Coaching Lessons #4 – Tracking Trumps Calculations

Andy MorganCoaching Lessons30 Comments

Diet Tracking vs Calculations

If you are anything like me, the first time after doing your initial calculations to get your calorie/macro requirements you ran a bit of math to try to predict rates of fat-loss and started getting a little excited.

Unfortunately the math doesn’t ever work out as neatly as planned, which can be disappointing, frustrating, and lead you to second guess yourself. If you’ve ever dieted then you know this. But as human nature is to seek neat answers to complex things we don’t want to hear it – the result is that calculations get prioritised, while proper tracking with relative adjustments is left largely ignored, people either start program hopping, quit, or go into an activity increase/ supplement buying spiral… yes I’ve been there too.

All too often if the right assessment framework used, then there would have been a lot of heartache avoided. In nearly all cases it’s just a small change that’s required to re-ignite progress.

Guiding on how and when to make changes isn’t simple (discussed at the end of the post) but I can illustrate concepts/principles by showing client examples to help you make your own decisions on when they may be appropriate.

In this quick post I’ll take you through my analysis and decision-making progress when client, Omar, had a concern about possible muscle-mass losses after making some calculations, and explain why I was confident we could make a downward adjustment to energy intake in order to keep progressing with his fat loss goal. This case-study illustrates the tracking > calculations concept brilliantly.

Sender:Omar
Recipient:Andy Morgan
Re: Week 6 Check-in

Looking at the data so far and doing the math, I had a question about the proportionality of the weight loss, specifically fat vs. lean tissue mass. Is it fair to estimate the weight loss as being 90% fat, 10% lean body mass? Here’s what I came up with using that assumption:

-The target rate of weight loss of ~1.0 lb/week is equivalent to a 3900kcal/week deficit (if 90% of the mass is from fat)

-Adding my target macros to this deficit puts my assumed TDEE at approx. 2400kcals.

-At the measured rate of weight loss so far, approx. 0.7lb/week, this would put my TDEE closer to 2270kcals to hit the target rate (again, assuming 90% of weight loss is from fat).

I find the data almost as interesting as the end goal here, so forgive me if it seems I’m calling any of your methods into question. To the contrary, I am happy to defer to your knowledge and experience. Looks like we are pretty close already though.

Thanks,

Omar

Sender:Andy
Recipient:Omar
Re: Week 6 Check-in

Omar, thanks for the question. To answer fully I need you first to have read the article, ‘Why you need to make adjustments as you diet‘.

You’ll see that metabolism is adaptive as well as there being a large degree of individual variance in how much people’s spontaneous activity (aka. NEAT) changes when in a calorie deficit [or surplus]. Thus, even assuming that we could accurately calculate average energy expenditure throughout the day, any calculations are basically just a ‘best guess’.

The reality of the situation is what we track, and we adjust based on tracking. To compound this we also have stalls and whooshes caused by a number of factors that can’t really be avoided (good diet compliance assumed), so a decision based on data trends over the weeks is necessary. We cannot therefore accurately calculate how much of a deficit we are in, but what we can say is that if we stick to the fat loss guidelines here then we should preserve all muscle mass, given sufficient training intensity and protein intake (read section ‘fat loss guidelines’). – That is the goal, but there are individual variances in outcome when looking at the limited studies available. (One study for example showed the subjects made gains in muscle mass given a modest calorie deficit, but not in a more severe one. But the applicability of the study was limited due to the use of beginner trainees as subjects, I believe.)

Omar - Progress [Click to enlarge. Note: It has been cropped for privacy]

Note: You are an individual, your results will vary depending on genetics, adherence, and effort.

Looking at the data you’ll see that we’re ~3.3lbs down, which if representative of the total fat loss then is less than hoped. However, you have improved with your lifts and the stomach measurements are down more than I would have expected*. So, on the contrary, has there been muscle growth? Possibly, yes. [*More below.]

So you see unfortunately it’s not actually as simple as looking at some math. The differences are likely accounted for in either metabolic adaptation, NEAT change, or a bit of both.

On balance I think we can look to increase the deficit, especially considering you are sleeping well, stress is not an issue and hunger is not an issue.

[I then suggested a ~150-200kCal reduction in daily energy intake.]

……..

          >>>>>>>>>>>>>

Notes & FAQ

How do I determine when to make adjustments?

My first attempt at answering this question is here, When & How to Adjust your Macros, where you’ll see the basis for that 150-200kCal suggested reduction for Omar. However, as the name implies this is a macro based solution, which is to be applied when other possible variables such as training (frequency/volume/intensity), stress levels, sleep have been considered.

I do intend to get everything into a cohesive guide at some point, perhaps a monstrously large flowchart. Dick Talens has made a good attempt as you can see in the table in the post, Understanding the Scale, Bloat and Weight Loss but we still need to add a few columns for completion which I’m not sure how one would do with the unquantifiable items like sleep quality and stress.

Do you have a formula for correlating cm off the stomach with fat losses?

Unfortunately no. When I said that “the measurements have come down more than expected based on the weight loss,” this is just an observation based on experience after seeing hundreds of sets of progress data. I kind of know what to expect because of this. A formula for how much 1lb of fat loss would equate to, on average, in centimetres off the stomach would be nice, but it’d depend on height & body-fat percentage, need to be related to specific measurement sites on the abdomen (fat loss comes top down, generally), as well as be affected by any muscle gain (thickening of the abs, obliques and lower back)… actually girth/genetic variance would also come into play come to think about it, so it would be a very difficult task.


Conclusions & Related Guides

Calculations of energy intake and macro needs can only ever be an educated guess. They are a start point from which you need to track your progress, and then make adjustments based on the established baseline. These adjustments should me made to bring you in line with the pre-decided rate at which you determined you could reasonably expect to progress given your body-fat percentage and training status (whether this be a fat-loss goal or muscle-gain/strength goal).

*************

I hope that was helpful. I’ve just revamped the tracking guide to make it more detailed. If you have any questions, or need clarification don’t hesitate to ask in the comments. Thank you for reading. – Andy.

If you are interested in finding out more about the online consultation work I do, check out, Personal Coaching: Nutrition and Training.

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About the Author

Andy Morgan

I'm an online nutritional and training coach living in Tokyo, Japan. After seeing one too many people get ripped off by supplement and training industry lies I decided to try and do something about it. The site you see here is the result of a lot of Starbucks-fuelled, two-fingered typing. It's had a lot of love poured into it, and I hope you find the guides to the diet and training methods I use on this site useful. When I'm not helping clients you'll likely find me crashing down a mountain on a snowboard, racing around Suzuka circuit, or staring at watches I can't afford. (Read more about me →)

30 Comments on “Coaching Lessons #4 – Tracking Trumps Calculations”

  1. Pingback: How To Adjust Your Diet To Successfully Bulk | RippedBody.jp

  2. Pingback: How To Count Macros, More Flexible Approach | RippedBody.jp

  3. Hey Andy, after my cut I upped my macros once based on your email recommendations but failed to make significant strength gains although it did somewhat stop my strength losses. I upped it again after a month and I started to put on fat such that i can’t see my lower abs anymore!(I took 6 weeks to lose that and regained it in 2 week?). I decided to key in my food intake to see how much I was taking it but my avg daily intake was only 1400+ kcal at about 120P,185C and 35F. I don’t even feel full on training days at such macros. Have I “damaged my metaboslim? I currently weight 54.5kg in the morning

    1. Hi Chris. If it was a small increase, it was just a shift in water balance, some will have been under the skin. As your abs were only blurry and visible in the right lighting at the end of the cut, that’s why you can’t see them now.

      You have done everything right. Your goal is to me more muscled and to get a good set of abs. You started with too much body fat to bulk, but without enough muscle mass to cut to abs and stay there happy. This is a typical conundrum.

      You had to drop your body fat level down initially to get lean enough to make calorie partitioning more optimal for when approaching a slow bulk. Now you have to bulk to put on more muscle. A little fat will be gained back, but that’s just the sacrifice that has to be made.
      We’ve started right, you just have to follow it through.

  4. Pingback: Coaching Lessons #3 - One bite at a time... | RippedBody.jp

  5. I have been tracking weight and circumference as suggested in your tracking articles, yet basically all those numbers have basically stayed the same over ~6 weeks. In that time I started barbell training, Big3 style and eating based off LG cut proportions (2400kcal training, 1550kcal rest). I am consistently making 5lb jumps every workout or so in squat and deads (3×5’s 205lb squat and 255lb DL @ 170lb body mass currently).

    Given your answer to “Do you have a formula for correlating cm off the stomach with fat losses?” in the FAQ, would you expect that the thickening of the torso from adding in barbell training with consistent strength gains would mask fat loss indicators on the sale and tape? Progress, beyond strength gains, are hard to illuminate and I have been contemplating “stay the course” vs “refeed”. Sleep and stress are handled.

    Thanks.

    1. Hi Eric.
      “…would you expect that the thickening of the torso from adding in barbell training with consistent strength gains would mask fat loss indicators on the sale and tape?”
      Yes, to an extent.
      Given that you are making linear strength progressions at the moment I wouldn’t worry too much about what the scale and measurements are telling you, you are making progress.

  6. how would a high fat, medium carb and high protein diet affect body composition?

    im really just curious cos sometimes my fat intake gets a bit high, whilst still staying in my caloric goal for the day.

    Thank you for any help

    1. Have you read through this series Mark? Specifically, the second section on the individual macros, their function within our diets, and the notes on there being personal difference and some scope for preference.

      1. yes i have read everything on this page.
        i doesnt say however, how a higher fat diet whilst meeting caloric goal affects body composition.
        so i thought id ask the man himself.

        ive lost about 8 kg since i found your homepage, which was about 3 months ago.
        thank you for that.

        1. There is not research for this, but there is deductive logic that we can make.
          1. Did you read the section on the importance/use of the specific individual macronutrients?
          2. Are you talking about a deficit or a caloric surplus?

            1. In which case it’s not going to matter from a body composition stand point as long as training intensity can be maintained (this was the note on the importance of carbs, which is a general comment, not true for a few).
              When bulking we’ll have excess energy intake. We want the excess calories to be put towards building muscle rather then fat gain. It’s better to fuel yourself with more carbs then fats as the latter are more easily stored.

  7. Hi Andy, what is your opinion on the 5/2 diet?
    would you recommend it?
    would you say that being in a weekly deficit of 4000-5000 kcals could be too much for a longer period of time?

    keep up the good work!
    its always a highlight to see new posts on this page!!

    1. Hi Mark, glad you find my posts useful.

      You always want to go with the simplest method you need to make a change. For some people this will be sufficient, others it won’t and you’ll need to be more detailed. If you’re new to this completely, fairly overweight and need to lose some, consider this alongside a good resistance training program.

      As for calories, suggested deficits are in part 1 of that series I linked to above. – That doesn’t change regardless of calorie partitioning across the week.

  8. Hey Andy,

    I’ve followed your instructions and reached a sticking point where my waist measurements have not gone down but even moved slightly up(probably some measuring inaccuracies?). I have dropped my carbs as you said till I have only 1 piece of fruit left on my rest day, not counting veggies. Losing that piece of fruit makes rest days quite miserable. Should I go ahead to drop it or what else should I do? Lower fats? I’m only 120lbs or so, so my calories are pathetically low.

    Thanks,
    Chris

    1. Hi Chris. If dropping down your carbs makes you miserable then drop your fats down instead bud. Consider another diet break also, and of course make sure you’re being patient (i.e. not letting fluctuations upset you) and tracking things still so that you can look at things objectively and not get inside your own head.

    2. Chris, I would recommend you reading up on leptin and refeeds (google it). I have just started my trials with this method but I think you should read about it and see if it maybe is something for you. I think this is the key to low bodyfat % but as I said, I’m just in the beginning of testing this. It all make perfectly sense to me and sounds like the missing link I’ve been looking for.

      Good luck whatever you do!

  9. Thanks for the new post, good stuff.

    Question about typical BMR/RMR calculations as a starting point and the “activity factor” (multiplying by 1.375 for being “lightly active”) . If one is following your Big 3 Routine to the letter would you consider this an honest 3x a week exercise level for the purposes of these calculations?

    I am trying to find out the best starting point for long term tracking, keeping in mind the adaptive and elastic nature of metabolism. I don’t know whether these calculators are assuming hours of cardio for exercise vs weight training, or conversely how much even sustained weight training has an effect on ones TDEE.

    Thanks for all the knowledge.

      1. Either I’m missing something or quite dense, because I cannot find any discussion on TDEE and activity multipliers as it relates to lifting in that FAQ you linked. Could you possibly clarify further for me?

        Thanks again.

  10. Pingback: How To Track Your Progress When Dieting | RippedBody.jp

  11. Hi, Andy,
    This is a very interesting article, something that I believe needed to be addressed for many people, I had trouble with this myself up until a few months ago. When I clicked the link, I was actually hoping for some mention of when to adjust training. I have read your articles on the big three and progressing to a three day split, but I am in a difficult position between the two. I started with the big three, switched to RPT after a few months, and now have a two day split for a total of three days a week (‘A’ days are dead, OHP, and chins, ‘B’ days are squat, BP, and incline dumbbell BP). It does not feel like recovery is an issue, I feel fresh for each workout, but squats and deadlifts are stalled (for these lifts I am in Martin’s intermediate strength standard category, while bench has a little ways to go). My question is, should I move to a split routine for accessory work for legs and back at the risk of slowing bench and OHP gains, or continue as is until all lifts stall? My worry with the latter is getting stuck in that rut/mindset of the same weight and reps with dead and squat, making it difficult to begin progress again when I finally do change.
    Thanks in advance!

    PS: Foreseeing this question, my diet and rest are definitely in check: at least 7.5 hours of sleep per night, no extra activities to harm recovery, gaining weight at ~0.5 lb per week while staying between 10-12% bf (estimates based on definition, no fat behind triceps, full seperation between abs and obliques, and clearly defined abs above belly button). Thanks again.

    1. Bryce, thank you for the comment.
      “My question is, should I move to a split routine for accessory work for legs and back at the risk of slowing bench and OHP gains, or continue as is until all lifts stall?”
      Clearly you understand this isn’t a simple question and there are multiple possible answers, which I’ll pose back as questions:
      1. Is the accessory work actually not adding but hindering progress and be dropped completely?
      2. Kind of the flip side, is there a particularly weakness in the chain that needs to be addressed to help you progress?
      3. Is the quality of your sleep high enough? Do you need in fact more? Are you stressed?
      4. Should you increase rest time, decrease total volume, increase total volume?
      5. Does some form of periodisation need to start being considered?

      There is no way to give a single answer to a comment question like this, and I don’t think it’s something I will be able to address in a single post. Consider Rippetoe and Kilgore’s “Practical Programming for Strength Training” book.
      I’ll also see if I can get a guest post on the subject from a friend that’s in the know. – May be the same answer though, as what takes a book to explain doesn’t lend itself well to blog posts.

      1. Thank you for your detailed response. I knew it would be a difficult question to answer, and this did bring up a few points I had not thought of. This definitely gave me some new ideas, and I’ll have to revisit practical programming–a much more difficult read than starting strength!

        PS: I contacted you about becoming a client a couple years ago, under the same name and email. I know how much you like seeing results, and if you would like, I could shoot you another email with progress pictures and lift stats; it wasn’t directly under you that I did this, but I have been following all the guidelines layed out on this site. Thanks again for your help!

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