Why Your Body Fat Isn’t Preventing You from Looking Cut

Last week I was training next to a woman for awhile and watching her out of the corner of my eye. I do this out of habit, probably my professional side waiting to be impressed by her knowledge or form. And I was impressed – she pushed 45-50 pounds overhead with relative ease and you just don’t see that very often. I was amazed that she followed this immediately by doing pushups.

I, on the other hand, was wicked tired already and barely able to eek out my eight reps of 50-pound overhead presses.

Then this woman asked me how I had built my arms and shoulders. She said she had trouble gaining any muscle definition, even though her body fat was on the lower side and she trained super hard. This conversation made me realize there’s a major disconnect among women about how to train for sculpted delts, arms, calves, and butt that shout “Damn, girl!

How can you get muscle definition without a ridiculously low body fat?Body Fat Is Important

Just to be clear, you do need a “lower” body fat in order to see your delts and biceps pop, quadriceps flex, and abs ripple. But maybe not as low as you think, plus there are other important variables involved. As I mentioned on Facebook yesterday, I have some muscle definition when I’m at a higher body fat (24% is my highest since I started tracking).

Unless you want washboard abs, many women do not have to be below 20-23% body fat, IF they also build enough muscle mass – which means training smart.

Training Muscle Away

So back to our woman in the gym who has a reasonable body fat percentage, lifts heavy, and trains hard but has little muscle definition. She’s clearly strong and fit – why doesn’t she have cap shoulders and bulging biceps/triceps she wants?

Genetics and body type play a role, but let’s take these out of the equation for now and talk about the way she was training.

Her heavy presses were followed by pushups, after which she disappeared and did something else. She was strong and had great endurance, but she was not optimizing her workouts for muscle building.

At the risk of sound obvious, you need to need above-average amounts of muscle mass to see muscle definition. Especially if you do not have a body fat percent in the teens (although even this does not guarantee that sculpted look).

However, I truly don’t think this is as obvious as it may seem. We’re so obsessed with fat loss and washboard abs it’s as if we’re programmed with the message, GET THAT FAT OFF! Keep the intensity high and don’t slack off – work hard. 

This is without a doubt one of the biggest mistakes I see women make, both when I meet new clients and from what I see in my gym.

Why body fat isn't the always the most important variable in getting cutChanging Your Mindset

In addition to our obsession with being skinny enough to see our abs, some women are cardio addicts. Let’s just get it out in the open – busting out HIIT can be an adrenaline rush… a runner’s high, if you will.

I’m kind of awed by chicks who are addicted to cardio because they really are training hard and they’re going after the body they want.

Unfortunately, they’re going about it the wrong way.

I understand the fire in your belly, so to speak, to lose fat. I’ve been there… it can be a singular focus that drives your workouts. Many of us want “flat abs,” but this just isn’t going to be a reality for most women.

Our different ways of storing fat, especially as we get older and after pregnancy and C-sections, make having flat abs really, really difficult for some women. Water retention and a muffin top are pretty common too.

Yet you can still look smokin’ hot even if you don’t have a six pack. It’s a mentality we need to break through.

This isn’t to make you to give up hope on having washboard abs but to help you prioritize your muscle building and train more effectively.

Optimizing Your Training for Muscle Growth

When you’re too focused on attaining perfect abs, chances are you’re doing too much intense, cardio-type training to build the muscle you need for standout definition.

I’ve had hardworking, strong clients with very low body fat who had a hard time attaining muscle definition because they couldn’t stop doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or metabolic resistance training.

High-intensity strength training thwarts muscle growth by using up energy needed for muscle building. Put another way, what you’re eating fuels these high-intensity workouts and doesn’t leave enough calories – energy – left to build muscle.

And to top it off, many women who do a lot of intense, cardio-style workouts also eat sparsely to avoid gaining weight.

The strong woman in the gym doing presses and pushups together needs to slow down, rest between sets, and work in different rep ranges to build muscle. There may to be other changes needed too.

If you already have a body fat you’re happy with, then your next task is to learn how to push hard safely and train for the fastest muscle growth. And if you have a low body fat but are addicted to cardio, you have some mindset work ahead.

So while body fat IS important for muscle definition, it’s not always the only reason you’re not seeing it.

What does smart, muscle-building training look like? Stay tuned – I’ll address this in upcoming posts.

This article originally appeared on workoutnirvana.com.

28 thoughts on “Why Your Body Fat Isn’t Preventing You from Looking Cut

  1. I seem to have the opposite problem. I see people who aren’t focused on “getting cut” doing body builder style workouts. It’s all about finding the right program for your goals. This sounds like a great one!


  2. Great insight! Washboard abs are never going to be in my future, but I want to look and feel my best and strength training is such a key part of that equation. Appreciate the insight on low body fat/what impact it really has – thanks!


  3. I love this! So much great information here. But above all I appreciate the supportive tone and the realistic reframing of expectations, all of which is directed towards making a woman love her own body and her own strength potential, not shoot for some nebulous and possibly unhealthy “thin” weight or starving herself. I absolutely cannot wait to be part of the motivated group of women lifters in the Fierce Def training group! My body fat is definitely not in the teens (it was when I was at peak form!) but I feel like with Suzanne’s expert guidance I can get the right balance for me and my strength goals. (I am one of those C-section women. 🙂 Three beautiful kids, two of them twins!)


    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments Shelley. We’re going to rock FierceDef – I couldn’t be more happy you found me! (And I’ve got a beautiful C-section kid too :))


  4. As someone who trains for endurance this is so interesting. Last time I was professionally weighed in I was at 20% BF, but I don’t have the muscle definition you do! I think my high/long cardio causes muscle loss. Maybe once Ironman training is over I will have to start doing more weights!!


  5. I think you kind of hit on the problem: these women eat for fat burning (eating at or below their TDEE), when to build muscle you have to eat at a surplus. (TDEE and above). And get enough protein and fat.

    I’ve never been below 25% BF, but I had arms that everyone wanted. Enough protein and calories, the correct weight/rep range… and it will come.


  6. As you know, I am always the exception to the rule. 😉 I do quite a bit of cardio – not addicted though & don’t like it but do it cause my body requires it to look the way I want to – but I also eat for it all. I was like this both young & now in the hormone crap so it was not just the hormones for me… BUT you are right on about what you write. YES, body type does come into in some sense – like for me who is an easier gainer & can do my workouts & still have the muscle.. but most are not like me. THAT IS WHY WHAT YOU DO IS IMPORTANT! YOU CAN ACCESS THE PERSON & PROVIDE THE RIGHT WORKOUT! 🙂


    • I love how you are so open-minded Jody, pointing out that you’re probably the exception and trained as a bodybuilder back in the day so got that going for you. You also work your ARSE off and know how to eat or you would not have that muscle. Keep sharing your methods though, because I’m sure they help many women!


  7. It’s like you are reading my mind. I am or have been a total cardio addict, but as I trained for my marathon I saw my body fat increase, my muscle mass decrease, and the numbers on the scale have not changed. I have figured out that I want to get the muscle definition, I know that my body will feel and look better that way. What an exciting opportunity and I can’t wait to follow your posts about this. 🙂


  8. Interesting article Suzanne! Absolutely agree about the 6 pack, everyone seems to be focusing on this 🙂 Also, having too much definition, and a very low body fat, is not necessarily very healthy or even good looking.


    • Bravo for being the voice of sanity! I just checked my body fat on a reputable website — both now and when I was 18. At 18 I was very skinny and healthy (playing tennis) and yet my body fat was like 22%. For a 5’7″ woman weighing 115 lbs then it seems I would have had to weigh like 95 lbs to fall below 20% body fat. I would have looked like a skeleton. People need to stop obsessing over body fat.


      • Totally co-sign to that, Barbara! Trying to hit a specific number isn’t always the answer. The older you get, the higher the reading will be with the same measurements. It’s nuts!


  9. This is just plain halfway wrong. A spectacular lean look just requires both – building muscle with workouts and dieting for optimal fatloss (while preserving muscle, counting calories and keeping protein intake high). Nothing new? Then why is it so rare? … needs dedication, theres no free meal and no excuses to get sloppy on diet. You can have both.


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