How to Become a Fitness Model and What It Takes to Get Super Lean
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You’re eating all the right foods, training hard, drinking plenty of water, and seemingly doing all the right things. Yet, you can’t seem to get any leaner or get rid of the last five pounds. No matter what you do, your body seems to more or less stay the same. Sound familiar?
During a recent nutrition consultation, I was reminded of this all too familiar point in every fitness journey. In the beginning, everything is easy. You can get away with nutrition slip-ups and skipping training sessions because everything you’re doing is better than before. No matter what you do to sabotage your efforts, you’ll get fitter because you’re simply improving little by little.
Over time, however, the margin for error becomes smaller and the need for fine-tuning becomes more apparent. That’s what we’ll be covering today — what it takes to go from complete fitness beginner to fitness model. I only say fitness model because, in all honesty, I want more people to see this information. Considering one of the most searched for posts remains to be this article on how long it takes to look like a fitness model, it’s the easiest way to shape the question about getting really lean. Know that this article will cover the nutrition and training-related items of becoming a fitness model, not tactics for actually becoming a fitness model.
The Hierarchy of Focus for Fitness Transformations
As you see in the graphic above, what gets you from point A to point B won’t get you from Point C, D, and definitely not Z. Becoming leaner, stronger, fitter, and healthier are all great feats, but they come with downsides.
Losing weight, for instance, almost always results in a reduction in metabolic rate as a smaller body is more energy efficient. If you eat in a caloric deficit for long enough, your body will adapt and eventually become efficient at maintaining itself with fewer calories. You can read more about metabolic adaptation in this article.
And while gaining muscle does improve metabolic rate due to active tissue burning more calories at rest, this boost is more like 5-10 calories/pound of muscle instead of the 50 calories/pound that’s commonly touted. So if you’ve seen where gaining 10 pounds of muscle will burn 500 extra calories per day at rest, know it’s more like 50 calories per day. Not to mention, adding 10 pounds of true muscle tissue takes a long time for most.
Finally, improving your fitness level as a whole makes things easier. Where you may elevate your heart rate to burn more calories and fat by simply walking in the early stages of a fitness transformation, over time you have to make things more difficult. Progressive overload, or making training more difficult over time, can eventually become excruciatingly tough the fitter you are.
To summarize, you simply can’t do the same things for very long and expect to end up looking like a fitness model. The truth is, achieving the body in your mind likely takes a lot more work than you expect. Let’s take a more in-depth look at each stage of a fitness transformation and ideas for what you should focus on most in each stage.
The fitness model above is Dalton Darrell, my co-author of the 30 for 30 Training Programs and Busy Body Nutrition Guide.
How to Start A Fat Loss Transformation
Like I mentioned above, you can focus on just about anything in the beginning stages. The points in the graphic above like eating better foods, drinking more water, cooking more meals at home, implementing any type of physical activity, and eliminating junk foods and liquid calories are all valid starting points. My biggest piece of advice for this stage is to focus on one thing at a time and make that one thing a part of your normal routine. Making it a point to cook every Friday night as opposed to going out for dinner and drinks, for example, is a fairly easy first step that would go a long way in the long run.
Once that’s a normal part of your life, try going for an hour-long Saturday morning stroll where you listen to an audiobook or podcast to learn and exercise simultaneously while avoiding boredom. If an hour seems daunting, you could break that up into four 15-minute walks over the course of a week. If walking seems too basic, you could start working your way through a basic strength program like my 14-day beginner strength training course.
These are just examples of easy first steps. Remember, improving a tiny piece of the puzzle will create results on its own. Use the momentum from early success to progressively make new changes and before you know it, you’ll be wondering how to go from fit to super fit.
What to Focus on as You Get Leaner, Stronger, and Healthier to Go from Fit to Extremely Fit
The more fit you become, the more the little things begin to matter. There are a number of ways to define more fit but for the sake of brevity, let’s say body fat percentages in the teens for men and in the mid-20s for women. Like I mention in my article, You’re Not As Fat As You Think, these body fat levels put you miles ahead of most of the population. Congrats.
Alas, the grass is always greener and we’re never satisfied with where we’re at, for better or worse. So, let’s look at the little things and where to focus your attention to go from pretty fit to fitness model.
Energy Balance (calories in vs calories out)
You can make a ton of progress and depending on your eating habits and genetics, get very lean without tracking a morsel of food. If you’re accustomed to eating what most consider healthy foods and stay away from things like sweets, alcohol, and high calorie traps, then you may not need to track calories for a long time. But if you want to reach fitness model or super lean body fat levels, you’ll eventually have to master the energy balance equation. There’s no way around the laws of thermodynamics.
Our bodies aren’t wired to achieve super lean body fat levels and come with plenty of handy-dandy mechanisms to regulate metabolic rate to reach homeostasis. Without these processes, a 200-pound person could lose 100 pounds in a year (aka dead) eating 1,000 calories/day. The good news is, you can avoid this metabolic adaptation — or at least minimize it — through tracking nutrition and being methodical about your continued fat loss to fitness model levels.
Putting the science mumbo-jumbo aside momentarily, the true benefit of tracking nutrition and energy balance is knowing whether or not you’re making progress. Instead of guessing or wondering whether or not you’re going to lose fat over the next week, you’ll know. Sure, there will be times where the body adjusts and progress stalls or reverses, but you’ll have data to course correct. Whereas without tracking, you’d be stuck urinating in the wind. Which brings me to the next little thing that matters.
Data Is King
I’ve spoiled this already with energy balance, but you can probably see where this is going. Tracking as many things as possible and having reliable data about your body will make getting fitness model lean a possibility. In addition to the peace of mind and accuracy I mentioned above, data provides accountability through its acquisition. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “What gets measured, gets managed.” Reaching elite fitness levels requires hyper-management of everything from nutrition and training to sleep and stress management. Without data, it’s almost impossible to know how you’re doing in any given area.
Getting back to the practical advice, protein matters as you become more fit for several reasons. The most obvious reason is its support of muscle growth and recovery. Without adequate protein, maximizing your body’s response to training simply won’t happen. And since we’re talking about reaching fitness model body fat levels, that’s going to require further dieting. Having an ample supply of amino acids becomes even more critical during caloric deficits to prevent any muscle breakdown to fuel everyday life and activity. Quite simply, if you’re aiming to get super lean, your body will pull energy from body fat, muscle, and wherever else it can get it to avoid getting super lean. Remember, the body doesn’t want to lose 100 pounds in a year and die.
I won’t spend much time talking about protein’s thermic effects but know that protein is much more energy inefficient than carbs and fats. This means that protein burns 2-3x more calories during digestion and absorption than carbs and fats. As calorie levels decrease to extreme levels, this may become significant. Protein is also more satiating and filling, and staying full will be an issue.
Food Quality & Diet Volume
As you can imagine, dieting to fitness model body fat levels is going to leave you hungry. While it’s possible to reach extreme levels of fitness eating nothing but McDonalds and ice cream, it would leave you miserable and starving. The lower calorie intake gets, the more important food quality and volume begin to matter. By food volume, I mean foods that are high in weight and/or size but low in calories. The clearest example would be nearly all vegetables and some fruits. You could eat pounds of broccoli, for instance, and only consume a couple hundred calories. Nobody wants to eat pounds of broccoli, clearly, but you get the point.
Finding ways to make vegetables sexy will be a major key to reaching fitness model body fat levels. I’ll leave a few recipe suggestions below.
- 7 Recipes for Cauliflower Fried Rice (nearly 1 pound of food for 100-300 calories)
- Frozen-to-Roasted Vegetables (perfect for the non-chef)
- Chocolate Lover’s Survival Guide (my free cookbook with high protein sweets fixes)
- Anything with an egg white base like my Breakfast Bombs or Pizza Cups
- Protein Ice Cream (pictured below)
- High Protein Pizza (pictured below)
- Protein Jell-O (pictured below)
You can also check out these articles on high volume meals:
In the early stages of a fitness transformation and even when you’re relatively fit, nutrient timing doesn’t matter all that much. Studies have shown the differences between optimal nutrient timing and overall daily intake to be insignificant in almost every case. And just so you know I’m not talking out of both sides of my mouth, I recommend intermittent fasting for a lot of people I work with. If you’re unfamiliar, intermittent fasting certainly wouldn’t qualify as anabolic nutrient timing.
All that said, nutrient timing may be important for achieving fitness model body fat levels. Physiological benefits aside, if consuming carbs pre-workout makes you feel better during training, it makes sense. And if consuming a peri-workout (before, after, or during) protein shake makes you drink more water and hit higher protein intake goals, it makes sense. While the benefits of nutrient timing may have been overblown in the past, there may be something to being mindful of nutrient timing. This will be an oversimplification, but I’ll drop a few nutrient timing scenarios to consider:
- When you’re in a caloric deficit, don’t train intensely in a completely fasted state. And if you do, aim to consume protein/amino acids of some kind close to your training session.
- Aim to consume 25-35 grams of protein an hour or two on both sides of a training session.
- If you’re going to consume simpler sugars like sweets, starches, etc., do it around your training sessions.
- Consuming a slow-digesting protein before bed may provide a steady stream of amino acids throughout the night. This could be in the form of a mixed meal (a meal with protein, carbs, and fat) close to bedtime as well.
- Aim to limit fat intake and larger meals around training as it may impede performance and peri-workout nutrient delivery.
Training Volume & Specificity
A common mistake I see being made is drastically changing a training regimen to go from lean to fitness model lean. An example would be someone who’s been training for hypertrophy (let’s say 8-12 reps for 3-4 sets) with most exercises. Upon deciding to get fitness model lean, they start adding more cardio, increase reps and decrease weight, incorporate more circuits, and leave every training session totally wiped out. Train insane or remain the same, right?
Not so much. If a training style got you to where you are, why change it? Progressive overload can be achieved through a lot of different methods (see graphic below), but you shouldn’t change every aspect of your program. Adding cardio is okay to increase your weekly calorie deficit but don’t think cardio by itself is going to melt extra fat off. Let your nutrition to most of the fat loss work and use your training to hold onto as much muscle as possible as you diet down.
Aim for progressive overload — not reinventing the wheel.
Sleep, Hydration, Stress Management, and Everything Else
At this point, I think you’re catching on. The leaner you become and the further you push your body, the more every little thing matters. My best piece of advice is similar to when you first started your fitness journey — check the easiest boxes first, control what you can, and do your best with the rest.
I don’t mean to sound like having an amazing physique is impossible without mastering everything under the sun in nutrition and performance. In fact, there are plenty out there doing silly things with minimal knowledge that have great physiques with mediocre genetics. It’s possible, but it does require a ton of hard work, discipline, and patience.
All this brings me to my ultimate point.
Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?
Well, what do you think? Are you ready to do all the things required to look like a fitness model or join the fitness elite? Will you make the sacrifices and exercise the discipline to take your body to the next level? And after you get there, will you maintain the level of discipline to stay at fitness model body fat levels?
These are all things to consider. If you’re in, it’s an admirable goal that most will never achieve. But if you’re saying no thanks at this point, know that’s okay, too. Because the truth is, most fitness models rarely maintain the physiques you see on Instagram and in magazines. You’d be amazed what you can do with a photo shoot prep, lighting, spray tan, and some oil. Don’t get me wrong, they’re shredded to the bone. I just want you to have realistic expectations and recognize that you don’t have to achieve fitness model body fat levels to look amazing.
No matter what you decide, I wish you the best and would be happy to answer any questions you have. Feel free to shoot me an email or if you’d like help calculating your calories, macronutrients, and learning more about nutrition for optimal performance, I’d encourage you to download my free eBook, Nutrition Made Easy 3.0. You can learn more about it here or simply enter your info below and I’ll send you a copy.