Say what?! Is being really lean really worth it? This probably sounds like a crazy question coming from a trainer who helps clients reach their fat loss and physique goals.
Before we get started, let me say that I realize this is a very ambiguous question. “Really lean” is relative, and I will tell you up front, that I don’t have an answer for you.
Only you have that answer for you. This blog post is simply intended to help you realize a few things:
- Everybody is different.
- Some of us can maintain leaner physiques than others.
- Going beyond a healthy level of leanness for YOU is a stressor.
- It’s not normal, and it may not even be healthy, to walk around shredded all the time.
- How lean do you want to be, and will you sacrifice what it takes to get there?
Let’s explore each of these.
- Everybody is different.
I have a saying, “If you want longer, leaner muscles, get different parents.” Yes, I sound like a complete smart-ass, but it helps highlight my point. We were all given a unique genetic code that affects how our bodies look. I will never be petite, or skinny, or naturally tan. (I tried to fight this simple fact for many years, and I almost destroyed my skin in the process).
There are things we can do to make the best of our genetics of course, but at the end of the day, we are the product of our parents. (Darn you Dad, and your Scotch-Irish heritage!)
The sooner you accept this, the more you can focus on making the most of what you’ve been given, as opposed to trying to change things that won’t change. But if you’re interested in the best version of the body you were given, we know the formula for that.
2. Some of us can maintain leaner physiques than others.
We all know that person who can eat whatever they want, doesn’t exercise, and they have an absolutely gorgeous and lean physique, right? (It’s even more annoying when they have natural muscle tone too, right? I mean…how is that even fair?!?)
We also all know the person who is very strict with their diet, exercises religiously, gets enough sleep, and takes great care of themselves, and they struggle with carrying more body fat than they’d like.
Remember, we all have a genetic predisposition to look a certain way. If you come from a very lean family, chances are, you can maintain a leaner physique than someone who comes from a heavier family. (I am not ignoring the environmental factors that come into play here in terms of the foods you were/weren’t given as a child, and the activity levels encouraged by leaner families vs. heavier families because I know that plays a role. Just trying to keep things simple).
I have a few friends who walk around quite lean on a regular basis with no problems. They eat well and exercise hard, but they feel really good and have a ton of energy when they are really lean.
I, on the other hand, am foggy-brained, cold, and lose my period when I am really lean. The last 6 weeks before my first figure competition, I felt like each of my limbs weighed 300 lbs! It was miserable.
This is frustrating, but I have come to terms with it. I am learning to be comfortable with the level of leanness where my health, performance, aesthetics, and lifestyle intersect.
3. Going beyond a healthy level of leanness for YOU is a stressor
Above I mentioned that when I’ve gotten very lean in the past, I experienced fatigue, heavy limbs, foggy-headedness, and I lost my period. Those symptoms don’t generally happen when your body is healthy and functioning well, right?
In some instances, it’s just your body adjusting to its new “set point,” but not always.
Your “set point” is the body weight or body fat level to which your body has become accustomed. It may or may not be a healthy weight or body fat level, but if you have been there for a while, your body often fights to keep you there. Once you have maintained a new “set point” for a reasonable amount of time (6-12 months), it becomes easier to stay there.
Just ask anyone who has lost or gained a significant amount of weight in a short period of time. Until they have maintained their new weight for a while, it’s a struggle to stay there.
The body likes to maintain homeostasis because it’s safe. Hormone levels, blood pH, heart rate, blood pressure… all of these things are tightly controlled, and if they go too far in one direction or the other, we are in danger. Your body generally doesn’t like large body weight fluctuations either.
If you try to get leaner than where your body is comfortable, it will fight back. We have a saying at J&M, “If you don’t slow down, your body will slow you down.”
That’s what your body is doing if you are trying to get leaner and you start experiencing symptoms similar to what I listed.
4. It’s not normal, and it may not even be healthy to walk around shredded all the time.
My good friend Jen Comas Keck touched on this in her article, “Looking Fit Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Being Healthy.”
If it were “normal” to walk around super lean all of the time, more people would be really lean. That’s kind of common sense, right? Not to beat a dead horse, but if you aren’t someone who runs lean naturally, trying maintain extreme levels of leanness is not healthy.
It’s frustrating, because as I discussed in this article, with the surge in social media over the last several years, we are bombarded with images of our favorite fitness professionals (each of us looking our very best, no doubt), but even worse are the “fitspo” posters. Fitspo posters are images of extremely lean women with motivational sayings like, “Winners never take a day off!” or, “Train insane or remain the same.”
I’m sorry, what? Never take a day off? Train insane?
Umm…how about the importance of recovery? How about intelligent training?
You can read more about the “fitspo” posters here.
These images give us a false sense of normalcy, and cause many of us to feel dissatisfied with our bodies because we are chasing unhealthy and unrealistic goals.
5. How lean do you want to be, and will you sacrifice what it takes to get there?
I realize that these are some very tricky questions I am posing. It’s hard to know how lean we want to get, because when we achieve that level of leanness, oftentimes it’s not enough.
It’s the same with strength training. I thought that when I achieved a 135 bench, a 225 squat, and a 315 deadlift, I would be satisfied. Pfffft. Yeah, right. I’ve smoked each of those numbers and I am not even close to satisfied. Leanness can be the same way.
You don’t necessarily have to have a solid answer for these questions, but it is something to think about.
As an example, there is a young women who trains at my gym and she was a D1 college soccer player. She is naturally slim, athletic, and lean, but she had mentioned wanting to lose some fat in her lower body. Her diet is great, her training is great, and she takes good care of herself. All that being said, she does enjoy the occasional cupcake, beer, or glass of wine (or two).
We were discussing what it would take for her to get leaner, and after she told me about her diet and lifestyle, I saw no major red flags. I came to the conclusion that if she wanted to get leaner, she would need to get significantly stricter with her eating, or make other lifestyle sacrifices, so I asked if she was willing to do that. Was she willing to get a LOT stricter to possibly see some small changes in her physique? Her answer was no. And THAT IS OK.
Know thyself, my friends.
If you don’t want to make sacrifices (big or small) to change your body, then that is your prerogative. This woman has found the spot where her aesthetics, performance, health, and lifestyle intersect. Maybe none of them are *exactly* where she wants them to be, but she has a solid balance.
If you would prefer to be extremely lean, and it’s worth it to you to skip social events, get in bed by 9 pm every night, and train twice a day to get there, that’s fantastic. Do it. You are choosing aesthetics over lifestyle, and probably over performance and health, but if you want it, then do it.
Figure out what you want. Figure out what it takes to get there, and then decide if it makes sense for your life.
If you’re someone who wants to find that amazing balance of health, lifestyle, performance, and aesthetics, as I’ve said before — we know the formula for that.
It’s a combination of heavy strength training, sound nutrition, intelligent cardio, restorative sleep, and good stress management skills. This is what I teach with all of my clients, and it’s something I’ve wanted to make available for years to those who cannot train with me in person.
That’s why I spent almost a year developing The Modern Woman’s Guide To Strength Training. It’s the most comprehensive program for any woman who wants that balance of looking good, feeling good, and feeling healthy and strong with minimal time and effort.
The feedback we’ve gotten from women who have done the program has been astounding. They’ve fallen in love with exercise, gained muscle, lost clothing sizes, and gotten extremely strong. We’ve even had several woman report their everyday aches, pains, and stiffness melting away. Really cool stuff.
If that sounds great to you, check it out here.
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