The single biggest reason you're not getting closer to the physique you want?
Your nutrition doesn't align with your goals.
Whether you're chasing fat loss, building muscle, or all-around aesthetic improvements... proper nutrition is vitally important to actually achieving the results you're working so hard for in the gym.
Today's blog gives you the scientifically proven macro strategies we use with our online clients, and teaches you how to apply them for your best body composition ever (no matter what your goal is).
Energy balance 101: How To Lose/Gain Weight
Calories are energy.
When helping clients lose, gain, or maintain weight, we're manipulating energy balance.
TO LOSE WEIGHT - When you burn more energy (calories) than you consume, you lose weight. This is called a negative energy balance, or a calorie deficit.
TO GAIN WEIGHT - When you take in more energy (calories) than you burn, you gain weight. This is called a positive energy balance, or a calorie surplus.
TO MAINTAIN WEIGHT - When you’re taking in the same amount of energy as you're burning daily, you maintain your weight. This is technically energy balance or your maintenance calories.
So in a nutshell, to lose or gain weight, you simply manipulate energy by:
1. [Changing Calories In] A.k.a increasing/decreasing the calories you eat
2. [Changing Calories Out] A.k.a increasing/decreasing the calories you burn
To make your understanding a bit more concrete, let's dive into the factors that impact Calories In and Calories Out.
How To Manipulate Calories In
↦ Adjust Food Intake - Here, your only option is increasing or decreasing the amount of calories you're eating.
...I know. It's disappointing for me too.
How To Manipulate Calories Out
↦ Exercise Activity Thermogenesis [EAT] - Lifting weights, cardio, etc. Contrary to popular belief, exercise doesn't burn many calories. You could burn 500 calories with an hour on the stairmill, and then drink a 500 calorie margarita in five minutes.
This is why trying to "burn it off" is so unsustainable (and why a smart nutrition protocol like our online clients follow is so important).
↦ Non-Exercise Activity Themogenesis [N.E.A.T] - All the calories you burn in your everyday life outside the gym. N.E.A.T. is the most controllable variable of calories out.
Adding in a bit of daily movement adds up to hundreds of extra calories burned over a week. This is why most of our online clients with fat loss goals will also have a step goal.
↦ Thermic Effect of Food [TEF] - Calories burned during digestion. It takes energy to turn the food you consume into energy. This is TEF.
↦ 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.
The sum of these four components of Calories Out is what we call metabolism.
EAT + NEAT + TEF + BMR = METABOLISM
The Nutrition Principles For Manipulating Weight
PRINCIPLE #1: Calories In > Calories Out = Weight Gain
PRINCIPLE #2: Calories In = Calories Out = Weight Maintenance
PRINCIPLE #3: Calories In < Calories Out = Weight Loss
This means that as long as you're regulating energy balance, you don't have to be married to any one way of eating (I.e. only eating paleo). Now (as we'll discuss later), the macro composition of your diet will impact your results, but the key principle you need to adhere to is controlling calories.
Understanding this allows us to tailor your nutrition protocol to what's truly the best fit for your individual physique goals & lifestyle.
Why you need to focus on more than just calories
From what we just discussed, you understand that you could just eat whatever fit into your calorie goal and lose or gain weight as desired.
The thing is, while calorie intake is a key factor for weight loss or weight gain... it gets a bit more complex than that.
Put simply, the composition of your calories (the macronutritients & micronutrients within your food) have a big impact on things like...
↦ The amount of calories you burn during digestion
↦ The % of muscle vs. fat you gain when weight increases
↦ The % of muscle you maintain when weight decreases
↦ How well you're able to perform in your training (and thus change your body composition)
↦ How much fullness you get per calorie (can make it much easier OR harder to stick to diet)
...and much more.
So while calories are the overruling principle, to achieve the level of performance you want in your training and the physique you've always wanted, we need to dig deeper.
In simplest terms, focusing on macros (instead of just calories) helps you optimize your food intake to match your body composition goals.
All the foods you eat/calories you take in are made up of some combination of the following macronutrients (a.k.a. macros):
↦ Protein - 1 gram of protein contains ~4 calories
↦ Fat - 1 gram of fat contains ~9 calories
↦ Carbohydrates - 1 gram of carbohydrate contains ~4 calories
↦ Ethanol (a.k.a. Alcohol) - 1 gram of ethanol contains ~7 calories
So macros are essentially just a way for us to divide your calories consumed up into these different categories. Tracking macros still involves controlling calories - we're just getting more specific with the types of calories you're consuming to ensure your body is properly fueled.
In order to achieve a great physique (the reason you're reading the blog), sufficient protein is a must, because...
↦ No matter how hard you train, you won’t be able to build muscle without adequate protein.
Protein is the only macronutrient that contains nitrogen, which is a required element to build muscle. So no matter how many carbs and fats you eat, without adequate nitrogen/protein, your body won’t have the raw materials it needs to build muscle.
↦ Similarly, adequate protein is necessary to maintaining muscle mass as you diet.
↦ Protein is the most satiating macronutrient (it keeps you full longest).
The hardest thing about diets? You’re hungry. More protein (to an extent) equals less hunger.
↦ Protein has the highest thermic effect (TEF) of all the macros.
It takes energy to turn the food you consume into energy. When you eat more protein, you're actually increasing the Calories Out side of the energy balance equation, since you're burning more calories via TEF.
- Protein - 20-30% of calories consumed are burned via TEF
- Carbs - 5-10% of calories consumed are burned via TEF
- Fat - 0-3% of calories consumed are burned via TEF
Increasing protein intake to 1-1.5 grams/lb of body weight daily is the on of the most impactful thing you can do nutritionally to improve body composition.
Fat and protein are the "essential macros" (you'll experience adverse health consequences if you under-eat either for too long).
↦ Fat is one of the raw materials many of your hormones are built from, so adequate fat intake is necessary for optimal hormones (for both men and women).
↦ Under-consuming fats also puts you at risk for developing a fatty acid deficiency.
Considering the above points, it's generally a good idea to keep fat intake above .3g/lb of body weight daily.
Carbs are "non-essential", meaning you'll survive just fine without them.
So there's not a "floor" for how low you can take carbs.
That said, most of our online clients make carbs a priority in their diet. If you're focused on creating your best body composition, I suggest you do the same. Here's why...
↦ Carbs fuel your anaerobic-lactic energy system.
Your body's energy systems convert the things you eat into fuel, which is then burned for everything you do. The primary energy system used (and thus, fuel source) depends on the type of activity you're engaged in:
If you look closely at the energy system that creates energy for the majority of intense activity from ~15-60 seconds (the anaerobic-lactic system), you'll see that it's fueled by carbs.
If your goal is to build a lean & athletic body, a good amount of your training will be fueled by this energy system.
A lower carb approach means that this energy system will essentially be "short on fuel" - your ability to train intensely will suffer.
As a result, you'll struggle achieving the levels of performance & adding the lean muscle needed for the physique you want.
This is a common mistake made by both women and men, and is exactly why most of our online clients undergoing the body recomposition process (the art of building muscle & losing fat at the same time) are typically following a higher carb approach.
↦ Not only are carbs are your body's preferred fuel source for training, but they also aids your recovery and ability to build more lean muscle.
Carbs stimulate the release of the hormone insulin in your body. Insulin has an inverse relationship with cortisol (the stress hormone), meaning that as insulin increases, cortisol decreases. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone - it's primary role is breaking things down for energy.
Now, while cortisol isn't "bad" (like all things, it's very context dependent), spending too much time in a catabolic state will of course hinder your ability to build muscle.
Due to the insulin and cortisol relationship, adding more carbs to your diet can help get your body out of a catabolic state, and recovering better/quicker.
Your body essentially views alcohol as a poison. Priority #1 for your body is getting alcohol out of your system ASAP.
To be more efficient at this, the body shuts down other processes to clear the system faster. Stuff like...
↦ Oxidation of fat (fat burning)
↦ Hormone production
↦ Muscle tissue repair
...and more. Basically, when you drink, your progress (losing body fat, building lean muscle) stop until your body clears the alcohol.
That said, fat loss still comes down to creating a calorie deficit. Drinking only causes you to gain body fat if it's kicking you out of a calorie deficit (unless you're taking it to the extreme/alcoholism levels), and for most of us a sustainable nutrition protocol involves working some alcohol into our macros.
Context-Specific Considerations: Fat Loss Vs. Building Muscle
To simplify the nutritional science of fat loss and muscle gain, it's extremely helpful to break this down into hierarchies of importance.
The closer to the bottom of the hierarchy something is, the less important it is to achieving your best body composition & specific goals. Similarly, if focusing on something lower in the hierarchy is causing you to disregard something higher on the hierarchy, you won't get the results you want - so prioritize these appropriately.
Make sure you consistently have the level above mastered, before moving on to the next level above.
The Fat Loss Hierarchy
When it comes to fat loss, the biggest mistake most people making is forgetting to focus on the most important details...
Doing something you can stick to for the duration of the diet, and controlling overall calories.
For a complete breakdown of each element of the fat loss hierarchy, check out our blog The Fat Loss Blueprint.
The Nutrition Hierarchy For Building Muscle
One of the biggest mistakes intermediate to advanced trainees like you make, stopping you from achieving your best body composition ever… is following the same nutrition hierarchy you followed for fat loss.
This is what we use for our online clients focused on fat loss, and you should as well… when fat loss is the focus.
But as an intermediate to advanced female or male trainee, you’ve realized that achieving your best body composition requires not just losing fat, but also periods of time devoted to building muscle (the Building Phase, as we call it within online coaching).
And to get the most out of your Building Phase, your nutrition hierarchy needs to look much different than it would in a fat loss phase.
For a complete breakdown of the nutrition hierarchy for building muscle, check out our blog The Best Nutrition Strategy For Building Muscle.
Setting your macros
The first step in achieving the physique you want is setting the proper macros.
Regardless of if you want to...
a.) Get leaner
b.) Maintain your current body composition
c.) Build muscle while staying lean
...you have to have your macros set up properly to achieve the results you want.
STEP #1: Find Maintenance Calories
First, you’ll need to know your maintenance calorie intake (a.k.a. the intake you maintain your current body composition at).
You have a few options here:
a.) Use this calculator.
b.) Multiply your bodyweight by 13-17 (13 would be a sedentary office worker, 17 would be an extremely active construction worker).
c.) Start tracking everything you eat in MyFitnessPal. Take your weight first thing every morning. Adjust your calorie intake up or down as necessary until your weight stays stable for 5-7 days. (This is the most accurate method, but also takes the longest.)
Regardless of which method you used, you should now have a number that is roughly you maintenance calorie intake.
STEP #2: Determine Target Rate Of Loss
Rate Of Loss In A 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.
Rate Of Gain In A Building Phase
↦ Aim to gain .25-.5% of body weight per week 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, 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.
Getting heavier at any given body fat percentage over time is a must to actually continue to progress your physique over time (true for men & women alike).
Even when you're super lean, being heavier than you were last time you were here tells us you've built more muscle.
STEP #3: Set Calorie Goal
Now you need to establish your starting calorie goal, depending on your body composition goal.
↦ If you're the rare person who wants to stay exactly the same, just chill at your estimated maintenance.
↦ For Fat Loss - Now that you know your desired rate of loss from Step 2, let's put translate that into calories.
We know that to lose 1 lb of fat per week, you need to eat 3,500 calories below your maintenance intake across the course of the week.
So simply use these numbers to determine how many calories below maintenance you should be eating.
[*EXAMPLE: Gerald, a 200 lb man, has a maintenance intake of 2,880 calories per day.
His goal Is to lose 1 lb per week. So we know that he needs to eat 3,500 calories less than his maintenance across the week OR 500 calories less per day. (3,500 / 7 = 500)
2,880 - 500 = 2,380.
Gerald's fat loss intake is 2,380 calories per day.
Generally, creating a calorie deficit of ~3,500 calories will lead to ~1lb fat loss. So eating 500 calories below your maintenance calorie intake every day for 7 days, should lead to about a pound of fat loss. (500 x 7 = 3,500)
Keep in mind, this is just a baseline. You will likely have to adjust this in the near future. Your fat loss won't happen linearly on this intake.]
Finally, you don't have to eat the same number of calories every day when in a fat loss phase. Most of our online clients get better results (due to increased adherence) from Calorie Cycling.
↦ For Building Muscle - There's a LOT of variability in how individuals respond to overfeeding (eating in a calorie surplus). Some increase N.E.A.T dramatically without realizing it, and thus seem very resistant to weight gain. Others are able to gain very quickly.
In a building scenario, it's smart to start by simply multiplying maintenance intake X 1.1-1.15 to build muscle while staying relatively lean.
From here, adjust macros up or down based on the rate of gain you see.
[*EXAMPLE: Gerald, a 200 lb man, has a maintenance intake of 2,800 calories per day.
To determine building calories, he multiplies maintenance intake by 1.1
2,800 X 1.1 = 3,080
Gerald's building intake is 3,080 calories per day.]
STEP #4: Set Macro Goals
↦ Protein intake - Set protein intake between 1 - 1.5g per lb of body weight (multiply body weight x1-1.5)
Regardless if your goal is fat loss or muscle gain, protein intake should generally stay in this range.
When you're losing fat, adequate protein increases the odds that you'll build (or at least maintain) muscle. Plus, it keeps you full, and has the highest TEF of all the macros.
When you’re in a building phase, you're still going to need adequate protein to make optimal gains & perform in your training.
[*EXAMPLE: 200 lb Gerald needs 200 grams of protein.
200 X 1 = 200.
800 of Gerald's 2,380 kcal/day will come from protein. (Remember, protein contains 4 calories per gram.)
200 X 4 = 800 kcal]
↦ Fat intake - Set fat at .3-.4 grams/lb of body weight.
[*EXAMPLE: Back to Gerald, weighing in at 200 lbs.
200 x .3 = 60.
Gerald will be eating 60 grams of fat daily.
To determine how many calories this is, multiply by 9. (Remember, fat contains 9 calories per gram.)
60 x 9 = 540.
Gerald will be eating 540 calories from fat daily.]
Really, you can take fats as high as you want from here… BUT, realize that there aren’t many additional benefits to eating more fat past the .3-.4g/lb mark, but additional fat will mean you have less room for carbs in your diet (which do yield many more benefits for your training, and building the body composition you want).
So for most of our online clients, fat intake will fall somewhere .3g/lb-.5g/lb.
↦ Carb intake - Now that you have your protein and fat intake determined, simply fill your remaining macros with carbs.
[*EXAMPLE: Gerald has a goal intake of 2,380 calories per day.
Subtract the 800 kcal coming from protein.
2,380 - 800 = 1,580 calories.
Subtract the 540 calories coming from fat.
1,580 - 540 = 1,040 calories.
Gerald has 1,040 calories remaining to fill with carbs.
To determine how many grams of carbs to eat, divide by 4. (Remember, carbs contain 4 kcal per gram.)
1,040 / 4 = 260
Gerald will be eating 260 grams of carbs per day.]
In most fat loss scenarios, individuals prefer to keep fats closer to the lower end of the recommend range, as your overall lower calories must come from carbs and/or fats (as protein intake generally stays fixed). So a slightly lower fat intake allows for more performance-boosting carbs.
As mentioned before, in a building phase, we've found that a higher carb approach while keeping fats in the .3-.5g/lb range suits most of our clients physique goals best - but feel free to tailor your fat intake to your personal preference here.
How To Measure Progress & Adjust Your Macros
Now that you have your macros set, if your body isn't changing, we know an adjustment to your intake is needed.
But, if your macros are all over the place, it's impossible to know how many calories we need to decrease your intake by to resume progress.
If you're consistently several hundred calories off-target, we don’t have an accurate baseline to adjust from.
This applies to under-eating calories, as well as overeating. This is why it’s crucial to be at or near your macro goal daily.
No diet adjustment will make up for a lack of compliance.
We typically give online clients macro ranges of +/- 100 calories / 20g Protein / 20g Carbs / 10g Fat to aim for.
On a similar note, ensuring that you're tracking food in your food log accurately is also very important.
When a nutrition client's progress stalls, the first thing we do is ensure they're tracking accurately. This usually results in progress resuming.
In a fat loss setting, we want you to be WELL-FUELED & eating as many calories as possible while moving towards your end result… slashing calories without good reason doesn’t help either of these causes.
In a building phase, a true need for macro adjustments (increases) is more common for most.
Tracking Progress In A Fat Loss Phase
To be sure you're progressing, you need to measure how your body is changing. This gives you grounds to make adjustments. Too many people get stuck in "diet purgatory" - they always feel like they're dieting, but aren't tracking progress and making needed adjustments.
Here's what we track to be that clients are making progress:
↦ Body Weight - Although not the end-all-be-all of fat loss, the reality is that everyone should lose weight in a fat loss phase if body recomposition (simultaneous muscle gain & fat loss) isn't happening. This is why you determined a target rate of loss earlier.
All that said, scale weight can fluctuate pretty wildly, due to things like water retention from higher sodium intake, stress, and digestive issues.
Don't get caught up in weekly weight changes.
Look at the trend over multiple weeks, and ensure it matches up with your target rate of loss.
Most should see a monthly trend of 2-4% of total body weight lost, but the leaner you are, the smaller this number will be.
↦ Body Measurements - In body recomposition scenarios, an online client will be getting leaner, but the number on the scale won't budge much (because they're also building muscle).
In this case, body measurements often give a more accurate picture of how your body is changing than your weight.
↦ Progress Pictures - The day-to-day changes in your body are so minuscule, you won't notice them. This is why progress pictures are so important - they allow you to look at the bigger picture of your fat loss over the course of months, instead of just yesterday vs. today.
↦ 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 our online clients get such great results. We take your whole life into account.
Adjusting Macros For Fat Loss
Before making any dietary adjustments, you first need to determine if your progress has actually stalled.
Here's the process we work online clients through to determine if an adjustment is needed (check out this blog for a thorough breakdown of the process):
So if you're sure that fat loss has stalled, and it's not due to mismanaging Calories In (or accidentally decreasing movement), let’s talk about how we’d adjust your nutrition & training strategy within coaching.
Basically, we have three options:
1. Decrease calories in.
2. Increase calories out.
3. A combination of both decreasing calories in and increasing calories out. Of course, we need to get a bit deeper into each of these.
OPTION #1: Decreasing Calories In
If you're not making progress, normally a 5-10% reduction in weekly calories will be enough to get fat loss to resume again in a fat loss phase.
↦ If progress has just dipped slightly (e.g. you’re still losing, but slower than .5% of body weight per week), your adjustment will likely be closer to a 5% decrease.
↦ If progress has stalled hard (e.g. no weight or measurement changes in 2+ weeks), we’ll err towards a 7.5-10% decrease.
It's pretty rare that we'll drop someone's calories by more than 10%, unless we need to be super aggressive for a strict deadline (e.g. a photoshoot).
This reduction in calories can come from carbs, fats, or a combination of both.
Pull from fats if… you’re still above the fat threshold (.3g/lb), and are chasing as much muscle gain or maintenance as possible.
Pull from carbs if… you’re at the fat threshold, or just prefer a higher fat diet.
Pull from both if… your food choices are the most important factor to sticking to your diet.
This will allow you to keep the same foods in your diet (just in smaller portions), instead of having to drastically cut back on carb heavy or fattier foods.
OPTION #2: Increase Calories Out
Your second option is to simply move more. This is generally much less practical than controlling calories - it usually takes less effort to decrease calorie intake by 200 (you just eat less), than it does to increase calories burned by 200 (which equates to an extra ~30-45 mins of movement per day).
Your options here:
↦ Increase training volume: We strategically add more sets of compound movements to your training, or add in another training day. I’ve seen this strategy work best with those that are newer to proper training, and have only been following a smart training program 2-3 days per week.
The problem is, the more we increase volume, the more “recovery resources” your body needs to repair itself.
Recovery resources are already very limited on a diet, so for more advanced individuals who have been following a smart training strategy 4+ times per week, a big jump in volume would often be detrimental to results.
↦ Increase aerobic work - We prefer to start here when increasing calories via movement for most (outside of those who can realistically add training volume within their recovery abilities). Aerobic work is easier, and actually helps your recovery.
We would generally start by increasing your step goal close to the realistic limit you can hit (~10k for most), and next add 1-2 sessions of incline walking or cycling for 30-40 mins at a heart rate of 120-140 BPM.
If the client prefers, this can also be something like shorter and more intense (but still aerobic focused) bouts (e.g. 2,000m on the rower @2:00/500m pace. 2 min rest. Repeat x4.) →
↦ Increase anaerobic work - While quicker, anaerobic work is much more stressful on the body, and takes more time to recover from.
We generally limit this to 1-2 sessions per week at most (although it's rare we program it at all).
For a complete guide to programming the best cardio, check out our blog How To Program The Most Effective Cardio For Your Goals.
OPTION #3: A Combination Of Both
This is pretty self-explanatory. If you would rather increase movement a bit (e.g. add in 1 aerobic session) and decrease calories slightly (e.g. 4-5%), instead of a large decrease or increase in either, that’s perfectly fine.
Tracking Progress In A Building Phase
Similarly to how the nutrition hierarchies for building vs. fat loss were different, so are our primary measures of progress. We're looking for:
↦ .25-.5% of body weight gained per week. But realize that many people will often see body weight jump up 1-3 lbs in a week, and then sit still for a few weeks before another jump - so don't get overzealous increase or decreasing calories.
Look at average weight changes across 2-4 weeks. We're slower to make adjustments in a building phase than a fat loss phsae.
↦ Strength increases in the 5-30 rep range. Gaining strength isn't a must to build muscle... but gaining in this range is one of the most likely indicators that you're also building muscle.
↦ Training Performance and Recovery are both generally high. In our client's metric trackers, these a few pieces of biofeedback they'll track daily. Since you can't build muscle without stimulative training + adequate recovery, eating enough to properly fuel these is essential.
Past this point, clients are still taking progress pictures and measurements bi-weekly to monthly, but we won't see as large of changes in either of these as we would a fat loss phase. (Again, building is a slow process.)
Adjusting Macros In A Building Phase
If you’re NOT seeing increases in weight or strength in the gym after three 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.
And that's how to set your macros for any goal.
As your next step, I highly recommend you check out How To Plan A Year Of Training & Nutrition For Physique Development. This is an all inclusive guide to creating a synergistic training & nutrition strategy to propel you towards your best physique ever by the end of 2021.
On the other hand, if you're ready to stop collecting information and start transforming your body, click here now to apply for online coaching with our team.
We apply proven, science-backed nutrition & training methods through individualized coaching to help you get the body you want, and teach you on how to keep it for a lifetime.