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Dieting to single digit body fat

Dieting to single digit body fat

So you want to diet to single digit body fat percentage?

It’s likely the most common goal any young guy in the gym has. The typical phrase I have heard many times in my career to date is “I want to get my body fat down and gain muscle!” Stick with me through this introduction.

You can gain muscle and lose fat. It is more common if new to training. A solid resistance training program and a calorie deficit will achieve that. I was going to post some research studies showing muscle gain whilst losing body fat in a caloric deficit. But you probably don’t want to read through research so I will skip that side and write this with you in mind!

But what if you are already trained?

Yes you can still build muscle and lose fat. It’s not likely you are going to gain any noticeable muscle mass whilst you are losing body fat though if you have some experience. And when you get into the really low body fat levels you really are just looking to reduce your losses from this area. So it kind of depends on a few factors.

If you have a bit of muscle on your frame you will look noticeably bigger in certain situations as your lose fat. There are things that can be done to present you at your best. You will be pleased with the results, but it comes at a cost which I will come on to.

Here is a picture of me. Taken in Mauritus in 2008 when I got married. I weighed 84kg. Come back to this picture when you get to the bottom of this blog where you will see a picture of me at 67.5kg, and note how much “bigger” I look.

gained weight

If you are genuinely keen to get to single digit body fat levels the advice in here may help. Its a blend of science and my own experiences and should be read with that in mind.

I have recently dieted down to 5.8% body fat (according to an Inbody scan), with a starting weight of 77kg ending at 67.5kg. (Do the maths if you like, I didn’t have much fat left on me.) Even though my brain did not quite register the extent of the loss until the day of my shoot when judging by peoples comments they noticed something I had not yet seen.

My starting point in January at 77kg

January 2016 body fat

77kg January 2016

My aim when I set out was to experience the discomfort and hunger of getting my body fat as low as possible, I wanted some empathy towards clients. I also wanted to show I can also practice what I preach, and that I am not prepared to do anything I wouldn’t have a client do. (I draw the line at running a marathon though!) I also wanted to do it in a way that supports the available evidence on the subject – so I didn’t do “bro” splits, no “chest Mondays”, I didn’t take a post workout protein shake, I didn’t take a pre-workout supplement, I didn’t eat 8 times per day. I just focused on what was necessary and hired a team who are free from any rubbish. I did as my coaches had asked me to do and reported my progress to them every few weeks.

I started in June with James and Juliana from #TeamJCM having got to 74kg and hitting a point where I needed to be accountable to someone else.

This was June 2016 at 74kg

June 2016 starting body

So hopefully what I write helps one or two. Hopefully it will save you over complicating what is a simple process. Note I said simple process…not application, that bits down to you!

Before I go any further I want to add that the methods I explain here may not suit you….that’s where a coach comes in. They work with you to get a method that fits you and your circumstances, and they coach a method that fits the principles (that’s the reason why you lose weight). So lets get stuck in shall we.

So here is what I will discuss:

  • Your reason why - are you prepared for when you get there?
  • Supplements – this is the least important
  • Protein intake – helpful for a number of reasons
  • Fat and carbohydrate intake – where knowing your preference aids adherence (but not too low of either!)
  • Meal or macronutrient timing – of mixed relevance to your success
  • Calorie intake – this is the most important
  • Training – obviously, it helps, but let’s not all be sheep!
  • Fasted cardio - as relevant as which urinal to use.
  • Hormones - we have them, not much to say here!
  • How many calories to eat - one method to work it out without too much science.
  • Importance of a coach - a big thumbs up for #TeamJCM!

So why do you want to get to single digit body fat percentage?

Why? What is the point? How will you benefit? Yep they are the questions everyone likes to avoid. If I ask someone and they reply “because I just want to look good”….it’s pretty rare that they will get there. Looking good is too subjective, the image of what looking good is can change as much as the weather. It can be based on what’s deemed popular, trendy or otherwise. It’s also influenced by what people see in their media.

And I can tell you for a fact those people you see in magazines that look huge? They are not that big. Not the natural ones anyway. Look at a line up on a natural bodybuilding show….they look huge. Stand next to them and you realise they are not. Put them next to a bodybuilder from an untested federation and you will clearly see what I mean!

There is always a reason behind the why. Until you can be honest and say what that is, your desire behind looking like someone else is just that….a desire. Remember there are things about appearance that you cannot change….one of which is your genetics. So quit the comparisons to other people, put yourself in the picture for a change. What do you want?

So do you really want to get your body fat percentage down? Is your motivation to do this stronger than your motivation to drink copious amounts of alcohol and all the biscuits?

Also what is the fascination with being a certain percentage?

Why does that have to be a defining factor in why you train or reduce body fat? Personally I don’t care what percentage a client gets to, I never measure it. I don’t need to. They don’t need to. There are other ways to measure progress – weight (although it can fluctuate), tape measure, clothing and photos.

“But Steve, you measured yours” I hear you say. Yes I did and It means nothing. It just represents a data point that I can compare to if I do it again. That’s all. I like data. I dont freak out if it changes. I can control my reactions to data. I understand what influences data.

Case in point....look at these weight fluctuations whilst I was dieting. Normal! Differences in hydration, food volume, bowel movements, activity levels, food intake etc etc. Normal!

weight data

When you get there….what then?

How do you think it will make you feel? Have you prepared for the anti-climax of getting there and then having to say “now what?” No? Not thought of that? Maybe you should.

When you are cold, tired and hungry do you still want to get even leaner?

When you realise you are getting grumpy, and your patience is thinning do you still want to push further?

When you realise that nothing in your life changes when you hit that point do you still want to get there?

When you have to sack off some of your training sessions part way through because you just have no drive or energy do you still want to lose even more fat?

So if you still want to carry on read on. If not take a read anyway and maybe you can apply some of this to your own less extreme circumstances.

Supplements – the least important

I am putting this here right at the top. Not because it’s the most important, because it’s the least important for dieting to lower body fat levels. Yet I feel it’s most important to get that message out there! Shocked? Don’t be. I’m trying to save you money, I have nothing to gain by telling you otherwise.

I’ve been there. Convinced by the seductive sales pitch, the photos of someone looking ripped holding a supplement, the thought that this was finally it……the road to rippedville had arrived. And then you come crashing down to earth and realise you’ve been duped yet again. You fail to acknowledge this as you parted with your hard-earned cash, and had to go without buying Mafia 3 because you wasted it on pre-workout…. again!

But hey…what do I know?!

I find it incredibly frustrating when otherwise intelligent people are duped by the supplement claims of enhanced fat loss and bigger biceps!

A simple no nonsense cost effective supplement would be Creatine. Creatine may indirectly aid with the maintenance/building of muscle mass, via providing the fuel for the energy pathway used when strength training. It is not a fat loss supplement; it is more strength/muscle gain. You can see what I wrote about creatine supplementation here.

So no pre workout supplements? No. Why? Pointless. They appeal to a certain audience who believe all the macho hype on the tubs. Show me the human evidence for exactly what benefits you get. I will wait….

Still waiting…

Bored now…

Call it my bias or whatever but a dose of “just get on with it and put the work in” is what’s needed. I’m not knocking those that think or feel a benefit from them, but I will tell you for a fact – they are doing nothing for your fat loss. The caffeine dose is often too low, besides it doesn’t mean you can have those extra cookies because you double dosed your pre workout and think it means double fat burning…it doesn’t.

No post workout protein? No. Its more a case by case basis. Remember the goal – getting to single digit body fat percent. Post workout protein is an option if it aids adherence to a caloric deficit.



Here is what adherence looks like in August 2016

body fat going down

The simple calorie reduction is the most important thing for dieting down. I think I have typed that a lot now!

That’s not to say a protein supplement isn’t useful, it’s just not essential. Why? There are other foods that contain protein. This is where we get into realms of adapting methodology to suit the individual, whilst adhering to the fundamental principles that govern weight loss.

Personally I added a protein shake to my ready brek in the morning. Why? It bumps protein intake up in this meal, aids with keeping hunger at bay a little longer and sees me through to lunch. It also makes ready brek taste awesome! It also ensures I hit my protein goals for the day. Its quick and its convenient.

Try a simple chocolate whey protein from myprotein. 30g scoop added to your ready brek, milk , berries, zero calorie chocolate sauce and it’s a breakfast you look forward to!

If you dont like eating breakfast - dont. There is a simple calorie saving right there! There is nothing magical about it.

Protein intake – helpful for a number of reasons

This is not the most important priority for weight loss. Yes I appreciate that sentence is like swearing in some circles, but hear me out. Protein is the one thing that everyone wants to know about, after supplements. If I am planning macro’s (that’s the split of protein, carbs and fat in one’s diet) this is the one I set first once we know what calorie intake we are working to.


It is a well established fact that bumping protein intake up aids with maintenance of muscle whilst dieting. Now an important fact here…..muscle loss is likely more of an issue when you are getting to single digit body fat. So if you are reading this and your priority is losing weight to improve your health and you are a long way from very low body fat levels you don’t need to worry about muscle loss…particularly if you are resistance training. Also you are probably not going to lose every bit of muscle you have, that’s every guys fear.

Here's a snap shot from my measurements....hardly what you would call muscle wasting.


That reminds me…someone recently said “I started dieting and lost too much muscle, so I stopped, I didn’t like it.” No you lost body fat, its also contained within your muscle….you maybe had less muscle than you thought as it was covered in a little fat.

So to summarise how does protein help?

  • It aids satiety. You feel fuller for longer. This helps with that all important caloric deficit.
  • Increased energy expenditure due to the energy cost of digesting protein.
  • Higher protein diets have been shown to cause more weight loss from fat, less from muscle when compared to calorie matched lower protein diets.

If you want to keep it simple and really are ready for the next level in bodyfat you won’t go wrong setting your protein intake at 2g/kg body weight. Depending on progress and how low your body fat gets this could increase from there. (Do not exceed your calorie intake though!)

In fact you could probably have a little lower than this amount and you would still be doing ok. But as you continue your dieting down, and body fat is dropping you may need to take this up a little. Why? You might have to reduce calories elsewhere to create more of a deficit…. anything that helps with hunger will be most welcome!

Important point about coaching - Take someone eating roughly 50g protein per day, and the rest of the diet being extremely poor quality and very high calorie relative to their needs. For this person eating 2g/kg body-weight per day is going to be an extreme lifestyle shift….far better to meet their needs closer to where they are and then build up from there. This is where having a coach can simplify things for you! That’s why people employ me, and I am good at what I do. Its also why people employ #TeamJCM. They are awesome at what they do.

Fat and Carbohydrate intake

I can summarise this for you. You will need to go lower in either of these, but you won’t need to eliminate any of them. And you shouldn’t!

Dietary fat is essential! Fact. Undisputed. You can’t live without dietary fat.

Carbohydrates will allow you to maintain a degree of training intensity. They are not the devil. They will not cause weight gain…unless you eat a calorie surpus.

So how on earth do you know how much to have of each?

Do you prefer a higher fat diet? Does it make you more satiated? Enjoy eating this way?

Do you prefer more carbs? Is it more enjoyable for you to eat more carbs?

So personal preference can help! Adherence is key. Eating in a calorie controlled way, in an enjoyable way that fits your lifestyle means you are more likely to adhere to the calorie deficit.

I guess you want a simple figure to go on - So a simple starting point for fat intake is 1g/kg bodyweight.

Having set protein intake and fat intake what are you left with? Carbohydrate intake.

That fills in the remainder. Carbs will give you the energy you need to fuel your resistance training sessions. That’s important to ensure you get the stimulus required for your muscle to stay there.

Meal or macro-nutrient timing

This is far less important than total calorie intake when dieting to single digit body fat.

Where it can help is in how you manage hunger and adherence. It also aids training intensity.

You could consider having most of your carbohydrate intake occurring around training to fuel the sessions. Remember you will be in a deficit so may not be optimally fuelled. This can help power you through tougher sessions.

My own experiences show that I can cope with more strength based training having gone several hours without food. Yet give me something with a higher rep range for multiple sets and I feel pretty pants training without much energy. I find myself forever having to chat to myself – my usual line is “get on with it, its not a permanent discomfort”.

So I train better doing a greater volume of work towards the end of the day with a little snack before hand or a meal around a couple of hours before.

I also like to eat in the evenings, right up until bed time! Lets end that myth there – the time you eat does not influence fat gain, calories do! So I would aim to save around 1000 calories out of my quota to eat in the evening.

I can cope with hunger when busy with clients, it’s amazing what just a simple apple can do. A little toast. Some Skyr yogurt. A little protein bar. A huge veg filled lunch. It all helps. But evenings I just like to eat and enjoy eating.

I always eat after training too. It may be a couple of hours, but food still gets ate. Downing a protein shake within 0.2 seconds of finishing your last rep does nothing for fat loss. But what about recovery? Like I said my meal after training will get ate, all the food I save for the evening, my breakfast the next day…..that’s my recovery food if you call it that.

Remember this is about priorities for fat loss, this differs a little from priorities for weight gain! You are allowed to eat a meal afterwards! Personally, that’s my preference, and it increases my adherence…. if a protein shake increases your adherence, go for it!

Calorie Intake and that all important calorie deficit

Adherence to your calorie deficit is the most important thing. Way above anything else. If you eat less calories than you expend you will lose weight. Getting even lower body fat is just a case of extending this phase of the diet.

You may need to bring calories down.

You may need to increase training sessions.

October 2016 - the calorie deficit is still working

body fat october 2016

You may need to walk more; your body will start to reduce your activity from non-exercise activity so walking is a way of fighting back.

I noticed this particularly on a walk up the Malvern’s. After 10 minutes, I said to my wife “right I think I’m done, let’s go for lunch”. The realisation set in that my brain was trying to talk me out of the activity and make me do less.

For those that are thinking – “But what about eating more to speed up the metabolism?” Try it. You will gain weight, weight gain speeds up your metabolism. But then you won’t get that single digit body fat. You won’t get any body fat loss.

Taking a break can be useful though. When I went on holiday I was more active walking/running and I just ate without tracking a thing. I gained weight, felt better for the break then carried on with my goal.


I’m not going to write a training program here. This is getting pretty long as it is. What I will say is this…. don’t be a sheep. Sheep follow the rest of their flock. When they are confronted with something that challenges them (sometimes me mountain biking down Bredon Hill) they run away.

That’s what a lot of people do in the gym. They all copy each other doing chest on Monday, Back and biceps on Tuesday, Shoulders on Thursday, Legs on Friday, weekend off.

The moment they ask “how can I get more gains, I feel like I have plateaued” and it is suggested – "train your muscles more frequently" they act like sheep. They shy away from it. Scared to break free.

Of course, if I was built like Arnie and said that people would all be doing it – people can be pretty shallow and fickle at times. They judge on appearance. Still...

It’s no surprise there has been an increase in people asking what I do for abs since I posted my pics online. Ab training will not reduce abdominal fat….lets end that myth there.

Why not give yourself more exposure to resistance per body part, by spreading the work out.

Do you have 4 days to train? Try this:

Push strength based session Monday (includes quads/chest/shoulders – any pushing muscles). Pull strength based session on Tuesday (includes back, and glutes/hamstrings, shoulder also involved). Push volume based session on Thurs (chest and quads again? Yes!). Pull volume based session on Fri.

Your muscles get trained multiple times per week. Got an extra day? Stick an area you want some more emphasis on that day. It’s probably more biceps guys! Go for it. If you want the basic low down on the science its this - more frequent training exposure may attenuate the protein synthesis response from training. In English - more gains!

What about fasted cardio to burn more body fat?

For those that don’t know – this is doing cardiovascular exercise before you eat. Usually first thing in the morning, and you have to post a selfie on Instagram with the text “beast mode activated, fasted cardio at 5am with no breakfast”. Its bollocks.

There is no evidence to show it is any better than training after breakfast, given the same energy intake over the day.

Fat loss is not a per meal or per training session endeavour. It is the net sum effect of your whole week energy intake and expenditure. It’s just a simple caloric deficit. That’s it.

Fasted cardio is like choosing which urinal to piss in. You might have a different view on each one, but it doesn’t change the net effect.

fasted cardio

Of course, you can do any cardiovascular training you like.

Personally, I went for a few runs and mountain bike rides, not every week and not with an aim to reduce body fat further. My progress was as anticipated. I did it because I enjoy it and find it recharging at times to just go out by myself and do what I call “mindless” training. Just moving for the sake of moving with an elevated heart rate.

Remember my goal was to increase hunger and feel that….I didn’t want to train so I could eat more, even though sometimes I did eat more. Yes, I am odd at times but I can be extremely driven and stubborn.

You can obviously choose to add this is in to your training as a way to increase energy expenditure. That’s up to you. It might mean you don’t have to reduce your energy intake, if that is important to you. If that aids adherence it could be a good thing for you. That key phrase again!

What about hormones?

What about them? They adjust. They do different things and send different signals around your body. Just don’t eliminate all your fat and all your protein or anything odd like that and you will be OK. That’s all I have to say on hormones. Several years ago I would have come out with all sorts of useless info about them and once spent a whole day writing about insulin. Fortunately, I have forgotten most of what I used to speak about, much if it way beyond my scope of practice. I am not an endocrinologist.

Before someone says or thinks - “But some jacked dude on the internet said you need to eat in such a way that clears cortisol and manages insulin spikes and blah blah blah.” They are wrong.

You need to eat in such a way that allows you to adhere to a calorie deficit, hit your protein goals, not eliminate all fat, and eat carbs to fit whatever calories you have left.

If you are not losing body fat, you are not in a caloric deficit. That’s it. I'm right. And I will gladly be wrong when presented with evidence to suggest otherwise!

So how many calories should I eat?

There are various calculators that can give you this figure…. but here is a way without estimating.

Record your whole food intake for a week using something like MyFitnessPal. Even drinks. Even that half piece of toast you stole from your kid’s plate. Track it all. Don’t track lettuce. Its something like 4 calories for 80g of it. That’s overly neurotic.

If that is your maintenance calories, knock 10% off to start. So, if you were maintaining at 2000 calories you will diet on 1800. Or whatever the hell you like day to day just keep to 12600 for the week. (7 x 1800).

Set your protein at 2g/kg body weight. So, using 70kg as example that’s 140g protein. Or 560 calories.

Set your fat intake at 1g/kg. So 70g fat. That’s 630 calories.

That leaves us with 610 calories for carbs. That’s 152g worth.

If you need more carbs go for it, and reduce fat to compensate. So if you have 20g less fat (180 calories) that gives you 45g more carbs.

Of course if you want to lose weigh quicker, then cut a few more calories out!

Finally get yourself a coach

Someone impartial who will be honest with you. Someone who will work with you to find a strategy that suits your lifestyle. (Some lifestyles won’t be suitable to getting really low body fat – yes I’m speaking to you if you like to go out and get wasted followed by the largest dominoes pizza you can buy 3 times per week).

Personally I use

Like myself I class these as evidence based coaches with the experience to back up their decisions. And James is a pretty good photographer too!

Here are the results of the process...

October 67.5kg

TeamJCM shoot

Credit to James Conci-Mitchell

TeamJCM shoot

Credit to James Conci-Mitchell

TeamJCM shoot

Credit to James Conci-Mitchell

  1. Good read, lots of useful info.
    Fair play to the commitment to get those results!

  2. Impressive results. Thank you for the article. It is difficult to find honest free advice online like yours.

  3. great result and inspiring!

    i am 171 cm with weight 63 kg, i need to be somewhere 57 kg to get 7 % body fat

    by seeing your picture, i need to lose weight, you lean down from 77 kg to 67 kg (cutting 10 kg)

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