The Ups & Downs of Fat Loss or Muscle Gain

What comes to mind when you think about waves? Is it the ocean, or a steady sine curve, or the metaphorical ebb and flow of life?

I tend to think of the wave pool at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon, or the baby shark I kicked at LBI last summer.  Those however, are specific moments.  Let’s talk about what waves actually do, which is to friggin’ move up and down!

Fitness land most often sees this as yo-yo dieting and weight loss/gain, with bodyweight changes related to our inconsistent eating; we’re vegan one week, keto the next, and we can never make up our goddamn mind. It often feels like we’re stuck in The Great Wave of Kanagawa Cookie Monster:


Something that I often see in health and fitness is a resentment of the natural rhythm of our lives.  When trainers first earn their degree or certification, we can get into hyper-structured cycles to project onto our lives, or we completely eliminate any opportunity for alternation by flatlining everything.  It’s either extremely measured changes with 31.5962% improvements, or 1% better every day, at all times, no exceptions, ever.

That’s not life, team.

I’m relistening to the book Antifragile on Audible, and in it author Nassim Nicholas Taleb spends some time expounding on his experience as a trader turned academic, and he reminds us that theories aren’t thought of and then applied to real life.  They’re born of  real life.

Our adventures in fitness can often get stuck between the vague, “Do just a little bit more each day” and the highly technical programs that require mathematical tables just to plan your warm-up sets.  It’s that reductionist thinking that’s standing in our way.

“The Procrustean bed in life consists precisely in simplifying the non-linear and making it linear—the simplification that distorts.”- Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Most fitness goals include some fluctuation between fat loss and muscle gain strategies, and reducing them to caloric intake or progressive overload prevents us from seeing the bigger picture.  Most recently, I’ve seen this in how we approach muscle gain, as most everything that strives for size wants to do so without gaining fat at the same time.

We’re all looking for the Sorcerer’s Stone, and it’s the well-intentioned but maligned professorial trainer standing in the way.


Ironically, if you don’t understand the superficial Harry Potter reference, then you may understand how your clients start to feel when referencing reflexive stabilization.  If you see the Thestrals like I do, then you know this is really about the Mirror of Erised.  More on that in the future.

If we’re considering the reductionist rational that we can focus only on consistency and make steady, albeit marginal improvements, or we can use perfectly planned programs to maximize our results, we forget that most of what we’re doing falls somewhere in the middle.

Our life follows a general wave that naturally ebbs and flows over time, so our lifestyle and training should echo this.  We also have the ability to progress through those cycles, so we’re essentially doing both at the same time.

The shape of the wave looks like this.


Okay, so it’s a carbon dioxide chart, but it’s literally the only graph with that shape that I could find!  But this is what I see as the most realistic representation of how our fitness and lifestyle goals actually play out.

I’m totally for supporting a consistent, linear increase, over time, but for me that’s over seasons and years, and those periods can involve the fluctuation of muscle gain and/or fat loss.  When we discuss muscular gain, this is the most appreciable result of what happens.  When we discuss fat loss, we see the exact same thing, but the overall slope of the graph is heading down, rather than up.

To support that long term consistency, our short(er) term efforts have to be focused, with periods of replenishment for balance. This often becomes a period of surplus or maintenance calories every 6-8 weeks of dieting, and during periods of #GAINZ, I believe periods of maintenance calories and deload weeks can help us recover from aggressive training and eating, and prepare for the next program or round of training.

Why should we plan for and work with these natural ups and downs? The idea isn’t the most popular for those with quick-fix products, but it’s simpler than sales.

Too much, too fast, and your body knows that something is funky and it calls it quits. It doesn’t want to play along. Just like crash dieting causing problems with losing fat, crash BULKING probably has it’s own set of problems, but let’s be honest, we don’t talk it nearly as much as the dieting side of things.


In the end, it’s all about BALANCE. Balancing out the increase in calories we need for some #GAINZ with the nutrients we need for our health, regular aerobic activity (I’m talking about easy walks and bike rides, guys!) and a few regular periods of maintenance calories.  That’s the hypertrophy version of the refeed while dieting, allowing periods of maintenance calories and slightly easier workouts throughout the week.  

If you’re thinking about mixing it all in, give yourself a deload from the caloric surplus; eat closer to what you ned.  If you’re having a training deload, spend 2-3 workouts every 4-6 weeks, maybe in the first two days of a new program, to take it easy in the gym.

These planned waves in your training can help you plan success in the short term and the long term, and get results that fit within your lifestyle and your timeline.  Finding that balance in the ups and downs is the key to health and hotness success.

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