Today, we’re going to be talking through the exact training and nutrition strategies our online client Julie, a busy mom of five, used to get in the leanest condition of her life for her photoshoot in June.
If someone as busy as Julie can achieve a physique like this, anyone can (if you're willing to put in the work like she did), and today you'll be learning exactly how.
Julie actually spent months focusing on eating more food, building muscle, and being ok with being a bit fluffier before we ever started her diet.
Before working together, Julie had been pretty lean... but never had the physique she wanted at the end of a diet.
Rather than feeling lean, strong, and athletic-looking at the end of a diet, she always just felt... skinny.
When we started coaching together in early November of 2020, she had already identified her problem:
She didn't have enough lean muscle mass.
This meant that as she would shed body fat while dieting, rather than uncovering lean muscle/a sculpted physique... she was just uncovering bones.
Really, this is one of the most common issues new online clients who haven't been able to achieve the physiques they want solo are struggling with - if you don't look the way you want to at an end of a diet, the solution might not be continuing to diet, but rather focusing on building a significant amount of muscle before dieting again.
Julie had already been in her own building phase for months before working with us... but adding lean muscle to your frame just takes time.
So our first four months working together (11/7/2020 - 3/7/2021) the focus was exclusively on ensuring she was eating all the carbs and protein she needed to optimally fuel her ability to perform in the gym, and recover afterwards.
During this time, we were looking at a few key metrics to ensure the building phase was going well:
1. We wanted to see her consistently getting stronger in the 5-30 rep range in her training - One of the best signs that you're building muscle, is getting stronger in the 5-30 range, while maintaining excellent form.
2. We wanted hunger to be low, training performance & motivation to train to be high - Muscle is a very "calorically expensive" tissue - it takes a lot of calories for your body to build & maintain.
So if you're hungry often, your body will be sensing that calories are not abundant.
When this is the case, it would not make sense for your body to prioritize building something that takes a large chunk of calories, as calories are already sparse.
So we consistently want to see hunger in the 1's & 2's during a building phase like this.
A screenshot of part of Julie's client metric tracker to show how we keep tabs on this:
Your training performance is very important in a building phase, because what you're doing in the gym is what sends your body the signal that it needs to build muscle.
Another common mistake people trying to transform their physiques make, is putting a major focus on nutrition (which is very important), but forgetting that the way you train/the stimulus you create in the gym is ultimately what determines if you will or won't build muscle.
What we do with your nutrition provides the fuel for recovery and muscle growth, but what you do in the gym must first provide the proper stimulus to recover from.
Motivation to train is another metric I love to have clients track, because it's one of the best indicators if we need to do more, less, or keep things the same as far as training volume (number of hard sets), intensity, and food intake.
When motivation to train is low: It's often a good sign that the client is either excessively sore and/or fatigued, so we likely need to increase food and/or decrease training volume - or - the program actually isn't challenging enough, and we may need to increase volume and/or intensity. People are usually most motivated when they not feeling absolutely smashed, but feel like what they're doing is working... meaning the are probably experiencing a bit of muscular soreness after most training days, and are getting a solid pump in most sessions.
3. We want to see the client gaining .25-.5% of their body weight per month (better looked at as 1-2% of body weight per month) - In a building phase, you absolutely shouldn't be in a calorie deficit (a.k.a. eating fewer calories than you're burning). This means that it's impossible to be losing fat in a building phase.
So we can rule out anyone losing fat and building muscle at the same time - this is known as a body recomposition, and often we will see a client's scale weight stay the same, but physique change drastically in a body recomposition phase.
But because muscle mass does have weight, if you're not gaining weight in a building phase, you're likely just not building muscle (because you're not losing fat in this phase).
After months of very productive building, in early March, we decided Julie was ready to enter a fat loss phase, knowing she'd be able to uncover a much different physique than in her previous diets.
Julie's starting progress picture:
Through this entire process (both her building phase and fat loss phase) Julie trained five days per week following a Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper/Full Body training split, with an emphasis on glutes and delts.
Although there is lots of individualization that goes into building a training program for our online clients, it's important to understand that the way you train should not vary depending on if you're in a fat loss phase or a building phase.
One of the biggest mistakes most people make when they enter a fat loss phase is suddenly focusing on burning calories in the gym, rather than training focused on stimulating muscle growth.
Your physique only changes from one diet to the next if you've added more muscle to your frame in the time between.
When you shift your training to focus only on burning calories, you'll quickly lose your hard-earned muscle, and end up with the same physique as last time you dieted.
So whether you're in a fat loss phase or a building phase, for the best physique results, you should always be training like you're trying to build muscle.
This is exactly what we did with Julie, and is why the primary focus of this blog is the adjustments we made to her nutrition - we already have an extremely in-depth guide that teaches you how to train to build muscle here - these are the exact principles Julie followed throughout her building phase and photoshoot prep
During a transformation like this, how you're training shouldn't change much - you'll likely need to do a bit less training volume (hard sets), but the intent and structure of your training should be very similar to your building phase, in order to maintain/keep building as much muscle as possible.
Julie ended her building phase weighing 148-149 pounds, and eating these macros:
After a week at her maintenance calorie intake (to ease the transition into the diet), Julie officially started her fat loss phase on 3/15.
We knew from Julie's past experiences dieting that she has what we call an adaptive metabolism.
Your metabolism varies a lot in how it responds to over-eating or under-eating - especially non-exercise activity thermogenesis (a.k.a. NEAT - calories burned through things like pacing, fidgeting, and blinking).
Most client's metabolisms will fall into one of two categories:
→ Adaptive Metabolisms - For these people (like Julie), when you eat more, your body automatically increases NEAT to compensate.
Their body adapts to higher calorie intake by increasing calories burned through movement - so weight stays the same, even with calorie increases.
People like this can typically maintain at a relatively high calorie intake, but the reduction in NEAT when they decrease also means they have to drop calories lower than you'd expect in order to lose fat.
→ Rigid Metabolisms - These people see very little or no increase in NEAT as a response to overeating.
Thus fat gain is a bit easier. But on the bright side, these people usually don't have to decrease calories as much to lose fat (because calories burned through NEAT doesn't decrease as much as it would for an adaptive metabolism).
Knowing that Julie had a more adaptive metabolism meant we knew we'd need to be more aggressive with dropping her calories right out of the gate in the fat loss phase.
[One of the main things indicating her adaptive metabolism was her description of spending many weeks slowly decreasing calories with her previous coach before finally seeing changes.]
So right away, we decreased her calories to:
Her target rate of loss per week here: .75-1% of body weight per week.
We knew this would be fast enough to see noticeable changes every week, but not so fast that she'd feel awful in the gym, or risk losing any of her hard earned muscle.
That said, after Week 1 of the fat loss phase, we made another decrease to her macros:
Now at first glance, it seems like she lost exactly like we wanted her to in the first week (-1.2 lbs).
So why the second adjustment?
When you enter a fat loss phase, you'll typically have to reduce carbs a bit.
When we reduce carbs, we also reduce the amount of carbs our body keeps stored in our muscles for fuel (muscle glycogen). These carbs also soak up some water in storage, so the first week of a diet usually yields a large decrease in scale weight, due to a reduction of stored carbs/water.
So the fact that she only dropped about 1 pound in the first week told us we likely needed to get just a bit more aggressive yet in order to keep seeing her hit the target rate of loss.
That said, I had a hunch we were very close to where she needed to be macro-wise, so Week 2's adjustment was only a 50 calorie decrease, but yielded a week that was actually a bit above the target rate of loss.
Over the next few weeks, we saw Julie's weight drop consistently on the same intake. Going into Week 4 of the diet, she was weighing an average of 142.9 pounds.
But, the upcoming weekend was her Birthday getaway weekend, and we knew she wanted some dietary flexibility to enjoy the trip.
This is the primary reason we took her first diet break so early in the process, adjusting her macros to:
1. Refill Muscle Glycogen Stores - As discussed before, muscle glycogen is essentially carbohydrate stored in your muscle and liver. Having larger stores of this is beneficial to your ability to train hard.
But of course, as carbs get more limited on a diet, muscle glycogen stores decrease, which in turn can hurt your ability to train hard. Taking a diet break allows you to refill muscle glycogen stores, and improve training quality dramatically.
2. Decrease In Hunger - A recent study on one week diet breaks by Jackson Peos and colleagues seemed to show they're an effective tool to decrease hunger and desire to eat:
3. Mental Preparation For The Next Fat Loss Phase - A large part of the benefit of diet breaks is psychological.
Typically, the larger the deficit you’re in, the more challenging it’ll be to maintain mentally. This is further compounded by the fact that you’re still training hard.
Fortunately, taking a diet break has been shown to decrease irritability and increase alertness, and will have you refreshed and ready to push again. (1)
Again, this diet break was a bit earlier in the process than typical (and thus a bit shorter), but it worked out perfectly to allow her to enjoy her trip without losing any of her progress, and come back the next week rejuvenated and ready for the next fat loss phase.
The next four weeks after her diet break, fat loss macros stayed the same, as Julie was losing right at the desired rate.
Over this four week stretch, her weekly average weight dropped from 142 to 137.3.
That said, the final two weeks here we did start to see rate of loss slow a bit, which lead to....
After about ten days of watching her weight sit around 137, we made the next adjustment to:
If you're not making progress, normally a 5-10% reduction in weekly calories will be enough to get fat loss to resume again in a fat loss phase.
→ If progress has just dipped slightly (e.g. you’re still losing, but slower than .5% of body weight per week), your adjustment will likely be closer to a 5% decrease.
→ If progress has stalled hard (e.g. no weight or measurement changes in 2+ weeks), we’ll err towards a 7.5-10% decrease. It's pretty rare that we'll drop someone's calories by more than 10%, unless we need to be super aggressive for a strict deadline (e.g. a photoshoot).
This reduction in calories can come from carbs, fats, or a combination of both.
*Pull from fats if… you’re still above the fat threshold (.3g/lb), and are chasing as much muscle gain or maintenance as possible.
*Pull from carbs if… you’re at the fat threshold, or just prefer a higher fat diet.
*Pull from both if… your food choices are the most important factor to sticking to your diet. This will allow you to keep the same foods in your diet (just in smaller portions), instead of having to drastically cut back on carb heavy or fattier foods.
Because of her upcoming shoot (which did have a strict deadline) we chose to be a bit more aggressive with this adjustment, and pull from both carbs and fats.
This final adjust got Julie losing right at the desired rate again: over the next 5 weeks, she went from an average weight of 137.3 lbs to 130.6 lbs the day before her shoot.
A peak week is the last 5-7 days before your photoshoot (or bodybuilding show, beach vacation, etc.)
During this period of time we’re manipulating food intake, training, fluids, etc. to make sure that you go into the shoot with the best possible look.
Now, how we approach a peak week is individualized to the client and their body.
For example, in online client Jeff's peak week protocol (read all about it here), we used a carb front-loading strategy.
For Julie, we wanted to see her get just a bit leaner yet before the end of her peak week. So we chose to keep her in a deficit for the first 6 days of her peak week, before implementing a carb backload the last day before her shoot.
These are the instructions I emailed her going into peak week:
"PEAK WEEK (Starting 6/8, finishing 6/14):
The reality here is, you’ve already done all of the work to get lean.
More than anything, we just want to be sure you MAINTAIN a solid look going into the shoot, which means we won’t toy with things too much.
→ Food Choices - I recommend sticking to the below foods:
→ Number Of Meals - Split your days up into 4-6 meals will make absorption and digestion a bit easier. You're already on top of this.
→ Water & Supplements - We don't want to change anything major here, as toying with the amount of water you're drinking or supplements you're taking could actually cause your body to retain more water, so stay in your normal routine here.
→ Salt - Similar to water and supplements, we don’t want to create drastic changes here. Salt your food similar to how you normally would. DON’T cut back here - if anything, adding a bit more salt is a good idea, as you'll be taking in less total salt due to the removal of processed foods.
→ Training - We're deloading you through the week to keep inflammation low. Chase a fun pump, but stop well short of failure.
→ Macros - These will stay the same as they are currently through Sunday 6/13.
Monday, 6/14 we're going to introduce another 60g of carbs via rice cakes and fruit to bring your macros to:
^These extra carbs will have you more full and pumped during the shoot."
At the start of peak week, Julie was struggling with some abnormal bloating.
However, we didn't freak out about it (she did a great job staying calm despite it being the worst time to be bloated), and after adjusting food selection a bit and understanding that some of it was related to her monthly cycle, the bloating completely disappeared about two days before the shoot.
This left Julie feeling very lean going into the day of the shoot.
Of course we had a strategy for the day of the shoot as well. Here are the instructions I gave Julie:
"Day Of The Shoot - Again, you’ll already be very dialed in by this point, but a few final adjustments…
- I would eat your first meal ~6-7am, and eat again 8-9am hours going forward. These meals should be higher carb (30-50g), low protein (10-20g), and fat (5-10g), and you should have eaten 2 pre-shoot (again, given the shoot starts at around 10:30am).
Make sure you’re continuing to salt these as normal.
- Drink ~12oz water with each meal. You can drink more if thirsty/not spilled, but no need to force it.
- 45 minutes before the shoot (15-25 mins before pumping up), I'd down 1/2 tsp of salt + 20-50g of sugar. This will help your pump.
- You have a "pump up routine" programmed in Truecoach as well for today."
As you've probably guessed by this point, Julie absolutely crushed her photoshoot:
We really couldn't be more proud of this badass woman, and all of the hard word she put in to achieving her all-time best physique, and the way she decides to show up for herself every day.
As an insanely busy working mother of five, Julie could have made every excuse to drop her standards for herself.
But instead, she chose to make herself a priority, invest in herself, and achieve her all-time best physique.
Now, we're on to her reverse diet, before pushing her into another building phase to create an even better physique six months from now.
Even if you don't have photoshoot goals, these are the same science-backed strategies we implement with all of our online clients undergoing the physique transformation process.
If you're ready to be coached 1-1 by our team to your best physique ever, click here now to apply for online coaching with us.
Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the online coaching business Bairfit. Check out his Podcast and Instagram for more educational content.
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