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How Lean Do You Really Need to Get?

How Lean Do You Really Need to Get?

Have you ever looked at Brad Pitt in Fight Club and longed to have a body like Tyler Durden? The fantasy is understandable. After all, Brad Pitt's character is a smooth-talking, heroic ladies' man in the film. If you're a woman, you might have looked at your favorite actress in a film and wished you could be as lean and ripped as her. But when it comes down to actually achieving this super-lean, shredded look, there are two major misconceptions which most of us carry around.

Misconception #1 - If you're already reasonably fit, you can look like a fitness magazine model with some small tweaks to your diet and workouts.  

Misconception #2 - It's impossible to get as lean as those cover models for someone with a normal life, because it would involve brutal hours in the gym and an immensely restrictive diet.

Both of these assumptions are wrong, for different reasons. Firstly, going from 'couch potato' to 'somewhat fit' is relatively easy. Going from 'somewhat fit' to 'magazine cover model' is anything but easy. The amount of work you have to put in to maintain your physique increases dramatically the leaner you get. In addition, the images you see on magazine covers are heavily photoshopped and involve a lot of makeup and strategic lighting. The models you see in those photos don't look like that all year round. On the other hand, if you have a little bit of a paunch right now, you can get into fairly decent shape with a moderate amount of effort. All it takes is a steady, incremental series of changes to your diet and lifestyle.

So, how lean is too lean? And yes, there is such a thing as being too lean. There are trade-offs you make as your body gets leaner.

When you're in the 20% and above body fat range (30% and above for women), you'll generally have low energy, be more susceptible to illness and have a poorer quality of sleep. However, this range is easy to maintain since you don't really have to do anything different. You could eat chips and sleep on the couch and still be in this range. When you get to the 15-20% mark (25-30% for women), you'll start sleeping better, have more energy and generally be more healthy. To get to this point, you'll have to make some changes to your diet and lifestyle.

In the 13-15% range (23-25% for women), you will look even better and enjoy great physical performance. However, you'll have to cut back on certain social events and commitments to ensure that you can stick to your diet. Eating out and having a few drinks at parties can quickly derail your physique. You'll also have to put in a little bit of extra effort to get good sleep. You might find that you're getting stressed more often.

In the 10-12% range (20-22% for women), you'll be at the perfect body fat percentage. You'll sleep better, have more energy, and look absolutely fantastic. Since you've already gone through a lot of the dietary changes required to get this lean, you'll have little to no trouble maintaining your physique. Obviously, you'll have to be slightly more particular about what you eat.

And then there are the single-digit percentages (less than 16% for women). Here, you'll finally have your six-pack to flaunt on beach day. Unfortunately, there's a trade-off here. Sure, you'll have the unbridled satisfaction of achieving a physical goal that many of your friends consider impossible. But to maintain this physical condition, you will have to structure your entire day around your meals and your exercise routine. You'll have to stringently measure every item of food that you consume. You'll also experience massive cravings when you are in situations where there's a lot of food around. You might have to curtail your social calendar to ensure that you don't fall off the wagon. By filling your day with calorie counts, reps and meal timings, you will introduce a lot of stress into your life.

So, now you know that being incredibly lean isn't the answer. For men, the number you should be aiming for is 11-22% body fat. If you're a woman, you should aim for 22-33%. You can adopt some healthy habits to get to your ideal body fat percentage. Remember, as you get leaner, you'll have to make more modifications to your current lifestyle.

• Getting from 'overweight' to 'normal'

     - Cut down on fizzy, sugary and carbonated drinks.

     - Cut down on fast food and desserts.

     - Take a 10-minute walk or practice a 10-minute yoga routine daily. 

• Getting from 'normal' to 'lean'

     - Add one healthy item to each meal of the day.

     - Eat more fruits and vegetables.

     - Lift weights or indulge in some kind of exercise 3-4 times a week. 

• Getting from 'lean' to 'ripped'

     - Increase the intensity of your exercise routine.

     - Eliminate processed foods from your diet.

     - Get more sleep.

     - Eat even more vegetables, lean protein and whole foods.

     - Cut down on alcohol and sodas.  

In summation, don't assume that people with six-packs are healthy. As a matter of fact, the models you see on cover photos are almost always unhealthy. Isolating yourself from your loved ones and becoming obsessed with micro- and macro-nutrient calorific values is unhealthy behavior. A lot of those magazine models use diuretics and other drugs to achieve that impossibly lean look. You don't need to be extremely lean to be healthy. Don't drink the fitness magazine Kool-Aid.


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