If you’ve worked your way down to 15% body fat, you’re already working out regularly, probably counting your macros and meal prepping, and eating pretty damn clean. But here's the primary downside of shedding body fat: The lower your body fat percentage gets, the harder it becomes to lose just 1–2% more.
“Once you hit 15% body fat, shedding any more fat is all about finesse,” says Jim White, R.D., an ACSM exercise physiologist and the owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach, VA.
So if you're aiming to get down to 10% body fat (or lower), it’s time to eat and train like an athlete. At a higher body fat, you need to focus more on nutrition. Now, though, everything centers around your workouts—namely, building muscle. “The closer you get to having low body fat, the more impact muscle mass will have on improving your composition,” says Joe Holder, a performance trainer at S10 gym (named for sub-10% body fat, mind you), Nike trainer/run coach, and founder of The Ocho System.
But you need to be as committed as an athlete now, too. “You have to remember how small of a population has 10% body fat. It’s bodybuilders, fitness competitors, athletes. You have to be willing to do what others aren’t,” White adds.
How to eat to achieve 10% body fat
1. Eat for fuel
“To hit below 15%, you need to be laser-focused on getting the best fuel for your body,” says White. “You’re looking at chicken with no sauce, 5-9 servings of fruits or vegetables a day, choosing the leanest proteins possible, the best possible fats—nuts, oils, chia seeds—ditching most saturated fats, and consuming not just decent carbs but exclusively high-octane fuel carbohydrates like quinoa, ancient grains, brown rice, and sweet potatoes.” Sure, you should enjoy food. But if your goal is to look as good as humanly possible, you have to prioritize what the food offers your body over what it offers your taste buds.
2. Spend your calories better
When you’re 20lbs overweight, you need to eat fewer calories to lose weight. But at 15% body fat, your focus is on getting cut by increasing muscle—and that means you actually may need to eat more, says Holder. You need muscle to burn fat, and you need calories to build muscle, so fat loss at this stage is driven by being just under or even slightly over maintenance calories, he says. The most crucial factor: Increase carbohydrates before and after your workouts for fuel and recovery, and lock in your protein at around at least 1.5g per kg of bodyweight.
3. Cut back on booze
At 15% body fat, you can probably still afford to have beers a few nights a week with your buddies. But to get to 10%, you’ll need to cut that back to two or three drinks on only one night a week, White says. “Alcohol slides into your ‘indulgences’ category, of which you’re only getting once, maybe twice a week,” he adds. When you decide to spend it, stick to light-colored, juice-free drinks, like vodka with soda water and lime.
4. Stick to staples
Unfortunately, sub-15 eating is pretty boring, White says. You need to hit your macros to a T, and you need to cut caloric, salty, but flavorful sauces (BBQ is a big offender), which means you’re probably eating the same or similar foods every day—skinless chicken breast, steamed vegetables, and brown rice. Sure, you can be an ultra-fit foodie, but unless you want to spend hours in the kitchen every day, your best bet is to find five meals that fit within your daily macros and meal-prep six or seven days' worth at once, he adds.
5. Look at what foods you can cut
“To get past 15% body fat, there’s a smaller and smaller margin of error,” White says. Once you've kicked the big-ticket items, you have to take a magnifying glass to your meals. Maybe you’ve been doing coffee with creamer. That milk is only 30 calories, but every day for a week, that’s 200 calories that could go, White says. Look at any liquids you’re consuming other than water—that extends to oil and sauces—and scrutinize seemingly healthy packaged foods like protein bars and pre-made smoothies.
6. Hire a nutritionist for a one-time fine-tuning
If you can’t figure out what to cut from your already-clean diet and how to balance that with fueling muscle growth, bring your food journal to a registered dietitian. In addition to being trained to look for sneaky offenders, he or she can also check out peripheral influencers like stress and sleep, he adds.
7. Ditch the takeout
You probably already have your go-to restaurants who make a killer clean macro salad or the perfect salmon fillet. But food prepared by others is the biggest wild card when it comes to calories—so unless you control exactly what's showing up on your plate, you probably only want to eat out once or twice a week as an indulgence, White says.
8. Get your mind right
“When it comes down to it, what separates 15-percenters from 10-percenters is the ultra-focus,” White says. We're talking about dedication to meal prep, bulletproof accountability, a social life full of ultra-supportive people—fitness and nutrition has to be the No.1 focus in your life. Whatever takes away from your motivation—friends who don’t understand why you can’t just have another beer, a job that only allows for five hours of sleep a night—has to be adjusted, and whatever drives you and keeps you going, taking measurements and progress pictures, needs to be kicked up.
The 10% body fat workout strategy
To get down to 15%, you probably hit the gym four to five days a week and have a solid next-level baseline of strength and conditioning. One vitally important note: If, for some reason, you're walking into the gym for the first time at 15% body fat, it’s crucial to start conditioning from ground zero to build a base of strength and avoid injury. Sound like you? Here's our beginner's guide to strength training. Otherwise, read on.
The ideal training plan
Remember, your focus is on building muscle. That means your workouts should focus on setting fire to what bit of fat you have left—so every workout will do double duty to hit both at once.
You’ll work out six days a week now, but since you're increasing the intensity, keep your workouts below 75 minutes, Holder says.
Your goal for the week, Holder says, should look something like this:
Day 1: Strength + conditioning
Start with a strength workout and burn it out with conditioning. All your workouts should include multi-directional movement to increase stability and work all your little muscles. But what Holder really likes is to have the same compound lifts in every strength workout that change in rep and tempo schemes week-to-week.
Start with bench press, squat, deadlift, and weighted pullups at 75% estimated max, 8 sets x 8 reps, with 60-75 seconds rest between sets.
For conditioning, get after circuits of 40-yard prowler sled pushes, 1-minute jump rope, repeated for 5-10 rounds or sprints on an inclined, powered-off treadmill, 20 seconds on, 60 seconds rest, repeated 8 to 12 times.
Day 2 - Bodybuilding-focused day
Day 3 - Mobility
Day 4 - Strength + conditioning
Day 5 - Active recovery
“As you ramp up your workouts, it’s critical to properly recover both mentally and physically,” says Marc Perry, C.S.C.S., ACE-CPT, and founder of Built Lean. Stretch at the end of your workout, take the time to do active recovery work like yoga or swimming, and sleep a solid 8-9 hours every night. These can really help keep you feeling fresh as you take your workouts to the next level, he adds.
Day 6 - Off
Day 7 - Tempo Conditioning
Gains aren’t always made by upping the weight. Keep adjusting your interval lengths, reps, and sets—longer intervals for fewer rounds, shorter intervals for more reps—to challenge your nervous system and muscles in different ways, Holder says.