Fitness magazines are full of them. Bodybuilding forums are full of them: articles about how to lose fat and discover your abs. What's missing? Simple: Info on how to stay that way once you've reached your goal.
Sometimes we resistance-trained gym rats make fun of housewife-types for their yo-yo dieting ways. Yet don't many of us do the same thing, only give it different names like "mass phase" or "cutting phase?" Now, there's nothing wrong with getting your bulk on during certain times of the year, but this desire for size sometimes results in a guy who basically just looks fat 300 days of the year.
Nice traps, but nice love handles too. Nice life-shortening central adiposity you've got going there, buddy.
These days, I prefer to stay under 12% year around. This, by the way, isn't a natural state for me. I was chubby during most of my childhood and still can gain fat at an absurd rate if I follow my belly wishes. With hard training, trial and error nutrition strategies, and some good supplements, I was able to win the battle of the bulge. Win the battle? Yes, but the war is never over.
How come no one talks about the struggles of staying lean? Probably because most people are fat, and there's just a bigger audience (no pun intended) for how-to-lose-it articles than how-to-keep-it-off articles...
Here's how I've learned to stay in the single-digit body fat zone in spite of my fat boy genetics and hungry-man ways. There's not a lot of deep science here, just practical strategies to help you stay ripped for more than a couple of weeks at a time.
Tip #1: Strategically vary meal size.
Here's the scoop: Eat a big breakfast. Eat medium sized, frequent meals during the day. Eat a very small meal at night.
Science has backed up this style of eating, but I want to focus on the common sense stuff. A big breakfast does two things:
1) It breaks the fast of sleep. You need a lot of good food in the morning because you haven't eaten all night. Eat breakfast every day, and eat a big one!
2) Breakfast fuels you for the rest of the day. Basically, you can "burn up" almost anything you eat for breakfast because you'll be awake for the next 15 or 16 hours. Studies have shown that breakfast skippers tend to overcompensate later in the day. In other words, they skip breakfast and pig out on crap at lunch and at night. Not exactly the key to long term leanness.
Okay, so a big, honkin' breakfast is a good idea. So why a small dinner? For almost the same reason: you're about to go to bed; is your body going to use that caloric energy or store it? Store it, of course. As body friggin' fat.
I like eating strategies that have been supported by both science and in-the-trenches lifters, and this meal sizing trick isn't new. Bodybuilder Lee Haney used it back in the day, and nutritional studies support it today.
Tip #2: Strategically time carb and fat intake.
I'm going to keep the language here real simple: Your body handles carbs much better in the morning. It handles carbs poorly at night, but tends to handle fats better.
So go with your body's natural flow: Have a good shot of carbohydrates for breakfast and consume fewer at night. Likewise, keep the dietary fats low in the morning and higher in the evening.
This basic strategy keeps me at 9-12% body fat year round without sacrificing good, anabolic nutrition. In other words, I don't feel deprived and I'm not giving up muscle gains, although obviously I'm not going to gain muscle as fast as I would in a traditional "bulking" cycle. And that's fine when my primary goal is leanness.
Now, the exception to the above guideline may be post-workout. I train around noon so this strategy works out for me. However, if you train at night, don't sweat a high carb post-workout drink. The post-workout period is the "great corrector." Carbs consumed after training are "put to work," so have them, even if you train at 9PM.
Tip #3: Increase your NEPA.
When I dropped from around 15% to 9% body fat, one of the strategies I used was a daily walk. I know, I know... "Get a real workout!" I wanted to yell. But if you're already weight training and maybe doing some sprints, an early morning or nightly walk will really take you to the next level of leanness, and keep you there.
Increased NEPA (non-exercise physical activity) is a powerful tool when you want to keep your abs fully visible. You may only be in the gym three to five hours per week; what about the rest of the time? Actively increasing NEPA could be the difference between single-digit body fat and "muscular guy with fat gut syndrome."
To boost my NEPA, I take stairs whenever possible, I park far away from stores so I'll have to walk more, I refuse to roll my luggage at the airport, and I generally try to take more steps per day. You can do that or you can just take a scheduled walk. I usually pop in an audio book, leash up my dog, and take off either in the morning after breakfast or late in the evening before my last meal. The pace is relatively fast, but it's not exactly "cardio."
I never thought this made much of a difference until a few months ago when I stopped doing it. Although my diet and weight training stayed the same, my body fat climbed slowly back into the double digits. After two weeks of getting back into the walking habit, I was back to single-digit delight; all from the ridiculously simple activity of walking more.
Tip #4: Stop it with the cheat meals (or most of them anyway).
My philosophy used to be this: Eat clean all week; reward myself with piles of garbage on the whole weekend.
Don't fool yourself. It just doesn't work.
In the years that followed, I cut back to Saturday-only pig-outs, then a "one cheat meal per week" strategy. I slowly became leaner and leaner. These days, cheat meals come rarely, if at all. I lost my taste for most cheat foods. I simply stopped liking most of them and developed a taste for healthier fare, an unexpected but much appreciated side effect of that strict diet.
A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to go to The Cheesecake Factory, a restaurant that used to be my ultimate choice for a cheat meal. I'd planned to pig out too; it had been months since I'd dove into a big 1000 calorie dessert. I got there and, much to my surprise, I just didn't want it! The habit was finally dead. (I had a great Thai steak salad instead. Mind and body fully pleased.)
For those that still blow the hell out of their diets at least once per week, I only ask that you examine both your goals and your physique. If you're a skinny guy trying to gain weight, well, a whole pizza on Saturday night may not be a bad thing.
But if you're like I was, a "fit" guy with a gut, then maybe it's time for a change. I'd suggest a step-by-step approach. Have only one cheat per week if you're currently having two. If you're having one, go to one every two weeks.
Step it down. BREAK THE CYCLE. You'll feel better, you'll look better, you'll be healthier in the long run.
Tip #5: Don't eat too late at night.
Long story short: For years I worried about "going catabolic" as I slept at night. I visualized my hard-earned muscle atrophying away.
To prevent this, I had a big meal right before bed. I mean, right before. I'd swallow the last bite as my head hit the pillow. Guess what? I could never stay really lean doing this. Single digit body fat defied me.
In short, I stopped doing it. Now I don't eat in the two hours or so before bed. Now I can easily stay at 9%. Coincidence? I don't think so.
I still worry a little about losing muscle, but as long as my last meal is very high protein and slow digesting, and as long as I wake up to a big, equally high-protein breakfast, then I don't lose any muscle.
Now, if you're a hard-gaining, skinny-as-a-rail teenager, go ahead and eat before bed. Maybe chug a protein shake in the middle of the night too. But if you've struggled to stay lean and have "fat boy tendencies," don't eat right before bedtime.
Tip #6: Don't eat quite as much on off days.
This is pretty straightforward. You need more fuel to get through a tough workout, and you burn up more fuel (calories) during it. So on your off days, eat a little less to match your lower energy expenditure.
How much less? Play around with it. There are a lot of variables involved but try 200 to 300 calories less and see what happens.
Long Term Leanness
These strategies aren't for everyone. They're for the guy or gal who's lost a lot of fat and wants to keep it off. If you're the type that gets shredded for summer and bulks up in the winter, then these tips should help you easily stay lean all year long.
These strategies may also help you if you're a guy like me: a former fatty who got lean, loves it, and refuses to get fat again. For you, these tips may be your key to long term leanness!