Your ideal body-fat percentage
“How to get down to 8% body-fat?” “How long to diet till I get to 10% body-fat?”
You’ve searched for phrases like this, countless times, haven’t you?
Probably you have also asked reputable fitness experts questions, such as “Can I stay between 8-12% body-fat year-round?” or “What’s the least amount of body-fat I need to put on, to build muscle effectively?”
I know…I have done so myself as well.
If you’re being honest, how much time did you spend thinking about how lean you want to be, and about the strategies that might help you to stay that lean?
And then – more importantly – how much time did you actually spend being that lean?
For most, there is a big discrepancy.
Now, part of it is just a matter of strategy and discipline. Knowing how to properly transition out of a cut, and how to maintain good eating habits during gaining phases are important skills to master.
However, part of the problem is that most people are simply not aware of the lifestyle tradeoffs that certain levels of leanness require.
Moreover, they never stop and think about which of these tradeoffs they would be willing to make in the long term.
The lifestyle you want to have
Let’s take an easy example.
Take a guy, who has just finished an 8 week long diet, and have achieved a very aesthetic level of leanness at around 9% body-fat.
He’s motivated to hold on to his results and stay lean…yet, after 2 months, he is back right at his starting body-fat percentage, before his diet.
He ate out too many times, and when he did, he wasn’t strategic enough with what he ordered, and how he modified his food intake around these events. Of course, a meal out here and there won’t do serious harm, but he ate out multiple times per week, for the past 2 months.
Besides this, he didn’t adhere to any kind of meal plan, he didn’t track his macros as strictly as he used to, and otherwise his food choices weren’t satiating enough to make intuitive eating work at his body-fat percentage.
There are 2 possible conclusions you can draw from this story:
This was a failure of strategy and discipline. He needs to work around social events more, and make better food choices for his everydays.
Maybe he never had the intention of living the lifestyle that is required to maintain 9% body-fat.
You see, the second option is one that most will never consider – whereas it will make or break your quest to maintain a low body-fat percentage before any smart strategy with social meals or low calorie recipes would.
Having the know-how for getting lean is only a small part of the equation. Settling for the lifestyle that is required to be that lean is the much bigger (and important) part.
Asking the wrong questions
Over the years, I’ve seen questions like “Do you think it’s possible to maintain 8-10% body-fat year round and make good gains?” posted more times than I can count.
The answer, in almost all cases, is yes. You can get down to 8 or even 7% body-fat, and maintain that look year round.
The question people should think of, however, is not “what body-fat percentage I want to maintain”, but rather, “what kind of a lifestyle do I want”?
How lean you stay will impact the lifestyle you’ll have to adopt.
What foods you choose to eat day to day, what decisions you make when eating out, when you’re going to bed and how physically active you stay on a daily basis will have to change if you want to stay very lean.
How strict are you willing to be on all these fronts, on a daily basis? That’s the question most never ask, when wondering about how lean they want to stay.
When people think of dedication on the context of fitness, the first things that come to mind are motivational music and clips of guys lifting heavy weights.
Which is funny, because as we all know, once you got the taste of lifting heavy, you don’t need much dedication to keep doing it: that’s the fun part.
Making it through a tough diet to a low body-fat percentage requires more dedication, but seeing yourself getting leaner and looking better week after week still makes the process exciting.
Maintaining a low body-fat percentage requires a different type of dedication: the kind that involves making little sacrifices every day – and some bigger ones every once in a while – without any kind of short term result or reward, and with no expectation of outside approval.
The difference between getting to and maintaining a lean physique is akin to the difference between mountain climbers and the work of the Sherpas.
Climbers train to get to the top of the biggest mountains, and once they accomplish their goal, the world celebrates them. Those that accompany and guide the climbers through their missions again and again remain anonymous to the public, and receive no praise.
They are the Sherpas – for them, climbing the tallest mountains is everyday work.
Why all this matters
At this point you may be wondering why I’m going on for so long about this, and the answer is that it’s important to hammer home the fact that there are no miracles in the realm of fitness and nutrition.
If you want to maintain an exceptional level of conditioning year round, you will have to make exceptional tradeoffs routinely.
If more people understood what those tradeoffs were, we would probably see less of the destructive behaviours – like yoyo dieting – and psychological injuries among educated fitness enthusiasts, who keep beating their heads against the wall by trying to hold on to a level of leanness that is unreasonable given their life circumstances and priorities.
The areas of sacrifice
With all that said, let’s look at the areas where we need to look at the specific tradeoffs for different levels of leanness. Some of these areas matter more than others, and the sum of all the tradeoffs you’re willing to make in each of them will give the level of leanness that is reasonable for you to strive for.
In the following paragraphs, I’ll outline what these areas are, and the levels of commitment in each of them.
Day to day food choices
The first, most obvious and also most important area to look at is your daily nutrition. Most of us eat 21-35 meals a week, and assuming that 17-31 of those are eaten at home or at least are prepared by ourselves, it’s just natural that what those meals are will matter more than anything else in determining what body-composition we will gravitate towards.
Within this, there are 4 tiers we will look at.
Eating whatever you want (-10 points)
This one is very simple: you don’t make a big deal of what you’re eating, other then keeping in mind the bare minimum that is required for your lifting goals, such as getting in enough protein. You buy foods that fit your taste preference and budget.
Essentially, you’re eating like any of your friends that aren’t into fitness, except that you’re eating a higher protein diet.
Obviously, you’re still trying to eat like an adult and make some healthful choices, so you’re not loading up solely on pizza and ice cream.
Needless to say, eating this way is not going to get you far in your quest for staying lean, but for a powerlifter, it can be a decent way to eat.
Eating ‘healthfully’ (10 points)
In this tier, you’re making an effort to prioritize nutrient dense, wholesome foods for the most part. Lots of minimally processed animal and plant foods constitute your day to day eating, but you’re not sweating too much the satiety index of your overall diet, and you’re consuming starchy vegetables, grain products and full fat animal products in abundance.
Instead of focusing on actively limiting certain (high calorie, low satiety) foods, you simply focus on including a certain amount of the ‘healthy’ stuff each day, thus letting your overall energy intake to autoregulate itself to a reasonable degree.
This is a convenient way to eat during times of trying to build muscle (in the winter, of course) and only being concerned about staying ‘reasonably lean’ as opposed to being at a very aesthetic body-fat percentage.
Eating a high satiety diet (30 points)
At this point, you pay special attention to pick foods that will allow you to be satisfied and satiated on a lower energy intake.
Non-starchy veggies, lower calorie fruits and lean protein sources dominate your diet, you eat starches sparingly, and eat full fat animal and plant foods strategically.
In short, besides eating healthfully, you highly prioritize eating a very satiating diet with lower calorie foods.
Strict macro tracking or meal planning (40 points)
At the most ambitious level, you’re leaving nothing to chance. You’re setting an energy budget for yourself, and you’re committing to not exceeding that day in and day out.
You may accomplish this by tracking down your calorie intake in each meal, or by creating a meal plan for yourself that you can follow on autopilot.
With this strategy, you can theoretically maintain any level of leanness you wish, so long as you can adhere to it of course.
Less important than the food choices you’re making each and every day are the food choices you’re making less frequently. Most of you reading this will probably not eat out every day, but as you know, meals in restaurants can still rack up calories really fast, even when eaten occasionally.
Eating in restaurants with great regularity without overeating will require giving special instructions when ordering, or implementing special strategies around these events, such as saving up calories by eating lighter meals beforehand and afterwards.
We’ll distinguish between 4 different tiers here:
Eating out regularly with liberal choices (-10 points)
By ‘regularly’ I mean eating out more than 2 times a week. It’s pretty uncommon to do that in Europe (where I live) but I know that in the US it’s not unusual practice.
By ‘liberal choices’ I mean not paying special attention to the caloric load of your food. You may routinely order something protein containing, but for the most part, you eat what desire.
Needless to say, eating like this multiple times a week can easily get you to consume thousands of extra calories over the course of the week, which you will have to make up for in some way if you want to avoid a great amount of fat-spillover.
Many will subconsciously undereat in their regular meals when doing this so the damage is often not catastrophical – but you will have to see how you score in the other areas here.
Eating out 1-2 times a week, liberally (0 points)
Same as the previous one, you’re just doing it less frequently.
Perhaps this is the most common form of eating out – eating normally during the week, and letting loose for the weekend, where you may order something out of the ordinary at a restaurant.
Depending on what you’re doing with your nutrition elsewhere, eating out like this can be inconsequential, or can result in steady fat gain over time.
You will have to see how you score elsewhere.
Making reasonable choices when eating out (10 points)
At this point, you’re allowing yourself to enjoy some good meals out, but you’re drawing some clear lines in the sand. You may generally go for protein heavy meals, or you may decide to go for grilled veggies instead of french fries as your side dish, or you may skip dessert.
In short, you’re making responsible choices, but you’re not giving special instructions to the waiter, and you’re still prioritizing enjoyment ahead of making your meals super ‘macro-friendly’.
With some intelligent strategies and a little bit of planning, this strategy is very viable for most, during non-dieting times.
When you eat out, you make sure that no damage is done (20 points)
Simply put, by whatever means, you make sure that by the end of the day, you won’t have exceeded your calorie target.
This can be done by being strict with what you order, give special instructions to the waiter about the use of oils and other high calorie ‘condiments’, or by tweaking your nutrition in your regular meals significantly to accomodate a higher calorie meal.
Doing this can be heavily taxing mentally and emotionally, so it’s most suitable if you’re eating out sparingly anyway, and/or during dieting times.
While the habits and strategies you have around eating makes up for most – probably 60% – of the variance in your body-composition, other factors come into play as well.
Since your brain is the governing organ that regulates your appetite, satiety responses and also the underlying mechanisms of self-control, anything that strongly influences how your brain functions will have an important role here.
One example is your circadian rhythms.
Most systems in the human body operate rhythmically: you get hungry, sleepy, warmer or colder, or get the urge to use the bathroom based on a certain rhythm, and the more regular this rhythm is, the better everything functions.
Having an irregular meal pattern, sleep schedule and light exposure sets you up for some crappy stuff such as random hunger pangs and sleep disturbances – which then can mess with your hunger and satiety mechanisms by itself.
In the ideal, health and fitness oriented world, you would never party till late at night or sleep in on a weekend, to keep the machine running as smoothly and predictably as possible.
As you know though, life doesn’t always work like that – so we will distinguish between some tiers here as well.
Your sleep and eating schedule is a complete mess (0 points)
Some days you get 8 hours of sleep, on others, it may be only 3. Sometimes you hit the sack before midnight, sometimes after 4 AM. It just depends. Oh, and you’re also waking up at completely random times, needless to say.
Your eating patterns are also completely disoriented. Some days you eat 2 meals a day, on others, you might have 6.
If you’re in this situation, you’re either way too lax about it all, or your life is very hectic. In either case, it’s tough to take your fitness ambitions far until you’re in this spot.
Your circadian rhythms are ok…for the most part (5 points)
You’re aware of what to prioritize with your eating and sleeping patterns, and you’re doing a pretty good job at it, about 4-5 times a week at least.
You eat and go to bed at regular hours on most days, except when life happens, or you allow life to happen.
On those days you might be out with your friends till late, have a late meal after a night of partying, or you just can’t manage your stress well and you get bad sleep.
You can apply the same score here if you’re almost always on point with your daily structure, but you just have a naturally difficult time with getting sufficient amounts of deep sleep. Some people just naturally wake up more times and have a harder time both falling and staying asleep than others.
Your body is a walking clockwork (10 points)
You fall asleep and wake up like a pre-programmed machine, you eat your meals on the perfect schedule, and you can’t even recall the last time you felt moody because of a bad night of sleep, or got an annoying hunger pang at a time you didn’t expect it.
Since your body-fat percentage is primarily determined by the long term energy balance you’re in, your activity levels will naturally have a big role to play here.
From this viewpoint, the more active you are, the more it can correct the deficiencies in your nutritional strategies, albeit it’s tough to do enough activity to offset negative behaviours around food.
Let’s look at our tiers:
Complete sloth mode (0 points)
As is fairly obvious from the title, you’re very inactive. You sit on your couch when you’re at home, you’re commuting everywhere by car, and besides lifting, you barely get in any amount of physical activity.
This way of living is of course quite common, and by itself, obviously won’t help with your body-composition goals.
Moderately active (5 points)
You may be commuting by bike or by foot, your job might include being on your feet a lot, or you may be taking extra walks or do extra cardio to supplement an otherwise sedentary lifestyle.
If you’re tracking your steps, north of 10,000 steps a day would probably qualify here.
Highly active (10 points)
You may have a physically demanding job, participate in some other sport beside just lifting, or you may be doing significant amounts of cardio to boost your energy expenditure.
If you’re tracking your steps, north of 20,000 steps might get you close, but probably you will have to find some other means of cardio too to reach this level.
How mindfully you’re eating is a good proxy for how attuned you are with your hunger and satiety signals. If you’re regularly eating your meals in a distracted state, you will be considerably less receptive to feel satiated from your meals and satisfied with your diet on the whole.
Depending on how strict you are with your general nutritional strategies this may result more or less in increased calorie intake directly (if you’re eating according to a strict meal plan or calorie-limit, probably not at all) but at the very least it sets you up to fall off the wagon more easily.
Our tiers here, as follows:
Your meals serve to explore virtual reality (0 points)
You eat in front of your TV, your laptop or your phone. It doesn’t really matter so long as a screen is involved. If your phone’s battery is dead at the beginning of your meal, you’d rather delay eating by 10 minutes until your device is back to life.
Sometimes you watch your favourite show, other times you catch up on your youtube subscriptions, other times you actively websurf.
Eating like this is going to be unhelpful at best, and at worst, it can result in significantly more calories consumed than otherwise.
You eat mindfully sometimes, other times you don’t (5 points)
You may sit down and eat your breakfast and lunch mindfully, while you may tune into your favourite podcast for your final meal.
Or, you may hit a few day long streak of mindful eating, followed by 1-2 days of eating in a more distracted state.
In short, you’re eating mindfully in general, but you’re not religious about it.
Your meals are a meditative practice (10 points)
Your meal times are about eating and nothing else. No phone or other device is near you when you eat, and you’re very intentional about this rule.
You’re 100% attuned to every bite and every sensation you meals give you.
Whether or not you’re tracking your macros, eating this way is arguably the surest way to feel satisfied on a lower energy intake, which will help you both directly and indirectly – through better adherence – to maintain a low body-fat percentage
Your relationship with food
Lastly, we have to factor in the softer side of all this – your psychology when it comes to eating.
Everyone’s relationship with food moves on a spectrum between viewing food as fuel and as a source of pleasure. Eating is inherently rewarding, but some feel this reward much more strongly than others.
For those that derive tons of pleasure from the act of eating, it will be harder to limit their energy intake, and thus it will be all the more important to score highly in other areas.
Let’s look at our last 3 tiers!
Eating is pure pleasure. One of your favourite things in life (0 point)
Everyone – ideally – has something to look forward to each day. For some it’s their work, for others it’s their workouts or hanging out with their friends.
For you, it’s eating your meals. Your upcoming feeding windows are the most thrilling parts of your day, and the only thing you don’t like about them is that you know that eventually they will be over, at which point you can wait for your next meal again.
You enjoy food, but there’s no emotional connection to it (5 points)
You like to have a good meal and you like eating, but you can take it or leave it.
You like to sit down and enjoy taking your time with your meals, but you don’t get upset if you need to quickly chug down something simple, because there are many other things in your day higher on your priority list than eating.
Food is fuel, and you’re a robot (10 points)
You could honestly not give less of a crap about the act of eating, and you don’t get what all the fuss is about.
Food is there to fuel your body and to not starve to death, so why would you obsess over it?
And so you eat what you know your body needs to function and look the way you want, not a single bite more.
It all goes to the toilet at the end of the day anyway, right?
A word on the scoring
There is some inherent, seeming value judgement built into the scores given, but that’s not the intention here.
For example, viewing food purely as fuel and having a machine-like attitude towards the act of eating may get you a higher score, but in a general sense I don’t think that that’s preferable to having a healthy relationship with food where you enjoy eating, but don’t obsess over it.
Still, strictly from the standpoint of what’s going to be most helpful for maintaining a low body-fat percentage, having a robot-like attitude is going to be an advantage.
Evaluate your scores!
With all that said, now go ahead and fill in your data into the calculator. Most of you will probably see a clear pattern as to which lifestyle trade offs you will realistically be able to make, and thus what body-composition you can realistically expect to maintain.
Hopefully, in the future, before you get carried away with grandiose plans about reaching and maintaining some instagram-worthy physique, you will think about the lifestyle you want – and realistically can – commit to in the long term.