Do you want to get ultra-lean and shredded? Want six-pack abs? Want to do it the right way? It’s possible, if you are focused and follow the advice this post contains.
First, a warning: going from out-of-shape to an athletic, healthy size is easier than going from lean to super-cut. Getting to single digit body fat is challenging for most people, mentally and physically. It’s achievable but tough, and some parts, well, you just have to tough through them. This strategy and a single-digit body fat goal are not for everyone, and that’s okay. But if you are up for the challenge, and want the results, then let’s get moving toward single digit body fat!
Single-digit body fat… is it possible?
With dedicated focus, and particularly on a Paleo-Keto lifestyle plan, it’s possible for healthy men to hit the single digits of body fat. For healthy women, it will be a bit higher. A good guideline for a cut or ripped six-pack look is for men to aim for 4 to 9% body fat, and women to land between 14 to 23%. (Note that I say “healthy” because, as always, certain medical conditions and medications will make this unwise for certain people. If you are in doubt, check with your doctor).
How low can you go? It’s important to remember that zero percent body fat is not only pretty much impossible, it’s akin to a death sentence. You always need some fat in your body for normal physiology. It’s crucial for cellular function, to pad the joints and organs, and for energy use. Too little body fat can lead to organ failure, electrolyte imbalances, increased risk of infection and injury, and nutritional deficiencies. So never, never make “no” body fat your goal!
How much fat do you need for health? One study estimated that the lower healthy limit for men is 4 to 6%[i]. The American College of Sports Medicine pegs essential fat at 3 to 5% for men, and 8 to 12% for women[ii].
These minimums represent “essential” fat: the fat present in nerve tissues, bone marrow, and organs. Women have more essential fat than men, and therefore will always have a higher target body fat percentage than their male counterparts[iii]. (Interestingly, women tend to “burn” more fat and less muscle and other essential tissues (fat free mass) to meet metabolic fuel requirement, relative to men.[iv])
Your body also has storage fat, which is an energy reserve that accumulates when you eat more calories than you expend. So we are aiming to decrease your storage fat reserves, but not take you below your essential fat minimums.
Field studies of men and women in very high-exercise, low-calorie environments (such as ranger training or extreme expeditions) have demonstrated that 4 to 5% is the normal lower limit of fat reserves in underfed, physically active young men.[v] In contrast, male athletes usually have between 6 and 13%; female athletes from 14 to 20%, since athletes need both essential fat and some level of storage fat for optimal performance. For women, 32% or higher is considered obese; for men, it’s 25% and higher.[vi]
Getting a chiseled look
Now, many men on a solid lifestyle plan can steadily lose weight until their body fat percentage hits the low teens (the number is slightly higher for women). But to get a chiseled or angular look, men will need to get into single digits, and women closer to the high teens. We believe a reasonable goal for men is from 4 to 9%, and for women from 14 to 23%.
In more approximate terms, most men will need to measure 32 inches or less around the belly button (standing relaxed) to have six-pack abs.
A caution: This plan not a starvation diet. If you cut calories too far, you will feel awful and actually prevent your body from losing fat! If you are moving towards single-digit body fat the right way, you will still have energy and feel good. This should be common sense, but watch out for symptoms of excessive weight loss and overtraining (fatigue, digestion problems, dizziness, increased rate of illness or injury, decreased muscle mass, hair changes, moodiness, changes to the skin, and for women, a cessation or disruption in menstruation). If you experience any of these symptoms, increase your caloric intake and check with your doctor.
You also need to start from a fit place. Single-digit body fat is a realistic goal for people who are already lean and in-shape. If you are just transitioning from an unhealthy lifestyle, and/or are out-of-shape, and/or have medical complications, make your initial goal to get into an average and then athletic fat percentage range. Don’t worry about single digits until your new healthy lifestyle is well under way.
Here’s how to do it.
- Live the lifestyle
So how do you get really ripped? You need to know that it’s not easy. You need to really commit to all aspects of a well-balanced lifestyle to get super-lean in a healthy way. You’ve probably heard all this stuff before, but it’s even more crucial if single-digit body fat is your goal… Drink lots of water, reduce stress, lift weights (preferably using multi-joint, functional exercises), get enough sleep (at least seven hours per night), stick diligently to your food plan, avoid any vices (such as alcohol) whatsoever.
This may mean planning workout times in advance, preparing healthy lunches for the week on weekends, and avoiding social situations full of food-and-drink temptations. If all that sounds okay with you, single-digit body fat is likely within your reach.
Don’t go too fast
There are some people who swear by doing a rapid diet to get cut, and possibly for some individuals that does work well. However, we prefer a more conservative approach, especially if you are already lean and just looking to get a more “ripped” or defined look.
If you create too large of a calorie deficit too quickly you will lose fat, but probably also some muscle, which defeats the purpose! Try not to exceed a caloric deficit of about 500-700 calories per day.
- Plan to periodize
Maintaining a super-low body fat percentage all year is not for everyone. Just as athletes periodize their training over a year (with a preparation phase, competitive phase, and transition phase), it is reasonable to expect that some times of the year you will have a slightly higher body fat percentage (perhaps over the winter) and other times keep it lower (such as in the summer beach season).
Time off from seriously strict dieting can allow for mental and physical recuperation. This doesn’t mean you let yourself go for half the year, rather that you allow for a few cheat days now and then, some of the year.
Having said that, when you are in your “weight loss” phase—moving from a low level of body fat to single digits—it helps to fully commit until you reach the point you want to maintain. We recommend committing to a 100% clean eating program until you hit your goal, and then you can tweak it for maintenance. This means no grains, gluten, dairy, alcohol, and junk food, and focusing on eating mostly organic meats, vegetables, and healthy fats according to a mostly Paleo-Keto plan.
Note that your maximum lifts in the weight room may decrease slightly as you are cutting down to single digits. Make sure you are getting enough protein, and expect that you will be able to regain that strength once you hit a maintenance phase.
Also, as you move lower in body fat percentage (for men this is usually between 15% down to 10%) you don’t always look like you are losing weight, especially compared to the physique changes that occur for people who are not lean to begin with and then lose weight. Men usually need to get below 10 or 8% to see abs and look really cut. Don’t get discouraged in that “in between” zone, when you are losing the last 5 or 7% of your body fat. You are making gains, it just won’t always look that way. But the returns will show up, once you hit the single digits. Hang in there.
- Manage your macros
It’s difficult to lose fat without losing protein and therefore, muscle. To maintain a high level of performance and energy, coupled with low body fat, your nutrition has to be on point and well balanced[vii]. Don’t try to get down into single-digit body fat unless you are committed to an ultra-clean, disciplined food plan.
Food is now just fuel, so you need to do away with emotional (and most social) eating and be able to see food as macronutrients that will help you cut fat. You need to eat clean, whole foods and supplement wisely with natural, protein-based options.
You’ll need to pay attention to your macronutrient and caloric intake—that is, how many calories you get from carbs, protein, and fat each day. You’ll need to weigh your foods before eating them for this to work well (a digital kitchen scale is useful here).
To start, you need to ensure you are getting sufficient, quality protein in your diet. This is usually easy to achieve on a Paleo-Keto plan with organic meats, seafood and poultry, and Paleo-friendly on-the-go options such as Paleo Protein Bars® and Paleo Protein powders.
Aim to eat 12 calories, and one gram of protein per pound of your goal bodyweight[viii]. (So if you currently weigh 200 pounds and your goal body weight is 180 pounds, you should eat 2160 calories per day and 180 grams of protein.) Some people do well on 1.5 grams of protein per pound of goal bodyweight. Overall, this means protein will make up roughly 33% of your calories.
Carbs should make up about 37% of your caloric intake. Your carbs need to be mostly from vegetables, with lots of cruciferous and leafy green vegetables as usual. You can supplement with starchy veggies (such as sweet potatoes, yams or parsnips).
As always, stay away from any grains and especially gluten-filled wheat products, junk foods and sugary snacks… as in don’t eat any, at all. As for fruit, limit yourself to low-glycemic load varieties (berries, grapefruit, apples, pears), with a maximum of one or two pieces per day.[ix] Remember, fructose (the sugar found naturally in fruit) can slow fat burning and encourage fat storage.
As always, choose healthy fats in relative abundance, at about 30% of your total calories. In addition to the fats in organic meats, this can mean healthy oils (olive, flax, coconut) and high-fat foods such as nuts, avocados, and olives.
Increase your NEAT
Scheduled exercise sessions are not the only way to lose weight. The more active you are in everyday life, the easier it is to lose fat. Calories burned outside of exercise, eating and sleeping are described by the term “non-exercise activity thermogenesis,” or NEAT. Housework, using the stairs, and even fidgeting all contribute to NEAT. Over time, increasing your NEAT resulting in substantial energy cost—that is, it helps create a caloric deficit and the fat melts off.
Think of ways you can boost your NEAT while you drop fat… walking or cycling to work, walking during work breaks, standing up to move every hour (this is especially important if you have a sedentary job), taking the stairs, standing instead of sitting (use a sit-to-stand adjustable desk if possible), playing more with your kids, or doing more yard work.
Remember, every bit counts and the more active you are, the easier it will be to drop fat.
- Cycle your carbs
Think of losing the fat with a zig-zag approach. Remember that most days you are aiming to eat about 12 calories per pound of goal body weight, right? Well, once you hit a plateau—you see some definition in your midsection but seem stuck right there—you can help upregulate your metabolism with a cycle of low-carb and high-carb days[x].
For three days eat only 10 calories per pound of your body weight (with one gram of protein per pound of body weight, 0.5 grams of carbs and the remainder from healthy fats). Every fourth day, go up to 15 calories per pound.
Another way to think of this is to have three low calorie days (at a 20 to 25% calorie deficit) follow by one high calorie day (5 to 10% extra)[xi]. Note that psychologically it’s very easy to overdo it on these “refeed” days. Be careful not to dip into emotional eating and just stick with the program, especially where it concerns carbs.
- Call in the cardio
Add four or five 20-minute medium-intensity cardio sessions each week (these should be slightly longer sessions if you work at a lower intensity). This is in addition to your existing, well-rounded weight lifting program, which you need to maintain.
Don’t do any long-duration endurance training. Multi-hour cardio session tend to increase appetite and can cut into recovery. Plus, an ongoing endurance training plan tends to reduce muscle mass, which is why marathon runners tend to have a lot less muscle mass than their sprinter colleagues.
Bottom line: avoid super-intense and super-long cardio sessions that can impair muscle recovery. Instead, vary the intensity of your cardio workouts, and aim to burn around 2 or 3 calories per pound of body weight with each sweat session.
- Make friends with hunger
It’s normal to feel hungry when losing fat. There are several ways to deal with this, the first of which is to expect it and power through some of it. Accepting some hunger while you are moving towards single-digit body fat is very helpful.
In the moment, drink some water (be aware this may make you look bloated in the very short term, as can extra fiber in your diet; that’s okay as it’s temporary). You can snack on water-based vegetables. Think of the kinds of veggies that end up in salads—most of these have a lot of water and not many calories. Also, take omega-3 supplements (such as fish oils), which have been shown to help decrease hunger.[xii]
- Sleep soundly
Get enough sleep! At least seven hours per night is crucial. The better and longer you sleep, the easier it will be to acheive single-digit body fat. Note that a lack of sleep leads to higher levels of the “hunger hormone,” ghrelin, and less of the “satiety hormone,” leptin[xiii], as well as disrupted glucose and insulin metabolism[xiv]… all of which are the enemies of fat loss.
A note about body fat measurements
It’s a good idea to measure your body fat percentage before and after you go through your fat-loss cycle, to determine if you are hitting your goals.
There are many ways to measure body fat percentage, from good ol’ skinfold calipers to bioelectrical impedance tests to underwater weighing (which is as much fun as it sounds!) to cadaver studies (for those of you who mostly want your heirs to hear what your body fat really was). In academic circles, it’s a topic with a lot of depth. If you want to make your head spin a bit, you can read about the technicalities related to accurate measurements here. A much more user-friendly summary is found here.
Complexities aside, we recommend using the DXA (also known as DEXA) method: dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry. DXA uses low-energy X-rays and takes under 15 minutes to complete a scan. Originally used to measure bone density for medical purposes, DXA is now also generally considered the most accurate and reliable way to measure body composition and therefore, body fat percentage.[xv] Note that DXA is less accurate for very small, large or lean individuals. (MRIs and CT scans are also highly accurate methods of determining body fat percentage, but expensive and difficult to access.)
Some private companies, doctor’s offices, spas and universities with exercise physiology departments offer DXA tests. You can read much more about DXA here. Gym also offer slightly less accurate testing methods (usually skinfold or bioelectrical impedance measurements) if you can’t find a DXA test. But no matter how you opt to measure body fat you use, make sure your “before” and “after” body fat estimations use the same method, and preferably the same machine and same technician to perform each test.
Finally, remember that it’s how you look and feel that matters most, not a number on a piece of paper. All body fat measurement tests are prone to error. It’s easy to get tied in knots worry about your “number” but if you look lean and cut and feel amazing, isn’t that the best reward?
A final word
If you live in a modern, developed country and attain single-digit body fat as an adult, you will be part of a very exclusive club. It’s a challenging task, physically and mentally, and you have to be tough and focused to do it. However, with a Paleo-Keto approach, and diligent management of your macronutrient and caloric intake, it is possible. If you are already healthy and lean and want to get a ripped look, then aiming for single-digit body fat is a great place to start!
Written By: Heath Squier / CEO / Julian Bakery, Inc.
[ii] ACSM’s Resource Manual for Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (7th Ed.), 2014