Intermittent Fasting is a big topic in the fitness industry. Rightly so, as it's such…
Powerful headline, right? For a powerful blog post.
I’d say that although this isn’t going to be as cool or sexy as “eat meat like a real man, ROAAAAR” (although I’m definitely all for that), it’s going to be way, way more important and helpful for you over the long-term, assuming your IQ stretches beyond ~80.
It’s going to be one of the most important blog posts I’ve ever written, so if you’re going to listen to anything I say, make sure you listen to this.
The problem with most people, is that they are completely incapable of understanding the big-picture, macro-level stuff.
They have absolutely zero knowledge (and very little experience) when it comes to fitness, yet they insist on micro-level stuff. This micro-level focus is very important, but it must come after the macro-level stuff. If you get it the wrong way round, you will always be limiting how far you can go with fitness.
Whereas if you get the macro-level conceptual understanding first, and then get the micro-level stuff nailed, you’re pretty much unstoppable.
“Yeah yeah I get it, I know, calories in/calories out“
No, but you don’t get it.
The problems with not fully understanding energy balance are:
- You will only be able to take fat loss so far by winging it (unless you’re exceptionally genetically gifted) – I’ve had many debates about calories vs food quality (both are crucial btw), with family members, Twitter people, and P.T’s, and none of them have ever achieved anything impressive. Interesting. ALL are above ~12% bf, most of them by a LOOONG shot. At some point, you have to accept that further fat loss is going to cause hunger and difficulty no matter what you do.
- You will only be able to take muscle gain so far by winging it (unless you’re on a lot of drugs) – you can train as hard as you want, you’re not getting far without a calorie surplus and without any carbs.
- You will be eating ‘cutting foods’ when you want to gain muscle – only eating meat and veg with a few carbs here and there is a great recipe for fat loss, but it’s almost always terrible for gaining size and strength.
- You will be eating ‘bulking foods’ when you want to lose fat – eating peanut butter, almonds, oils etc., even though they’re ‘health foods’ may be great if you want to pack on some size, but they will tend to make fat loss much more difficult if you eat them all the time.
- You will eventually stall with whatever your goal is, you’ll be confused, and won’t know how to keep moving forwards – if you’re genuinely happy at maintenance long-term, then this point may not apply to you. Most people end up wanting more eventually however, and you need to know what to do to push past plateaues if you want to get the most out of your fitness journey. “Just eat more red meat” isn’t helpful when you’ve hit a brick wall at 12, 14, or 16% body fat, or your bench press is stuck at 275 pounds.
Alright, so we need to understand the basic framework behind muscle gain and fat loss.
And by the way, I’m not saying food quality isn’t crucial – it is. BOTH calories AND food choices are crucial. But energy balance comes first chronologically-speaking.
Let’s look at how it works and how you can apply it to your fitness goals:
Homeostasis is the biological term for what I usually call ‘maintenance’. You’re not gaining weight, you’re not losing weight.
If your weight is staying the same, you are eating maintenance calories.
This is your body’s ‘ideal’ state. It loves homeostasis, and will do anything to keep you there. This is why fat loss is so difficult, weight training is hard work, and gaining muscle beyond your first year or so is slow and painful.
Now, the only difference between homeostasis and maintenance is that you can be at maintenance calories (and stay at the same bodyweight), but be gaining muscle and losing equal amounts of fat. Beginners do this all the time.
This technically wouldn’t be homeostasis, as your body is changing and developing.
But most people at maintenance calories are of course not changing and developing, they are very much maintaining the status quo, at least over the short to mid-term.
So for arguments’ sake, let’s just call them the same thing.
So far, so good, right?
Let’s move onto surpluses and deficits…
A calorie surplus means you are consuming more than your maintenance requirements. This means you are gaining weight.
If you’re not gaining weight, you are not in a surplus.
I get loads of guys saying something like:
“But I eat 3100 calories and feel great – it’s a massive surplus and I’ve still not gained any fat. I feel like I’m actually losing a little bit of fat.”
How much weight have you gained or lost?
“I’ve not gained anything, but I think my weight has gone from 175 to 172.”
You’re eating a small calorie deficit, not a surplus.
“I eat nothing but peanut butter, almonds, whole milk, cheese, avocados, LOADS of carbs, and LOADS of *insert super-calorie-dense foods*, and no matter what I do, my weight stays the same. Calorie surpluses don’t work on my body.”
You’re eating maintenance calories.
In both cases, from my nine years of watching human behaviour with regards to training, activity and food, it’s a case of feelings and emotions, versus cold, hard reality.
Reality always wins.
Whatever your goal is, breaking away from maintenance calories (and homeostasis) is always a difficult task, simply because homeostasis is what your body prefers, and it fights very hard to keep you there.
Now, what if you are actually in a calorie surplus, and you’re gaining weight? How do you ensure that your weight gain is mostly muscle and minimal fat?
THAT is where you need to make sure you have the correct macros, food choices and diet set-up.
The opposite of a surplus, is a deficit. If you eat less than your body needs to maintain homeostasis, you’re in a deficit and you will lose weight.
If you’re not losing weight, you’re not in a calorie deficit.
Again, I’ll hear things like:
“I-I-I-I’m doing Intermittent Fasting, eating super-clean, like high protein, low carbs, no sugar, no bad stuff, and I’m eating a massive calorie deficit. But I can’t seem to lose any fat? Calorie deficits don’t seem to work on me.”
How much weight have you lost?
“Nothing, I’m still the same as when I started.”
You’re still eating at maintenance. You’re either missing out something like alcohol, weekend binges, OR you simply need to reduce your portion sizes or choose lower fat meats, use less oil etc.
Again, feelings versus reality.
Now, what about if you are actually in a deficit and losing weight? How do you ensure that almost all of it is coming from fat, and very little coming from muscle?
THAT is now when you must focus on macros, food choices, micros etc.
All of this stuff fits in together of course, but you MUST understand the basic framework first, otherwise you will always be stumped when you hit the inevitable fat loss or muscle gain plateau. And you always will by the way – homeostasis is a powerful force that catches up with all of us, and it gets harder and harder to overpower the more successful you become.
I hope this makes sense.
Let me know if you have any questions either below in the comments, on Twitter or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also check out the coaching options if you really need help with either fat loss or muscle gain, as I offer personalised meal plans, training programs and coaching calls to Silver and Gold clients (24/7 Whatsapp contact included for Gold clients). Check them out here.