Pillars of Success for a Year-Round Single-Digit Bodyfat
Nowadays, we talk about fat loss like we talk about the weather. Believe it or not, every time I hang out with my wife, the moment I mention what I do for a living, there are always one or two people who ask me how to get more fit or more toned, how to eat for abs, etc. I mean, hey, I’m also good at getting you stronger, or even building a nice chest or arms if you want! But no, people want to be lean and fit more than anything else. We live in an era where image is the most influenceable factor of decision.
Like it or not, abs are still the muscle group that stands out of the crowd when people talk about outstanding physiques. Don’t get me wrong, you can look good at 12-15% bodyfat, but to blow everyone away, you need to get that shredded, chiseled and angular look. Getting that body down to single-digit bodyfat is the way to go for that look, about somewhere between 6 to 10%.
You see, it’s very common to see folks striving for the 6-pack abs and end up in the 12%-ish range. Usually most fitness and bodybuilding programs will get you there if you put your sweat into them. Continued fat loss beyond this point becomes a daily war against diet drop off, harder time putting on strength and usually a lot of frustration from not seeing the scale, the mirror nor the bodyfat collaborate with the level of your effort. It is no easy task to get to that level, and it is an art and a skill to keep it year-round.
You see, getting down from 18% to 12% isn’t as astonishing as getting down from 12% to 6%. And that’s where people get shortchanged thinking there is no improvement, because every bit of improvement is a victory at this point.
Also, keeping a 12% bodyfat year-round isn’t exactly the same scenario as keeping a walking 8% bodyfat every day. Guys looks pretty cool in the magazine, and you might think they are the kingpin of the club every night, but no. These guys don’t usually hang out often, or if they do, they are the guys who order carbonated water and go home earlier than everyone else. “Remember? It’s leg day tomorrow”.
Now if you are conscious about the sacrifices you must do to stay at this point, there are some pillars you must know to successfully live the single digit body fat life (talking as if it was something amazing…).
1.Consider “active recovery” as part of your training
I see a lot of people treating their low intensity steady state cardio/work as “optional” or “active recovery”. When keeping that low of a bodyfat, there is no active recovery anymore. This is no longer recovery work, but a serious component of the energy expenditure you will need to keep your abs in check. Cardio is now part of your training and must be scheduled the same way as your strength workout is.
2. Use strategic refeeds
Attaining a bodyfat that low requires extensive periods of dieting that can create a metabolic adaptation and can decline metabolic activities to a point where fat loss no longer seems possible.
You must consider that adhering to this kind of dieting process for such a long period can result in hormonal issues with leptin, testosterone, and cortisol, to name a few. Not to mention the burden of the psychological stress that come with prolonged dieting. So, when you hit the number and the look you were striving for, you must plan to get your calories back up using strategic refeeds.
These refeeds should be composed of higher caloric intake mostly from carbs as they have a major effect on hormonal recovery. Now, you can’t just throw in carbs here and there and think that your body will get its metabolic drive back like when you were at 12% bodyfat. Don’t forget: you’re in an all-time poor metabolic situation. You need to assess each refeed and find out how much calories/carbs creates the best effect. A well planned refeed should bring muscle fullness back and a little weight on the scale without water retention if you shoot for the right amount (at this point in your condition, there shouldn’t be that much anyway). You should be back to baseline weight 2-3 days after you refeed, and you should only refeed again when you drop below the baseline weight.
This is a long-term process before reaching the perfect balance that will keep tight conditioning and metabolic activities up.
3. Assess your maintenance caloric intake
At this point, you need to find a way to work your calories back up to a higher level. Sounds easy? The problem is that you worked so hard to get there that you fear you will pile on the fat if you start to eat more. I have seen so many athletes over time sticking to a low-calorie diet and cheating with Greek yogurt and oatmeal (Woohoo, exciting! What a feast!). Trust me, this is a recipe for disaster and will only bring your metabolism down, and one day you will start to pile on fat even if you stick to your hypocaloric diet. Even worse, some people get in more cardio and more training and still pile on fat. Disaster!
The way to avoid this scenario is to assess your maintenance level. I have come to the conclusion that 35 calories deficit per pound of fat is the best way to keep a healthy and effective continuous diet. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds at 6% bodyfat, you are carrying 12 pounds of fat. Take this number x 35 and you get a 420-calorie deficit below maintenance level. That’s a good starting point and you should be able to work from there without sacrificing muscle and sanity.
4. Choose your macros wisely
Yes, this is the reality check here. While dropping from 20% to 13% doesn’t require as much equation as choosing the right nutrition and an average caloric intake corresponding to your activity level, getting to the single digit bodyfat requires a more precise approach concerning macros. The problem here is that the leaner you get, the fewer the calories you can share between macros.
Being this lean, you need a higher protein intake to protect muscle mass from catabolism. Since you have less energy stores in the body, you are more likely to produce energy substrates through glycogenesis (your body can literally break off muscle tissue to produce glucose for energy uptake). You might start your diet at 1gr of proteins per pound of lean bodyweight. Remember our 200 pounds body at 6% bodyfat, who is actually 188-pound lean. Considering the fact that he didn’t build muscle during the process, he was consuming 188gr of proteins when he was 12% bodyfat. Now at 6% he should up his protein intake to almost 1.5gr per pound of lean mass, meaning he is now consuming 282gr of proteins a day.
Let’s say his caloric intake is around 2300 calories now. Remember the 35 calories deficit rules I mentioned earlier? Since he is carrying 12 pounds of fat, we need to subtract 420 calories from his diet, which leaves us at 1880 calories. Our protein intake is about 1128 calories of this 1880 total. This leaves us with only 752 calories to share between carbs and fat. This is where strategies need to take place. You should leave room for fat at meals and some carbs around workouts, but this will eventually leave you flat and drained out because you will never have much caloric allowance to refill muscle glycogen. So, when you are in this situation, refer to point number 2 on using strategic refeeds.
Now, your ultimate goal is to come back to your original protein level (188gr) while still replacing the 100-ish proteins with carbs. This process should be slow and requires a weekly re-assessment to see where your condition stands. In the end, you should be able to consume 188gr of proteins and a mere 125-185gr of carbs daily (total intake differs based on individual tolerance and activity level, and also to which point you cut carbs in the dieting process). This leaves us between 40-75gr of fat for the remaining calories.
Of course, this is just an example, as every individual is different and the strategy greatly depends on your activity level, carb tolerance, body fat level, etc. Also, you will need to re-assess often, and you may need to recalibrate after a couple of weeks.
5. Get more antioxidants
Being in the single-digit bodyfat is really nice from a visual standpoint, but on the other hand, it puts your body under a larger amount of oxidative stress. Why is that? Well, the human body has to obey certain laws of physics and chemistry as every form of life must to run properly. One of these processes is called the Krebs cycle (or citric acid cycle) and is one of the pathways our body goes through for fat loss because it is the metabolic pathway used to oxidize fat in the mitochondria. So, the more fat loss produced, the more the Krebs cycle will be present due to energy expenditure.
What’s the link with oxidative stress?
The Krebs cycle also produces free radicals that need to be fought with (guess what?) antioxidants. Since being in the single-digit bodyfat requires lots of energy expenditure and constant fat loss (yes man, your body will want you to put on fat, it doesn’t care about carrying 6-pack abs year-round as this is not a comfortable state of survival and puts you at risk in case of prolonged starvation or famine), more free radicals will be produced, so more antioxidants will be needed.
6. Keep your health in check
Of course, some people can always argue that the use of drugs can allow you to keep a low bodyfat year-round, but that’s another topic of discussion. Year-round is one thing, but what about life-round? Drugs will always create some underlying effects that you may only notice years later. If you push the body to work in non-optimal conditions, be ready face the throwback. But hey, I’m not your mother, so if you want to use drugs then who am I to tell you that it’s wrong. I’m not against them nor for them anyway. But if you are using drugs from time to time, here’s what you should be looking for when doing blood tests:
Hormonal profile should include:
Full thyroid panel
Also, a full cardiovascular check is a must:
Don’t forget to ask for liver function: alkaline phosphatase, GGT, SGOT, and SGPT, as well as a PSA test (if you are a male, you need to know if that prostate is ok).
And kidneys values for sure: creatinine, BUN, and the creatinine/BUN ratio
Pay close attention to health markers, the ones who can do it in the long run are always the ones who win it.
7. Aim for a goal to help you hold on long enough
If you were prepping for a bodybuilding competition, a photo shoot, an event at the beach or whatever the goal that pushed you to get that lean, this goal helped you hold on through the hard times. Now, if you no longer have a goal to aim for, the real struggle starts, as you will mentally convince yourself that this little pizza slice, or just one cheeseburger will not make any damage to your condition. Almost anything that is not fish, or chicken and veggies will look appealing.
This is why you need to aim for a goal and try to keep the momentum. You need to hold on long enough so that your body will accommodate to a new bodyfat set point. Theoretically, your organism is gets accustomed to a certain bodyfat set point after some time: A client I trained for a couple of years was an overweight doctor who worked his ass off from 23% bodyfat to 8% bodyfat and kept it there for almost 2 years. This guy became a Buddhist disciple in front of foods and I needed to force him down to eat his refeed day. Long story short, after 2 years of awesome leanness, he told me he wanted to add weight in the form of muscle. Believe it or not, I thought the process of adding mass would be easy (he was a former big O-line type guy), but it became a very hard process as his metabolic parameters were holding him back every time he missed a meal or didn’t consume enough carbs.
Moral of the story, aim for a goal that can make you sustain the process long enough to reset your bodyfat setpoint.
Getting in shape is half the battle: staying that way is the other half. Get out of the old mentality off bulking vs cutting. For sure, staying that lean year-round is a challenge and applying those pillars of success will clearly help. But beyond this diet and training mentality, you also need to develop a lifestyle that will promote this condition. Sleep, recovery, good nutrition and healthy habits will work to potentiate all the efforts you put in the gym.
Take home points:
-Add energy systems work and cardio to your strength training, they definitely help with caloric expenditure.
-Use strategic refeeds. Long-term dieting can mess up your hormonal state. You can fix this by adding calories and carbs for short periods.
-Assess your maintenance caloric intake by applying the formula outlined in the article. This will give you a good starting point to work from.
-Get more antioxidants to keep health in check. The healthier you are, the more body composition is maintainable.
-Discipline yourself and choose your macros wisely. Assess yourself regularly and make changes accordingly.
-Short and long-term goals can help you sustain the process long enough to reset your bodyfat set point.
Hungry for Victory
ABOUT STEPHANE AUBE
Stéphane Aubé has been working in the fitness industry for more than 12 years. He works as a fitness coach and advisor for Hungry for Victory, a company he founded which specializes in the nutrition and physical development of athletes of all disciplines. He has worked with a diverse clientele ranging from bodybuilders, strength athletes, athletics, professional and circus stuntmen and actors, as well as those seeking to transform their physical appearance. He himself has competed in bodybuilding and served as a model for various magazines or brand supplements. He is specialized in extreme physical transformations and has trained many fitness athletes in both local and national competitions.