A base piece of my process for intaking a new client is to clearly define the overall goal of the client. Once the goal is established it helps to define the focus of programming regarding nutrition as well as approach to training. As a coach it allows me to set what clients should prioritize to put them in the best position to succeed.
At the most basic level, if the goal is fat loss you should prioritize nutrition. If the goal is muscle gain and increased strength you should prioritize training.
Let me elaborate on each goal and the reason behind the prescribed approach:
FAT LOSS = NUTRITION FOCUS
Simply put, when the goal is fat loss––nutrition takes priority, and your training supports it.
Fat loss should be all about efficiency. Meaning, you want to do the least amount of work possible (for you) while losing fat. This can be referred to as the “minimal effective dose,” and leaves room for future adjustments and successful weight loss (preserving muscle) over more aggressive methods.
This probably contradicts what you’ve read or heard elsewhere, but it’s true. While exercise has innumerable health benefits, and you certainly should be exercising, it’s rather inefficient for weight (and fat) loss.
So, if your goal is fat loss–your priority should be setting a calorie deficit because it’s far easier to cut a few hundred calories every day versus trying to burn an equal number of calories through exercise. Additionally, the “calorie burn” algorithms on smart devices (watches, etc.) and gym equipment are drastically inaccurate.
MUSCLE & STRENGTH GAINS = TRAINING FOCUS
Your training serves one purpose above all else: Maintaining or building muscle and strength.
A calorie deficit is inherently catabolic–your body begins to use stored energy because it’s not getting enough from the outside (calorie deficit). Strength training is inherently anabolic–it tells your body that you need your muscle tissue, preventing it from being broken down and used for energy.
So, the obvious benefit is you preserve muscle and strength which will help you look better as you lean down. But there’s another important benefit beyond just looking good: Your mindset and attitude toward exercise and training changes.
If the only reason you exercise is to “burn calories”, it’s unlikely you’ll enjoy it. It will always be this task you have to do so you can reach some calorie burn goal. And it’s not uncommon for people to take this mentality to an extreme where they start to do more and more exercise until it becomes unsustainable, or they burn out and quit.
Exercising should never be a means to make up for poor dietary habits.
Instead, when you view exercise as performance-based, you start to enjoy it because you can see tangible improvements from week to week. Rather than it being a means to an end (burning calories), it becomes the end in and of itself––you’re more interested in the process (e.g., improving your form or beating your previous record).
When you view exercise and training through this lens, it goes from being destructive to something that’s productive and results in you feeling healthier and stronger.
And when the goal is muscle gain, training takes priority and your nutrition supports it.
Strength training is the stimulus that tells your body to grow and get stronger––not food (alone). Additionally, your body can only build so much muscle at once and eating more than you need to will only result in excess fat gain. Thus, you should train hard and smart (listen to your body) while eating just enough to grow. While it varies from person to person, you basically only need to be in a small caloric surplus to build muscle. This approach helps with limiting excess fat gain during the process.
The other reason training takes priority during muscle building is related to motivation. Once you’re past the beginner stages, building muscle is sllllloooowwwwww… process. Unlike fat loss where you can see changes pretty much weekly, it may take months to see any appreciable gains in muscle. And for the advanced trainee it may even take years. Focusing on making improvements in your training is a good way to stay motivated during the long haul of increasing lean mass.
There are of course hybrid approaches to consider if the goal is body recomposition, or based on the specific individual, but overall these general guidelines are appropriate for most based on their overall goal.