How to Get Shredded: For Beginners
There are a lot of misconceptions around getting very lean, and the overall lack of knowledge is one of the main culprits behind why so many people in the world are overweight, even though there are so many regular gym goers.
In this first installation of the get shredded series I will cover getting very lean in a more general aspect, making the information more palatable for everyone, even beginners.
When you go to your local gym, how many people actually look like they lift weights. By “looking like they lift” I mean they are lean enough that you can adequately see muscular separation, abdominal definition, and have at least a bit of meat on their frame at the same time.
It is actually very rare to see someone underneath 10% body fat at all, let alone someone who is that lean and has some mass as well.
In later installations I will delve into more complex and specific topics such as: What you should do to speed your metabolism back up once you have achieved your desired level of leanness, reefed days, metabolism boosting drugs, contest prep, how to peak for a photo shoot or a special event, among a myriad of other relevant topics.
“A skinny guy with abs is like a fat girl with big boobs…. It’s not impressive.”
I have no idea where I heard that quote but it is kind of true. Anybody can starve themselves and get ripped, but that is NOT the way you should approach your fat loss goals, as you will just end up damaging your metabolism, and strip all the lean muscle mass off your body, leaving you looking like a bone rack.
The Key To Getting Shredded
Is to slowly restrict your body of energy. While doing this with calorie reduction, weight training, and cardio, you can slowly peel weight off your body without slowing your metabolism down too much, and eventually (and ideally) end up in the middle single digits body fat % wise (4-9) without having sacrificed much (if any) lean muscle mass.
It All Boils Down To Overall Caloric Intake Per Day
Okay so in simple terms, your body requires calories to give it energy. Your metabolism burns a certain amount of calories/energy each day based upon your body composition, your hormonal profile, your activity level, your age, among a variety of other factors.
In order to lose fat, you simply need to eat less (take in less energy) than your body expends each day. If you are functioning on a calorie deficit/energy deficit, your body is burning more calories than it is taking in, consequently it will turn to stored energy to provide it with the energy it needs to fuel the difference of calories during that day’s activities.
So for example let’s just say your body burns 3000 calories a day hypothetically, and you are eating 2700 calories each day. You are operating at a calorie deficit of 300 calories, thus your body needs to resort to stored energy (fat stores, glycogen stores and muscle protein stores) to expend those other 300 calories you didn’t provide your body with that day.
The disparity between what you eat and what you burn each day creates an energy difference each day which is measured in calories and more or less determines how much fat you lose over time.
The Most Common Mistake While Trying To Lose Fat
The most common mistake I see is when guys are trying to get shredded they will claim their diet is perfect, but they ask why they aren’t getting leaner. That in itself should tell you your diet isn't perfect!
The thing is guys, while eating clean food sources is an extremely important factor in determining your body composition, the actual amount of calories you take in each day is what will ultimately determine how much fat you lose or don’t lose.
99% of these guys who claim their diet is in check don’t actually eat at a caloric deficit, and that is why they simply won’t lose weight ever, even if their diet is 100% clean and they are getting all their calories from plain chicken, rice and broccoli.
This situation above is the main reason why so many people have unsuccessful diet attempts.
YOU NEED TO COUNT YOUR CALORIES IF YOU WANT TO GET RIPPED
Sure you can maybe get away with eating clean and losing weight without counting calories, but then you’re basically taking shots in the dark with your diet, and aren’t taking a calculated efficient approach to your dieting efforts.
Anybody who simply eats clean and gets as lean as they want without counting calories at all is actually still in a caloric deficit, they may just be unaware of it because they don’t count their calories and their positive results are essentially accidental.
As a result, they could lose weight too fast and lose more muscle than they should, or lose weight very slowly because their caloric deficit is too small, or they could not lose weight at all if they aren’t calorie counting and they are eating a greater than or equal amount of calories to their Basal Metabolic Rate (the level of calories your body will maintain its’ weight on).
Basal Metabolic Rate is more commonly referred to as your “BMR” or your “Maintenance” by a lot of guys.
Having an accurate food scale for measuring out and counting your calorie intake per day will soon become your greatest weapon used to wage war on fat. Knowing exactly what your calorie intake is each meal per day will let you know if you are achieving your calorie intake requirements of each day necessary for fat loss.
Can I Get Shredded Using “If It Fits Your Macros” Dieting As Long As I Count My Calories?
Your body can’t tell the difference between the calories of a donut and the calories in a clean food source. Because of this, your body will still lose the same amount of weight on the scale regardless if your calories are all coming from twinkies or if they are all coming from clean whole food sources.
If a calorie deficit is maintained, you will lose fat regardless of diet composition.
So yes you can get shredded eating shitty food….
That absolutely doesn't mean that macronutrient ratios or food quality doesn’t matter. They definitely do, and if you eat shitty food to hit your calorie goals, you will more likely than not suffer performance wise in the gym by losing way more muscle than you should.
Figuring Out Your Energy Intake
First thing you will want to do is calculate your BMR if you don’t already know what that is.
This must factor in your estimated activity level as well. You can easily find on Google several BMR calculators that will roughly let you know how many calories your body expends each day while still taking into account how much exercise you complete each week.
I’m not gonna lie, I find these calculators very hit or miss, and they can be off by up to +/- 500 calories at times which can cause significant confusion when you try to create your diet and you lose weight too fast, don’t lose weight at all, or start gaining weight.
I suggest if you are actually clueless about your BMR you use the calculator to figure it out, BUT, in order to ensure you actually find your BMR with a much higher level of accuracy, I suggest you eat a calorie intake equivalent to that of your calculated maintenance level calories for the first week of your diet.
This week will be used as a “feeler” week to assess how off the calculator was from your actual BMR.
For example, if the calculator says your maintenance is 3000 calories, and you eat 3000 calories everyday for a week straight but you lose 2 pounds, then it is obvious that the calculator was off by a decent amount and you can then adjust your caloric intake accordingly relative to what your actual BMR most likely is.
Or if the calculator says your maintenance is 3000 and you eat at 3000 everyday for a week and you lose no weight, nor gain any weight, then it can be concluded that 3000 calories is indeed your actual maintenance level of calories. See what I mean.
It is very useful to find this number as close as possible because then you can be much more accurate when calculating your macro and calorie intake each day, and know what to expect results wise at the end of each week.
Once you figure out with a somewhat close level of accuracy what your maintenance/BMR is, then you can create your fat loss diet and figure out what you will be eating each day.
This is the calculator that I recommend – Maintenance Calorie Calculator (I Recommend Using The Mifflin-St Jeor Formula Option In The Advanced Options Section)
As this article is for beginners, I will assume you haven’t calorie counted at all before, or if you have then you are already ahead of the game and know a bit more what to expect.
So What Should I Start My Calorie Intake At?
Calculate your BMR and Subtract 200-300 calories from this number
I approach fat loss the same way I approach bulking up. Slow and steady.
You will be surprised just how fast you can cut fat with a calculated and educated approach to the process.
I feel that a 500 calorie deficit or greater is simply too large of a deficit to start out at for a natural athlete as you will be sacrificing more muscle mass at a quicker rate. You will get leaner faster, but you will also lose lean muscle at a faster rate.
If you don’t have an impending deadline that is super close, I suggest you take a longer approach to fat loss with a slow and steady reduction of calories to preserve more muscle, and prolong the cut to negate as much of the potential catabolism as you can.
If you take 300 calories off your maintenance and start there, the scale will start going down and you will notice a reduction in body fat.
I suggest only increasing your calorie deficit once you plateau.
When your weight loss plateaus, then you can choose at that time to either add another cardio session to your weekly routine, increase the length of your current cardio sessions (cardio burns calories), or decrease your caloric intake by another 100-200 calories.
These will all increase the disparity between your daily caloric intake and your maintenance calories, consequently breaking a weight loss plateau.
Through this continuous process of slowly adding in more cardio and slowly reducing your daily caloric intake each time you plateau, you can continue to get leaner and bust plateaus without wrecking your metabolism and getting stuck spinning your wheels.
How much cardio should I do and when should I do it?
Obviously this will be determined more by your availability then when it is optimal, as if you have a full time job or a very tight schedule, you may not be able to do your cardio and weight training at optimal times.
The most important thing you must consider is your overall energy expenditure each day in relation to your energy intake (caloric intake).
While it is most beneficial to complete your cardio in a fasted state right upon waking up, if it doesn’t fit your schedule, it is far more important that you simply get it done at some point in the day then not doing it at all because you couldn’t do it at the “optimal time of day”.
However, if your schedule allows it, the best time to do your cardio is first thing in the morning upon waking on an empty stomach as your glycogen stores will be most depleted at this point as you have not taken in any energy yet for the day (you haven’t ate yet and have been essentially fasting in your sleep), thus your body will tap into stored fat to provide the energy it needs to get through the cardio session.
The second best time of day to do your cardio is immediately post-workout.
This works in the same fashion, where your strenuous resistance training with weights will deplete your body of stored glycogen, putting your body in a state where if you were to do cardio immediately after lifting weights, it would need to tap into some stored fat storage in order to fuel the cardio session.
If you do cardio at this time it is essential that you don’t have your post-workout meal until AFTER your post-workout cardio session if you want to maximize the fat burning potential of the cardio session.
Regarding how much you do, this will be determined by how much fat you need to lose, as well as how you respond to a caloric deficit.
I would start off with something easy like one or two 25 minute steady state cardio sessions each week, keeping your heart rate around 140 beats per minute for the duration of each session.
Ideally, you would do each session fasted upon waking or post-workout, but they can be completed at any time of the day. As long as you get them in is the most important thing.
Once weight loss plateaus you can either add another 5 minutes to each cardio session, or you can throw another cardio session in each week.
How fast your metabolism is will determine how low your calories will need to go and how long and frequent your cardio will eventually need to get to get very very lean.
Having More Lean Muscle Mass Means You Can Lose Fat Easier
As an individual with a larger amount of lean muscle mass than the average male, I can usually get to 8-9 % body fat with only a couple cardio sessions each week for 25-30 minutes.
For someone with substantially less muscle, they may need to be doing cardio every single day for 40 minutes per session to get that lean.
This solidifies why it’s very important to take measures to maintain as much muscle mass as you can while cutting down, as simply having more muscle on your body in itself will make your body burn more calories even when you are doing nothing, making getting lean a much easier feat.
Should I Use Anabolics To Help Maintain My Muscle During A Cut Phase?
This is entirely up to you, but any supplement or drug that delivers anabolic benefits above and beyond what your body can deliver naturally will help you maintain a substantial amount more muscle during your cut phase (or even all of it), thus allowing you to get leaner much easier, and have a more favorable body composition by the end of the cut phase with more muscle on your frame than you would have ended up with otherwise.
I’m not advocating it by any means, but there is no denying the benefit it would have in a strict cutting regimen operating on a caloric deficit.
How Should My Training Style Change When Cutting Vs Bulking?
It shouldn’t change at all.
In fact, you should try and keep everything exactly the same as when you are bulking.
If you start going lighter with higher reps on purpose because you think it’s going to carve more detail into your muscle, you are going to quickly lose strength and lose muscle density.
Keep your weights the same and try and maintain your strength throughout your entire cut if possible in order to maintain the maximum amount of muscle mass you can.
Should I use BCAA’s?
While I don’t think they are totally essential if you are on a strict budget, they definitely will help preserve your lean muscle mass in a calorie deficit during your cardio sessions.
If you do decide to use BCAA’s, I suggest you drink a couple servings prior to your cardio sessions, as they will offset the catabolism caused by the cardio session, and off-set how much muscle you can potentially lose from the session.
Your BCAA supplement should be calorie free, or else you are defeating the purpose of using it.
For example, if you are doing a fasted cardio session upon waking, ingesting the calorie free BCAA’s will allow your body to preserve more muscle as when it goes to break down stored muscle protein for energy, it will instead use the BCAA’s you just ingested, but your stored fat that is also being targeted for energy will still be burned as it normally would in a fasted state.
This is because you will still be glycogen depleted from sleeping all night and not having eaten any calories for 8 hours (you should try and sleep around 8 hours per night).
I linked the BCAA product in the section below that I personally use should you decide you want it in your supplementation regimen (during a cut it is arguably the most important natural supplement you can have on hand).
Which BCAA’s Should I Get?
BCAA’s are notorious for mixing poorly and tasting like complete butthole.
I’ve experimented with quite a few and I found the best one to be Scivation’s Xtend product.
I have bought cheap generic no-name plain BCAA’s before from a cheap bulk website and was in for a treat when I found out just how ridiculously nasty that garbage was.
Unless your strategy is to nauseate yourself with shitty tasting products so you aren’t as hungry so you can cut easier, I recommend you actually get a quality product with quality ingredients that mix properly in water without clumping, and tastes good.
Once you start to get really lean, you will start really looking forward to sipping on your BCAA’s as this stuff below actually tastes GOOD and when you have been eating clean and in a calorie deficit for a long period of time, literally everything starts tasting better.
The leaner I get, the better everything tastes because you start to appreciate food that much more. I remember the last time I got down to 5% body fat I was so damn hungry and had such intense cravings I remember seeing a bag of flavored dog treats and was actually thinking “I bet that shit tastes unreal” and had to stop myself from trying them.
Is Fasted Cardio Really Better Then Doing Cardio With Food In Your System?
There are arguments and science to back up both claims.
Some would argue that the thermogenic effects of calories in your body increasing your temperature will actually allow you to burn more fat than you would normally be able to in a fasted state, while others argue that completing cardio in a glycogen depleted state is the most ideal choice for maximizing fat burning.
While both are valid arguments, I have found from my own personal experience that fasted cardio DOES actually burn more fat than cardio with food in your system.
I don’t have lab studies to back me up or anything, but I get leaner easier when I incorporate fasted sessions vs. fed sessions so I will stick to what has worked for me, and I suggest you do fasted/glycogen depleted cardio if your schedule allows for it as well.
THE PERFECT MACROS FOR FAT-LOSS
Now that you know how many calories you're supposed to eat every day, you need to decide how to break those calories down into each of the 3 individual macro-nutrients.
Basically, let’s say you have a calorie goal for the day of 2700 calories. Of those calories, you will want to set aside a percentage of those calories to protein, carbs, and fats.
While many will argue the benefits of different types of dieting such as ketogenic diets, paleo diets, carb-cycling diets, super high protein no fat no carb diets, etc. You need to try them and see what you respond best to.
This isn’t the answer you want to hear I’m sure but I’m telling you guys, the sooner you start experimenting with diets, the sooner you will learn how your body best responds, and then you can use that method every time.
The last thing you want to do is follow a predetermined macro split that is so general that it doesn’t even take into account the intensity of your training, how much muscle you have, how fat you are right now, etc.
Some people who offer advice will simply say something as general as (ok take your calories and have 40% of those from protein, 40% from carbs, and 20% from fats and that is the perfect macro split). Then the less knowledgeable readers will blindly follow this general suggestion under the impression that it is under every circumstance the best macro split no matter what.
Don’t do this!
By all means, try that split if you want, and if it works to your satisfaction stick to it in the future if you want to. But I HIGHLY SUGGEST you try different styles of diets over the years so you know what your body best responds to.
For me for example, I actually respond best to medium-high protein, high carbs, and zero fat.
Don’t ask me why, but I burn way more fat at a much quicker rate when I have moderate-high carbs in my diet as opposed to low/no carbs and high fats. I also retain more of my muscle mass than when my carb intake is low.
I tried a keto diet once and lost fat at a much slower rate than I had with a carb-cycling approach and lost a pile of muscle.
However, I know TONNS of guys who respond AMAZING to ketogenic diets.
As a matter of fact, most of the guys on the forum I moderate have had their best fat loss results using ketogenic diets.
For simplicity purposes for beginners, my suggestion is to pick a diet style and stick to that for the duration of your cut.
Remember, that overall caloric intake will ultimately determine for the most part how much fat you lose, so the macro portioning is more for ensuring you lose the least amount of muscle possible, keep your strength up, and feel good and your digestion is on point.
If you are a Type I Diabetic for example obviously it isn’t as cut and dry as me saying follow this split and it will give you the optimal fat burning and muscle retention possible. There are individual specific factors that come into play.
In general though:
- If you are very overweight with lots of body fat and don’t have much muscle to begin with, you would probably benefit most from a ketogenic diet (high protein and fat, with no carbs except trace ones from leafy greens and veggies).
- For someone with more muscle on their frame and less fat to lose, they can most likely benefit most from a program that involves some sort of carbs, whether it be cycling carbs using high carb days/low fat, medium protein on large body part training days like back and legs, and low carbs on smaller less demanding days with medium fats high protein for days like arm days or shoulder training days, and zero carbs on non-training days with high fat high protein. Or even a totally ketogenic diet with a weekly reefed day where you replenish your glycogen stores with high carbs and low fats and medium protein to preserve your muscle tissue.
- Consistently moderate-high carb diets with medium-high protein and low fats usually work best for those who are already pretty lean and have very fast metabolisms from having a lot of muscle mass that burns through calories at a substantially greater rate than the average male and engage in very intense heavy lifting sessions 5+ times per week.
How hard, heavy, and frequently you train, how fat you are, and how much muscle you have on your body already should all be factors you take into consideration before determining what type of diet you will be following.
The importance of protein in your diet
Protein is very hyped up with a lot of people advocating high amounts of protein in cutting diets to help preserve muscle mass.
While it is very important, you by no means have to follow the strict guidelines set out in a lot of bodybuilding circles as prerequisites for your diet to not be considered inadequate or lacking.
I do suggest definitely having a higher protein intake in grams per day relative to your body weight (X grams of protein per pound body weight) than you would in a bulk phase though, as high protein content in a diet is very necessary for muscular preservation in a calorie deficit.
If you were eating a gram per pound of body weight during your bulk phase for example, I would recommend bumping that up to 1.5-2 grams per pound bodyweight during your cut phase.
While you may still respond differently than I anticipate to this high of a protein content in your diet, in general it is more than likely that keeping your protein content high is the safest of the three macros to keep in the high range in a calorie deficit as it directly will help prevent muscle protein breakdown when your body seeks energy from stored sources in your body (your muscles, glycogen stores, and the fat stores in your body).
When your body seeks energy to sustain itself and it turns to stored protein in the muscle for sustenance, having a high protein content in your diet will give your body more daily energy to tap into of protein so it won’t need to resort to breaking down as much stored muscle tissue.
What kind of foods should I be eating and how do I avoid cravings and binging?
Your diet should be comprised of the same clean foods you eat during your bulk phase, just less of them to allow you to be in a caloric deficit.
For suggested bodybuilding foods my friend Chris from Goodlookingloser has already compiled an assortment of in depth lists of foods for you to refer to. These should help you pick exactly which brands of each type of food will be optimal to use to build your daily diet. Check out each of the links below for articles he has written on this subject:
Tricks you should incorporate to prevent yourself from getting off-track on your diet
Keep yourself full and satiated so you don’t cheat on your diet.
Picking fibrous carbs is a good plan of attack as it will satiate you easier and leave you feeling fuller.
When you are full, you don’t have the desire to grab that bag of cookies in the cupboard and slam 100 of them in 10 minutes.
Also, having lots of leafy greens and other extremely low calorie veggies will allow you to eat a higher quantity of food, without pushing your calorie intake past your daily goals.
When I get really hungry, I like to incorporate a giant salad into my daily meal plan as it is literally like 50 calories for a giant bowl of lettuce, spinach, and other greens and veggies, but it gets me really full and prevents me from getting cravings.
Also, if you are having crazy sugar cravings, by all means treat yourself to a diet pop.
These calorie free drinks will not affect your weight loss, and are a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth when you’re dieting. I have diet orange crush almost every single day when I’m trying to get really lean.
In the near future, I will cover some awesome low calorie recipes for quality and actually good tasting meals you can implement into your fat loss diet that will leave you feeling satiated, and you will actually enjoy eating (yes chicken and rice can get boring I know).
Will Fat Burners Help?
Yes if your budget allows it, a good fat burner will not only increase the amount of calories your body burns through each day, but it will provide you with appetite suppression that can be exponentially helpful in maintaining the willpower to avoid cheating on your diet.
What If I Do Everything Correctly But Still Can’t Lose Weight?
I suggest getting blood work done to see if you have a hormonal deficiency.
Occasionally, some men and women will go years with hormonal deficiencies and not even know it because they had no idea there was something wrong in the first place.
If you suspect you may have a hormonal deficiency, I highly recommend you go get a thorough analysis of your endocrine system (check for inadequate testosterone levels, excessive estrogen levels, prolactin levels, etc.) as well as analysis of your thyroid function.
Lower than normal testosterone production or hypothyroidism could both lead to significantly more fat being stored on you than you would have otherwise, as well as less lean muscle tissue than you would have with normal testosterone levels.
Sometimes, diagnosing an underlying condition and being properly medicated could be enough to fix any issues you may have had in the past with losing stubborn fat.
My next article in this installation
Will cover what you should do once you have achieved your desired level of leanness.
It is necessary to try and speed your metabolism back up SLOWLY in order to allow yourself to eat more food, while staying lean, as you simply cannot be at optimal health living your life in a severe calorie deficit forever.
I will cover in depth how you can complete this process once your fat loss phase is done via something called “Reverse Dieting”