Body-for-Life Reality Check

I love BFL. I think it’s the best plan out there to get people started with truly healthy nutrition and fitness, but I don’t think it is without flaws. It is still much better and healthier than any of the diet-only weight loss approaches out there, but the one-plan-fits-all philosophy is not going to work for everyone.

For example, men seem to make much more dramatic BFL transformations in 12 weeks than women, generally speaking, because they have biology going for them. They can drop fat with much less cardio while eating much more food because their bodies produce muscle-building testosterone that boosts their lean body mass gains which in turn accelerates their metabolisms, burning more fat even when they are sitting on their asses playing Madden on the Playstation 2 or watching a game with their male buddies. Men are genetically-coded to build muscle and be lean.

Women, on the other hand, have to fight tooth and nail for every bit of muscle gain and fat loss because dang it, we were built to have babies, and we need sufficient body fat to do that–preferably 9 months worth just in case every grocery store in the country shuts down, and we are stuck in a famine right after coming up preggo.

So, after 12 weeks on haphazard BFL, men who have 25 lbs to lose tend to look very fit, quite lean, attractively thin-skinned and suddenly have muscles popping out everywhere even when facing the camera straight on.

Women trying to lose the same amount of weight (25 lbs) who have been nearly perfectly on plan for their entire 12 weeks look smaller and less fluffy, but most aren’t going to have muscles popping out ANYWHERE unless they flex very hard, twist their bodies slightly to make our legs look longer and leaner, and suck in their tummies until some semblance of abs show up. What muscles they have are blurred and softened by the squishy layer of fat that in all likelihood still pads their skin.

This so sucks.

The incredible 12 week transformations (from the earlier years–recent winners were not quite as impressive, IMHO) in the BFL book and site are the exception from what I have seen of before/after pictures of REAL people, not the norm. I’m not saying that some wonderful changes can’t/won’t occur, because they WILL, but for the majority of us genetically average mortals out here, it will take more than one challenge to achieve the extremely lean and chiseled physiques that the champions have just following the basic BFL program.

If you are aiming for a sleek and fit 18-23% body fat in one challenge and you have 10-30 lbs to lose, I think it’s totally attainable. If you are shooting for 12% body fat and the ripped abs and arms of a fitness model and aren’t already close to 20% body fat at the start…be prepared to go beyond the basic BFL program if you want to get there in just one or two challenges. The same applies if you have more than 30 lbs to go. I’ve listened to interviews at and read through the tweaks section, and it seems that most of the champs modified their programs with extra cardio if they had a lot of fat to lose, or different weight training routines and less cardio if they were already lean and trying to gain mass. Many had coaches or personal trainers as well.

This is just my opinion, of course, but I’ve seen photos of women on their 3rd or 4th challenges who of course look a lot slimmer than they did at the start of their BFL journey, but certainly aren’t anywhere near champion level despite plugging away at BFL for a year or more on their own. They eat relatively clean, they do their BFL workouts exactly as written in the book, and they still only look fit but not phenomenal. I know that a combination of factors can affect results including:

  • sloppy diet
  • health issues
  • poor portion control
  • weak workout intensity
  • age
  • uncontrolled free days
  • genetic predisposition
  • complacent, “good enough” attitude

But as for women starting off with only around 10-25 lbs or less to lose–why DON’T they look like a champion after a full year on the program? Assuming a woman drops down to her goal weight in just one challenge, shouldn’t each subsequent challenge bring her closer and closer to fitness model nirvana even if she is perfectly happy at 22% body fat? Why then does it appear that so many of us just stall out at the lower 20s in body fat and hang there forever on strict BFL? We do our workouts, eat our balanced BFL meals six times a day, and enjoy our free days to the fullest just like Bill says in the book, but somehow we still have a bit too much bump in our rump and flab over our abs. Our arms are no longer jiggly, but we certainly don’t have Madonna’s deltoids.

My theory is that given the biological predisposition of a woman’s body to retain fat, the majority of women without athletic backgrounds using BFL for fat loss will wind up at an acceptable scale weight for their height, a size between 2-10, and somewhere between 18-24% body fat. After that, even if they continue following the BFL program, significant muscle gains and continued fat loss will slow or even stop as their bodies adapt to the workout load and get smarter about hanging onto the remaining pockets of body fat.

I think that a female body reaches a setpoint or equilibrium with BFL after a certain amount of time and the program, though unchanged, becomes a maintenance routine vs. a continued fat loss routine. The average sedentary woman (most of us) has a maintenance calorie level of 1700-1900 calories per day. The woman hits a point where she can’t lose any more fat based on the built-in calorie restriction of the palm-fist method, and her daily calorie burn from BFL workouts no longer provides enough of a deficit given her now lower scale weight and basal metabolic rate to achieve further fat loss. She also can’t truly build more muscle either, because she is still eating at several hundred calories less than maintenance level in terms of calories six days out of seven and a caloric surplus is needed on more than one day a week for optimum muscle recovery and growth.

So that is the final end product of BFL if you are a female–a trim, healthy, toned body that looks fine in clothes that hide those last bits of cottage cheese on the thighs, the mini-pouch on your belly, and the lack of real definition in your arms. Yes, any or all of these things can still exist on a woman with only 20% body fat because body fat is distributed differently on everyone.

For women, BFL results seem to be more about muscle mass maintenance while sloughing off fat vs. raging muscle growth while simultaneously burning fat. You aren’t building huge amounts of muscle so much as you are peeling away the flab over and within the stuff you already have, like climbing out of a fat suit.

If this is true, and multiple BFL challenges are still leaving you with a 3/4″ thick fat suit over your entire body (with a few extra large pockets on your stomach, thighs, and backside), wouldn’t it make sense to take a look at your program and customize it a bit to achieve your goals?

Yes, right? And yet many of us insist on being true to the program that got us to 20%-22% in the first place even when it stops producing optimum results and is fit only for maintenance.

If you are happy at that point, then more power to you. You’ve achieved your goals and I give you full props for getting there on your own without counting a single calorie or logging a single day of meals and exercise.

However, if you are looking in the mirror and wondering why you DON’T look like a BFL champ despite how hard you’ve worked for the past 12+ weeks, it’s time to stop clinging to Fitness-for-Newbies and move onto something more detailed and modified for YOUR needs.

The most obvious choices here if you are a woman are:

  1. restrict calories even more and leave the workout program the sameWomen on BFL are already eating such low calories that cutting them even more puts them in danger of going below the 1200 calorie starvation line. Watch out if you go this route. If you DO elect to try this, doing #4 is pretty important. The most common method that BFL’ers use to reduce calories is to just cut out one meal a day. Well, if you are averaging 1300-1500 calories a day and 180-300 calories per meal…removing one of those meals will most likely take you below 1200.
  2. add more cardio to burn additional calories while keeping food intake the sameI know what you are thinking–“Everyone says I will lose my muscles if I do extra cardio!” Not if you are eating enough, aren’t going overboard with it, and maintaining your resistance training.
  3. control free daysI know…boohoo! This is what you LIVE for each week! Well, what if your 4000 calorie free days are completely eating up 2200 of the slender 3500 calorie deficit you’ve been working so hard to create during the week?
  4. track intake instead of guesstimating with an overgenerous palm and fistThis one is probably the hardest thing for a non-numbercruncher who has been palm-fisting for months and months to do, but it will give you the REAL skinny on why you aren’t losing fat.
  5. zigzag calories and have a planned higher calorie day every 3rd or 4th day instead of just one high day a week without restriction This is actually not much of a chore…you get a high day midweek to take the edge off of the hungries, and another on Sunday or Saturday to keep the metabolism up.
  6. any combination of the above

If you look at that list, you can pretty much see how both the Leanness Lifestyle and Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle books differ from BFL. More precision, more control, more DATA…so you will have the tools to adjust your program as necessary based on your personal results.

Leanness Lifestyle and Body for Life are pretty similar at the core: Both programs emphasize a 40/40/20 nutrient ratio, small, frequent meals, resistance training to retain/build muscle mass, and cardio to burn off fat.

BFL is the more laid-back and newbie-friendly of the two programs. It eases people who have never lifted a single weight in their lives into bodybuilding fitness and nutrition with the following tenets:

  • No calorie counting, just use your palm and fist as portion guidelines.
  • Only 60 minutes of cardio a week, no matter how much weight you have to lose or whether you are male or female.
  • One full free DAY a week without restrictions.

LL is BFL for more detail-oriented people or those who need more structure to succeed. The online coaching club site seems to help people who need more accountability to keep themselves from skipping workouts and cheating too badly on meals–you know…folks who suffer from the Incredible Expanding Fist when it comes to judging portion sizes!

  • Food logging (at least initially)
  • Calorie counting and measuring food quantities, not just eyeing a portion to provide accurate data about why you are getting (or not getting) results.
  • Significantly more than 60 minutes of cardio a week if you are female.
  • Two free MEALS a week, and you still have to account for those calories.

I’m not sure how many actual cases there have been of people who are aiming for fat loss actually gaining weight on BFL–that’s not something you can expect to find on the EAS site, thats for sure!–but I imagine that given a worst-case scenario where someone is in very poor shape with a somewhat overly liberal definition of what is palm/fist-sized, it’s possible.

It’s not out of the question to believe that some men and women might be unable or unwilling to perform the 20 minute cardio solution at high enough intensity to achieve more than a 100 calorie burn three times a week. If they have never exercised before, they might not be very good at gauging their limits and capabilities. They will slack off when they feel even slightly winded.

Then there is the matter of free day. People handle it in a variety of ways, but if our hypothetical BFL’er is overestimating portion sizes, choosing calorie dense carbs like potatoes, rice and pasta for EVERY meal (MY fist is worth about 3/4-1 c. of rice…NOT a good thing when it comes to losing fat), not even working up a sweat in cardio, and then stuffing herself with ice cream, cheese, fried foods, and alcohol from 12 am until 11:59 pm on free day for a total of 6000+ calories, well, guess what? She might gain weight.

The LL take on cardio for women is based on the rather unfair genetic card that we were dealt–women are predisposed to store enough fat to keep a growing fetus viable for 9 full months while men are geared toward muscle growth. This affects both the rate at which we can lose fat and gain muscle compared to men and the degree to which we can restrict our calories without sending our bodies into survival/starvation mode according to the author of LL. Men can get away with less cardio (like the 60 minutes espoused by BFL) and more dramatic calorie restriction and still lose fat and gain muscle without sending their bodies into panic mode. Most men seem to maintain their weight in the 2800-3000 per day calorie range and can safely drop down to 1700-1800 calories or so without any ill effects…a difference of 1100-1300 calories. Women, because of our lower muscle mass, usually have a maintenance level of 1800 calories or so, and can only safely drop down 600 calories to 1200 without going into starvation mode. So right there men have an advantage when it comes to creating a caloric deficit via diet alone. Let’s say that 60 minutes of HIIT burns off 600 calories a week. A man who maintains at 2800 but restricts his diet to 1800 a day will have a combined diet and cardio deficit of 6600 calories in 6 days. A woman who maintains at 1800 and restricts her calories to 1400 will only have a deficit of 3000 calories in the same amount of time. Add to that the male’s superior ability to pack on muscle, and you can see why your husband, brother, or boyfriend doing BFL is getting faster results than you are after one month even though you are eating the same types of foods (and he is having MORE of it), doing the same amount of exercise, and probably pigging out even more than you are on free day. His deficit is 3600 calories greater than yours…enough to account for an extra pound of fat EVERY WEEK!

Because women are limited in the amount of calorie restriction they can safely endure, the ONLY way to make up the difference is to burn more calories via exercise, hence the extra cardio.

This is a profile of a woman who couldn’t make BFL work for her, but succeeded with the LL plan. I don’t know how hard she pushed her workouts when she was doing BFL on her own, but it’s pretty obvious that she needed a more structured environment to be successful.

As I’ve mentioned before, I did my entire first challenge only doing BFL workouts, no extras, and taking no supplements besides vitamins and whey protein powder. I did, however, track calories, log my meals, and use precise recipes with measured ingredients instead of using the palm-fist method. I did very well on this slightly tweaked system–sort of LL nutrition with BFL workouts. I ended challenge one nine pounds lighter, two sizes smaller, and by most standards, in very good shape.

My goals for my second challenge were a bit more ambitious. I was already at a good weight according to the scale, but I wanted to look really ripped and reduce my body fat further. So I added in creatine as a supplement and started to zigzag my calories for the first 4 weeks while sticking with the basic BFL workouts. After a month, I took more progress photos and measurements and didn’t really see much in the way of changes in my muscle definition or body fat. My calories averaged around 1500 a day even with my two high zigzag days figured in, and I was still increasing my speeds in my cardio runs and my weights on my strength training days, but nothing was happening! 🙁

So I read LL and Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle and decided to give the extra cardio a try. In week 5 I started adding 30 minutes to my cardio days. I started to drop 1 lb/week. In week 8 I went full tilt into 60 minutes of cardio a day 6 days a week. My fat loss shifted to 1.5-2 lbs/ week and by week 10 my skin was thinner and my abs, deltoids, and quad muscles were showing actual definition in my photos, something that 60 minute of HIIT a week wasn’t going to get me anytime soon. Whether my body had simply adapted to the BFL exercise load (I really was pretty fit back in my Army days, so BFL workouts haven’t been too tough for me), or my progress had simply slowed because I was at my body’s setpoint, I can’t say, but it took a boost in my exercise minutes to get things going again.

There was no way that BFL in its pure form was going to get me to the degree of leanness that I wanted to have for my end of C2 photos. Six weeks into C2 (18 full weeks on Body for Life), I was at exactly the same scale weight that I recorded at the end of C2–134 lbs. Given that a female can only expect to gain 0.5-0.75 lbs of muscle in one month while in fat loss mode, I’m afraid that what I really was experiencing wasn’t a significant body composition shift while my scale weight remained the same, but a 6 week plateau resulting from my body’s adaptation to the BFL program. I have learned from several sources that those dramatic claims of losing 30 lbs of fat and gaining 10 lbs of muscle in 12 weeks are all pretty much bullshit–lean body mass does NOT equal actual skeletal muscle mass; it includes your organs, water, bodily fluids, and bones, too. A genetically-gifted woman might build up 3 lbs of skeletal muscle in three months, but it’s more likely that she will just be burning away the fat that was laced between her existing muscle fibers and feeling those areas firm up. The resistance training in BFL will prevent muscle loss, but there is a limit to how much muscle gain even a beginner can obtain when functioning at a caloric deficit for three months straight.

So my ultimate take on BFL and LL is this: If BFL is working for you and providing 1-2 lbs of fat loss a week as is, don’t tweak it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

However, if you are stalled, enjoy number-crunching, aren’t comfortable with or accurate at palm-fist, want to go beyond “normal and fit” to “lean and cut”, or want to accelerate your fat loss (if you are losing less than 1 lb per week), try out either the calorie tracking or extra cardio recommended by LL.

One plan may fit “most”, but just as with clothing, no single program out there will fit “all.” Try to complete a full challenge using just BFL and see how you do, but don’t be afraid to deviate from the book to get the results YOU want.

8 thoughts on “Body-for-Life Reality Check

  1. Maggie, a great article. It seems like most of the people I’ve met who have been successful long-term have tweaked the program and individualized things somewhat. It’s interesting to hear about LL – I may try it once I’ve had a few successful months on BFL.

  2. nice comparison! as a former BFL’r and LL’r, your summation of the two is very accurate and great advice at the end!

    kudos & nice site!

  3. Maggie, just found your site … loved this article … it is just what I needed to hear … I have been BFLing for 26 weeks 😮 and love it, but feel my loss is pretty slow … I have added some extra cardio but not quite what you stated … I will plan to increase it and see what happens!!

  4. Try Alwyn Cosgrove’s site if you want to take your training and diet to the next level. His Afterburn training really works if you are dedicated!!!

    All workouts will work 4 to 6 times and then you have to totally change it up if you want to attain the changes you are looking for.

    Cardio stops working after a few weeks too. Alwyn Cosgrove details something he calls energy system work. Check him out here:

    His articles can be found here:

    Take BFL to the highest level by doing this program:


  5. Great article, Maggie! I just found the link to it from one of the forums on PDB. This helps me a lot because I haven’t been losing any weight on BFL and at first I felt guilty about wanting to tweak things since it’s my first challenge but now that I’ve read your article I know that my ideas of increasing cardio (for sprint tri training) and getting stricter with my Free Day are good tweaks that will work.

  6. I also appreciate the article. I am begining my first BFL as a challenger and will keep this authors advice in mind.

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