Folks looking to add mass need not worry about the issue of energy balance. You have the luxury of eating a ton of food to fuel your muscle building, and you get to enjoy all the energy you get from it.
Folks at a maintenance level (like I have been for a while now) also don’t have to worry about energy balance. I get to fuel my body at a level that maintains my weight and gives me 100% of what I need to Bring it hard on the workouts and still feel great all day.
But that wasn’t always the case for me, and most likely it’s not the case for you. If you need to lose body fat and lose weight, by necessity you must run a calorie deficit. This means you will take in LESS calories in a day than your body uses. I did it my entire first round of P90X, averaging 1900-2100 calories per day even though my maintenance calorie level is in the 3000-3100 calorie range. Was it “fun”? No! Did I feel a bit run down? Absolutely! But it was part of the energy balance dilemma that I had to deal with.
The Energy Balance
I work out first thing in the morning, so after a full night’s rest I would feel pretty good and have the energy to Bring it! I didn’t bonk on my workouts. I could push hard (or at least as hard as my fitness level would allow in those early weeks). But when I had a 1000 calorie deficit, by mid afternoon I would start feeling sleepy, and there were many nights I’d fall asleep while tucking the kids into bed LOL! I was out of gas at the end of the day! But it was working. I was willing to accept the lack of energy in order to see the fat melt off FAST. And as long as I wasn’t bonking on my workouts and as long as I wasn’t losing muscle mass, I was going to keep doing it until I reached my goal (to monitor my muscle mass, I would take weekly body fat measurements and calculate my lean body weight using a website — see my article “how to measure body fat” for more on that).
I knew I was pushing the limit on the energy balance. I couldn’t go much lower, but I didn’t want to go higher and slow my results either. So I stayed the course (and in the process lost 43 lbs in 90 days).
But what about you? Are you at the right energy balance? If you are bonking on your workouts (which may be more likely if you workout at the end of the day when you are out of gas), you may not be able to run as big a deficit as I did. You’ll have to take in more calories, closer to your maintenance level to keep your energy high enough to get a great workout. But there is a trade off. You won’t drop body fat as fast. Our body will find the energy to function — either from reserves (like our body fat) or from what we fuel ourselves with (calories). The less fuel we give ourselves, the more reserves we are forced to use (within reason of course).
I would never recommend going more than a 1,000 calorie deficit from your maintenance calorie level (Check out my Calorie Calculator). That’s pretty extreme already, and to go much beyond that will change the scenario to hurting your metabolism, and putting you in place where you will lose muscle which you don’t want to be in (again, that’s why you need to monitor your lean body mass). So often, people think they can just starve themselves into losing weight, and it works except that they burn up their muscle and lean body mass by starving themselves, and then they are worse off than before! We want to do it the smart way! And our energy balance will be different for each of us.
Stick with it!
And while you are trudging along that unpleasant road of the calorie deficit, take heart! It won’t always be that way! I remember when I hit 212 lbs and 8% body fat at the end of round 1 and decided it was time to go to a maintenance diet. I worked all the way to 3,000 calories, with a lot more carbs, and felt like I was ON FIRE with energy all day long! It felt amazing! And since my body fat was low and my metabolism was trucking along, I actually dropped a bit more body fat during round 2 (down to 6%) while maintaining my weight and building strength and muscle.
Now that’s when the fun begins! But put in the work, knowing it is only for a time and that the faster you melt the fat, the faster you get to kick it into full energy mode!
Keep bringing it!
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