Is getting lean actually worth it?
written by Philip Stefanov | SEPTEMBER 12, 2023
We’ve all been there at some point. You’d be scrolling through social media, and all of a sudden, you’d come across a ripped man or woman doing something––lifting weights, walking by the pool, or cooking some healthy meals.
Then, all of your bulking aspirations would evaporate, and you would start thinking:
“Maybe I don’t need to build more muscle. It’s time to finally get lean and show the world the physique I’ve been building for the last few years.”
But have you ever stopped to consider the real trade-offs of such a transformation?
Sure, some lucky… people can walk around decently lean year-round and never feel hungry, food-obsessed, or irritable. But the vast majority of us? It would take some serious discipline and appetite control to get (and stay) lean.
The Body Fat Set Point
Realize it or not, your body has a preferred body fat percentage it likes to be around to function optimally and not feel like it’s starving. It functions like a thermostat but for your body fat percentage.
If your body fat percentage decreases too much, your body makes changes to bring it up:
- Increased hunger (to the point of obsession with food)
- More cravings for calorie-dense foods
- Decreased desire to move around
- Lower metabolic rate through a combination of weighing less, moving less, and experiencing some hormonal changes
At that point, losing more fat or maintaining that physique becomes a great challenge. It’s doable with enough discipline and sacrifice, but these changes don’t appear to reverse until we increase our body fat percentage.
But What If We Decide to Stay Lean?
The body fat set point sounds plausible, and you’ve probably experienced similar effects if you’ve pushed a cut too far in the past. But what if, through sheer discipline and will, you get lean (leaner than your usual ‘comfortable’ physique) and decide to stay that way?
You might be successful for a while, but the side effects could prove to be too much to handle after a while. Some of the consequences of getting lean beyond your body’s comfort zone include:
- Extreme hunger and obsession with food
- Craving junk food all the time
- Feeling tired and unmotivated to do anything
- Struggling to make any progress at the gym
- Feeling flat and small
- Obsession with your appearance and body fat percentage
Here is a case study that looks at additional adverse effects resulting from bodybuilding preparation. The subject got far leaner than the average person ever will, but the negative impact is still relevant. These side effects gradually went away as the subject gained body fat.
I’ve been relatively lean before, and I can attest to the general suckiness of things. I thought the side effects would subside after a while, but they didn’t. I ended my cut at around 1,900 calories (about half of what I typically eat on a given day while bulking) and gradually increased my intake to 3,000+ over a couple of months.
Despite that, I never felt full, my energy levels weren’t like before, and I was constantly thinking about food. I eventually decided to give up trying to stay lean (despite loving the abs and overall muscle definition) and increased my calorie intake more. As soon as my body fat percentage climbed to more normal levels for my body, all the side effects vanished.
Yes, I know this is a case of n = 1, as this is my experience. But sadly, research also supports these findings. For instance, researchers looked at the impact of extreme fat loss and post-contest recovery recommendations for natural bodybuilders in this paper. A paragraph that stands out is:
“..although body fat regain could be contrary to the athletes’ objectives, for example, bypassing pre-contest baseline levels (fat overshooting), it is likely a fundamental part of the recovery period for an athlete’s full physiological recovery post-contest. Hence, a strategic return to baseline body fat levels is imperative to optimize health and future training performance.”
Another paper has similar findings:
“..full recovery of hormones and full reversal of adaptive energy expenditure suppression are likely to require some degree of fat mass and fat-free mass restoration.”
There is also an impact on resting metabolic rate (the calories your body needs to carry out its processes and keep you alive):
“Precompetition RMR suppression appeared to be variable and markedly reversed by overfeeding and reverted toward normal levels following competition.”
So, What Does All of This Mean For You?
Getting and staying lean is possible, don’t get me wrong. Many people were previously overweight and are now influencers and fitness professionals, rocking abs year-round.
Plus, while we have some research from some of the brightest minds in the industry, we are far from fully understanding how the human body works and if we could change our body fat set point. We also aren’t sure how these effects might differ in less extreme fat loss scenarios (i.e., not dieting down to stage-ready conditioning, but more so for a ‘beach body’).
That said, it mostly comes down to priorities. Do you genuinely want to get lean and stay that way year-round? If so, what’s the motivation? Does your career depend on that? Are you doing it to feel fulfilled, or perhaps you want to impress certain people?
If your motivation is more transient (e.g., look good for a wedding or beach vacation), would it be so bad to gain some fat afterward?
I think it’s important to get clear on your why early on. That could keep you on course when you feel like giving up.
Beyond your why, understand that maintaining such a physique will require sacrifice, the extent of which will depend on your genetics, environment, and other factors. If you’re an average person who lifts weights and leads an active lifestyle, you could maintain a healthy body fat percentage without many dietary restrictions.
However, drop your body fat percentage by 5-10 percent, and you will have to be far more mindful of your hunger and satiety, cravings, and overall calorie intake to maintain that conditioning.
You will likely have to say ‘no’ to dessert more often (or not eat as much as you’d like), sneak in more cardio sessions, and monitor (or obsess over) your appearance to make it work.
An Alternative Approach
Perhaps a truly lean physique is not in the cards for you. Despite your best efforts, you might struggle to lead a normal life where you don’t do ab checks every five minutes, always feel hungry, and think about each upcoming meal.
The good news is that all is not lost. One solution that could work is focusing on the other part of the equation: building as much muscle as possible. This tactic takes far longer than dieting for 12-20 weeks, but it is more fulfilling and sustainable.
Muscle adds shape to your body and allows you to look leaner and more defined, even at a slightly higher body fat percentage. Plus, you get to eat more calories on average and make more progress in the gym.
Thanks for sticking around. I'll catch you next week!
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