Mindfulness

What it Takes to Get Lean

As Working Against Gravity coaches, we’ve coached thousands of clients, and have noticed that many clients experience awesome progress with a few small lifestyle changes - but most people reach a point where they feel stuck and are unable to take their progress to the next level. “I’ve been keeping up with my habits and changes,” these clients say, “But I’ve plateaued.”

For example, perhaps you started paying attention to your food intake for the first time in your life by tracking it in an app like MyFitnessPal. Chances are, this change alone will help you make some great progress because it helps you become aware of how many calories you are consuming each day and the macronutrient makeup of those calories.

But after a few weeks or months of tracking your food, you may get stuck. The scale may stop moving and you may stop seeing changes in the mirror from week to week.

What now? Why isn’t it working anymore?

Well, the reality is that the habits and lifestyle changes that took you this far may not be sufficient to help you reach your ultimate health and fitness destination.

The leaner you get, the more challenging it becomes to get even leaner. You may need to adopt new habits that you haven’t yet been practicing or dial in your current habits with more precision.

Today, we’re going to outline the changes you will likely need to get you from where you currently are (let’s call that “Point A”) to where you want to end up (“Point B”).

The A to B Model

So what do you need to do to get from Point A to Point B? We have a useful tool that can help, called (big surprise!) the A to B Model. Our Working Against Gravity CEO Adee presents the A to B Model in this video.

Between A and B, there is a funnel that starts quite wide at “A,” and gets narrower as it gets closer to B. Within this funnel is the “Zone of Optimal Behavior.”

The Zone of Optimal Behavior is where your actions and behaviors line up with your goal. The zone starts off broad, with room for flexibility and mistakes, but it becomes narrower as you get closer to your goal.

Here is one example of the model at work:

Imagine you’re a child and your dream is to qualify for the National Basketball Association (NBA).  

Using the A to B Model, “A” is where you are a young kid who just loves to play basketball. You’re learning to dribble, catch and pass a ball. The basics. You’re having fun and there is no pressure involved.

As time passes, things get a little more serious. You understand winning and losing. You understand that you need to play well to win or maybe even to be invited to play on a team. The skills you need to have are becoming clear and the Zone of Optimal Behavior gets narrower. You need to learn more about offense and defense. You need to start improving how often you sink a ball and score a point. You need to start practicing certain drills to get better at playing the game.

Now you’re in high school and things are getting more competitive. You have developed a passion for the sport and a dream to play at the college level—and so have many other players. Now you need to begin working out because your physical fitness and strength have a big impact on your basketball success and can set you apart from your competitors.  

The goal of playing college basketball is now in sight—and so are the requirements held by the colleges you want to play for. You may need to get certain grades to get into a great school, on top of all your other responsibilities related to basketball, like training and nutrition. This means that all basketball and no study isn’t an option. The Zone of Optimal Behavior to reach your “B state” just narrowed again.

Once you’re at the college level, your sights are set on the NBA, and your personal life is taken into account. You need to be a great role model and a team player.  

Life looks a lot different now, as you get close to Point B than it did at Point A.

During this journey, there will be “Choice Points.” These are times in our journey where we need to make a decision: do we stay within the Zone of Optimal Behavior and continue working toward our goal? Or exit and abandon attacking B entirely?

Reading the descriptions below of the behavior and lifestyle changes needed to achieve each stage of leanness might be a “choice point” for you. You might decide that your original Point B of achieving six-pack abs and a super-lean, ripped physique is no longer your ideal destination.  The point of this article is that there is no right or wrong answer when determining what Point B is for you. It is all about determining what is realistic and doable with your individual circumstances—it is key to ask yourself: for you, are the tradeoffs and costs worth the outcome?

Body composition vs. scale weight


Before diving into a discussion of the lifestyle and habit changes needed to reach each stage of leanness, it is important to discuss why we refer to “body composition” as opposed to a certain number on the bathroom scale.  

While the scale will tell you how much you weigh, it doesn’t tell you what your body is made of. Body composition refers to everything in your body, including muscle, organs, bone, and fluid.

Many people who embark on an exercise and nutrition regimen feel frustrated if they change some habits, then step on the scale, only to see that their body weight hasn’t changed.  

But consider this: if you begin exercising and gain a pound of muscle, while also losing a pound of body fat, your scale weight will not have changed—but your body composition will look much different (and chances are, you will like the results!).

At WAG, when assessing client progress, we do use client body weights from the scale. But we use these scale weights in combination with other indicators of progress (more on that below).  

The main point about scale weight is: if you want to get leaner and maybe one day even see your abs emerge, it is not the best idea to rely on scale weight alone. The number on the scale tells only a small part of the story about how your body is changing.

How do you measure your body fat percentage?


Now that we have established the importance of determining our body composition, the next question is: how do we determine what that is? How do we know how much body fat vs. muscle we have?  

There are many different ways of determining this, some more accurate than others. We will outline some of the most commonly used methods below.

1. Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA)

One common and popular way to measure body fat percentage is BIA. This is the method used in devices such as the InBody machine, which is featured in many gyms. BIA devices detect how your body responds to small electrical currents by placing electrodes on your skin. The BIA device enters your body’s response to the electrical currents into an equation that predicts your body composition.[1]  

There are advantages and disadvantages of BIA. On the positive side, it is quick, easy and widely accessible.  

However, the accuracy of these devices varies widely and can be significantly affected by food and fluid intake.[2]

If you do use one of these devices, it is critical to ensure that the testing conditions are the same each time. For example, take the test at the same time of day each time you do it (preferably first thing in the morning). Avoid drinking fluids or consuming food before the test, and wear the same clothing each time.  

2. Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) 

Another method of testing body composition that is more difficult to find but more accurate than BIA, is the DEXA scan. DEXA uses X-rays of two different energies to estimate your body fat percentage. DEXA is also used to assess bone density and provides detailed information about the bone, lean mass and fat in each region of your body.

The main advantage of DEXA is that it is more accurate (the error rate is 1.5–2.5% body fat, as opposed to a handheld BIA device, which could be off by 8–10%).[3,4]

DEXA also offers more detailed information than BIA. But unfortunately, DEXAs are often unavailable to the general public and can be expensive.

3. Body Circumference Measurements and Photos

At WAG, we ask clients to take progress photos weekly. Progress photos are a great way to get a “big picture” look at the changes in your body composition. Since we all look at ourselves in the mirror daily, it can be tough to notice changes in ourselves as they happen. Taking photos can help you (and your coach!) see changes over weeks and months.

For example: Perhaps, in a given month, you didn’t see many changes in your scale weight—but when you compared side-by-side photos, you realized there was more muscle definition in your shoulders and quads! This is a sign that your body composition is changing. Perhaps the scale did not change because you gained muscle and lost approximately the same amount of body fat. Gram for gram, fat takes up more space than muscle.[5]

WAG coaches also ask clients to take weekly measurements of their chest, waist, and hips.  Changes in measurements can be a good indicator that you are losing body fat. For example, decreases in waist circumference are typically a sign that you are losing abdominal fat.[6]

At WAG, we have found that the combination of using measurements, progress photos and the average trend of a client’s body weight (rather than the daily scale weights) is a great way to assess overall body composition progress.

So, if you do not have access to some of the “fancier” methods of testing described above, that’s okay! You can still keep an eye on how your body is changing.

Below, we will also describe how various body fat percentages look and feel, which will help you gauge which one describes your current status.

Now let’s dive into the habits and lifestyle required to take you from where you are now (“A”) to where you want to go (“B”). 

Level 1 – No Muscle Definition / Heading Toward Obesity


Body fat percentage: Men > 20%, Women > 30%

What does this look and feel like?

For men: Being in the range of 20 to 24 percent body fat likely means your abs will not be visible. When males reach 25 to 29 percent body fat, this level is considered obese.

For women: 30–34 percent body fat indicates that you’re heading toward obesity. You will have no visible abdominal muscles at this level, and you may not feel great.

A body fat percentage of 35 or more is a “red flag” and makes you a higher-risk candidate for diabetes and/or heart disease in the future.

For both men and women, these body fat ranges are characterized by low energy levels, poorer life expectancy and the risk of metabolic syndrome.[7]

Level 1 Necessary Habits and Lifestyle:

  • Begin becoming aware of your food intake. For example, learn how to track food in an app or use your hand to begin measuring appropriate portion sizes.
  • Exercise 15–30 minutes per day, most days per week, any intensity level.
  • Consume a source of protein with each main meal.   
  • Begin reducing overall consumption of processed foods and foods with added sugar.
  • Eat more high-fiber foods including fruits and vegetables.
  • Reduce your intake of alcoholic and other caloric beverages.
  • Begin reducing the number of meals you eat per week at restaurants. Prepare more meals at home.
  • Drink at least half your body weight in ounces of water daily.
  • Get at least seven hours of sleep per night. 

Level 2 – Average Leanness


Body fat percentage: Men: 15–20%, Women: 25–30%

For both men and women: You will look and feel healthy but not super lean. Your body likely has a softer look. You may not have much excess fat, but your definition may be minimal.

This is on the higher side of what is considered to be “average” in terms of body fat levels.

Although these body fat percentages are not necessarily bad, they may be cause for attention and some lifestyle changes with nutrition and exercise.

Being in this body fat range requires more thought and planning than the one described above, but there are many benefits, such as improved health, energy, and sleep. You may also find that exercise is easier and more enjoyable.

Level 2 Necessary Habits and Lifestyle:

  • Track food in an app 60–70 percent of the time if you are maintaining this level of leanness. Some people at Level 2 may not need to track food at all once they have developed sustainable habits and a solid awareness of portion sizes.   
  • If you are striving to achieve this level of leanness, you may need to track food 80–85 percent of the time, at least for a period of time.
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes per day, most days per week, any intensity level.
  • Consume a source of protein each main meal.   
  • Reduce your overall consumption of processed foods and foods with added sugar.
  • Consume a vegetable with each main meal.
  • No more than five alcoholic drinks or caloric beverages per week.
  • Eat out at restaurants and/or away from home no more than four or five times per week.
  • Drink at least half your body weight in ounces of water daily.
  • Get at least seven hours of sleep per night. 

Level 3 – Healthy and Fit


Body fat percentage: Men: 12–15%, Women: 22–24%

This range of body fat is usually considered lean and fit.

For both men and women: Some abs will be visible. You will likely see upper abdominal definition and some external obliques, but the definition is minimal, and the lower half of the abdominals are typically not defined. On the rest of the body, the outlines of muscle can be seen, but there is usually no clear separation between them. The overall shape of your muscles is there, which can create a pleasing aesthetic appearance despite a lot of muscle definition.

For women specifically: You will definitely see some of your natural curves in your hips, with more fat in the buttocks and thighs.

This range is considered relatively easy to maintain when compared to the lower ranges. And from a health perspective, most people will be able to reduce or eliminate many medications.

However, this body fat range does require some planning and some minor social sacrifices.

Level 3 Necessary Habits and Lifestyle:

  • Track food in an app at least 70–75 percent of the time if you are maintaining this level of leanness.  
  • If you are striving to achieve this level of leanness, you may need to track food 85–95 percent of the time, at least for a period of time.
  • When you are tracking food, weigh out at least 75–80 percent of food on your scale in grams or ounces.
  • Exercise at least 30–45 minutes per day, five to six days per week.
  • At least 80–85 percent of your diet comes from whole, unprocessed foods.
  • No more than three or four alcoholic drinks per week.
  • When tracking, hit macros in the range of +/- 5 grams of carbs and protein and +/- 2 grams of fat 85–90 percent of the time.
  • Eat out at restaurants and/or away from home no more than two to four times per week.
  • Drink at least half your body weight in ounces of water daily.
  • Get at least seven hours of sleep per night.
  • Begin learning and practicing stress management techniques.

Level 4 – “Beach Body”


Body fat percentage: Men: 9–11%, Women: 19–21%

For men: This is a sustainable level where you should be able to see your abs, but they will likely not be as defined as a man in the 67% body fat range.

This body fat range is the classic “beach body look” that many men want. While not very defined, there is separation between muscles, some muscle striations potentially in the shoulders or arms, but striations are not showing on every muscle. Vascularity is typically limited to the arms, with a little possibly on the legs.

For women: This body fat percentage is usually in the “fit” category of most body fat charts and is typical of many female athletes. Some definition in the abs is apparent and there is body fat on the arms and legs, but it’s not too pronounced. There is minimal, but some, separation between muscles.

For both men and women, the benefits of these body fat levels generally include a fit appearance, more energy, and good overall health. And they should be relatively easy to maintain once your habits are consistently part of your lifestyle.

Reaching these levels of body fat will require more attention paid to your diet and exercise regimens than the levels described above, so there may be some sacrifices involved with regard to your social life and time.

Level 4 Necessary Habits and Lifestyle:

  • Track food at least 80 percent of the time if you are maintaining this level of leanness.  
  • If you are striving to achieve this level of leanness, you may need to track food 90–95 percent of the time, at least for a period of time.
  • When you are tracking food, weigh out at least 80–85 percent of food on your scale in grams or ounces.
  • Exercise at least 60 minutes per day, five to six days per week.
  • At least 80–85 percent of your diet comes from whole, unprocessed foods.
  • No more than two alcoholic drinks per week.
  • When tracking, hit macros in the range of +/- 5 grams of carbs and protein and +/- 2 grams of fat 85–90 percent of the time.
  • Eat out at restaurants and/or away from home no more than twice weekly.
  • Drink close to 1 ounce of water per pound of body weight daily.
  • Get at least seven and a half hours of sleep per night.
  • Spend at least 10–15 minutes per day practicing stress management or mindfulness. 

Level 5 – Fitness Model Lean / Six-Pack


Body fat percentage: Men: 6–8%, Women: 16–18%

For men: Although this body fat range is less extreme than competition bodybuilders, it’s still a level that is not sustainable long-term for most men. Around this level, your friends and family may notice you looking more “gaunt” in the face.

This body fat level is achieved by many male fitness models when doing photoshoots. It is characterized by muscle definition in all muscles and clear vascularity in most muscles including arms, legs, and even abs. Vascularity over the abs muscle is a sign of very low body fat. There is clear separation of the muscles.

For women: This is also considered a very low body fat percentage. Many bikini and fitness models will reach this body fat level, and some may not be able to menstruate.

Women will see muscle definition in their abs, legs, arms, and shoulders. There also may be some vascularity and separation between the muscles. The woman’s hips, buttocks, and thighs may have a little less shape because of their low body fat.

Both men and women may achieve a six-pack at this level of leanness.

Level 5 Necessary Habits and Lifestyle:

  • Track food 85–90 percent of the time when working to achieve this level of leanness (less frequent tracking may be required for maintaining this leanness).
  • When you are tracking your food, weigh out 90 percent of food on your scale in grams or ounces
  • Exercise at least 60–75 minutes per day, six days per week.
  • 85–90 percent or more of your diet comes from whole, unprocessed foods.
  • Fewer than three alcoholic drinks per month.
  • When tracking, hit macros in the range of +/- 5 grams of carbs and protein and +/- 2 grams of fat 90–95 percent of the time.
  • Eat out at restaurants and/or away from home two times per month or fewer.
  • Drink at least 1 ounce of water per pound of body weight daily.
  • Get at least eight to nine hours of sleep per night.
  • Spend at least 20 minutes per day practicing stress management or mindfulness.

Things to consider about Level 5:

  • You may struggle attending social situations where there is food offered—you may need to bring your own food or use your food scale to weigh food at social events.
  • Reaching this level of leanness will require a lot of time devoted to weighing and measuring the majority of your food.
  • You will need to block off time each week for meal preparation (and/or you may need to order some pre-made meals). 

Level 6 – Extremely Lean


Body fat percentage: Men: < 6%, Women: < 15%

These are extremely low body fat levels.  

For men: Bodybuilders can drop to as low as 3–4% body fat when preparing for bodybuilding competitions. This body fat level is characterized by extreme vascularity so that veins are visible over just about every muscle in the body. There is clear separation between muscles, and striations visible on almost every muscle. Essential fat for a man is around 2%, which is the basic amount of fat a man needs for the body to function (fat protects internal organs in the chest and abdomen).

For women: This is the extremely low body fat level typically attained by female figure competitors and bodybuilders. Essential fat for women is around 8–10% compared to 2% for men. Why the difference? Women have more fat in breast tissue and the area surrounding the uterus.

Although some people might feel pride at achieving this low level of body fat for a specific situation (like a bodybuilding competition), these levels are not considered safe or healthy. Women will be unable to menstruate. Separation between muscles and clear vascularity are noticeable at this level.

Level 6 Necessary Habits and Lifestyle:

  • Track food 95–100 percent of the time.
  • Weigh out all food on your food scale in grams or ounces.
  • Exercise at least 75–120 minutes per day, six to seven days per week.
  • 90–95 percent or more of your diet comes from whole, unprocessed foods.
  • Fewer than one alcoholic drink per month.
  • When tracking, hit macros in the range of +/- 5 grams of carbs and protein and +/- 2 grams of fat 95–100% of the time.
  • Eat out at restaurants and/or away from home two times per month or fewer.
  • Drink at least 1 ounce of water per pound of body weight daily.
  • Get at least nine hours of sleep per night.
  • Spend at least 20 minutes per day practicing stress management or mindfulness.

Things to consider about Level 6: 

  • You may struggle attending social situations where there is food offered—you will need to bring your own food and avoid eating food you cannot weigh and track.
  • Reaching this level of leanness will require a lot of time devoted to weighing and measuring every gram of food—for some people, this can lead to disordered eating.
  • You will need to block off time each week for meal preparation (and/or you may need to order some pre-made meals).
  • You may feel fatigued and experience hormone imbalances due to very low levels of body fat.

So, in conclusion, what should your goals look like? Which level above should you be striving for?

There is no right or wrong answer. The right answer for you requires taking an honest look at your goals and expectations and ensuring they are aligned with the day-to-day things you are willing and able to do.

In order to continue getting leaner, it’s not simply about maintaining the same set of habits and watching your body continue to change. -Getting leaner is challenging and the leaner you get, the more that consistency, precision, and effort are required.   

A Working Against Gravity coach can help you determine what the right Point B is for you. Join us today and get some expert guidance toward achieving your goals!

References:

  1. Khalil, S. F., Mohktar, M. S., & Ibrahim, F. (2014). The theory and fundamentals of bioimpedance analysis in clinical status monitoring and diagnosis of diseases. Sensors (Basel, Switzerland), 14(6), 10895-928. doi:10.3390/s140610895.
  2. Talma, H. , Chinapaw, M. J., Bakker, B. , HiraSing, R. A., Terwee, C. B. and Altenburg, T. M. (2013), Bioelectrical impedance to estimate body fat. Obes Rev, 14: 895-905. doi:10.1111/obr.12061
  3. Bilsborough, Johann & Greenway, Kate & Opar, Dan & Livingstone, Steuart & Cordy, Justin & Coutts, Aaron. (2014). The accuracy and precision of DXA for assessing body composition in team sport athletes. Journal of sports sciences. 32. 1-8. 10.1080/02640414.2014.926380.
  4. Roubenoff R, Kehayias JJ, Dawson-Hughes B, Heymsfield SB. Use of dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry in body-composition studies: not yet a “gold standard” Am J Clin Nutr. 1993;58:589–591.
  5. Osborn, C. O. (n.d.). How Do Muscle and Fat Affect Weight? Retrieved February 15, 2019, from https://www.healthline.com/health/does-muscle-weigh-more-than-fat
  6. Koot, B.G., Westerhout, R., Bohte, A.E., Vinke, S., Rijcken, T.H., Nederveen, A.J., Caan, M.W., Baan-Slootweg, O.H., Merkus, M.P., Stoker, J., & Benninga, M.A. (2014). Ultrasonography is not more reliable than anthropometry for assessing visceral fat in obese children. Pediatric obesity, 9 6, 443-7.
  7. Kwon, H., Kim, D., & Kim, J. S. (2017). Body Fat Distribution and the Risk of Incident Metabolic Syndrome: A Longitudinal Cohort Study. Scientific reports, 7(1), 10955. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-09723-y.

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