Nutrition approaches we've over-complicated

Don't you love when something simple is working?  You just made a couple changes to a problematic situation and amazingly things start moving in the direction you want.

Then, because you just HAVE TO DO start tinkering.  "Hmm maybe if I make more changes, things will work even better". Despite that the initial changes were simple, easy to implement, sustainable and effective, somehow that just wasn't good enough. If a wolf has been attacking your sheep, then traditionally you'd get a large dog and a rifle to fire at the wolf when it comes around.  But you don't complicate things by venturing out on your own, abandoning the sheep and climbing into the wolf's den to face the pack on your own.  You probably aren't ready for that yet.  I've been bitten by a dog, I can't imagine being bitten by a wolf.

So lets back slowly out of the wolf's den and address these things below without getting in over our heads.  These are BASIC things that are best left basic.  Some you can't ever go back and re-do which is why it's so important to leave well enough alone from the outset. And the great thing is, it works better this way.

You've never done a structured weight training program and you want to lean out

Yes, the titles of some of these are long but this specific scenario is probably 80% of the people who want to lose body fat. And this scenario is screwed up so many times by people trying to apply advanced bodybuilder diets, fad approaches they see in magazines or (like most of us have done at some point) continue with our self-justified approach because we don't really want to change our nutrition.

Here's the kicker: if you have never done a well-structured strength training program and you want to lose body fat, here's everything you need to do:

-Eat in a moderate calorie deficit every day

For some of the reasons stated above, people aren't always confortable with this advice.  Some people truly think they won't build muscle if they eat for fat loss at this stage in their training and many others are so afraid of giving up food they like that they'll look for any justification to not change.  I've had clients 100lbs over-weight convinced they need to cycle carbs, eat in a calorie surplus on days they train and take a slew of supplements: sometimes because of a lack of knowledge and sometimes because they want any answer other than "clean up your diet".

But the truth is still the truth.

If you are over-weight and want to lean out you can in fact do ALL of the following:

1. Lose fat - A calorie deficit, combined with increased food quality is going to make the weight and inflammation fly off you in rates you will never be able to replicate again

2. Build muscle - Because you are a novice, ANY strength stimulus is going to produce huge strides in strength, even in a calorie deficit.  Plus, having considerable body fat to lose means you have more than enough stored calories to fuel any and all training

3. Increase overall fitness - In the beginning stages of training, any activity will be met with improved fitness in that modality. Simply getting on the floor and doing a warm-up, keeping rest periods moderate, changing your own weights, walking around the gym and FEELING GOOD from the dopamine response of training will improve mobility, aerobic fitness, local muscular endurance, strength and mood. Yes, even in a calorie deficit.

You would eat in a moderate calorie deficit every single day.  And you could sustain this for months, until progress slows.  At that point if you needed to lean out more you could make another calorie reduction and keep riding these easy gains until you move out of the newbie phase which could be 6-9 months.  Imagine that, 6-9 months of the best fat loss and strength gains you'll ever see happen at the same time.

Don't screw that up by trying to implement anything more complex.

You've never done a structured weight training program and you want to gain considerable muscle mass

This is essentially the opposite advice of the above scenario.  But the caveat is you need to be skinny or generally under-muscled for this scenario. If you need to lose body fat, then the above scenario applies to you.

If you are pretty lean or even just average body fat, then this method is for you.

-Eat in a moderate calorie surplus every day

When we are discussing someone who has never done a structured strength training routine before, they will see such amazing gains in muscle mass and strength with almost any decent program.  Satellite cell proliferation, muscle cell size increase, anabolic sensitivity, nutrient partitioning are all going to be upregulated so much so meet this new imposed demand. Your ability to put on lean tissue with pretty much little to no fat gain is rivaled only by someone deciding to use anabolic steroids.

Like Mark Rippetoe said,: at first, even riding a bike will make your squat go up.  Essentially, all stimulus is so new that you'll get stronger on everything, every single training session.  And this can last for months on end. Now, you DO have a genetic limit which will curtail your gains at some point but for most people (men in particular) muscle mass gains from 15-30lbs in a matter of months is commonplace. This is a scenario of N=1 but when I started training I put on 30lbs in less than 6 months. It also happened so easily and without any complex nutrition approaches other than "eat more than usual" that I steadily gained weight every single week with no visible addition of body fat for months on end. And for an under-weight woman, they won't see the same rapid gains in weight of course but they might simple recomp and lose fat while adding muscle at the same time.

Many trainees see this and the worst thing to have happen is someone try to mess with the basic approach by having days they eat in a deficit to try to get shredded at the same time or worse, decide to follow some fad diet like "no carb" or intermittent fasting and throw a huge wrench in the works. Listen, you might put on a small amount of fat but probably not much.  And if you gain 20lbs of lean mass, what is 3lbs of fat compared to that?  It won't even be noticeable and in fact, you'll be a smaller percent bodyfat anyway because you've gained so much muscle.

You can't ever recreate this scenario unless you turn to drugs.  All those programs you see where someone added 30lbs of lean mass on "X" routine is almost always a case of a newbie training for the first time.  If not, it might be someone who trained very poorly doing something like only arms and calves and cardio but a well-structured strength program will do the same for them.  Do not fall for the gimmick of someone selling a mass program that you can follow at any time in your training career.  The most muscle mass you'll ever accrue is in the newbie stage of lifting and after that, it's scratching and clawing for every ounce you can put on.

Lyle McDonald put this table together to show the normal ranges of muscle mass gain per month for strength training individuals:

CategoryRate of Muscle Gain (Men)Rate of Muscle Gain (women)
Beginner1-1.5% total body weight/month0.5-0.75% total body weight/month
Intermediate0.5-1% total body weight/month0.25-0.5% total body weight/month
Advanced0.25-0.5% total body weight/month0.125-0.25% total bodyweight/month

And if you take someone who is underweight or under-sized, this will be even greater in the Beginner stages. You might literally see a pound a week for some time.  Some of that is glycogen and water storage and maybe a little bit is fat but you've got so much growing to do that most of your nutrient intake will go towards lean mass accrual and not fat gain. 

This is exactly why an intermediate or advanced lifter can't do one of those extreme bulking routines.  The rate-limiting step of muscle mass accrual (protein transcription) can't be forced through eating more. You can bulk, sure, but it'll be mostly fat.

How many calories to eat in a deficit or surplus to maximize these scenarios

The good news is, you don't have to be extreme with either approach.  A young person, especially a young male, is going to be able to go the most hog-wild on their calories.  Anyone with a male teenager at home knows the damage they can do to a fridge.  If you are still growing and you are strength training then you might just be an endless pit of calories.  Embrace it while you can then realize you might never be able to eat like that again. C'est la vie.

Fat Loss

While the common knowledge is that a pound of fat containes 3,500 calories and therefore to lose a pound per week, you'd need to eat 500 calories less per day, this isn't always true. Adaptations in N.E.A.T might cause some to lose faster or slower and depending on the size of the person 500 calories less per day might be too much or too little a deficit. 

Instead, a daily calorie deficit of 10-20% of total calories will create a solid deficit based off your size and calorie needs.  For a 140 pound woman this would be 200 to 300 calories less per day, for a 200 pound man it might be closer to that 500 calorie deficit.  Too much too soon will short-change you in the long run and create the scenario where you are eating so little in a short time span that there is no further reduction you can make. 

We're looking for 0.5 to 1% bodyweight loss per week on average so for a smaller person that might not even be a pound per week anyway.  For a larger person it could easily be 3lbs per week lost for a time.

Find out your maintenance calories, make a 10-20% reduction and eat that every day.  When progress slows, drop another 5% and keep truckin'.  And yes, you'll continue to gain muscle and strength at the same time.

Muscle Gain

As Eric Helms points out, extra calories have a permissive effect on muscle gain, not a causal one.  This means you need extra calories to build muscle but there relationship isn't linear.  The more you eat does not mean the more you grow.  So setting a solid calorie surplus and then only increasing when weight gain stalls is the way to go.  The reverse situation of fat loss.

Helms estimates that it takes 2600-2700 calories and this is pretty close to the recommendation of eating 3500 calories extra per week to GAIN a pound.  But again, going off a percent calorie increase over your maintenance will give you the best results. 

Here, 10-20% over maintenance works great and you simply adjust up if you never gain weight or it slows down.  Remember, a young growing teenager already needs a shit load of food, to gain 20ls of muscle might put this kid at 4,000 calories per day easily.  For others it might be closer to 3,000.  The important thing is to implement a surplus and then just do it every day and ride out the gains.

The confounder: N.E.A.T

This confounding variable may be screwing a lot of people up.  N.E.A.T is Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.  It is all the calories you burn from activity that is NOT exercise.  Fidgeting, tapping, getting up and down from your desk at work and simply movin' and groovin' all day consitutes your N.E.A.T.

N.E.A.T adapts to your calorie intake.  Long dieting stretches result in a reduction of N.E.A.T in an effort by your physiology to use fewer calories so you don't continue losing weight.  Eating more results in an increase of N.E.A.T to burn more calories so you don't gain too much weight.  For some, their N.E.A.T is so adaptive that if you over-feed them 1,000 calories per day, they simple expend that much more energy in their daily N.E.A.T.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, some people diet and their N.E.A.T drops so low that unless they get up to do a task, they barely move.

And this happens without your conscious intent.

This is why creating magic calorie deficits or surpluses based off someone else's numbers causes SO many people to screw up.  A calorie reduction too large for your size might result in a huge decrease in N.E.A.T, resulting in very little weight loss.  And others might go for a crazy bulk but have low N.E.A.T anyway so all the excess calorie go to their gut and butt,

Before you do anything.  I mean anything....find your maintenance calories and THEN set your deficit or surplus.  Your individual N.E.A.T will adapt to your nutrition and you want to be able to make small and measureable changes to your intake as it does.

And then, if you are new to training and you have one of the two goals above, do it every single day and don't touch it unless progress stalls.  Put that shit in cruise control and then leave it alone.

Now you can try the Harris-Benedict equation or Katch-Mcardle to find your maintenance calories.  But what also works pretty well is assuming somewhere around 13-15 calories per pound is a rough estimate of your maintenance.  Women usually fall on the lower end and men on the higher.  I'd suggest starting in the middle and then going from there.  A 145 pound person is going to be maintaining (assuming they exercise 3x per week or more) around 2,000 calories.  Setting a 15% deficit off that is 300 calories less, resulting in 1,700 calories per day.  A perfectly solid place to start. A 175 pound person would be about 2,450 calories per day for maintenance and if they wanted to gain, a 15% surplus is close to 350 calories more, resulting in 2800 calories per day.

The first week or two, simple maintain those numbers and watch your weight.  If nothing changes after two weeks, make another 5% change.  However, if you are losing 0.5-1% bodyweight per week, ride that out until progress stops.

Why mess with simple?

Why do we go about messing with simple and effective strategies?  Partly because we love the idea of something so specialized for us, partly because we have our own inherent biases and partly because we fall prey to marketing hype and social media buzz. 

With these two scenarios you have the ability to make the largest gains in fat loss and muscle gain that will ever happen in a relatively short period of time.  All without an insane level of effort or nit-picking. Kicking butt in the gym and eating your reasonable surplus or deficit every day does some amazing things. I had a client this past year gain about 20lbs muscle with no change to his waist size because we made smart, linear calorie changes and this was the first time he engaged in a structured strength training program.  Complicating it with calorie and carb cycling would only have hindered his progress.

Being a newbie is an exciting time.  It is also something you can only experience ONCE.  

If you have never tried the above approach alongside your strength program, then jump on this now. You have lots of gains just waiting to be tapped into.