The truth about being under 5% body fat
April 10, 2020
So, let me get this straight. You are purposefully starving yourself so that you can prance around a stage with other dudes in thongs, greased up and with fake tan on in pursuit of a small trophy and no financial gain
In 2015, I set myself the goal of competing in a natural bodybuilding show.
The above was a question (or something similar) that I had from a lot of different people when I said I was going to compete in a bodybuilding competition.
Not everyone understood why I wanted to do this.
To be honest, I'm not truly sure I did either.
It seemed like a good thing to do.
I was making OK progress in the gym but I knew that I needed something to train for.
Something to give me purpose when I'm lifting weights.
And something that as an almost bi-product, would get me completely and utterly ripped.
The goal is to become so shredded your abs are like a cheese greater
Sounds like a bit of a dick thing to say huh?
But that was my attitude a couple of years ago.
Whilst I had started my bodybuilding prep with the best of intentions, by the end nothing else mattered other than being as ripped as possible.
Missing out on friends birthdays? Didn't mind because I didn't have to worry about going over my calorie and macronutrient targets.
Missing out on going on holiday? Didn't mind because it meant I could still get a weeks worth of solid training in.
Missed out on enjoying my friends wedding? Didn't mind because I was still on track to hit my goal.
I dieted very slowly for about 6-7 months to achieve this goal, and rebounded hard after doing so.
I was in unchartered territory in terms of body fat levels for me.
I had never been that lean before, and I'm not sure I'd like to be that lean again.
This experience taught me a great deal about what it is actually like to diet to levels below where your body wants to be.
In this article, I'll share my experiences and shed some light on what it is actually like to be under 5% body fat for a sustained period of time.
Hopefully, if being as peeled as a boiled potato is your goal you can take some hints and tips and avoid the mistakes that I made!
So I started this journey at around 215 lbs, roughly 15-20% body fat after having spent a solid couple of years adding some size and getting as strong as possible.
As you can see from the picture I was by no means starting from a completely ideal standpoint, but did have fairly solid foundations to build upon.
Here is how I saw it.
For the majority of my training life I'd thought that being lean meant you knew what you were doing inside and outside of the gym.
I had always associated being lean with being successful.
Saying to myself "if I can just get lean then anything would be possible". My goal was to compete in a bodybuilding show to give me something to train for, but also because I wanted to be lean.
In reality, I had no idea what that would entail!
I wanted to be lean because I thought being lean made me a better person.
I thought, that if I was just lean enough I would be able to get all the attention I wanted.
In readily, I ended up getting more compliments from other lean men at the gym, and in a weird way appreciated those comments more than from women, because these guys also knew what it takes to be so lean you have feathered triceps.
In fact, most people were just pretty grossed out by how I looked in the end, commenting on how unhealthy I looked a couple of weeks out.
I was hungry, tired, had no libido, thought about food ALL the time, was weighing my food to the nearest gram, lost strength and slept pretty badly for about 3 of the 6 months I was dieting.
For the first couple of months the dieting was pretty easy.
Because I am quite active (hitting 10,000+) steps a day and am tall (6 foot 2) I was still eating quite a lot in the beginning, and training was great fun because I was getting stronger as my coach (a guy called Steve Hall from Revive Stronger who is hugely successful and a great bloke) had me on a high volume strength programme.
Deploying flexible dieting meant that I wasn't having to give up much, if any, of the foods that I enjoy in order to make progress.
I really enjoyed it and made some pretty steady progress until I was about 190 lbs in the picture below.
The discipline and lazar focus that having a goal gave me motivated every day.
I was training 5 days a week, combination of resistance, high intensity and slow state cardio and was loving it.
But after I hit 190 lbs things got real HARD! , real QUICK.
From 190 lbs to 183 (the weight I was when I competed in the bodybuilding shows) things were a real struggle.
After consulting several pretty informed people around bodybuilding, I estimated that I was around 8-10% body fat at around 190 lbs and then around 5% when I hit stage at 183 lbs.
The reality of being this lean is pretty dull.
You settle into a routine because you know if you follow this routine and "focus on keeping the goal the goal" as Jeff Alberts from 3D Muscle Journey puts it, you will get there in the end.
The reality of being this lean is also pretty smelly.
I was eating a ridiculous amount of vegetables on a daily basis to try and feel satiated that I was probably solely responsible for global warming in 2015.
Your sex drive also goes.
My partner can attest to that.
It also tests your will power (something I was yet to learn was a definite finite resource).
Whilst trying to get this lean, I was working 40-50 hours a week in an office job.
If you're reading this and work in an office job, you'll know that things like after work beers, or Fat Fridays are a real thing and a dieters nightmare.
I would politely turn down biscuits, birthday cake, or the occasional KFC run because it didn't fit my macros, and turn back to my 1KG tub of Fajé 0% greek yoghurt telling myself:
"This is actually as tasty as a boneless banquet."
This eventually leads to people questioning why on earth you are doing this, taunting you with treats, and genuinely (from your self centred approach) trying to steer you off course.
For me, this cemented my resolve even more.
Your sleep is also pretty damn bad.
I recently bought a FitBit for the second time.
The first one I had was given to me as a gift. I was tracking back through my sleep history out of interest and found the below to be pretty grim reading...
I remember regularly having to get up in the night to go the toilet.
I would regularly wake in the middle of night with hunger pangs, often "borrowing" calories from the next day in the form of a cereal bar at 3AM so that I could get back to sleep.
I also vivedly remember dreaming of food.
But not the typical junk food you would think.
I was dreaming of protein bars.
And more specifically, Quest bars.
Caffeine consumption was through the roof.
Not only was I drink around 8-10 cups of coffee a day, I was also making these coffees stronger than normal, using two heaped teaspoons of the old Kenco as opposed to one.
Now I know a bit more about caffeine consumption and the effects on the body, I cringe as this was obviously impacting my sleep.
Overall, the quest to get lean should be one that serves a purpose.
Trying to get lean for getting leans sake will only lead you down a path of perfectionism which is never attainable.
You'll also be much more likely to rebound hard (like I did) because you will soon figure out that being lean (and maintaining it) is pretty darn difficult, particularly if you don't want to live like a monk.
You are way more susceptible to the "fuck it" mentality where you fall off the bandwagon and take more time than normal to get off.
There are a couple of questions that you will need to ask yourself if you want to successfully diet to very low levels of body fat.
I have boiled it down to 5 in this article.
There are some serious considerations to be aware of
if you reading this and thinking about dieting to very low levels of body fat.
1. Are you prepared to spend most of your time thinking, and most likely obsessing over food?
This is probably the most prominent thing I remember.
Thinking about food all the time.
Wandering through the bakery isle of Asda, inhaling all the different types of croissant, bagel and bread.
In the beginning of the cut, it was fine because I could just about squeeze a pain au chocolat into the macros.
But by the end, this was not an option.
This self enforced deprivation 100% makes you want things more.
Even if I would never normally eat this type of food.
Alot of the time I spent on the internet too after work was looking at protein bars... scouring the internet for the best deals, looking out for "close to expiry" bars that would be heavily discounted so I could buy loads!
I also began to obsess about having the right foods in the house, and would lose my shit if anyone ate my chicken and broccoli without checking how many grams I needed first.
So be prepared to think about food, A LOT!
2. Are you prepared to sacrifice most other areas of your life in order to get as lean as possible?
For me, the main sacrifices were social events.
My group of friends were seasoned drinkers, and very social creatures often going out for meals and nights out.
I would end up driving on nights out, even if this was not practical.
Purely because I would have a ready made excuse for not drinking, rather than have to explain to every man and his dog that I was training for a body building competition.
This worked... for a while.
I soon began to become frustrated at those people who were drinking around me whilst I was staying sober.
Or annoyed that the chefs weren't prioritising my bodybuilding goal over the servings of garlic butter provided with the steak.. "Don't they know I can't eat that shit!" would be a popular phrase of mine.
To make life simpler, I would retreat into the comfort of isolation: it was easier for me to be on my own without temptation.
This was not a healthy behaviour and I had this pointed out to me by several close friends and family members.
But ultimately, the story I told myself was one of sacrifice being worth it in the end.
I think because I had a goal, it was.
But if you are just trying to get lean for leanness sake, do take the time to consider this facet..
3. Will you be able to keep sight of the end goal?
It's really easy to lose sight of why you are actually doing what you are doing, particularly when you're just doing it because "I want to be lean".
Ask yourself this - do you have absolute clarity on what it is you are trying to achieve?
Yes? Good stuff, this will help an awful lot.
No? Consider going back to the drawing board. Trying to get <5% body fat just for the sake of it is pretty pointless.
You'll spend a heap of time getting there (for most of which you will probably be miserable) only to get there and be like "cool, I'm shredded, now what?"
People generally don't care how lean you are.
It doesn't make you a better person.
It doesn't give your life more purpose.
It just makes you pretty miserable and tired.
You are better off considering WHY you feel the need to be super duper lean.
4. Have you got enough high quality support relationships that are going to weather the storm with you?
This is absolutely vital.
We have been supported by others since birth, and throughout our lives.
This doesn't change when you get older no matter how much you think it might.
Who have you got that will actually listen to and empathise with your self-imposed struggles?
Human connections are vital, especially when putting your body through the stress of extreme dieting.
There is solid research for a support network increasing the likelihood of behaviour change for nutrition and exercise.
The biggest thing for me when trying to get the support of friends (not so much family as the backed me no matter what) was to get them to understand what I was doing.
Taking the time to explain to friends who didn't even know what bodybuilding was made a good deal of difference when I would come to them saying "I'm so tired" or "I'm so hungry".
But pick your moments. People's emotional capacity to deal with you will likely wear off if pulled on too frequently.
This is where having an online support network was of huge benefit to me.
There is nothing better than being part of a network of people who share the same interests and often, have experienced that same things of you.
This is truly where it paid dividends to have Steve as my coach, he had been there and done it before.
5. Do you have a plan for when you stop dieting?
You need a plan.
Rebounds are a real thing.
Personally, I gained about 30 lbs in the 6 months after my show.
I actually won the regional qualifier for my category, but because of work commitments I couldn't compete in the national finals.
My diet had also taken it's toll on me mentally.
Every day seemed a struggle towards the end with my willpower reduced to 0 by the end.
I actually had a plan for my recovery as my coach was awesome. Despite my best efforts however I fell into the typical cycle of gorging myself stupid post show and ended up probably heavier than I started this whole journey.
So please learn from me.
Have a plan.
Make a plan of how you are going to stick to the plan.
Make it easy to hit this plan.
Stick with your support group after you decide you want to stop getting lean.
This will make a hell of a difference.
In summary, if you are planning to get shredded to pretty low levels of body fat I suggest the following
1. Accept that you will think about food a good amount of time, but try not to let that become an all encompassing obsession.
2. Think about what areas of your life you are prepared to make concessions on to help you achieve your goal. Think about this real hard.
3. If the goal is to become lean for the being leans sake, then this is an ever shifting target which you will never be satisfied with. Have a real, tangible goal like a photoshoot, or competition.
4. Join a group, get a coach and gather your support around you for when times are crappy. You will need them if you want to be consistent.
5. Plan for when you finish. Plan a date that you will finish on. Plan how you will reverse diet effectively. Don't fall into the fuck it mentality like I did!
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