T Nation

Maintaining Body Fat Percentages

You guys are always great at “chipping away” at bodybuilding and fitness myths, so I wanted to throw this one out at 'ya.

You always read that you “can’t” maintain low bodyfat percentage year round. Now…since I DO agree that maybe “contest/photo” shape may be hard to maintain (because it often involves a certain degree of dehydration and sodium/potassium manipulation),I DON’T agree that we “have” to become a “lardass” when not getting ready for the beach, a contest or a photo shoot. So…the questions:

Are the “cant’s” of maintaining reasonable (8-10%) bodyfat percentages more psychological than physical/genetic? Is it a reasonable goal to maintain low bodyfat percentages year round? What are you guys experiences and what have you seen? (Would love for Chris S. to give his thoughts on this one!)

I don’t think it’s so much that it can’t be maintained year round, but that it can’t be maintained during a bulking cycle. When I was into aerobic type sports (triathlon, bike racing) I had no trouble at all maintaining low body fat (and also, unfortunately, low muscle mass) year round. Never varied by more than a couple pounds in weight, even over holiday time. Maybe that’s not relevant. Any way, with diet manipulation and not being on a serious bulking phase, it shouldn’t be all that hard to maintain low body fat.

I’ll be upfront about the fact that I have yet to enter the single digit body fat ranges. I’ve spent a whole lot of time in the 10-12% range and the only reason that I’ve gone out of that range is that I stopped training and started to eat garbage. I know that the key to maintenance of %BF is mostly mental and is based on one’s ability to stay consistent and not get frustrated. I think that anyone reading T-mag for a period of time has all the tools to drop down to around 8% or wherever their abs are visible and never go back above 10-12% even on a serious bulking cycle. Take for example a 200 lb, 8% body fat lifter. Two week gains while on a cycle of MAG-10 have been something like 8lbs LBM, 1-4lbs fat. Assuming the worst fat gain, after 2 weeks the lifter is 212 lbs with 9.4% body fat. Assume 2 weeks of maintenance and another 2 week cycle of MAG-10, the lifter is now 224 lbs with 10.7% body fat. Obviously it is now time to diet down. With 4 weeks on a moderate diet, the lifter can lose 4-6lbs of fat while maintaining muscle and be back down to 218-220 lbs and 8.3 - 9.1% and see his abs again. The hard part is getting down to the right body composition in the first place. Once you are there, I think that with the right game plan, you can easily maintain your body composition.

At the risk of being unhelpful, I think that it(like everything else) depends on your genetics. Naturally lean folks will have no trouble maintaining 8-10% (or lower) bodyfat year round; those who are naturally chubbier will. I fall in the former camp - I can comfortably maintain 7% bf forever. It’s genetic - before I started training, I was 5’9" and about 130 lbs. with ~6% bf. Now I can maintain 190lbs. and 7% bf no problem. Lucky, I guess.

I think a lot of bodybuilders use the old bulking up excuse as a good one to eat too much and let their bodyfat get a little higher than it should. I think the main problems are:
#1. Most bodybuilders love to eat.
#2. Strength gains typically go up as BF % increases, this might make one want to bulk up even more.
#3. There’s always the old excuse “well I can lose whatever fat I gain on my next diet phase”
#4. Anabolic hormone levels tend to be lower with a low bf %.
#5. When trying to add pure muscle to an already lean physique it gets to be a chore. Any fat increase shows up noticeably and can wreak havoc on one’s mind, in this situation I think it is better to just say to hell with it and put on some fat.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to maintain a fairly lean bf% of 8-10% year round. The secret is to get the body used to maintaining this %. In order to do this you have to allow your body to accept this weight and bf% as normal. One way to do this is by getting lean and holding that condition for a few months. I think the old timers (guys like Vince Gironda) were right on when they said it takes the body about 3 months to accept a given training weight or bf% as normal. The problem with many bodybuilders is as soon as they get lean enough they pig out and never let their body get accustomed to being lean. What’s everyone elses take on this theory?

I agree with Kelly. You can’t reach your desired %BF and then immediately begin a serious bulking cycle. You need to spend some time at that level. Whether or not the body is adjusting to the new level or we are adjusting our lifestyle (training and diet) to maintain this level is another question. I think it is really the latter that is the case, but that is just my opinion.

great thread! i have a few comments that jive with much of what has already been said. i think it is reasonable to maintain between 6%-10% bf year round. my natural state (at on time) was to hover around 15%. i got serious and widdled myself down to 4% (this first time was a total bitch) and then increased to maintenance calories. i actually maintained this for about 6 months.

during this time my hormone production was practically nil, muscular gains were painfully slow and i was one stressed out dude. as was pointed out, you tend to smooth out rather quickly when going hyper-caloric again and it DOES cause quite a bit of mental anguish. i finally pulled my head out of my arse and began to eat to grow. the strength gains were great, but it didn’t take long before i was registering in at 12% bf. at this point i widdled myself back down again this time only to 6%. this time it was much easier and took me much less time to do it.

after a few cycles of this i found that the calorie excess required for me to gain strength was sufficient enough to cause a rather disturbing amount of fat gain. i began playing around with the timing of my cycles. i ended up doing 3 week leaning and bulking phases. it’s funny how i basically ended up with smaller micro-cycles (8 per year) always staying withn a 6%-10% bf window year round that is amazingly similar to the “get ready to grow” ABCDE torbjorn ackerfeld or TC’s delta 1250 cycling system.

i arrived at this through my own experiences. it’s the only way i can gain any kind of LBM without ever feeling like a lardass in the process. kevo

Great points, guys! I think one that Kelly brought out warrants emphasis. A MAJOR key is this whole concept of “setpoint”, or a weight and bodyfat percentage that the body tends to be “pulled” toward. How do we change it, or how is it “set”? By maintaining a certain weight and bodyfat percentage for a certain amount of time without making a lot of huge fluctuations.

Studies and interviews with obese individuals who have been able to maintain their lost weight for greater than 5 years revealed that one of the keys to their success was to maintain a narrow weight range by continuing to monitor their weight and/or body composition even after they lost the weight.(Similar to something Kevo brought out). When they found themselves gaining even a few pounds, they IMMEDIATELY tightened up their diet. Also…the LONGER they were able to maintain a narrow weight range, the easier it became to maintain. Cool stuff…

On a side note…Shawn Ray stated recently that he is able to consistently maintain a bodyfat percentage of around 6-7%. Also…Skip LaCour states that he maintains a lean, narrow range of weight and fat year round. Yep…probably part genetics…but Shawn and Skip have also been doing it a LONG TIME!..

Kevo: I’m VERY intrigued by your micro bulking/leaning cycles, especially your ability to maintain a bodyfat percentage between 6-10% (I’ve always felt that it could be done, and have been looking for some practicle advice on actual implementation.Questions:

1)Is that 3 weeks bulking, 3 weeks leaning, as a total 6 week cycle?

2) In general, how did you manipulate your cals? (comparing your “bulking” weeks to “leaning” weeks)? Did you manipulate a certain macro (eg carbs) or just manipulate your cals overall?

3) Did you have a favorite Macro percentage and did you push the protein?

Again…great stuff, guys! I think we’ll have another myth “bitin’ the dust” before it’s all over!

This is a great thread.
I truly believe that you can maintain reasonable (8-10%)body fat percentages and get bigger. The key seems to be a zig zag calorie approach (just like the mini cycles mentioned above) where you gain for three weeks and then diet the other three weeks.
Personally, I set lean gain calories around 3500 and cut calories around 2300 (I used the CKD to cut, and it has worked well). Another important point is that you must pay attention to detail and that means daily recording of food, calories, etc. etc.

Some tidbits from the research literature on this topic and my personal experience:
we know that natural bb’ers will loose some muscle when dieting so, based on what I have read there are three things to do to minimize: 1)don’t cut calories too low; 2)MCT’s are a great way to possibly cut back on the amount of FFM lost and 3)if cutting real low, pay attention to the smell of your urine…we know that once below 6% bf, an increasing proportion of weight lost comes from FFM and from personal experience, when your urine smells like a bottle of ammonia, you know you are losing some muscle.

Contrary to most myths, we don’t need 400+ grams of protein.
I have forced myself to be in the 250-300 range daily, and the upper portion of this (275-300) may be silly…if you eat plenty of good carbs and have HI GI post workout meals of carbs, you can eat less protein becuase the carbohydrate lets it do its job better (on a side note, jack up the protein a bit on the keto). Also, don’t overeat too too much, yeah you’ll gain muscle slower, but you will also gain fat slower too. I try to eat lots of low GI carbs to make the calorice excessess necessary for muscle gain…one of my favorites is to pound whole boxes of the cereal PUFFED KASHI…keeps the insulin at bay and provides a good overeating source. I am currently 190 at around 8.5% bfat and was 165 and 4% at the beginning of July…I have made all gains since then…yes, gaining you will loose ab definition, but i have found that the women like bigger guns as opposed to superripped abs…and when you see a guy with superripped abs, chances are, he aint gonna have the big guns…so…GIDDY UP IN THE WILD WILD WEST

Interesting topic and thoughts. My approach is similar to some of the other guys with the zig zag approach to calorie cycling. My approach differs in that instead of doing 3 weeks low and three weeks high, I do shorter cycles in periods of days(4 or 5 days low and 2 or 3 days high). I use a hybrid diet approach combing Bodyopus, The Anabolic Diet, and the T-Dawg Diet. Basically on the low calorie phase I use high protien(50-60%)moderate fat(about 30%)and low carbs(10% or less). I take calories extemely low (like 1000 cals below maintenance). Protien sources are lean steak, Fresh Salmon, egg whites, and a ton of protein powder. Fat sources are Flaxseed oil, egg yolks, and whatever fat is in the salmon and red meat. Carbs come from what little I get in the veggies(mainly broccoli, mushrooms,green peppers). Then the high cal phase is really not that “high” if I’m trying to get or stay lean and it lasts 2-3 days depending on how I feel and look. I use white potatoes, oatmeal, and lots of fruit(mainly bananas, oranges, apples). I use the ECA stack heavily while on the low cal phase as well as lots of Vit C and antioxidant blend. I do cardio every day I’m on the low cal phase too. I’ve consistently been able to burn significant amounts of fat and increase muscle at the same time using this approach. When I’m really trying to get lean, I’ve been able to get to 4% bodyfat with striations in my glutes. When you get that low, you’d be surprised at how well your body responds to high cals too. Patience and persistence is the key.

Mufasa - when i mentioned my “natural” state i was alluding to the idea of the “setpoint” just as Kelly mentioned. i have never been able to maintain 7% bf like Zev without even thinking about it. i have to really watch my intake, measure body composition frequently and adjust my diet accordingly.

i do however believe it is possible to change your “setpoint” as long as you push past it and maintain that state for a long enough period of time. i don’t have any studies to back this up though. just my experience. after the very difficult initial push to 4% i was able to increase back to 6% (to relieve the stress) and slide around the 6-10% range at will. although i am sure that my body would happily set itself back if i allowed it to.

my complete cycles are 6weeks (3 leaning and 3 bulking). i will adjust this time frame if it is necessary to do so, but this seems to work well for now. i keep my ratios constant and try not to let my protein intake drop below 200g. bulking ratios are 50c,35p,15f. leaning ratios are 35c,50p,15f.

while leaning i use a caloric staggering approach. here is my current leaning phase:Mon-1800cals (cardio), Tues-2000cals (lift,cardio), Wed-1800cals (cardio), Thr-2000cals (lift,cardio), Fri-1800cals (cardio), Sat-2600cals (lift), Sun-2600cals (lift). i am a big fan of refeeding during leaning to keep my leptin levels up, so i have thrown two 2600cal days in on the weekend which are also the days when i perform my most strenuous workouts. plus it helps me better enjoy weekend social gatherings. i do much more cardio than most (1 hour sessions up to 2x per day) and supplement with MD6 to help get me through. this does not seem to have any detrimental catabolic effects on me (knock on wood). i distribute my macronutrients and calories throughout the day to help maximize fat loss during cardio. it’s not exactly massive eating, but similar in most respects.

while bulking each week is different by eating progressively more calories as i go (2700, 3000, 3300 respectively). if i introduce the calories too quickly i tend to gain more fat after the three weeks without really gaining any more muscle. interesting. here is my current bulking phase:Mon-2700cals, Tues-2700cals (lift,cardio), Wed-2700cals, Thr-2700cals (lift,cardio), Fri-2700cals, Sat-2700cals (lift,cardio), Sun-2700cals (lift,cardio). my single cardio session is post lifting and lasts no more than 30min. i distribute my macronutrients throughout the day in a way that is almost identical to massive eating with occassional deviations. i just repeat this for three weeks while keeping a close eye on my body comp.

once back to leaning (which is the toughest part in terms of caloric restriction) i reintroduce the thermogenics and cardio slowly for the first week and hit full stride for weeks 2 and three. i just keep this going 24-7-365 while adjusting my calories and monitoring body comp along the way. this is prolly pretty unorthodox and overly complicated to most, but it really seems to work for me. kevo

Nice discussion guys! All had some intelligent points… hope I can keep the streak going. Mufasa: I, too, appreciate K.B.'s thoughts on lowering and holding ever new BF “setpoints” (as you nicely labeled it).
Having achieved and held newer and lower set points of BF%'s over the course a few years, I can attest to its effectiveness…that is, until you hit “The Final Frontier,” which is the last comfortably maintainable
low BF% “set point.” It comes down to genetics…4% for a select few, and 6 to 12% for the bulk of us. Zev’s right!

If one were to actually believe “John Sleazedow” and the plethora of other infomerical SCUMBAGS, then there could be only one possible conclusion drawn: If everyone applied the same effort in the gym, and everyone took the same supplements, then all would,
of necessity, obtain the same glorious results… BULLSHIT!!!

The biggest mistake I made in the past was trying to ceaselessly achieve and maintain lower “set points”; doing so never allowed me to gain new mass! So the “micro-cycles” Kevo spoke about are CRUCIAL. The numerous postings by Bill Roberts and Chris Shugart on this subject (Bill, usually in the context of androgen cycling) have definitely brought me to a new understanding on the subject. I learned the hard way that one cannot add muscle on a caloric maintenance diet!

Kevo - that sounds like a great plan. Just curious, but how much do you still gain in a regular cycle? I assume that total body fat remains at or around the same but lean body mass is going up? How much lean body mass do you gain per cycle or are you in more of a maintenance phase?

Kevo: That plan is simply outstanding, and it makes sense. It also reminded me of TC’s “Batman” Atomic Dog a couple of weeks ago. Some people (“Supermen”, if you may) have no problem maintaining lean physiques year round. (Some of my cake and pizza eating/beer drinking Posse are prime examples! Damn!.. Those guys have been that way since High School!). But many of us have to be a bit more meticulous (I am DEFINITELY a “Batman”!)

Question: Have your cycles become “easier” over time and your weight fluctuations “less?” I know that this will not have some clear, quantifiable answer…just would like your observations…

Neat stuff, guys! I’d like to throw some numbers out that I’d like to make part of my reference material. It’s not scientific, but more from all my readings and observations. So PLEASE make revisions and give me your thoughts.

A definition: I define “average” as just that. Doesn’t really work out, but is not considered overweight. Not really out of shape, but is not in top shape either. In other words…average. So:

Male and Female Bodyfat Comparisons

	  Male	     Female<p>

Essential Fat 3% 3%

Obese > 25% > 30%

Average 15-20% 20-25%

Good Shape 10-15% 15-20%

Excellent Shape 8-10% 10-15%

Photo Shape 5-6% 8-10%

From what everyone has said, the “good-to- mostly excellent” shape is not unreasonable to maintain year-round (with some work!)

Again…tear this list apart if you have to!

Hey Mufasa if you really want to get into more specific detail in bodyfat you oughta pick up a copy of the book “sliced” by Bill Reynolds and Negrita Jayde. It’s an older book but has some good info. as far as assessing your condition as it relates to bodybuilding and such. The problem with bf% is you can take 2 people with identical bf and they can look entirely different as far as muscle definition goes depending on how and where they store their fat etc. Just off memory the book explains these various levels of conditioning related to a bodybuilder:
full house- typical offseason bulked up shape, 30-50 lbs over contest condition. The waist is bloated but still capable of of shrinking to a lower state when the abs are flexed

hard- still bulked up but fairly hard. Will begin to show some signs of muscle definition with correct lighting. Forearms and calves are typically the first defined muscle groups to appear

cut- certain muscle groups like arms and shoulders will begin to show striations

defined- now the entire body is showing definition. The abs are fully visible yet not ripped. The point where the lats insert is visible when the arms are raised overhead. Vascularity in the thighs becomes more apparent.

ripped- all muscle groups including the glutes and lower back are visibly striated. The jawbones are clearly defined as well.

sliced- at this point even the muscles of the jaw will be ripped…the ultimate level of conditioning for a bodybuilder.

Now from these descriptions I think it’s acceptable that a bodybuilder could maintain something along the lines of a cut to defined condition year around however anything beyond that will probably require more drastic measures.

your fat levels can go as low as you want for as long as you want. BUT the body always gains muscle faster if it can gain a little fat at the same time. if you want to maintain fat levels you will gain muscle slower. and if you want to reduce fat levels you will hardly gain any muscle unless you cleverly manipulate supplements and diet.

why do you want to stay lean all year round?
it is part of the bodies natural yearly cycle to gain and lose fat and muscle according to the seasons.

Just when I think you couldn’t outdo your previous efforts, you come up with an outstanding post like this! I’ve seen the listings you posted for poor to excellent BF percentages before, but seeing in this context really got me thinking. I would say that (at least in my readings) most of the people on this forum tend to fall in the 10-15% range (with the exception of two kinds of newbies: the 55% middle aged body-for-lifer, or the 3%, 120 lb. teenage ectomorph). With this 10-15% range in mind, that roughly places most of us (myself included: 10.9% after beginning my Mag-10 cycle at 9.5%) in the good category. Thus, the question arises: what is the ideal scenario for bulking from a body composition standpoint? According to the percentages, we are nothing all that special (knowledge of diet, training, etc. excluded). We always hear that you shouldn’t fear the fat, but does one have to go from 6% at 170 to 15% at 210 to get big? At what point do we become lardasses instead of bodybuilders. I remember reading something about Arnold saying that you were no longer a bodybuilder when you couldn’t see your intercostals anymore. Then again, as Kelly pointed out, different people look different at the same BF%. As such, I doubt there is an ideal measure (as Arnold asserted) of how much fat is too much. I know that when I start to fear the fat while bulking, I couldn’t care less about my intercostals; it’s the fat collecting right under my pecs and on my lower abs that bugs me. Meanwhile, I get 3mm readings on my quads. Damn…isn’t this what makes bodybuilding great? It’s not ONLY a sport; it’s a science! I’m so jealous of all those baseball players who can just go outside, field 500 ground balls, and always improve without thinking! Ugh…

Thanks, guys! I agree 100% that at any given BF percentage, any two people may look different. The mirror is always the “final judge” (and jury!!!;)!!!)

I think that it is good to have a “rough guage” though. So again…tear apart my numbers!

To michael; I agree; gaining and losing fat is in fact part of natural cycles of all animals. But the question is this; does one have to gain 50 to 100 pounds (or even 10 to 20) of pure lard to gain muscle? Many would say “No”…and THAT is the question that I’ve posed to the Forum…

Extremely impressive shit here boys and ladies…I agree on the maintainence shit thrown around in here…
I used to get nervous when bulking at the first sign of losing the abs, i was like F*** now its keto time again; but i have found that also that sodium intake and subcuteanous water retention is a huge player at least as far as the mirror is concerned and it can affect bf% measurements from all types of devices…

My current body fat is around 8.5%…like has been stated on this post, women tend not to like the veiny shit look, and to be honest, the research literature has clearly established that drug free.once at around 6% body fat, lean muscle becomes much more active to make up the difference when dieting…

I'd say shoot for six to be honest..at 8.5% i still have a clear four pack in the morning, and lower ab vascularity...my abs are not of the six pack variety as some are...its just a lower ab muscle seemingly..even when i was legititmately at 4%, it was just veins going up the lower abs..and a starch 4 pack...

Heres a question…we all would agree i assume that low glycemic carbs are pivotal in weight gain, but limiting fat gain…but since so many low glycemic carbs contain fiber, i can end up in the 60g fiber range daily when trying to bulk…Now i have heard that a high fiber load may compromise some nutriet absorption, but i have not seen anything in the literature on this to support it with teh exception that fiber loads well above 100g may fuck with absorption…also if you take a supplement that helps to break down the fiber, you may possibly circumvent this
at any rate, as state before, i am able to make significant muscle gain i would say while keeping body fat at or below 9.5%…its a person thing