Every dude who stays in the lifting game long enough, regardless of whether he's a powerlifter, strongman, or recreational body toner, should get inside-out peeled at least once... or at least give it his best shot.
There are two reasons why:
1 Extreme leanness can set the stage for muscle growth.
Ask any bodybuilder about the rebound effect of an intelligent "reverse diet" and the gains that follow those months of eating in a caloric deficit.
When you get very lean, you're going to be far more insulin sensitive, and very overworked. The reduction in cortisol and improvement in your nutrient partitioning should boost you to some new gains, as long as you don't sabotage that process by eating way too much and getting lazy.
2 You find out if you have what it takes, and what you look like once you get there.
If you've never spent months abstaining from foods you love, while putting in more work than usual, then you don't really have an idea of what it takes to achieve remarkable leanness.
As someone who's done both powerlifting and bodybuilding, I can tell you the effort behind getting ready for a bodybuilding show is infinitely harder than a powerlifting meet.
There are of course trade-offs that occur along the road traveled from pudgy to peeled. The internet is rife with diet ads, memes, and quotes about how you don't have to give up the foods you love or your social life. That may be true for those who don't take their leanness any further than what they can easily sustain.
But if you want to get peeled – a state that's not really meant to be easily sustained – you'll indeed have to give up some of the things you love. Getting from "lean" to "ripped" becomes life-consuming, but the difference in lean and peeled is practically the difference in driving a Mustang GT and a Bugatti.
It's up to you to decide what it is you're willing to sacrifice to achieve an exceptional level of leanness. It's going to be different for everyone.
Let's look at what you'll need to do – in increments – because you're not going to be able to stick with a plan that's designed to take you immediately from fat to ripped.
Here are the general guidelines that can help get you there. Think of them as "you may have to..." suggestions. You might have to do more than what's listed, or you may find that you can get the desired results with fewer restrictions.
This is roughly 20% body fat (or more) down to 15% for men, and from 30% (or more) down to 25% for women.
Let's begin with the person who wants to get down into what would be an acceptable level of body fat. This tends to be something to the tune of 15% for men and 25% for women.
This is an area where you'll probably look pretty good, but it still won't qualify as lean. And yes, some men can have a little ab definition at this point, but having abs doesn't necessarily mean you're lean.
- Reduce intake of desserts, sugary drinks (soda, fruit juices), alcohol, and most overly processed foods.
- Include vegetables in at least one meal a day to increase satiation (1).
- Lift 3-5 times a week.
- Do cardio 3 times a week for 30 minutes per session to help expedite the process.
- Get protein intake up to about 1 gram per pound of bodyweight.
If you make the above changes, then you probably don't even need to count calories yet. Eating healthier foods and getting rid of most of the junk tends to be fairly self-regulating in terms of caloric control.
Here's an example of what to eat to simply get to this level without counting calories.
- Whole Egg Omelet with Added Egg Whites
- Vegetable of Choice
- Oatmeal or Ezekiel Bread
- Jasmine Rice
- Salad with Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar
- Metabolic Drive® Protein
- Rice Cakes
- Fatty Fish Like Salmon or Lean Cut of Red Meat
- White, Red, or Sweet Potato
- Metabolic Drive® Protein with Fruit
There are no macros or calories listed because the goal is to simply make better food choices. You're not trying to contest diet on day one.
If you were to fit in foods you enjoy here that are minimally processed and nutrient dense, you'd naturally find yourself coming down from the fuscular (fat-muscular) range, to the "hey you look like you stopped eating like an asshole" range. You'd be surprised how far you can get by simply making better choices.
This phase could last from three to six months depending on where you're starting from and how well you adhere to the guidelines.
This means getting down to around 10% for men and 18% for women.
This is going to require you to take the next step in discipline and adhere to those habits for a decent period of time. Getting to this stage could take anywhere from two to three months depending on your degree of compliance.
But it's also an area that's very sustainable once you've held it long enough to create a new set point. You'll look lean at these percentages, but not shredded. And you should also be able to get to these ranges without losing strength.
Interestingly, a lot of people stop dieting when they experience a drop in performance. If you lose a lot of strength getting to this level of leanness, then either your calories are too low or your former strength was fat-man strength: you were able to move heavier loads due to the leverages you achieved from body fat.
This is not extreme-level dieting. You shouldn't be seeing massive drops in performance or strength if you're doing this correctly.
- Start counting calories and macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs) to expedite the process.
- Set general caloric intake at around bodyweight x 10 or 12.
- Aim to be in an energy deficit at least 90% of the time.
- Limit desserts to once a week or even every other week.
- Reduce or eliminate alcohol and sugary drinks. If drinking tends to increase your appetite, avoid it altogether.
- Reduce fat or carb intake (or both) from the previous stage. It's your call which one you decrease in order to lower total calories.
- Continue cardio 3 times a week for 30 minutes. Make one of those sessions HIIT (high intensity interval training).
- If you're a desk jockey who doesn't move around a lot, raise cardio to 5 times a week. Do 1 HIIT session with 3-4 low intensity sessions per week.
- Lift weights around 4 times a week.
- Increase vegetable intake to 2-3 meals a day to improve satiation and compliance.
- Continue getting 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
As you can see, this is where the degree of restriction starts to increase. These are also the ranges where gaining muscle is going to be optimal. Getting to 10% for men and 18% for women and staying there to create a new set point is a good stepping stone to a muscle-building phase.
At this point you'll most likely have good nutrient partitioning due to improved insulin sensitivity and you'll have been in a caloric deficit for a long enough period to respond well to slow and steady increases in caloric intake (if you decide to start a muscle-gain phase at this stage.)
This means getting below 10% for men and below 18% for women.
This is a pretty big range. Going from 9% down to 5% for men, or from 17% down to 10% for women, will become more and more restrictive. At the lowest ranges it's mostly about how badly you want to stretch this out and how lean you really want to get.
If you actually want to get peeled to an extreme level, then the restrictions, compliance, and length of time all play a part. The amount of output that has to be done (literally, the amount of work you're doing) rises exponentially and food intake will need to decrease in conjunction with it. This makes for a fairly miserable existence.
The lowest percentages here are not really sustainable for long term for most people. You can stay within the 8-10% range year round, but it means that your activity levels have to remain fairly high in conjunction with higher degrees of dietary compliance.
Anything in the legit 4-6% range for men and 10-12% for women isn't likely sustainable. Not for long anyway. Nor would I consider those ranges to be optimal for overall health. They would also impact your ability to gain muscle dramatically.
As caloric intake decreases, your macronutrient and micronutrient intake (vitamins, minerals, polyphenols) will become more important. You'll need to pay attention to those because you'll have basically zero wiggle room for the inclusion of foods that are devoid of legitimate nutrition.
- Keep damn near 100% dietary compliance.
- Eat whole or minimally processed foods each day.
- Use only strategic refeeds to replenish glycogen. These might be needed every week or so.
- Use a carb cycling approach if you're getting to the lowest levels of body fat and experiencing sleep or energy drawbacks. This may also offset any decreases in metabolism via adaptive thermogenesis as well.
- Drop caloric intake to bodyweight x 8-10, perhaps lower some days.
- Eliminate all alcohol and sugary drinks.
- Eliminate all trigger foods (anything that causes you to overeat).
- Eat vegetables at (nearly) every meal to increase satiation and compliance.
- Use nutrient timing to offset excess cortisol production from ultra hypocaloric conditions, lack of sleep, and amount of energy being expended.
- Include micronutrients via supplementation (if you weren't already doing that).
- Do cardio daily. Go up to 60-90 minutes for the lowest ranges of body fat to be reached. People who move around all day can get away with a bit less.
- Add some ultra-low calorie days on occasion, like a protein-sparing modified fast day once a week (protein intake only).
- Decrease fat and carb intake as low as possible. Generally 0.22 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight and 0.5 grams of carbs per pound. Those are extreme figures and are only relative to the person and how they are manipulating their diet.
- Increase protein to 1.25 to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight.
- Continue to lift 4 days a week.
- Drink only water and zero-calorie drinks to increase compliance (diet drinks are fine).
This phase might last 8-12 weeks from the last phase. It may take perfect compliance to get to the lowest ranges.
There's a massive jump in the strenuousness when going from 9% body fat to 5%. And the length of time it takes may be longer than you expect. Sure, going from 10% to 8% might only take another month and wouldn't require as many restrictions, but going from 10% to 5% or lower might mean another 10 to 12 weeks following the above restrictions with complete adherence.
If you look at the timelines, you could potentially go from fat, pudgy, or whatever you want to call it to being legit peeled within a year.
I've seen that done, but it's rare. Most people tend to have slip-ups along the way. That's usually during the holidays or vacations when people get back to enjoying life and indulging a bit, which I totally support. If you're not training to get on stage then enjoy those times and simply get back on the program afterwards.
For the majority of people who want to do this, it's usually a process that takes about a year and a half to two years. For some people it's even longer, and that's okay.
No matter what the scale says, there's a good bet you don't carry anywhere near as much muscle as you think you do underneath your fat. If there's one commonality that virtually everyone realizes after undergoing this kind of process, it's how little muscle they were carrying and how much fat they had to lose to get lean.
My own body recomp was like that too. When I retired from powerlifting I was around the 290 pound range. Once I hit 260 I had visible abs, but it wasn't until I got to around 240 that I was actually fairly lean all over. To get peeled I had to get down to 225 pounds. That's from 290.
But the law of individuality is going to reign here. Some people get peeled and are able to keep in a cheat once a week, and some people have to eliminate them altogether.
Some people can get peeled with limited cardio, and some people have to do two hours a day. You'll see firsthand what works for you when you go through the process.
- Chambers L et al. Optimising foods for satiety. Trends in Food Science & technology. 2015 Feb;41(2):149-160.