Ten Things I Learned From Getting Lean


I’ve written before about my experiences with bullying. When I started lifting weights it was with the express goal of making myself a physical deterrent to bullying.

So I wanted to be big and strong.

And that’s the direction I took for many years — eating and training with the goal of size and strength. Once I’d gotten to a certain point I decided to get lean. I was pretty sure this was going to make me feel great about myself, and improve my life in some way. So I got some coaching, took a year, and got down to very low body fat.

I’m on the right in the pic below! I was 184 pounds at my lightest, down from 250 pounds at my heaviest.

Ten thoughts about getting lean.

  1. It’s not that hard. People do it all the time.
  2. But it’s not that easy. People struggle with getting lean all the time — that’s normal too.
  3. Many different approaches to getting lean can work. They have things in common, in particular creating a caloric deficit.
  4. Psychology is a big part of it.
  5. But physiology is a big part of it too.
  6. Change is hard. But it gets easier.
  7. Being hungry is not a big emergency most of the time.
  8. People find it very hard to change habits, either good or bad. Emphasize good habits.
  9. Some people lose weight quickly, and then slow down. Others don’t notice much fat loss at first, and might get lean much later in the process.
  10. When you get lean, your life won’t change that much. Surprise!
    Bonus: I’m not willing to do what it takes to be really lean year round.

It’s not that hard?

Yeah, I said it. If you take your time and make steady changes you can coast into lean shape without feeling deprived. By “lean”, I mean in the higher single digit/lower double digit body fat percentage range. This is still not anywhere as lean as the shape that physique athletes attain. This point doesn’t apply to that group as the process to get lean enough to compete is actually quite hard. But for the average person who simply wants a leaner than average appearance it’s not hard to get pretty lean. People do it all the time. It’s not like winning an Olympic medal. You don’t need talent to get into shape.

Mind you, for many it’s not that easy.

Many people do struggle with getting lean for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are psychological — using comfort foods to “eat our feelings” is very common. Being stressed and depressed makes losing fat tough. Our coping mechanisms play into it. But part of it is physical — some people have food intolerances they aren’t aware of, and/or undiagnosed thyroid issues, and/or autoimmune disorders. In my experience coaching (about 400 clients online) those cases are infrequent but do exist. And those people will struggle with fat loss a great deal until they reconcile their physical issues.

Sometimes it’s a combination of physical and psychological elements that prevents fat loss.

The body of a person under great stress is in “flight or fight” mode all the time. Hormones are released in response to the perceived threat. Cortisol is released during these times, to help free up energy for emergency. This is an important process for survival.

But the body of a person under an unusual amount of stress might feel constantly under attack. In response, the adrenal glands enlarge and keep producing cortisol. Chronically elevated cortisol levels break your muscles down, and can make it easy to gain fat. Symptoms of high cortisol also include fatigue and depression, both of which make it tough to get excited about a nutrition and fitness program.

It doesn’t really matter what system you use to get lean.

There is a reason why Weight Watcher’s has a good record with it’s fat loss clients — they emphasize a caloric deficit. They achieve that result in a different way than someone who counts macros, or does Intermittent Fasting or Flexible Dieting. But they can all achieve a similar end result. People can get lean using many systems if certain principles are observed. People can even get lean with no set system if they have healthy habits. Some people call that eating like an adult. That’s the kind of system Precision Nutrition used when I was a Coach for them, and it works well. In fact many of the points in this blog come from my experience as a PN Coach and client.

Psychology comes into choosing the right fat loss nutrition system for you.

When I got down to seven percent body fat I did a form of Intermittent Fasting. For me this worked on a physical and psychological level.

With this approach I’d have my first meal at 11:30 or noon. I’d eat in the mid-afternoon. Then train in the evening and eat a big meal before bed. Sometimes I’d eat right up till my bedtime. That didn’t feel like deprivation to me but it did create a caloric deficit.

There are lots of ways to create a caloric deficit. IF is just one of them. Careful about the method you choose — keep it healthy and sustainable. Be especially careful with female trainees: the old “do more, eat less” mantra is a dangerous recipe that could lead to a metabolic syndrome for women.

Flexible dieting (like IF) works well for some. For other people counting and manipulating macronutrients will work best. If you love data and crunching the numbers this approach allows you to be more precise about your intake. This of course is the preferred method of the truly lean — physique competitors, and elite athletes in sports with weight classes.

Change is hard. But it gets easier.

Change is hard! But once you’ve jumped out of the metaphorical airplane it gets easier. The change itself might not be the hard part. But starting the change — actually committing and beginning the process — can be very hard. Tomorrow always sounds like a tempting time to start.

The catalyst for change is different from person to person. It depends on what you value and what you prioritize. If you can tap into an understanding of your own values and priorities, you can make a change that satisfies your idea of who you really are. Living up to your own idea of “you” feels pretty great.

But some people also value external accountability — for them the change might be catalyzed by a need to help others, or because someone is relying on them. This person might want to get in shape to keep up with their kids, or to do better with their responsibilities at work. That’s also cool. Social support can be very helpful, as can the guidance of a trainer. A workout buddy, coach or trainer is useful for people who recognize a need for external accountability.

While change is difficult, a good understanding of self can help to focus the need for change. Do you need to do it for yourself? For the team? For the world? There’s no wrong answer. For most people the answer might be a combination of those reasons.

One last thought on change — start early, and start small. Don’t wait for tomorrow. Do something really little in the direction of your goal. Then keep doing that. One percent done daily adds up.

Being hungry is not a big emergency most of the time.

Hunger is a very real issue for some people in the world. But if you are not in danger of starvation, hunger is not that big an emergency. It’s OK to sit with hunger now and again. When you are in a fat loss mode there will be times when you are more tired and hungry than usual. Again: not an emergency. Try to be a scientist about your hunger and learn from it. Does your stomach growl when you’re hungry? Or is your first warning of hunger an irritable feeling, or loss of focus? Sensing inwards to your real hunger cues is an incredibly important part of learning to eat in accordance with those cues.

People find it very hard to change habits, either good or bad. Emphasize good habits.

Charles Duhigg (http://charlesduhigg.com/the-power-of-habit/) and Gretchen Rubin (http://gretchenrubin.com/) have written a lot on the power our habits have over us, for good or bad.

No one has to be reminded to do their bad habits. Those habits tend to be self-rewarding or addictive in some way — eating comfort foods, smoking, and drinking alcohol might fall into this category.

But good habits are fragile at first. Use it or lose it!

Until it’s second nature following a good habit is tougher than following a bad habit. So try to stick with a new practice for at least a few weeks. You might just need more practice at adding veggies to most meals, or taking the stairs instead of the escalator. Or whatever.

It’s much easier to give up on good habits than it is to break bad habits. So if you forget to floss your teeth, no big deal. But if you “forget” for a week you might want to create a reminder for yourself to get back at it. Use whatever works: sticky notes, reminder on your phone, or enlist social support.

Some people lose weight quickly. Others don’t notice much change at first.

There’s no right way to lose fat. It might happen quickly. It might not happen at first. It might happen quickly and then slow down.

All those things are normal. Some people are in such a caloric surplus, that dropping to a caloric deficit causes a quick change. Other people might be fighting their body’s natural desire for homeostasis — despite doing “everything right” they might have to be patient to see fat loss.

There is no right and wrong here. The quick starter and the slow starter may end up in exactly the same spot.

When you get lean, your life won’t change that much.

This might not seem possible! But life didn’t change that much when I got lean.

This has been echoed from what I’ve seen of other people’s fat loss journeys. You don’t go from being unnoticed to being the center of attention because you now have a six pack of abs. You won’t stop traffic unless you stopped traffic before. Women or men will not throw themselves at you unless that was normal prior to your fat loss. And that’s OK.

Some people might prefer your former well-padded self. Some people will be genially indifferent. Some of my clients even thought I was a bit scary looking when I was lean. No one offered me a million dollars and a pony. Life continued.

Getting lean didn’t improve my self confidence. It didn’t make me happier. I felt the same about myself.

Being lean doesn’t make you self-confident. Being self-confident makes you self-confident. Low body fat doesn’t make you happy. Happiness is a choice that you make.


I’m not willing to do what it takes to be really lean year round.

I got pretty lean. I was warned that I needed to be comfortable with the idea that my weight would rebound a bit.

I figured I knew how to get past that. All I had to do was avoid processed carbs (like sugar and alcohol). If I did that, even though I wasn’t a ripped 185 pounds, I could maintain a lean 195 pounds year round. And that’s what I did for a while.

And then I realized I didn’t want to do it forever.

I want to drink Corona in the summer.

I want to eat Creme Brulee on my wedding anniversary. Who am I kidding, I’d eat it right now.

I want to eat pizza on Friday night. And tacos on Tuesday. I want to eat real spaghetti, not squash.

You can call that self-indulgent, but I call it the life I want to live. And if that means I can’t be in fitness model shape year round, that’s OK too!

My own journey to getting lean wasn’t what I expected at all. Much like the kid who thinks getting a new pair of jeans will change their social life, I thought that a lean appearance would be the ticket to self-confidence and happiness.

For me that simply wasn’t true.

Maybe the most important thing I learned was that you have to use the right tool for the right job. Want to lose fat? Create a reasonable caloric deficit, using whatever method resonates with you.

But if you want to change your mind don’t try to do it by changing your body. If you want to be happy, be kind to yourself and nurture warm, loving relationships. Be a good person. Help others. That’s a much more direct route to happiness than changing your outward appearance.

Eat and train for the right reasons — health, longevity, quality of life, and to be freaking awesome. If that sounds like your kind of jam, contact the Iron Lion Training crew! Details are below! Thanks for reading!


Ron Dykstra
Co-Owner Iron Lion Training
1485 Dupont, #312, Toronto, ON

2016 Splash

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