It is no secret that creating a sculpted, lean body takes a tremendous amount of work.
Burning fat, especially while preserving your hard-earned muscle mass, requires dedication inside the gym, inside your kitchen, and even inside your bedroom. It isn’t as simple as simply cutting back calories below maintenance for a few weeks. Nor can you just eat Keto, Paleo, or whatever diet catches the public attention in 2020.
A Reality Check
It is important to remember that anyone can get lean. Anyone can stomach the commitment to drop stubborn body fat and get lean for a photo shoot, vacation, or just because they feel like it.
What is harder though is developing habits that allow you to stay lean year around. Yes, it is possible to keep your body fat in a reasonable range even when trying build muscle and improve strength. But again, you need repeatable behaviors that don’t go anywhere even when you are stressed, tired, or sick of the grind.
Habits, good or bad, are the backbone of our lives as human beings. We are creatures who desire order in our lives no matter how much we verbalize our desire for chaos and random. For that reason, we organize our lives into various actions and reactions that form a sort of script in our heads that plays each day.
Waking up and turning your coffee pot before you go to the bathroom – that’s a habit
Skipping the gym at night because you want to lay on the couch and watch TV – also a habit.
What follows are the 4 habits that lean people execute in order to be at their (near) best body composition year around:
1. Vegetable Intake (and Variety)
Your grandmother was right – eat your vegetables.
People who stay lean year around build the foundation of their diets on vegetables first. They realize that their body runs most optimally when they are getting seven to ten servings of vegetables each day.
These low calorie, high micro-nutrient density foods provide vitamins and minerals for all the chemical actions and reactions in the body – critical for any high-performance human. Minerals such as magnesium, zinc, and chromium are important for optimal sleep, endocrine function, and glucose control (1).
You need variety too.
You want a diet that contains all vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients needed for optimal human performance. You want to “eat the rainbow” of vegetables each day by ensuring you get yellow, orange, red, purple, white, and of course green foods onto your plate in order to accomplish this goal.
Peppers and squash, sweet potatoes and carrots, tomatoes*, eggplants and beets, cauliflower, and spinach, kale, broccoli, asparagus, peas, and brussel sprouts are a few options organized by colors.
*Yes, we know that tomatoes are technically a fruit, but who makes a fruit salad with tomatoes in it.
Just remember, no one has ever blamed their higher body fat percentage on kale or broccoli.
HOW TO IMPLEMENT:
Start building all your meals around the vegetables you are going to eat instead of the proteins. By “flipping the script” in your head you’ll prioritize getting 2 or 3 servings of vegetables with your proteins. So, instead of “figuring out what will go with the chicken” at dinner tonight – plan to have a spinach, beets, and carrot salad that you’ll add your chicken into.
When you go to the grocery store – start in produce and load up your cart before moving onto the rest of the market.
2. Water and Electrolyte Balance
Consuming water keeps the body hydrated, functioning properly, and capable of recovering from challenging workouts. Water, like the oil in a car, keeps everything running smoothly. It is why you’ll see people carrying gallon jugs to work, to the gym, and everywhere in between.
Not to mention, choosing that high quality H20 over sugary sodas, teas, and sports drinks is almost always the best option.
When looking at hydration though, we must also consider the electrolyte balance in the body. Too much water in the absence of salt, potassium, and calcium (and to a lesser extent magnesium, phosphate, and bicarbonate) can throw the system out of whack too.
Electrolytes very literally conduct electrical impulses in water, which makes them necessary elements for muscle and nerve function. It is not uncommon for someone low on electrolytes to struggle with energy levels, muscle contractions, and confusion (2).
Water, fruits, and vegetables are critical for achieving this balance. For example, choosing a banana or an orange as a midday snack over a pre-packaged carbohydrate bar is just one example.
HOW TO IMPLEMENT:
Start by drinking at least half of your body weight in ounces of water per day (i.e. a 200-pound person would drink at least 100 ounces). Eat at least two servings of fruit on days that you are exercising in addition to the previously recommended seven to ten servings of vegetables.
Consider adding or subtracting water based on the color of your urine, your energy levels, and whether you feel thirsty. Always go drink-for-drink with water and alcohol to fight dehydration during consumption.
3. Sleep Quality and Quantity
If you aren’t resting, then you will never be at your best. Research continues to emerge that sleep and recovery are the backbone of low body fat percentages, healthy organs, and higher levels of happiness in day-to-day life (3).
Sleep can be measured in two ways:
On one hand we have sleep quantity – AKA how many hours are you asleep in bed.
This is a very Point A to Point B measure like a mileage count on your GPS
On the other hand, we have sleep quality – a measure of how many hours of Rapid-Eye-Movement you were able to get during those hours.
It’s like fuel efficiency in your vehicle as you drive all those miles.
People who get enough quality sleep are less likely to crave sugary carbohydrates, consume caffeine, or skip workouts. Those very same people have better mental acuity, report better happiness, and may even have a better life expectancy (4).
Sleep is when your body burns fat best (slowest heart rate) and works to rebuild, replenish, and recycle damaged cells in the body (5) – perfect for the exercise enthusiast who wants to keep their workouts intense. And yet, sleep is one of the first habits to be overlooked in favor of work, fun, or simply defiance to having a bedtime.
HOW TO IMPLEMENT:
For quality: Avoid watching TV or being on your phone while in bed, and severely minimize your exposure to them in the hour leading up to your bedtime. Invest in quality pillows and sheets – you want to be as comfortable as possible to minimize restlessness.
Before preparing for bed take the time to write down your thoughts, your to-do-list for the next day, and any other information that could keep you awake at night. A clear mind rests better.
For quantity: Do your best to be in bed within 8 hours of the time that you need to be up in order to be ready the next day. You won’t necessarily sleep all eight hours, but you’ll have set aside that many hours for restfulness, and hopefully, six to seven hours of quality sleep.
4. Regular Cardiovascular Exercise
If you want to be lean year around, then you need to be doing cardio year around too. The benefits of cardio, beyond burning calories, is improved health of your heart, lungs, and brain – 3 pretty important elements of the human machine.
The stigma that cardiovascular exercise burns through muscle still exists in far too many coaches and trainees. Sure, if you are trying to put ten, twenty, or thirty miles into the pavement each week – you’ll probably see a loss in muscle mass (especially if you aren’t replenishing with enough carbohydrates and proteins.). Same goes with hours on the bike, elliptical, or rower ergometers. Too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.
However, for you to have a healthy metabolism your body needs exposure to cardiovascular exercise in addition to your resistance training programs. Whereas resistance training helps you increase your metabolic rate by adding pounds of lean mass to your frame – cardiovascular exercise provides a furnace for your body to burn through calories – helping to contribute to a deficit at the end of the day.
Cardio, especially low-intensity, long duration, steady-state, emphasizes the type I muscle fibers, high endurance tissues that rely predominantly on oxygen to contract. Your fat metabolism depends heavily on oxygen too, whether it is the deficit caused by high-intensity training (known as EPOC) or simply consuming large amounts of it during an extended bout of exercise (6).
Ultimately, your body burns additional calories trying to restore your oxygen balance, thus creating the after burn that so many fitness concepts are built on.
In addition to this is the fact that studies show cardiovascular exercise improves people’s sense of well-being while lowering instances of anxiety and depression (self-reported) (7). People who experience less of these extremes tend to find it easier to manage other aspects of healthy living. While we can’t claim direct correlation, we can conclude that doing cardiovascular exercise is good for many reasons.
HOW TO IMPLEMENT:
Intervals: At least one bout of interval cardio per week with a maximum intensity of a 1:1 work to rest ratio. AKA - thirty seconds of work = least thirty seconds of rest. Other ratios, such as 1:2 or 1:4 work fine too depending on ability.
Steady State: At least 2 sessions of 30 to 45 minutes should occur each week with an emphasis on being able to maintain a 6/10 intensity for the entirety of the workout.
Realize that being lean requires dedication. Staying lean year around requires commitment and perseverance. There are many other factors such as protein intake, training density, frequency, carbohydrate cycling, fat intake, and the orientation of the moon and stars (joke) that can impact your ability to be lean. Still though, your ability to be lean is helped greatly by creating and applying these four habits into your life as soon as possible.
We are, after all, a product of our environment, our habits, and our surrounding cast.
Ryan-Harshman, M., & Aldoori, W. (2005). Health benefits of selected minerals. Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien, 51(5), 673–675.
Balcı, A. K., Koksal, O., Kose, A., Armagan, E., Ozdemir, F., Inal, T., & Oner, N. (2013). General characteristics of patients with electrolyte imbalance admitted to emergency department. World journal of emergency medicine, 4(2), 113–116. doi:10.5847/wjem.j.1920-8642.2013.02.005
Vyazovskiy V. V. (2015). Sleep, recovery, and metaregulation: explaining the benefits of sleep. Nature and science of sleep, 7, 171–184. doi:10.2147/NSS.S54036
Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 8(2), 106. doi:10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a