Winning a trophy is not as difficult as defending it.
Regular readers of this blog will already know that fat loss requires a caloric deficit.
In most cases, if you are not seeing any fat loss, the reason is that you are not in a deficit. And yet, what if you have been dieting for some time and you have seen results, but they have just stopped coming?
Maybe the solution is not to diet harder, lower calories, and increase activity levels, even though this can sometimes be a viable strategy to get out of a plateau.
Maybe this time the solution is – gasp! – to take a break from the diet and enter a maintenance phase. Counterintuitive much? Hear me out.
In this article, I will do my best to cover:
What is maintenance?
You are technically at maintenance when you are eating the amount of food you require to keep your bodyweight within a certain range, without noticeable losses or increases.
This is called a state of energy balance because the energy coming in (food) is the same as the energy spent on the performance of daily activities and exercise, the digestion and absorption of food, and the maintenance of basic physiological functions.
Why would you want to maintain?
The most common approach to fat loss is to diet off all your excess weight first and maintain forever afterwards.
Unfortunately, most people fail to achieve the latter. In fact, diets are often unsuccessful in the long term because dieters tend to regain all the weight they lost, if not more.
To prevent this from happening to my clients, I include planned maintenance phases between their fat loss phases in order to teach them what successful maintenance looks like. Furthermore, I find this method effective in reducing the negative impact of a number of issues that you can run into when you try to diet for too long.
Even when you follow a fat loss diet that you enjoy and find sustainable, the process of losing body fat is mentally and physically taxing.
The reason for this is that you are in a state of energy imbalance, created by a caloric deficit, which means you are burning more energy than you eat for an extended period of time.
This chronic state of energy restriction is what forces the body to convert fat into energy in order to make up for the deficit, with “force” being the key word here. The body does not enjoy this restriction, and it will let you know in every way possible: you will feel “hangry”, lethargic, irritable, and less and less inclined to stick to the diet the longer this goes on.
But that’s not the only problem.
The longer you try to maintain any imbalance – both a caloric surplus for weight gain and a caloric deficit for fat loss are considered imbalances – the harder the body will fight against it because its preferred state is that of balance (homeostasis).
In the case of fat loss, over time you will develop some changes in the way your body processes energy, called negative adaptations to dieting, such as:
So a fat loss diet lasting months on end will become a stressful endeavour even when you have the best nutrition plan one can think of.
On the other hand, this is what can occur when you go back to maintenance for a time between attempts at fat loss:
That’s why I make maintenance phases a crucial part of the journey.
How long is a maintenance phase?
This will depend on the person and the length of the diet. A good general rule of thumb would be to run a maintenance phase that’s at least equivalent to one third or half the duration of a dieting phase.
Another caveat to keep in mind is that, the leaner you get, the harder losing fat becomes.
As a result, your second dieting phase may be harder than the first, and the third may be harder than the second.
What I mean by “harder” is that you may lose less total fat for a variety of reasons.
An obvious one is that your body is smaller than it used to be. For instance, if you weigh 300lbs and lose 30lbs, that’s 10% of your bodyweight. At 270lbs, 30lbs is now 11% of your bodyweight!
A second reason is that, even though a maintenance phase can reduce the impact of the negative adaptations to dieting of a previous fat loss phase, it may not remove them completely.
Therefore, over time, you may be suffering from the compounded negative effects of the adaptations from a number of fat loss phases.
So, the more fat loss phases you have to go through, the longer your maintenance phases may become, until you might have to put fat loss on hold for a while in order to drop these compounded negative adaptations for good.
You might think that’s bad, but remember that maintaining your weight is an excellent achievement that most people never accomplish. Therefore, if that’s where you are at right now, don’t worry about not being able to diet more.
In the meantime, you can focus on a different goal, such as training performance, and on refining the healthy habits you have worked hard to engrain.
How do I set fat loss phases up?
In general, I run relatively short-term fat loss phases of around 10 to 16 weeks, which help my clients lose between 5 and 10% of their starting bodyweight. I use the lower end of the range when someone is lean and wants to get leaner, and the higher end of the range when someone has overweight or obesity and therefore has more body fat to lose.
Sometimes, a single dieting phase might not be enough for a client to achieve their goal weight.
So I would run an initial dieting phase, then a maintenance phase, then a second dieting phase, rinsing and repeating this process until the client is satisfied.
This can help you maintain a healthy mindset, lowering the risk of overeating or developing an unsavoury relationship with food, and reduce the magnitude and impact of the negative adaptations to dieting. A double win!
Who can benefit the most from a maintenance phase?
You are a prime candidate for a maintenance phase if…
1. You have been losing fat for over 12 to 16 weeks and you are finding fat loss harder and harder to attain.
You might hear people say, “I’m not losing any more weight because I’m not eating enough food, so my body has gone into starvation mode and holding onto fat.”
This is not true.
If you are in a caloric deficit, you will lose fat.
What can be true is that the diet can become so exhausting that you unconsciously stop adhering to it.
For example, you might think you are a calorie-tracking champion, but maybe you’re starting to forget a cookie here and there, a tablespoon of olive oil, a bit of butter… As a result, your caloric intake fluctuates upwards and you are not in as big a caloric deficit as you think.
However, this is still a caloric deficit, so it’s still hard. You just don’t see a lot of results.
Sometimes this happens because your calorie target is a bit lower than what you can sustain. Other times it may happen because you have simply been dieting for so long that you are too tired to continue.
If the second option sounds like you, try to maintain for some time. When you return to your diet, you may find it a lot easier to get on with it.
2. You are going on holiday soon.
A lot of people go on crash diets right before a holiday. They stick to an extremely restrictive caloric deficit for a couple of months and lose the weight they intended to, but, when the holiday finally comes, it’s like opening Hell’s gates: they feel so hangry, deprived, and like “they deserve a treat” that they eat every treat in sight, including plates and cutlery.
As a result, they spend the entire time stressing over undoing their hard-earned progress, and they also actually undo their hard-earned progress.
What a way to make a holiday “unforgettable”.
What I suggest to my clients is to end a dieting phase at least two weeks before the holiday. That last fortnight gives them time to maintain their weight in a familiar environment, where they can make use of the healthy eating habits developed during the diet.
When they finally leave, their stress and hunger levels are under control, so they can enjoy themselves during their time away and generally come back ultra-motivated to pick up the diet where they left off.
3. You want to build muscle, but you have just ended a long diet.
Some clients come to me after they’ve lost a lot of body fat and want to gain more muscle mass. Many of them have suffered from overweight or obesity and the stigma that comes with these conditions for a number of years, so they are also terrified of gaining weight.
Since the most efficient way to put on muscle does involve gaining weight and some body fat over time, throwing them into a muscle-building phase right off the bat would be the equivalent of throwing a lamb in a lion’s den.
In this case, I give them a progressive resistance training program to help them build consistency and self-confidence, and I help them improve or reinforce their healthy eating habits without pursuing weight changes.
This gives the body a break from an extended, taxing imbalance and quells their fear of gaining fat back.
Maintenance phases are one of the most effective tools to improve fat loss results and potentially your relationship with food and fitness, too, and yet they are also one of the most underestimated.
“I maintained 150lbs” isn’t as sexy as “I lost 300lbs”, now is it?
And yet, learning to maintain your weight can both potentiate your long-term fat loss results and ensure you can keep these results in the long run.
Have you ever implemented a maintenance phase between fat loss phases? Tell me about your experience in the comments.
A personal trainer who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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