A friend and client asked me the following question recently: “What happens when you hit a point where you're mostly happy with your body? How do you craft routines for maintenance?”
This is an excellent question. One thing that’s frequently misunderstood is that there should be a difference between the two.
Many people aim to complete a set goal and then quit entirely - of course, this doesn’t work, because you return right back to the bad habits that held you back from your goals in the first place. If you've ever done a "30 day challenge" and then dropped off, you know what I'm talking about.
At the same time, other people set very difficult goals and then struggle to maintain the same level of effort and attention to diet after they start seeing progress (they’ve not superhumans, after all) - so they get frustrated, lose interest, and fall off.
The compromise is the realization that maintenance and goal achievement are two separate and completely different types of training.
Building muscle or strength, or losing a significant amount of weight, are all difficult processes. You have to put in a lot of effort, pay attention to your diet, and structure your entire life around this goal if you're going to get serious results.
But what many people don’t realize is that you shouldn’t be doing this forever. Bodybuilders go through intense training and diet cycles to prepare for a competition, then relax their efforts when the competition passes. Powerlifters go through high intensity peaking phases to maximize their strength for a competition, and then go back to easier and less taxing programs the rest of the year to pave the way for the success of those peaking cycles. You lose weight on lower calories, but you can’t keep your calories rock bottom forever - you have to return to maintenance sooner or later.
These intense diet and training cycles aren’t supposed to be followed forever. Competitors and serious athletes know that they’re not just machines that can be “always on”. They push themselves hard for a little while, achieve their goals, rest and maintain, and then come back later and hit themselves again harder. You simply can’t hit yourself hard all the time - that’s a recipe for failure.
At the same time, it’s a bad idea to simply “let go” at the end of a serious training cycle. After a few weeks or months of non-training, you quickly lose a lot of the qualities you’ve built up. Your strength suffers, your muscle starts to break down, and you’re probably regaining weight unless your diet is still carefully managed.
So what do you do?
If you’re a person who’s simply looking to maintain your current level of strength and size, and you don’t have any competitive goals, you go into a maintenance mode.
What we’ve consistently seen is that it takes much less effort to maintain existing qualities than to build them up to a greater level. That means that it’s easier to keep the weight off than to lose it, easier to maintain strength than to build it, and easier to maintain muscle than to build it.
The general recommendation is that it can take as little as ½ to ⅓ of the original volume of training to maintain the build qualities. For example, Bret Contreras ran a personal experiment where he cut down to a single half hour workout every 5 days, without seeing any loss of muscle or strength.
That means that if you’re used to training 4-6 days per week, 1-3 days/week of training is probably sufficient to hold onto your sweet results. You could also cut out your number of exercises or your number of sets per exercise (provided it’s divided up evenly) and still hit the gym 6x/week but only spend ½ to ⅓ of the time in the gym each time.
For most of us, this seems like very little - of course, most of us are dedicated to a serious program of improving our strength and size.
But maintenance phases (and permanent maintenance for those without serious athletic goals) are attractive due to the small amount of time needed. If you're a serious lifter but hit a busy time in your life, maintenance is ideal. If you're not a serious lifter but are otherwise busy with the rest of your life, consider using a maintenance style routine to minimize your gym time.
You might see a small amount of drop off initially and some further drop off over time, but in general, you’ll be able to hold on to most of your results with a much smaller relative amount of work.
What would a serious maintenance plan look like? For example:
2 Days/Week Training
Day 1 - Upper
Bench Press, Row, and 1-3 accessory exercises for arms and shoulders.
Day 2 - Lower
Squat, Deadlift, and 1-2 accessory exercises for legs.
Day 3 - (optional)
Other exercises, cardio, core, machine work, etc.
This kind of plan certainly won’t get you super jacked or strong, but it will do an amazing job of staving off the decline of your hard work. Surprise - this plan is relatively similar to a lot of the recommendations for a very generalized exercise program.
Maintenance isn’t for everyone - but it’s a sustainable long term strategy for those with very general health and wellness goals, or for those who want to temporarily back off from their training without risking losing their hard work.
- It only takes about 1/2 to 1/3 as much training to maintain the muscle and strength you build, while it takes much more to build it.
- Use this to make strategic "maintenance" phases in your training so that you can cut down on your training time in the gym when your life gets busy, or if you don't have serious athletic goals.
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Are you interested in perfecting your deadlift and building legendary strength and muscle? Check out my free ebook, Deadlift Every Day.
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