I help people get lean. Most want to do it cause it looks awesome.

But the benefits go beyond just looks. Being lean is healthier, easier on the joints, and a far better “place” to be, whether your goal is to add new muscle or just cruise through middle age looking and feeling like you have your collective shit together.

As I’ve gotten older (and helped more people) I’ve grown to realize how mentally healthy being lean is. The effect on self-confidence is immeasurable. And self-confidence can be the difference between a life filled with triples and home runs (and a few strike outs) and one without a single at-bat.

I also have a couple clients that want to get “ripped.” But only a couple, cause to be honest, I try to talk them out of going for that next step. At least right away.

Because they mistakenly think that getting ripped is just a happy-smiley, prolonged extension of getting lean. It’s not.


A friend recently went from chubby to fairly lean, losing over 35 pounds in four months. He did it by eating two 500-calorie sandwiches a day and two protein shakes; basically a meathead version of the Jared from Subway diet. Though he bristled at that comparison, given that he hopes to sell his “diet” as an Ebook and “as used by chubby pedophiles” is hardly good marketing copy.

As hare-brained as his diet was, it worked because it hit most of what I call the 7 Big Rocks of Fat Loss, namely a calorie deficit, sufficient protein, and most importantly, consistency.

So four months later, the former fat guy sitting across from me over lunch looked like a new person.

Unfortunately he wasn’t satisfied. Because he wasn’t ripped.

Now he looked good – he’d lost a lot of fat, especially around the belly, and likely improved most of the health markers your doc can measure. And he finally looked like “one of us,” a Guy Who Lifts, not just another chubby guy with shaved forearms.

But he wanted it all, the whole Men’s Health enchilada: veins, abs, striated pecs, and quad-ham separation like he’d been slashed down the leg by a sword-wielding Jaime Lannister. It just wasn’t there.

I sensed the conversation was about to shift to me helping him reach that next level, but I quickly threw down my napkin like a penalty flag.

“I won’t help you. At least not now. You’re not ready.”

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.

– Cool Hand Luke


The difference between getting lean and getting ripped is enormous, and must be respected. This post will explain why.

But to not be a total Debbie Downer, the next post will have some tips that a lean guy (or girl) can use to bridge the gap between lean and ripped, or at least flirt with really lean.   


Everyone responds differently to the fat loss process. This is especially true for getting ripped. So what you’re about to read is what I’ve experienced in my coaching travels, which is mainly average men that don’t aspire to step on stage, just look like they maybe could. In other words, context always matters, and your individual mileage may vary. Actually it will vary.

First let’s define terms. What some hippy-dippy people online call ripped I’d call sorta lean, while a hardcore prep coach might consider what I call “ripped” to be “needs another month.” So here’s some pics to at least clarify my middle of the road position.

This is me the other day. I’d call this lean, not ripped.


Now this good looking dude is ripped.


Not quite stage ready, but very damn close. Much respect to this bloke.

So while the games appear similar, one is like playing checkers while the other is like playing chess. On a stationary bike. 

I speak from experience here, because I’m currently trying to get ripped — and I’m not sure I’ll make it.

Cause I’m getting sick of this shit. Given my druthers I’d be perfectly happy staying in the more comfortable lean zone. I can eat chocolate covered espresso beans with near reckless abandon and my libido appreciates the extra calories. Plus I sleep better and there isn’t so much fucking laundry. 

But I try to do this every year or two to remind myself how draining (and all encompassing) it can be, which makes me a better coach, or at least a more empathetic one. Can’t say it’s helped either my marriage or my dwindling social life. Alas. #sacrifices

Lean Vs Ripped

Lean is monotony. Ripped is suffering. When trying to get lean you have to deal with delayed gratification and some “meal fatigue.” But getting ripped brings near constant low-grade hunger.

Newbies often freak out at this normal body cue and think that they must eat or they’ll lose muscle, or die. But the fact is, getting ripped requires making what Scott Abel calls “tolerable hunger” your reluctant wingman. In fact, if you aren’t feeling tolerable hunger much of the day, you probably won’t ever get ripped.

Lean is a habit. Ripped is a well-rehearsed skill. Most people, with good coaching and a lot of focus, can get lean on their first attempt. It’s all about developing the right habits and not sweating the little things.

Getting ripped, however, is like getting to Carnegie Hall — it takes a lot of practice. And practice requires repetition and time. Most fail their first few attempts. (I know I did). 

You have to own lean first. It’s never wise to go all the way from Joe Six-Pack to Joe Six Pack Abs in the same “run.” This is one reason why I shut down my friend’s plan. He’d already been in an aggressive calorie deficit for four months. Even with a modest diet break for a few weeks, I doubt his metabolism would recover sufficiently for him to drill down to the next phase. Nor do I think his mind would be ready for a dive bomb into low calorie dementia.

Had we proceeded, he would’ve quickly reached the point I call grinding metal. Where any further drop in calories or increase in expenditure just makes you look and feel smaller and weaker and otherwise hating life.

After losing a lot of weight, it’s far smarter to just declare victory and move to a more beneficial challenge: slowly eating more while maintaining within 5-10 pounds of your new “lean condition.” That in itself isn’t easy, but the benefits on metabolism and mind (learning to ‘think lean’) are huge. And your set point can (and does) change.

You got lean? Now own it. Make lean your new normal, walking around look. After a year of that consider going for the gusto.

You need muscle to be ripped. This is the other reason I shut my buddy down. Most big gym rats are beefy cause they carry a surprising amount of body fat. Losing that chunk is a painful lesson. I can’t tell you how many times a 230-pound bro told me he’s dieting to be “ripped at 205” only to find himself at 195 and realizing he still has another 15-20 pounds to go.

It’s a bit of a two-sided coin. Go from chubby to lean with a little bit of muscle and you look great – think the “Hollywood muscle” thing. It offers the illusion of size, especially with the right lighting and wardrobe and just a little CGI.

However, going from lean to ripped with that same amount of muscle can leave you looking small or skinny. That level of conditioning is like living in a house with glass walls. If your physique has glaring weak points, getting ripped will expose them. 

So my buddy first had to pack on some size. You need real estate to work with before ordering landscaping.

You can get away with a lot more getting lean than you can getting ripped. You can have your cake and eat it too and get lean. It just takes some discipline and planning. But getting ripped is far less forgiving.

Sure, I know guys that can get legit ripped by switching from McDonalds three times a week to just once a week. Most grew up with nicknames like Flex or Quadzilla. But if you went through school known as Superchunk or Manatee, then that likely ain’t you. 

Lean is by the numbers, getting ripped invites the #voodoo. The sensible steps to get lean are well established and well supported. However, there’s a reason more controversial or esoteric approaches like ketogenic diets remain back pocket cards to play, even among very smart and experienced  “science-based” coaches. Because at the very end, the basics can stop working.

Or at least the beleaguered dieter believes they stop working.

Why does very low carb or keto or “no food after 7pm (Mountain Time)” or fasted cardio (ducks for cover) suddenly get a lean but stuck dieter moving? Perhaps they confer a small benefit in a prolonged, hypo caloric, very low insulin environment? Or perhaps it’s the heightened food restriction required, leaving less room for having to make choices (especially poor “brain fog” choices)? 

Or perhaps the sudden change just makes the dieter feel like he’s “on task” again?

I’m not sure. I just care about results. So don’t laugh at all things bro-science until you’ve been really lean and stuck at a painful plateau and have to start troubleshooting. As always, the most experienced coaches tend to be the most humble and open-minded.

Getting ripped causes your survival cues to kick in. When getting lean your body will ask you to eat. Getting ripped, it will kick, scream and demand. Your body wants to keep you alive. Your magazine cover goals are pretty low on its priority list. So if the opportunity to eat – or overeat – arises, it’s going to push you to take it. 

This is why keeping foods you love to snack on in the house (cough, peanut butter) or building a diet around too many hyperpalatable foods is a bad idea. You are literally playing chicken with millions of years of pre-programmed survival drive. You think you can win? Maybe. Why tempt it? Going to war every day with your body gets old. I’d prefer to avoid it.

You have to deal with the Trickster. In Native American literature (I have a minor in this, for whatever reason) the Trickster is a spirit who floats around punking us knuckledragging humans into disobeying normal rules and conventional behavior. He’s kinda like the devil in the Christian faith if he ditched the talking snake schtick and developed a sense of humor.

When you get ripped you meet the Trickster. He’s that miscreant in your mind that allows you to rationalize that “your body really needs a donut or a refeed” and that if you go to bed hungry you’ll lose all your mass.

The Trickster can even make you forget everything you know about dieting. Which is why last week I found myself in front of the fridge at 1am eating peanut butter, because I thought “my body needed the monounsaturates.”

The Trickster also brings bizarre cravings. When getting lean most will get a hankering for pizza and burgers and sweets or all you can eat sushi. While getting ripped, the Trickster will have you dreaming of a Filet of Fish (even though you’ve never had one) or downing half a bottle of salsa like it was a Bloody Mary.

Say goodbye to sleep. It’s the cruelest part of reaching low bodyfat. Maybe it’s the prolonged hunger or the elevated cortisol, or the simple fact that your body thinks sleeping means less time out scavenging for food, but 3-4 hours sleep can become the new normal. So you wake up tired, ache for a nap at 2pm, and then stare at the ceiling at midnight. Good times.

Little stresses become Big Stresses. People get cranky on low calorie diets. Even experienced dieters can get downright miserable in the final stretch. Granted this can improve with maturity and practice (and addressing the sleep issues above). But if you catch yourself turning the garden hose on your neighbor’s kid collecting Pokemon in your backyard, blame your diet. Getting ripped ain’t child’s play.

But, hey, it looks awesome right?

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom, and there are some ways you can tweak your more moderate “get lean” lifestyle to get you on the road to ripped, relatively painlessly. I’ll have those next post.

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