By Ryan Andrews & Brian St. Pierre :: Precision Nutrition
Six-pack abs. Tight butts. Lean, vibrant, flawless health. That’s the image the fitness industry is selling. But have you ever wondered what it costs to achieve that “look”? What you have to do more of? And what you really have to give up?
Make no mistake, there are real trade-offs as you attempt to lose fat and improve your health. Let’s talk about what they are. So you can consider how to get the body you really want while living the life you really enjoy.
A tale of two clients
Not long ago, one of our successful clients — we’ll call him Bill — came to us with a question. Now that he’d lost thirty pounds (going from 22% body fat to 15%), he could run up stairs and haul heavy bags of garden soil without getting winded. He could genuinely enjoy weekend bike rides with friends. He could wear clothes he used to be able to fit into but had long given up as hopeless. But what next?
“Don’t get me wrong,” Bill said. “I’m happy with the way I look and feel.” It’s just that he also wanted six-pack abs. “Oh, I don’t have to look like a cover model,” he mused. “It’s just that I’m really close to looking… awesome.” Bill figured that with just a little extra work, and a little more time, the abs would start popping and his physique would be “finished”. Meanwhile, another client, Anika, had the opposite concern. She just wanted to lose a little weight, and get a little more fit. But she worried that in order to do so, she’d have to give up everything, become a “health nut”, and make massive changes. Changes that probably included 6 AM bootcamps, kale shakes, lemon juice cleanses, and 1000 situps a day… forever. “No way,” thought Anika. “That’s too much work.”
Two common misperceptions
Our two client stories reflect two common misperceptions:
With just a few small, easy, hopefully imperceptible changes to one’s diet and exercise routine, you too can have shredded abs, big biceps, and tight glutes, just like a magazine cover model.
“Getting into shape” or “losing weight” involves painful, intolerable sacrifice, restriction, and deprivation.
Of course, neither of these are true.
The process that helps you lose “the first 10 pounds” isn’t the same one that’ll help you lose “the last 10 pounds”. Indeed, it usually takes a lot more work as you get leaner.
If you do aspire to “fitness model” or “elite athlete” lean, you might be surprised. Images are photoshopped for effect. Bodybuilders only look like that for competition. And achieving that look comes at a high cost; one most people aren’t willing to pay.
However, if you’re okay not being on the next magazine cover and aspire to be “lean and healthy” even small adjustments can — over time — add up to noticeable improvements. Sometimes these improvements can change, perhaps even save, lives.
Do more of this (and less of that)
With that said, we’re about to share something a lot of people in fitness and health don’t want you to see. It’s a chart outlining what it really takes to lose body fat, improve your health, move from one fitness category to the next. Some fitness people think you’re too afraid. Or too weak. Or that you won’t buy their products and services if they’re honest with you. We think otherwise. We think it’s necessary to weigh the pros and cons so that you can make informed decisions about your body and your life.
Your body, your choice
At some point, many of our coaching clients decide that being severely out of shape costs them too much energy, health, quality of life, and longevity. So they choose to change their behaviors and choices. With our help. Other coaching clients decide that they want six-pack abs. Then, they discover that this option costs them something too. Some folks are willing to pay that cost. But most aren’t. Even if you think you’d like that six-pack, it might turn out that you actually want something else a little bit more. And we wouldn’t blame you.
Here are the two basic principles:
1. If you want to make further changes to your body, you’ll need to make further changes to your behaviors.
2. The leaner you want to get, the more of your behaviors you’ll have to change.
What you decide to change, and how much you decide to change it, is up to you. What’s most important here is that you understand what it actually takes to do what you want (or think you want).
What’s a healthy level of body fat, anyway?
First, for the sake of context, let’s take a look at some numbers. Data tell us that most men can be healthy somewhere between 11 to 22% body fat. For women, its between 22-33%. Right now in the U.S., the average man is about 28% fat, and the average woman is 40% fat. In other words, the average adult in the U.S. (and throughout most of the West) is carrying a lot of excess body fat. Unhealthy levels of body fat.
Getting the process started
The good news is that it’s not that hard to go from over-fat to the higher end of “normal”. You can do it with a few relatively small, easy-to-implement changes. For instance:
- drinking less soda or alcohol each day
- not overeating desserts and fast foods (instead, just eating them in reasonable amounts)
- taking a daily walk or adding a yoga class
Assuming there are no other factors involved (such as a chronic health problem), if you make a few small changes like these, and do them consistently, in six months to a year, your body fat percentage will drop and fall into a much healthier range. Cool! Now of course, not every change will feel simple, small, or easy. Especially when you start out. You’ll need to put a little extra effort and energy into making those changes happen every day. And having a trainer or a coach support you — and hold you accountable — will probably help you feel more confident and on-track. Nevertheless, if the changes are small enough, and you practice them consistently, you’ll probably find that eventually they’re just part of your regular routine. In fact, one day in the future, you might even say, “I just don’t feel like myself without my daily walk!”
“Overweight” to “no-longer-overweight” to “lean”
Suppose you’ve made a few changes like this. Maybe you pack an apple in your lunch instead of apple juice. Or you include a salad with dinner, or you stick to one or two drinks with friends. And you’re feeling good! Your knees have stopped hurting, plus your pants now button comfortably. Now you’re somewhere in the zone of “a little extra padding, but not too bad”. You’re more mobile, healthier, and high-fiving yourself. What’s the next step? Well, if you’re a man who wants to reduce body fat from 20% to 14% (or 14% to 8%), or a woman who wants to go from 30% to 24% (or 24% to 18%), you’ll need to make some bigger changes. You’ll need to invest more time, energy, and effort. You’ll need to plan more. And you’ll also have to make some trade-offs.
From “lean” to “leaner”
If you’re a man and you want to go from 20% to 14% body fat, or you’re a woman and you want to go from 30% body fat to 24%, it’s all a question of doing more…and less.
You’ll probably need to do more stuff, such as:
- get more exercise and daily-life movement, and perhaps make that exercise more intense
- eating more vegetables and lean protein
- choosing more whole foods
- doing more meal planning
- getting serious about rest and recovery
- learning your physical hunger and fullness cues
You’ll probably need to do less stuff, such as:
- drinking less alcohol and other high-calorie beverages
- eating less processed foods
- not eating when you’re not physically hungry
And you’ll need to make these small changes consistently, over a period of time. Many folks will decide that these changes are worth making. They want to look and feel better, get a good night’s sleep, get off medications, and so forth. So they’re ready to compromise. Other folks will decide that they’re not yet ready to make more adjustments. And that’s fine too. The most important thing is that you realize: In order to change…you have to change.
What it takes to get “super-lean”
At next stage — going from athletically lean to bodybuilder lean — the tradeoffs get even more serious. Here’s something that you may not realize: Elite bodybuilders getting ready for a contest and models getting ready for a shoot are basically in a slow starvation process. Adhering to an extremely strict and precise regimen of eating and training (and perhaps adding some drugs into the mix) is the only way way they can drop their body fat to extremely low levels. Males can get to body fat levels under 6% with this process, and females can get to under 16%. But this process is not for the faint of heart. It goes against biological cues. It requires exercising when exhausted. It demands ignoring their desire for food in the face of powerful hunger cues. It involves intense focus and dedication. And it often distracts from other areas of life that these athletes might enjoy and value.
Imagine all the practical things that are involved in very strict dieting and training.
- You have to make your own food and measure every meal down to the last gram.
- That food is generally very plain — lean protein, steamed vegetables, plain potatoes or rice, etc.
- You have to carry that food with you so you can eat at a precise time.
- You cannot eat in restaurants.
- You have to do a specific workout on a given day, exactly as specified.
- No sick days, no slacking.
- You’ll probably be training 2 or 3 times per day.
- You have to sleep and recover precisely.
- No parties or staying up late.
- You can’t think straight because you’re always hungry and tired.
- Your whole life revolves around making food, dieting, training, and recovery protocols.
- Did we mention you’re slowly starving?
So forget having a sex life, social life, parenthood, school, and probably a regular job.
Is that level of leanness worth it?
Having a six-pack doesn’t automatically make you healthy. In fact, getting toolean can be actively unhealthy. You might end up with amenorrhea, low libido, disordered eating, bones, like Swiss cheese, social isolation, and a host of other problems. Some elite bodybuilders rely on drugs like stimulants, diuretics, and other drugs just to keep themselves going. Many folks even rely on cosmetic surgery. Which creates its own health risks… and certainly doesn’t add health on its own. In short, being really lean has almost nothing to do with being really healthy. Indeed, being too focused on getting lean may lead you away from good health.
Meanwhile, on the subject of six-packs, it might surprise you to learn that even among the super lean, not all abs are created equal. That’s right. Strip away all the excess fat, and some people will never reveal a magazine cover set of abs. Why? Because — quite apart from that airbrushing we referred to earlier — we’re all built differently. Some folks have staggered abdominals. Some have angled abdominals. Some people might really only have four abdominals that are visible no matter how lean they get. Don’t believe us? Go to any amateur physique competition for a first-hand view. Who knows? The experience might prove enlightening. It might even contribute to greater body acceptance and self-compassion. Because what you’re sure to notice is that in real life, nobody’s “perfect”. Not even elite bodybuilders and fitness competitors.
Getting clear, getting real
Clarity is essential in change. If you think you may want to change how much body fat you have, start by getting a clear idea of where you’re at.
- Figure out your goals and priorities. If you don’t know what your priorities are, now’s a great time to explore that.
- Decide what you’re willing to do right now in order to serve those goals and priorities. Why?
- Decide how often, and how consistently, and how precisely, you’re willing to do those things.
- Decide what you’re not willing to do right now. Why not?
- In the above steps, be brutally honest and realistic yet compassionate with yourself.
Now you have your action plan. And you know where you are on the cost-benefit continuum. In the table above, we’ve provided rough estimates for what it might take to achieve specific levels of leanness or muscularity — or even simple health improvements, like getting off medications. This is just a general guide. It’s a start. Something to get you thinking. You may need more tailored guidance or coaching. Age, gender, genetics, medical conditions, and pharmaceuticals can all affect what you’ll need to do to get and stay lean.
If tracking your body fat is important to you, make sure you have a valid way to do it, such as a skinfold caliper measurement by a trained professional. If you don’t care, and use other indicators like your belt notches, that’s cool.
What to do next
1. Take the long view
Whatever change you want to make, remember: It will take time. Eating one big, rich meal won’t make you wake up overweight. Fasting for 24 hours won’t give you six-pack abs. A simple plan followed consistently is better than a complex plan followed intermittently.
2. Review what’s involved
To reduce your body fat from unhealthy to healthy levels. You only need to make a few changes, and follow them about 80% of the time. To go from normal to reasonably lean. You need a few more changes, and a bit more consistency. Now you might need to eat protein and veggies at every meal, and get 7+ hours of sleep 85% of the time. To go from lean to very lean. You’ll have to put in more time and more effort. Plus, you’ll need to follow your plan even more consistently — with almost obsessive accuracy. This means adding a few more habits, such as monitoring fat and carbohydrate intake, and exercising at least 5 hours per week 95% of the time. For instance, if you eat 4 meals per day, in any given month you’ll need to ensure that 114 of your 120 precisely calibrated meals are perfectly executed, in order to achieve your desired level of leanness.
That’s a serious commitment right there.
3. Get clarity on what YOU want
Review the “getting clear, getting real” list. What matters to YOU? What are YOU willing to do… or not? Why? There’s no right answer. What’s most important is that you understand what it takes to get a certain outcome. And now YOU have the power to choose. Healthy, athletically lean, or super lean: It all depends on your priorities and goals. Now you can make the decisions and get the body you really need, while still living the life you want.