Why Getting Jacked, Strong and Lean is Never Enough: How To Manage Your Fitness Expectations

I love my life, plain and simple. To say that I don’t have a good time on a daily basis would be dishonest. I pretty much get to do what I love on the regular, and spend time with family/friends as much as I want.

But my life is not all unicorns and rainbows as the saying goes. In my 26 years on this earth, I’ve been through a lot. I’ve experienced great pain, and suffering. I’ve been to funerals, and visited families of friends who died way too soon.

I’ve lost friends to drugs, alcohol, and brain tumors.

I’ve watched friends suffer the loss of their mothers and fathers.

I’ve lost family members to degenerative disease and cancers.

The truth is this: Life is hard. I know – read my story.

Life’s full of lessons, difficulties, trials, pain, and yes, eventual demise.

We will all perish at one point. We’ll grow old, weak, and frail. Our flesh will return to the organic matter we stand upon. Our bodies will become a feasting ground for worms and various other decomposers.

Now think about this for a second.

Imagine this life of yours was going to end a week from today. What would you do? Where would you go? How would you spend your money? Who would you spend your time with?

These are all important questions to ask yourself, and there’s a good lesson as to what you should be focusing a majority of your time and efforts on when you arrive at the answers.

Why Getting Jacked, Strong and Lean is Never Enough

Recently, I was having a conversation with someone I’ve been interacting with for some time. I consider this guy a friend, and we were discussing various goals as they pertain to strength and aesthetics.

Knowing this guy’s history, he’s struggled with body dysmorphia, fat gain, and what some might call the typical Former Fat Boy Syndrome.

He eventually asked me what I thought about being super ripped (as in below 8% body fat).

In short, I told him that I believe it to be ‘overrated.’

Then he asked if I thought it was a good, long-term strategy to attempt the maintenance of a sub 7-8% body fat physique.

I replied with “no, simply because it’s just not practical, at least in my experience, for the majority of people.”

The reason I said this is because almost all of those I know of who have dieted down to very low body fat percentages tend to experience negative side effects associated with the low calorie intake it took to get them there.

Some of those sides are a drop in metabolism (signified by cold feet, hands, low body temperature and a low pulse rate), a drop in thyroid hormones (as revealed by labs), loss in libido, dry skin, generally being more irritable and cranky, a rise in stress hormones, and let’s not forget about hunger.

I know because when I’ve been under 8-9% body fat multiple times, I just don’t function well. I’m obsessive about my intake, generally less resistant to cold temps, and I have a really hard time getting it up if you know what I mean.

When I’m super lean, my body is much more concerned about keeping me fed, and preserving energy, than it is allowing me to much of anything else.

After lots of thought about this, I’ve made the personal decision that being photo shoot-ready all the time is

  • Not worth the effort (basically a waste of time for me)
  • A mental headache dealing with my eating/training schedule

In general, I feel the absolute best, am my most productive, and perform optimally in the weight room (and in the sack) when I am anywhere between 10-15% body fat.

This is my lot in life, and I accept that.

I don’t have grandiose expectations anymore of maintaining my size and strength for long periods at a very low body fat percentage. I know I’ll eventually give in to the cravings, and eat my way back up to a healthy weight.

But here’s the message I really want to hammer home for all of you reading.

In this email discussion, we got pretty deep. We got to discuss the why’s and reasons we’re training and aiming to be super lean, etc.

Then it hit me when my friend wrote this in a response:

Thing is, in the past, I always told myself that if I got to where I am now, which is 10-12% body fat, with an athletic build, that I’d be absolutely thrilled.

Except now I’m pretty much there, and it’s kind of like, “meh.”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not depressing me or anything, but I guess it just hasn’t brought me the complete fulfillment I expected. Every now and then, I even feel like it’s not enough… so much that if I’m such a fitness dude, I should maintain single digit body fat. It’s like I need to lose that that 5 extra pounds to feel awesome or something.

The bold is my emphasis.

Do you see what’s going on here? I know this guy’s history, and he’s actually made incredible strides with his physique. Most guys his age (under 20) would be jealous of his round muscles, and ab definition.

The problem is we’re under an assumption that building an ideal body will give us all the pleasure and satisfaction we long for.

Here’s your wake-up call.

It won’t.

Being lean, or jacked, or gaining that 10 extra pounds will never ever satisfy you in the way you think it might.

In fact, it just may make you even more upset with yourself. You might be wondering how you can achieve your goal, still be unhappy with yourself.

The truth is, as I’ve found personally, is that it’s not really about building the physique to a certain level. It’s more about what we believe that physique will do for us.

For most guys, there’s a belief that if we get jacked, lean, and have a full row of abs, the girls will fall into our laps begging us to rip their clothes off.

But they won’t. The girls might not even notice our new body.

For all the guys who tell me they’ll get laid more once they have a six-pack, I always ask, “how often are you getting laid now?”

No matter what their answer is, I usually respond with this: “have you ever considered that you’ll probably get laid less when you’re super lean?”

Most never believe me, until they realize for themselves that an awesome body doesn’t always mean more attention. Not to mention the general disinterest in sex when your libido crashes from being so low on calories and body fat.

Wow, this sucks, huh?

Or some people believe that having a new body will mean they are guaranteed success when they go out into the world, or college or whatever their next big step is.

Nope – no guarantees.

For women, I’ve seen them reach their goal weight, or completely transform their body, only to have sabotaged their relationship with food, or develop disordered eating patterns.

The same goes for guys too – I get emails all the time from men who are afraid to eat certain foods for fear of fat gain.

The problem is most of these guys are 5’11” and 140lbs. Super skinny, with hawt abz but afraid to eat and pack on any size because of a little fat gain.

It’s messed up, no?

We Have To Fix Our Heads

This is not a problem with the heart, or with our desire to get things done. If you’ve ever experienced a physique transformation, you know how awesome it is to look back at your records, and see the positive results.

It feels good to set a goal and reach it. You have heart. You have determination.

So what’s missing?

Part of it’s not having other goals outside of fitness, and it’s also due to poorly managing your expectations when it comes to building your physique, and nutrition in general.

Managing Your Expectations: Physique and Performance Goals

I’ve written about this before, but we all have genetic limits. In LGN365, I discuss the importance of realizing your potential. Getting your mind right, and getting clear on what it is you want.

Then, once you know your goals, you have to set up a plan.

We can talk about that another time. For now, I want you to think about your personal expectations.

Are you expecting to be the next IFBB pro? Do you want to compete in figure shows?

Or do you just want to be strong, and athletic-looking? Regardless of the goal, you need to first learn acceptance of yourself.

Understand that you are unique in the sense of having your own genetic make-up. Your muscle bellies are short, long or somewhere in between.

If your bone structure is rather large (thick joints, big hands, etc), then you’re on the favorable side of the genetic spectrum.

If this is not you, there’s no reason to give up, or give in, but simply be mindful of what’s possible for you. You may not be the next Mr. Olympia, but you can still amass a respectable physique. It just may take more time, and work than for the genetically blessed.

They say we grossly overestimate what we can accomplish in a year, and severely underestimate what we can in 5 years. I heartily agree. I’m known to bite off more than I can chew. I’m working on this.

Make this a race against yourself, and see how far you can take it. I can’t give you any hard numbers on how much talent, or genetics will affect your results, but I know that working smart, and being diligent will take you farther than any amount of talent can for those who rely on that alone.

In short, set a goal, but don’t put a hard date on it. Have an idea of what you want to accomplish, and then enjoy the daily grind of loading the bar, and getting stronger.

Enjoy the good food you’ll eat, and time you spend with others who are like-minded. Oh yeah… If you don’t have a support group, find one. It can take you far.

The Downtimes – Embrace Them As They Will Come

There will be times when you’re sad, or discouraged. I’ve had many setbacks in my many years under the bar. I’ve had various minor shoulder injuries where I’ve had to completely abstain from pressing.

You can imagine how this may have shattered my expectations of hitting a certain number on the bench press, or continuing my boulder-shoulder construction.

But you know what? You get through it. It’s called a setback for a reason, and I can promise you they will come. Lift weights long enough, and you will eventually experience some type of injury. It’s just part of the deal.

However, the benefit of being strong, muscular, and functional greatly outweighs being puny, feeble and weak does it not?

Set goals, but accept there will be bumps in the road. Nothing worth having ever comes easy.

Having Goals Outside of Fitness

A long time ago, I was taught that if you ever want to attract people or opportunities into your life, you must focus on two things:

  • Becoming a better person from the inside out (personal development, reading books, continued education, and generally becoming a more interesting individual).
  • Learning to pursue something much bigger than myself.

I’ll give you my personal example.

I’ve always had an interest in becoming a better ME. I know that my contribution to the world starts with what I’m filling my head and heart with.

If I’m not aiming to improve my own life, how can I ever improve or help someone else? How can I ever teach a lesson, or guide someone through his or her physique transformation, if I’ve never taken the time to grow?

So as you might imagine, I highly value the ability to learn on a daily basis – whether it be through daily reading, listening to podcasts, editing my writing, spending time with mentors, or even meditation (something I’ve been practicing since July 2012).

The other important lesson I’ve learned is to pursue something much greater than myself. And that something is what I’m currently doing with my life – my fitness writing, coaching, training, etc.

For the longest time, I was unfulfilled. I was lean, strong, and worked crappy jobs. I was in and out of college, and felt lost as some might say.

This is when I first learned that being lean, or having an amazing body wasn’t the answer to all my frustrations.

When you’re choosing not to go out for drinks with friends so you can stay in to hit your calorie goals, you’ve got your priorities mixed up.

Because of the importance I placed on my fitness and nutrition, I became disappointed when my efforts didn’t meet my expectations. I could never be happy.

Here’s another example.

Most recently, I was quoted in the November 2012 issue of Men’s Health. Now I have to say I’m extremely pumped because this is a big deal for me, as this is my first appearance in a major fitness publication. See that picture below? That’s MY NAME THERE!!

I remember going into the store and picking up a copy on the shelf. I danced a little bit in the aisle as I read my quote, and saw the training program I designed in Men’s Health of all places!

My mother was ecstatic as I met her for breakfast the next morning.

But guess what? That accomplishment didn’t deliver what I thought it would. It didn’t make me feel any different. It was just something I wanted to achieve, worked for, and it happened. I made the friends, and wrote the content.

All in all, I’m incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to major magazines, but I understand that it’s just a part of what I do now. It doesn’t define me, or make me feel a certain way.

Learning To Manage Your Expectations

This is not easy, but I encourage you to think about this. For if you do, it just may change your perspective on many things in life.

Please understand that fitness is merely a part of your life. You’re going to live a long time (hopefully), and you have so much time to realize your potential.

I’m not saying to be lazy, and I’m surely not suggesting you take any shortcuts.

What I am saying is to understand that for the majority of us who are not professional models, actors, or constantly in the spotlight, there is no real reward for having a super lean or jacked physique.

There is no pressure except the pressure we put on ourselves.

So ask yourself the question, “will attaining this physique-related goal make me happy or give me pleasure or [INSERT WHATEVER HERE]?”

If you answer yes, then I’m happy for you. Congratulations.

But if you’re like the rest of us, and answer no, what else can you place your focus that will bring you more fulfillment, as you crush your fitness goals on the side?

Hit me with your thoughts in the comments.


October 10, 2012
66 Comments.

  • Kim February 09, 2013

    I’ve been reading your fitness writing and while i know it’s primarily directed towards males, everything rings true for women too. I have recently started to get my priority straight because getting to a low body fat percentage and looking a certain way was making me sick ( I was getting cold all the time and very fatigued to the point I couldn’t really function some days). Whenever I finally met a goal, it ouldn’t make me happy, i would just create another one thinking that if I got to the next goal with my physique then i’d be satisfied. I’ve been changing my priorities and while i struggle some days to accept myself, i am much happier because of it.

    • JC Deen February 09, 2013

      thank, Kim. Glad you liked it.

  • Mateus Bernardo November 06, 2012

    Just want to thank you for the great article, and to let you know that you helped me a lot.

    • JC Deen November 07, 2012

      Glad it helped you, Mateus.

  • Michelle November 05, 2012

    Excellent article! I came across this page from Jen Sinkler’s FB page. I am currently trying to get in shape for a figure competition in about a year. I decided on this goal after just being sick and tired of being a trainer and not Looking like a trainer. And also just not happy with how I looked in the mirror. The same physique day in and day out with no major changes unless I was running long distances for months at a time. I’m also really interested in doing a competition just to see how I do! So it’s a goal that’s actually enjoyable to me and one I’m looking forward to…but after just one month, I can already see the signs of “obsession” with this goal. It’s good to take a step back and just train the best I can and not give up my social life entirely for something that may or may not happen. It was very interesting for me to see this article at this time in my life and thank you for writing it and giving me a different perspective. I do have goals outside of fitness but I will admit exercise has been dominating my life lately. I’ll be re-reading this article frequently to keep me in check. :) Thanks again!

    • JC Deen November 06, 2012

      Thanks for commenting, Michelle. Glad you enjoyed this one.

  • Charlie November 01, 2012

    “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

  • Antonio October 30, 2012

    A friend linked me to this post. I was telling him how i lost 124lbs. These last 2 months i broke every major milestone with my weight. My lowest weight in my adult lift, a big sticky point, and i weigh less than what i did when i was 14. (i was 6ft 2in, 275lbs). After these huge accomplishments it’s like “so what?” my goal is to get down to 8%. I just don’t want to be looking in a mirror and achieve everything i wanted with my body and be like “so what?” I already do what you have mentioned, have goals outside my body, i am not emo person. I just conclude success doesn’t necessarily equal happiness.

  • Cody October 28, 2012

    Great article dude!

    I think this issue is also something everyone is going to realize at some point in their fitness “career”. It is at that point that you need to figure out whether it is good to keep up the unhealthy obsession, to drop it, or to figure out that you love it and continue it but in an intelligent manner. Looking at natural pros, you can see this. A love for what they do, but so much less obsessive about little things than say a 16 year old scared to eat a pizza!

    Thankfully for me, I routed and touted around the internet before my first year of training ended and found some great resources (such as this site!).

    Of course I still train, and I love having goals in my training, I love training, but I’m not so obsessive compulsive about eating anymore, and the gym I frequent now is a lot different. Great people, in a garage (yes with bad metal music haha!), and just an awesome community with lots of chalk!

    One thing you touch on in your article I feel is a sense of loneliness weightlifting can bring about. I think this is the biggest reason why crossfit is so successful. It brings together people, and forms a community. No matter what your views on crossfit (I personally do not crossfit), the sense of community it creates is what helps to drive it. Going to the gym can be lonely, and scary if you are not too confident in your abilities (especially at first!), but going to something like crossfit or powerlifting creates a community that is more welcoming.

    Eugh, sorry this is so long, and that I teeter off in the end, but these kinds of topics are so important to people looking into weightlifting!

  • Ronell Smith October 26, 2012

    JC,

    I started reading this earlier in the week, and the first thing out of my mouth was “Whoa… Dayum!” You nailed it, sir.

    I’m certain I’m not alone when I say that you were talking to “me.”

    RS

    • JC Deen October 27, 2012

      Thanks, Ronell.

  • Darren October 25, 2012

    JC,

    Great article. The problem with ‘goals’ in the traditional sense is that they force people to look outside of themselves for satisfaction (external/extrinsic motivators), you accomplish whatever you want to accomplish and suddenly face the question, “Now What?”

    I think you would really enjoy two books (that influenced my coaching immensely…). “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek and “Stillpower” by Garret Kramer, both talking about working from within. Which I think is a lot more complicated than merely ‘personal growth’ or ‘self-betterment’ as those things can all be extrinsically driven…anyways, check them out, thanks for the great work.

    • JC Deen October 26, 2012

      Thanks for the recommendations. I may have to check them out.

  • Timea October 25, 2012

    Great to hear these insights from a guy. Thank for your honesty and openness. I think you made a good point about fulfilment – in my opinion, this could be applied to not only achieving fitness goals but any goals/aspirations in life e.g. getting to a certain level in your career, buying a house, having x number of kids etc. We all seem to have a little “hole” in ourselves that somehow never can be filled (or can it be and maybe we are looking in the wrong places?) because there is always more we could do, and we have a tendency not to pat ourselves on the shoulder for our achievements but move on too quickly, looking for the next challenge or task to take on.

    • JC Deen October 26, 2012

      I think it’s all about finding what makes us happy. For me, it’s things both within fitness (writing, coaching, etc), and wat outside of fitness.

      I’m also careful with how I set my goals, and how much I bite off at a time in terms of my workloads.

  • Valentina October 25, 2012

    Hi JC,

    Thank you for this great article. I’m a college athlete but only became passionate about fitness, lifting, and eating clean post-shoulder surgery in January. I share the sentiment with you about “being the best ME I can be” but your article made me reconsider my purpose. I thought I’d be happy when I reached my initial goals (first pull-up, Squat body weight, etc.) but sure enough, the pride faded and I was left looking for the next goal… hand-stand push-ups, benching my body weight, whatever it might be! When will it be enough? You’re right: Achieving these goals, regardless of its ability to motivate me, is not what will make me happy. Your post reminded me to treasure my health today and just enjoy being under (or over!) that bar, rather than focus on the destination.

    And PS: We, at the very least women who lift, do notice your new bodies- but no promises about falling into your laps! ;)

    • JC Deen October 26, 2012

      Glad it resonated with you.

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