—> Education + Mindset - 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.
Within our online coaching service, we also believe that education creates sustainability. We want you to have all the nutritional knowledge and tools to be successful on your own sooner rather than later. We don't want online clients to be codependent on us, we want to empower with the knowledge you to be independent.
In the Primer Phase, this is generally an understanding of energy balance, the satiety index, flexible dieting, and how to make your diet work with the weekends, social events, and work trips (the biggest pieces that throw most people off and kill nutritional adherence).
—> Recovering From Your Last Diet - Depending on how long ago you dieted and how lean you got, the 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) doesn’t happen overnight.
The harsher and more recent your previous diet was, the longer you need to spend in the Primer Phase. In some cases, you shouldn't be dieting for the foreseeable, and we'll push you to undergo a Building Phase instead (discussed later).
So in a nutshell, the Primer Phase or "Prepare Phase" is all about building good habits around food choices, daily movement, building a diet structure specific to you, and recovering from your previous diet.
This can take anywhere from 1 week to 6 months, depending on where you’re coming from (like all things within nutrition, it’s highly individual).
If we build your "fat loss house" on a shaky foundation, you won’t see long-term success with your body composition. Even if you do get lean, you won’t have the tools & knowledge to sustain that result.
Fat Loss Phases (Push Phases)
This is the sexiest, most exciting phase in nutrition periodization - it yields the quickest changes, and most immediate gratification.
It's also a huge amount of stress, both physically and psychologically - which is why diet periodization here is so important.
Look at it like a roadtrip...
Fat loss phases are like the time you're actually losing body fat and getting closer to your goal. They're like the actual time spent driving down the highway.
Primer phases, maintenance phases, diet breaks and refeeds as the tools we use that help you maintain the results you achieved in the fat loss phase(s) long-term. They're like breaks at the gas stations, mechanic, and rest stops.
—> Rate Of Loss Within The Fat Loss Phase
Within a fat loss phase, we'll typically be decreasing or increasing your macros based on your rate of loss.
How quickly you should lose fat is very individual, but some general guidelines:
- If you're only concerned with fat loss, push for .5-1.5% of body weight lost per week
- If you're attempting a body recomposition (building muscle and losing fat simultaneously) rate of loss should be slower. Aim for .25-.5% of body weight per week.
- If you're ok with giving up social drinking/eating, eating out at restaurants frequently, etc., and find the idea of a long diet daunting, push for faster fat loss. .75-1.5% of body weight per week.
- If you need a more "flexible lifestyle" in order to stick to your diet, or find the idea of drastically reducing food daunting, fat loss should be a bit slower. Aim for .5-1% of body weight lost per week.
Really, there are tons of variables here... but generally, most will do best aiming to lose .5-1% of body weight per week.
Dropping below this rate of loss makes sense for those looking to build muscle simultaneously.
Going above this rate makes sense for those with a lot of weight to lose.
For more on setting up macros during a fat loss phase, desired rate of loss, making adjustments, and more, check out The Complete Guide To Setting Your Macros For Any Goal.
—> Calorie Cycling Within The Fat Loss Phase
Calorie cycling is periodization of your calories within the fat loss phase - it’s something we do to ensure we're getting you to your ideal body composition in the best place possible metabolically, hormonally, and with your overall health.
Here are my favorite calorie cycling methods to use with online clients ↴
#1: The 11|3 Macro Split
On the 11/3 split you’re in a calorie deficit for 11 days. This is enough time to create a solid amount of fat loss.
This is followed by 3 days where you return your calories to maintenance levels, with the calorie increase ideally coming from carbs, which will replenish your muscle glycogen stores. This will lead to better training performance, and help you maintain (or even build) more lean muscle
From the super important “doing some shit you can actually stick to” perspective, this gives you more calories to get more flexible with every other weekend.
Personally, I DON’T like this approach for clients in a shorter fat loss phase (e.g. a client that needs <12 weeks to finish the diet). Over the course of 12 weeks, the client will have spent 18 days at maintenance NOT losing fat, and will likely add 2-3 extra weeks in a deficit.
In situations like this, where we can achieve your desired fat loss outcomes without being TOO aggressive (generally, this means losing <1% of body weight), the best thing we can do is just get your diet done with, and get you back out of a deficit long-term, instead of dragging things out.
But for longer fat loss phases (>3 months), this is a smart approach.
#2: The 5|2 Macro Split
This is my most popular macro split with online clients.
This is very similar to the 11/3 split, but on a weekly basis. 5 days in a deficit, followed by 2 days at maintenance. Again, we’re increasing calories via carbs for the muscle glycogen boosting benefits.
This split works great for clients that like to enjoy their weekends a bit more, as you’ll have increased calories every weekend.
For my online clients that need the “flexible lifestyle” to make their diet sustainable, this is my favorite prescription.
#3: The 6|1 Macro Split
This is a great approach for online clients in shorter fat loss phases (<12 weeks), where our goal is to get the fat off of you ASAP, while maintaining your lean muscle.
Similar to the above examples, here you’re spending 6 days in a deficit, 1 day at maintenance (again with the increase in calories coming from carbs).
Again, this gives you a chance to refill your muscle gylcogen stores, so it’s smart to put this immediately before or on your hardest training day of the week.
The reality of shorter diets is, you’re often in a larger deficit to get the job done on time. 1x/week to get a bit more flexible with your food choices helps a lot when it comes to sticking the diet out.
#4: Protein-Sparing Modified Fast (PSMF) Days
This is a strategy that I learned about years ago from Lyle McDonald, and have seen great success implementing PSMF days with my more advanced clients.
Typically, when I make a macro adjustment for you, it'll be a reduction of ~5-10% of your weekly total calories (roughly 500-1000 calories for most clients).
Obviously these calorie reductions have to come from somewhere. We can either drop a 100-200 calories from every day of the week (which really bums most people out), or we can knock out that entire deficit in one day, and leave food intake the same the rest of the week.
The goal is to keep calories as low as possible, while still hitting your protein goal. Basically, you just focus on eating lean proteins and lots of veggies.
So your day could look something like:
- Fasting until noon (black coffee only)
- Meal 1: Chicken breast + lots of veggies
- Snack: Tuna mixed with non-fat cottage cheese (actually super good)
- Meal 2: Lean ground beef or turkey with seasoning, mixed with salsa and veggies
- Meal 3: Non-fat, plain Greek yogurt mixed with whey protein
Nothing magic about this approach, but it makes the diet much easier to adhere to for most people.
Like everything in nutrition, the option that will work best depends on you as an individual. I’ve had online clients get great results using each of these strategies - there is no “one-size-fits-all” answer here.
—> Monitoring Biofeedback - When you’re in a Fat Loss Phase, keep a close eye on your biofeedback. This is one of the main metrics I use to measure how close to a "fat loss wall" you are/how soon we need to transition you to the next phase of nutrition periodization.
Some sure signs that it’s almost time to transition out of a Fat Loss Phase include multiple weeks of…
- High hunger levels. Some hunger is normal for dieting, and a good sign that you’re eating fewer calories than you’re burning. That said, we usually want this to be somewhere on a 2.5-3.5 (scale of 1-5). Once clients get into the 4-5 range consistently, we know it’s probably time to change phases, as constantly high hunger makes the diet hard to adhere to for most. That said, context is super important here. If you're already pretty lean and trying to get leaner... it's likely that you'll just have to deal with a good amount of hunger. That's part of pushing your body below a "comfortable" level of body fat.
- High cravings. Again, some cravings are normal in a Fat Loss Phase. But when these are consistently high, adherence and results starts to suffer.
- Low motivation. When clients start ranking their motivation level 1-3, I know that they’re starting to accumulate a lot of diet fatigue.
- Poor mood. Similar to motivation, when a client consistently starts to rank their mood poorly in their biofeedback tracker, we know that the diet is starting to take it’s psychological toll, and it’s near time to transition out.
A Fat Loss Phase typically lasts 6-12 weeks. After this, we'll shift our focus to spending some time rejuvenating your body and mind in a diet break or maintenance phase.
Diet Breaks (Practice Phases)
A diet break is a 3-14 day period of eating more calories.
The goal here isn't to gain or lose fat, simply to eat at your maintenance calorie intake. Usually this increase in calories is coming primarily form eating more carbohydrates.
With most online clients, diet breaks are interjected every 6-12 weeks of dieting (Fat Loss Phases).
All of this sounds counter-intuitive... I get it.
Why would you purposely STOP fat loss?
I'd argue that diet breaks ARE the missing piece keeping you from achieving the lean body you want.
—> Why Take Diet Breaks?
The primary reason you'll hear people promote diet breaks is to prevent adaptive thermogenesis.
See, your body has four different ways it burns calories:
1. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) - Your BMR is the number of calories your body burns just to stay alive. Generally, the heavier you are, the higher your BMR.
2. Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) - Calories burned during digestion. It takes energy to turn the food you consume into energy. This is TEF.
3. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (N.E.A.T.) - All the calories you burn in your everyday movement outside the gym.
4. Thermic Effect of Exercise (TEE) - Calories burned lifting weights, doing cardio, etc.
These four mechanisms make up your metabolism.
As you eat fewer calories and get leaner, your metabolism adapts to prevent you from withering away into nothing:
- Your body is smaller, so BMR decreases
- You're eating less food, so TEF decreases (given macro composition stays the same)
- TEE decreases, because it takes fewer calories to move your smaller body
- NEAT generally decreases, because you feel lethargic due to lack of calories
Plus, levels of a hormone called Leptin also decrease. This leads to an increase in hunger, and less energy expenditure.
As you eat more and gain more fat, the opposite happens - metabolism increases, hunger decreases.
This up-regulation and down-regulation of your metabolism when dieting is called adaptive thermogenesis.
The thinking behind diet breaks is...
"If eating more up-regulates your metabolism and hormones, then taking a diet break every 6-12 weeks means you'll arrive at the end of the diet with a faster metabolism and better hormones."
Which sounds pretty great, right?
The question is...
Does it really work like that?
Now the reality is, there hasn't been a TON of research on diet breaks in the sense we’re talking about here.
But the few we have are pretty promising.
#1: This study from 2003 set out to prove that longer diet breaks would be detrimental to weight loss. However, they found out there wasn’t a statistically significant difference in weight loss between groups that continuously dieted and those that took diet breaks, for the same period of time. (So the diet break group spent less total time dieting, but lost the same amount of weight as those who dieted non-stop.)
#2: The Matador Study. This study had two groups on a diet.
Group 1: Followed the diet for 16 weeks straight, in a 33% calorie deficit.
Group 2: Dieted in a 33% calorie deficit, followed by two weeks at maintenance calories. They alternated between the two until they had completed 16 total weeks of dieting. (So it took them twice as long.)
At the end of the study, the diet break group lost more fat, more weight, and seemed to see less adaptation in their metabolisms.
As you can see from the graph above (taken from the study), resting energy expenditure (REE - which is the same as BMR) remained higher in the intermittent dieting/diet break group (INT) than the continuous diet group (CON).
#3: The Diet Breaks/Diet Refeeds Study. This study took two groups through a 7 week diet.
Group 1: Ate in a 25% calorie deficit, for 7 weeks straight.
Group 2: Ate in a 35% calorie deficit 5 days per week, but every weekend increased calories to maintenance levels via carbohydrates (so the weekly deficit for both groups was equated). They followed this pattern for 7 weeks.
Both groups lost about 5.5 pounds of fat. But Group 2 was seemingly able to maintain more lean muscle mass during the seven diet - they lost less than a pound of muscle, while Group 2 lost nearly 3 pounds.
Maintaining more lean muscle means that your BMR, TEF, and calories burned via NEAT are higher.
So, these studies seem to show that taking diet breaks can lead to higher basal metabolic rate and maintaining more lean muscle - both of which equal a faster metabolism.
—> What We're Still Not Clear On
While the results of most of the research we have seems pretty positive, there are some things we're still not sure about when it comes to diet breaks:
1. The human studies rely on self-reporting (the participants were responsible for tracking and reporting their own macros and adherence), which leaves a lot of room for error. In fact, it's thought that the primary benefits of diet breaks is psychological - they simply make the diet a lot easier to stick to.
2. Potentially longer diet time-frames. For example, the MATADOR group that saw significantly better results also took twice as long as the continuously dieting group.
That said, I'd argue that the potential benefits of diet breaks, and the fact that you'll be much more likely to maintain your results long-term (and actually make it to your end goal) make it well worth the extra time.
3. It’s unclear what the physiological benefits could be. We know that your metabolism is essentially a product of how much you're eating, how much you weigh, and how much you're moving.
So it seems that you would lose any metabolism benefits of a diet break as soon as you resumed the diet.
The common thinking is:
- A potential increase in thyroid. Thyroid does account for a large chunk of your BMR. But it's unclear how much of an impact 3-14 days at maintenance could really have on thyroid hormone, because it's thought that thyroid is more a product of your current body composition than your calorie intake.
- A potential increase in leptin - We do have a study showing that overfeeding on carbohydrates resulted in an 7% increase in energy expenditure over 24 hours, due to leptin increase. However, leptin seems to be mostly a product of calorie intake (it drops quickly when the diet resumes), and body fat levels. So right now, it seems unlikely that leptin is responsible for any lasting metabolic benefits of a diet break.
—> Why My Online Clients Take Diet Breaks
1. It's easier to maintain or build muscle, and glycogen stores are refilled more frequently - This is one benefit of diet breaks we're more clear on. Intermittent periods of eating at maintenance seem to make it easier to maintain your lean muscle. The opportunity to eat more carbs also helps re-fill your muscle glycogen stores - allowing you to train more intensely.
Both of these create a faster metabolism.
Plus, I work with online clients that want to get lean and strong. The ability to build or maintain more lean muscle in the dieting process is essentially to getting lean and strong instead of skinny.
2. It makes the diet psychologically easier for most, and improves adherence. The most important factor of any diet?
It MUST be something you can stick to long-term.
From my experience coaching hundreds of clients both in-person and online, continuously sticking to a diet for longer than 12 weeks is extremely challenging for most.
Past this point, adherence almost always gets worse - people's diets are usually on track 3-5 days out of the week, and off track 2-3 days. This leads to the sad situation many of us know so well - always feeling like you're dieting, but never seeing progress.
Taking a 1-2 week diet break when adherence starts to decrease seems to improve future adherence dramatically with clients.
So, even if the benefits of a diet break do turn out to be mostly psychological like some argue... does it really matter if they were psychological or physiological, as long as they helped you achieve the lean body you've always wanted in a sustainable way?
3. You need time to practice maintenance. The goal of online coaching is to empower you with the knowledge & skills to be successful on your own in the future.
One of the best ways to do this is coaching clients through a maintenance - not just fat loss phases.
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, leaner body.
Practicing the ability to maintain is exactly what helps our online clients keep their results, and break the yo-yo diet cycle so many others get stuck in.
—> How To Implement Diet Breaks
From the research we have, plus tons of real-world experience with clients getting much better results taking diet breaks
- Frequency: Every 6-12 weeks for most. The leaner you are, the more frequently it makes sense to take these (as you're at a higher risk for muscle loss, and your body has less fat stores to pull from for energy).
- Duration: 1-2 weeks for most.
- Calories: Total calories should be returned to somewhere between your current deficit calories and your current estimated maintenance intake.
To find this, look at your average weekly weight lost over the last month. We know that to lose 1lb of fat, you need to eat ~3,500 calories less than you burn.
So if you're averaging 1lb lost per week, we know you need to add back in ~3,500 calories per week/500 per day to be at your estimated maintenance.
As we're not sure that returning exactly to maintenance produces all of the physiological benefits (which was the old argument for returning to maintenance on a diet break), a diet break does not have to return calories all the way to maintenance levels.
That said, to reap the psychological benefits of a diet break, we want to make sure that calories are high enough to keep hunger and cravings low across the course of the break.
For most online clients, I've found that this means the deficit at least should be cut in half. (So if you were in a daily deficit of 500 calories, add back 250 calories per day.)
- Macros: Protein should stay at .8-1.2g/lb (don't decrease your current intake). We have some (very limited) evidence that it might be more beneficial to increase calories almost exclusively via carbs, due to leptin's responsiveness to it.
Leptin aside, increasing carbs to refill glycogen stores is smart. So it's likely most optimal to increase calories to maintenance almost exclusively via carbs, keeping protein and fat where they were on the diet.
- Food choices: The biggest mistakes people make is thinking a diet break is a time to just constantly eat lots of calorie-dense foods. This pretty quickly puts you OVER your calorie goal, and isn't a realistic picture of how you need to eat long-term to sustain your results.
Stick mostly to the foods you normally eat, just in greater quantities. When you try to work in too many calorically-dense foods, you can easily eat MORE calories but be less satiated than when you're on your diet.
- Weight Gain: You’ll likely feel a bit fluffier and weigh a bit more. Your body is holding more water, & your gut content has increased. This doesn't mean you’ve gained fat back.
If calories in = calories out (which is the goal in a diet break), you won't gain fat.
- Mindset: This isn't just a time where you eat whatever and don't track. Think of this time as practicing maintaining - a crucial skill to have mastered when we get you as lean as you want. This is what makes your results sustainable.
Reverse Diets (Practice Phases)
Reverse dieting is the process we use to find your new maintenance intake after you've achieved your goal level of leanness. We implement this process when you're completely done focusing on fat loss for the near future.
Coming out of a deficit is a scary process for most people… especially if your client's weight has rebounded post-diet in the past.⠀⠀
Even for my clients that are coaches themselves, the fear of coming out of a calorie deficit is real.
This is the best time to again remind clients, it all comes down to energy balance.
If you’ve been losing ~1lb/week, you’re eating ~3,500 calories less than you burn in a week. So we know that to maintain, we can add back in ~3,500 calories to your diet on a weekly basis… or 500 calories per day, without worrying about fat gain.
Gaining even 1lb of fat would require eating ~3,500 calories MORE than your maintenance intake. Now, while this is SUPER doable thanks to all of the adaptations your body undergoes during a diet (as all of us who have rebounded before know), if you have a smart plan for the diet after the diet like we provide within online coaching, you don’t need to worry.
—> What the reverse diet process looks like for my online clients
Step 1: Return the client to 90% of their estimated maintenance calories.
90% instead of 100% just to be sure we don't overshoot maintenance, as clients generally want to take extra precautions here to avoid excess fat gain.
Most of the increase in calories here will come from carbs (which give you more physiological benefits, plus better training & recovery), given you’re already eating above ~.3g fat/lb of body weight daily (the “fat threshold” clients need to hit for hormonal health & preventing fatty acid deficiencies).
Step 2: Watch how that impacts the client's weight & measurements.
One of the biggest mistakes people make post-diet?
They suddenly stop hopping on the scale and taking body measurements.
This is a huge problem, because this is the exact data we use to determine how the amount you’re currently eating is impacting your body composition.
Without this data, it’s easier to regain fat, as you're not sure how your body is changing.
Now, we're expecting the client to see a few lbs of weight gain due to increased glycogen storage and gut content. It's also normal to see an increase in the 2" below the navel measurement (most reactive to gut content) over Weeks 1 & 2 of the reverse diet, but we shouldn't see major shifts in any of these metrics.
Step 3: Adjust nutrition based on the metrics.
After the first 1-2 weeks of the reverse diet process (where again, some increase in weight & measurements is normal), we’re looking to increase calories to start pushing the clients “maintenance calories” up.
But again, tracking metrics is key to knowing that what the client is doing with their nutrition is leading to maintenance and not gaining.
With what you now know about adaptive thermogenesis (see the graphic above for a refresher), you realize that as we’re feeding clients more, they’re also burning more calories… meaning that maintenance calories are also increasing.
So, depending on the client, these calorie increases to “bump up maintenance” are usually 50-125 cals (usually 75% carbs / 25% fat), relative to the client's current body size.
NOTE: The degree to which we can increase a client's maintenance without fat gain is primarily dependent on how adaptive their metabolism is/how much they tend to increase NEAT as a response to consuming more calories.
For some online clients this process only lasts a few weeks, for others we can ramp maintenance up for quite some time.
Step 4: When to stop reverse dieting
Two things to look for here:
#1: We’re looking for trunk measurements and weight to stay relatively stable (fluctuations of +/- .25 are normal) - So larger increases here indicate you've likely passed maintenance.
That said, realize that most clients will also be capable of building some lean muscle at maintenance. This is especially true for newer online client that have never spent an extended period of time eating more and following a smart training program like my online clients do.
So sometimes we'll see an increase in weight across the course of weeks. This is why it’s important that we’re also tracking body measurements.
See, most online clients will have a “trouble spot” they really wanted to focus on losing fat from during the diet.
This seems to be the last place that said client loses fat from their body. It’s likely that the end of this clients diet phase was finally shedding the fat from their “trouble spot”... after that, said client is content with their current level of leanness, and ready to focus on maintenance.
Conveniently, the last place we seem to lose fat from also seems to be the first place we regain it. (I have no science to prove this, only anecdote).
This means that in a case where your client is gaining a bit of weight, but you think it could be lean muscle not fat, it makes sense to look at measurement increases at the client's “trouble spot” as a sign that they’re potentially gaining fat (for 90% of clients it will be navel measurements, but occasionally hips).
If we start to see consecutive weeks of measurement increases at the trouble spot, it’s a good sign that body fat is being gained.
#2: Biofeedback is normal - We all have a certain body fat percentage “floor”.
Below this body fat percentage, clients will struggle with hunger, being food focused, low energy, poor hormones, & building lean muscle is very unlikely.
Many of your hormones are a product of the amount of body fat you’re carrying. No matter how much food you’re eating, you’ll still feel shitty below your “body fat floor”.
While you can dip below this “floor” for short periods of time (e.g. for a photoshoot), living below it is not healthy or sustainable.
So the reality is, occasionally clients will have to add back a bit of body fat in order to return biofeedback to healthy levels and quit feeling like a zombie.⠀
If a clients' biofeedback (weekly measures my clients submit for things like sleep, stress, motivation, mood, training performance, etc.) is still poor, they likely need to continue the reverse diet. Similarly, normalized biofeedback is a good sign you can end the reverse diet process.
On a side note, if your client's body fat floor is higher than they want it to be (they can't stay as lean as they want without feeling awful), check out Ryan Solomon and I's discussion on how to lower your body fat floor here.
Maintenance Phases (Practice Phases)
Maintenance Phases are the final phase of Fat Loss Specific periodization we'll be discussing. This is another phase often overlooked by coaches and dieters.
We implement maintenance phases with online client either:
#1: After the reverse diet
#2: In place of a diet break, for clients with larger weight loss goals/longer diet timelines
—> For clients who've completed the reverse diet process
Your body really doesn't like change. It wants to return to it's old normal as quickly as possible. 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. Again, 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.
—> For clients with large weight loss goals that are still a work in progress
A maintenance phase can actually serve as a substitute or longer version of a diet break. Clients looking to lose 50+ lbs often need a longer break from the grind of dieting. This allows time to let their bodies normalize, and practice maintaining their weight loss.
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.
—> Desired outcomes from a Maintenance Phase
- Recovery from the Fat Loss Phase. Some key changes happen during the Practice Phase that make your results more sustainable, and will make future progress easier if you’re planning another Fat Loss Phase:
- 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. The Practice Phase is a must to allow you to cement a new normal for your body.
- Time to "practice maintenance". Fat Loss Phases are very exciting and motivating, because you can see your body changing rapidly. Many of us are ok with being hungry, because we know we’re almost to the fat loss result we want.
However, The mindset of MAINTAINING that result is much different… which is why so many people regain weight after a diet. Once the goal is achieved, people are sick of being hungry & deprived (which is another big problem in the diet culture, and exactly why I focus on giving my online clients diet flexibility) - so they have a tendency to just go back to how they were eating before the diet… and the weight comes back.
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.
- Re-Assessing Your Goals. Here, we take some time to evaluate exactly where you’re at, and mapping out our next course of action.
- For clients that want to get leaner still, this means our next step after the Maintenance Phase is another Fat Loss Phase.
- For those that are ready to maintain, it means extended time hanging out and practicing maintenance.
- For those that are ready to build lean muscle, it means preparing for a Building Phase.
—> Time frames for a Maintenance Phase
A Maintenance Phase can be anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months. Again, it’s highly individual to where you are at as a client.
- The shortest time frame (2 weeks) most often comes in the form of a diet break. After reassessing, we’ve determined that you as an online client want to get leaner - which requires another Fat Loss Phase. This is also dependent on your biofeedback and psychological state. But if all of these are in a good place after 2 weeks in a Maintenance Phase, we’ll transition back into a Fat Loss Phase.
- More moderate time frames (2 weeks - 1 month) often come around the holidays, or during periods of travel for online clients. During times like these, it’s often unrealistic (and an unnecessary source of stress) to expect clients to also push for fat loss.
Many of my clients spend Thanksgiving - New Years “practicing maintenance”, and are thrilled when they realize (for the first time ever) they didn't gain weight over the holidays, thanks to their new knowledge from coaching.
The beauty of this is, times like these are also the ones where people USED TO see their physique drastically regress, caving to stress eating & poor travel habits. So here, we double down on educating you how to maintain this new, lean body during periods of high stress, travel, or the holidays.
The goal of coaching with me is always helping you achieve results that are sustainable long-term. So learning to maintain instead of regress at times like this is essential.
- The longer time frames are most common for clients that have achieved their goal level of leanness. Like we talked about earlier, this requires a whole new mindset, and making sure that the right habits are in place. The more you’ve struggled with yo-yo dieting in the past, the longer we’ll spend here, cementing these changes as your body’s new normal.
For more on the behavior keys to successfully "practicing maintenance" check out Avoiding Weight Regain [The Secret To Maintenance].
Real World Application Of The Fat Loss Phases
To wrap up the discussion on the fat loss focused phases of nutrition periodization, let's dive into some real world application.
Let's say you start Online Coaching with us.
Your initial goal?
Go from 26% body fat to 16% body fat. You've been there before, but always struggle to stay as lean as you want - your body fat inevitably rebounds shortly after reaching your goal body composition. This absolutely saps your confidence.
So after a through strategy call, we determine that reaching your body composition goal will require ~20lbs of fat loss (going from 150lbs to 130lbs).
—> We start you off in a Primer Phase. Again, this phase is all about building good habits around food choices, daily movement, building a diet structure specific to you, and recovering from your previous diet.
You've already tracked macros consistently, and have a good understanding of how to do so accurately. You haven't dieted in quite some time, and have solid habits around training + daily movement. Our main focus is teaching you more about selecting filling foods with each meal to control hunger on the diet.
All of this means your Primer Phase is relatively short (2 weeks).
—> We transition you to a Fat Loss Phase. This is where your body starts changing rapidly.
We know that some "lifestyle flexibility" is important to you, but you're also willing to plan ahead and want to see your body change at a good clip, so we establish ~.75% of body weight per week as your target rate of loss - basically, you're aiming to lose around 1lb/week.
We set you up with a 6|1 macro split to allow for a bit more flexibility within your diet, while still pushing for relatively fast results.
After 10 weeks, you're right on track with 10lbs lost... but biofeedback has been rapidly declining the last few weeks. Motivation + Mood have tanked, Cravings + Hunger are through the roof. So we determine it's time...
—> We implement a diet break. The next two weeks, your calories are set at your new estimated maintenance. By the time the diet break is over, you feel physically and mentally rejuvenated.
—> We start another Fat Loss Phase. Same macro split and rate of loss targets as before.
Over the next 7 weeks, you lose 5 more lbs, and are only 5lbs away from your goal. That said, you have a week long vacation coming up a week from now, and don't want to feel like you can't enjoy yourself a bit more on the trip.
—> We start Diet Break #2. Typically, starting a diet break/maintenance phase the same day someone has a special event/vacation is a recipe for disaster. In this case, we'll start the diet break ~7 days in advance. This allows hunger and cravings to dissipate in a much more controlled food environment.
You wrap up the second week of the Diet Break on vacation, and return just in time to start...
—> Fat Loss Phase #3. Here, we decide that it's best to push for a faster rate of loss, and get you back to long-term maintenance sooner. Over the next 3 weeks, you lose the last 5lbs.
—> We start the Reverse Dieting Process. After the initial jump to 90% of your estimated maintenance, we spend the next 6 weeks adjusting macros, and watching body measurements and biofeedback. By the end of 6 weeks, we've established the upper end of what you need to eat to maintain your current body composition.
—> You transition to a Maintenance Phase. As maintaining a lean physique has always been your biggest struggle, being coached through this phase is especially important. You spend the next 8 weeks "practicing maintenance", and ensuring the you have all the necessary habits and lifestyle factors in place to maintain these results long-term.
Nutrition Periodization For Building Lean Muscle
Nutrition periodization isn't just about losing fat and dieting.
In fact, more of your time should be spent in the phases that don't put you in a calorie deficit than those that do.
While Fat Loss Phases are especially appealing to most, realize that time focusing on eating more and building lean muscle is key to achieving a functionally strong and aesthetic body composition.
If you've never done one of these, you're leaving results on the table.
A Building Phase is a phase dedicated to eating more calories than you're burning, and building lean muscle.
Really, it's what 99% of you who can’t achieve the lean, strong body composition you’re chasing are missing.
For women and men alike, spending 6-12 months focused on fueling your training will make a BIG difference in your body composition.
Let’s say you just got super lean for the first time ever with the help of Online Coaching, and have 20lbs of fat left on your body.
You still don’t look as lean or strong as you want... but your hormones & energy levels are zapped. You can't realistically lose any more body fat and expect to sustain that level of leanness. We know that at this point, your physiology is strongly pushing back against you getting any leaner.
So, we decide it's time for you to start your first building phase.
You go through 8 months of building —> 8 weeks of cutting —> end up back near where you started, with 20lbs of fat left on your body.
But, now (thanks to the building phase) you have an additional 8lbs of lean muscle on your frame.
So even though fat mass is the same as before, your body fat percentage is lower, and your body composition is much different.
This is exactly why I’m always convincing online clients to commit to building phase. “Convincing”, because the thought of seeing the scale increase is scary for most (I get it!), but this is 100% necessary for anyone chasing their all-time best body composition.
This process does take time, but it’s completely necessary to push yourself and your body composition to the limits of what you're capable of.
—> Who should do a building phase?
The reality is, most everyone will need to do a building phase at some point in order to achieve the body composition they want to maintain long-term.
That said, most online clients start coaching capable of achieving body recomposition (losing fat and building muscle simultaneously). Meaning you're already training, you're already attempting to improve their nutrition, etc. But coaching is the first time you have the entire ecosystem of results…
- A smart, goal-specific training program
- Extreme consistency with an individualized nutrition plan
- Management of stress & sleep
- Periodization of nutrition and training
…all dialed in at once.
And that’s the crux of why body recomposition is possible for most everyone during their first 3-6 months of online coaching (or coaching yourself properly). Because, unless you’ve already had all of these factors dialed in for a long time (which is rare), you’re leaving fat loss & muscle gain results on the table.
So normally, when you start coaching we'll push you in the direction of body recompostion with a focus on either fat loss or muscle gain - whichever is more necessary for your goal physique.
But, you can only recomp so long (again, usually 3-6 months) before a directed focus on either...
a.) Fat loss and building a bit of muscle in the process
b.) Eating more + building muscle, and losing any fat added later
...becomes a must to continue to see tangible progress.
Anyways, you should do a building phase if:
- Your goals are exclusively building lean muscle or improving performance.
- You just feel "skinny" when you lose fat... not the lean, strong body composition you want.
- You feel terrible at your desired level of leanness. Adding muscle = a leaner body, even if you don't technically "have less fat" on your frame than before. As the production of many hormones is related to the actual amount of fat you have on your body, we'll all inevitably feel terrible when we drop below a certain body fat percentage. Thus, the only way to maintain a leaner body without feeling shitty, is to add more lean muscle to your frame. For women and men alike that I've coached online, committing to the building process is a gamechanger in this scenario.
- You want an improved physique next time you get lean.
—> Rate of gain in a Building Phase
Building muscle is a very slow process, and you just don't need to eat that many calories over your maintenance intake to build muscle.
We also know that you can build muscle without eating in a calorie surplus (eating more calories than you're burning), but eating a bit above your maintenance intake creates an environment that's more optimal for building lean muscle.
Unlike most body recomposition scenarios (where you're losing fat and building muscle simultaneously), here we're actively push you to slowly gain weight. We know that you're not in a calorie deficit, and therefore not losing fat. So if you're not gaining weight through the building phase, you're simply not building muscle.
Again, seeing the scale increase is a scary thing for most people at first. But this is 100% necessary to continue to improve your body composition as a more intermediate to advanced trainee.
Let's say last time you got super lean you were ~10% body fat at 170lbs. If the next time you get near 10% body fat, you again weigh 170lbs... we know that you didn't add much (if any muscle) since last time you got this lean - your body composition will be VERY similar.
But, if next time you're near ~10% you weigh 180lbs, we know you have more lean muscle, and therefore a much better body composition.
Getting heavier at any given body fat percentage over time is a must to actually continue to progress your physique over time. Even when you're super lean, being heavier than you were last time you were here is good.
Gaining weight and getting heavier is a necessary part of the process.
- Aim to gain .25-.5% of body weight per week.
—> Making Adjustments in the Building Phase
You undoubtedly know at least one person who seems to eat whatever they want without gaining weight. Maybe you are that person.
In reality, people like this either:
- Haven’t accurately tracked their calorie intake before. They likely eat a lot - at times - and then subconsciously adapt by going long periods of time without eating. This is extremely common with new online clients that claim they can't build muscle or add weight.
- Have an extremely adaptive metabolism. In response to overfeeding (eating in a calorie surplus), some people will naturally (without even being conscious of it) increase NEAT. This increases your daily calories burned, and in turn prevents weight gain, despite the fact that you're eating more. Now, how a clients metabolism reacts to a calorie surplus is highly individual (this is the beauty of having a coach - to see trends and adjust the plan specifically to you).
So, if you’re NOT seeing increases in weight, body measurements (outside of the belly measurements), or strength in the gym after two week, it’s time to increase calories.
- Increase your total calorie intake by 5% (via carbs). Continue this weekly until you're gaining in the recommended range.
If you’re surpassing the recommend rate of gain for 2+ weeks, you’re likely adding unwanted excess fat.
- Decrease calories by 5% (pulling from carbs). Repeat this weekly until your rate of gain falls back in the recommended range.
—> How long should a building phase last?
You can stay in a building phase for quite some time.
I recommend at least 4-6 months here, as gaining lean muscle does seem to take some “momentum”. If you’re constantly interrupting your building phases with a calorie deficit, you won’t get much lean muscle growth out of it.
If it’s your first building phase, you’ll likely feel very good after 6+ months of building. Fat loss will also come easier in the future, and you’ll look leaner at a higher body fat percentage (thanks to all the lean muscle you’ve built).
That said, you can really stay in a building phase as long as you want, so long as you keep your body fat within the recommended ranges (more on this below) to avoid excess fat gain.
When you do find yourself feeling a bit too fluffy in a Building Phase, we implement a Mini Cut.
Mini Cut: A short, aggressive diet phase. The goal is to lose as much body fat as possible across 3-6 weeks without losing muscle mass.
Mini cuts are a tool that I use often within Online Coaching, for clients in a building phase.
Now, counter to what you would think... the primary goal of a mini-cut isn't fat loss... it's actually to allow you to build lean muscle longer/more productively.
We use mini cuts to keep your body partitioning nutrients most optimally (more calories are being partitioned towards building muscle, less towards fat storage).
Basically, mini-cuts allow you to spend more time in a productive building phase.
My online client Kathy is a great example of the changes that can happen here:
The picture on the left isn’t long after a photoshoot we got her super lean for.
After this, she spent months focused purely on eating more and maximizing performance in the gym, with a special emphasis on glute gains. This means she was consistently dialed in on:
- Consistently eating in a slight calorie surplus, and gaining ~.25-.5% of her body weight per week
- A higher carb approach to optimize training & recovery
- Improving on a set-by-set basis weekly within her training
- Training 5x/week
After months dedicated to building, she was feeling a bit too fluffy, and it appeared that her body fat percentage might be drifting outside of the optimal P-Ratio (more on this shortly).
So we dropped her into a mini-cut, where she quickly dropped 6lbs in 4 weeks.
As you can see, in both pictures she's the same weight, but body composition is much different.
But anyways, mini-cuts = more successful building phases due to something called...
—> The P-Ratio
Your Partitioning Ratio or P-Ratio is the ratio of muscle to fat gained when your body weight increases. Within a certain body fat percentage range, your body will be shuttling more of the calories you take in towards building muscle, and less towards fat storage.
On the flipside, outside of these ideal body fat percentage ranges, your body will be gaining exponentially more fat than muscle with every pound that you gain.
I've found that (like everything within Online Coaching) there is lots of individual variability here. But in general, the most optimal body fat ranges will be:
- 10-15% for men
- 18-30% for women
Too far below or above these marks, and a much greater percentage of the overall weight you gain will be fat.
So aside from the fact that most of us don't want to feel overly fluffy during a building phase... excessive body fat will actually make the process of achieving your best body composition ever less efficient.
Mini-cuts are a tool that we intersperse into building phases to allow you as an online client to maintain an optimal P-Ratio, without killing the overall momentum of the building phase.
—> Determining Rate Of Loss
One of the most important things to consider here is how fast you're losing weight.
Again, we're pushing you to lose as quickly as possible without losing muscle mass.
But, how quickly you can lose here really depends on how lean you are currently. The leaner you are, the smaller the percentage of body weight lost per week needs to be.
When you're already leaner, you're at a higher risk of muscle loss, as your body has less stored energy (a.k.a. fat) available to burn, making muscle a more likely candidate than for an individual with more body fat.
I like Revive Stronger's general recommendations here:
- Men at ~10% body fat | women at ~18% body fat should aim to lose ~.5% of body weight per week during a mini cut
- Men at ~15% body fat | women at ~25% body fat should aim to lose ~1% of body weight per week during a mini cut
- Men at ~20%+ body fat | women at ~30%+ body fat should aim to lose ~1.5% of body weight per week during a mini cut
—> Duration of a Mini Cut
The timeframe of a Mini Cut is very important.
- No longer than 6 weeks.
Past this point, you'll be at a much higher risk of muscle loss (which is very counterproductive to the mini cut's goal of helping you maintain as much lean muscle as possible).
- No shorter than 3 weeks. It's nearly impossible to tell how your body is changing on the first two weeks of a diet. That's exactly why it's incredibly rare that I adjust an online client's nutrition plan in the first two week - we just need more time to see how your body really responds to your current macro intake, and for the deficit to compound. So short timeframes don't make much sense here.
And really, if you can achieve the amount of fat loss you want in <3 weeks... you probably don't actually need to implement a mini cut yet. Keep focusing on eating more and building.
For more on how to set up your macros, nutrient timing, training, and other key factors for a successful Mini Cut, check out The Ultimate Mini Cut Guide.
Tying It All Together
So over the course of this blog, you've learned about all of the different phases of nutrition periodization we implement with you as an online client.
Now, let's tie it all together into one cohesive picture by walking through an entire year of the most typical online client journey:
This journey from Primer → Fat Loss → Diet Beak → Fat Loss → Reverse Diet/Maintenance → Building → Mini Cut → Maintenance is extremely common over the first year of coaching. If we were to extend this longer, it would probably be another 3-4 months in a Building Phase, followed by a Fat Loss Phase to uncover a leaner, stronger body composition for the client.
The key things to take from this blog:
—> Over the course of a year, spend more time in the Building and/or Maintenance Phases than in Fat Loss Phases.
Fat loss can happen very quickly, and doesn't require nearly as much time to achieve the results you want relative to a Building Phase.
Fat Loss Phases are by far the most taxing on you physically, hormonally, and mentally. Stay in a fat loss phase for too long, and adherence slips, your body and mindset feel terrible, you'll struggle and you're stuck spinning your wheels.
Generally, it's a good idea to spend at least 2x more time at maintenance or building than losing fat over the course of a year.
Now, of course there are exceptions to this (clients that have a large amount of weight to lose, or have time-sensitive fat loss goals), but it's still important to implement Diet Breaks + (potentially) Maintenance Phases during the diet, and Reverse Dieting + Maintenance Phases after.
—> To create a functionally strong + aesthetic body, spending time in both the Fat Loss AND Building Phases is important.
I can't emphasize enough how important this is, as most people only focus on the Fat Loss Phases, and wonder why they always feel awful + struggle to achieve the body composition they want.
Your body composition improves in the Building Phases. You uncover the changes you've made in the Fat Loss Phases.
If you're ready to take the guesswork out of achieving your best body composition ever, click here now to apply for Online Coaching with us. You'll get fully customized training + nutrition protocols fit to your specific goals & lifestyle, and expert guidance through every step of the process.