How Fat Is Too Fat?

How Fat Is Too Fat?

The ‘offseason’. Not just limited to bodybuilders. The offseason is just as applicable if you’re doing a photoshoot per year to assess progress. Even for the layperson that doesn’t want to do a photoshoot, or a competition, it is a great way of making progress in between dieting phases and is often not utilised properly.

Typically, when somebody comes to work with a coach (let’s talk beginners and intermediates) it’s primarily for fat loss. To get leaner. To see those abs. To feel badass on that holiday you’ve booked.

At the end of this process, the clients look phenomenal. The best they’ve ever looked. However, 9 times of out 10 they’d look even better if they just had a bit more muscle on their frame. A little more width to the shoulders, slightly more developed abdominals, more meat on the upper pecs. No doubt this resonates with you?

Sadly, this is where most people go wrong. They often go down one of three routes:

  • They think the job is done there, they cancel their coaching and go back to what they were doing previously; ending up back at square one
  • They believe their newly achieved low digit body fat is the ‘norm’ and never allow themselves to add enough calories to start growing. This means they look good, but never great. They’re self limiting as they’re afraid of undoing all of the hard work
  • They go the opposite direction, they understand that they need to be in a caloric excess to grow and they take it to the extreme. Trust me on this one, I’ve been there. Before you know it the ratio of muscle:fat gain is well and truly in the favour of the latter

None of the above are conducive to the end result. And I don’t want to see you making these mistakes.

Coming out of an extreme diet

Let’s dismiss ‘starvation’ or ‘survival’ mode right out the gate.

Traditional dogma is that when we’re on low calories (as we potentially would be at the end of a dieting phase) our body starts storing all food as fat in a survival attempt.

One look at those subjected to true starvation shows that this just isn’t the case:

I hate to use such a harrowing image, but hopefully this shows visually that our bodies can’t magically store food when we’re in a true deficit.

There may be a small degree of ‘metabolic adaptation’, which we can discuss in future pieces, but this is only seen in those that are very lean.

I think the real biggest issue coming out of a dieting phase is the effect it has on our appetite regulators.

The biggest key in trying to overcome this issue is simply by acknowledging that it’s going on. And that you need to try and mentally over-ride it in those initial few weeks post diet. If your coach sets you some new macros to follow immediately after the diet, follow them stringently and feedback to him/her about the hunger throughout.

The worst thing is trying to ‘go it alone’ with no real plan, and falling victim to the above.

The goal should be to have calories back up to maintenance within 4-6 weeks. We have to be mindful of body fat accrual and not rush the process, but we also don’t need to drag it out over a period of months either. The longer we drag it out, the more we’re prolonging the recovery of our appetite regulators.

A very rough guide is to bump calories up between 150-300 calories per week, while trying to titrate energy expenditure down.

The drawback of staying too lean

Once we’ve successfully done that, the next step is to actually start growing!

This is the point in which most reach a crossroads and go one way or the other.

Let’s discuss those that self limit and stay too lean.

The first of the two main problems I see with this is that quite obviously; you’re going to be restricting calories too much to get the most out of the growth phase. When we consider that muscle growth is already a very slow process, why would we want to make it harder for ourselves?!

To take a look at what a realistic rate of muscle gain is, please visit my article here.

The second issue is that unless you’re genetically very lean, your body probably doesn’t want you to sit there for too long. The consequence? Skewed hormonal output.

Now, I’m no endocrinologist. So I’m not going to write about stuff above my pay grade. Just know that if you’re at very low levels of body fat, and you’re struggling with sleep, libido and mental wellbeing – you’ve likely got some form of testosterone suppression going on. This is not conducive to muscle gain.

Our body likes homeostasis (balance). When we take it too far either side of that, adaptations will occur.

The caveat is to those that are naturally very lean. If you’re the type that’s walked around with visible abs and paper thin skin since your teens, then that is your sweet spot.

Sadly, this isn’t the case for the majority of us.

The drawback of getting too fat

You mean aside from looking like the Michelin Man?

Jokes aside, this is where the lines get blurred.

We need to accept that for most of us to gain muscle at a decent rate, we probably will gain a small amount of body fat. It’s a case of knowing when it’s beneficial and when we’ve crossed the line and pushed it a little too far.

The problem when we do push it too far is that for most of us, it starts screwing with our digestion, our ability to partition nutrients effectively and can lead to increased general inflammation. These three combined not only have the potential to reduce the rate that we’re able to add muscle, but could also be detrimental from a general wellbeing perspective.

Let’s look at how best to gauge whether we’re getting too fat.

My first tip here, is don’t judge it by your leanest body part. For example, no matter what I do, my calves/quads are vascular pretty much 24/7. An ex colleague of mine used to have thick, brick-like washboard abs year round. Yet the both of us carry enough fat on our backs that we resemble a human turtle.

So, it’s pointless that I judge my condition based on my calves, and that he judges his based on his abdominals.

Instead, we need to pick 2-3 key areas that we’re prone to storing fat in and keep track of those.

We can do this visually, or more accurately with skinfold calipers.

Most just use skinfold calipers during dieting phases. But in those truly wanting to maximise progress, while minimising fat accrual in the off season, using calipers periodically can be a great tool.

Don’t worry about doing a full 7-12 site test along with a fancy formula to work out your body fat percentage.

Instead, as mentioned above, just pick 2-3 key areas and make a note of them in millimetres to keep track of.

As an example, for men, we could pick:

Umbilicus (belly button)

Supra-Iliac (hip)

Sub-scap (shoulder blade)

For women, you could pick:

Quad (front of thigh)

Supra-Iliac (hip)

Triceps (back of the arm)

Please check the embedded video below for a quick demonstration on how to do this.

In a perfect world your body weight would be going up, while your skinfold measurements remain perfectly static. Unfortunately, the perfect world doesn’t exist, so instead we want to be monitoring the rate that the skinfolds are increasing comparative to weight gain.

There isn’t a perfect ratio here. I play each one by ear with my clients, due to having the different set points I’d mentioned earlier.

Another tactic to use is to set a limit on each body part, and once you’ve hit that limit, you pull things back for a while.

As an example, in my last off season I said to Akash:

“I want to grow as much as possible, while keeping my sub-scap skinfold <10mm”

So, every time my shoulder blade hit 10mm, I’d reduce calories temporarily, bring it back down to 7-8mm, and then push hard at it again.

Essentially, in a successful off season, you want be constantly teetering on the edge of just about to cross that line into “I’m pushing it too far”. You should be growing at a rate that requires you to implement ‘mini diets’ every so often to reign things in before once again, pushing on.

I think we all know those that are guilty of either doing the ‘see food and eat it’ perma-bulk diet. And we certainly all know those that are holding themselves back through fear of putting on the slightest amount of body fat.

If you do know somebody that falls into either of those camps, and feel they would benefit from reading this – please direct them to it!


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Akash Vaghela is the Founder of RNT Fitness, where his mission is to see a world where everyone experiences the power of a physical body transformation to act as a vehicle for the greater good in their lives. Akash has produced 200+ blogs, 100+ videos and hosts the RNT Fitness Radio podcast, which has amassed over 110,000 downloads in 90+ countries across 100+ episodes. Alongside this, he's been seen in Men's Health, BBC, T-Nation, Elite FTS and the PTDC, while also regularly speaking nationally and internationally on all things transformation.