So You're Lean. Now What?

I’m just finishing a 6-week diet, and got pretty lean. I’ve been this lean once before, but it didn’t last – I drifted back to my body’s set-point over the course of the next two months, because I didn’t manage my nutrition (this is not to say that I ate crap – rather, I ate unlimited amounts of ‘healthy’ tasty things, like sushi, and steak).

This time, I want to maintain the leanness. But, I’d also like to continue gaining strength/muscle. Obviously, I realize that some fat gain is necessary, but I’d like to minimize it. As I near the end of the diet, I’m planning strategies for maintaining this low body fat level.

The obvious strategy is to add a small number of calories (100 or so), and slowly but surely build back to maintenance over the course of a few weeks, then start adding a small surplus (again, 100 calories or so). But this strategy requires a lot a planning, and I’d like to follow a nutritional strategy that doesn’t limit my consumption of ‘clean foods’ – chicken, steak, eggs, fish, etc. I like eating big meals and feeling very full.

So, I’m considering some less conventional ideas – the plan is to experiment, and see what works. Ideas I’ve played with include:

  • Fasting on one day per week, eating till completely satiated throughout the rest of the week (slight surplus to support muscle growth).
  • The 5/2 diet for lifters (Breaking: Great Fat Loss News for Dieters).
  • Calorie-cycling (low calorie on rest days, tons of food on training days).

What strategies do you guys have for maintaining a very lean physique year-round?

I’m in the exact same situation as you… looking forward to some useful feedback from other members.

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caloric intake matters more for body composition than anything else. So any diet that doesn’t limit calorie consumption has the potential to have you gaining fat. Any diet that says ‘eat as much clean food as you want’ will not effectively keep fat off, period.

Sounds like you need to decide whether you need to ‘feel very full’ all the time, or if you want abs.

I think your first bullet point with eating as much as you want for 6 days with 1 fasting day will add more fat than just about any other diet plan you could imagine. But you’re welcome to try it.

The 5/2 diet is a much better choice.

The third bullet point could work, depending on what you consider ‘tons of food’. My guess is it won’t be a good strategy though. You really sound like you like food a lot.

I’m going to refrain from sharing my diet. It won’t be helpful. But I do stay near contest-lean year round.


You really sound like you like food a lot.

Haha, I like food, but I’m not as crazed as I sound – I just happen to be very hungry at this moment.

I should clarify – eating ‘as much as I want’ would generally peak at about 2800-3200 calories worth of eggs, fish, steak, potato, etc. I don’t have a huge appetite, and I don’t really eat the classically ‘unclean’ foods.

I realize that calorie consumption is the overall determinant, that’s why I suggested dietary plans that allow a surplus on some days, and a deficit on others. I suspect that my maintenance calories are around 2800, so I figured that a few days of 3200 (feels like a lot of food), with a day or two of a deficit per week, would allow for muscle growth/strength, minimized hunger throughout the week, and minimal fat gain. … Of course, I did just regurgitate the thesis of the 5/2 diet. Haha.

I should also clarify – I always ‘have abs’ even when I’m eating as much as I want, simply because I don’t have a huge appetite, and I eating filling foods. I’m currently trying to figure out how to maintain ‘better abs’ (or rather, ‘all of the abs’, instead of just the top two).

Have any of you guys tried IF extensively? I’m not particularly sold on the health/body composition benefits, but it does seem like a nice way to eat huge meals – provided you can adapt to the periods of no eating, and not feel excessively hungry at that time.

I can’t speak from direct experience (teardrop), but there’s a bunch of reading that might help. This article has a big section on maintenance/transition phases. This article discusses how to transition out of a cutting phase and gradually add back more calories. And this article from Shelby Starnes also talks about how to switch out of a cutting phase without undoing progress.

On top of handing the diet, consistent conditioning work would be a big factor here too. Instead of seeing cardio as just a fat loss tool, regular conditioning (2-3 sessions/week) can be used as a kind of damage control to help keep calories in check. You can play with intensity, duration, and frequency depending on what you need, but doing zero conditioning is a bad call if you want to stay lean year-round.

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I hate to think that this is the choice I have to make… But I’m afraid that it is… As soon as I start eating to feel full, I start putting on too much fat. And it should be noted that I eat CLEEEAAAANNN. Doesn’t matter. AS soon as I am consitently over 2800, I’m gaining a thin layer of chub.

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Thanks for the input, Chris! I’ll be sure to read through all of the linked articles.

Good note on the conditioning – honestly, I don’t do very much. It would probably be a great idea for me to start.

I’m a big fan of HIIT and other similar training styles (I really enjoy sprints), but I don’t do it often, because I find that my legs are usually sore enough from my squats and deadlifts… I can’t stand LISS, so I don’t do it ever.

But, you’re right – I’ll see how I can work more conditioning into my routine.

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at this point, a picture or 2 would be helpful so we know what you actually mean by lean, lol. I also still don’t know how much you weigh or how tall you are, so your calorie numbers don’t really mean anything without this context.

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Personally, I would try establish great habits. It’s much easier when you’re lean and your mind doesn’t play “why not try quickly drop 10lbs then go on the sustainable path” tricks on you.

Once I got to 30, this became reality. I can be full and fat or hungry and lean.


I relate to this so much. I remember when I was 25 eating upwards of 5000 calories a day with 800+ grams of carbs and still having very visible abs. Now I’m two years from 30 and I’d probably have to drop below 3000 calories to see even a semblance of what one would call abs. Aging sucks haha

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It gets worse. Since turning 53 a couple of year ago, I can be hungry (or at least peckish) and fat, or starving and lean. (Extrapolating, I assume ‘full’ would lead to ‘obese.’)

My son is 24, and is in the heyday of this sort of metabolism. (Upon ordering dinner recently, the waitress looked at him and said “Are you serious?”) I tell him to enjoy it while it lasts.


One time my brother (one year younger and also into weightlifting) and I went out for food and the waitress took our order back to the kitchen and they couldn’t believe that the order was placed by what the waitress had told them was two muscular, in shape guys. They were so baffled they came out and looked for themselves because they thought there was no way two guys into “fitness” would order that much and that kind of food


at this point, a picture or 2 would be helpful so we know what you actually mean by lean, lol.

That ^ is what ‘lean’ means for me. I can maintain ‘abs’ year-round, but the level of leanness pictured there requires special attention (unfortunately).

My goal currently is to ‘overshoot’ that level of leanness slightly, so I have some wiggle room when playing with different eating plans.

EDIT: apologies for the awkward mirror shot. Didn’t have time to find some lighting and a willing photographer :wink: . Also, added a back shot for reference. I used the webcam on my computer for that one, hence the blurriness (the ‘green screen’ effect is to block out a bunch of recognizable items in my room).

It gets worse. Since turning 53 a couple of year ago, I can be hungry (or at least peckish) and fat, or starving and lean. (Extrapolating, I assume ‘full’ would lead to ‘obese.’)

That is depressing… Do you think that you have a particularly aggressive appetite? Or is this in store for anyone who cares about how they look as they get older?

You ain’t kidding.

Hard for me to say–I don’t happen to know any guys my age trying to stay as lean as I’m trying to stay, so I have no one to commiserate/compare notes with. (Not meant as a humblebrag; I just happen to live in a small-ish town, and in a part of the country where being fit is not a widespread cultural value.) Maybe some of the other 50+ TNers can chime in with their experience.

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I read through a portion of your ‘how do you train?’ thread, so I happen to know that you also do a ton of conditioning work. I really expected that you wouldn’t spend your days starving, when considering all of the calories that you burn.

Hopefully some of the other 50+ TNers will have a happier tale :wink:

I’m 55 and although cosmetics aren’t my priority, I do try to stay ‘leanish’ year round and drop 10-15 lbs. for vacation. As you get older the focus shifts from added LBM to maintaining what you already have. I have found this to be a challenge in spite of my best efforts. The inability to consume and process the volume of food I could in the past has proven to be the main issue.

thanks for the pictures, that helps a TON with perspective.

So as far as I’m aware, pretty much everyone who is not a genetic exception (I assume you aren’t) who walks around year-round at that level of leanness, or leaner, deals with hunger on a regular basis and needs to run a relatively strict diet. The other option would be a ton of conditioning work, but since you didn’t mention anything about having an interest in that to compensate for eating more, I assume you don’t want to do that. But it is an option.

I still believe that out of the options you’ve presented, the 5/2 diet is likely the best one. It seems like it would mentally suit you, which is enormously important, and it’s sustainable and effective. I’ve long believed that total calories in a week, regardless of distribution, is more important than daily calorie intake. I try to look at the bigger picture.

I don’t think your first idea of a fasting day is as bad as I originally did, but I don’t think it’s ideal either. I have to do 24-hour fasts prior to weigh-ins from time to time, and it’s not enjoyable. I certainly wouldn’t want to do that or anything close to it on a weekly basis.

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