How Fat Is Too Fat?

Religiously tracking those macros will keep your fat percentage in check.

Akash Vaghela Akash Vaghela · 24 Jul 2018

Nutrition Intermediate
8 Mins

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One of the primary physical reasons for starting a transformation journey is for fat loss. The aim is to get lean, see those abs pop, and look amazing in upcoming holiday snaps.

After reaching their first checkpoint, clients look phenomenal. This is the best they have ever looked. But sadly for many, this where they think they have reached their peak. Although we often recommend adding a little more muscle, many are afraid to for various reasons:

  1. They think the job is done, they cancel their membership prematurely and go back to what they were doing previously and ending up back at square one.
  2. 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 in this sense as they’re afraid of undoing all of the hard work.
  3. 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. 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 muscle growth. Below, we have explored both ends of the spectrum in more depth to create a greater understanding that muscle growth requires controlled weight gain – not too much, and not too little.


COMING OUT OF AN EXTREME DIET


There is a common misconception that when you are on a low-calorie diet, your body goes into ‘survival’ mode and starts storing all food as fat. This is not true.

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

The biggest challenge to overcome when coming out of a dieting phase is the effect on appetite regulators. The key is to acknowledge that this is 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 provide feedback about the hunger throughout.

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

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


THE DRAWBACK OF STAYING TOO LEAN


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

There are two main issues that some may encounter whilst in this process: self-limitation and homeostasis.

The first of the two main problems is self-limitation. Restricting calories too much can make muscle growth painfully slow. Since muscle growth is already a slow process, you do not want to prolong this and make it harder for yourself. Embrace the calories, embrace the ‘fluff’ (the extent to which will depend on how aggressive you want to be), and muscle growth will come with time.

For an idea of realistic rates of muscle gain is, check out our article here.

The second issue is that unless you’re genetically very lean, your body probably doesn’t want you to sit here for too long. The consequence of this is a skewed hormonal output.

Our body likes homeostasis (balance), and when we take it too far either side of the spectrum, it will naturally try to balance itself back out.

If you’re at very low levels of body fat and you’re struggling with sleep, libido and mental wellbeing, the issue could more than likely be testosterone suppression. Ultimately, this is not conducive to muscle gain.


THE DRAWBACK OF GETTING TOO FAT


Other than looking like the Michelin Man, this is where the lines get blurred.

For most of us, in order to gain muscle at a decent rate, you need to accept the fact that you probably will gain a small amount of body fat. The key is knowing when it’s beneficial to your transformation and when you’ve crossed the line and pushed it a little too far.

When the line is pushed too far, it starts screwing with your digestion, your 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 you’re able to add muscle, but could also be detrimental from a general wellbeing perspective.

So how do you know whether you’re getting too fat?

Firstly, never judge this by your leanest body part. Everybody carries their weight in different areas. While someone may have quads of steel, they could carry body fat around their abdomen. Likewise, someone may have an all-year-round six pack, but carry their weight on their back. Therefore, measuring your body fat levels based on your leanest body part will give you a misrepresented idea.

Instead, you should pick two/three key areas that you’re prone to storing fat and keep track of those. You can do this visually by taking pictures, or more accurately with skinfold callipers.

Most just use skinfold callipers during dieting phases, but for those truly wanting to maximise progress, using callipers periodically can be a great tool.

That being said, don’t worry about trying to work out your body fat percentage, just make a note of your two/three fat-prone areas in millimetres to keep track of.

For example, men could pick umbilicus (belly button), supra-Iliac (hip), and sub-scap (shoulder blade), and women could pick quad (front of thigh), supra-Iliac (hip), and triceps (back of the arm).

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 you want to be monitoring the rate that the skinfolds are increasing comparative to weight gain to ensure progress is being made and that line never crossed.

A useful tactic to manage this is to set a measurement limit on each body part and once you’ve hit that limit, reduce your calorie intake temporarily.

For instance, say your limit on your sub-scap skinfold is 10mm, every time you hit 10mm reduce your calories and bring it back down to 7-8mm before pushing hard again.


CONCLUSION


Essentially, in order to grow muscle, you must put on weight – but this must be carefully managed.

Staying too lean will slow the process and you won’t be doing yourself any favours. Sure, it may be hard at first if you have undergone a period of great fat loss in the first stages of your transformation journey as this might seem like undoing all your progress. But you must remind yourself to look at the bigger picture and think long-term. If you implement the lessons you have learned whilst on your transformation journey, weight gain can be controlled.

On the other hand, putting on too much weight will not maximise muscle growth either, and weight gain should always be monitored. The above practices can help you keep this under control, so you always know when you are in the right lane or flirting with the line.

The lesson here is knowing how to control weight gain and self-awareness. And remember, if ever in doubt, check in with your coach, they will be best positioned to advise you.
Akash VaghelaAkash Vaghela

Akash Vaghela has spent 10+ years transforming bodies and lives around the world, and in May 2017, founded RNT Fitness to serve this purpose. His vision is to see a world transformed, where ambitious high performers experience the power of the physical as the vehicle to unlock their real potential. He’s the author of the Amazon best-sellilng book Transform Your Body Transform Your Life, which explains his unique and proven five-phase methodology, is host of the RNT Fitness Radio podcast, has been featured in the likes of Men’s Health and BBC, whilst regularly speaking across the world on all things transformation.

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