Body Composition: ‘The Last 5 Pounds’, or How to Deal With Problem Areas

Originally posted September 19, 2012

Almost daily I get a question along the lines of ‘Help! I don’t need to lose any more weight, but I’ve got this (belly/thigh/butt/arm/back) fat that just won’t budge!’.

We all have that ‘last’ bit of stubborn fat that just won’t respond to dieting. The first thing I want you to consider is that maybe it’s not as bad as you think. Our bodies need a little bit of fat reserve to function optimally, and for most of us that last little bit is all in one stubborn spot. For many people it’s the belly. For me, and lots of other women, it’s the hip and thigh area. For some people it’s the arms or upper back. Everyone has ‘that’ spot, and it annoys us, but the reality is that in the vast majority of cases it’s not a health threat, so from a health perspective you can let go of the pressure to lose it.

Doesn’t make it much better from the aesthetics perspective though, right? I hear ya. So today I’m going to talk about body recomposition. Here is exhibit A. Two pictures of me at the same weight, but different body compositions:

There’s 2+ years between these pics. This is not a fast process! Patience and consistency is key.

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170 in both pics.

I was actually in pretty good shape in the first picture, I was competing in triathlons and eating a healthy diet and had recently begun weight lifting. But I had just come off 18 months of losing weight, so while my fitness had improved, the calorie deficit I’d been maintaining had prevented me from adding any appreciable muscle mass (you need a calorie surplus to build muscle mass). So the result was a healthy weight but a higher fat-to-lean mass ratio (I have no idea what my body fat percentage was but it was probably in the 22-27% range). I was not unhealthy in any way, so hopefully no one will interpret these images as casting aspersions on my less-lean self, or on anyone who looks like my less-lean self. I had a healthy awesome body then, as I do now.

In any case, there I was at 160 pounds, a weight at which I’m comfortable, so I stopped losing weight and turned my focus to body recomposition. “Body composition” in it’s simplest terms, is the ratio of fat to lean mass your body is at. Building muscle requires a different dietary approach than losing fat does, so I changed the way I was eating. I ate more calories. Instead of eating at a calorie deficit with the goal of losing weight, I began eating at maintenance, or even a small calorie surplus. As always, I made sure I was getting plenty of protein (I aim for about 1 gram per pound of body weight per day) and adequate fat, so it was really carbs that I increased to bump up my calorie load (note: I’m not saying that my way is the best or only way (find what works for you), but there a popular mythology that carbs make you fat, and as you can see from looking at the second picture, eating more carbs definitely did NOT make me fatter, in fact, it made me leaner). My weight fluctuated about 5 pounds either way over time, so I wasn’t exactly 160 on the nose every day in between the two photos, and what was probably happening was that my body was very organically cycling between building muscle and burning fat, but the end result was that over time my body mass shifted from fatter to leaner. Fat cells don’t turn into muscle cells, what happens is that as muscles get bigger, fat cells get smaller as your body burns off the fat inside them.

You can see from the pictures that I carry/carried a lot of my fat on my thighs. As I built muscle all over my body, the fat on my thighs burned off, because that is where the fat was. So building up my arm, back and core muscles was just as much a part of making my legs leaner as working my leg muscles was. The message I’m attempting to convey here (however inelegantly) is that you need to work your whole body, not just the body part that bothers you. Bigger biceps means less belly fat. It’s true! Add a pound of muscle to your shoulders, and assuming your weight stays the same, that means there’s a pound less of fat on you, and if your fat is on your belly, that’s where it will come off of.

So how do you know it’s time to stop trying to lose weight and focus instead on body recomposition? Here’s my tips:

1. You’re at, or close to, a healthy weight, even if it’s higher than you wish
2. Your weight loss has stalled and simply won’t budge no matter what you do
3. Your eating habits are solid, you’re getting accurate hunger and satiety signals from your body, and you’re able to eat to your appetite without gaining weight
4. All of your health markers are normal and you feel good

Alternately, here’s some signs you may be at a weight that’s simply unsustainably low, and gaining some lean mass may be of benefit:
1. you’re able to maintain a low weight, but must be overly restrictive with diet
2. you need to do lots of cardio to keep from gaining weight
3. you frequently feel hungry and struggle with compulsive eating
4. you struggle with fatigue
5. you recover slowly from workouts

In both of the above scenarios, shifting your focus away from fat loss, and toward increasing lean mass, may be what your body needs in order to continue making progress.

So how do you do that, you ask? Well, here’s some jumping off points:

1. Eat at LEAST maintenance calories. Finding that target will take some trial and error, but the calculator in my Calorie Primer post can give you a good target window. Keep in mind that if you’ve been undereating or restricting carbs for a while, you’ll see an initial ~5-10 pound bump in weight almost immediately when you increase your calorie intake, as your body replenishes it’s glycogen and water stores. IT’S NOT FAT, so don’t panic.
2. It’s ok to go over maintenance calories by a few hundred, especially on days after workouts, your body needs the extra calories to build muscle mass.
3. A healthy female body can gain about 2 pounds of lean mass a month under optimal conditions, so if you keep any weight gain around this level you can be confident that you’re gaining mostly lean mass. If you gain more than that, IT’S OK, but more of it will be fat. Again, IT’S OK. Gaining a little fat along with muscle won’t kill you, you can always lose it later (if you want. You may be surprised at how nice that extra fat looks when it’s over a foundation of added muscle!).
4. Get plenty of protein! I generally recommend aiming for 1 gram per pound of your goal body weight, or just 100+ grams a day. Get protein from food if you can, but a protein supplement isn’t going to derail you and can help bump up your intake if you’re having trouble getting enough from food alone.
5. Carbs are great! Unless you have an active metabolic condition that necessitates a specific diet (in which case you should be working with a medical professional and not getting your nutrition information from blogs) don’t restrict carbs. They give you energy for workouts, and nutrients and calories your body needs to create new muscle mass. As always, get them from mostly whole foods, but IT’S OK TO MAKE ROOM FOR TREATS in your daily calorie target!
6. Don’t restrict fat either. Most people do well getting 20-35% of their calories from fat. 
7. EAT, and don’t feel guilty about it. Your body NEEDS fuel to meet your daily obligations, to recover from workouts, and to build new muscle mass. Some days you will feel like all you do is eat. Enjoy!
8. Experiment until you find what works best for you. I do great on tons of fruit, others go for sweet potatoes or bacon or coconut. There isn’t one right way, and trying to do it someone else’s way will ultimately not be as effective and sustainable as finding YOUR best way. You don’t have to ‘get it right’ on the first day. Pay attention to how your body feels and functions in response to what you eat. Keep a log so you can start to see patterns.
9. LIFT. Do a full body resistance routine at least twice, preferably 3 times a week. Alternately, some people prefer to follow a body part split routine, which is effective as well, but I’ve found to be a little more time consuming. It really is up to you what you prefer. Both styles will give you good results. For more on weight lifting styles and specifics, check out my Taming the Weight Room program.
10. Take regular rest days. Your body needs rest to recover properly. Low intensity cardio is fine on off days, but take at least one, preferably two, full rest days a week.
11. Say no to guilt, shame and restriction. Has it worked for you in the past? No? Then you don’t need it.

And last but not least, know that most people are too busy focusing on their own ‘problem areas’ to focus on yours. So don’t kill yourself trying to perfect them. It’s not worth it, you’re valuable and lovable just the way you are.