In the US, the current approach to losing weight--starvation diets and excessive cardio--has produced a weird phenomenon called skinny fat. Someone who is skinny fat is currently at a healthy weight, but their use of a low-calorie diet and/or chronic cardio has stripped away their lean mass. Consequently, this forces their brain to maintain that healthy weight with excessive body fat, giving them an undesirable body composition (which allows them to look skinny in clothing, but obviously flabby when in a bathing suit).
What is Body Composition?When someone talks about body composition, they are referring to the amount of lean and fat mass that a person has. Lean mass usually refers to skeletal muscle, but it really represents anything that is not fat. Fat mass refers to the amount of energy found stored in subcutaneous, visceral, and intramuscular fat cells. For a given weight, the more fat you have, the less lean mass you will have (and vice versa).
A healthy person is supposed to have much more lean mass than fat mass. Outside of environmental requirements (e.g., living in a really cold environment), too much body fat (especially visceral fat) is abnormal and is associated with disease.
Although there are different definitions for when a person is considered to have too much body fat, generally you should be worried if you are a male with a body fat percentage greater than 17% or a woman with more than 24%.
|This is the American Council on Exercise (ACE) chart that shows healthy body fat percentages. Your goal should be to get into the Athletes and Fitness categories, no matter how old you are.|
Body Composition and ObesityWhile most people associate obesity with body weight, body composition is the true measure. This is because any given body weight can be represented by many ratios of lean and fat mass. For instance, depending on a person's body fat percentage a person (at the same weight) can be either obese, average, or fit.
|Here is an example of why body composition is an important measure of overall health. In each table, a single weight can represent all health categories. The amount of body fat determines how healthy you are.|
In the chart above, I show how the same body weight can range from unhealthy to healthy depending on the amount of lean and fat mass a person has. What you can't see in these tables is how each body fat percentage changes the way you look, even if your weight remains the same. Here's a visual:
|Body composition radically changes how your body looks, even if your weight doesn't change. The percentage number represents body fat.|
Even if your weight is considered healthy, if you have too much body fat, then your health may still be at risk. You will also not look skinny in a bathing suit. As you replace body fat with lean mass, you will improve your health and your body will look lean whether you have clothes on or not.
Although the process of building muscle and "burning" fat is actually very simple, following conventional wisdom usually requires way more effort than necessary. Conventional wisdom advocates forced calorie restriction, calorie-counting, excess cardio, and a diet high in healthy-whole-grains and vegetable oils and low in fat, cholesterol, and most animal products. That is probably the worst advice you could get for allowing your brain to control your weight automatically while also building muscle.
Essentially, if you want to improve your body composition then:
- Feed your body the nutrients it needs (filled with all whole foods like meats, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and natural fats like tallow, lard, butter, coconut oil, and olive oil).
- Exercise 5-6 days a week, with each of your daily workouts completed in under 45-60 minutes per day.
- Concentrate on heavy/intense exercises (and the more intense the exercise, the shorter your daily workouts).
- Be careful not to use too much cardio (it lacks the intensity necessary to continuously build muscle and can increase your cortisol levels if you do too much).
Because conventional wisdom also believes that you can burn excess fat with extra exercise, let me reiterate my belief that the fastest and easiest way to "burn" fat is to build muscle. Because your body likes to maintain a stable weight, any increase in lean mass will usually force a drop in fat weight (you have to be at a healthy weight to really see this happen consistently).
However, if you lose fat weight without building muscle, then your weight can drop temporarily. Since the drop in weight now places you below your stable weight, the brain will increase appetite and hunger to get that fat back to bring your weight back up. This is why I advocate a clean diet to reduce body weight, not exercise. This diet will allow the brain to remain sensitive to the feedback systems that regulate your body weight.
Once you get to a body fat percentage that you are happy with, change your exercise program to maintain the muscle that you have (e.g., maintain your workout intensity). Building more muscle will continue to drop your body fat until you get to your genetically established minimum body fat percentage (which is different for everybody). At that point, your brain will be forced to maintain a heavier body weight set point to accommodate any extra muscle (which, for men, might not be such a bad thing).
If you want to learn more about efficiently building lean mass then check out my muscle-building series.
Is There an Ideal Body Composition?Identifying an ideal body fat percentage is trickier than trying to estimate what your ideal body weight could be. For men, a muscular and lean body is seen as attractive (within reason). For women, however, too little body fat looks unnatural.
|Here is an example of different body fat percentages on women.|
I don't think that there is an exact ideal body fat percentage, but I do believe that the healthiest range for women is between 14 and 21 percent; males should shoot for something between 11 and 15 percent.
An Example of Body Composition ChangeAs I've said in other posts, I like to search the Internet for promising exercise techniques and then try them out for 30 days. At the end of each test period I have my body composition tested to see the results. Over the past six months, I've found several different techniques that can be added together to help someone quickly add lean mass--while also losing fat mass--with very little effort. Here is what I found:
- Nov11: Starting weight 131 pounds (116.86 pounds of lean mass and 14.14 pounds of fat mass). Body fat percentage was 10.79%. Primarily eating low-carb Paleo.
- Nov11 to Dec11: Tried overfeeding (mostly fat and protein) and heavy weight lifting to build muscle. Gained about a half-pound of muscle and 6.5 pounds of fat. Body weight now almost 138 pounds.
- Dec11 to Jan12: Stopped overfeeding, increased carbohydrate intake to 125 grams per day, and switched from lifting heavy weights to HIIT in an attempt to "burn" excess fat. Lost about 4.5 pounds of overall body weight, but most of that loss was muscle! Body weight now 133 pounds.
- Jan12 to Feb12: Started back into power lifting as well as consuming creatine and more protein (1.25 grams per pound of lean muscle mass). Gained over a pound of muscle and lost a half-pound of fat. Weight stable at 133 pounds.
- Feb12 to Mar12: Cut back on cardio, continued with power lifting, and started playing with volume training. Also continued protein supplementation (but no longer taking creatine) while increasing my carbohydrate intake to 150 grams per day. Gained 1.6 pounds of muscle and lost 2.9 pounds of fat. Weight now 132.5 pounds.
- Mar12 to Apr12: Experimented with negative training, power lifting, and volume training. Playing around with nutrient timing. Stopped all cardio. Carbohydrate intake up to 200 grams per day. Gained .5 pounds of muscle. Weight back up to 133 pounds.
- Apr12 to May12: Now using overload training, power lifting, volume training, and full nutrient timing. Not doing any cardio. Still eating a Paleo-like diet, but carbohydrate intake now at 245 grams per day (mostly white potatoes, white rice, and fruit). Gained 1.4 pounds of muscle and lost 1.3 pounds of fat. Current weight is 133.16 pounds (119.358 pounds of lean mass and 13.802 pounds of fat mass). Body fat percentage is 10.36%.
While not a perfect scientific experiment (because I was adjusting several variables at once), I still learned three very important things:
- Heavy/intense exercises build muscle; light/low-intensity exercises cause muscle to disappear. If you don't use it, you will lose it. If you want more muscle, then you have to lift heavy stuff. If you want to keep the muscle you have, then you have to keep lifting heavy stuff. And be careful of too much low-intensity cardio: If you don't move heavy weights (or lighter weights in a short period of time) then you won't create a demand for muscle. Instead, your body will get rid of the muscle that you are not using.
- Once you are at a healthy weight, heavy/intense exercises will quickly increase muscle mass and reduce fat mass at the same time. From December 2011 to today I was almost always 133 pounds, no matter how much muscle I gained. I didn't use calorie restriction at all (I ate when I was hungry and didn't when I wasn't). This is why I believe that the brain will maintain what it thinks is an ideal body weight. Once a person is at this weight, every additional pound of muscle will require the loss of a pound of fat (and vice versa).
- Nutrient timing makes muscle grow. Consuming the right easily digestible nutrients immediately before and after your workouts can spike insulin, making your muscles HIGHLY anabolic. (I will talk about nutrient timing later on in my muscle-building series.)
Personally, I spend no more than 45-60 minutes at the gym, 6 days a week. I exercise one body part a week (e.g., chest on Monday, shoulders on Wednesday) and only complete three to four exercises per daily workout. I also occasionally sprint. I don't calorie-count, calorie-restrict, or waste time "burning" calories with low-intensity cardio (except when I'm preparing for my PT test).
I am now breaking lifting plateaus that I've had for years. For example, my dumbbell bench press went from a 1-rep max of 90 lbs to 100 lbs (this is for each dumbbell, so I actually went from 180 lbs to 200 lbs). This is a big jump in only 30 days (especially for a guy who only weighs 133 pounds). Most importantly, both my body fat and lean mass percentages have improved (this is the most lean mass that I have ever had).
ConclusionWhen trying to build your idea of the perfect body you have to pay attention to body weight and body composition. While body weight is controlled by a clean diet, your body composition is controlled by exercises that build muscle (once at a stable weight, every additional pound of muscle can displace a pound of fa until you become very lean).
Because low-intensity cardio does not build muscle, you should never spend hours running or stair-stepping in an exhausting and futile attempt to "burn" those extra fat pounds. All that will do is increase your appetite (because your body will try to get back those burnt calories). Cardio should be used to develop your body's ability to efficiently burn fat and glucose, which can improve your overall physical performance.
In my next post, I'll summarize the entire series, putting everything I've discussed into a single concept.