Pro Level Progression with Professor Paul

These days, even among the Instagram age of “influencers”, you hear the term progressive overload a ton. More often than not it seems that this term is used without deep understanding of it’s application or why it’s a foundational principle for hypertrophy. The most common misconceptions are that this term speaks only to increasing the loads we lift and each week’s effort needs to be maximal or greater than the week prior. However, overload can be achieved through countless different strategies. Furthermore, a lot of these beacons of inspiration are also hashtag team no days off, the grind never stops bro **Husky Bro voice**. You may see these individuals often attempt frequent large increases in load or volume. While hard work is admirable our ability to “will” our goals into existence through enduring a whole lot of suck is limited. 

While you’re newer to training you probably won’t need to put a ton of forethought into your training since just about everything works. Your rate of adaptation may be so rapid that it makes sense to be a bit more aggressive with load increases. Unfortunately, things slow down after a while, nothing works forever, and at some point applying large weekly jumps in load isn’t an option. Pushing for the same rates of progression can often end with poor quality training, stagnation, frustration, and sometimes injury. 

Before we get into our main tools for progression, it may be helpful to have a better conceptual understanding of progressive overload and why we do it…

The principle of overload simply emphasizes that over time, our training stimulus needs to be one that is greater than what we are accustomed to. To really break this down consider that regardless of your experience there is some threshold of work that is needed to make progress. As you become bigger and stronger the work that you used to do crosses into that threshold less until it’s overload potentially no longer is stimulative enough to provide further adaptation. This would infer that you would only need to increase your overload stimulus as fast as you’re adapting. For bodybuilding this means you have to lift more because you got bigger. Since most of us are rarely making huge jumps in strength or adding slabs of muscle from session to session it is probably not necessary to apply large adjustments to training stressors as frequently as possible. We are talking about accumulating changes at the microscopic cellular level. Therefore, the time it takes for a non beginner to see muscle growth takes a very long time.

This concept of diminishing overload with training is illustrated in Figure A. with a sharper decline in our curve as we repeat similar workouts.

Figure A
Figure B

This matters because I often need to help clients understand that more isn’t always better. Excessive and frequent variations in some training stressors have the potential to result in suboptimal returns. Changing movements too often may not allow us to develop skill and technique to allow optimal overload and progress monitoring. Increasing load and/or volume by excessive degrees may increase injury risk. Furthermore, if you alter your form for the sake of moving a greater load you may actually be providing a less overloading stimulus by giving yourself a mechanical advantage. Pushing past your capacity for the hope of faster progress can ultimately expose us to more risk and less reward.

However, I don’t think this means you shouldn’t attempt to progress in some way. Attempting to progress is fun, it keeps you motivated, and when things are going well it provides you with feedback that things are moving in the right direction.  Figure B presents an elongated and less steep curve and expresses being able to get a bit more out of training over time. Conceptually, this is what would happen if an individual were to make small incremental adjustments to training over time.

To expand on this concept, let’s say we have a years worth of training mapped out. If we were to pull a training cycle from early in the year and compare it to one several months later toward the end, they may appear pretty different depending on client needs at the time the training was conducted. However, if we examined one training cycle to the very next, variations between the training program would probably seem less substantial. Breaking training into smaller time frames, week to week adjustments within a single training cycle may show very little change. Between these weeks we might see some variations in load, or reps, or sets, but those changes should generally work within a narrow scope with a focus on a progression toward a target goal. Within bodybuilding gradual adjustments in progression would be a good thing since constant variation isn’t very important to hypertrophy training like it may be for activities on the other side of the spectrum, such as CrossFit ® where the expectation is to become pretty good at a lot of different things at the same time. Within bodybuilding you really only have one major and valued outcome, which is hypertrophy. Since growth is a very slow and gradual process, strength improvement within appropriate rep ranges are your most important indicator that you’re moving toward the ultimate goal of accumulating more precious muscle. It becomes very hard to monitor strength at a given rep range if many variables are frequently changed.

For a quick example, you may spend 4-6 training cycles and bench press the entire time starting with improving strength in the 10-12 rep range and incrementally working to improving 5 rep strength. But maybe every 2-3 training cycles your secondary pressing movement changes from machine variations to dumbbell or some other training tool. Notice I didn’t say every 2-4 weeks we completely and drastically change movements and reps across the board or start incorporating kegels and gymnastics to mix it up.

Moving forward I’ll discuss some useful tools to apply overload from week to week…


For the purpose of this article let’s define effort as proximity to failure. If you have a lot of reps left until you hit failure on any particular set that is considered low effort. If you are very close or at failure we will call that high effort. Therefore, I’ll commonly use repetitions in reserve (RIR) as a programming variable.

Your gym bros and favorite influencers might tell you that in order for a set to count that you need to take it to or past failure. This just isn’t the case. For instance, Helms and colleagues conducted an intervention that revealed significant increases in strength and muscle growth among participants, despite most of their training being performed at approximately 3 or 4 repetitions from failure (~3-4 RIR) (Helms 2018). This would tell us that repetitions at least 3 or 4 away from failure are disruptive enough to create a stimulus that causes adaptation. This may not make much of a case against the use of failure. We actually don’t know if they would have gotten better or worse results by training to failure and there are plenty of studies that show sets taken to failure can provide an appropriate stimulus as well. Surprisingly, the research looking at failure versus non failure training research is sparse and not without plenty of limitations. One new publication worth mentioning is a study conducted by Caroll and colleagues, where the non failure group showed more favorable changes in whole muscle size, fiber size, and myofibrillar proteins compared to the failure training group over 10-weeks. The researchers classified their participants as well trained due to possessing an average of 7.7 ± 4.2 years of training experience and comparing their participants baseline performance data to previous research examining well trained competitive athletes. Although I’m obviously a proponent of training short of failure most of the time, I’ll admit that the literature has a long way to go before we can unequivocally say whether you’re leaving gains on the table by training short of failure, and I do think failure has its place in training when used strategically.

If we spend most of our training shy of failure then we probably need some proxy of effort to ensure we are working hard enough. A trending concept within evidence based crowd termed the theory of “effective reps” fulfills this purpose. This theory proposes that repetitions closer to failure offer the largest stimulus for adaptation and repetitions further from failure provide the least stimulus. Correspondingly, the same can be said about fatigue.

The major application most have taken away from the theory of effective reps is that within typical hypertrophy and strength rep ranges most sets in training should be somewhere within 5 repetitions from failure (~5-0RIR). It is common for those who use RIR to modulate effort and intensity so that sets that are taken to 0-1RIR used cautiously and sparingly to avoid excessive fatigue that may negatively impact near upcoming sessions. There are many ways to adjust effort from week to week and you don’t have to be married to any one way. As a general concept keeping overload in mind, the most obvious way to program RIR would be to start a training phase at a higher RIR within an effective rep range and progressively work toward failure (Shown in Figure C).

Figure C

You can check out my article here at Gifted Performance if you want more details on RIR:

Repetitions and Effort

One of our basic tools for progression is to add more reps. Adding reps can be a little tricky, when you’re no longer a novice, if you’re already training a lot of sets to failure. However, if  you’re appropriately managing fatigue and planning training cycles to begin at lower efforts adding repetitions becomes a bit more predictable and reasonable. In this hypothetical example, let’s say your 10 rep max was 200lbs. On week 1 you do 6 repetitions at 3-4 RIR with 200lbs. If effort is increasing by approximately 1 RIR from week to week then we would probably expect for 7 reps on week 2, 8 reps on week 3, and so on. However, in our example you’ve actually adapted and improved over the training phase and completed 12 repetitions with your old 10 rep max. You probably won’t experience this outcome all of the time within every 4-week training block but this highlights flexibility and auto-regulation in programming since it allows your application of overload to keep pace with your adaptation and current abilities. As an added benefit it also helps to insure that you’re training within your target efforts within an effective rep zone.

Furthermore, this type of progression can work well in circumstances where increasing load from week to week is not practical. This may apply to individuals who are not very strong or on movements that are limited by loading capabilities. For example, if an individual’s 10 rep max on lateral raises is 20lbs then a 5lb increase is a huge 25% increase in load. For most people a 2.5% change in load would roughly impact a change of 1 rep. That means that if you add 25% to a 10RM you could potentially add no reps without greatly altering lifting technique. So there are plenty of circumstances where increasing load by 5lbs may cause form and workout quality to suffer.


Set progression has become a very hot topic recently along with volume. These days within the evidence based community, sets have actually almost become synonymous with volume. Volume is simply an expression of work and there are many ways to quantify volume but “volume load” specifically is one of the most common and straightforward methods used to measure work in training. Volume load can be expressed as:

number of sets x number of reps x load = volume load

If you increase one variable within the volume load formula, the product of work increases provided the other variables stay the same or increase. It just so happens that adding sets is a really effective way to greatly increase the volume of work done in training.

Consequently, increasing set number can also have a larger negative impact on fatigue and recovery and thus may contribute to an increased risk of overtraining and/or injury. You’ll need to gauge recovery and performance to really know if you’re doing too little or too much. If you’re improving then it’s likely the number of sets you’ve been doing is enough so it would probably be a good idea to use some caution when increasing set number. Regardless, increasing number of sets over time can be a useful tool for overloading purposes.

This is what volume load looks like with adding sets:

This is what volume load looks like with just a 5lb or 2.5% increase in load:

This is what our volume load looks like when we add a couple reps:

By increasing with a single set volume load increased by 2000lbs, by adding a couple reps we increase volume load by 1200, but when we add 5lbs to the bar we only increased volume load by 150lbs. All methods can be a good way to progress depending on how your needs evolve over time.


This figure demonstrates the compounding potential of adding 1 set, 2 reps, and 2.5% in load, resulting in an increase in volume load by 3840lbs. The sum of a few seemingly small changes result in the potential for a large increase in overload. Over several weeks and months you can implore a variety of these tools and others as they fit with your rate of progression to ensure you’re moving in the right direction and progressing appropriately.

Closing thoughts

Occasionally I’ll get asked, “how long did it take you to get that big?” Although flattering, that is a really awkward question that feels undeserving with all the real monsters in this world. I’ll usually answer by saying, “well, I’ve been training for about 12 years. So I guess it’s taken me about 12 years to get this big”. Then when asked for the “how”, I’m usually left baffled as I try to gather the words to sum up the last decade of my life. Through all the ups and downs and all the different things I’ve done over the years I attribute most of my progress to making small gradual steps toward my goals. Like most things in life, overnight success is more of an exception and not the rule. Some will have it easier than others but most of us won’t reach the peak of our potential in a few short months or years. I once heard someone say “bodybuilding is an endeavor of delayed gratification”. Over my 12 years I can attest that my personal journey has felt anything but fast. I’ve had to learn, try new things, and trust in people or processes that weren’t immediately enjoyable or rewarding for the sake of a better long term outcome. Every session, meal, pound, and rep added to the bar was a part of the process of chipping away at different versions of myself over the past 12 years. After reading this article, my hope is that those who feel they have been spinning their wheels from constantly pushing for maximal effort, maximal gains, and maximal everything all of the time will see the potential for small incremental changes to add up and compound over time to a much greater outcome.  


Carroll, Kevin M., et al. “Skeletal Muscle Fiber Adaptations Following Resistance Training Using Repetition Maximums or Relative Intensity.” Sports 7.7 (2019): 169.

Helms, Eric R et al. “RPE vs. Percentage 1RM Loading in Periodized Programs Matched for Sets and Repetitions.” Frontiers in physiology vol. 9 247. 21 Mar. 2018, doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.00247

Adaptive Thermogenesis in Response to Dieting in Physique Athletes

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Across a variety of sports, dieting to compete at lower bodyweights can be advantageous. Specifically, weightlifters, bodybuilders, powerlifters and combat sports (wrestling, mixed martial arts, boxing) require weight loss for their respective competitions. Leaner body compositions can result in a larger strength to weight ratio and improved locomotion.

Bodybuilding is a sport where athletes are judged based on the amount of lean body mass and the symmetry of their physiques. To achieve the body composition required to be competitive in their sport, bodybuilders spend extended periods of time in a caloric deficit accomplished through reduced calorie consumption and increases in physical activity. The extreme physiological demands of a bodybuilding contest preparation diet can have various behavioral, metabolic, neuroendocrine, and autonomic responses (decreased leptin, thyroid hormone, modulations in non-exercise activity thermogenesis) that can hinder dietary adherence and result in rapid weight regain. It has been documented that healthy humans undergoing partial starvation incur disproportionate reductions in daily energy expenditure that counter an energy reduced state and drive a return of body fat stores. Resulting increases in appetite, decreases in energy expenditure, and increased muscular efficiency could be a consequence of systems favoring weight recidivism after a diet. Due to the cyclical nature of dieting in physique sport, a discussion of the adaptive response to dieting is warranted.            

During a contest prep diet, calories are decreased to lose fat at a predetermined pace. A decrease in calories consumed will reduce the energy cost of the digestive system. Reductions in daily intake of fiber, protein, and carbohydrates lessen the energy demand of the digestive tract. However, it has been observed that reductions in bodyweight equal to or higher than 10%, are accompanied by decreases in energy expenditure of up to 25%. This 15% discrepancy in TDEE suggests there are other factors influencing a higher decrease in energy expenditure. The discrepancy in metabolic rate can be partially described by several factors.


A variety of hormones are involved in the regulation of bodyweight. Leptin plays a major role in body weight regain and as a metabolic mediator during instances of prolonged dieting through interaction with the central nervous system and a direct peripheral mechanism. In humans and animal models, this adipocyte derived hormone’s absence can cause significant fat gain. When Leptin is released into the bloodstream it influences receptors in the hypothalamus that trigger the expression of specific neuropeptides that regulate energy expenditure and hunger. Notably, rodents that had the ventral medial region of the hypothalamus ablated increased food seeking behavior and experienced a reduction in energy expenditure to the point of obesity.  Some would consume so voraciously, food became lodged in the trachea and the subject would expire. This response was a result of the inability of leptin to act on the ablated region of the hypothalamus. When these rodents shared circulation with rodents that had their hypothalamus intact, the latter ate so little they became emaciated. From this observation, it can be inferred that leptin’s actions on the hypothalamus have a large impact on behavior, NEAT, and appetite.

Hervey, G. R. (1959). The effects of lesions in the hypothalamus in parabiotic rats. The Journal of Physiology, 145(2), 336-352. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1959.sp006145

Circulating leptin concentrations are markedly influenced by body mass index and adiposity, thus there is a direct relationship between amount and size of adipose tissue and leptin production. During maintenance of reduced bodyweight, levels of leptin decrease accompanied by a resulting downregulation of energy expenditure

Following an extended period of dieting, subjects sustaining a 10% reduction in bodyweight being treated with twice daily leptin injections saw increases in energy expenditure and a reversal of T3 and T4 reductions. Additionally, subjects were recorded to have decreased energy expenditure during physical activity with an average decline of 373 kcals/day following a 10% reduction in bodyweight. After administration of exogenous leptin, energy expenditure during physical activity increased by 339 kcals/day during maintenance of a 10% reduction in bodyweight. The increases in energy expenditure and thyroid hormone produced by leptin administration outline the outcome of increasing leptin levels.

Rosenbaum, M., Murphy, E. M., Heymsfield, S. B., Matthews, D. E., & Leibel, R. L. (2002). Low dose leptin administration reverses effects of sustained weight-reduction on energy expenditure and circulating concentrations of thyroid hormones. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 87(5), 2391-2391. doi:10.1210/jc.87.5.2391

Prolonged periods in a hypocaloric state during a bodybuilding contest preparation can result in lower levels of leptin that decrease energy expenditure and increase food seeking behavior. Circulating levels of leptin would not completely return to baseline solely with an increase in caloric intake during the diet as they are dependent on adiposity.

Mäestu, J., Jürimäe, J., Jürimäe, T., & Valter, I. (2008). Increases in ghrelin and decreases in leptin without altering adiponectin during extreme weight loss in male competitive bodybuilders. Metabolism, 57(2), 221-225. doi:10.1016/j.metabol.2007.09.004

Leptin plays a crucial role in regulating energy expenditure, appetite, and food seeking behavior. During times of low carbohydrate intake and reductions in adipocytes, circulating leptin levels decrease. The absence of leptin to act on the hypothalamus can trigger physiological and behavioral responses that favor a recidivism of fat. This can have an increasingly detrimental effect on diet adherence and energy expenditure. The effects of reduced circulating leptin can only be minimally influenced with short bouts of carbohydrate overfeeding.

Thyroid Hormone

During maintenance of reduced bodyweight, it has been documented that physical tasks require decreased amounts of energy in contrast to physical activity prior to weight loss. A portion of the reduction in energy demand can be attributed to changes in bodyweight that reduce caloric expenditure during physical activity. Changes in muscular efficiency can account for up to a 35% change in the energy expended during physical activity; when accounted for body mass loss, individuals who maintain a reduced bodyweight require less energy than pre-weight loss demands despite wearing external load to counteract the loss from initial weight.

Gross mechanical efficiency of skeletal muscle was significantly increased during maintenance of a 10% reduction below initial bodyweight during cycle ergometry of 10 and 25 watts of power, but not 50.  The increases in gross mechanical efficiency diminished upon increasing exercise intensity. In six of the seven subjects studied maintaining a reduction in bodyweight, the adenosine triphosphate cost of contractions in the gastrocnemius muscle during electrical stimulation was decreased.

The mechanism for fluctuations in skeletal muscle efficiency that are not contingent on changes in bodyweight are not yet well understood. However, the thyroid hormone axis seems to play a crucial role. Contraction velocity in skeletal muscle has been directly related to distinct isoforms of myosin heavy chains, a major subunit of myosin adenosinetriphosphatase. Both physiological stimuli and hormone activity, specifically thyroid hormones, can cause myosin heavy chain isoform switches.

M, C., V, C., M.A, P., M.C, Z., & C, R. (1998). Thyroid hormone regulation of MHC isoform composition and myofibrillar ATPase activity in rat skeletal muscles. Archives of Physiology and Biochemistry, 106(4), 308-315. doi:10.1076/apab.106.4.308.4373

Thyroid hormones can affect the relative proportion of fast to slow twitch muscle fiber types. During weight loss, triiodothyronine levels decrease in response to decreased energy intake. This deviation from homeostasis can alter the proportion of carbohydrate metabolism used relative to the amount of carbohydrate stored. Decreasing levels of triiodothyronine and a shift away from carbohydrate metabolism favors the more energy efficient and fat oxidative slow twitch muscle fibers.

Hypothyroidism in rats decreases glycolytic capacity and the expression of less efficient isoforms of myosin heavy chains. Lowered triiodothyronine levels because of decreased energy intake in humans could lead to a higher recruitment of fat oxidative slow twitch muscle fibers, thus accounting for the increased skeletal muscle efficiency during low intensity task. An increase in gross skeletal muscle efficiency can substantiate a lower energy expenditure than expected when bodyweight is accounted for. Prolonged dieting periods in bodybuilders that decrease triiodothyronine levels and increase efficiency during low levels of physical activity can decrease the energy cost of NEAT and contribute to a decreased energy expenditure.

It is pivotal to understand that much of the research using dietary logs and calorie intake recall have limitations due to errors during estimation and underreporting. Dietary underreporting has been seen in both obese and non-obese subjects with higher degrees of underreporting in subjects that have higher cognitive restraint. Bodybuilders undergo high levels of cognitive restraint during contest preparation. This data is especially relevant to any research involving energy intake, expenditure, and adaptive thermogenesis as it introduces a possible error with human subjects. Severe underreporting as defined by an overestimation of 20% or more of energy intake was seen in 37% of individuals in a sample size of 83 subjects. Additionally, limited research on adaptive thermogenesis has been conducted on performance athletes and bodybuilders; most research utilizes animal models or an obese population. It is difficult to infer whether the same degree of adaptation would happen in competitive resistance trained bodybuilders.

Implications for the Athlete

Bodybuilding contest preparation diets present a multitude of mental and physiological challenges to athletes that can negatively affect dietary adherence and sport performance. Several biological mechanisms are in place that favor body fat recidivism, these factors are not only relevant to bodybuilders but to a variety of athletes whom compete in weight class driven sports and to many individuals that struggle with obesity and fat loss. Among the constituents of total daily energy expenditure, decreases in NEAT can account for up to 90% of the unexpected drop in energy expenditure when body mass loss is accounted for. Leptin and thyroid hormone both act to decrease the caloric cost of physical activity when in an energy depleted state.

By researching further into reducing the hormonal impact of weight loss, dietary adherence in a variety of populations could be increased and the psychological and physical ramifications of rapid weight regain can be avoided.

Waging War on Metabolic Downregulation

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Day one of your dieting phase? OK, time to jump start your metabolism.

Gouge my eyes out and punch me in the throat if I ever have to hear that again. The myths, the misnomers, and the general misunderstanding of human metabolism have run rampant through social media since inception.

Drink this to boost metabolism? No thanks.

Eat more of this to vastly increase metabolic rate? Probably not.

Do this exercise to burn pure belly fat? That’s going to be a big no.

Eat 12 meals a day to keep the furnace burning? Stop the madness.

The dynamics of human metabolism are immensely complex and almost impossible to nail down exact figures on outside of a research laboratory setting. Day to day fluctuations in a number of variables that influence metabolism can be enough to give you a full blown aneurism. However, taking a snapshot of someone’s metabolism in a specific moment and then understanding particular variables that cause that figure to increase or decrease can be quite valuable as a coach and a physique based athlete. The figures that will be discussed in this article will be: Total Daily Energy Expenditure, Resting Metabolic Rate or Basal Metabolic Rate (what most people refer to as their “metabolism”), the Thermic Effect of Food, Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, and Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. We will also take a look at how these numbers can downregulate as we diet and discuss some strategies that we can utilize to keep our metabolism churning as the fat falls off.

Total Daily Energy Expenditure [TDEE]

As the name suggests, this figure is the summation of all of our other numbers added together and is a representation of how much energy (measured in kilocalories) you expend during a 24-hour window. To calculate this figure, you add up resting metabolic rate, the thermic effect of food, non-exercise activity thermogenesis [NEAT] and exercise activity thermogenesis [EAT]. Simple, easy, clean, and concise math right? Unfortunately, not so much. Arriving at exact numbers for each of these figures is, for all intents and purposes, impossible in the absence of massively expensive research equipment. Nonetheless, let’s see how we can best estimate these numbers and what factors cause them to increase or decrease in the scope of a fat loss diet.

Basal Metabolic Rate [BMR]

“I’m overweight because I have a slow metabolism”

We have all heard it and maybe even said it in naiver times, but when people refer to a “slow” or “fast” metabolism, BMR is the figure they are talking about. While they may not have a strong understanding of human physiology, most people would be right in saying that a “slow” metabolism can doom a fat loss phase. BMR accounts for 60-70% of your total daily energy expenditure so a downregulation in this number can most certainly be the death knell of your summer six pack dreams.

What is BMR? How does it change? How can I increase it? Why does it decrease? You’ve got questions, I’ve got answers.

Basal metabolic rate, by definition, is the amount of energy expended by the body at rest, per unit time (for this discussion we will use 24-hours as our unit time). An example of this might be, how many calories does my body utilize during a 24-hour bedridden Netflix binge? BMR is simply the amount energy required to maintain function of basic human processes like breathing, circulating blood, brain function, etc. There are quite a few formulas that will calculate this number for you but the two most commonly used would be the Harris-Benedict equation and the Katch-McArdle formula. The Harris-Benedict equation uses your height, weight, and age to estimate BMR while the Katch-Mcardle formula only uses a weight figure in the form of lean body mass (what you weigh with the exclusion of body fat).

Common denominator for both formulas? Weight.

While other hormonal factors may have downstream effects on BMR, aiming to manipulate those on a daily basis is missing the forest for the trees.

The single most effective way to increase your basal metabolic rate is to be larger or weigh more. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “I’m dieting and losing body fat, why on God’s green Earth would I want to weigh more?” Let me just say, I feel you on that one. A decrease in basal metabolic rate over the course of a diet is unavoidable as your weight/body size decrease (we won’t bother confusing ourselves even more by discussing how this number becomes even lower due to decreases in very metabolic organ tissues).

However, there is one way to fight the good fight and stick it to the metabolic downregulation man. You can increase or maintain as much lean body mass as possible over the course of a diet. Metabolic downregulation via losses in body fat are going to happen and are a foregone conclusion within the process. But, losing muscle mass along the way should be avoided at all costs. Luckily, I’ve got the recipe:

  • 2 cups of progressive overload in your resistance training
  • 4 tablespoons of ingesting a bare minimum of 0.8g/lb per day of high quality protein
  • A handful of making sure that beautiful head of yours is sound asleep on a pillow for 8 hours a night
  • And a sprinkle of managing daily stress as best as you can

Congratulations, you are now well on your way to fighting back against the dreaded “slow” metabolism.

Thermic Effect of Food

Have you ever sat down for Thanksgiving dinner or gone out to a Brazilian Steakhouse and noticed half way through the meal that you’ve got sweat beading down your forehead and pit stains like you just finished up a HIIT session on the Stairmaster? Well go ahead and forward all complaints to the thermic effect of food for that embarrassing moment.

The thermic effect of food is the amount of energy the body uses to digest, store, and use the food that you consume. The reason you were sweating like a pig in the previous example could be because you ate too much pig. Protein is the most thermic nutrient and it is estimated that you burn roughly 25% of the calories from protein just to break down, store, and utilize it. I can’t say I have ever come down with the Pop-Tart sweats but carbohydrates are the second most thermic nutrient. We burn roughly 10% of the total calories from carbohydrates in the digestion process. That 10% figure can increase for particularly fibrous form of carbohydrates like vegetables or whole grains and can decrease slightly for simpler forms of carbohydrates like candy or soda. Our least thermic macronutrient by far is fats or lipids. We burn a measly 2-3% of total calories from fat during digestion. So, if you’re looking to maximize the thermic effect of food in your diet, maybe throw a chicken breast in your coffee instead of butter.

While the thermic effect of food only accounts for roughly 10% of your total daily energy expenditure, it is still an important variable to look at and potentially optimize over the course of a fat loss phase. The first point that needs addressing is the decrease in thermic effect of food across the span of your diet. It is widely known that to avoid stagnation in fat loss, calories and macronutrients must be decreased on a semi-regular basis (Unless you’re my friend Taylor. Taylor once wrote about me in an article so I am returning the favor. Taylor also lost over 110 pounds without changing his calories once. We all want to be like Taylor). Thus, a decrease in thermic effect of food over the course of a diet is inevitable. You eat less food, your body uses less energy to digest that food. One strategy that may be prudent to implement, is maximizing this number from the get-go.

Maximizing the thermic effect of food of a diet means eating mostly our more thermic nutrients, proteins and carbohydrates, while incorporating just enough of our least thermic nutrient, dietary fat.  Those in competitive physique sports do this on a daily basis without thinking about it. The standard “bodybuilder diet” is high in protein, high or moderate in carbohydrate depending on the season, and lower in dietary fats. It would be in your best interest to keep this ratio that favors protein then carbohydrates then fat over the entire course of your diet in order to maximize caloric burn via thermic effect.

But BRO, shouldn’t I switch to a high fat/low protein/extremely low carbohydrate ketogenic diet for the last few weeks of my fat loss phase to get rid of stubborn fat? No, no you should not.

Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis [NEAT]

When looking at metabolic downregulation as a result of extended dieting, the biggest dip we see is in non-exercise activity thermogenesis. NEAT can be defined and quantified as the amount of energy you use going through activities of daily life. It is the caloric burn as a result of common everyday tasks like walking the dog, taking the stairs, cleaning the house, and the rigors of a physically demanding job. Practically speaking, those with more physically demanding jobs will have a much easier time losing weight than their sedentary counterparts due to have higher NEAT. If you were to observe twin brothers, one a farmer and one a sedentary bank teller, the farmer would lose weight far quicker because he would have a much higher NEAT, even if all other variables were held constant. NEAT can be as low as a couple hundred calories in smaller, sedentary individual and well over one thousand calories in a larger individual who has a physically demanding job. It has even been shown in animal models that when energy availability is low, spontaneous activity decreases. Yes, the slugs became sluggish. Yes, I made that up. No, the study was not done on slugs.

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis decreases for a variety of reasons during a dieting phase. Some of these reasons are quite simple, some a bit more complex, and some still unknown. First off, over the course of a diet, you will weigh less and the activities of daily life that you usually perform will become less metabolically demanding as a result. Second, you’re going to subconsciously move around less. This is an autonomic response from your brain in an attempt to conserve energy. Your body senses low energy availability, decreased caloric intake and diminishing body fat stores, and thus cues you to move around less. What was once an easy 10,000 steps per day, becomes 5,000 without even noticing. If you’ve ever dieted for a bodybuilding show or gotten to very low body fat levels you have almost certainly felt this phenomenon. Stand up from my chair? No thanks, I’m good right here. The final feast or famine mechanism that your body activates is a bit more complex so let’s put it in layman’s terms, the body becomes more efficient at moving around. We call this gross mechanical efficiency and in times of reduced body weight, it skyrockets. There are a lot of hormonal and mechanistic theories for why this happens but the important takeaway is, the work that once burned 100 calories may only burn 70 or 80 now.

So, where’s the external validity here? How do we maximize NEAT in our daily lives?

If you’ve hung around the fitness world long enough, I am sure you have heard the old adage “Eat less and move more.” You see that move more part? Can you figure out what they were talking about? If you said NEAT, 5 points for Gryffindor. The more you perform any movement, and I quite literally mean any movement, from tapping your toe to standing up and doing the twist and shout, the higher your NEAT will be. Optimizing NEAT during a diet phase comes from moving around as much as possible. Here are some strategies that I utilize during successful dieting phases for both myself and clients:

  • Institute a step count minimum. I like to start my clients off around 8,000-10,000 steps per day early on in the diet. If fat loss stagnates, we can easily increase that to 12,000-15,000 steps per day. Walking is a low intensity and low fatigue form of expending additional calories. It can also be a therapeutic and relaxing time where you can listen to music, be with your thoughts, or even invite a loved one with you and enjoy their company. I’ve seen step count minimums save both body compositions and relationships.
  • Incorporate physical breaks at work. The modern work environment lends itself to a very sedentary lifestyle. As I sit here writing this, I can feel my NEAT tanking. BRB hitting ten push-ups. Ok, I’m back with a sweet pump and I increased my NEAT. Not funny? Fine, but it’s still a great way to increase your NEAT if you find yourself sitting all day. Take a walk, do some push-ups, hit a plank, do the Jen Selter squat challenge, just move around every 30 minutes or so.
  • Park further away, take the stairs, ditch the drive through, etc. If you haven’t caught on by now, I am simply telling you to get up and move your tush. Am I making your life harder? Maybe. Am I making your abs and buns harder? Most certainly.

Exercise Activity Thermogenesis [EAT]

Exercise activity thermogenesis is what makes your athletes drop to their knees and scream “WHY COACH WHYYYYY?!?!” It is the caloric burn from exercise of the aerobic and anaerobic domain. When you summate the calories burned from your weight training session and your cardiorespiratory work, whether it be HIIT/LISS/MISS, you get exercise activity thermogenesis. Much like NEAT, EAT progressively decreases as you lose weight or fat during a diet. The two main reasons why it decreases align very similarly to those found in the section on NEAT: you weigh less and your body becomes more efficient at movement. Both of these factors lead to less calories burned per unit time aka your cardio that once burned 200 calories now only burns 175 because you are a leaner, meaner, more efficient human being. When you phrase it that way, it doesn’t sound all that bad. Wait, what? That means I have to do even more cardio? Hello darkness, my old friend.

The ways to combat a decrease in EAT are listed below:

  • …….
  • ……….

The brevity of the above list indicates that there are no ways to fight back on this one. Even in laboratory settings where subjects were strapped up with weight vests that brought them back to their pre-diet weight, they STILL burned less calories than before the diet. No one said this dieting stuff would be easy and the takeaway for coaches/athletes here is that there is no hack, trick, or easy way out on this one. When fat loss stalls we revert back to the tried but true calories in versus calories out principle. If we want fat loss to continue, we need to manipulate one side of that equation. In the case of EAT, we have to jack up the cardio and increase the calories out. I believe Grammy nominated artist Future said it best, “there ain’t no way around it”.

A Depressing Conclusion

Front and center soldier as I give you one final address. It is with heavy heart that I inform you, the war on metabolic downregulation is a losing battle. We did everything we could to optimize our metabolism using every mechanism of physiology known to man. But, it is an inevitable conclusion of any fat loss phase that weight will be lost, moving around will decrease, movement will become less metabolically demanding, macros will be slashed, and cardio will indeed be “hardio.” But we rise up. We stand tall. We fight the good fight against the ebbs and flows of human physiology and we emerge on the other side bloodied, battered, and aesthetic af. Now, we recovery diet.

Let the massing chronicles begin.

Repetitions in Reserve

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Repetitions in reserve [RIR], can be defined as how many repetitions from failure you feel you are after completing a set. This is a form of relative intensity which depicts the relationship between what you are capable of, versus what you actually did.

An example would be if you did 8 repetitions with a load that is a 10 rep max; you would say you were 2 repetitions from failure or had 2 repetitions in reserve (RIR). This can be a useful tool to prescribe, monitor, or express effort.

It’s important to remember that this can be a moving target. Due to fatigue accumulating from workout to workout what may be 3-4 reps in reserve one week might actually be closer to failure the next week. Or even within a workout you might expect something that felt like 3 RIR on your first set to feel harder and move closer to 0 RIR after repeated sets.

Why do we use RIR?

If used correctly RIR can be an appropriate guide to gauge effort and modulate fatigue as a programming variable. In the simplest terms, it gives us a way to walk the line between working hard enough to elicit an adaptation and working so hard that we prematurely arrive at a point where we can no longer overload our training in the subsequent week or weeks.

Intuitively, it makes sense that it’s probably a good idea to work within a certain proximity of failure to know we are giving good effort and likely receiving an effective stimulus to drive adaptation. For instance, if I only do 3 repetitions with a 12 rep max weight then that was a low effort set and likely not an effective stimulus for adaptation. Conversely, if we work too close to failure too often we may get so great of a stimulus that muscle damage and/or fatigue could impede our performance on later sets within a workout or negatively impact the quality of future workouts.

By staying just a few reps shy of failure we can ensure that we can accumulate a good volume of productive repetitions over multiple effective sets and likely preserve our capacity to have another good training session within the upcoming days for that muscle group. Within most commonly used rep ranges it’s generally accepted that most of our training would occur in the 1-4 RIR range. It’s also assumed that sets that are >5 RIR are likely not very effective for creating an adaptive stimulus and that sets approaching 0-1 RIR create a good stimulus but also generate a lot of fatigue.

Perceiving Your Effort

Most people can easily tell when they should terminate a set when they get a sense of overwhelming fear that they might get crushed by a weight that’s starting to feel a bit too heavy. Think of the voice in your head, as you set up for a heavy bench set, telling you “A spotter would be a good idea right now.”

However, when you ask people to actively think about training with relative intensity they tend to over analyze the concept of RIR and lose all common sense. Although RIR is a very real quantitative measure, our use of RIR is more of a subjective measure of HOW YOU FEEL. For this reason I think it’s best to prescribe a range. I like to use a chart like this:


A Brief Primer on Gauging RIR

3 RIR = (starts getting just a little hard) Our first MOST important landmark to get familiar with. Once you get a feel for 3RIR and 0RIR the rest becomes pretty simple. Generally, when you start pumping out your initial reps in a set each rep is clean, smooth, and relatively fast and consistent in speed. Eventually you may hit a rep that is a little slower and seemingly heavier than the reps before it. This is a good indicator that you likely only have a few reps left in the tank and you’re at or near 3RIR.

2 RIR = (harder but not worried about failing) You could imagine that if you had a spotter and he/she saw the repetition prior slow down he would start to get happy hands because this repetition is definitely a lot more noticeably slower than the one prior.

1 RIR = (oh shit) Although we may not have hit a sticking point in our lift things are getting really slow here. If form hasn’t broken yet, it’s coming soon. If you didn’t have a spot you’d be thinking to yourself… I need to rack this before I hurt myself.

0 RIR = (FUCK FUCK FUCK) Our second most important landmark, AKA “the grinder“. It’s clear that it’s going to take everything you have to finish the rep. This rep is painfully slow and concerning to watch. We honestly don’t even want to hit this on big compound movements where our health and safety would be at risk. However, this is something that can be used on the final week before a de-load with our less complex, isolation movements, machines, or things that are relatively less risky.

Technical breakdown = Even if you can get more reps out with bad form… we call breakdowns in technique 0RIR. Rack it immediately.

Progressing with RIR

Relationship between RIR and percentages:

If you take the time to look at a chart that displays repetition maxes for given percentage of 1RM you can start to pick out trends between different rep maxes. For instance in the NSCA Essentials of Strength and Conditioning book the difference between a 10RM, 9RM, or 8RM is just 2-3 % in load (75%, 77%, and 80% respectively). Although things don’t always work in real life as perfect as they do in theory, these numbers give us a way to reasonably estimate how much an increase in load should impact RIR.

For example if we know that a given load for a certain number of reps is 3 RIR but we want to hit 2RIR, then a 2-3% increase in load would likely land us there. If something feels to be 4 RIR and the target is 2 RIR, then a 4-6% increase in load should bring you to 2 RIR.

If your programming called for 3 RIR in week 1, 2 RIR in week 2, and 1 RIR in week 3, then the assumption is that from week to week an individual could increase load by 2-3%, granted that recovery and fatigue is well managed over that time.

Relationship between RIR and repeated sets:

Earlier we discussed the concept of accumulating fatigue over repeated sets. For instance if you do a set and it feels like it’s 3 RIR and we keep the number of reps the same with adequate and consistent rest breaks between sets, each subsequent set should increase in difficulty and move toward lower RIRs. Work capacity can vary between individuals and training status so it’s important to learn about how much your RIR can change between sets. If you know that under normal circumstances every set will bring you 1 rep closer to failure you can use this to your advantage to predict how many sets you can do with a load or have an idea whether or not you can expect to hit or surpass your prescribed work intensity for the day.

An illustration of this concept in practice may help drive home the point. Let’s say your training program says to hit a set of 10 for 3RIR and repeat for sets of 10 until 2 RIR. Then drop 10% and repeat sets to 2 RIR again.This is how that example may look:

Assuming that 300lbs for 10 reps is 3 RIR:

Set 1 300 lbs x 10 reps @ 3 RIR
Set 2 300 lbs x 10 reps @ 2 RIR
Drop 10% load
Set 3 270 lbs x 10 reps @ 4 RIR
Set 4 270 lbs x 10 reps @ 3 RIR
Set 5 270 lbs x 10 reps @ 2 RIR

Fatigue… A Moving Target

Remember how I said relative intensity is a moving target?

Well, the decisions we make within training as well as factors outside of training may impact ability to perform well in the gym. We program and de-load clients in an effort to preserve readiness and progressively accumulate fatigue as weeks move on. The goal is to prevent too much fatigue from hitting too early so that we can get the most out of an entire training block.

Taking sets to failure, beating yourself into the ground, overreaching/over-training, under recovering, life stress, lack of sleep, and a variety factors may cause you to accumulate fatigue faster than you should. This doesn’t mean you’re not getting stronger but fatigue can can often mask your ability to express your current level of fitness.

The Birth of a “Buzzword”

It’s not uncommon for the evidence based fitness community to latch on to words and phrases like IIFYM, DUP, Carb Backloading, etc. Relative intensity expressed as RIR may just be that next popular phrase you see in 98% of Instagram fitness post captions and for good reason. While it won’t necessarily make or break the program, it is an important concept to understand and apply within your own training as well as the training of your clientele. If at the very least, it gets people to consider a form of training outside of taking every set to and past failure on a daily basis, I’ll call that a win.