Asking whether or not being really lean is really worth it — in the fitness industry, no less — might seem like an odd thing to consider, particularly to people for whom “fitness” and “leanness” are almost interchangeable. At the very least, the quest to be “more fit” is often synonymous with “getting leaner,” and in my 13+ years of experience many women set a goal of getting “really lean”without ever asking themselves if it’s what they truly want.
The perception of what “really lean” means can vary from one person to the next.
In general, when it comes to attaining a leaner physique, it’s important to consider a few key points:
Let’s explore each of these.
For every person who can eat whatever they want, skip exercise, and still maintain a lean physique, there is someone else who follows a very strict diet, exercises consistently, gets enough sleep, takes great care of themselves, yet still carries more body fat than they prefer.
While we absolutely have some control over our body composition, our genes play a role. There are things we can do to make the best of our genetics, but ultimately we are a product of our parents. If you come from a very lean family it may be easier for you to maintain a leaner physique than someone whose family isn’t as lean.
It’s important to understand that environmental factors such as the foods we were exposed to as children and the activity levels encouraged in different families also play a role in the expression of genes .
As our genetic predispositions are different, the way our bodies react to leanness also differs. Over the years I’ve had a number of friends and clients who go about their everyday lives quite lean without any issues. They eat well and exercise hard, but they feel very good and have a ton of energy at that level of leanness. On the other hand, I become foggy-brained, feel cold all the time, and lose my period (a condition called amenorrhea) when my body goes beyond a certain level of leanness. I remember how in 2006, in the final six weeks before my first figure competition, each of my limbs felt like they weighed 300 pounds. It was miserable!
For years I felt frustrated by my body’s reaction to my getting lean, but over the years I have fully embraced my body and am very comfortable with the level of leanness at which my health, performance, aesthetics, and lifestyle optimally intersect.
The symptoms I described above — fatigue, “heavy” limbs, brain fog, amenorrhea — don’t usually appear when your body is healthy and functioning well. Generally, the body doesn’t like large fluctuations of any sort (e.g. certain hormone levels, blood pH, heart rate, and blood pressure) because maintaining homeostasis feels, and is, safe.
If you try to attain a level of leanness that is more than what your body is comfortable with, it may fight back. Symptoms like fatigue and “heavy” limbs can be your body’s way of encouraging you to be more sedentary, and thus, slow or reverse weight loss. Amenorrhea may occur if/when your body is unsure of whether you have enough sustenance available to support a pregnancy. These are just a few examples of how the body may fight back against an unhealthy or unsustainable level of leanness for you.
Being lean and being healthy aren’t always synonymous, despite what ubiquitous “fitspo” (or fitness inspiration) images all over social media would have us believe. These images of extremely lean women with motivational sayings like “Winners never take a day off!” or “Train insane or remain the same!” not only promote unsustainable habits, they also give a false sense of normalcy — even when we know that adequate recovery is an integral component in getting the results we want.
We’re expected to believe that’s just how these models look all the time, when in reality there’s a fair amount of dieting, strategic lighting, and photo editing going into those images. Furthermore, as Dr. Larissa Mercado-Lopez points out, these images also tend to promote the idea that there is only one way to have a “fit” body, and we know this is not true. There is no wrong way to have a body, and fit and healthy bodies come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
I used to train a a Division I women’s soccer player who was naturally slim, athletic, and lean, yet she was interested in losing fat in her lower body. We discussed her training, nutrition, and lifestyle factors, all of which were aligned with her current body shape and size (and the Female Fitness Blueprint we outline here), and included space for an occasional cupcake, beer, or glass of wine (or two). With this information in hand, I had to be honest with her: in order to see changes in her already-lean physique, she would need to get quite a bit stricter in her diet and lifestyle.
When I asked if she was she willing to make those changes, the answer was a swift no, and that is absolutely OK.
If you don’t want to make additional lifestyle changes in order to change your body, that is entirely up to you. This athlete found the spot at which her aesthetics, performance, health, and lifestyle intersected in a way that worked for her. None of them were exactly where she wanted them to be -- knowing her, I’m certain she would have enjoyed being stronger, leaner, healthier, and able to be more relaxed with her nutrition all at the same time -- but she had a solid balance.
If making certain sacrifices in order to get extremely lean — (e.g. skipping social events, being in bed by 9 p.m. every night, training twice a day, etc.) seem worth it to you, that’s fantastic! Just recognize focusing on getting extremely lean in that way may affect your lifestyle, optimal health, and performance a bit as you focus on aesthetics for a while.
That’s the power of autonomy: figure out what you want, figure out what it takes to get there, and then decide if it makes sense for your life. That choice is entirely yours.
If you’re tempted to pursue a more extreme level of leanness, here are some questions you should ask yourself first. They may help you devise your own course of action and, at the very least, assist you in uncovering your motivations:
Even if you don’t have an answer to all of these questions right away, taking the time to explore them can help you uncover why you’re interested in becoming really lean.
We understand that you may want to change your body — the way you look, the way you feel, the way you perform — but we also believe that you are enough as you are in this moment. You can love your body as it is, while still wanting it to look, feel, or perform differently than it does right now.
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