The Sliding Scale Model of Nutrition


Sliding Scale of Fat Loss <- > Muscle Gain

Last night I was trying to come up with a concept of how nutrition can be viewed so that people don't think their entire life has to fall into one category like Fat Loss or Muscle Gain.  Maybe it's one of those categories which has it's OWN subcategories like Low Carb, Intermittent Fasting or High Protein.

The actual dietary approach you use (as long as protein is optimal and hopefully you are eating a lot of whole foods and fiber) is really more preference than anything.  Dietary approaches are just tools and in the case of nutrition rarely are you relegated to one tool and one tool only.

However, your over-arching goal, like Fat Loss is more than a tool.  Your goal not only reflects what your current physiology or demands are needed the most, like an athlete might need muscle mass or better aerobic output.  Perhaps you carry an extra 75lbs and the most immediate goal is fat loss.  

Whatever your most pressing need is, is what should be addressed nutritionally first.  But once you get to a healthy level of leanness, or put in the muscle you need or improve a certain physical quality, the next goals are usually just making general progress with getting stronger, adding muscle and getting (or staying) leaner.

So how does a sliding scale model work for this?

I like to think of the sliding scale model as one that lies on a continuum.  For general health and aesthetics, most people will slide the scale like this:

Leaning Out<---------------Where you are now------------> Gaining Muscle

You want to push your physiology towards one end of the spectrum and when the results start to stall or you are happy with your current progress, you can start sliding towards the other end of the scale.  In this way, you aren't ever just trying to stay super lean or just trying to stay super heavy and muscular.  You run out a useful plan and then works towards the other end of the spectrum.

While most people might not want an extreme on either end, they'd probably be happy being both leaner and more muscular.  So lets take an example of a general population strength athlete who simply wants to be as lean and muscular as possible.

Eagle-Eye Tombstone

This is the name I would give to a son if I had one: Eagle-Eye Tombstone Serwinski.  It's just flat-out badass. Now that his name is in writing for all time, we can use him as a hypothetical example of a client making progress on the sliding scale model.

Current Stats



13% Body Fat

21.3 Fat Free Mass Index (FFMI)

I like using the FFMI scale because it tells us how much hypothetical progress a non-drug using athlete can make.  Using averages from research, it's currently hypothesized that an FFMI of 25 is about as good as most males can get.  If you want to check yours, click here. Be sure to scroll down after you find yours and compare it to the chart averages for men and women.

At an FFMI of 21.3, Eagle Eye is definitely an intermediate strength athlete.  But he does have room to gain muscle and lean out.  If we wanted to push him to about a 23 FFMI, we could shoot for 190lbs at the same body fat percentage.  Now, 13% body fat is not high at all 

In this case, if we can slowly lean him out to about 10% body fat without changing his weight too much, that'll actualy bring him close to 22FMI.  From there, we would work on adding muscle mass without letting his body fat climb too high.  If it does, we'll lean him out again and then slide the scale back up.  Check out how this might look

Phase 1: Lean out from 13% BF to 10% BF

Phase 2: Gain muscle as high as possible before adding too much fat

Phase 3: Lean out while retaining all muscle and not losing too much total weight

Phase 4: Gain back again and try to hit a higher weight around the same body fat as last time

Phase 5: Maintain most of the weight and all of the muscle and lean out a bit back to 13% BF

Leaning Out <-------------------------------------------------------------Starting Stats------------------------------------------------------------->Gaining Muscle

​​​​​​​                                                           175 lbs 10% BF   <---------------------- 175lbs 13% BF

                                                                                        ------------------------------------------------------> 185lbs 17% BF

                                                                                                           182lbs 13% BF< ---------------------------

                                                                                                                                       -------------------------------------->190lbs 16% BF

                                                                                                               190lbs 13% BF<-------------------------------------         

What This Means For You

The above might be sort of confusing or intimidating.  But in realtiy all it means is that you won't see linear progress towards one goal forever.  If you want to get really lean, you'll probably hit a wall at some point and have to either go to maintenance or spend some time adding muscle mass.  If you want to gain muscle mass, most people (newbies aside) will gain SOME fat if they gain an appreciable amount of muscle.

So working someone down the scale simply means you try to get as much out of one goal as you can and when it's either no longer working or you've hit that goal, you can start working towards the other end.  In the case of 'ol Eagle Eye, he worked on leaning out first, then gaining muscle.  When his body fat got to a place he wasn't comfortable with or we see  diminshing returns, we start working on leaning back out a bit.  And repeating that process and pushing the scale until we hit our overall goal.

Essentially this is what most bodybuilders do.  Over time someone who repeats this process is able to either get a little bit leaner or a little bit more jacked each time they slide the scale and over time they get both lean AND jacked.  Most people just see A-> B and that is simply not how it works.

Metabolic adaptations mean that in a calorie deficit it becomes increasingly harder to gain muscle and your metabolic rate slows.  Being in a calorie surplus for extended periods means your body fat will start to creep up and your muscle mass gains will diminish.  Taking breaks to work the other side of the scale keeps you improving without getting caught in just one direction.       


Practical Application

This obviously isn't the end-all be-all of nutrition.  Plenty of atheltes and coaches have different systems for seeing clients get results.  However most smart coaches know you can only push one goal for so long and at some point, you need to push it in a different direction.  This ends up creating phases that culminate in a client getting a little bit leaner and a little bit more muscular incrementally over months.  Give it a year or two and you can totally transform your physique.  

Each phase will probably last a few months, perhaps a little shorter for fat loss phases if the client is relatively lean already.  You simply need to give it TIME and know when progress stops and you see diminishing returns, start sliding that scale.

Many people simply struggle with where to start.  If you need to lean out, you probably KNOW you need to lean out.  That's good!  Work on fat loss until you hit your desired leanness and then focus on muscle mass gain until your results diminish or you hit a body fat threshhold you don't want to pass.  Then lean back out and repeat.  Try to get a little leaner or little bit more muscle mass each phase.

So you might be thinking that if your goals are only fat loss or muscle gain, there isn't much room for maintenance.  Maintenance is great for when you are pretty happy with your physique and just want to focus on your performance or you need to take a short break from dieting and don't want to go into a calorie surplus.  

Remember that your adaptations to exercise, like getting stronger, improving aerobic conditioning or work capacity are not reserved for one physique goal.  For instance, you can still get stronger while leaning out and you can still improve work capacity while gaining muscle mass.  Some adaptations work better with one nutrition goal over another but that doesn't mean you need to abandon them.  Simply keep in mind that being in a calorie deficit will slow your strength gains a bit while gaining muscle mass (and a little body fat) might slow your aerobic fitness.  

Remember that your physique goals are determined largely by nutrition while your performance goals are determined largely by how you train and exercise.  They of course do affect each other and overlap but are not solely reliant on one another.

Someone who wants to be strong can always try to add a little weight or another rep to their training, even in a fat loss phase.  Someone who is gaining muscle can still include some aerobic work as well.  Whatever you want out of training, train for it.  Layer your physique goals on TOP of that.  if your nutrition is negatively impacting your training (usually a calorie deficit) then consider sliding the scale to muscle gain, if not at least maintenance, to give yourself a break.

The sliding scale model offers you a way to break out of end-goal dieting.  Instead this offers you a way to improve all the time and options for how to adjust when results slow down.  For most people, these actual calories changes are small, too.  Fat Loss to Maintenance might be 200-300 calories for most people and maybe another 200-300 to go from Maintenance to Muscle Gain.  The old days of going from an 1,800 calorie fat loss plan to a 4,000 calorie muscle gain phase are outdated and thankfully, dying out.