If it’s a flat belly, a better all-around diet, and a stronger heart you’re after this year, we’ve got you covered. But if you’ve got an even bigger goal in mind—like, say, a truly diced midsection (we’re talking Brad Pitt in Fight Club, or our current cover guy, Matt “Magic Mike” Bomer, in basically everything he does), you need a slightly more—OK, much more—stringent approach.
“Seven percent is as lean as you’d ever want to be,” says John Alvino, a nutrition coach in Morristown, New Jersey, who works with bodybuilders.
So, if you want to get cover-model-worthy abs, you’ll have to be willing to think about food purely as fuel and regulate it with precision. Follow these four steps.
1. Determine your macros
Nobody gets a 7% body by accident, unless he’s a genetic wunderkind or an athlete. To do it, you’ll need to track the foods you eat closely and make sure you’re getting the right amounts of each macronutrient (proteins, carbs, and fats).
To start, multiply your current body weight by 12 to determine the number of calories you should eat. So, if you’re 180 pounds, start eating 2,160 calories daily. If, however, you’re very overweight—as in, your belly hangs over your waistband—calculate your calories with the body weight you’d like to be. So, if you’re 220 pounds but want to weigh 180, you’d consume 2,160 calories (not 2,640).
Begin consuming one gram of protein per pound of your body weight every day. So a 180-pounder would eat 180 grams (and a 220-pounder who wants to be 180, likewise). Get 30% of your calories from fat—meaning, Mr. 180 would then eat 648 calories. To make these easier to count, convert them to grams. Since a gram of fat contains nine calories, divide 648 by nine to get 72 grams of fat.
The rest of your calories come from carbohydrates. To calculate these, subtract your fat calories and then your protein calories from the total. Protein and carbohydrates both contain four calories per gram. So, in the case of the 180 guy, that’s 720 protein calories (180 x 4 = 720). His equation to find his carb allowance would then look like this: 2,160 calories – 648 calories from fat – 720 calories from protein = 792 calories, or 198 grams of carbs.
2. Eat the healthiest foods
Your protein should come mainly from animals and must be extra lean. Skinless chicken breast, fish, and lean cuts of beef should be your go-tos. Your carbs should be mostly starches, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and rice. You can also eat whole fruits, but only one to two pieces a day. It’s not that fruit isn’t healthy, but, as Alvino says, “in order to get down to single-digit body fat, you want only enough fruit to fill your liver with glycogen. Any extra fructose can slow fat burning or encourage fat storage.”
Nonstarchy vegetables (mainly greens) don’t need to be counted as carbs.
Lastly, your fat intake will come mainly as a by-product of the protein-containing foods you eat, but if you find you still have room for more before your macros are satisfied, avocados and oils such as coconut may be consumed.
3. Live like your abs depend on it
Apart from having good genetics, athletes are often so ripped because they build their lifestyles around training and nutrition to optimize their performance. To get to 7% body fat, you must prepare to do the same. Sleep at least seven hours a night and drink water all day long—a gallon a day should be the minimum. A study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that drinking only about 30 ounces of water increased energy expenditure by 24% during the hour afterward.
Try to keep stress to a minimum by making time to relax. Meditate or practice yoga. Of course, lifting weights is a must as well. There are many workout splits and methods you can follow, but three days of full-body training per week will get the job done. Focus on compound exercises that work multiple muscles at once, such as presses, squats, deadlifts, rows, and chinups. For some expert help, you can find plenty of fat-loss-oriented workouts at the Men’s Fitness weight-loss hub.
4. Cycle your carbs
When you begin to see definition in your midsection but your progress slows, your metabolism needs an extra kick for continued fat loss. Alvino recommends shaking up your macros with a cycle of lower- and higher-carb days.
For three days straight, eat 10 calories per pound of your body weight. Let those calories come from one gram of protein per pound, 0.5 gram of carbs per pound, and the rest from fat. On the fourth day, bump the calories up to 15 per pound and the carbs up to two grams per pound. (Let the rest of the calories come from fat.)
“This causes an increase in metabolic rate because of the work the digestive system has to do,” says Alvino. And the boost in carbs helps fill out the muscles, so you appear bigger and leaner. Repeat the cycle until you arrive at your goal—or break down and dive into a pizza.