Desk bound…..No place for an athlete.

The situations you face contradict your goals and make progress an elusive moving target. The extent of the damage will depend on the job but the common theme is that, generally, desk jobs and the 9-5 life make good nutrition and consistent training hard(er).

Usually your colleagues can’t relate to your self-imposed constraints and ‘pointless’ discipline. You care more about the macros of a donut than the donut itself and you induce barbell-inflicted pain on a daily basis that would bring most to the point of tears and vomit.

For a painless existence we need a toolbox of tricks to overcome the day to day roadblocks to progress, solutions that will allow us to simply glide over issues that could previously have been limiting, solutions that allow us to behave ‘normally’ in the real world.

There are always shades of grey.


Most plans are optimal (at least they try to be), revolving around nutrient timing, restrictive food choices and 2x per day training sessions. To stay on track, you need slack in your system, flex under load – no more keto, carb backloading, paleo or other restrictive nutrition regimes and no more high frequency, high volume, Bulgarian, squat errr damn day training programs.

These give limits and create black or white thinking – you’re “on” or “off”, succeeding or failing.

 To be successful in real life, grey is what we want to be, remove absolutes and accept a sliding scale of optimality vs reality. This doesn’t mean we sacrifice progress, more that we incorporate variance and room for error in our planning.

Brutally simple nutrition guide

Diet really doesn’t need to be complicated – we need to ensure we do enough to compliment whatever we choose to pursue and then do so on a consistent basis

What matters is that you nail the basics day in day out, it’s not glamorous, just a requirement. In a practical sense, what does this mean? 

Don’t limit food choices, stress over meal timing or peri-workout drinks. Set calories in line with your goal and make sure you hit your protein requirement. 

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The 3 steps:

1) set your calories in line with your goal (surplus/deficit)

You can get some calorie targets here

2) set protein between 2-3g/kg

3) get enough micronutrients, fibre and water

Here’s a breakdown of how to set things up
Assume a 200lb male seeking fat loss

Rough maintenance (assuming desk job, 3-5 training sessions): 200 x 15 = 3,000kcal, use bw x 14 for women

Calorie target: 3,000kcal – 400kcal = 2,600kcal

Protein target: 2.5g/kg, use 1.8g/kg for women = 225g

So, shoot for 225g protein across the day and then fill your calories with whatever is available/what you like, an acceptable range could be +/-150kcal each day (a 2,450-2,750kcal target), you can even include alcohol in here – just replace carbs and fat.

This would be your starting point and you could adjust your overall calorie target depending on how slow/fast you lose weight. Weigh yourself every day if possible, failing this try for at least 3-4 days per week under the same conditions and observe trends over time.

Many stress over meal frequency and while fasting etc are great tools, 3-5 meals evenly spaced seems to reduce food focus in most people. Include breakfast if you’re hungry at that time or delay until lunch if breakfast doesn’t appeal.

Try for 2-3 servings of greens, a piece or two of  fruit and get a multi-vitamin plus pop a few fish oil. Bases covered.

Get an app on your phone and track what you eat. MyFitnessPal is usually the best. This way, even if you’re faced with a limited canteen selection, you can still account for what you eat and adapt as needed.

That’s it, simple. Focus your efforts on the above, track weight and macros each day, rinse and repeat. 

Brutally simple training guide:

You need something that lets you know “here is the MINIMUM you can do today while staying on track”. But you also need something that allows you to crank the intensity when you have one of those sessions where the barbell seems to float.

5/3/1 is the simplest expression of this. Wendler has provided us with a scale from 3 sets of 5 all the way to 10 sets of ball busting jokers and back down sets. You set the volume and adjust on the fly – this couldn’t fit our needs better.

Of course, 5/3/1 isn’t the only option here, there are other plans that incorporate flexibility – RPE based programs are a prime example. The reason 5/3/1 comes up trumps is this:

1) The progression plan is simple yet incorporates the basic tenets of effective periodisation – you could easily follow it for a year with no assembly required.

2) On a day where you have 30 minutes to train, you can simmer each session down to a sediment of warm up sets and a rep-out. Get in, bust your ass, hit a PR and leave. Under other plans, you may have floundered around, deciding how to spend your time.

3) The training max: this acknowledges that you’re rarely at 100% capacity, especially after a long day. Basing training loads off 90% means you can still get the minimum done on a shitty day

4) It takes care of strength, hypertrophy and conditioning. If you’re confused on how to train – do 5/3/1 on the 4 main lifts and choose Boring But Big or the Triumvurate assistance splits from the book. Push the prowler or barbell complex 1-3x per week and do mobility daily. Done.

Simple solutions to the #PropaneProblems that ALWAYS come up:

1) Eating at work

Propane Problems:
The canteen is serving everyone’s daily injection of high fructose corn syrup and trans fat…… with rice, and you’re desperately searching for something that resembles a reasonable portion of protein.

Propane Solution:
Becoming Tupperware Tom is never cool but lunches at work are difficult to overcome.
– Protein bars (Quest bars are an amazing option, careful to not develop an addition – I’m writing this from Rehab)
– Protein shakes (casein/whey – anything works here)
– Pack your own lunch (not needed but can be a good way to remove the stress of crappy canteen options)
– Create a buffer by eating meals with compensatory macros on either side of your canteen lunch. If they’re serving cheese and spinach pie for lunch, just make sure to have a lower-fat breakfast or dinner to help stay within your calorie target.

2a) Eating out

Propane Problems:
Social pressures to eat and overindulge

Propane’s Solution:
fast leading up to the meal to create a calorie sink, if the foods are gunna be crappy, chug a protein shake beforehand. If you’re out for a big lunch, consider just fasting for the rest of the day if you’ve hit your calories – it won’t kill you.

2b) Alcohol:

Propane Problems: there’s always pressure to drink

Propane’s Solution: hit your protein but allow some calories for some drinks, assuming this is 1-2x per week and you’re not drinking to the point of vomit and regret, drunkenly devouring 1000kcal of pizza each time, you’ll progress just fine.

3) Late nights and long hours
Propane Problems: 5pm has been and gone, 7pm is a distant memory and the papers on your desk seem to be accumulating, not decreasing. You’re not squatting tonight. The nature of most jobs is that, while you may have a planned finishing time, 5pm is generally subject to change and if work ups its demands, you may be in for a late one.

Propane’s Solution: embrace morning training, your mornings will always be your own, no one can touch them. Most people shy away from AM training because it’s pretty fucking unpleasant. Here’s a quick guide to getting started. I advise allowing a month of training where you don’t expect a lot from yourself in the gym, hit the reps and leave.


4) Travelling 

5/3/1 wins again: to keep training on track you need to find somewhere with a barbell and a rack. No special equipment required. Again, 5/3/1 isn’t the only program that works. The caveat here is that simplicity usually prevails.

Assuming you travel for a week of work (Mon-Fri), increase the session frequency of the week before by 1.5x.

Week 1: train 6 times

Week away: weekend only

Week after: return to normal


Week 1: 6 sessions

Week away: no training

Week after: 6 sessions

This means you can just forget about having to find a gym etc, just get the training in the week before and after.

5) Sitting + bad posture

Simple: sitting tightens your hips which can cause/exaggerate lower back pain, you get anterior translation of the shoulder, thoracic rounding, tight hamstrings, weak glutes….etc.etc. While this may seem like a minor issue in the grand scheme of things, 8 hours in a shitty position = 40 hours per week, 160 hours per month, 1920 hours per year. PROBABLY not the best recipe for squat PRs

Make mobility work part of your routine, here’s a quick and dirty desk rescue to undo the chair’s evil doing:

20 minute desk rescue:

1) Couch stretch/hip flexor stretch: 2 minutes per side = 4 mins

2) T-spine foam rolling: 2 minutes = 2 mins

3) Pec minor/anterior delt lacrosse ball: 2 mins per side = 4 mins

4) Banded chest stretch 2/side = 4 mins

4) Hamstring stretch: 2/side = 4 mins

You have 72 blocks of 20 minutes in your day. If you care about progress, you can devote one of these to ensuring the chair doesn’t win the war on mobility. 

Remember, less than 5% of the population are professional athletes – chances are, you’re not one of them. Most of us are in far from ideal
environments for our goals and for many, work and commitments are the go-to excuse for poor progress and regression.


Our take home message is that an optimal plan is the one the allows even the smallest amounts of progress while fitting into your schedule, it’s a mission of remaining brutally consistent with the basics even when life chews you up and spits you back out. 

Just because you’re chained to a chair doesn’t mean your progress has to be too.

The Next Step

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8 responses to “How to plan diet and training around a desk job

  1. Please stop this tupperware hate, just because we are all flexible dieters…
    tupperware at work is good solution to eat good food.

  2. I really like the shift you guys have made from obsessing over the minutiae (CBL, keto, IF, etc.) to embracing the basics. Just curious what made the biggest impact on this switch? Was it working with Eric Helms? What made you decide to work with him? Were you skeptical starting out?


    P.S. Am I the only who cannot access your forums? I have tried multiple browsers.

    1. Cheers Zach – the biggest impact was being coached by Eric Helms in our opinion, the information those guys produce helped restore our priorities. Definitely skeptical starting out. Some have had issues with forum access, we’ve had to block a few IPs from spammers unfortunately. You can use a proxy for the time being, apologies.

      1. Great post as usual – I must have found this late as all comments are from 2014!
        Better late than never eh?!
        Eric does give great info – can learn a lot!
        Do you find the training is more geared towards competitors?
        I was looking at it but did not know if I could afford it (no rates shown) or if it was suitable as most were on road to comps.
        Keeping things simple is the best piece of advice for newbies!
        Thanks for the resource guys!

        1. Yep totally agreed on keeping things simple. Same principles apply for competitors and non-competitors but obviously flexibility is greater with non competitors

  3. I needed this so bad. Started a desk job a few months back and all the sitting down is driving me mad, as well as throwing my usual eating and training routine completely out of whack. I’ve found doing a set of air squats every hour or so in the bathroom goes a small way towards keeping my posterior chain from withering. I hope!

    1. Glad to hear it Kate – let us know if you need any help setting up a routine and we can jump on the phone to discuss goals – just send your skype/number via the contact form above. Hope the new job is fun.

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