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Bodyrecomposition Mailbag 9

Another day, another mailbag

Maintaining a Very Low Bodyfat Percentage for Women

Question: Hello. Do you know any females who are successfully and consistently living at at lower body fat 10-12% using a keto/ low carb diet? Thank you!

Answer: First and foremost, 12% is about the lower limit of essential fat in women.  While you will sometimes have women estimated lower than that, this is an artifact of the equations.   A woman at 10% body fat is dead.  Even at 12%, almost all women will show massive hormonal issues, a lack of health and vigor.  This shouldn’t even be a goal for women, it’s unrealistic and physically damaging in the long-run.

About the lowest body fat I’d suggest any woman even attempt to maintain long-term is 15-16% bodyfat.  She will have a cut upper body, 6-pack abs and legs should be fairly lean (depending on her body fat distribution patterns) but, assuming she’s not doing anything completely idiotic with her diet and training, she should be ok.  Some women won’t even be able to maintain that low level without a loss of menstrual cycle, energy and mental problems and will have to skew higher.

And honestly this has nothing to do with dietary choice.  Keto or carb-based, a woman is not going to easily, or more importantly, healthily maintain that low level of body fat year round. Nor should that be a goal.

Men’s Lower Ab and Back Fat

Question: Hello. I have been bodybuilding for 5 years, I estimate that I am around 12-13% body fat. My main problem in the lower abs and lower back fat that doesn’t seem do go whatever I do. Which book would be beneficial for my case?

Answer: For men with normal “male” (yes, I’m using the whitecisgendered heteronormative term for this, suck on it) body fat patterning, abs and low back are always the last place to go.  A man will have ripped delts and pecs, shredded legs and still be sloppy around the waist.  It’s just part of being a man (for a woman with normal “female” body fat patterns, hips and thighs are the stubborn area).

Stubborn fat is stubborn for a variety of reasons including adrenoreceptor density, poor blood flow; stubborn fat even stores different types of triglcyerides than non-stubborn fat.  All of this makes it harder to get rid of. But it’s by no means impossible.

The first necessary thing is patience, most men will need to get to 10% body fat or lower for ab and low back fat to really go away.  Yeah, yeah, patience, how long is that going to take  So far as a book, The Stubborn Fat Solution would of course be the suggestion I’d make.  It not only will explain to you every reason WHY stubborn fat is stubborn (in often excruciating detail) but will give you diet, supplement and workout protocols to mobilize it as effectively as possible.

Good luck!

Training for the Skinny Fat

Question: Hi Lyle, I recently got a DEXA scan to measure my body composition and the results were not good. at 5’11, I weighed in at 166 lbs but discovered my body fat was very high – 25.5%. This meant I only had a mere 123 lbs of LBM. This was even after lifting for a few months, gaining about 10lbs (not sure of the composition of this), so building muscle and losing fat at the same time is probably out of the question as I’m not a total beginner.

Now I’m not sure whether to lose fat or try gain muscle; I would have to go as low as 137 – 140 lbs to get in the 10-12% BF range, which seems very low for someone of my height. Conversely I’m not sure about trying to gain muscle at such a high body fat % – I’d likely end up pushing 30% by the time I get any significant amount of muscle gain, and also because I’d likely have issues with insulin sensitivity at such a high starting bf%. I’m not sure how I should approach this as I’m probably not advanced enough for a recomp diet like your UD2.0. any advice on what me or people in a similar situation should do?  Thanks, CR

Answer:  This an exceedingly common question and, for those who haven’t read all 350 articles on my site (shame on you!), the numbers he’s using in the above have to do with my general suggestion to stay between 10-15% body fat or thereabouts for gaining muscle.  Certainly recomposition is a great goal and sometimes achievable but most approaches tend to make people spin their wheels.  And as a beginner trainee, an approach like the Ultimate Diet 2.0 is inappropriate.

Now, a first comment: for reasons I’m unclear on, DEXA scans seem to systematically result in higher body fat percentages than other methods such as calipers (which is where my numbers come from).  A number of recent pros have gotten DEXA scans when they were obviously in contest shape.

While calipers or visual estimates might have put them at 4-5% body fat (about the lower limit for men), DEXA put them at like 9-10%.  So there is something going on that makes the methods incomparable but I’m not sure what (anybody reading this who knows, PLEASE leave a comment).

The numbers I use will always be lower than the numbers DEXA spits out. But even if we adjust the above value of 23% downwards by 5% or so, the person asking the question is still slightly outside of my ideal range (he’s near the high end cutoff but would need to diet first in my approach).

On that note, please understand that the 10-15% value is not an absolute.  I constantly have people go “Well I use 12-17% and that works fine”  Yes, fantastic.   Thank you for being even more pedantic than me. Body fat estimation is ONLY an estimate and there s a 1-2% error bar anywhere you go (so my 10-15% is really 8-12% to 13-17% in the first place).

My primary point in using the 10-15% (this is for men by the way, women use 17-22% or so since they have more essential fat) is to keep people from bulking when they are too fat (and end up having calorie partitioning issues and/or having to diet for a year to get lean again) or trying to get so lean (single digits) that they have other issues.  10-15% is good rough RANGE.  It’s not an absolute number.  I’m mainly just trying to keep people from scuttling themselves by giving them a range that will work for most and keep them from doing something dumb.

Beyond that, what is CR to do? Since he doesn’t have a lot of lean body mass, he’s obviously hesitant to diet (as the old saying goes, you can’t define bone) down specifically although it really isn’t a problem in my book.  But I understand a male trainee not wanting to be an even smaller version of himself or to be 140 pounds at his height.

Bulking in the strictest sense, is out of the question since at his current bodyfat, he’ll run into all of the issues I mentioned above and discuss in detail in the linked article: he may have calorie partitioning problems and he’ll end up at such a high body fat when all is said and done that getting lean again will take forever.  What to do?

Honestly, despite his assertion that he’s been lifting a few months, he is still a beginner.  And will be for 3-6 more months.  And his body fat is still high enough that he can probably gain strength and muscle slowly as he leans out. This is one of those situations where gaining muscle while you lose fat is relatively easier: the combination of being an overfat beginner allows a physiology for this to happen.

So this is a place where I’d suggest a slight deficit (10-20% from maintenance), moderate low intensity cardio and a well set up beginner training program.  Bodyfat should come off slowly, strength will go up and muscle mass should go up gradually as well.  When he has a year of training, he can re-assess where he is and will be ready for more specific dieting or gaining cycles.  But I don’t think he needs them now.

Fasted Cardio and Fat Loss

Question: I’ve long seen it claimed that cardio has to be done first thing in the morning on an empty stomach (i.e. fasted cardio) for optimal fat loss, is this true?

Answer: This is probably one of the most commonly asked questions which is why it’s worth addressing. It’s worth keeping in mind that this idea usually comes out of the bodybuilding subculture, usually contest bodybuilders who, assuming their diet is working properly, are getting towards the low-end of body fat levels.  And the short-answer to your question is that the body fat of the person is going to be the main determinant of whether doing cardio fasted in the morning is important or not.

How is Bodyfat “Burned”?

To understand that, I need to cover a bit of background physiology, I’d mention that this is discussed in much more detail in both my Ultimate Diet 2.0 and The Stubborn Fat Solution for anybody who is truly interested in the topic.  But simply, there are three primary steps involved in ‘losing’ fat, they are:

  1. Mobilization
  2. Transport
  3. Oxidation (burning)

Mobilization refers to actually getting stored fat (specifically fatty acids) out of the fat cell; this process is under the primary control of insulin and the catecholamines although hormones such as growth hormone, cortisol and others play secondary or tertiary roles.

Transport refers to the actual transport of fatty acids (bound to albumin) within the bloodstream; this step can be an issue when folks are dealing with stubborn body fat (such as lower ab/low back fat in men and hip/thigh fat in women); blood flow is impaired in those areas.

Finally is oxidation which is the actual burning of fatty acids within tissues such as skeletal muscle, liver and heart.

The Impact of Bodyfat Percentage

Now, in lean individuals (where lean is around 12-15% body fat for men and about 19-22% for women), fat mobilization becomes a problem; blood flow is often an issue as well.  As folks get leaner, the body undergoes a series of adaptations that occur to make getting fat out of the fat cells more difficult.

For the most part, oxidation isn’t so much of a problem although there are strategies (such as skeletal muscle glycogen depletion) that can enhance the process; read my Ultimate Diet 2.0 for more details.

At the other extreme, that is in the very obese (here I’m talking about perhaps 35%+ body fat for men and 40%+ for women), the reverse problem is present.  There are tons of fatty acids floating around in the bloodstream, but for a variety of reasons, oxidation has become impaired.  To fully discuss this issue (along with approaches of fixing it) would require a full article an I won’t say much more about this group here.

And between those two extremes (so from about 15-35% body fat in men and ~20-40% body fat in women), there are really no issues.  Mobilization is usually not a problem since the body hasn’t started to fight back, transport isn’t an issue since stubborn fat isn’t being targeted, and oxidation is rarely a problem since the defects which show up at the extremes of obesity generally aren’t present.

When Can Fasted Cardio be Useful?

For the lean trying to get very lean (15% body fat or less for men, 22% or less for women), various strategies, including fasted cardio are probably going to be required to offset the mobization and blood flow defects.

That’s why that specific group found decades ago that fasted morning cardio worked best.  And why I wrote The Stubborn Fat Solution since it deals with how to overcome all of the problems.

But for folks who aren’t that lean yet, the folks in the middle range of body fat levels, it really doesn’t matter.  The best time to do cardio will be whenever it will most consistently get done.  If that’s first thing in the morning, fantastic.  If not, also fantastic.  It’s more important in this situation that it gets done than when it gets done.

Again, for the extremely obese, different strategies entirely are required, one that would take a full article series to address.

Is Fat the Preferred Fuel Source of the Body?

Question: I’ve seen it claimed (by members of the paleo diet movement) that fat is the preferred fuel source of the body and, for that reason, dietary fat should make up a large part of the diet (i.e. 40-70% of total calories).  Is this true?

Answer: Ok, before addressing this question in terms of the physiology involved, I want to get a little bit pedantic (or at least semantic) and look at what it means for something to be ‘preferred’.  According to the dictionary definition preferred means “more desirable than another” but what does that really mean?

Let’s say that you’re thirsting for a caffeinated beverage so I offer you two drinks, coffee and tea.  Since you like coffee more, you choose to drink coffee.  In this case, coffee is preferred.  Let’s contrast that to a situation where I offer you tea or nothing.  You choose tea because it’s the only option available.  In that second situation, tea wouldn’t really be your preferred choice (a true pedant would argue that you still preferred it to nothing but bear with me), it’s a choice by exclusion: you’re thirsty and with only one option you drink what you’re given.  Don’t worry I’m getting to the point.

So let’s turn to human physiology and talk about what fuel the body ‘prefers’ to use, with the above definition in mind.  Now, for the most part, all tissues in the body can generate energy (ATP for the biochemically minded) from either glucose or fatty acids. There are a few exceptions, mind you; the brain uses almost exclusively glucose but shifts to mostly ketones under certain conditions.  What the brain can’t use is fatty acids directly for energy.  There are a couple of other weird ones, a handful of tissues in the body that only use glucose: the retina is one, part of the kidney, there’s a third I’m forgetting.  There’s one other exception to this that I’ll come back to at the end.

But ignoring those exceptions most tissues can use either fatty acids or glucose for fuel (there is a separate issue of metabolic flexibility, the body’s ability to shift back and forth but that’s getting into a different topic).  And although both are stored in the body to be sure, this has to do with dietary intake, carbohydrates versus fat intake.

So what happens when you provide the body with both carbs and fats in the diet?  Which fuel source is preferred?  Well the answer is clear: carbs.  That is, when you give the body both carbs and fats (or more generally when carbs are available), the body will use the carbs for fuel and store the fat.  Carbs are clearly, by the definition I bored you with above, the preferred choice.  Reiterating: if the body is given a choice of carbs or fats, it will prefer carbs for fuel.  No question and no debates.

Now, if you remove all of your dietary carbohydrates, as in a low-carbohydrate/ketogenic diet, the body does make a huge shift towards relying almost exclusively on fatty acids (and ketones) for fuel.  But this is akin to my second example above, when I only offered you tea; it’s only a choice by exclusion where the body switches to using predominantly fats for fuel because that’s all that is available.  But that’s not the definition of preferred; it’s only a choice relative to nothing.

So, you ask, where did this idea that fat is the preferred source of fuel by the body come from?  Mind you, it’s not new and the paleo diet people aren’t the first to make this claim.  Well remember the other exception I mentioned above to the general idea that most tissues in the body can and (and in fact) will use glucose or fat depending on what’s available?

That exception is heart (cardiac) tissue.  For fairly logical reasons (i.e. the heart can’t ever be in a situation where energy isn’t available) cardiac muscle tissue prefers fatty acids to glucose for fuel.  But it’s the lone exception in the body and certainly (and fairly obviously) is not representative of the rest of the body.

So while it’s clear that the body can and will shift fuel source choice depending on what’s available, the idea that ‘fat is the preferred fuel source in humans’ is incorrect.

Using Isolated Exercises to Fix a Compound Exercise Stall

Question: I have a question regarding volume and stalling on certain lifts because of one body part. For instance, say that when I bench press, my triceps are the limiting factor in the lift, they give out before my chest does. So because of my triceps I can’t progress it weights.

So to remedy that problem, I always hear the advice to blast the failing body part with more volume, which doesn’t make sense to me because they already ‘burned out’ in that workout. I think it would make more sense to isolate the chest because it wasn’t worked to the point of exhaustion like the triceps were.

So I myself think lowering the triceps volume may be beneficial while others want to increase it. This scenario does lack context and I’m sorry for that, but I’d figure there are reasons to bump up volume and decrease volume to be able to progress.

Answer: There are a couple of different ways to look at this. On the one hand, it does make a certain logical sense that the failing muscle group is getting the largest training stimulus and that extra work would be overkill.   By that argument, your suggestion of doing more pec work seems logical at first glance since, in premise, it is your triceps limiting the training effect to the pecs during compound movements.  And certainly systems such as pre- or post-exhaustion have been used based on that logic.

At the same time, just hammering away at a compound movement doesn’t seem to really “catch-up” the lagging muscle groups.  So the logic doesn’t seem to correspond to the training reality.    For whatever reason, the muscle group that is holding a compound lift doesn’t ever seem to catch up with the prime movers when it’s a big weak point.I don’t know why, it just doesn’t work.

And this seems to be especially true the worse that a person is built for a movement.  That is, consider someone with long arms, who will typically have problems benching in terms of triceps giving out (simply as a function of the long lever arm due to their mechanics).  In practice, these folks seem to benefit more from isolation work (or a combination of isolation and specific assistance work; see below) than folks built to bench.

Just benching and benching and benching some more seems to work more poorly even if you’d expect it to work better (just as a function of the limiting muscle being trained more due to it being limiting).  I can’t honestly say why this is the case but, again, practically you tend to find that the people who often benefit most from assistance work (of whatever sort) are the ones who are least well built for it.

And you see this approach in systems of training that, empirically at least, seem to work for the most varied groups of people.  In Olympic lifting for example, as I discussed in the dreadfully overwritten Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting Series, while many seem to think that the Bulgarian approach may be ideal, it works best when lifters have no weak points.  The Soviet approach, using more variety and specific assistance work, seems to work for a broader population, especially those lifters not ideally biomechanically suited to the movements.

A similar idea would exist for something such as Westside powerlifting training (where a combination of both isolation work for individually lacking muscles along with specific assistance work for the competition lifts) is used to bring up weak points.  Louie Simmons has said something to the effect that “Movements don’t fail, muscles do” and much of the setup of Westside type approaches is using assistance work of varying types to bring up limiting muscle groups.

Finishing up, I’d also argue that there is often an efficiency aspect to using specific assistance work to shore up weak points and this can be especially true for the big compound movements.  Just benching and benching and benching some more (or squatting or deadlifting or what have you) can get old fast.

If plugging in specific isolation work for a lagging muscle group (or even specific assistant work that uses the limiting muscle group more in it’s limiting range; think board presses for a lifter having trouble at lockout) fixes the problem faster and/or with less grinding effort on more fatiguing movements, that can only be seen as a benefit.

So rather than just bench endlessly and hope that the triceps catch up, I’d see doing specific triceps work (and this might be a combination of both isolation work for muscles and carefully selected assistance work) is a more efficient way of fixing the problem.

I’d mention, in finishing, that I am in no way suggesting that you replace your compound work with isolation or even specific assistance work.  But adding in either direct work for lagging muscles, specific assistance work, or a combination of both along with the compound work is a time-tested way of bringing up weak points for folks who have major limiters.  But you’re unlikely to get any real transfer if you’re not still practicing the compound movement itself, effectively ‘integrating’ any gains in strength in the limiting muscle that you make with the assistance work.

In practice, the most typical approach might be to do some direct work for the lacking muscle group (i.e. direct triceps work of varying types) on one upper body day and something more specific (like board presses of varying heights depending on where the weak point was) on the other upper body day.  That would be in addition to any specific work on bench press and generally done after the bench press work.

Bodypart Frequency and Soreness

Question: You have discussed training frequency on your site and suggest that training a body part twice a week to every 5th day, what would you say if on that fifth day my legs are still sore and I’m generally fatigued, would you recommend waiting an additional day or so? Or just work through the soreness?

Answer: There are actually two different issues that you’re bringing up here which are the general fatigue and the soreness and I want to address them separately.

First, the easier of the two which is soreness.  Simply, this doesn’t matter.  Soreness appears to mainly be an issue of connective tissue damage more than anything muscularly (despite still being called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS) and there is no problem training through it.

Most find that by the time they are done warming up, the majority of the soreness is gone and even more find that as they get used to a higher training frequency soreness becomes much less anyhow.  They also usually start growing better.

The general fatigue issue is something else.  Mind you, without knowing more about your weekly setup, it’s a little hard to address this totally.   Because while it could be related to the previous workout it could also be related to lifestyle factors like sleep (or a lack thereof), nutrition, overall life stress, etc.  Making sure that those are in order often fixes any problems.

As well, realize that many people find that they have some of their best workouts when they walk into the gym feeling a bit under.   They’ll be yawning and a bit apathetic and then just proceed to blow it out or have banner and PR days.  I suspect this is just an issue of not wasting a lot of mental energy ahead of time and relaxing during the workout and letting it happen instead of trying to force it.

But that’s far from universal.  My usual recommendation for folks when they get to the gym or training not feeling really up for it is to at least go through their warm-ups.  Often by the end of it they feel great and have a good workout.  If it’s still not happening, I’d either recommend calling it a day and going home or just going through a short active recovery workout, keeping volume and intensity dialed way back.  Ideally you should leave the gym feeling better than you walked in.  If not, you went too hard.

I’d mention that often the problem is related to the previous workout simply being overwhelmingly intense.  Many people who start to increase their training frequency don’t dial it back in their workouts and get themselves into trouble.  You may find that reducing the workload even slightly (not taking any sets to failure, reducing  volume a bit) at the previous workout (i.e. the Monday workout before a Friday workout) prevents the soreness and fatigue issues.

Finally, I’d mention that people who are using considerable poundages (i.e. who are very strong) often can’t pull off the higher training frequencies without adjusting their total work load majorly.  A heavy/light system (where only one workout is truly heavy and the second workout for that exercise or muscle group is much lighter) often allows the same higher training frequency while improving recovery.  Again, that’s usually for more advanced trainees who are handling very heavy weights and for whom two truly heavy workouts per week are simply too much.

Moving to Morning Training

Question: For reasons beyond my control, I have to change my lifting to mornings, rather than evenings. Not really pumped about it, but it’s either change, or don’t lift at all.  I’ve been looking on the Internet for credible information about morning lifting (what to do, what not to do, in terms of nutrition, supplements, volume, etc).  It’s one of those subject where I FEEL like I know what would/wouldn’t inhibit my progress; but there’s a reason I’ve not chosen to do it in the past and it had nothing to do with the alarm – I just wasn’t getting anything out of it.   Do you have any recommendations for my situation?

Answer: With early morning training (and here I’m talking here about resistance training specifically) there are a few issues that need to be taken into account.  One of them is food intake and here there is a lot of variance.  Blood glucose is usually on the lower side in the morning and not everyone performs at their best under these conditions.

In this situation, getting something (ideally with some carbohydrate and protein) before lifting is a good idea (I’d mention here that the studies which found that pre-workout carbs/protein were more anabolic were looking at morning fasted training so this is one place where getting something into the system is probably ideal from a training adaptation standpoint).  This isn’t universal and some people do just fine without eating.

But let’s say you’re one of those people who needs to have something in them to lift at their best.  Now we have another issue, some people don’t do well with food in their stomach during high-intensity activities.  At the same time, others can eat a big meal and go train and have no issues.  Some of this depends on the type of training as well: folks doing low repetition work with longer rest intervals don’t tend to have the same issues as those doing more ‘metabolic’ type work (with higher repetitions and shorter rest intervals).

Mind you, you don’t need a lot of food to get blood sugar into the normal range and I wouldn’t recommend a huge meal prior to training regardless.  A small amount of protein with some carbs is all that’s needed.  But what if you can’t handle any solid foods prior to a workout?  Then what.  In this case, liquids can be invaluable.  A simple glass of low- or non-fat milk or even a premade carb/protein drink will get carbs and amino acids into the system without sitting in your stomach during an intense workout.

So that’s issue one.  Another has to do with the training itself.  Research back in the day suggested that most people show optimal performance about 3 hours after they wake-up, it simply takes some time for the body to warm-up after you’ve been asleep.  And for folks who train first thing in the morning, this can be a real issue because odds are you’re not getting up at 4am for a 7am lifting session.  How to get the body warm?

A hot shower is one approach although it’s more of a passive warm-up.  Mainly realize that you may need to do a bit more extensive warm-up for early morning training than you did while training in the afternoon/evening (when you’d been up all day).  That may mean a bit more cardio to get the body fully warmed and you may need more warm-up sets prior to heavy lifting.  Of course, stimulants are usually part and parcel of early morning training as well.

Finally realize that there is likely to be an adaptation phase as your body gets used to training first thing in the morning.  You may have 2-3 weeks where your workouts just aren’t that great until you adjust.  But the body does eventually adjust (and there are plenty of folks who have gotten to their goals despite very early morning training).

The body’s circadian rhythms to adjust to training (and there is evidence that you perform best when you habitually train) but it can take a little while.  You may have to reduce your volume or intensity a bit initially but within a few weeks you should be back to your normal workouts without any issues.

Hope that helps and good luck.


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