My friend Siouxsie consistently rocks a lean physique and feels good while doing it.

 

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:

  1. Everybody is different.
  2. Some of us can maintain leaner physiques than others.
  3. Going beyond a healthy level of leanness for YOU is a stressor.
  4. It’s not normal, and it may not even be healthy, to walk around shredded all the time.
  5. How lean do you want to be, and will you sacrifice what it takes to get there?

Let’s explore each of these.

  1. 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).

 

Ouch.  It hurts me just to look at this.

Ouch. It hurts me just to look at this.

 

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.

 

My friend Siouxsie consistently rocks a lean physique and feels good while doing it.

My friend Siouxsie consistently rocks a lean physique and feels good while doing it.

 

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.

 

No wonder I look angry here.  I felt like garbage.

No wonder I look angry here. I felt like garbage.

 

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.”

 

blah

Seriously?  She looks amazing, but personally, I try to shy away from “insane” training.

 

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.

 

At one point I thought this would satisfy me.  I was dead wrong.

At one point I thought this would satisfy me. I was dead wrong.

 

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. 

ProdDisplay3 - CORRECT SPREAD

 

Like this post?  Check out others like it:

It’s Hard Out Here for a Fit Chick

It’s Hard Out Here for a Fit Chick Part 2

Body Image, Acceptance, and Gratitude

 

 

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55 Responses to Is Being Really Lean Really Worth It?

  1. Quisty says:

    Thank you for posting this! Last year I got really lean and while I loved my look I also realized that in order to get that look I had essentially stopped hanging out with anyone in order to avoid social situations with food, drink, snacks etc. that did not contribute to my physique goals. I’ve gained back some fat since then but I’m still eating healthy, lifting heavy and moving regularly and loving the ways it make me feel. I don’t need a six-pack to get all that and in the choice between a sick-pack and my friends, I definitely prefer my friends.

  2. Stacy says:

    Loved this, Molly! Thanks for the reminder. We all need it from time to time. I’ve been changing my diet up lately by eliminating this and adding that, as well adding a few days of running after CrossFit sessions… just waiting to see some kind of result. But you’re right, I’m not willing to give up my lifestyle choices of a few treats here and there (mostly on weekend nights). In the end, I just want to be healthy and feel awesome, which I do! I’m hitting new PR’s and cutting time off my mile, etc. It’s all happening even if I’m not lean and mean. ;)

  3. No, it isn’t, not for me. I can be just as strong and eat a normal, healthy diet and love my little tummy all at the same time. Thanks Molly, your posts just get better and better.

  4. Erika says:

    Great post, I’m trying to answer this question for myself now. We just did a 28 day paleo challenge at our gym. I stuck with it, leaned out, by weight and inches, but my performance suffered. I like the aesthetic, but I want my performance back. So I am trying to add more clean carbs back in and find a sweet spot where I can stay pretty lean, but have good energy.

  5. Nicola M. says:

    For me, having come from being obese to now ‘normal’, I worry that I will never be satisfied with my body. Seeing these super-lean women plastered over ‘inspirational’ pictures isn’t beneficial to me. I know it motivates some, but it just makes me feel more frustrated with the damage I have done to my body.

  6. Amy says:

    Thank you for this – I’ve been frustrated with myself, starting to obsess on shrinking my lower belly fat rather than focusing positively on my strength gains & overall fitness. What a great common sense reminder that there’s more to fitness than just being super lean, and aesthetics are just one piece of the puzzle.

  7. Heather Chastain says:

    thank you for this post!! it’s so frustrating to work so hard and not get the same results as others!

  8. Myra says:

    Love this article. Before I got pregnant, I was marathon training, and despite being the FITTEST I’ve ever been in my life, there was a constant, “I don’t look like the fitspo posters” dialogue going on in my head. I’m now really trying to focus on function (what my body can do) vs. what I look like, especially as my body is constantly changing and readjusting, and looks absolutely nothing like a fitspo poster. Thanks for the post!

  9. Sheyna says:

    Such a great post! I completely agree with the conclusion your soccer player came to…getting very lean is a choice and a trade-off. I am not willing to alter my lifestyle enough to be super lean and am fine with it. I am super happy with my choice though, I think I look great, feel pretty great and also drink beer and eat pizza.

    Past craziness involved hysterical crying over pants that didn’t fit, scouring food magazines obsessively to look at forbidden treats and just generally being unhappy. Life is too short…

  10. Sarah says:

    This was a wonderful post Molly!

    I have always struggled with my weight, and have never been able to pass this 145lb mark. (I am 5’5) I do not see myself as over weight, and I do have visible definition in my legs and arms, but I feel like I will not be happy until I look very lean.

    I feel like it will just take time, but when I really restrict myself, I end up binge eating, which really sets me back.

    But, I feel like now with my training I will meet my goal eventually. Anyway, I could really relate to your post! Thank you!

  11. Hannah says:

    THANK YOU. I am so glad to hear someone say that genetics plays such a huge role in how lean we can be. I’ve read a couple websites that say things like “it’s only 5% genes, the rest is diet and exercising” (might be misquoting the #s there but you get my drift) or “you can look like this (insert picture of 20 y/o ripped girl) if you follow X diet/fitness plan”. A very refreshing article … Help unburden some of my guilt of not having a size 2 butt ;)

  12. Lisa Boshell says:

    After turning 45, I realized that a life of being fit and lean was starting to change. I used to drop 5 or 10 lbs a week just by curtailing my beer consumption for a few days…now, things are little different. I still work out regularly but find that I have to eat much less to keep the weight off…or work out much longer. However, exercise is becoming something much more than just a means to the end of being lean…it’s become that thing I do because it makes me feel happy….and balanced…and full of energy. I guess the bonus of being older is that I care less about how others perceive me…which has allowed me to answer the question that, “No…being lean is not worth it! I like drinking beer and eating an occasional juicy burger with melted cheese oozing down my hand.”

  13. D says:

    “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.” I love this… i sense a bit of passive aggression there :-).. Let’s not forget that sometimes the obsession to be extremely lean can also take away from your personal life: time away from family and friends, time away from the small things you enjoy, and make you think that eating that little piece of chocolate is so bad for you even though you enjoy it (not talking about a big chocolate bar, I’m saying just a little piece). I also realized that for my body type, I would have to train super hard and live at the gym and eat like crazy to get the body i thought i wanted. Frankly, I enjoy spending time with my boyfriend after work and don’t feel like stuffing myself every 2-3 hours if i’m not hungry. I’m okay with going to the gym about 3-4 days (plus active rest days with family and friends) and eat clean and healthy enough to make me happy. I feel strong and healthy now at 33 then I ever did and isn’t that what’s important? But for a lot of people, vanity is more important.

  14. AHHH! I love this. And it’s funny because I love how you said that everyone’s answers might be different. It’s true! For me there are certain things (if I’m being honest, there are lots of things I WILL do) I’ll do to stay lean, but there are other things that I refuse to do, like giving up wine. :) I love training hard and I love eating well 90% of the time, but no way am I giving up wine.

    I have some clients who I ask this question to and honestly, some of them find that giving up pizza and chinese is just not worth it to lose weight. Although it’s unhealthy, they aren’t ready and if it’s something that’s going to make them miserable, it’s not worth it to them. I encourage people to find a way to make being at least mostly healthy “worth it” but as you said, it’s different for everyone!

  15. Kristy says:

    Thank you so much for the article, Molly! I have tried to become lean and have come to terms that I will never have rippling abs or chiseled thighs because I am not willing to give up on social events or adhere to an extremely strict diet. I eat healthy foods, I exercise six days a week, and I enjoy hanging out with my family & friends. I feel great and that is what is most important– not how lean I once wanted to be.

  16. Leah says:

    Wow, Molly. This is what I’m talking about! This is fantastic read for friends of mine who have serious issues with how lean they are and the lengths they go to maintain it. While I’m over here lifting and eating my grass-fed beef and butter. As I am on the journey to becoming leaner for future events and happiness, I try not to let the fitspo posters all over Facebook and Instagram get at me. You are so lovely and are doing wonderful things by sharing your questions.

  17. Theresa says:

    Posts like this are why I admire and respect you so much, Molly! I’ve been contemplating the same questions lately. I originally got on the path to fitness a few years ago for health reasons – my family members are mostly obese or morbidly obese, and being diagnosed with a couple of chronic conditions before I hit 30 (even though I wasn’t overweight) scared the crap out of me. Somewhere along the way I picked up physique goals. Who doesn’t want to look awesome, right? Now I’m stronger, fitter, and in a lot of ways healthier than I’ve ever been in my life, but my body fat percentage isn’t quite low enough to have the coveted 6-pack and ripped arms. I already train consistently and, like your client, I eat a healthy, sustainable, easy diet … with a healthy number of indulgences. I know to get that shredded physique I would have to be much stricter with my diet – track macros and calories, give up sweets and alcohol, etc. And like you, I tend to feel miserable when I’m too lean, even if I LOOK great. Every time I evaluate my progress I seem to have the same debate… do I want to change my diet to look better, or can I be satisfied with feeling great and being healthy?

    I’m leaning towards the latter these days. When I take a step back and look at the big picture that is my life, my passion for food (baking, specifically) is a BIG part of it right now and I’m not ready to give that up in pursuit of a 6-pack that only 1 or 2 other people will ever see. I would rather focus on PRs and health, love the fit body that I currently have and enjoy that beloved brownie when I really want one :) There is more to life than being ripped 24/7. I can’t imagine I’ll ever look back on my life with regret and say “If only I had hit 16% body fat….”!

  18. Beth Andrews says:

    Love,love this article. Spot on. It is your choice,it is a sacrifice to look a certain way that may/may not be healthy. Nicely thought out,well written article!

  19. Julie says:

    Thanks for this post, Molly! These are questions we should all ask ourselves. In my early 20′s, I was obsessed with leanness and gave up a lot of my social life and even risked my collegiate volleyball career to have a 6 or 8 pack. Now, I find it so important to maintain balance in my life, to enjoy food, to listen to my body. I hope your blog continues to inspire women to be realistic and healthy about their goals and physique.

  20. Just came across your blog, and love it! Great post….took me quite a while to really GET this!

  21. Lindsay S says:

    Thank you for this post.

    I’ve bookmarked it as a reminder.

    I’ve set these ‘so i can see my abs’ expectations for myself in the past as well.. and just like you, the leaner I got, I kept waiting for the perfect happy spot .. then realized, it wasn’t there.
    Being lean wasn’t the gift for being happy and satisfied with my body.

  22. Leah says:

    Thanks for the encouragement you offer! Although, I do have a long way to go on my journey you remind me that there is balance to be found for each of us! It is so hard not to compare myself to other women and get wrapped up in trying to find the “quick fix” so that I can look a certain way! I am finally realizing that it is a lifestyle. Thank you so much for your transparency… You are definitely paving the way for a new culture! I love it!

  23. Erica says:

    Thank you for this post. I’ve never been to this site before, but a link to this post appeared in my newsfeed and it’s really making me feel better about my failure to achieve that ultra-lean look. I do want to have more muscle mass, and I’m sure that as I get there, I’ll lean out a bit more in the process. However, just by eating mostly clean and staying generally active, I’m able to stay at a healthy weight (for my height) and be proportional to myself.

    I am a single mother to a two-year old, and it really bothers me that so many women say “that’s not an excuse to not be fit”. First off, one person’s “fit” is different from another person’s. Perhaps I am currently as “fit” as I desire to be, and that’s MY decision to make. Second of all, if I’m not willing to sacrifice time with my son to kill it at the gym, that’s also MY decision to make. I absolutely believe that there’s nothing wrong or neglectful about mom’s taking time to exercise and take care of themselves if it makes them happy and healthy. But if I don’t want to give up 2 hours of my time with my son to do that, that should be respected. My being a mother is not an “excuse”. Rather, it plays a huge role in my lifestyle, and it’s something I’m not willing to give up or change in order to have a six-pack.

    Ultimately, it’s just really uplifting and comforting to read that a professional understands and supports that my lifestyle just isn’t conducive to this “dream body”, and that’s ok. Really, I feel like as long as I am happy and comfortable with my body, and healthy, the rest shouldn’t really be up for comment or discussion from anyone else anyway.

  24. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for posting this!!!

  25. Bronwyn says:

    Great article. It really is all about how many sacrifices you are willing to make. I love how you mentioned finding that place where aesthetics, lifestyle, performance and health intersected, that’s a great way to think of it (definitely pictured a Venn diagram).

  26. Sally says:

    Great points. As a physique competitor, I know how being dieted down (uber-lean, like 10% bodyfat for me) is what it takes to win a competition. It’s incredibly hard to get to this state, and the body does not really want to be there. People admire you and are in awe of you when you look like this, but they usually have no idea how incredibly hard you trained and dieted (SUFFERED!) to get there, and it’s a temporary look for most. The posters you talk about are probably using models who did mostly the same thing – dieted hard for the shoot, and then put some healthy weight back on afterwards. It really is a misleading concept. Even my own eyes play tricks on me. When I recently watched professional tennis pros on TV, I thought to myself, “Wow, they don’t even “look” athletic!” LOL…That’s when I know my perspective about the “fit look” are really not in line with reality. To each his own, however. I do not like to put too much weight back on in “off-season”, so I am usually battling diet all year long. It’s a never-ending battle, but I have chosen to fight it for now.

  27. I LOVE THIS!!!!!! I myself have been working on spreading the same message:

    http://vanillabeanlean.com/2012/10/whats-beautiful/
    http://vanillabeanlean.com/2013/05/whats-beautiful-loving-yourself/
    http://vanillabeanlean.com/2013/05/look-into-the-mirror/
    http://vanillabeanlean.com/2013/05/re-lighting-my-fire/
    http://vanillabeanlean.com/2013/04/work-hard-play-hard/

    Hope you enjoy these – I am so happy to always come across other women who promote self love and being healthy. I LOVED your other posts as well! YOU ROCK!!!!

  28. Amanda Baesler Mitchell says:

    Hey Molly! Just started following you recently. Couldn’t have found you at a better time! :) With two pregnancies behind me I find my body ‘not the way it used to be’ and get a little down on myself. I too am sick of images floating around on social media defining what a woman should look like.

    Do you have insight how pregnancies, hormones (pre and post menopause) alter our figures? Sometimes it just seems like we are fighting a losing battle!

  29. JENNIFER says:

    Agree 100%!!! I am a body type that can not stay in the 5-7% body fat for extended periods of time with out extreme problems…I.E. I almost died because my liver was not functioning and toxic. I had been competing for about 2 years and was not taking ANY off season, dieting year round and trying so hard to get that pro card…well it just didn’t happen. I stayed sick for about a year and am finally just getting back to what i would consider somewhat of a fit physic…I’m guessing about 12-15% body fat…Not where I would like to be but where I have to accept to stay healthy. I am very stong and muscular but that layer of fat covering them frustrates me something terrible. I would love to compete again but I know I have to listen to my body and stay healthy. Thanks for the Blog…I know there are some genitic freaks out there but for those of us that have to bust our hump to get there like knowing we are not alone.

  30. Luis says:

    I think that everyone is different. I appreciate you sharing your experience with us all. I have seen couples working out together and being as happy and healthy as ever. I think that if hitting the gym 7 days a week makes a person happy then ok , with that said staying shredded is not for everyone either. All in all people should be able to do what makes them happy as long as they are not anyone. Thanks for sharing your post.

  31. Linda Ayers says:

    The article made great sense, but why only post the pics of the really lean women. If you are promoting the fact women do not have to try to live up to that kind of image, how about posting some pics of clients who are fit, healthy, and happy with their less than lean appearance? Would have liked to see those to reinforce the point that women are still beautiful, healthy and fit without the extreme leanness.

  32. Roy S. says:

    I, personally, hate the whole “train insane or remain the same” meme. As a trainer, I’ve come up with my own to replace it: “Train with your brain or you’ll end up in pain.”

  33. Shannon says:

    Great post. You can also turn your point around and look at it from a different point of view … I can’t remember when I realized this, but I distinctly recall thinking “Wow. I am actually missing out on a lot of fun stuff because I’m stressing so much about how I look. Put on some clothes and join the party! It will still be fun, even though I am not my ideal shape right now!!”

    Life is too precious to waste energy on not liking who you are!

  34. Michelle says:

    Great post…I find that my answers are TBD. :)

    My first figure comp is in 12 weeks and I had told myself when I started this journey that if I FELT awful or tired or fatigued or foggy, that I would tell my coach and make adjustments but that I would also reconsider the whole thing if it got bad enough emotionally/mentally for me. Currently, I’m still ok. Feeling great actually.
    I’m the lightest I’ve been in my adult life, I’m the leanest I’ve been ever, and I’m really excited to see even more changes in me. However, with all that being said I agree there is a price to this.

    I’m not anti-social but I do have to make adjustments to my plan if I want to go out with friends. But the best part is that I’m learning new habits that I hope to take with me long after the competition is over. I DO look forward to the day when I DONT measure out an ounce of almonds ;) or I get to go out to a nice restaurant and try a new entree I’ve never had before etc. But to me, this is about taking my body to a level it’s never been before (and doing it safely by the way, my coach is an RD and CSCS so I’m in good hands) and being a trainer myself I know when something isn’t going well or dangerous.
    I’m in total agreement with the Fitspo by the way, I recently blogged about it.
    And speaking of blogs, really interested in your next blog post about competitors. :) I’ll be “tuning in” to that one for sure. :)

    Thanks for all you do Molly, your posts have been very informative and thought provoking.

  35. Excellent post. I just got done speaking with a young woman about this exact thing. 16 year girls thinking they need to have 6 pack drives me nuts.

  36. Julia says:

    Hi Molly,
    I love this post. It is a difficult subject for us to approach as trainers, but an important one too, thanks for being brave enough to take it on. I wrote a post on my blog a few weeks ago talking about how I got to a level that “really lean” for me, for a photoshoot, but learned in the process that, all things taken into account, I’m generally happier at about 18% body fat. (http://www.juliasfitnessblog.com/blog/2013/06/15/getting-into-photoshoot-shape/) I was nervous about sharing that with the world because I know people are inspired by photos like the ones we took that day, but like you, I wanted people to know that getting “really lean” does require sacrifices for most of us, and it’s wise to at least make a rational decision on whether we think it’s worth it to maintain in the long term. :-)

  37. This article spoke so well to me, thank you for writing this! The “lean out” question has been on my mind for a long time (2+ years) and I am coming to the conclusion that in order to get below 20% body fat I would have to majorly restrict my diet which always sends me to a place of unnecessary judgement.

    Your article gave me the permission I have been searching for to listen to my body – thank you!!

    Andrea Leda

  38. Thanks for the article Molly! I had several discussions today with clients at the gym about physique and health, and I think this will be a great resource to point them towards to further discussion and awareness!

  39. Helen Kellogg says:

    I love the commentary about fitspo and I totally agree. Yes, Its important to reinforce the idea that it is okay and healthy for women to carry lean body mass, but the fitspo movement is going too far. Its just creating a new elite and often unattainable/unhealthy body ideal. Too bad “strong is the new skinny” (accompanied by the image of an extremely lean physique as a requisite) is so ubiquitous these days. Instead of spreading a positive, inclusive message that encourages healthy lifestyle and habits, it alienates people who look physically different from many of the presented images and introduces a new and equally impossible (for many people) physical standard. Keep up the great work Molly, I appreciate your insight and am extremely inspired by your determination and resilience!

  40. Kathryn says:

    Once I focused on being athletic and not focus on aesthetics, life became so much better! I look and feel healthy, which is your whole point! It may take some women longer to get lean; I’ve been lifting for over 5 years and all those dumb posters make everyone compare and think they can have it now. Of course not everyone wants to sacrifice anything in their life to get lean which is their choice, but I always keep chocolate in my week and make small (not drastic) changes to get leaner. I hope more people will see you can safely get lean if they choose it and listen to their body and smart coaches instead of the bodybuilding culture. I really like John Berardi and Charles Poliquin’s teachings for this purpose. If everyone worked on posture every day, had fun with their activities, and established good nutrition habits, a leaner body naturally comes over time because you learn how to use and enjoy your body. I’m glad more women are out there who accept themselves rather than force themselves into competition leanness!
    For me, been lean is 12-15% body fat but I don’t compete. I make it a lifestyle by lifting, sprinting, and eating food from local farms. I eat 2-4 meals per day on average and eat lots of fat which has been shown to support brain and long-term health and is based on Weston A. Price’s teachings. Whatever “lean” means to each woman is personal but good mental and physical health should always be the end result.

  41. Diane says:

    Well said. These thoughts run in my head but I haven’t been able to express. At what price are you willing to pay to be really lean? I can get really lean with a lot of work. Meaning, no variation in the diet, 40 minutes of cardio 6x a week, lifting 6x a week, no wine or beer, etc. I am TIRED of feeling guilty when I go outside this box. I am 57. I look great, am strong, and am reasonably lean. I am going for healthy and happy instead of extremely lean and miserable. I want to enjoy food, my family, and my life.

  42. Sherry says:

    I don’t usually comment, but wow this really hit home. I’m 47 mother of 2 (5year old and 1 1/2 year old) and have been competing for about 2 years in bikini (youngest is adopted if ur wondering). I love the results I see when doing super strict dieting and training but feel like such a sissy whiner because I’m all the time complaining about how shitty and exhausted I feel. To me I sound like I think I have it harder than anyone else w all my complaining about how I’m absolutely physically exhausted by the middle of the day, yet I have a family to take care of. I need to find a middle ground where I can maintain more than 8 per body fat and be satisfied w my energy levels and how I look. I’ve lost my period as well. Jesus. Thanks for this article and others.

  43. Lorna says:

    I will take strong and healthy over lean any day…. and this is a realization I have only recently come to.

  44. Erin says:

    This was a very insightful article. It reminds me that not all of us are shaped like models and we need to work with what we have. I’m pretty good at maintaining, but losing weight just feels impossible sometimes. It feels like my body fights me every inch of the way; it’s nice to know that’s pretty normal. Thanks!

  45. I swear we have written the same blogs! There are days I’d die to get leaner. But most days I’m perfectly okay with having a little cellulite, belly pudge and not completely ripped arms so I can enjoy my margaritas. The way I look at it, for me to be that lean I’d become such a raging bitch I’d never have any friends – and without friends, where am I gonna go to show off my “perfect” body?!

  46. Amanda says:

    Beautiful article. This really hits home for me. I am always saying that while many, many women with the sculpted 6 pack abs look amazing and I love the dedication I know it must of taken to get that, that is nothing I aim for or want. I just want to be my level of healthy and my idea of healthy for me doesn’t include 6pack abs. But that doesn’t mean I work any less hard then a lady with rocking abs does.

    Thanks for this!

  47. Liz says:

    Thanks for your post, I really appreciate your comments. Beyond the extreme lifestyle necessary for most people to attain the ideal lean physique, I’ve been noticing how much movement mobility people are willing to give up to be lean. Overdeveloped external abdominals inhibit our internal abdominals’ ability to aid us in core support – the support necessary for easeful walking, standing, sitting, jumping, etc. Musclebound arms and legs inhibit rotary function in the femoral and humeral joints – causing compensating low back pain and shoulder/neck tension. Let alone the impact of crossfit/insanity/bad yoga alignment on joints! SCARY. Let’s work out smarter, not harder, and focus on mobility and whole health instead of just a lean physique.

  48. Sharon says:

    When I was 13 I weighed 115 lbs, stood 5’3″ and my mother told me I was chubby. I know and understand now that my mother said what she did without even thinking about what she was saying or how I would take it. After all that was the weight she weighed when she graduated high school. However, she is 5’8″. I joke that she’s tall, thin and flat chested while I’m not.
    My mother later showed me pictures of myself at that age telling me that was a good weight for me. I reminded her of what she said but she didn’t even remember. I really wish there had been someone around to tell me then what you said in your blog. The same things that I tell women who are struggling with this body image thing.
    I understand that now but I wish I understood it then. I did all the wrong things to lose weight I didn’t need to lose. Now I have weight I need to lose and I struggle to keep from gaining back what I lose. Currently I’m on the one step back of the two steps forward and one step back weight loss dance.
    I hope that you understand that what you said in your blog has impact and that there are people that won’t leave a comment but will take home the message. Thank you for reminding me that I am doing this to stay healthy and to be the best me that I can be. Not to fit an image of someone that I’m never going to be because its not who I’m meant to be. Now I need to thank my friend who shared the link!

  49. Tamara says:

    Bang on. Every single word.
    I love that you tell it like it is re: getting rid of all indulgences if *lean* is really and truly what you want.
    Me? I’m happy being fit and healthy, with strong muscles but no visible six pack!

  50. Debi says:

    I really appreciate your direct honesty. I would love just to get back to 24% bodyfat. I felt great then and was very comfortable. Now I am really high in body fat and can’t seem to find the right amounts to eat so my body responds. I really need to find someone to help me in this, even just to have a chat and question period. I certainly wish I had athletic friends to bounce things off them.

  51. Chelsea says:

    Perfectly timed article… as a former “chunky-kid-turned-still-chunky-collegiate-athlete” I have struggled with weight my whole life. I started levying heavy a few years ago but finally cleaned up my diet & started to see the lean, hard body I’d always wanted. Perfect! Let’s enter a bikini competition – even though it’s 1000% not my thing, I naturally have too much muscle, and it doesn’t make me feel good about myself… I could do it & not look like an idiot now, right?! Long story short, I realized I (personally) would be much happier if my hard work was judged in a more athletic way… But I can’t quite shake the “bikini competitor” mentality about food. In the last week I have started weighing foods, obsessively entering numbers into My Fitness Pal, carb cycling (which I actually like) and two-a-days with fasted cardio. Am I leaning out? You bet? Am I stressed as all hell about carbs and hitting my macros, and not letting myself have wine or dark chocolate (or even BLUEBERRIES on dome days, for Pete’s sake!) Ohhh yeah. My poor dog has been neglected, I never go out to eat, I have gotten out of bed to finish my “100 push-ups a day”, and I think about food/exercise 24/7… Thank you for the swift kick in the face that I will use to help me get my sanity back!!

  52. Pristine says:

    I have to say choosing to be lean or compete is not choosing aesthetics “over” a lifestyle it is a lifestyle choice. I happen to like it more than other lifestyle options like getting drunk or being ssurrounded by drunken folks (then hungover), or watching tv &or laying around or sleeping a ton for example.

    • molly says:

      Pristine,

      Thanks for commenting. I can totally appreciate that and it’s definitely different for everyone.

      For me to be super lean I have to weigh/measure/calculate every single morsel of food that passes through my lips, I stress about eating at restaurants, and worry about traveling instead of enjoying it — those are the “lifestyle” components I am thinking of.

      I don’t really drink, don’t have TV in my house, and definitely wouldn’t call myself lazy, so I guess it depends on your individual experience. If your aesthetic endeavors enhance your life… more power to you! I think we should all find what makes us happiest long-term. That’s awesome! :)

      Thanks for sharing!

  53. Kristin says:

    Thank you so much for this article! I think it’s super important to have a strong voice in the fitness world that shares the realities of female body transformation– what’s realistic vs unrealistic, and the compromises and sacrifices that might be necessary to achieve certain levels of leanness.

    I’m striving to share a similar message on my site at http://www.kristinrooke.com, and hope to see more women in the health and fitness field advocate body-love and moderation over fitspiration and extremes.

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