If you’ve ever been to a bodybuilding show or a fitness magazine photo shoot you will see the most ripped human beings on the planet. Fitness models and physique competitors attain a level of leanness and being “dry” (bodybuilding lingo for absence of water retention underneath the skin) that is surreal.
When you see these same people in the offseason you will see a different-looking physique altogether. That is because the levels that are now standard for competition and magazines/ads are generally unsustainable by even the most dedicated trainees. The offseason look isn’t bad; it’s just not the onion-thin skinned, anatomy chart defined physiques that you see on stage or in photos.
I can’t find much data on this but I can speak from experience: the body shape you can obtain is not necessarily what you can sustain. You might be able to diet your way to “ripped” but getting and even staying there requires constant hunger and obsession with food.
There are three categories of people who can sustain very low body fat percentages indefinitely:
1) Extreme genetic ectomorphs
2) Chemically enhanced (human growth hormone, thyroid, stimulants, etc.)
3) SUPER active
What is a sustainable body fat percentage?
Though numbers may vary, I believe 15% body fat is more realistic than 10% body fat or less. At 10% body fat, you have definition everywhere: full abdominals, chest, back, legs, arms, shoulders, etc. Once you go beyond this, you’re approaching competitive territory. I noticed at this body fat percentage, while you look and feel amazing about your body, food will always be on your mind and I even became interested in foods I wouldn’t have eaten previously. At 15 percent, on the other hand, there is a good outward contour of the muscle groups in a well-trained individual–though there are not as many “cuts” on the physique, it’s still a lean/in-shape look in clothes. And you can diet down from 15% to 10% in about 8 weeks of being strict and consistent. I wouldn’t recommend going much above 15% because you will start to feel uncomfortable and measures of health (not to mention self-image) may start to suffer. Keep in mind staying this lean still requires some amount of effort–not extreme competition levels; but an overall dedication to a healthy lifestyle.
It can be hard to accept a more realistic body shape and size when you’ve experienced better, but it’s important to focus on your health and what’s realistic in the long-term. I know my performance is a little better at a more moderate body composition even if I don’t look as athletic. Stay positive.