Most people don’t test their body fat for various reasons, it can be expensive and inconvenient. The scales that you can use at home are real hit and miss so the two methods I recommend are Dexa Scan (often times expensive but typically done by a professional) and BodPod (not quite as good as Dexa but inexpensive and I have found the results to be very similar). The big mistake everyone makes is they wait until they are relatively healthy to get tested and focus on what is one of the best versions of themselves. So did I. Man do I regret not knowing the actual progress I have made over time but I was unaware of the technology when I first started this last round of fitness. Trust me, I never walk into a Crossfit gym or start lifting weights without knowing that information. This isn’t the focus of this post so I am not going to dwell on this but if you start googling body fat testing you will see that even these results aren’t perfect, everything has a margin of error. With that said there are a lot of people walking around right now at 20-25% that think they are 16% and if they lose 4 more pounds the top of their six pack will start to show. Don’t let the number own you, use it as a baseline and get it checked every three to six months and make changes as you go.
Various stages of progress
I have seen well over 200 people’s results and over 1000 readings and from that I have been able to see a few trends so I thought I would share some of those with you so that you can get better progress using your results as a guide.
Let me first start off by saying that most of the tests I have seen are from people close to my age (44 years old). For the first reading many women start off at close to 40%, men as a general rule seem to average about 35%. This is for deconditioned athletes just starting off. Obviously I am speaking in general here but the majority of people that are doing these tests have experienced some sort of wake up call. By the time I found out about BodPod I had gone from 215 to 185 pounds or so and I still tested at 32% because I didn’t understand at that time how my body mobilized fat. To lose that weight I did the standard, do slightly more and drop the M&M’s and Coke diet. So doing these tests taught me that much more was going to be required if I wanted to actually mobilize fat.
THIS IS MY BIGGEST REGRET BY FAR, at 215 I would have had a considerable amount of muscle mass that I absolutely wasted because I simply didn’t know the best path forward. Looking back now I would have prescribed changing what I ate and not how much (how much really wasn’t an issue and isn’t for most people, they just don’t know simple concepts to keep things in check). I would have prescribed adequate protein intake, I certainly wasn’t getting that. I would have been less concerned with fat and more concerned with which fats. Lastly I wish I had any idea at all about the role of carbs in my diet. As many of you know I am not a hater related to carbs for athletic populations but simply knowing about carb cycling would have changed my life considerably.
Beginning Stages (40% for women 35% for men)
I tried every diet out there before figuring out what works. So what works? For me it was changing to a diet of mostly whole foods and being a bit more conscious of timing and of course moving a bit more. I love Crossfit and I love lifting heavy weights but those things aren’t necessary to maintain a base level of health. Eating spinach and kale salads with your meat didn’t have a name for the year and a half I ate them before showing up at Crossfit. Only at that point did I know that was considered Paleo. I have learned a lot from all of my Paleo friends but when regular folks ask me how I eat to stay fit I say “I eat a diet of mostly whole foods and I eat for joy occasionally”.
Since this post is for a relatively targeted audience (crossfitters attempting to eat to perform) if you are just beginning STAY OUT OF YOUR OWN WAY. Crossfit is hard, life is stressful don’t make it harder by placing what you formerly knew over the paradigm of Crossfit. Just show up, do movements that don’t hurt you, push your progress slowly and eat a diet of mostly whole foods and eat for joy occasionally. My carb recommendations aren’t for you. That doesn’t mean you should low carb necessarily but a moderate approach of 100g a day for women or 150g for men will probably serve you well for quite a long time. Don’t change how much you eat, change what you eat and consider some behavior modification. Also don’t give up everything all at once, I didn’t think I could ever give up coffee with cream and sugar and my morning bagel and I am currently writing this while drinking black coffee. Your goals will dictate the changes over time. One recommendation I do like from the Paleo world is being about 80%. If your 20% involves some form of treats I might suggest eating them before bedtime so you can go to bed full and happy. This is typically favorable for a good nights sleep. No one joins a Crossfit gym so they can gnaw on Kale for the rest of their life.
Last thing for this stage, be patient, you don’t have to force change any longer. Eat to fuel your work capacity and as your work capacity gets higher the best version of you will eventually show himself/herself.
Middle Stages (30% for women and 20% for men)
Simply eating in a manner that gives your body more nutrients allows you to become a better version of yourself pretty easily. Most men can move from 35% to 20% in a relatively short period of time (let’s say 6 months in general) because their testosterone levels will start to rise as they are asking their bodies to do more. In the early stages I have seen men put on 10 pounds of muscle relatively easy. For a 200 pound male that is 5% right there. All that muscle allows more work capacity so goals start to get in line very quickly. Sadly this is the stage people actually get the will to test their body fat. So they never really know all of the progress they have made along the way. Knowing is so powerful.
For women the journey is a bit trickier. Most women before they show up at Crossfit have relied on some version of cardio or eating less to manage their weight. So many women start off under fed, eating less protein than they should and relying more on carbs for energy. I have seen it too many times for it not to be a trend, a lot of women join Crossfit to hammer the nail harder. Cardio and eating less wasn’t working so they figure they better up the ante. When I am able to show clients how much they should be eating it is often astonishing. In this way diet rigidity is actually causing many of the problems. So simply eating adequate amounts tends to drive performance and increase work capacity relatively quickly. Symptoms of hypothyroidism and hormone deficiencies tend to start to go away. Metabolism starts to recover.
Let me stop here, I realize I am on unsteady ground as a man talking about women and I am making blanket statements that may not apply to your situation but I cover various stages in this article. Also I am speaking in general, each of our situations is highly individual.
Once women get things moving in the right direction metabolically I have seen a consistent trend of about 3 to 5 pounds of muscle gained and fat mobilizes pretty easily when they start getting out of their own way. Women have less testosterone than men so the muscle pounds tend to come a little slower but things get very favorable as it relates to fat loss when the metabolism starts to recover. This is similar for men as well.
For both men and women early on is such a great opportunity to build muscle and capacity, don’t ruin your potential by getting in your own way and dramatically eating less it won’t help and won’t lead you down the path you want to go related to a better body composition.
Why your Paleo Challenge is letting you down (the real secret to getting to the teens for men and blasting through the 20’s for women)
Once you start eating mostly whole foods your body is now nourished and you won’t typically be hungry near as much. This often leads to undereating and underperforming in the quest for better health. Your body looks good, certainly better than it did when you had 15% more fat on it but if you continue to test your body fat you will see that your VLC diet is slowing your progress as it relates to fat loss. I keep using this and if you follow this blog or this page you will see I use it a lot, simply using a bigger hammer here isn’t better (in fact it’s worse). One of the reasons you were able to mobilize a good amount of fat early on is because you had a lot of hormones that actually were able to help you get things moving. With insulin low it allowed your hunger levels to regulate themselves (Grehlin) and your brain starting to tell your fat to mobilize (Leptin).
Basically it’s time to change things up, your body is pretty smart and it adjusted. So quit thinking like a fat person and start thinking like the athlete you have become. You don’t need to jump in head first either, just add 50g of starch to your evening meals. I prefer sweet potatoes but squash works and I even use white rice occasionally.
I am not a fan of supplements (other than creatine) for this population but if you aren’t meeting your protein requirements daily or meals are inconvenient there are always “one off’s” that need to be considered.
Getting below 10% for men and 20% for women and staying there
Before I say any of this we need to do the mirror test. As a general rule men carry their fat in their mid section and women carry their fat in their hips, legs and chest. Ladies if you have a large chest and big hips your body type might be the sole factor that keeps you from reaching these arbitrary goals (it could also lead to a ridiculously big squat and deadlift too). After all, these are just numbers, they don’t really mean anything and once you are even considering reading this part of the article most of the aesthetic stuff is pretty on point.
So for this last part I am going to cheat. Look at the best performers in the gym, these are often the people with the best body composition. This is not an accident. Often these people will be seen sipping on protein and carb drinks post workout. The reason why these things become more important for these populations is because their increased work capacity has led to more muscle. When you have small amounts of fat your muscle becomes a viable source for energy and so maintaining that muscle mass becomes even more important than building it (which becomes a challenge at this stage).
When your work capacity is high and so is your muscle mass obviously it allows for more fuel to increase your performance.