Initial Body Fat and Body Composition Changes

Introduction

For many years (decades?) a common suggestion was that one should attempt to gain some muscle mass mass (through resistance training and possibly overeating) prior to beginning a diet. Well meaning individuals would suggest you spent 3-4 weeks or more training hard and eating well to gain muscle mass. The goal was to raise metabolism so that the diet would go more effectively.

In that current data indicates that each pound of muscle might burn an additional 6 calories (as opposed to older values of 25-40 cal/lb or even higher) (1), this argument is no longer tenable; to significantly affect metabolic rate would require a monstrous gain of muscle mass, far more than you could gain in 3-4 weeks.

Even if you gained 10 pounds of muscle, that would only add up to an additional 60 calories burned per day, hardly enough to worry about and certainly not enough to affect the following diet. Which isn’t to say that diets don’t work better after short or even medium periods of overfeeding, mind you, it’s simply not because of gains in muscle mass.

A more recent idea making the rounds in bodybuilding nutrition is that, prior to trying to gain lean body mass, people should diet down first. This reasoning is based on a variety of data that has examined the changes in body composition that occur when you overfeed either thin or fat individuals (see for example, Reference 2 or just about anything Gilbert Forbes has written over the past 30 years).

A Primer on the P-Ratio

The above recommendation is based on a lot of data on something called the P-ratio (which stands for partitioning ratio) which essentially represents the proportion of protein (LBM) you gain relative to the total weight you gain (this isn’t the technical definition of P-ratio, by the way, I’m just trying to simplify it a bit).

Now, a lot of factors control P-ratio including genetics, hormones, diet and training (to a smaller degree than you’d expect) and probably some I’m forgetting (3). But by and large, the primary predictor of P-ratio is starting body fat percentage. Basically, your starting body fat percentage predicts the great majority of what you will lose/gain when you diet/overfeed (4).

So, when you diet, the fatter you are, the less LBM (and more fat) you will lose. Conversely, the leaner you are, the more LBM and less fat you will tend to lose when you diet. This makes sense in evolutionary terms, the more fat you have to lose, the more your body can lose without having to burn off muscle tissue; the leaner you get, the less fat you have and the more muscle you end up losing. Anyone who’s dieted naturally to sub 10% body fat levels knows this to be true: the leaner you get, the more muscle mass you tend to lose

So what about overfeeding and gaining weight? Well, in general, the same holds but in reverse: leaner individuals will tend to gain more LBM and less fat and fatter individuals will tend to gain more fat and less LBM. This actually makes sense when you think about it. The fat individual loses a lot of fat/a little LBM when they diet and gains a lot of fat and little LBM when they overfeed while the leaner individual does the opposite. P-ratio appears to be constant going in both directions. That is, P-ratio appears to be constant for a given individual (5).

So, typically, when overfed, thin/lean individual will gain 60-70% lean body mass (LBM) while fat individuals may gain only 30-40% LBM. Note that these percentage gains are without exercise, simply with overfeeding from a starting body fat level. Although research hasn’t examined overfeeding nearly as much as underfeeding, we might expect intensive weight training to skew these numbers to an even better point.

So far, so good right; it sure seems like the leaner you are, the better your body composition changes will be during overfeeding? So get lean and then train and eat and you should gain piles of muscle back, right?

The Problem: Naturally Lean People vs. Dieted Down People

The problem with the above analysis, exciting as it sounds, is that there are significant differences between folks who are naturally lean (on whom the original overfeeding research was done) and subjects who have been dieted to leanness.

Let’s consider, for a second the likely physiology of those folks who stay naturally lean. Based on the Geneticcs Hypothesis (3), we’d expect them to have pretty good hormonal status in terms of thyroid levels, low or normal cortisol, maybe decent levels of testosterone, GH and IGF-1. They probably also show a normal nervous system output and an ability to increase fat oxidation when calories are raised as well.

We’d probably expect them to exhibit a spendthrift metabolism (6), one that cranks up in response to overfeeding to burn off excess calories. It wouldn’t be surprising if they were the ones who showed a great deal of Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT, 7) which is what allows them to burn off excess calories without getting fat. All of this, almost certainly with other factors would all contribute to their general lack of fat gain during overfeeding. Of course, if fat gain is limited during overfeeding, that would tend to mean that any weight gain will tend to be LBM, as the P-ratio data described above indicates.

The problem is that the above physiological profile in no way describes individuals who have dieted down to a low body fat percentage. Rather, dieted individuals typically show a biology that is absolutely not geared towards anything except packing the body fat back on. Typically, the metabolic consequences of dieting include a lowered metabolism, decreased fat oxidation, decreased HSL activity, increased LPL activity impaired hormonal status (including lowered testosterone and raised cortisol), decreased thermogenesis from a reduction in both thyroid levels and nervous system output and a host of other metabolic defects. All of these serve to both slow fat loss during the diet and ensure rapid fat regain when food is reintroduced.

For example, in the classic starvation study (the Minnesota Semi-Starvation study) men were dieted for 6 solid months reaching 4-5% body fat at the end of the study. Then they were refed and body composition was tracked. By the theory being advocated, they should have gained lots of LBM and little fat during refeeding, they were clearly super lean to start out with. But this is absolutely not what happened.

As would be expected based on the metabolic adaptations to dieting, their bodies were mainly primed to replenish fat stores. Reductions in metabolic rate, fat oxidation and thermogenesis all contributed to a preferential gain of body fat and these systems didn’t reset themselves until all of the body fat lost had been regained (8). Quite in fact, signals from body fat (i.e. leptin and the rest) are the mechanism behind this physiology (9).

The bottom line is that, in dieted down individuals, the body is primed to gain body fat at the expense of LBM to replenish what was lost during the diet. Again, this is fundamentally different than looking at genetically lean individuals (for whom a low body fat percentage is their normal level) in terms of what happens when they are overfed.

And even without this research available, anybody who’s dieted to a low body fat percentage can attest to the above. Regardless of the theories being advocated by the individuals looking just at Forbes’ data on P-ratio, the end of the diet is a time when you gain body fat the most easily. Even a brief look at the real world should have pointed out why the theory was incorrect in the first place.

Now Watch me Backpedal a Little

Having hopefully shown you why I think the idea that getting lean first will magically let you pack on the LBM without fat gain, I’m going to backpedal and say that that doesn’t mean I think that dieting first is always a bad idea. Quite in fact, there may be very good reasons to diet prior to going on a mass gaining phase. It’s just not for the reason that many are now advocating.

Part of the reason that preceding a mass gaining phase with a diet is one of practicality. If you want to compete in a bodybuilding contest, you need to be sufficiently lean to start with (10-12% body fat for males) to have a chance of coming in on time. That may mean keeping body fat in check by dieting prior to trying to add mass. Similarly, if you simply want to get lean for appearances sake, you need to keep body fat under control.

Meaning this: if you start a mass gaining phase at too high of a body fat percentage (say 12-15%), you’re going to gain some fat during that phase and end up in the high teens or worse. This makes dieting back to a non-fat assed body fat percentage a real hassle. Better to keep things in check by alternating periods of cutting and gaining.

As well, it seems empirically that once body fat gets to the 15% range or so for men, fat gains tend to accelerate during mass gaining phases. I suspect this is due to the development of systemic insulin resistance which causes calories to go into fat stores more readily. Keeping body fat levels below that may be helpful.

I should mention that there was always an anecdotal idea that mass gains were best with body fat about 10-12% body fat (for men, add 9-12% for women). While I had always dismissed this as being an excuse to stay fat, I suspect it’s probably close to correct. Based on what’s going on hormonally and physiologically at both low and higher body fat percentages, this may very well be a sweet spot for mass gaining. You’re fed and healthy enough to lift well and make gains but not so fat that other problems arise.

Practical Recommendations

Ok, enough theory crap. Based on the above data, here’s what I would generally recommend to bodybuilders or athletes who want to put on muscle mass (i.e. all of them).

  1. If you’re above 15% body fat (about 24-27% for women), diet first. If you can get to the 10-12% (19-24%) body fat range or so, I think you’ll be in an overall better position to gain mass. Trying to get super lean will probably end up screwing you in the long run because your body will be primed to put back fat on (and most other physiological systems are screwed up as well) when you get super lean.
  2. After finishing your diet, regardless of how lean you get, take 2 weeks to eat at roughly maintenance calorie levels before starting your mass gaining phase. The reason has to do with the physiological adaptations to dieting described briefly above. Although you can’t reverse all of them short of getting fat again (or fixing the problem pharmaceutically), 2 weeks at maintenance, which by definition should be higher calories than you were eating on your diet, will help to normalize some of them. Leptin, thyroid, SNS output should improve a bit, along with other hormones, putting you in a better place to gain mass without super excessive fat gain. Make sure to get at least 100 grams of carbs/day or more during this phase so that thyroid will come back up.
  3. Only try to add mass/bulk until you hit the top end body fat percentage listed in #1 above. So that’s about 15% body fat for men and 24-27% body fat for women. What this would mean in practice is that you diet to 10-12% body fat for men (22-24% for women), eat at maintenance for two weeks to try and normalize things, and then add mass until you hit 15% body fat for men (22-24% for women) and then diet back down. Over a number of cycles, you should be able to increase your muscle mass while keeping body fat under control

Summing up:

So there you have it, a look at the impact of initial body fat and how it impacts on changes in body composition. Contrary to current (mis) interpretations of the literature, individuals who have dieted down to low body fat levels don’t magically put on lots of LBM when they gain. Quite in fact, if anything, the opposite is true. After an extended diet, the body is primed for fat gain.

However, that doesn’t mean that dieting prior to a mass-gaining phase is a bad idea and getting reasonbly lean prior to ‘bulking’ is probably the best strategy for the average natural bodybuilder.

References:

  1. McClave SA, Snider HL. Dissecting the energy needs of the body. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2001 Mar;4(2):143-7.
  2. Forbes GB. Body fat content influences the body composition response to nutrition and exercise. Ann N Y Acad Sci. (2000) 904:359-65.
  3. Bray GA. GENETICSS hypothesis of nutrient partitioning. Progress in Obesity Research:7 (1996) 43-48.
  4. Dulloo AG, Jacquet J. The control of partitioning between protein and fat during human starvation: its internal determinants and biological significance. Br J Nutr. (1999) 82:339-56.
  5. Dulloo AG. Partitioning between protein and fat during starvation and refeeding: is the assumption of intra-individual constancy of P-ratio valid? Br J Nutr. 1998 Jan;79(1):107-13
  6. Weyer C et. al. Changes in energy metabolism in response to 48 h of overfeeding and fasting in Caucasians and Pima Indians. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2001 May;25(5):593-600.
  7. Levine JA. Role of nonexercise activity thermogenesis in resistance to fat gain in humans. Science. 1999 Jan 8;283(5399):212-4.
  8. Dulloo AG et. al. Autoregulation of body composition during weight recovery in human: the Minnesota Experiment revisited. nt J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1996 May;20(5):393-405.
  9. Dulloo AG, Jacquet J. Adaptive reduction in basal metabolic rate in response to food deprivation in humans: a role for feedback signals from fat stores. Am J Clin Nutr. 1998 Sep;68(3):599-606.

Comments

comments

23 thoughts on “Initial Body Fat and Body Composition Changes

  1. Hey Lyle,
    Great article. I thought of something similar a while ago and am glad to hear that someone with knowledge and authority thinks it’s a good idea. You mention that ~15% should be the upper limit for men. Here’s my question: I’m 5’9″ 160 lbs and somewhere around 14% bf…..do I gain, or try to get lean? Getting leans seems silly because I would end up being 150 lbs or so, but gaining and getting fat isn’t a great option either. What do you suggest? I hate being skinny-fat ๐Ÿ™

  2. Hi Lyle, thanks for this superinformative article. I’ve got a question I am hoping you can clear up. I apologize in advance if my question seems convoluted.

    You write, per your 2nd recommendation: “After finishing your diet, regardless of how lean you get, take 2 weeks to eat at roughly maintenance calorie levels before starting your mass gaining phase. The reason has to do with the physiological adaptations to dieting described briefly above. **Although you canโ€™t reverse all of them short of getting fat again (or fixing the problem pharmaceutically), 2 weeks at maintenance,** which by definition should be higher calories than you were eating on your diet, will help to normalize some of them. Leptin, thyroid, SNS output should improve a bit, along with other hormones, putting you in a better place to gain mass without super excessive fat gain…”

    Are you saying that no amount of caloric maintenance time after, say, dieting down to 8% without “getting fat again” will normalize physiological adaptations to simulate, even if imperfectly, the way genetically lean people naturally and disproportionately put on LBM? And that at best we should expect most adaptations to occur after 2 weeks at maintenance?

    This question stems from the distinction you draw between genetically lean people and dieted down lean people. Most of the reasons you give for refuting the idea that dieted down lean people can achieve the same “bulking” results as genetically lean people seem more to do with the diet aspect (provisional hormonal and neurochemical changes) and not with being non-genetically gifted. In other words, to try to make my dumbass make sense here I’ll use a hypothetical, if I reach 8 or 9% bf and stay there for several months (or what have you), eating at maintenance, will my body emerge from whatever hormonal environment it existed in during the diet and begin to take on characteristics (whatever that means) of a genetically lean individual, even though obviously I wouldn’t be a genetically lean person, thus allowing me to then bulk up without worrying about fat gain as much as if I were bulking immediately (or even 2 weeks) after a diet? Can I have my cake and eat it too?

  3. I am a fat woman doing what I can to lose it. I found your site a few days ago and I have been reading as much as I can.

    I want to thank you for this article, in particular. I find it utterly fascinating to learn how fat affects how our bodies function–and that those of us who were/are “fatties” face an entirely different situation physiologically when it comes to having “great bods.”

    I deeply appreciate your review of the research and for making this information available. Thank you.

  4. Poncho: There is no indication that the body will ever completely normalize all systems once the person is taken well below their biological setpoint. The dieted down person will never achieve the same physiology as the geneticall lean.

  5. Hi Lyle, thanks for the great article. Your discussion of the differences between naturally lean individuals and those who have dieted down sparked a question in the physiology nerd in me.

    Has any research been done assessing naturally lean people who have gained significant fat and then dieted back down to their natural leanness? I’m curious whether their subsequent P-ratio would be more similar to those of the naturally lean (their original class) or those who have dieted down (which they artificially made themselves).

    This would probably be very relevant for modern society, because obviously not all or even most overweight people are genetically predisposed to become that way.

  6. If there is no way that a person who gets lean by dieting (and is genetically fat) achieves “the same physiology” as genetically lean, would that work the other way around?
    Let’s say I am genetically lean and I get fat through years of hard work ( ๐Ÿ˜€ ). If I get back to my genetically low body fat levels, do I count as a dieted down lean person (if the period in which I was fat was long enough) with physiology not so good? In other words, is there no chance that I achieve physiology of a genetically fat no matter what I do?

  7. Hey Lyle, just discovered your site yesterday, and I think I understand nutrition and training better after one day of reading than after years of trying to figure this stuff out! Thanks! I saw your response to RST’s comment above, and I’d like to see if it still holds in my more extreme case: I’m 5′ 11″, and 155 lbs, at about 17%. Losing fat to get down to 10% would put me at 143 lbs, which seems dangerously skinny. Any recommendation on how best to implement the article’s ideas without doing anything unhealthy?

  8. Hi Lyle,
    I am a 20 year old athlete at around 13 % body fat looking to reduce to 10%. How should I do this? What should I eat? I exercise 4 plus times a week but cannot seem to get below 13 %. I was as high as 17% 6 months ago. Thanks

  9. Hi Lyle,
    My question is what is your definition of dieted down? A low calorie crash diet?
    I have been eatting nothing but clean food, (trimmed chicken breast, brown rice, sugarfree oatmeal, egg whites with a yolk or two, almonds, walnuts) for around 2.5 months now. I started off in a pretty heavy calorie defecit, but since have been allowing my body to normalize. I even went a month eatting a calorie surplus while keeping cardio to 2-3 times a week. I’m now around 5-6% bodyfat and doing your UD 2.0 to try to really get lean for the summer. Im not going to just suddenly balloon up like crazy am I?

    Thanks
    Sean

  10. Dieted down = someone who has dieted down to low levels of bodyfat. As opposed to people who are naturally lean (that small percentage). You’ll only ‘balloon up’ if you start eating too much.

  11. Thanks Lyle!
    I guess I wasn’t meaning to ask if I would balloon up on UD 2.0, what I meant to ask is if I’m going to balloon up once I start introducing a surplus of calories after summer to try to put on some muscle mass.
    I have every intention of continuing to eat nothing but clean food, but I’m somewhat anxious about my body putting back on fat.
    If it helps before i was around 190 pounds at 15-17% bodyfat eatting wings mcdonalds etc etc.
    So as long as I keep my food clean is it reasonable to keep my bodyfat under 9% even during my “bulking” phase?

  12. 200 pounds*^ and that was a year ago
    I was actually all the way up to 220 pounds 2 years ago but that was mostly because of football.

    When i started dieting around 3 months ago I was about 12% bodyfat at 185.

    sorry for double post

  13. Interesting.

    I’ve been cutting/bulking for 5 years now and am Pakistani descent. I naturally have an extremely, extremely hard time putting on muscle and would classify myself as a meso.

    Over the past 5 years, I can’t say that I’m stunned with my results or even look close to the physique I expected to achieve about 3 years ago lol.

    What I can say is that my body composition has changed completely. The person I looked like 5 years ago is no longer the person I look like today. My arms have never gone past 13.5 inches no matter how hard I work them or what I try, makes no fucking sense. My arms usually like to sit around 11-12 inches and usually are that size no matter what when I cut down. Back in the day, it would sit at like 10 inches when I was really lean.

    Hard work does bring results and I’m quite the hard worker. I’m used to being talented and #1 in every aspect of my life, so it’s been quite the mental battle to watch people around me get big and lean so easy, but it certainly taught me for once to stop comparing myself to everyone else.

    I appreciate your article, it’s a bit pessimistic but reality is never a bad thing. I enjoy the challenge ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. One question I have; I read on weightology that most all bf testing methods are inaccurate both for measuring current stats and watching progression in stats. So how are we supposed to know when we hit that 10% and 15%?

  15. Great article. I have a question though. Does this applies to teens? What do you think of teens that have a really low mass but quite a ”high” bf% (~15%); skinnyfat? Should they diet down and risk their growth potential or what?

  16. You may have addressed this at some point so I apologize if that is the case but here goes. How does someone like Martin Berkham stay so lean and also appear to constantly improve. From his before pictures he definetely does seem like a genetically lean person.

  17. Why do you suggest men be fairly lean, but women can get so hugely fat? I understand the differences in body fat levels, but this would account for 5% difference (putting women from 15%-20%) rather than a 10% difference. 15% for a woman seems more equivalent to a 10% male. A 30% female is nearing obese. I don’t understand.

  18. Thanks Lyle,

    You always manage to get the point across in layman language while supporting your claims with scientific research. I guess the more you know, the less you need to say.

    Cheers!

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