While I spend most of my time educating people about sustainable approaches to getting a lean, strong, healthy physique., I do have an interest in the extreme of body transformation, or how to get ripped.
There is a massive amount of confusion about how to get a ripped physique. It’s not about a specific exercise program, or diet as many would have you believe, and it’s not magic.
I wanted to create this guide for you as an honest, no B.S. resource so you can understand the key elements to help you achieve a ripped, cut physique.
I’ve achieved a ripped physique (photos on this page are of me) and helped guys with even “bad” genetics get ripped too. As the owner of a personal training and nutrition counseling practice, I’m constantly trying new workouts, reading the latest and greatest research on nutrition and exercise, and speaking with natural bodybuilders, nutritionists, personal trainers, and anyone else with a keen interest in physique transformation.
So here’s a definitive guide to getting a ripped physique that I’ve been wanting to share with you. I hope you enjoy it.
The term ripped is used to describe a very low body fat level relative to one’s bodyweight, which creates an appearance of clearly visible striations of muscle and separation between muscles.
What is the body fat level you need to get ripped?
In my opinion, anything under 7% body fat for a man is ripped. For more information on body fat percentages, check out Body Fat Percentage Chart: How Lean Should You Be?
When I present the information you are about to learn to a client interested in getting ripped, that initial interest usually subsides. Getting ripped is an extreme pursuit that requires extreme focus and dedication. There is no way around it. In addition, getting too ripped comes with health concerns. I’ve achieved around 3.5% body fat once in my life, and while I was very happy with how my body looked, my face was extremely gaunt and it looked like I was starving to death. I’m taking a wild guess that wasn’t very healthy.
So not only does getting ripped take a ridiculous amount of effort and discipline, but the extreme is that it may not be healthy either. For me, I can maintain 6-7% body fat while feeling great and looking healthy, but it’s still walking a tight rope.
Finally, the whole idea of an extreme physique opens up a can of worms regarding body image. I’ve gotten ripped as a hobby, out of curiosity, and I really like the look, but I hope you don’t feel any more, or less of a man if you do, or do not achieve a ripped physique.
One of the most frequent questions I get from guys is, “I want to get ripped, but I want to stay the same weight. What do I do?”
This question tells me many guys (1) may not understand the basic arithmetic of getting ripped, (2) are too concerned about the scale and not body fat percentage, which is what it’s all about and (3) overestimate how much muscle weight they can naturally add to their frames (See: How Much Muscle Can You Gain Naturally?). Sadly, too many guys are doomed from the start!
Let me give you an example:
Let’s say there’s a guy Mike who weighs 180lb at 15% body fat and he wants to get ripped. What does Mike need to weigh in order to get a ripped physique (6% body fat), assuming he keeps the same amount of muscle?
The chart below shows you the basic arithmetic assuming Mike loses only fat without losing any muscle. You can also use the Ideal Body Weight Formula to arrive at the desired weight as well:
The Answer: 163lb
Most guys with a few years of lifting experience have an LBM (a.k.a. lean body mass – everything in your body besides fat, including bone, blood, organs, and muscle) of 145lb. How do I know? Well, because I have data on tons of clients and it’s the magic number for the amount of muscle on the average guy who is 5’10, or 5’11”. If you have 145lb of LBM, that would imply you would need to get your body weight into the 150’s to look truly ripped. In the 2 photos on this page, I weighed 165llb with an LBM of 155lb, which is above normal LBM for my height because I’ve lifted for many years.
The build most guys want (it’s like the standard of ripped) is looking like Brad Pitt in Fight Club. From what I’ve read, he was 155lb for that role. To hammer this discussion home, even a natural bodybuilder (no steroids) at contest time is around 175lb, and that’s a bodybuilder! If you don’t want to look like a bodybuilder, but want a less bulky physique, you must overcome the mental weight hurdle. Again, it’s just basic arithmetic.
If you are having trouble overcoming the mental weight hurdle, when you take a step back to think about it, you are simply losing all the fat on your body without losing any muscle. The leaner you become, the more defined and muscular you become as well, which makes you look bigger. So the first step towards getting ripped is understanding the arithmetic, dispelling any myths of gaining muscle you may believe, and focusing on losing as much body fat as possible while retaining your LBM.
Losing fat without losing muscle (the key to getting ripped of course) is primarily a nutritional challenge.
The Energy Balance Equation – a scientifically proven fact – states that if you eat less calories than you burn, you will lose weight. If you eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. If you would like to learn more about target calorie intake, you can check out this article (See: How many calories should you eat to lose weight?).
The leaner you become, the trickier this energy balance. Fat can be very stubborn, so you really have to nail the target calories you are eating. Can you get ripped without tracking your calories? Possibly. But every serious physique competitor in the world knows EXACTLY what they put into their bodies, which includes:
1) Number of Calories (most important)
2) Macronutrient Breakdown (protein, carbs, and fat grams) of each meal/snack and each day
3) Timing of Calories (when the calories are eaten, a controversial topic like everything else)
As in the sample nutrition spreadsheet above, the nutrition spreadsheet you create will have the grams of protein, carbs, and fat and total calories for each food item in each meal and snack. Then, you create percentage breakdowns of protein, carbs, and fat for each day, which is called the macronutrient breakdown. Depending on who you ask, you will get wildly different breakdowns of what is optimal for fat loss.
Some believe the protein, carb, fat breakdown respectively should be 40%, 40%, 20% (high carb, low fat) some believe 30%, 20%, 50% (low carb, high fat), and others 30%, 50%, 20% (moderate carb, low fat). You can manipulate the carbs and fat that you eat, but I would recommend relatively more protein because research has shown a high protein diet is very effective at helping control hunger.
I personally create one spreadsheet, but feel free to create a few. I strongly prefer creating a spreadsheet over counting calories all the time, which is just too tedious. Once you are ripped, you don’t need this spreadsheet anymore, nor do you need to count calories. But I will emphasize if you are serious about getting ripped, this spreadsheet will prevent you from spinning your wheels.
While every fitness program with an infomercial is going to tell you their system is the best (P90x for example), I can tell you the truth about all these various exercise methods. They are overrated.
Here’s the truth:
You can get ripped powerlifting
You can get ripped doing circuit workouts
You can get ripped using bodybuilding workouts
You can get ripped doing bodyweight lifting workouts
You can get ripped doing kettlebell workouts
Do you know what all these workouts have in common? They are all based on strength training. Strength training is the key (in combination with ample protein intake) to help you retain your muscle as you are shedding fat.
What specific type of strength training should you do? Do what you can sustain is the simple answer. They all work. At Builtlean, we developed our strength circuitsTM method, which is a very efficient way to get both cardio and strength benefits in a short workout. This method focuses on compound movements involving large muscle groups that are combined into circuits. In addition, depending on your results, you may have to create more progression in your workouts to shed the extra layer of fat. This strength circuitsTM method combined with progression is the foundation of my 12-Week Body Transformation Program.
Remember that getting ripped is primarily a nutritional challenge, so strength training is secondary, but still essential.
What you see all the time is “nutrition” experts pontificating about the right number of carbohydrates to eat, and what types of carbohydrates are allowed. I want to impress upon you the deep flaws with the “one size fits all” approach to nutrition. Everyone is different. We all respond differently to food.
What I’ve found is that carbohydrates is a variable in the getting ripped equation, which depends on your genetics. Some people (myself included) can control hunger and calorie intake much better on a moderate carbohydrate, even high carbohydrate diet, while others drop fat like it’s going out of style with a lower carb approach.
The delicate balance is that for some, eating too many carbs can encourage overeating and limit fat loss potential. On the other hand, too few carbohydrates may have you dropping hard earned muscle, which is obviously undesirable. I’ve tried the more extreme Paleo/Ketogenic low carb diets in the past and I was extremely hungry all the time and my results were disappointing.
If you have carried excess weight your entire life, my guess is lower carb may be effective, but this is a variable you ultimately have to play with.
Similar to the amount of carbohydrates you eat, the amount of cardio you complete to lose the excess fat depends on your genetics. I don’t have to do any cardio to drop body fat, but some people must hit the cardio hard to get rid of that last layer of fat. If you are busy, HIIT cardio is very effective at helping you burn more calories and drop body fat.
While I didn’t cover all the minutiae for how to get ripped, if you focus on the key elements I outline above, you will be able to achieve the very rare “ripped” physique.