I sometimes get asked how it “feels to be lean” or hear remarks like “it must be awesome to be lean all the time“.

I reply that I feel great and that being lean feels great. But that’s not the whole truth.

People with a remote interest in fitness and health usually aspire to get lean and maintain that condition. They may also assume that reaching a satisfactory or awe-inspiring condition will elevate their lives to a new level. Much like people assume that winning the lottery will make their lives indefinitely better in just about every aspect.

In striving towards this goal, some people have an ideal body weight in mind. Others may have a mental image of their physique or an arbitrary body fat percentage in mind. Goals may vary a lot but expectations do not. Once the goal is reached, everything will be great.

I was only slightly different than the Average Joe in this regard. The difference being that I had been fairly lean for a good while. Most people would probably settle for that perfectly respectable condition. So while I didn’t expect my life to improve much once I reached my ultimate goal, the goal was more like an itch that needed to be scratched until it went away. And once the itch was gone, I think I expected that it would elevate me to new heights in some vague undefined ways.

I reached my goal a few days before Christmas 2007. It was a great anticlimax.

The anticlimax

I was content and proud of myself for the fact that I finally conquered the goal I’ve had for several years. That I had reached a condition that I would be perfectly content to maintain rather than to seek constant improvement.

Martin Berkhan's Abs
I decided this was good enough.

But the experience was disappointing in many ways. Is this it? It left me with a sense of a void inside myself. After all, I had invested a fair amount of energy in this over the years. Mental energy first and foremost. Having had to master thoughts of doubt (Am I really losing body fat? Should I be cutting calories further?). Spending time thinking about how to tackle social events without affecting progress negatively. At times having to exert restraint when cravings came.

In the final weeks maintaining the diet was not an issue. Intermittent fasting made it a breeze relatively speaking. But I was still plagued with doubt and worried whether I would reach my goal before Christmas. I was adamant in reaching my goal before Christmas, since I wanted to switch to maintenance before the ensuing food fest on Christmas Eve. Trust me, ending a diet on a holiday such as Christmas is a bad idea.

The secret benefit of being lean

It wasn’t until after a few weeks that it dawned upon me what the real benefit of being lean is. That is, lean enough for you to be completely content and happy about your physical condition.

Are you ready? Because I’m about to reveal to you something that is rarely talked about. Something few people might not understand before they’ve been through the same experience.

The secret benefit of being lean is that it’s an immense time saver.

Be honest with yourself: if you’re on a diet, you spend a fair amount of time thinking about it. Being perfectly content saves up an astounding amount of mental energy. Gone are the worries, doubts and obsessions about diet, weight and all other issues pertaining to reaching your goal. The itch is gone. No need to scratch it anymore.

But that void needs to be filled with something. You will suddenly rediscover new interests and hobbies – I did. Don’t fill the void with more training*. Fill it with reading, family, friends or whatever you like. Learn to be content once your ultimate goal is reached. Set new goals**, but learn to accept slower, gradual progress.

* Guys have a tendency to fill the void with more training in order to pack on more muscle once they consider themselves done dieting. If they’re not dieting, they’re training themselves into the ground. Yes, I used to be that guy a long time ago.

** I set a few new goals related to relative strength. Progress in relative strength is in my opinion the best measure of lean muscle gain while maintaining low body fat.

What’s the lesson here?

After my experience, I tend to view fitness related goals as means to self-improvement, not happiness. Setting goals and conquering them leads to a sense of achievement and it teaches you things about yourself. If your “itch” is to achieve and maintain an extraordinary physique, getting there will make you a better person. But not for the reasons you might initially think. If the goal is of particular importance to you, as it was for me, it frees up an immense amount of time once the goal is reached – time that can be spent on improving yourself in other areas of life.

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