“So, tell me why”
“You’ve been at this for 22 weeks now, don’t you think its time you stopped?”
The prominence of the coffee machine’s whir highlighted my surprise at the question.
“Now that I think about it, I don’t even know why I’m doing this!”
Yusef and I were discussing our plans moving forward for diet and training and I was furiously chasing 5% body-fat.
I’d been dieting for 22 weeks and progress was starting to slow.
We sat in a small coffee shop, mulling over carb timing, de novo lipogenesis and the pros and cons of keto.
I sat staring past Yusef’s shoulder into space as he spoke…thinking about how great it would be to FINALLY reach my goal, about how I could finally eat to the point of being properly full for the first time in months.
When he asked me why, it caught me off guard. Was it for myself? For other people? Who was I even trying to impress? Why…did I even care.
I’d been so caught up in the specifics – grams of carbs, numbers of re-feeds and minutes of cardio that I’d totally lost sight of what I was even chasing, why I was putting myself through this.
I was even so focussed on some intangible goal in the future that I couldn’t stay present enough to discuss how to get there!
For the majority of my training life I thought being lean meant you were successful, the gold standard. Influenced by magazines, fitness websites and photoshopped versions of my dehydrated idols, I’d decided that to be truly content – I needed to be as lean as I could be.
The insidious thing is, looking back, I’d been really lean for weeks by the time I turned to Yusef for help. In reality, I’d surpassed any initial expectations I had of how lean I could get…yet I kept on pushing.
Why did I care?
Simple, but hard to admit.
I cared what others thought of me.
Don’t we all?
With predicable consistency we rate our lives against those of others and focus the majority of our actions to impress our peers. We choose the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the jobs we work, even the people we sleep with, based on what we think our friends and family will think.
“If I manage to get really lean, my friends will all envy how I look and of course – I’ll be more attractive won’t I – who doesn’t want that, I’ll be so happy and life will be amazing!”
I was chasing approval, not from myself, but from others.
I was hungry, tired, suffered mood swings, low sex drive, loss of strength, lack of quality sleep and all consuming food focus.
What’s worse, as I got leaner and even after I’d unveiled a full set of abs, all I could see was how I wasn’t quite at my goal yet – the progress I’d made evaded my thoughts as I critically evaluated why I couldn’t lose those last few pounds.
3 years on from the end of this diet and I’ve drastically changed how I feel about leanness…Ive stopped caring. Am I miserable and upset with how I look?
The opposite. In fact, Yusef and I often discuss the last few years of our training careers as being the equivalent of enlightenment as far as fitness is concerned.
Below, I will explain a little of what I’ve learned from my journey.
The obvious starting point is to examine where we all obtain this idea that being lean is desirable.
Fitness models serve as the constant reminder that society has an expectation of how we should look – an attractive ideal that we should all pursue and they’re everywhere.
Obviously, in the fitness sphere itself, lean photos appear on the side bars of most websites and shredded abs smother protein tubs. But now, lean physiques can be seen in pop-media, heat magazine even have a “torso of the week” feature just to remind women (and men) that there is standard for a male’s body.
Its also rare (read: never the case) that you seen a less than lean model on the cover of FHM.
Of course, the degree to which this is the case depends on your social sphere – I can’t imagine the guy jogging every day around the block is trying to look like Ronnie Coleman.
Most guys desire leanness while holding onto decent levels of muscle mass – the beach body look, Rob Riches below is perhaps on the extreme end of what most guys target when pursuing an ideal physique.
The “strong is the new skinny” movement on Instagram has even moved the bar for what is considered “attractive” for women.
The likes of Michelle Lewin (above) have popularised an image of lean and moderately muscled while simultaneously living the life of her dreams via a social media lens.
There are obvious issues in using such images as a target, even as an ideal. Potential drug use, photoshopping and breast augmentation (come on Rob, its obvious!) tend to be pushed to the back of our psyche as we peruse our shredded idols as they run though sunny fields, holding hands and singing the sound of music.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the kind of conditions presented in photo shoots is transient at best – after all, if your career relied on looking a certain way, you’d want to do everything you could to appear as lean as possible.
Typically, models use some kind of peaking strategy to attain a certain look and images (certainly those above) receive post production editing to enhance the models’ appearance and this is before the perfect conditions of pumping up and downwards lighting.
Don’t get me wrong, this is an industry and it’s profit driven – nowhere do they say that these images represent a Natural athlete who looks like this all the time, its simply our own impressions that create this idea.
So some would argue that the source of this issue is the exaggerated impressions we’re shown in the media. A lot of the time, we’re trying to look like someone else so that we can be sure we’re fitting in, that we can finally be defined as attractive to the opposite sex.
We’re tying to look exactly like our idols and this will NEVER happen.
Rob and Michelle have a certain genetic make-up and they’re being chosen for these photos for a reason – at this condition they look impressive and create the right image.
We have no comfort over the lengths used to produce these photos and we also have no idea how much (or little) time and effort Rob and Michelle need to put in to get there. It could be that blessed genetics mean these are easy feats for them. Or, more likely, it’s their full time job and it requires everything they’ve got to give – not something that most of us can afford (or would want) to do.
The darker side of leanness
Now, I’ve never been as lean as a fitness model, no where near in fact but the above condition represents roughly where I was at when Yusef and I spoke.
If someone had shown me this photo at the start of my diet, I would have believed that as a result of the physical change – I would have experienced a great sense of achievement and reward, I would have expected that my quality of life would have greatly improved.
In fact, I can vividly remember my mindset at the time the photo was taken.
I was up early, 6am, because hunger pangs had woken me up.
I looked noticeably lean that morning so, of course, that meant a photo opportunity to chart my progress. I ensured appropriate lighting, captured a few progress shots and proceeded to critique how I still had some way to go.
I felt tired, low and incredibly hungry. All I could think about was food and how the diet would end soon. Even though no one was making me do it.
What kept me going was the thoughts of reward when I reached my goal (mainly the sugar coated, triple chocolate rewards).
This was the progress I’d made over four years by this point. It represented lots of learning and experimentation and lots of effort that, in hindsight, wasn’t needed. Looking back at the photos, I can clearly recognise the drastic changes I’d made and how, if anything, I was too lean to sustain.
I made this photo at the end of my diet, ready to post as an article, but I didn’t.
I didn’t because it was my belief that I could still be leaner – that I could make the comparison even more impressive.
The point, is that I was unable to step back an smell the roses.
I was chasing a moving target.
When you’re pursuing leanness, there is no real hard data. I tried as much as I could to objectify the process – I weighed my self regularly, took comparable progress photos along the way in similar lighting and even went to the lengths of getting skin fold measurements.
The reality, is that none of these things are shown on the images we see of others.
I had 5% bodyfat in my head because that was always discussed as being the target for super lean yet, according to the skin folds (don’t get me started on their inaccuracy), I’d been under 5% for a while. I was still chasing an image, an idea in my head that I couldn’t define.
What no one tells you about dieting is that as soon as you start, you lose any ounce of objectivity. What you consider lean on day 1, will be vastly different to what you think after 10 weeks. You move your own target so that its always just out of reach and continue to spiral down a never ending cycle.
I was waiting to see something that would confirm for sure that I’d reached my goal – so that I would KNOW I’d made it.
This never came.
It took a hefty dose of objective thinking from Yusef to get me to start adding calories back in.
After the conversation with Yusef, I decided I needed a more regular source of objectivity, I went in search of a coach online and stumbled across 3DMJ and Eric Helms – I’ve now been working with him for almost 3 years.
He started my reverse diet, walked my calories up gradually and suggested that I try my hand at powerlifting.
Watching my leanness slowly fade was tough but the strength gains I made compensated for the fact.
I was making real progress in the gym for the first time in years and shifting weights I’d never thought possible. More importantly, my food focus began to dissipate, my hunger levels normalised and like someone had pulled my rip-cord, I finally felt a myself again, a new lease of energy.
Binary, not scalar
When I looked in the mirror, I could clearly see that I was no where near as lean. I remember being on several holidays, around the pool with friends waiting for someone to comment “OMG Jonny you’ve like lost all your leanness brah’
No one even noticed.
A year of calorie surplus and eating what I wanted and no one cared.
The thing is, what we think other people think of our physique is wrong. We think that everyone as a scalar impression of who we look, that the tiny bit of progress we make will be noticed by anyone. Well, this couldn’t me further from the truth.
We’re viewed by others in a binary fashion – we’re typecast.
In this world, if you give even a small amount of care and attention to your health and physique, more than likely, your friends, family and loved ones will consider you to be “in shape”, for them, you’ve ticked that box.
Sure, there will be some who still criticise you but i think its worth considering, is someone who functions on such a shallow level worth your time and effort?
Getting lean, will not make you happy.
Getting really lean is an interesting experience, I learned a lot about my willpower, discipline and ability to blindly pursue a goal without thinking about it.
But it didn’t do what I thought it would – I gained no sense of achievement, no elevated sense of happiness and not a single one of my friends even noticed my progress.
The greatest sense of reward I’ve ever experienced as a result of my fitness pursuits is embodied in the above photo.
I’d lost any sight of visible abs.
I didn’t care at all about how I looked.
I’d been pursuing strength with zero focus on my body composition for nearly 2 full years and I’d never felt more reward.
I’d pulled 285kg, a weight I thought never possible for the British team in the European championships and the experience was so rich It nearly brought me to tears.
Am I saying that everyone should be a powerlifter?
Not at all.
I am saying that getting lean gave me nothing except a food obsession and tiredness.
I am saying that fitness and all it encompasses has a lot to offer, not just change how you look.
Focussing on leanness to the detriment of life, meals out with friends and drinks with the family is not worth it.
After-all, in the end, all we are is an amalgam of our experiences.
Do you really want this to be a sequence of photos taken in downlighting and missed social opportunities just because you sacrificed to win?
That said, it’s hard to describe fire unless you’ve been burned.
I’m not suggesting that you never chase leanness as a goal there are many sports and pursuits that even require it, simply that you should be aware of the above in doing so if you’re trying to get lean for its own sake or because you think it will make you happy.
I would never have changed my perspective unless I’d tried to get lean first. It can sometimes be your own experiences that have the longest lasting impact on your thinking – not just what you read in an article.
I’m now in a much more productive place with diet and training because of my previous leanness pursuits, but I don’t believe I’ll ever pursue leanness for its own sake ever again.