How to get lean – the truth of what it takes to get to very low bodyfat levels.
Getting lean is simple. Much simpler than most people make out.
Much like building muscle; it’s a simple matter of energy balance. People in the fitness and weight loss industry want to make it complicated, so they can sell you things.
Of course there are nuances, but how to get lean is basically just manipulation of energy balance. Get the balance right, and you will lose weight. Get it wrong and you won’t.
If you’re making it more complicated than that, you need to go back to basics and look at what is important, and what is just noise.
In this post I’ll lay out exactly what you need to do, what you don’t need to worry about, and you’ll leave knowing how to get lean in the simplest A to B route possible.
How to get lean: goals and expectations
The first place to look for how to get lean is to setting meaningful goals, and appropriate expectations.
Once you know your end point, you can look at a time frame, and then set correct expectations for how long it will take to lose weight; which I’ve documented in this post.
You will also be able to use some simple technology that will break your goal down into weekly chunks, so you can easily see if you’re on track, ahead of, or behind schedule. I’ll document how to use My Fitness Pal for tracking your weight loss further down the post.
Should I get lean or build muscle first?
While the two are not mutually exclusive, you only want to have one as a primary goal at any one time.
I would always suggest to get lean first; before trying to build muscle. It makes it a lot easier to build muscle when you’re already lean.
Your testosterone will be higher, you’ll be more insulin sensitive, fitter, relatively stronger (compared to bodyweight); overall just in a better position to add muscle.
Whereas if you’re carrying excess fat; eating in a calorie surplus, which is required to gain muscle, will lead to getting even fatter.
Get your bodyfat under 12% before worrying about building muscle. If you’re naturally very skinny, and already under 12% bodyfat, then focus on building muscle first.
So… how to get lean?
How to get lean: Nutrition
Nutrition is the most important variable for how to get lean. Training and lifestyle factors have an effect, but nutrition is the key.
You can get lean by changing diet alone, while the old “you can’t out train a bad diet”, is pretty much true.
The basics of how to get lean
In the simplest possible view, you need to know one thing:
To get lean, you need to be in a caloric deficit
That means consuming less calories than you are expending.
There are other factors involved, like maintaining muscle mass and ensuring you’re only losing fat – but they’re secondary to calorie balance.
If you’re not getting leaner, it’s simply because you’re eating too many calories.
Occam’s Razor implies that you might be in the 0.001% of the population who has a thyroid problem or something else that is stopping you losing weight, but more than likely you’re just eating too many calories.
Creating a caloric deficit
The easy way to ensure you are in a calorie deficit is to track everything you consume using My Fitness Pal.
Step 2 – Plug your data into the goals section on My Fitness Pal
It gives you the number of calories you need to hit every day:
Step 3 – Use the app to track your calories on a daily basis. It will count down for you how many you have left to hit your goal.
Using My Fitness Pal makes weight loss incredibly simple. It isn’t necessarily easy – you still have to do it… be hungry, tired, etc. at times – but it is certainly simple.
You have all the information you need right in front of you, and that gives you total control of your success.
The most important habit to adopt when trying to lose weight is tracking your food. If you do this one thing, you will succeed.
Calories determine whether you lose weight or not, but other things need to be considered to address what kind of weight you are losing.
You might have heard of the ‘If it fits your macros’ (IIFYM) diet.
This involves tracking your macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate, fat) intake; and within the parameters of your macro goal, you can eat as you please.
If you want all your carbohydrate and fat calories to come from ice cream, that is allowed, as long as you stay within your macros.
The reason the diet works is because you’re eating the right number of calories; and the right macronutrients.
While the IIFYM diet will work for weight loss, you should also look at food quality and nutrient density for health and sustainability. I say this to illustrate that for weight loss the calories are what matter – even if you’re on the ice cream diet.
For setting up your own nutrition plan to get lean, you can break up your macronutrients in various different ways; with the one constant being to keep protein high.
The rest of your calories are made up from carbohydrates and fats, and can be arranged as you please on an individual basis; depending on your preference, what is easier to follow, etc.
You can use My Fitness Pal to work out your macro’s for you. It will track how many grams or calories you have left for each macronutrient:
Why protein is so important
Protein is so important because you need sufficient levels of protein to maintain your lean mass.
The goal is to get lean, not skinny.
You need to hold onto your muscle mass. Otherwise just eating very low calories will be the most effective diet.
In reality, unless you’re very overweight, a very low calorie diet is not going to leave you looking good at the end, because you lose too much muscle mass.
Instead, you need a gentle deficit, to lose weight slowly, and to maintain as much muscle mass as possible by eating adequate protein, and training hard.
This leads to the physique you want… lean and muscular. Nobody wants to look like a rake.
Fats vs Carbs
There is no ‘right’ diet.
Low fat is not better than low carb, and vice versa.
They’re both effective for certain people, some of the time… and they both have their ideologues who will argue tooth and nail about the prominence of their
Keto diets are very popular at the minute, and they are exactly the type of fad and dogma you want to avoid; while not being inherently ‘bad’ or ineffective.
Here is a simple heuristic:
If you’re very fat, eat lower carb. If you’re lean and want to get ripped, eat lower fat.
I suggest this because people who are very fat need to be mostly concerned with increasing insulin sensitivity, and losing weight as quickly as possible.
People who are leanish (under 16% body fat) and want to get ripped need to be mostly concerned with maintaining muscle mass.
Further, there is a degree of personal taste involved. Assuming this is not your job (actor, bodybuilder, fighter), and your life doesn’t depend on it, so for the sake of negligible differences, you might as well do what you enjoy, feels good, and is easy to follow.
- Know your body, what makes you feel good and gives you lots of energy?
- What are your tastes? What leaves you feeling full?
- What is easier to do?
I suggest starting with one of the following macro splits:
- 40% protein, 40% carbs, 20% fat
- 40% protein, 20% carbs, 40% fat
These are good starting points, and you can adjust as needed as your diet progresses.
Your nutrition plan is a dynamic animal. It will evolve as your body changes. Wherever you start is only a starting point, and it does not have to remain the same for ever.
What foods should I eat?
The specific foods you eat doesn’t directly impact your weight loss efforts, beyond their caloric content; but that doesn’t mean the ice cream diet is the one for you.
You should consider your health, energy levels, and what is easy to follow.
Often when dieting the thing people don’t like is feeling hungry. It follows that eating a greater volume of food is going to leave you more satisfied.
A plate of veg is probably a better use of your calorie and carb allocation than a tin of soda. You’ll be less hungry and miserable afterwards.
A diet based around meat, fish, eggs, veggies, rice, potatoes, root veg, fruit and healthy fats won’t take you far wrong.
You’ll have plenty of energy, feel satisfied, and be covering all of your bases to get enough nutrients in when on restricted calories.
Eating the same things every day makes life a lot easier.
If you’re working out the nutrition info for every single meal, you will soon get fed up with it.
When I diet, I just choose 4 core meats, and 4 core carbs which is basically all I will eat. After a few days I know exactly how many calories and macros are in different combinations of the foods.
When you break it up with different foods now and then, its a lot less hassle to work out the nutrition info occasionally.
Use My Fitness Pal properly and after the first week, you don’t really need to think about it. You’ll be on autopilot in no time.
How should I organise my diet?
What to eat is often the easy part for people to get their head around. The harder part is how to do it.
Again, there is no ‘right’ answer. Simply what is best for you. What works for one person might not work for the next person.
I’m a big fan of intermittent fasting for getting lean, it makes it very simple and easy to stay within your calories. You get to eat relatively large meals, because your calories are spread across less total meals.
It has minimal negative impact on your life. Rather than neurotically worrying about what to eat to fit your diet all day, or spending all your free time on food prep, you just don’t eat for most of the day. Simplicity.
That’s me though, and some people might not like fasting. I suggest giving it a week or two where you scale up the lengths of your fasts, and scale down the number of meals you eat.
This allows your body to adapt and will dull the hunger signalling. If you try it for the first time – it will be hard and feel uncomfortable – but it isn’t always like that. You adjust.
Eat as many meals, as often as you like, at whatever time you like; to meet your calorie and macro goals.
Again, assuming you’re not a professional athlete or bodybuilder, the negligible benefit of meal timing and other complications pales in comparison to finding an easy to follow nutrition plan that you actually stick to.
People don’t fail diets because they have the ‘wrong’ diet. They fail because they don’t/can’t follow the plan they have.
Be wary not to fall into majoring in the minors. Get the big dominos in place and everything will go smoothly.
When do I need to change my diet?
As your bodyweight changes and you plug it into My Fitness Pal it will recalculate your calorie and macro goals based on your new bodyweight, so it will be progressing naturally.
You want to use percentages rather than absolute numbers, to account for changes in body weight.
E.G. Eating 10% under maintenance calories; rather than eating 250 calories under maintenance.
These small changes are naturally built into the dieting, so you don’t need to worry about them.
You look to make more fundamental changes if you have not lost weight for 2 consecutive weeks and you have accurately followed and documented your plan.
I cannot stress the last point enough.
If you didn’t lose weight because it was your birthday, you went out drinking and ate a whole cake in one sitting… you don’t need to change the plan, you just need to follow it.
Assuming you have been following the plan, and you tracked properly, and still haven’t lost weight – move your calories down 5%.
You shouldn’t need to be more aggressive than this. You’re always looking for the minimum effective does.
The minimum effective dose is more sustainable for you actually following it, mentally, not being too hungry, etc. and it also always allows you to have somewhere to progress to.
If you start too aggressive – what happens when it plateaus? You have nowhere left to go.
How to get lean: Training for weight loss
When it comes to training during weight loss, the primary purpose is NOT to burn calories.
The most important thing is to hold on to your existing muscle mass.
Again, if you just wanted to get skinny and lose as much weight as possible, then you can go run marathons and expend as many calories as possible.
If you want to look good, lean and muscular, you need to use your workouts as the stimulus to maintain muscle mass.
Over stressing yourself by doing too much exercise is counter-productive. When you’re dieting, in a large calorie deficit and especially when you are already low body fat; your body is already stressed out.
You want to stimulate it, not obliterate it.
Keep workouts short and intense. You should still push yourself to work hard, but cut overall volume when compared to a maintenance or muscle building plan.
If you’re carrying a lot of body fat (over 20%) or you’re new to training, don’t worry about overdoing it. You don’t yet have the capacity to push yourself too hard.
Should I do cardio?
Cardio is not essential, but it does help.
While I said your primary purpose is not to burn calories through exercise, doing so doesn’t hurt – as long as you don’t exceed your diminished capacity to recover.
I would generally include cardio if you enjoy it; and if its part of your normal routine.
If you don’t enjoy it, then use it as a tool only when required – in the final phases of a diet, when you’re already under 10% body fat – as a way to shift caloric balance without having to eat less, when you’re already in a big deficit.
You want to keep it gentle; uphill walking or stationary bike, rather than any intense interval training.
What about conditioning?
Conditioning or energy systems work is great to include in your program, just be aware that it does add to overall stress. You need to account for recovery.
Things like sprints, prowler/sled pushing, weighted carries, heavy bag work, can all be included in your workouts.
Treat them like another lifting exercise – account for how much additional stress they add to total workload and what you’re able to recover from, while in a calorie deficit.
The leaner you get, the less of this you will want to do.
If you’re over 15% body fat, you can go to town with as much conditioning as you please. The metabolic disruption will be good for you.
As you get leaner, you need to lower overall volume. Keep intensity high, but do less sets and exercises.
How to get lean: Lifestyle factors
I count everything outside of training and nutrition as ‘lifestyle’. These things will have a direct and indirect effect on your success getting lean.
Recovery is key when you’re in a calorie deficit. You need to train hard, to keep enough stimulus to maintain your muscle mass, but if you push too hard you will not be able to keep it up.
You’ll either find it too hard, binge eat and quit; or you’ll not be able to function as a normal human being in the rest of your life.
If you’ve ever been around a bodybuilder before a show you will know they’re snappy, tired, lethargic, and generally don’t look well.
It’s not healthy to be 3% body fat.
While you won’t be going to that level, you do still need to account for your overall energy and function as a human. Dieting down to very low body fat is not easy. If it was, everybody would be ripped.
You need your beauty sleep to recharge and allow recovery to take place. If you’re dieting, pay as much attention to getting to bed and sleeping well as you do to what you’re eating.
Being tired makes you crave sugar, have energy swings, be irritable, and generally exacerbates every negative about dieting even more.
Dieting and being in a caloric deficit is stressful.
You’ll find yourself tired if you let things like sleep and recovery slip for even a day.
You ideally want to minimise the life stress you have going on while dieting.
You’ll have less energy and a shorter fuse – which can negatively impact the rest of your life (career, relationships, etc), and other life stress can make you want to binge on food – setting you back in your diet.
Of course, things happen, but as best you can align the final weeks of a diet with relatively relaxed period of your life.
How to get lean: Supplements
You don’t need to take supplements to get lean.
No magic protein powder or fat burner is going to help you get lean. Refer to the top where I mentioned Occam’s Razor if you’re struggling to see results.
That said, supplements can help.
They help as a supplement to fill in any nutrients you might not be getting elsewhere. This is especially relevant when you’re dieting because you’re eating less calories, less food, so will be taking in less nutrients.
Here’s my general supplement recommendations – they’re all universally helpful (though not essential).
- Whey protein (if you struggle to eat enough protein from whole food sources. Good for convenience post workout)
- Glucose/maltodextrin (same as above, add carbs to your shake to increase calories and carbs)
- Multi vitamin
- Vitamin D3
- Omega 3’s
* Take together as ZMA
Other supplements are useful for some people for specific reasons, but these are the general supplements I think everyone will benefit from.
I recommend staying away from fat burners. They’re not healthy and you don’t need them. You can get lean on your own by eating properly and giving it sufficient time for your body to adapt. You don’t need to ‘kick your metabolism’ or ‘fire your thyroid’ with ephedrine or speed derivatives.
What to expect when getting very lean
The process of getting lean is an enlightening one, that I recommend every guy goes through at least once in their life.
You will learn a lot about yourself, your body, and what is possible.
For most people it will be an arc that is hard – easy – hard.
The beginning is hard practically. You have to think about what you’re eating, break old habits and implement new ones. You have to start tracking all of your food and raising your awareness of what you’re doing.
There’s a period of adjustment where you’ll not be totally comfortable with a routine yet, and things like social occasions will present a challenge.
Do you go out and not drink, or just stay home?
What do you eat when you’re not cooking yourself?
Once you get into a routine, it will become easy and fun. You’ll likely find it enjoyable. The simplicity and structure offer a lot of benefit, and free a lot of head space.
The middle part of the diet is great. You’re seeing yourself getting leaner every week – the increased structure probably benefits your work/business life, and you might find (I do) that eating really clean, not drinking, and sleeping well, actually leads to you getting stronger.
Then when you get really lean it starts to get physically hard.
Now it feels like you’re fighting against your body. Cravings kick in. You’re tired. Your mood is all over the place.
Suddenly the structure and routine is monotony and boredom, based on the shift in mental state.
You’ll start second guessing whether its working, and thinking you are not getting leaner – or that you’re too flat/lost too much muscle, and need to start eating more.
You’ve got to plow through this phase. Keep referring to your measurements to ensure you’re moving forwards, and put your trust in the plan.
If its successfully taken you from 15% body fat down to 9%, it isn’t suddenly a bad plan when you’re in a bad mood and hungry trying to get to 8% body fat.
How to get lean: Common mistakes
Not tracking nutrition
If you don’t track your nutrition, you are at best hoping that what you’re doing is going to work.
For a while it might. If you just eat less meals or consciously eat less food, even just cutting out snacks and liquid calories – that might be enough to put you in a deficit for a while…
But you have no control over it, and no data to work with.
What happens if it stops working? You don’t know what to do next, because you don’t know what you’ve been doing.
Tracking gives you a full picture to be able to make changes as needed. It can feel tedious at first, but if you eat the same foods most of the time, it quickly becomes second nature.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you’ve been tracking for a couple of weeks and seeing good weight loss that you don’t need to track any more.
Keep on top of recording data. It will set you up for success now, and give you a greater understanding of your nutrition.
You will develop an intuitive sense of what you’re eating, and that is invaluable for the long term – but don’t rely on it until you’ve finished your diet and are maintenance mode.
If you don’t give a plan enough time, it won’t work.
Anything that works too quickly is likely to be unsustainable.
Set yourself enough time to lose 0.5% body fat per week, to meet your goal within the given time frame. Whether that is 6 weeks or 6 months.
Sometimes it will be quicker, sometimes slower.
Sometimes you plateau, sometimes you accelerate.
Keep on top of tracking and you’ll always be one step ahead; knowing when you didn’t follow the plan (went out and over ate) vs when your body has plateaued and you need to move calories down a touch.
You need to be sensible with your expectations. Recognise that the leaner you get, the slower your progress will be.
As long as you’re consistently measuring your weight, body fat, size, and whatever your metrics are; you’ll know what is going on.
It’s important to take these objective measurements. If you only rely on the subjective (how you look), you’ll play tricks on yourself – telling yourself it isn’t working, or that you’ve lost too much muscle.
Worrying too much about losing size
If you’re actually losing too much muscle mass, it is because you’re dieting too aggressively. Until you’re about 10% body fat this is a complete non-issue.
When you’re fat you can starve yourself and you won’t lose much muscle mass. It becomes a problem when you’re already lean, and looking to get leaner.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should go starve yourself. Dieting should be sustainable, otherwise you’ll just balloon back the other way.
You will likely feel small, as you lose weight, but to other people actually look bigger; if you already have some muscle mass.
Your clothes get loose, and you just feel like you take up less space – which you do – but being leaner and more defined gives the impression of being bigger to other people.
If you don’t have much muscle mass, you look better by not being fat. If you have a decent amount of muscle mass, you actually look bigger when you’re leaner anyway.
Binge cycles / cheat meals
Cheat meals are stupid.
The entire concept is backwards, and has it’s origin in overly strict, idealogical diets that make you want to go and binge on whatever your banned foods are.
The vegan who goes to an all you can eat ribs joint, or the paleo guy hammering a whole box of Krispe Kreme is not helping himself with a ‘cheat meal’.
His diet is backwards to begin with.
You should have re-feeds, higher calorie/carb/fat days as part of your diet… but they are part of your diet.
You’re not ‘cheating’.
Build them into the plan from the beginning.
Use them to refuel your body when it needs it, and to mentally give you something to look forward to, so you can increase compliance to the plan.
If you’re binge eating, out of control, or emotionally driven; you are sabotaging yourself.
A 500 calorie per day deficit (3,000 calories over 6 days) can easily be undone in one evening of bingeing. Now you’ve wasted a whole week of dieting for one uncontrollable binge.
A high calorie day should be a couple of hundred calories higher than your average dieting day – not a couple of thousand.
In conclusion… how to get lean
Like I said at the top, how to get lean is a simple process… but generally not easy.
You just have to set a sensible plan, with sensible goals, over a sensible time frame…
Follow it as written, document your nutrition, and make tweaks as needed. If you’re not taking responsibility for your actions and being totally honest, you’re going to struggle.
Eat in a calorie deficit, train to maintain muscle mass, ensure you recover as much as you can; and how to get lean is simple – just add time.