Lean Is Easy. Shredded Is Hard.
As I write this, I'm four weeks out from my third show in my second competitive season of bodybuilding. I'm also at the point where I'm crossing the line between being lean and being shredded. While the two words are often used interchangeably, they couldn't be any more different. They're MILES apart.
The problem is, because of the lack of honest distinction made in the fitness industry, many people think they require the same effort and take the "if you can do it, I can do it" attitude.
Everyone can get lean, no problem. But not everyone can get shredded, peeled, or "ripped." It just takes a whole new level of sacrifice, discipline, and focus that few people have.
What Defines Shredded vs. Being Lean?
If we're talking in terms of body fat percentage, being "lean" is probably in the region of 7 to 10% if you're getting measured accurately (and most people aren't.)
Shredded, on the other hand, is probably in the 4 to 7% body fat region. Of course, it depends on the method of testing, but using the traditional numbers we associate with body fat, the 6-8% region seems to be the crossover point that takes you from being lean to shredded.
To make this a little clearer, I've put some pictures together illustrating the peak of my off-season, being lean, and transitioning to being shredded. I've kept the posing consistent so you can see the changes. Notice the certain "dry" look associated with being shredded as opposed to how just being lean looks.
These photos were taken at 20 weeks out, 12 weeks out, 6 weeks out, and 3 weeks out.
Here's another example of the difference between lean and shredded, as exhibited by my business partner Adam Hayley:
Do You Ever Need to Be Shredded?
Of course not. For those who aren't competitive bodybuilders, there's never a need to be shredded. The majority of my clients don't compete; they're just serious lifters like you who want to push themselves hard with their diet and training, but have no need or desire to take it to that next level.
Remember, being lean is great. You look AND feel good, and it allows you to continue living your life almost normally, only requiring some extra thought about diet and activity levels.
What many of these people will do instead of competing to keep themselves motivated, accountable, and working towards a target is to book a photo shoot, or use their next beach holiday as motivation to get into the shape of their life.
If I didn't compete in bodybuilding, the 7-9% body fat region that's perfect for photo shoots and looking awesome on the beach is what I'd be aiming for.
The 8 Differences Between Lean and Shredded
Here are some things you need to confront while working towards being shredded – what you need to be prepared for and just how hard you need to push. Remember, if you're not a bodybuilder, this isn't necessary. But I know there are some who love the grind regardless and are willing to push themselves to a new level even if there isn't a competition stage in their future.
1 – Some Hunger vs. Constant Hunger
This is the most obvious. When you're trying to get lean, you may get hungry now and then, but for the most part you'll feel pretty content and find your meal times fit into place perfectly.
When you're trying to get shredded, you'll face constant hunger all day long. You have to make hunger your best friend and adopt the mindset of accepting hunger as a necessity in getting shredded.
You can use all the hunger "tricks" you like (e.g. psyllium husk, coffee, Diet Cokes, etc.), but ultimately you'll need to face it and deal with it. You'll need to accept that each meal you eat won't make a dent in your hunger, and when you're halfway through a meal (which you'll probably wolf down in two minutes with your mini fork), you'll already be craving your next one.
2 – Normal vs. Weird Cravings
When you're getting lean, you'll get the odd craving for a pizza or burger. But when you're getting shredded, your cravings get weird. I remember walking down into my kitchen a few days ago, looking at the tall bottle of soy sauce on the shelf and thinking how good it would be to unscrew the cap and chug down the whole bottle.
Be prepared to think and dream of weird food combinations and find yourself constantly scrolling through Instagram food feeds and watching cooking shows you've never heard of.
3 – Happy vs. Cranky
Being lean is a great feeling. Your mood and energy will be better than ever. This is the level of body fat where your hormones are firing on all cylinders and your sex drive will be through the roof.
Being shredded feels like shit. You'll be cranky, miserable, and lethargic all the time. You won't be the best person to hang around with, and your fuse and patience for bullshit will run extremely thin.
How bad you feel is really individual and dependent on your dieting experience, but I've yet to meet anyone who's gotten shredded and said they've felt great. The old bodybuilding saying of "the worse you feel, the better you look" couldn't be more true.
4 – Your Diet and Training "Flexibility" Diminishes
Getting lean allows you a lot of flexibility and leeway with your diet, training, and cardio. If you miss a workout here and there, it's probably not an issue. If you go over or under on your calories, it's not the end of the world as long as you're still in some form of a deficit over the course of a week. You could probably even get away with a bit of IIFYM (if it fits your macros) and still look pretty good by the end of it.
When you cross the line to shredded, though, your room for error diminishes. Any mistake is far less forgiving. Every training session counts. Every cardio session is critical. Your food is weighed out to the gram. Nothing over, nothing under. The days will become monotonous, and every day will feel like the same old grind. But your body will be changing on a daily basis and this is what keeps you going.
5 – Bro Science Starts to Work
When you're taking it to the next level, many of the tactics like fasted cardio, "no carbs after 6 PM" and PSMF (Protein Sparing Modified Fast) suddenly become more applicable.
To get lean, many of these bro science tricks are largely unnecessary. You can do your cardio at any time and you can time your nutrients whenever. It's more about just getting it done. Getting shredded means all these tiny solutions add up and help take your body to somewhere it really doesn't want to go.
6 – You Need Muscle
I love the bodybuilding mantra, "You can't carve a pebble." My business is built on transformations and helping people get into the best shape of their lives. The problem is, many people on their first transformation just can't get shredded because they haven't got the initial foundation of muscle it requires.
So their journey often ends up looking like this: get lean > spend time building muscle > get shredded. It doesn't work. You need to have a base foundation of muscle in order to get shredded or you'll just end up looking stringy and anorexic.
7 – Mind Games
The last four weeks on the road to being completely shredded are all mind games. If you've never given birth to a second personality in your head, now is the time the devil will be born.
Getting shredded requires constantly dealing with a voice in your head telling you that you need to re-feed because you're flat and about to lose all your muscle, or that maybe today it'll be better to skip your cardio session to create a "super compensation" effect in your legs.
Essentially, if you want striated glutes, you need to fight every effort your mind and body makes to tell you otherwise.
8 – Sacrifice
Anyone who tells you that you can get shredded without sacrifice is lying to you. The last four weeks of a hard diet when you really start pushing the envelope will force you to sacrifice time spent with loved ones, your business, and social occasions. It's just part of the reason why getting shredded isn't for everyone.
There aren't many people willing to put their lives on hold for cross striations all over their body. And that's why you won't see many people in true contest condition. It requires a level of sacrifice that many people don't want to make. And that's okay. You just need to re-evaluate your goals if you're one of those people, as getting shredded shouldn't be one of them.
An Altered Perception of Reality?
One of the most common things you'll see in competitive circles is a warped sense of what "normal" is in terms of body fat percentage after you walk off the stage.
Many people begin to consider their shredded physique to be the new norm, and that anything above that level of body fat percentage is considered "fat."
Being shredded is NOT a permanent condition. It's NOT a healthy state to be in. Your joints will be cranky, your mood will be terrible, and your life will be miserable. It's a temporary state of being for a specific end goal. That's it.
Being lean is ultimately where it's at. You'll look and feel great (no more sporting a gaunt face!), your hormones will optimized, and you'll be primed to build muscle at the most optimal rate.
How Do You Transition Back From Shredded?
The number one rule in transitioning from a "shredded diet" to a normal diet is to have a plan. I can't emphasize this point strongly enough if you want to end this phase in the healthiest manner possible, both mentally and physically.
The last thing you want to do is go from a state of essentially controlled starvation to bingeing on anything and everything. Not only will it take you from shredded-to-fat very quickly (while seemingly skipping the lean stage), but it'll screw with your head and kick-start a cycle of binge-diets that are now so common in the fitness world.
In the immediate period after being shredded, you need to do two things:
- Plan a period of "reverse dieting," where you strategically increase calories and taper cardio down so you're back at a maintenance level in the subsequent 4-6 weeks. It doesn't need to be dragged out longer than this.
- Stay busy! You've probably put your life on hold the last four weeks of getting shredded, but because you've had such a strong goal in your head it's kept you focused. Now you don't have the end goal, so life can seem a little empty. It's critical you have plans in place to spend quality time with your family and friends.
Focus these plans on their social aspect and not on the food. Now is the time to thank everyone who supported you and go back to making memories in your life.
The Rewards Are Great
Getting shredded is one of the toughest things you'll do, but the rewards are completely worth it. It'll teach you a lot about yourself and the lessons you learn will carry over to all parts of your life. When you're in real shape, there's no better feeling. At least for the weird ones who thrive off pushing their body to places it doesn't want to go to.