A common theme you will see when an individual is striving for 6 pack abs is steady fat loss up until about 12-15% body fat. This is where most of the fit crowd ends up through a regular workout routine and healthy diet. Unfortunately, continued fat loss at this point becomes a futile endeavor leading to frustration and in many cases insanity (doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result). Now don’t get me wrong, you can definitely look good at 12-15% body fat, but by no means will you blow anyone away. To acquire that chiseled and angular look, you need to drop into the single digit body fat levels, somewhere between 6-10%.
Now getting to very low levels of body fat isn’t exactly as simple as people make it out to be. You see, the game changes when you’re cutting to 15% vs 8% body fat. In the first scenario your are bringing your body to it’s natural set point. In the other case you are brining your body to an extremely lean state. One which wouldn’t survive all to well in a time of famine and hardship. Now if you’re reading this article, that is probably of very little concern to you. Just by having access to a computer and internet I can almost guarantee you never have to worry about where your next meal will come from. That being said, we still have the same genetic code as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, many of whom faced harsh conditions like starvation. So consequently, when our brain recognizes our body fat levels getting too low, it will down regulate metabolism while up regulating appetite.
This is a survival mechanism in place to ensure maximum chance of survival during periods of food shortages. By slowing down your metabolism you increase your chance of survival for when food stocks reemerge. As well, the significant drop in leptin, coupled with heightened insulin sensitivity, allows you to gain back the lost weight very quickly when food is available. This is one of the reasons why many people who lose a bunch of weight on crash diets are able to gain all of it back in record time. The same phenomenon is seen with actors who starve themselves to become emaciated for roles.
Michael Fassbender – Hunger
Michael Fassbender dropped a large amount of weight for the film Hunger, where he played an Irish Republican who leads the prisoners of a Northern Irish prison on a hunger strike. Fassbender went on an extreme diet to lose 40 lbs in 10 weeks. After filming, Fassbender was able to gain nearly all of it back within 2 weeks. It was 34 lbs in 2 weeks to be exact. This type of weight gain seems next to impossible, especially considering how much of what he gained in two weeks was lost muscle. What we must understand is that during extreme calorie restriction, various anabolic receptors and hormones become unregulated. This allows you to regain weight and muscle at an extremely fast rate once you start eating normally again.
Christian Bale – Machinist to Batman Begins
An even more extreme example can be seen with Christian Bale! After getting into incredible shape for American Psycho, Bale wanted to erase his image of being that fit guy. What better way than to starve himself to a deathly state, sacrificing his health and sanity in the process. It took 4 months to take his bodyweight from 184 to under 125 lbs. Then, within 6 months he was filming Bat Man Begins at a very muscular 190 lbs. The human body, believe it or not, has incredible potential and is geared for maximum survival. Weight and muscle can be regained obscenely fast.
What does this have to do with getting 6 pack abs?
I apologize if you felt that I side tracked a bit there but it’s all for good reason. You see, the same processes that allow us to regain weight and muscle extremely fast, also keep us from getting super ripped. Michael Fassbender and Christian Bale had no easy time getting to there emaciated state. Their bodies were literally starving, hunger overburdening and their ability to enjoy life deeply suppressed. They relied on sheer will power alone to get the job done. As they were losing weight and dipping below their natural set point it was as if they were pulling a rubber band. The more weight they lost the harder it was to keep pulling that rubber band back and the greater rebound effect they were setting themselves up for. Finally, when filming was complete, they created so much tension that the rubber band sprung right back up. This, of course, represents their obscenely fast weight gain. When we’re dieting below set point the same effect occurs, but to a lesser extent.
People start dieting and lose 1-2 lbs per week. They then think that if they continue this for long enough they’ll reach 6-8% body fat. This is rarely ever the case! Sure, some people are predisposed to being very lean. It’s likely that these individuals have dominant genes from ancestors that never had to worry much about food shortages. Therefore these individuals can get practically ripped without much trouble. However, most of us aren’t so lucky. When we try and dip below 12% body fat, it’s almost like our body is trying to fight back. We get extremely hungry, our gym motivation declines and next thing we know we’re raiding the kitchen undoing all of our positive progress. This is the rubber band effect I mentioned earlier. Getting into the single digits becomes an art. You need to learn to embrace patience and coax your body there with regular refeeds and a strategic approach.
Breaking Through a Fat Loss Plateau
1. The Two Week Diet Break
When you’ve been dieting for an extensive period of time, some sort of metabolic decline is inevitable. Leptin and various hormones including testosterone take a nosedive. Adhering to a strict diet becomes increasingly difficult and fat loss always seems to be slower than predicted. Not to mention, the psychological component of continued dieting becomes a major burden. The solution is to take 2 weeks to eat at roughly maintenance. Leptin and testosterone will skyrocket. In addition, you will get that psychological relief. Finally, when you go back to your diet it will feel easier than before and fat loss will resume as expected.
2. Lose Fat Slowly
This is probably the most obvious of all points. Losing fat at a fast pace when you’re already lean is never a good idea. Cut calories too much and you will experience a greater drop in leptin further exacerbating the issue. Big calorie deficits are also very counter productive when you’re 15% body fat or less. This is because your body has a limit to how much fat it can burn on daily basis, which is proportional to the amount of fat on your body. If you use big calorie deficits it’s likely that some of your muscle tissue will become metabolized. 35 calories per pound of body fat should be the limit. So if you’re 15% body fat at 180 lbs then you have 27 lbs of fat on your body. Therefore you should never exceed a 945 calorie deficit (35 x 27). This is still a very large deficit and you’d probably be much better off keeping the calorie deficit between 500 and 700.
3. Strategic Refeeds
Carb Refeeds are extremely powerful at busting through a sticking point. Eating at maintenance or 5-10% above with an emphasis on starchy carbs can up regulate metabolism and lessen the difficulty of the subsequent low calorie days. You can think of this as a zig zag approach to losing fat. Aim for 3 lower calorie days (20-25% deficit) and 1 high calorie day (5-10% surplus). Cycle through this four day schedule and you should be able to coax your body to a lower body fat percentage. On the high carb refeed days you want to get the majority of your calories from starchy carbs. Carbohydrates have the most profound effect on circulating leptin levels. Therefore I recommend limiting protein to 0.82g per pound of body weight, fat at 20-25% of total calories and carbohydrates making up the remainder. My favorite carb sources for this day include potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, rice pasta and occasionally some low fat ice cream or caramel chocolate Quaker rice cakes. I like to stay away from fruit for the most part. Fructose isn’t effective at elevating leptin. In addition, fruit isn’t very efficient at replenishing depleted muscle glycogen. Fruit is used mostly to replenish liver glycogen.
4. Emphasize Carbs at Night
For longtime readers of kinobody you are probably already used to my feast at night approach. However, for many of you, this may seem brashly counter intuitive. Now it has been my intuition for a couple years now that carbs should be emphasized at night. This strategy makes it so much easier to control calorie intake. As well, eating low carb or fasting during the day keeps you focused, energetic and alert. Limiting carbs during the day also helps maximize fat mobilization. Finally, loading up on carbs at night helps with relaxation and sleep and also boosts anabolism and recovery.
There is some significant research that supports this! In a study comparing a low calorie diet with the placement of carbohydrates eaten at dinner vs. breakfast, the late night carb group outperformed the morning carb group. In the late night carb group fat loss was greater, health markers improved to a greater degree and leptin had a smaller drop off. Here’s the study - Greater weight loss and hormonal changes after 6 months diet with carbohydrates eaten mostly at dinner. Based on that research, it seems as though we can limit the drop off of leptin by eating the majority of our carbs at night.
More than one way to skin a cat
The four strategies above are very effective at implementing once you’ve hit a road block. In terms of an actual diet plan to follow, well let’s just say there is more than one way to skin a cat. For sustainable fat loss, maximum muscle retention and strength building, my shredding program proves exceptionally effective. The premise is that on your lifting days you will consume maintenance calories and high carbs to boost muscle growth and up regulate leptin. On the other 4 days you will be eating low calories and low carbs to maximize fat loss. One to two optional, 24 hour strategic fast days can be implemented for accelerated fat loss in place of the low calorie days.
Another very effective fat loss plan is Nate Miyaki’s Intermittent Feast. This plan is based around maximizing fat loss with an intermittent fasting and high carb dinner approach. Food choices are based around paleo with the addition of gluten free starches to support anaerobic training and maximize hormonal functioning. With this plan you’ll be keeping calories pretty low, 10-12 cals per pound, with 1-2 refeeds per week.
Beach Ripped Article Series
Part 1 - DIY Guide
Part 2 - Counting Macros
Part 3 - Cardio for Fat loss
Part 4 - Single Digit Body Fat
For the strength training routine I recommend performing the strength and density program from my Kinobody Muscle Building Course. It is ideal for cutting. If you don’t have the program, the next best thing would be the warrior physique workout.