How to Get a Lean Body and Be Healthy

Controlling body weight and body composition is a huge topic when it comes to the health of the general public and also an important responsibility for athletes. Technology, the food industry, and even the health industry itself, have progressively pushed people into an unhealthy lifestyle that produces an unfit body. In order to compensate, people have come up with a lot of methods for losing weight and allegedly being healthy. Some methods are bizarre, some are miserable, and some are downright unhealthy. While a healthy lifestyle does require some effort and discipline, it should not be crazy, extreme, insane, or miserable. A lot of people try very hard to have a healthy body. Effort is often not the issue. In some cases the problem is that people are completely misinformed on what a healthy lifestyle actually is. The goal of this article is to present a path to a lean body that is both healthy and enjoyable.

First, weight management. The big picture is extremely simple. Calories in vs calories out. If you burn more calories than you consume, you lose weight. Most people understand this. Controlling how many calories you consume is simple. It may not be easy, but it is simple. Less food eaten equals fewer calories consumed. There are a myriad of dietary strategies that help control caloric intake, but we’re going to skip over that, because this article is really not about finding ways to eat less. People tend to think that controlling how many calories the body burns is also simple. More exercise equals more calories burnt. That's as far as it goes, right? This is one of the huge problems. Many people believe exercise is the only thing that affects how many calories they burn. It seems that eating little and working out a lot is the only way to lose weight. Thus we have millions of people doing tons of cardio and starving themselves in order to try to be healthy. There is something terribly wrong with this picture.

The calories out component of the equation is actually not especially simple, because it is to some degree controlled by your body, which is highly complex. There are some important things to understand. First, your body is always burning calories. Always. Every cell requires energy to stay alive and perform its particular function, so every second from conception in your mother's womb to the moment you take your last breath your body burns calories. Second, your body regulates its own metabolism. It can increase and decrease the rate at which it uses energy. It does not follow a BMR calculator formula to determine how many calories it should burn. It adapts to stimuli and follows survival instincts. You can force the body to burn calories with exercise, but exercise is just one factor. You do not have conscious control of your metabolism just like you do not have conscious control of your heart rate. It is important to understand that your body is capable of a range of metabolic rates. Our understanding of all the ways metabolism is regulated is somewhat limited, but for more technical information on metabolic adaptations, check out this research review:

Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete


As we cover these facts, we can dispel some of the misguided thinking on weight management. For example the whole concept of eating and then having to exercise to burn off the calories is foolish. The body burns calories constantly. Exercise is not required to use energy. If you exercise enough to burn off every calorie you eat, you will kill yourself. Not figuratively. Literally. You will cease to live. People are way too worried about how many calories they burn during workouts. Let's say you're a workout fanatic and you exercise for 2 hours every day. That still leaves another 22 hours. Which is a bigger factor in metabolism? 2 hours or 22? The number of calories burnt during workouts is insignificant. What is far more important is the rate the body burns calories during the other 90% of the day. Personally, I estimate that on days when I work out a maximum of 20% of my energy expenditure occurs during physical activity.

What about diet? Forcing yourself to go hungry all the time is not the way to go. Over time the body will slow metabolic rate to try to match your intake. This is why just cutting a bunch of calories produces short term weight loss but often does not produce the lean body that people want over time. Going hungry causes the body to lower metabolic rate and do what is necessary to stay alive with inadequate caloric intake. Part of this response is a greater tendency to burn muscle for energy and store fat. This does not mean that under-eating will make you fatter. Let's be clear; if you eat very little, you will lose weight. What it means is that achieving weight loss through starvation produces a less muscular and less lean body than achieving that weight loss through means that favor fast metabolic rate and maintenance of muscle mass. So when people starve themselves to lose weight, they tend to maintain some of their fat and instead burn away muscle, which means they may end up thin, but they do not end up lean; plus they slow down energy expenditure. Thus they are more likely to regain weight quickly and regain it in the form of fat rather than muscle. On top of that, lowering metabolic rate is unhealthy, because it means the body is doing less work to keep its organs and structures healthy and functioning properly. Want injuries? Want sickness? Want to feel terrible? Stop eating. The widespread approach to weight loss is eating as little as you can stand and doing as much cardio as you can tolerate. This approach produces bodies that may or may not be thin, are not especially lean, do not look good, do not feel good, and are downright unhealthy.

So what is the effective and healthy path to an appropriate weight and a lean body?

Two key things we need to do.

1. Rather than trying to consume very few calories, the goal should be to possess a fast metabolic rate. This has several advantages, because it allows you to eat! It provides a lot of room to work with when it comes to creating a caloric deficit to lose fat/weight. With a fast metabolic rate you can eat a lot and still lose weight. You can even eat some unhealthy food and still lose weight. It allows for a lot of freedom in nutritional intake. This makes life a heck of a lot more enjoyable and much less stressful. Not to say that you do not have to watch what you eat at all, but which is easier to stick to? A 2,500-calorie diet or a 1,500-calorie diet? A lean body is far easier to achieve and maintain with a fast metabolic rate. On top of that it’s healthy. It indicates that the body is doing a lot of work on itself. Repairing muscle, strengthening tendons and ligaments, hardening bone, renewing organ tissue, fighting disease, all these processes require energy. The body completes these processes more effectively and thoroughly if it has sufficient energy from food to use, as opposed to being stuck in survival mode all the time. Eating a lot and burning a lot enables greater health and a much better shot at a low body fat percentage. Specifically for athletes, it is an absolute necessity. Playing, practicing, and training for a sport puts a lot of stress on the body. You had better hope that your body is responding to that stress with a lot of maintenance work. Otherwise you are breaking your body down without building it back up. That's a recipe for disaster, not to mention poor athletic performance.

2. The other thing we need to do is bias the body toward building muscle rather than storing fat. This has obvious benefits for both physical appearance and physical performance.

How do we accomplish these two goals? The human body is an overwhelmingly complex organism, and I will not even attempt to cover all the things that influence metabolism, fat storage, and muscle building. I just want to give some general recommendations for exercise and nutrition.


For exercise, the most effective characteristics are higher intensity and the use of a lot of muscles. Those two factors stimulate a larger physiological response. The term intensity refers to the level of effort required as well as the amount of muscle tension involved. Heavy strength training is the most intense physical activity because it uses maximum effort to generate maximum muscle tension. There is no better stimulant of metabolism than heavy large scale strength training exercise like squat and deadlift. Other examples of intense full body exercise are olympic lifting, med ball throws, jumps, sprints, and playing sports at a high effort level. Anything that involves maximal force production is intense. This type of activity puts the greatest physical and physiological stress on the body and thus requires the most recovery. The recovery process is where a lot of energy gets used. High intensity exercise also stimulates the most muscle growth. Muscle mass is a huge contributor to metabolic rate even when it is not being used. (This is why men tend to have a lot easier time getting and staying lean.) So high intensity exercise boosts metabolic rate AND biases the body toward muscle building and maintenance. Conveniently that same musculature is also what makes people attractive. That's true for men and women. Ladies, nice legs and butt do not come from starving yourself and riding the stationary bike. Try getting well acquainted with the track and barbell instead. To top it all off, these fantastic benefits of high intensity exercise can be achieved without spending a lot of time working out. A good three hours per week of full body strength training does wonders for metabolic rate and the development of attractive musculature for both men and women.

Unfortunately low intensity exercise, cardio as it is often called, has long been the most popular tool in weight loss. This is supposedly justified scientifically by the fact that low intensity exercise utilizes fat to provide a larger portion of the necessary energy. People want to burn fat, so they do exercise that burns fat. The fault in this reasoning is that once again we do not have as much control over our bodies as we would like. The body can take carbs and protein and store them as fat. Fat being burned during a workout does not matter, because any of the macronutrients can be stored as fat anyway. Long duration, low intensity activity trains the body to be efficient, which includes storing an efficient fuel source. Efficiency is great in a survival situation with limited food. But when trying to develop a lean body, efficiency is bad. Efficiency means the body burns fewer calories and doesn't build muscle. On the other hand, high intensity exercise trains the body to be proficient and store a proficient fuel source, carbohydrates. Proficiency means the body burns a lot of energy in order to perform a task really well. Good performance. Burning a lot of energy. Sounds good, right? High intensity exercise is best for increasing metabolic rate and limiting fat storage, which makes it the best type of activity for developing a lean body. This does not mean every little bit of cardio is bad, but the body will be more lean if it is primarily adapted to high intensity exercise. Here is some research that supports that claim:

Periodized resistance training improves weight loss quality even with severe caloric restriction

Among people who want to get fit, there are some very common activities which really do not cut it when it comes to intensity. First, let's be clear. Any exercise is better than no exercise, especially for general health. However all exercise is not equal when it comes to developing a lean body. Possibly worst of all is using the elliptical. All the misunderstanding on weight loss is embodied in the elliptical machine. It's so easy that people can "work out" comfortably for an hour without stopping. Working out for a long time is the key to weight loss, right? And starving yourself, right? Wrong! Elliptical work is as close to a waste of time as exercise can get. It does not matter how hard you try to go. The machine moves itself. You cannot get any intensity from an elliptical. Those machines suck. I would say they should all be sunk to the bottom of the ocean, but then we would probably end up with out of shape fish. So I'll just say they should all be smashed to pieces. Moving on. Biking. The intensity is up to the biker. Biking faster or on a stationary bike turning up the resistance makes it more beneficial. Sitting there cycling your legs against air resistance for an hour is as ineffective as the elliptical. Walking. Not intense enough, but faster is better. Running. The intensity is up to the runner. Running hard for 15 minutes is more intense and more beneficial than trotting along for an hour. Are runners usually in good shape? Yeah, the competitive ones that run hard. Even at high school level, female cross country runners run 5Ks at under 6:00-mile pace. That is not easy exercise. That definitely has a decent level of intensity to it. But the "runners" you see trudging down the sidewalk at 4 miles per hour tend to not be in great shape. Again I just want to be clear. I am not saying that any exercise is bad for your health or weight loss. But I am saying that a lot of the exercise people do is not ideal for achieving the goal of a lean body. Exercise should be focused on building and maintaining muscle, not burning calories or fat.

She didn't get that body on an elliptical!


Developing a lean body is not a matter of just exercise or just diet; both must be addressed. Developing and maintaining muscle mass is critical for a fast metabolic rate as well as being athletic and attractive. We have long known that consuming more calories in general allows the body to build more tissue (common sense). But since muscle is made of protein, high protein consumption encourages the body to specifically build muscle rather than store fat. Here is a study that supports that claim:

Effects of High vs. Low Protein Intake on Body Composition and Maximal Strength in Aspiring Female Physique Athletes Engaging in an 8-Week Resistance Training Program

A high protein diet helps to bias the body toward building muscle. What’s even better is that recent research has shown that high protein consumption combined with resistance training allows maintenance of muscle mass even during a caloric deficit. In the following study, the subject group that consumed double the protein lost more fat mass and actually gained muscle mass during a caloric deficit.

Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial

How much protein do we need? Based on the research it seems that during weight/fat loss exceeding 2.2 grams per kilogram or 1 gram per pound of body weight is useful. Meeting this need is the first nutritional priority for developing a lean body. Keep in mind that more frequent, more intense exercise increases the need for protein.

Along with maintaining muscle mass, we also want to maintain a fast metabolic rate. The body is not willing to burn a lot of energy if it is not given a lot of energy. You cannot continually burn 4,000 calories a day while eating 2,000. The body will not do that. It violates survival instincts. The next dietary principle to follow is simply eating a lot. This is counterintuitive, but we have to eat a lot to have a fast metabolic rate. As a ballpark estimate, a highly active athlete might be able to maintain weight with a daily caloric intake of body weight in pounds multiplied by 20.

Do not starve yourself. Do not skip meals. Do not rely on your appetite to determine whether or not you eat. Do not have a snack and call it a meal. Do not choose your food based on what has fewer calories. Calories are not bad. Your body needs food. Plain and simple. You gotta eat! This along with a good exercise program will result in a fast metabolic rate. This will account for some lack of perfection in terms of what you eat. A fast metabolic rate can compensate for some pizza, cookies, etc. On the other hand, if you turn your body into an efficiency machine, there is no hope. Too many people get this idea in their heads that calories are bad. Any way they can find to avoid them is considered a positive. If they can make it from dinner to bed without eating, it's a victory. If they can skip breakfast even better. They consider anything with fat in it "bad for you." They always choose the diet or lite option. Any deviation from the low-calorie strategy has to be compensated for with a workout. They starve their body in hopes that it will burn fat, but instead it just becomes more and more efficient. It gets better at not burning calories. It burns muscle for energy, tries to hold onto fat for survival, and craves junk food because it is in desperate need of calories. This is a hopeless approach to developing a lean body. The more extreme it gets, the more unlikely success becomes and the more unhealthy the body gets. One more time. You gotta eat!

That being said, if you need to lose weight, you will need to create a caloric deficit by eating less. But because of metabolic adaptations to caloric restriction, the best way to sustain and maintain weight loss is first building up a fast metabolic rate by eating a lot and using high intensity exercise. Then when trying to lose weight, do it gradually. That means (1) creating a small caloric deficit rather than starving yourself and (2) eating enough protein to maintain muscle mass. It also may mean taking an on and off approach to weight loss. In the following study, two subject groups did 16 weeks of caloric restriction, but one group stretched those weeks out by alternating two weeks of restriction with two weeks of weight maintenance. This group ended up losing more weight and more fat on average.

Intermittent energy restriction improves weight loss efficiency in obese men: the MATADOR study

Let's talk briefly about what foods to eat. In an ideal world we would just eat plant foods and sources of protein and natural fats (meat, eggs, nuts, etc). Unfortunately we don't live in a paradise where we can just walk around picking delicious food off plants and hunting wild game all day, and even our "natural" foods are often manipulated by the food industry. So your nutrition probably is not going to be perfect. Just do your best to get as much of your nutrition as possible from natural sources. If you end up eating less than perfectly to meet protein/calorie needs, so be it. However I will recommend avoiding alcohol, fried food, and high calorie desserts. (I will refrain from commenting on all the alleged horrible problems with meat, dairy, gluten, genetically modified foods, etc).

So we have four nutritional principles to follow.

1. Eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight each day.

2. Eat a lot of calories (possibly BW x ~20 for athletes).

3. Eat a lot of plant foods and protein sources.

4. Avoid unhealthy foods.

A person who follows those principles and consistently exercises at a high intensity will develop over time good general health and a fast metabolic rate. If you wish to achieve weight loss, follow those guidelines but just eat fewer calories. If you want to gain weight, eat more. Either way following those principles is the way to do it and be lean and healthy.

A couple notes for athletes who need to lose weight or lose fat: First, if you play your sport and train for your sport, you have the exercise part of the equation covered. The solution is not to add more exercise. Nutrition is the area where you need to concentrate your effort. Second, it is hard to predict the immediate effect weight loss will have on athleticism. In the long run, getting lean is beneficial because you want the mass on your body to contribute to your health and athleticism. Excess fat does not do that. It just weighs you down. However weight loss can bring with it loss of strength or just a poor response to training. Depending on the situation, the changes in strength and body weight may or may not produce athletic improvements right away. To maximize the effectiveness of weight loss for athleticism, a high protein diet is a must because it helps maintain muscle mass.

The Natural Life

What I'm advocating should really come easily. First, exercise is natural. The human body was made to move. Exercise has a long list of health benefits, not because it's some fantastic method someone discovered, but because the body was designed to move. The problem is that the world today does not require people to move much at all. It encourages laziness. Most people's days are largely sedentary. Kids have to sit in school all day, do homework, read, and study. When they reach adulthood and finish school, they're finally qualified to sit at work all day. There is not much time to commit to exercise for most people, so you have to make that little bit of time count. That is why high intensity exercise is so important. An entire day of inactivity is not compensated for by an hour of cardio. Not even close. On the other hand, 60 minutes of strength training is plenty of physical stress for your body to handle. Second, good nutrition is nothing more than natural nutrition. Eat when you are hungry. Eat food that the earth provides. It's really simple. Live a natural life, and you'll have a healthy body. Notice that there are no bizarre tricks or "insane fat-burning secrets" here. And this is not some extreme test of will. The lifestyle I'm advocating is actually quite enjoyable. You don't have to go hungry, work out for hours every day, eat special food that's delivered in the mail, eliminate fat or carbs, take fat-burning pills, sprinkle magic powder on every plate, or add up your food points. Instead you wake up and all day long eat food that makes your body feel good. The human body wants to be healthy. We do not have to come up with wacky ways to manipulate it into doing so. Just live the natural life.