After 10 years of obsession with training & nutrition, and 6+ years of the same with coaching, I'm still amazed at how much more there always is to learn.
The last year especially has been full of some crazy revelations that have completely changed my approaches to nutrition, training, and how I coach my online clients.
Today's blog takes you through my top 6 revelations of the last year, and teaches you how to apply them to your clients and/or yourself.
1. Trying Too Hard To "Feel" A Muscle Working Is Probably Detrimental
We know the mind-muscle connection is probably important, but a mistake I was making in the past (and have talked online clients through as well), was taking the concentric portion of my movements too slow to try to "feel" the muscle working... and as a result was never feeling like a left my training with any significant muscle disruption.
Now, I work through this checklist instead ↴
✔ Tempo: It makes sense to focus on making the concentric portions of your movements very explosive (more explosive = recruiting more fast-twitch fibers, which have more potential to grow).
It should feel like you're almost "pulling through mud" (if you're using a challenging weight, it won't usually just fly up), but you should be trying to move the weight "up" as fast as possible, and then slow the eccentric/lowering portion of the lift to increase muscle damage.
✔ Range Of Motion: Am I training the muscle through a full range of motion, with clear "start/top" with a hard contraction, and "end/bottom" point with a muscle stretch on every rep?
For example, with my barbell curls, the "bottom" point of each rep is the arms fully extended position, with a quick tricep flex to be sure I've actually fully extended my arms. The "top" point of each rep is when the barbell touches my nose.
Through every movement, I've started identifying these points, so I can ensure I'm training a full range of motion consistently.
✔ Effort: Am I hitting my Reps In Reserve targets, and taking the movement close enough to failure to stimulate lean muscle growth?
If we tick these boxes, the lean muscle growth we want will take care of itself.
2. Less Exercise Variation Is Better For Most
When you implement a new movement, it takes your body time to learn the "skill" of the movement.
And when you're "unskilled" at a movement, fatiguing the targeted muscle fibers enough to stimulate growth becomes much more unlikely, as your body & brain are simply trying to learn the skill of the new movement.
After the first few weeks of progressing a movement is when online clients really start to learn what loads and reps are needed to achieve true effective reps (the last few reps of a set that fatigue your muscle fibers enough to stimulate growth). This is where the most progress happens...
...so if we're switching up the entire program every month, clients are getting ~1-2 weeks of training that's actually effective every month.
Plus, if you're always switching movements, there's no way to track progress across months. It's like using a different scale every time you weigh yourself.
3. Training In A Broader Reps In Reserve (RIR) Range Allows For More Productive Training Time
When I first found the concept of effective reps, it was a big lightbulb moment for me.
(*Effective reps: As you fatigue a muscle, you must continuously recruit more muscle fibers to finish the set. As you get closer to failure, reps become more effective at stimulating muscle growth, because you’re fatiguing more muscle fibers.)
For quite some time after learning this, my thought process was...
"I always just want to make sure I hit at least 1RIR"... which more often than not turned into 0RIR.
Training like this, I really struggled to string together more than two solid weeks of training - something would always be bothering me by Week 3 (e.g. knees, back), I would feel absolutely smashed, and always have to deload every 4th week.
That said, I've spent the last year, I've spent more time training at (and programming for online clients) RIR targets 2, 3, or even 3-4. And the results for both myself and my online clients have been MUCH better than the old system of "just make sure you're working hard enough".
The thing you have to realize here is, training like this leads to more productive time training across months. Since I had to take a deload every 4th week in the past, ~12 weeks of my year were spent in "unproductive" training time.
As I've talked about before, I now like to follow a model within my own training and that of my online clients that looks something like:
→ Week 1: ~3RIR on all sets.
→ Week 2: 2-3RIR on all sets.
→ Week 3: 1-2RIR on all sets.
→ Week 4: ~1RIR on all sets.
→ Week 5: ~0-1RIR on all sets.
→ Week 6: Deload.
Now, all sets in Weeks 1-5 are still in the "effective" range, but not taking it quite as close to failure allows us to add more volume to your training, without stress outweighing recovery.
Plus, the fact that we're deloading every 6th week instead of every fourth weekadds up to quite a few more weeks of productive training across a year.
In fact, we're adding a whole month of productive training time every year by following this strategy.
(*IMPORTANT NOTE: Using an RIR system is only effective if you're honest with yourself about the TRUE RIR you're hitting on your sets. If what you tell yourself is a 2RIR is actually a 4-5RIR... you'll stunt your progress. This is exactly why I have many of my online clients send me form videos during their 0-1RIR weeks - to help keep RIR estimations accurate.)
4. Diet Breaks & Refeeds Aren't Magic. BUT...
For quite some time, I was under the impression that giving online clients diet breaks and refeeds had very large physiological benefits. Things like...
Increased leptin levels, which would lead to decreased hunger levels and greater levels of energy expenditure (a.k.a easier fat loss) when the client resumed the diet, faster metabolism, increased thyroid, etc.
...that said, recent research seems to show that from a physiological perspective, there's nothing magical about taking diet breaks or refeeds.
The hormonal increases we seem to see with increased calorie intake seem to return to previous levels almost immediately upon returning to the diet. And there's really no metabolic rate boosting magic happening here.
That said, like I mentioned in the Diet Breaks 101 article, I still use diet breaks and refeeds with most of my clients because:
→ They improve adherence: Most people can stick to the diet MUCH better, if they can see a "light at the end of the tunnel" (e.g. a refeed day at the end of the week, or a week long diet break after 6 weeks of dieting). Clients that know they have 3-4 consecutive months of dieting ahead of them seem to have much worse adherence. It's just daunting to not know you'll have a break relatively soon,.
→ They replenish muscle gylcogen stores: This means that our clients taking diet breaks are getting 1-2 improved training sessions per week compared to what they would be without implementing a refeed strategy, and also better able to recover. Over the course of a diet, I believe that this makes a BIG difference in the amount of muscle clients are able to build and/or maintain.
→ They give clients 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 my online clients keep their results, and break the yo-yo diet cycle that so many others get stuck in. Truly, I believe that the most important phase for people to be coached through is the maintenance phase after the diet.
Many people have been able to successfully lose weight. But few successfully keep it off.
Diet breaks and refeeds just give us more time to practice the skill of maintenance with clients.
So while it appears that diet breaks and refeeds aren't the end-all-be all for fat loss success, I truly believe that they're still an invaluable tool for sustainable fat loss (just not for the reasons I previously thought), and one I'll continue to implement with online clients.
5. Most Client's Maintenance Calories Are Lower Than We've Been Told, & Reverse Dieting Is Very Misunderstood
Over the last 5-10 years, the concept of reverse dieting has absolutely exploded.
Along with this has come the idea that most everyone ~if reverse dieted properly~ should be able to maintain a lean body at very high calories. For most women, the number thrown out there is at least 2,200 calories. For most men, 3,500+.
Now, I do implement the process of reverse dieting with online client - but it’s much different than the traditional “50-100 calorie increases as we slowly back out of a deficit”.
Typically, my online clients will bump macros to a number near their new estimated maintenance. From there, metabolism does increase some (I’ll explain this in a bit) - but the amount it increases with a reverse diet is much smaller, and has a much harder “ceiling” than most coaches realize. Check out this blog for a thorough breakdown of what the reverse dieting process typically looks like for my online clients.
See, to eat more calories than you could before and maintain your weight/body fat, you must be burning more calories than before.
The 4 ways our body can burn calories (metabolism) are...
1. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
2. Thermic Effect Of Food (TEF)
3. Thermic Effect Of Exercise (TEE)
4. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
Being able to eat more and maintain, requires an increase in one or more of these factors.
Basal Metabolic Rate: Typically higher the larger you are. We can really only increase this by gaining weight - which means either:
a.) Adding fat
b.) Adding muscle
→ Adding fat WILL speed up your metabolism… but the goal of most reverse diets is to avoid fat gain.
→ Adding muscle mass is part of why people’s metabolisms can increase slightly over time. Muscle is metabolically active tissue - meaning that adding extra muscle increases the calories you burn at rest. But, it’s not a huge difference. (Daily, you’ll burn ~6 calories more with each additional pound of muscle you gain.) Most of the metabolism boosting benefits of adding muscle come from the fact that moving a heavier body burns more calories.
Thermic Effect Of Food: Calories burned during digestion increases as you eat more. But since a relatively small % of the total calories you eat in a meal are burned through TEF, eating more calories strictly to increase TEF doesn’t make sense - you’re now taking in more calories not burned during digestion as well.
→ Increasing the % of calories consumed from protein is a smart strategy to increase TEF, and it does seem that protein is harder for your body to store as fat. But to avoid digestion issues, eat enough fat to stay healthy, and (for most of us) eat some delicious carbs… a diet of strictly protein isn’t realistic. Most people tap out eating more than 1.2-1.5g protein/lb.
Thermic Effect Of Exercise: When you eat more, you can:
a.) Train more. Eating more calories (to an extent) means better recovery, and therefore the ability to train more frequently with overdoing it.
b.) Train more intensely. More energy (calories) in also typically increases our ability to output energy (again, to a certain extent).
Both of the factors mean that eating more usually leads to more calories burned through training. That said, the increase in calories burned here won't be massive enough to skyrocket your metabolism. (And you have to remember, you're eating MORE calories the create these effects in the first place.)
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis: People’s NEAT varies a lot with how it responds to increases and decreases in calories.
As I’ve talked about many times, we can usually split people’s metabolisms up into two categories:
a.) Adaptive Metabolisms - For these people, when you eat more, your body automatically increases NEAT to compensate. (Think: subconscious fidgeting, blinking, pacing, etc.) Their body adapts to higher calorie intake by increasing calories burned through movement - so weight stays the same, even with calorie increases.
People like this can typically maintain at a relatively high calorie intake, but the reduction in NEAT when they decrease also means they have to drop calories lower than expected to lose fat.
b.) Rigid Metabolisms - These people see very little or no increase in NEAT as a response to overeating. Thus fat gain is a bit easier.
But on the bright side, these people usually don't have to decrease calories as much to lose fat (because calories burned through NEAT doesn't decrease as much as it would for an adaptive metabolism).
So, to eat more and maintain your weight, you can:
a.) Move more
b.) Increase your body size
c.) Eat more food
It’s pretty easy to see how each of these are hard to scale. People that can maintain on super high calories and stay lean, are those that naturally ramp up NEAT as a response to eating more.
In my experience, the average individuals maintenance is usually somewhere around body weight x13-14.
6. Our Main Role As Coaches Is To Help Clients Make Choices That Lead To Long-term Success, Instead Of > Immediate Gratification
Too many coaches fall into the trap of feeling like their role is entertaining clients.
Now, don't get it twisted - I definitely believe that coaching is very much a collaboration between us and our clients - so I'm never an advocate of just giving a client a rigid plan, and refusing to implement any flexibility or meet the client where they're at in their life... that's just bad coaching.
But we go from effective coaches to useless entertainers when we go along with a client's weekly whims as far as changing directions with nutrition, implementing movements, different modalities of training, etc... without taking the time to question how it ties back to where the client wants to be 6-12 months from now physically and mentally.
See, most online clients start coaching because they haven't been able to achieve the result they want own their own.
In my experience as a coach that works with mostly intermediate and advanced trainees, new clients haven't been able to achieve the results they want on their own, because they're stuck in a cycle of choosing what's immediately gratifying, instead of what will lead them to the mid-to-long term outcomes they want.
It's basically shiny object syndrome (which admittedly, I suffer from as well - which is exactly why I always have a coach).
The reality is, as trainees of 2+ years, continuing to significantly change your body just takes months of focused effort in one direction.
But most people's progress is getting sabotaged by things like...
→ "I saw this new movement on Instagram, I think I'll sub this in for ___ (metric-based movement it would be smart to focus on progressing for the next few months)."
→ "I want to build muscle... but two weeks into this gaining phase, I'm feeling fluffy. Time to cut again."
→ "I want to get lean, but I'm seeing performance drop/I feel skinnier than I want to... I'm going back to building."
...you get the idea. Patterns of thought that only ever lead to a few weeks in any one direction, before shifting to a different focus.
So again, I'm not at all saying to ignore your clients wants and requests.
But it's important to discuss the trade-offs of adding different movements, changing the nutrition strategy, etc., and how that ties into the client's long-term goals before actually implementing them.
Otherwise, we're just feeding into the cycle of constantly changing directions, instead of pushing clients to the goals they hired us for.
And those are my top 6 revelations from the last year. I know these lessons will make you a better coach for yourself and your clients.
If you want to experience a fully customized training & nutrition protocol, tailor made by me to fit you, and your goals & lifestyle, click here now to apply for online coaching with me.