Close your eyes and imagine this.
You did it. You built as much muscle as you wanted to build. You lost as much fat as you wanted to lose. Your body is as (realistically) lean, muscular, strong and awesome as you’ve always hoped it would be. Your long-term goals have all been reached. You’re done. You win.
Sounds pretty good, right?
But um… uhhh… what do you do now?
What do you do when you’re completely satisfied with your results and no longer wish to make any additional progress beyond where you’re currently at? And your new goal is to just maintain this state from that point on?
Seems like the ideal scenario to be in, doesn’t it? And as rare as this scenario seems, people ask me this question quite a bit. I can only assume the vast majority are just planning ahead. Kinda like imagining all of the cool shit you’d buy if you won the lottery… even though odds are that won’t actually be happening any time soon. Or… you know… ever.
But hey, it’s fun to imagine. And while this may be some version of counting your chickens before they hatch, or maybe even putting the cart before the horse, or perhaps some other animal related idiom pertaining to worrying about stuff you shouldn’t actually be worrying about at the present time… it’s still a valid question.
Because, as long as you have realistic long-term goals AND are willing to put in all of the time and effort needed to reach them, getting to this dream scenario IS legitimately possible. So, what should you do once you’re there? Let’s find out.
First, The Most Obvious Thing…
The first thing I need to address is the question of “can I stop working out and/or stop eating right?”
Yeah, I know. You’d think this would be pretty damn obvious, but the fact that I’ve had people ask it shows me that apparently it’s not quite obvious enough. At least, not to everyone.
So, to those few people, please allow me to reveal this shocking revelation: you will need to continue working out and eating right. Forever. Times infinity. Plus one.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but if you stop working out, you will gradually lose all of the muscle (and strength) you’ve gained. And if you were working out for the specific purpose of burning calories to cause fat loss, and you stop doing that exercise without adjusting your diet to compensate, then you can expect to gain body fat as well.
And if you stop eating right (which we’ll define as no longer eating the total amount of calories and macronutrients needed for your goal or at least the maintenance of that goal… more about that in a minute), then you can also expect to lose muscle and/or gain body fat.
Basically, whatever you did to get the results you got, you’re going to have to keep doing some version of that to maintain them… with a few minor adjustments.
What minor adjustments, you ask? These…
Adjusting For Long-Term Maintenance
Let’s break this up into three parts:
- Weight training.
In terms of your diet, there’s really only one adjustment that needs to be made. And that is to your calorie intake. It needs to be set to maintenance.
Meaning, no more surplus because you have no interest in building additional muscle (or gaining additional weight), and no more deficit because you have no interest in getting any leaner (or losing additional weight). To ensure neither of these things happen, all it takes is setting your calorie intake to maintenance (i.e. the amount of calories needed to maintain your current weight) and eating that amount from this point on.
This could literally mean eating maintenance calories every single day of the week. It could also mean using a calorie cycling approach (Superior Muscle Growth has a 50 page chapter about this) where you eat more on training days and less on rest days, but still end up at maintenance for the week (this could potentially lead to some very minor, very slow improvements in body composition over time).
It could mean using a much more relaxed approach where you’re less strict about calories/tracking calories but still keep a close eye on your body weight, measurements and mirror reflection… and then if you see those things changing, you simply adjust your calorie intake accordingly (or just get a little less relaxed with your tracking of it).
Everything else, however, would stay virtually the same. A sufficient macronutrient intake, micronutrient intake, water intake, etc. would remain important just the same. Especially protein intake (it plays a crucial role in muscle maintenance).
Supplementation would, in most cases and with most typical supplements (creatine, vitamin D, whey, fish oil, etc.), stay the same as well as the purposes they were serving to reach your goals would likely still be just as relevant when maintaining them.
And everything else (meal frequency, meal timing, meal composition, food combinations, food choices, degree of strictness or flexibility within the diet, etc.) would all be designed around whatever is most convenient, enjoyable, preferable and sustainable for you. Which, of course, is exactly how it should have already been anyway.
2. Weight Training
In terms of weight training adjustments, the biggest change is simply that instead of continuing to push yourself for progression and getting stronger on every exercise as often as possible, your new goal is to just maintain your current levels of strength on every exercise.
That would really be the only required adjustment here. I’d consider everything else optional, though still potentially beneficial.
Specifically, volume and/or frequency can be reduced if needed or preferred. This is because the amount of volume/frequency required for maintenance is less than the amount of volume/frequency that is ideal for progression.
Beyond that, convenience and personal preferences also play a role.
For example, if you really love training and have plenty of time to fit it in, you could still weight train 4 times per week (potentially even 5 if the volume/frequency is adjusted accordingly). If however you don’t really love it, or maybe you’re becoming less interested in it by this point, or you just don’t have as much time for it or wanted to make more time for other stuff… training 3 days per week would be perfect (and for muscle maintenance during fat loss, 3 days per week is my default recommendation… and I’d lean toward that same recommendation for general long-term maintenance as well).
Since this article is aimed at maintaining body composition goals rather than performance goals like endurance, we’re going to look at cardio strictly from the perspective of fat loss/preventing fat gain.
Which is all about calories.
So let’s say you were doing some amount of cardio to meet your fat loss goals, and now those goals have been met. How much cardio do you need to do to maintain them? Enough to put you at your maintenance level. Simple as that.
So if maintenance for you is 2500 calories per day, and you want to eat 3000 calories per day, you’d need to do 500 calories worth of cardio to get yourself to the 2500 you need to be at. Or, you could just as easily eat 2500 calories per day and do no cardio whatsoever.
This one is completely up to you.
What Else Should I Do Now?
One last thing people occasionally ask me in the context of this overall question is – with their body composition goals fully achieved and set to long-term maintenance – what should they focus on doing next?
Ehhhh… I have no clue.
Find a new hobby? Maybe take up knitting? Learn some badass yo-yo tricks? Teach yourself to write with your opposite hand? (True story: I spent about 3 months a couple of years ago teaching myself to write with my opposite hand. After that I tried to teach myself to write with both hands simultaneously. Fun times.)
In terms of other fitness related goals, that’s completely up to you. You’re more than welcome to challenge yourself physically in new ways (endurance, strength, performance, etc.) while adjusting things as needed to prevent any interference with your maintenance goals.
Or… you can just sit back, relax and enjoy a life of maintaining the goals you worked your ass off to successfully reach.
Because that’s an option, too.