Cruise Control Part 2

Maintenance aka Gaintaining

Lets get to the good stuff!

One of the “man behind the curtain” mysteries is how coaches figure out the calories and macros someone needs to hit their goal.  Is there a secret formula, calculator or equation coaches use to figure all of that out? Yes and no.  We have formulas and equations but nothing is secret and nothing is certainly magic.

Like anything you practice, if you do it long enough you’ll start to develop a “sense” for intangible things.  Perhaps you run 10 clients through the macro/calorie calculators and half come out right where you’d expect and the other half get numbers seemingly way too low or high compared to what they are currently doing.

The intangible things the calculator can’t measure are things like history of dieting, volume of training, intensity of training, sleep, food quality, current macro and calorie intakes.  These things DO make a difference in how appropriate the estimated calories are and this is what mucks a lot of people up.  Training three days per week where you do full body balls to the wall workouts followed by sled sprints is much different than three days per week of Pilates.  The output, muscular tension, muscle damage and metabolic by-products are all different.  Not to mention the muscle:fat ratio on the individual and their history of training.

Figuring these things out is always a moving target.  Everyone is just shooting for a window of what is most appropriate and a good coach knows how to get that window down to the smallest size by taking all the life factors into account.

Even then, things need to be adjusted and these estimates are just that: estimates.  Best guesses.  Not being reactionary is also a trained skill and as we jump into numbers remember that small adjustments in the right direction are always better than emotionally-based wild changes.

Setting Maintenance

Even for the client looking to lean out, figuring out your maintenance can be a huge plus.  If you know the general amount of calories that keep you weight-stable, then it’s pretty easy to create a deficit off of maintenance that is reasonable and effective.  Same goes for muscle gain.

For anyone, knowing your maintenance will be a good “home base” to return to.  Maintenance will change over time and for those putting on muscle, getting leaner and training hard your maintenance should be decently high.  Maintaining on 1200 calories a day means you’re tiny or you’ve been dieting WAY too long.

There’s a lot of calculators out there and three of the best are Mifflin-St Jeor Formula, Katch-McCardle Formula and Harris-Benedict Formula. Some government groups and quality nutrition coaches have developed their own based off of these, including goal weight, dieting duration and other factors.  But to keep it simple I am going to share a calculator here that I have double checked and seen to be decently accurate.

This calculator also gives you calorie estimates based off of activity which (aside from body size which is the largest factor because of organs, muscle mass and heat loss) daily movement is the next largest factor.

Misconceptions and Mistakes

Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) and Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) are not the same thing! Basal Metabolic Rat is measured through the exchange of oxygen taken in and carbon dioxide exhaled.  But it is measured after being sedentary, lying down, after 8 hours of sleep and 12 hours of fasting.  This is a measure of the calories needed to just run your system with NO activity.  Think of your computer on “standby” mode.

RMR is measured through gas exchange like above except under less strict conditions.  So the subject doesn’t need to lie down, fast or sleep prior.  This means the gas exchange will be higher because the subject has been moving around, digesting food and expending more energy.  Think of RMR as the calories needed just to move you through the day.  This is like your computer function when you’re answering emails, listening to music and reading blogs. Normal function.

Both of these are important because they give you a baseline but RMR is more accurate to figure out maintenance calories because it takes into account the fact that you will be expending energy through movement and digestion, which we all do daily. Don’t base your maintenance off of BMR unless you plan to lean out while sleeping round the clock!

Also, keep in mind the calories expended through exercise for the average person are some of the smallest factors in your calorie intake.  Training itself simply doesn’t expend that many calories unless you are active like a professional athlete or doing weights and cardio almost every day.  Maybe 300-500 calories per hour for the average person, especially if you are well under 200lbs or not training with much intensity. Most people think this is the largest factor and that couldn’t be more inaccurate.  As I said before, organ function, body size, heat loss and the amount of steps/total movement daily are much larger factors.

Plugging in the numbers

In the calculator below you’ll be asked to plug in age, height, weight and gender. These are the biggest “bang for your buck” numbers that give us an accurate idea of your BMR.  The calculator then calculates your RMR based off your daily/weekly activity.

Pro tip: For almost everyone, your maintenance will be somewhere between “light” and “moderate” for activity.  I know, even if you work on your feet all day or train 6 days per week most fully grown adults are probably between these numbers.  If you are above that I am sure you already know this because you’re eating all the time. If you are below these numbers I am sure you know that as well since you hardly eat anything.  If you are training what you would consider “high” is but eating the calories shown under “no activity” it’s time to reassess the quality of your nutrition and how hard you train.

Check the calculator out here:

Running the numbers

If you aren’t sure where to start, add Light and Moderate calories together and divide by two to get the average.  Then, eat these calories daily for two weeks.  Record any weight changes.

If you gained weight or lost weight then you’ll know if it was a bit too high or low.  Don’t worry, the numbers won’t be so extreme that you’ll gain or lose much and it’s important to see some changes so you can see how far from maintenance calories you are.

For most people, you’ll be either right where you should be or a couple hundred calories over or under.  If you see immediate and extreme weight change, just revert back to Light if you gain or Moderate if you lose and continue on there.

After two week’s you’ll  have a very good idea of what calorie intake is your maintenance and then you can use this as your “home base”.

Don’t let preconceived notions throw you off

If you feel full and satisfied but aren’t gaining weight, don’t try convincing yourself it’s too much food.  Many people who start eating the right amount for maintenance (especially women) associate feeling full with “being fat” or “gaining weight”.  So they slip right back to eating less. That is a huge mistake if you remember from Part 1 where we discussed how this leads to yo-yo dieting. If your weight has been relatively stable for a while and you yo-yo diet, it doesn’t matter how little you eat Monday through Friday is you are bingeing on the weekends.  The calories still add up and this makes for some skewed associations with feeling full.


Maintenance for a 140lb woman is 1800 calories/day

Sane Approach: Eating 1800 calories/day = 12,600 calories/week

Disordered Approach: Eating 1200 calories/day Monday through Friday and then 3,300 calories Saturday and Sunday  = 12,600 calories/week

Why not just eat 1800 calories/day, feel good ALL the time, have productive training, solid sleep and enough calories to enjoy a variety of foods daily?

This example above is why so many people think their maintenance is very low when in fact they are just making up all the other calories a couple days a week through alcohol and calorie-dense food choices. 


So now you have solid maintenance numbers.

Want to lean out further?  Take 15-20% calories off your maintenance.

Want to gain muscle mass?  Add 10-20% to your maintenance calories.

For both scenarios you can start on the smaller end and work your way up in 5% increments based off of results.

For those already at an ideal “weight” just train as hard as possible, eat quality food, sleep 7-9 hours per night, don’t overdo alcohol, have quality down time and leisure activities and get 8,000-10,000 steps per day.  Do that for 6-12 months and you’ll most likely keep slowly recomping as you get stronger.

Playing the long game is a great approach for people who have busy lives and don’t need to make large weight changes.  Simply putting yourself in “cruise control” as mentioned last week and then being consistent will continue to reap results.  If you are getting stronger across the board then you’ll gain muscle along the way and some body fat will inevitably be used for energy to make up the small deficit created in new muscle mass accruement.

The real challenge here is just putting in the work over the long haul.  Remember that the old bulk/cut cycles don’t work for most people and if they do, they often lead to rebound weight gain or poor food relationships. Aside from those new to training or those with a lot of body fat to lose, you weight simply won’t change that much during your adult years.  Stop measuring success by how much you gain or lose but by how strong you are, how you look in the mirror, how your clothes fit and how you feel.  All those things feed right into more muscle and less fat.

Maintenance is NOT a bad place to be, in fact it’s a pretty ideal place to spend most of your time.