Featured Expert

Lou Schuler

Lou Schuler is an award-winning journalist and the author, with Alan Aragon, of The Lean Muscle Diet.

There are, as I see it, four classic ways to be lean:

1. There’s hunger-striker lean, achieved with starvation, and not recommended by any major medical organization.

2. There’s heroin-addict lean, achieved most notably by Iggy Pop during the early seventies…and mysteriously retained for decades after he quit using drugs.

3. There’s marathon-runner lean, which is a lot healthier than the first two but probably not what you had in mind when you clicked on this article.

4. And there’s cover-model lean, which I assume everyone reading this aspires to.

That fourth look—made famous by the men who fronted Men’s Health magazine in the nineties and early 2000s—is achieved with a combination of the most muscle you can maintain and the lowest body-fat percentage you can achieve. As we discussed in “How Much Muscle Can You Gain?”, the two processes are inextricably linked. You can’t gain a lot of muscle without also gaining some fat, and you can’t lose a lot of fat without sacrificing some muscle. 

Since we addressed muscle building in the first article, we’ll talk about losing fat here.

Lean in

Let’s start by examining how lean a man can naturally get, based on the best example we have: natural bodybuilders. That’s the full shred, with abs that are visible from space and skin so tight you hurt your fingers trying to grab enough to pinch.

(On a quest to get lean? Try The Anarchy Workout—one guy lost 18 pounds of fat in just 6 weeks.)

Eric Helms (3dmusclejourney.com) knows what it’s like to get down into that range. He’s a Ph.D. candidate at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand and a pro natural bodybuilder who has reached an estimated 5 percent fat at a body weight of 181 pounds. That means he carried just nine pounds of fat on his 6-foot frame.

How difficult is it to get to that point?

“At the end it’s harder than boot camp,” Helms says. He means it literally: He served in the Air Force, and has compared notes with friends from other military branches.

Related: 4 Daily Exercises Every Navy SEAL (and Every Fit Guy) Should Do

We’ll get to the details in a moment. First, though, we’ll take a closer look at the challenge of body-fat reduction, what the leanest of the lean do to reach that impeccable condition, and what guys like us can learn from their experiences to help achieve a realistic body-fat level—one that probably won’t get your picture in a supplement ad, but will definitely get you closer to that ideal than you are now.

Long road to a hard body

The average American male has an estimated 28 percent body fat. (I say “estimated” because dissection is the only way to know for sure. That’s a little extreme, even for aspiring underwear models.) Even guys at “normal” weight—meaning they have a body-mass index lower than 25—are at 22.7 percent fat, on average.

A relatively strong and fit gym rat, Helms says, probably has body fat in the range of 12 to 16 percent. That guy probably can’t see his abs yet—not all of them, anyway, and not all the time. But he has the consolation of knowing he’s in the top 5 percent of all American men. (Seventeen percent fat is the cutoff for the 5th percentile.) To get from there to a pose-worthy physique, with low-single-digit body fat, Helms says he’d probably need to lose 20 to 40 pounds.