Exercise to stimulate, not to annihilate. The world wasn’t formed in a day, and neither were we. Set small goals and build upon them.
The start of the year is an exciting time for fitness.
You may be super motivated right now, which is fantastic. There’s no better mental place to get started!
But are your habits up to the task?
Fat loss and muscle gain are often oversimplified as a matter of calories, protein, and resistance training.
While these are fundamental components of the physique development process, fat loss and muscle-building phases require a lot more if you want to get the best results possible.
That’s why, when I take on a new client, I don’t plunge them into a deficit or a surplus on Day 1.
This approach could do them more harm than good if they didn’t have certain key habits in place, which I help them develop over the initial weeks of coaching.
Some of these habits are always a priority, whereas others are more important in a deficit and less so in a surplus, or vice versa.
Let’s start with the habits that are always a priority, no matter the phase.
Five core habits for all physique-related goals:
1. You’re tracking your food in some way.
You may choose to track calories and/or macros, to keep a visual diary with an app like MealSnap, or to record your food portions without macros or calories, depending on what’s most appropriate for your goals, needs, and relationship with food at this time.
However, if you’re not logging your diet in some manner, you’re unlikely to be successful.
While it’s true that you can achieve your goals without tracking––and I help my clients build this skill should they want to––in most cases it requires a sound understanding of nutrition in general and of your dietary habits in particular.
It’s tracking that helps you build this understanding over time.
Moreover, having a record of your past and future meals is the easiest way to make changes to your current diet in order to be consistent with a deficit or a surplus.
Relying on your memory isn’t going to cut it (pun intended).
2. You have a regular eating structure and a consistent meal plan.
By “regular eating structure”, I mean that you eat the same number of meals and snacks most days at roughly the same time of day.
I have a whole podcast episode on this topic, including some scientific reasoning to explain its importance.
By “consistent meal plan”, I don’t mean that you need to be eating the exact same food every day.
However, you want to have a personalised menu, including a few breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks that hit all of your calorie, macro, and micronutrient needs.
As a result, you won’t get bored, you’ll have a more diverse diet, but you also won’t overwhelm yourself with too many possibilities and spend all day wondering which of your 205405949839 meal ideas you should make for lunch today.
If this eating structure looks wildly different on a regular basis, or if your meals don’t include the right nutrient sources, you’re going to struggle with any diet.
But don’t you worry. I have a free, practical four-page step-by-step PDF guide to help you:
Click here to download it.
3. You plan (and prep) at least some of your meals ahead of time.
My most successful clients do this instead of winging every meal.
If you’re not planning, then hitting your nutritional targets on a regular basis becomes a matter of luck.
If you’re just starting out in fitness or getting back into it after a long time, your best bet is to plan and track the whole day either the night before or the morning of.
As I tell my clients, you want to use your calorie-tracking app as a planner for the future, not a diary for the past.
Having said that, my PDF guide covers other ways to meal plan if you don’t have the time to log an entire day’s worth of food in advance. (Wink wink, nudge nudge: It’s a really good guide!)
As for meal prepping, if you lead a very busy life, prepping at least one of your main meals on your days off or using a meal prep company is going to be a true power-up for your fitness game à la Super Mario Boost Star.
Even if you have the time to make every meal and snack from scratch, I recommend keeping at least some no-prep food in the fridge and cupboards in case of emergency, such as canned fish and beans, cold cuts, beef or vegan jerky, yogurt, rice cakes, microwaveable rice, and pre-sliced bread.
Furthermore, as a newbie, temporarily limiting your diet variety to get a hang of planning can be extremely beneficial.
If you only create and stick to one or two daily meal plans that cover all of your targets with foods you enjoy and can make easily, you’re killing two birds with one stone.
First, you don’t spend hours playing MacroTetris, trying to come up with new meal and snack ideas all the time.
Second, you don’t spend hours tracking on the daily, because, once you’ve created your meal plan, you can copy and paste it into different days on your calorie-tracking app.
Third, you don’t have to deal with constant decision fatigue, trying to choose what to eat and attempting to nail your targets at the same time while also worrying about all of your other responsibilities. No wonder people quit fitness because it feels too hard––this is an insane approach!
Again, I’m not suggesting to maintain the same meal plan forever, only for at least a week or two, depending on the person, as you gain a better understanding of the macronutrient and calorie content of your staple foods.
At that point, you can more easily spice up your diet while still hitting your nutritional targets.
4. Log your training.
This is just as important as tracking your food.
For one, logging your training means that you can ensure progressive overload is happening over time.
Otherwise, there’s no way you’ll remember how much weight or how many reps you did yesterday in two months’ time.
Moreover, if you’re logging your training, you’re probably following a somewhat structured program instead of “mixing it up” in every session.
Your muscles don’t need “mixing up”.
They need stimulus and overload.
Furthermore, if you’re always changing exercises, you’re always undergoing some form of neuromuscular adaptation.
That is, your nervous system is constantly learning and re-learning how to recruit the right number of muscle fibres in the right order to perform a movement.
While neuromuscular adaptations are taking place, hypertrophy is limited.
So, while you may find yourself increasing weight and reps relatively quickly when you first start doing a completely new exercise, this is because of neuromuscular adaptations, not necessarily because you’re growing new muscle tissue.
Last but not least, it takes time to learn the right technique for you to stimulate your target muscles instead of simply moving the weight from A to B, and how to train close enough to failure for the greatest hypertrophic stimulus.
5. Train hard enough.
In my experience, this is the single biggest reason why most people stop making progress after their newbie gains.
When you first begin training, you can grow some muscle just by breathing on a dumbbell, even if you stop a set when you could have done 10 more reps.
That’s because you’ve never subjected your body to training before, so even the smallest amount of stimulus can trigger an adaptation.
However, the longer you train, the higher the stimulus threshold gets.
In other words, you need to target your muscles with a greater and greater stimulus over time in order to continue to see results.
For the purpose of muscle growth, the stimulus we need to achieve comes from a combination of volume (the number of sets per body part you perform every week) and intensity of effort (the proximity to failure you reach in every set). You can read more about these variables in this article.
If you’re not training close enough to failure, you won’t grow as well as you could.
I have both a podcast and a blog article on why intensity of effort is important and how to learn to gauge and track it because that’s how fundamental I believe it is, based on the currently available evidence: enough to create not one, but two resources, and rant about it in the very article you’re reading now.
Five prerequisites for successful fat loss
Over the years, I’ve found that establishing these prerequisites with my clients provides a solid foundation for a mentally and physically health-promoting diet.
Aside from the first two prerequisites, which I believe it’s pivotal to have in place before entering a deficit, you don’t need to have the others down pat from the beginning.
You can work on them while you’re already dieting, but you want to be at least aware of their importance before starting.
So, without further ado:
1. You don’t have an eating disorder (ED) or excessive disordered eating tendencies.
It doesn’t matter what kind of ED you may have.
Caloric restriction is not going to help. If anything, it’s going to make it worse.
If you don’t have an ED, but you have disordered eating tendencies, I’d argue that you’d still probably want to work on your relationship with food before attempting a calorie deficit.
You may not always realise that your disordered eating thoughts and habits need addressing before dieting, and that’s ok.
Sometimes it can be difficult to understand whether you’ve truly overcome these tendencies, or whether they’re simply “dormant” and can be triggered by certain situations, such as a fat loss phase.
For instance, I can think of two clients’ cases in which the extent of their disordered eating tendencies didn’t become apparent until we attempted a deficit, taking us both by surprise.
Once I realised what was happening, I pulled the plug on the fat loss phase right away, and I strongly encourage you to do the same.
One of these clients unfortunately had an ED that had never been clinically diagnosed because they were in a “standard-sized” body, so they weren’t even aware of how problematic their situation truly was.
As luck would have it, having had an ED myself, I recognised the signs, suspended our nutrition coaching, and instead referred them to Beat, the UK’s leading ED charity.
I’m delighted to say my client got the help they needed, and we even got the green light from Beat to continue working together on training, without the nutrition component of coaching.
The other client didn’t have an ED, but they were dealing with decades of diet culture messaging that made them hyper-critical of every food choice they made, leading to frequent uncontrolled over-eating episodes.
So we focused on improving their relationship with food and helping them re-learn to trust their body and create health-promoting habits around food and movement.
This was their feedback a few months into it:
2. You don’t have diet fatigue from a previous diet.
By “diet fatigue”, what I’m referring to in this context is the mental stress that can accumulate over months of dieting and losing a considerable amount of body fat.
While everybody has their own “diet fatigue threshold”, some signs that you’ve hit yours include:
If you want to learn more about diet fatigue and what to do about it, guess what? I have a podcast episode on this.
(Do I have a podcast episode for everything? Yes, yes I do. Either that or a blog article.)
The higher your diet fatigue at the beginning of a diet, the shorter your fuse for consistency will be.
For instance, if in a non-diet-fatigued state you could stick to your deficit for six weeks before needing a diet break, in a diet-fatigued state you may only last two.
This is going to make your fat loss phase a lot longer than it needs to be.
Worse still, it can either lead to dissatisfying results or you may end up regaining the lost weight because, by the end of the diet, you’ll have accrued an unsustainable amount of fatigue from the previous diet and from the new one combined.
There are two main scenarios I’ve come across in which you’re at risk of embarking on a new diet with lingering fatigue:
1. You lose a considerable amount of body fat over several months of consistent dieting, but you carry too much of it to lose in a single stretch of continuous fat loss.
When that’s the case, I typically plan building phases at maintenance calories between different stretches in a deficit.
During a building phase, I help my clients practise the habits we’ve built in a deficit while maintaining their bodyweight within a range of a few pounds and adding muscle with training (hence the term “building phase”).
These phases are very underrated, which is why I have a blog article and a podcast about them.
One of the main benefits of these phases is that they help you overcome diet fatigue.
However, if you never plan a building phase at maintenance calories and try to power your way through too much diet fatigue, you may end up “failing” the diet and regaining some, all, or even more than the weight you lost.
Alternatively, if your building phase is too short, then you may begin the following fat loss phase with excessive lingering fatigue.
2. You lose all the body fat you intended to, so you go into a surplus to make some solid gains in muscle mass, but you cut this phase short because you’re unhappy with the amount of body fat you’ve gained in the process.
If you end a muscle-building phase too soon after a fat loss phase, you may have only had weeks or a couple of months away from a deficit.
Depending on how long your previous fat loss phase was, this may not be enough time to have recovered from diet fatigue.
3. You don’t have a “One Cookie Won’t Hurt” mentality.
A single cookie won’t make or break your fat loss phase.
But taking a YOLO approach to your diet will.
I’m not suggesting you never eat a cookie or a piece of chocolate; I’m encouraging you to choose these foods carefully.
First off, this will help you appreciate them more.
The stale, dry biscuit out of a packet that’s been open for days in the office, is going to taste very different from the freshly baked chocolate chip cookie you got to bake with a friend, your partner, or your kids.
If I had to choose only one in order to avoid overshooting my calorie target with both, I know which I’d go for.
Second, if you’re having an unplanned highly palatable, high-calorie food every time the occasion presents itself, you’re likely not going to be consistent enough with a calorie deficit to see results.
Third, you’re breaking a promise to yourself over and over again.
Every time this happens, you lose trust in yourself.
When you don’t trust yourself, you start thinking on a conscious or subconscious level, “What’s the point of trying? I’m not going to stick to it anyway.”
And that’s when you self-sabotage and don’t succeed.
4. You can pivot.
Life isn’t going to get any easier because you’ve decided to lose fat.
For example, you may have carefully prepped and planned all of your meals for the week…
… And then your work lunch explodes in the microwave.
You only have an hour to eat, so you’re forced to go out and get some food from a nearby fast food joint.
If you can pivot, then you’ll choose the most calorie-friendly McDonald’s meal you can, accept that your protein will be lower than you’d like and your calories above your daily target on that day, and move on.
If you have an all-or-nothing mindset, you’re going to mull over this “bad day” for ages.
In some cases, you may tighten up the reins too much afterwards and turn your perfectly sustainable fat loss diet into excessive restriction, which you’re unlikely to stick to long term.
In other cases, you may go on a YOLO bender, eating mindlessly and not bothering with movement for who-knows-how-long, because “you already fucked up anyway”.
You may think that this rigid all-or-nothing attitude makes you stronger because you’re always giving 110%, thus reducing your chances of getting things “wrong”.
That’s what I believed.
“If I’m not trying to nail everything, then I won’t get the best results possible.”
If I could talk to my younger self now, I’d tell him: “Bull. Shit.”
An all-or-nothing mindset makes you weaker.
If you can’t make the best possible decision at short notice and be ok with it instead of hating yourself because you can’t follow your original plan, then you’re going to break.
Successful fat loss requires consistency, and consistency requires resilience, not rigidity.
5. You can compromise.
When your caloric budget is smaller than usual, you need to be more careful with your food choices and portion sizes to ensure you’re eating enough protein, fibre, carbs, dietary fats, and micronutrients while still achieving a deficit.
This means you have fewer calories than usual left over for higher-calorie meals and snacks.
But the solution isn’t to restrict all the time.
It’s to know when to restrain yourself and when to give yourself more flexibility with food.
The real solution is compromise, not sacrifice.
My most successful clients typically eat out or get a takeaway once per week, twice on some occasions, and limit themselves to one alcoholic drink, if any, during a fat loss phase.
To create flexibility, I employ a variety of options depending on my clients’ preferences at the time.
These are some examples of the many tools in my Fat Loss Toolbox:
Regardless of the method we choose, the outcome is the same: we make room for social events and higher-calorie foods by increasing the calorie budget on purpose.
That’s what compromising is all about.
If you’re dieting all the time and only increase your calories by accident when you burn out and over-eat, you’re going to feel like crap about yourself.
When you establish the five core habits and the five prerequisites for fat loss discussed so far, then you’re going to have a pretty successful fat loss phase!
To learn more about how to set your own fat loss targets (calories and macros), how much weight you can expect to lose per week, and the other ins and outs of my successful fat loss method, I strongly recommend my free 5-day email course, titled No Quit Kit, which you can sign up for by clicking here.
If you’re already on my free newsletter subscribers’ list, you’re a legend, but unfortunately this link won’t work for you. To get the No Quit Kit, email me the phrase “NO QUIT KIT” and I’ll add you to the right list to start the course!
Fair warning: while the No Quit Kit course includes worksheets and short written articles, at the core of it are podcast episodes.
For this reason, if you like the written word more than you like podcasts, I also wrote a full-length blog article on how to set up a successful fat loss phase.
Seven ways to prepare for an effective muscle-building phase:
These will help you make the most of a muscle-building phase if you choose to go into a surplus:
1. Use calorie maintenance to master the skills you need before going into a surplus.
Contrary to popular belief, you can build muscle at calorie maintenance.
The reason is that training is the main driver of muscle growth. So, as long as you’re lifting consistently, you will build muscle, though this will happen more slowly at maintenance or in a deficit than in a surplus.
Therefore, you’re not wasting time by staying at calorie maintenance and focusing on training like a beast and eating enough protein and high-quality nutrients.
Instead, you’re priming yourself for a future surplus by learning to master the other six suggestions in this section of the article.
As a result, if and when you decide that it’s time for a surplus, you can maximise muscle gain and minimise fat storage.
2. Accept fat storage as an inevitable part of the process.
In a surplus, you’re going to gain muscle, but also some body fat. You can minimise the latter, but you can’t completely avoid it.
If you’re not mentally ready for this, you’re going to self-sabotage every step of the way.
I would know.
When I attempted my first “bulk”, I thought I was ready.
Then, as soon as the scale went up by 1 lb, I’d panic and lower my calories, justifying my decision with: “Well, I’m gaining a little too fast, so…”
(Can you hear the sound of my palm hitting my face?)
As a result, my weight dropped back to the starting point.
Then I’d increase my calories again, watch the scale go up by 1 lb, lower my calories… You get the gist.
I rinsed and repeated this for a few months, until I finally pulled my head out of my butt, as they say, and recognised that I was not pursuing my true goal of being in a surplus.
3. Prioritise training consistency and fine-tune form, intensity of effort, and your unique intensity and volume requirements.
While nutrition is the main driver of fat loss, training is the top priority for muscle growth.
If you’re in a phase of your life during which you can only train twice per week, this isn’t the best time for a surplus.
Moreover, although training consistently is paramount, it’s not enough on its own.
Your muscles can’t count; they don’t know whether you’re training three, four, or five days per week.
They can only sense tension and they require a certain amount of it to grow.
For instance, if you train your pecs twice per week, but only in one of these do you use the appropriate form to target them and get anywhere close to failure, then your pecs are only going to experience a suitable stimulus for growth once per week.
So learn the best form for you to stimulate your target muscles, then practise maintaining this form while training to failure.
Combine appropriate technique and adequate intensity of effort within a session, and you’ll be maximising your chances for growth, provided you have a hypertrophy-specific program and the right dietary pattern for you.
When it comes to your training program as a whole, as mentioned earlier in the article, you need to perform a certain amount of volume at a certain intensity of effort in order to stimulate muscle growth.
These requirements for volume and intensity differ depending on the individual.
Moreover, they can change depending on various factors, such as external stressors, whether you’re in a surplus or deficit, how well you’re sleeping, etc.
Last but not least, these requirements can vary depending on the muscle group.
For example, I’m currently performing nine weekly sets of hamstring-focused work, which is considered relatively low volume, especially for someone who trains five days per week like I do.
For seven of these sets, I aim for failure; for two of them, I aim for RPE 9-10 max.
On the other hand, I currently have 21 weekly sets of pec-focused work, all which are performed to failure.
So I’m not advocating for you to do as much volume as possible or as little as possible, just like I’m not suggesting to train to failure all the time or to never exceed RPE 8.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach, so I’m encouraging you to find the right combination of volume and intensity for you at this moment in time or, better yet, to get a coach who can help you speed up this process and get better results sooner.
4. Eat enough protein.
As everybody who hasn’t lived under a rock for the past twenty years will know, protein is paramount for muscle protein synthesis, or the creation of new muscle.
Your top priority is to eat enough protein over the course of the entire day, every day.
Once you’re doing this consistently and you want to “level up” your muscle-building phase further, divide your protein intake into three to five meals containing at least 0.4-0.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight, which works out at around 20-40g depending on your size.
To be clear, you can have more than 20-40g of protein per meal if you want to, just like you can have more protein in a day than what would be typically recommended for muscle growth, if you really love protein; don’t have any pre-existing kidney conditions or any other reasons why your doctor might have given you a hard upper limit for protein consumption; and aren’t eating so much protein that you’re not getting enough of other important nutrients.
5. Cover your nutritional bases: carbs, dietary fats, fibre, and micronutrients.
Nutrition is fundamental in a surplus because, while it doesn’t make muscle gain happen, it makes the process more efficient in combination with consistent, high-quality training.
You could achieve a surplus by eating less nutritious food, like cake, biscuits, ice-cream, etc.
But you’re not going to get a lot of nutrients out of them and you’re not going to feel your best after eating them.
And a body that’s thriving responds much better to training.
So you could say that training stimulates growth directly and nutrition helps training along indirectly.
You can have some of these highly palatable, highly processed foods––for instance, I have pizza every week––but I’d encourage you to make whole, minimally processed foods the main staples in your diet.
6. Sleep and manage your stress as well as you can.
There’s plenty of research showing that chronically inadequate sleep is going to affect your ability to build muscle and lose fat.
Now, you don’t need to have the best sleep in the world, but you want to aim to sleep long enough and well enough to feel refreshed upon waking as often as you can and ideally on a regular basis.
I have a full blog article on this topic, with plenty of suggestions on how to improve your sleep with lifestyle changes and, if required, evidence-based supplementation.
Similarly, I’m not implying that you must be stress-free to build muscle because it’s never going to happen.
I, for one, am the most stress-y person I know.
However, our body’s response to all stressors––training, a caloric surplus, work, being chased by the police for trying to live at your local gym rent-free––is the same, and we pull from the same reservoir to recover from it.
So, if you deal with too much stress for too long, you’re going to pull energy away from recovering from training and thus building muscle as well as you could otherwise.
Therefore, just like you take rest days to manage training stress, find strategies that work for you to manage the other main stressors in your life.
For me, this looks like:
7. Commit for long enough.
While you can expect to see changes in as little as one or two weeks when you’re in a deficit, muscle growth takes months.
I usually suggest a client to commit to a muscle-building phase for at least four months.
However, this is by no means a hard upper limit. In fact, the longer you stick with such a phase, the greater the payoff.
Having said that, the best results for you require an individualised plan.
So I’m not recommending that everybody should be in a consistent surplus for months on end.
In some cases, it’s actually better to alternate a surplus with maintenance calories, or to hover around maintenance for the majority of the time, without going into a surplus.
The point is that you have to be far more patient with muscle growth than with fat loss.
The greater your patience, the better your results.
If you’re interested in a full-length article on how to set up an effective muscle-building phase, click here.
If you’re a podcast person, then I have two episodes on this topic:
1. There are some core habits to develop and maintain in every phase of your physique development process.
2. Before a fat loss phase, you want to be free from diet fatigue, disordered eating habits, or an eating disorder, and to be at least working towards other prerequisites that’ll help you stay consistent with your deficit.
3. To maximise muscle gain and minimise fat accumulation if you choose to go into a surplus, prioritise training quality and consistency while also supporting recovery and adaptation with appropriate nutrition and lifestyle practices.
Thanks for reading. May you make the best gains.
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An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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