When most dudes have the come-to-Jesus moment that they need to start exercising and eating right, their primary motivation is usually to look good, and looking good usually means being lean and “ripped.” They want the hot beach bod with abs you can grate cheese on.
But they also want to be big and strong. Really strong. “Strong AF,” as they say on Instagram these days.
After scouring the interwebs for plans that will simultaneously get them ripped and swole at the same time, these would-be Adonises get to training.
They’re at the gym six days a week, beast-moding a different body part each day. They take the obligatory locker room selfie of their after-workout pump and post it to Instagram (#transformation #beastmode). They drink their protein shake within the magical one-hour window after working out so their muscles absorb as much of it as possible. (Some really jacked guy on Instagram mentioned doing that in his sponsored post for Optimum Nutrition. The guy is jacked so he obviously knows what he’s talking about.)
For a few weeks, these gents see some progress. They’re getting a bit leaner and they’re starting to see some muscle definition. They can even bench a bit more than they could before they started.
But they want to get even leaner. Sub-10% body fat or bust, baby.
So they cut calories, eliminate carbs, and throw in some HIIT training at the end of each workout.
And leaner they do get.
Muscle definition is at its peak. Six-pack abs have been achieved.
But they’re not getting strong AF. In fact, they’re getting weak AF.
That 225-lb bench press that was within reach a few weeks ago now is miles away. Weight that was once easy to lift, now feels like a metric ton.
Bro, what happened?
Maybe it’s the program. Maybe you need to add in some accessory work. Hit those triceps hard to help with those last few inches before the bench lockout.
Adjustments are made and training commences again.
Your lean, tanned bod looks like that of a golden professional soccer player, but your lifts look like something your girlfriend could crank out.
You Can’t Have It All (At the Same Time)
I’m going to lay some hard truth on you here: Despite what the internet or that dude-bro at the gym might say, you cannot get both super lean and super strong at the same time. They are goals that are diametrically opposed to each other.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying you can’t be shredded and strong. There are lots of men out there who have 10% body fat and can deadlift and squat a ton.
You just can’t work on getting ripped and strong at the same time.
Why You Can’t Get Lean While Getting Big and Strong
Increasing muscle density and size is what makes you big and strong. So to get big and strong, you need to pack on more muscle.
But here’s the rub. Muscle is calorically expensive. It requires a lot of energy to create. To create that new muscle, you need to consume more calories than you’re expending. How much more? More than you probably think.
The biggest mistake most men make when they set down the path of gainz is that they eat the same amount of food they were eating before they were training. Intense weight training puts a lot of stress on the body. To fully recover, you need to provide your body the fuel to do so. That means you need a sufficient amount of calories that come from protein, carbs, and fat.
If you train and provide your body with enough calories, muscle mass and strength will increase.
But you’re also going to put on some body fat.
I’m sorry to say so, but sadly it’s true.
There’s no escaping that fact. Some of those excess calories you’re consuming for the production of muscle will be stored as fat. That’s just how your body operates.
Why You Can’t Get Big and Strong While Getting Lean
To get ripped, lean, shredded, etc. you need to shed body fat.
Shedding body fat requires you to consume fewer calories than you’re expending so that your body uses your fat stores for energy.
But here’s the rub: just as you can’t put on muscle mass without putting on some body fat, you can’t reduce body fat without reducing some muscle mass.
When you’re in a caloric deficit, your body not only uses fat for energy, it also breaks down muscle tissue for the nutrients it needs to keep your physiological systems running. As muscle tissue cannibalizes, muscle mass and strength go down.
This is why you can’t get big and strong while you’re trying to get lean. Getting big and strong requires excess calories, while getting lean requires a caloric deficit.
You’ve got to pick a goal at the exclusion of the other.
Can You Have Your Cake and Eat It Too — With Steroids?
A common rejoinder to the biological fact that it’s impossible to both put on muscle mass while getting lean is that steroids allow you to do both.
If you’re trying to get big and strong, you’re still going to put on some body fat, even if you’re taking steroids. Because, again, to gain muscle mass, you need to increase the amount of calories you’re consuming, and that’s going to result in some body fat accumulation.
To be sure, steroids will increase the ratio between muscle mass and body fat accumulation compared to going all natural. That is, you’re still going to put on some body fat while you’re taking steroids because you’re consuming excess calories. You’re just going to put on much more muscle mass than you would without taking steroids.
If you’re trying to get lean, you’ve got to reduce calorie consumption. That’s going to result in you losing body fat and some muscle mass in the process. Anabolic steroids will mitigate, but not eliminate, muscle and strength loss during this “cutting phase.”
So, no, anabolic steroids aren’t magic. While they can certainly help, they don’t completely eliminate the body’s inability to get bigger and stronger without getting a bit fatter, nor the body’s inability to get leaner without cannibalizing some muscle tissue.
For more info about why you can’t gain muscle without getting a little bit fat (even with steroids), listen to my podcast with doctor and strength coach Jordan Feigenbaum:
How to Be Big, Strong, and Lean
While it’s impossible to simultaneously work on being big, strong, and lean, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to BE big, strong, and lean. You just have to work on these goals at different times.
Elite bodybuilders understand this fact. They are freakishly big and most are freakishly strong. They didn’t get that way by trying to maintain 8% body fat year round. They have periods where they focus on getting bigger and stronger and this means eating a crap ton of food and getting fatter in the process. This is commonly known as “bulking.”
As a competition draws near, they start reducing calories, shifting macros, and adjusting training to shed the body fat they’ve gained during their bulking. This calorie reduction results in them losing some strength and muscle mass in the process (though anabolic steroids slow this process down a bit).
The end result is a guy who’s big, strong, and lean. He got there by focusing on one goal at a time.
Get Big and Strong First, Lean Out Later
Based on my conversations with dozens of strength and conditioning experts, most agree that every man should make getting bigger and stronger a foundational priority, even if their ultimate goal is to lose weight. Why?
Because getting bigger and stronger is harder to do and takes more time than it does to lose body fat. What’s more, having more muscle mass and strength provides a much bigger return on investment than just losing body fat.
When you increase muscle mass and strength, losing body fat becomes easier later on. You’ll be able to work harder during those HIIT sessions when you’re trying to cut, thanks to that increased strength. What’s more, increased muscle mass leads to a whole host of hormonal changes that help speed up fat loss, while maintaining muscle.
So if you’re just getting started with training, make getting stronger your first priority. It will pay dividends later on.
Next, let’s walk through a few scenarios for your specific body-type.
If you’re really skinny….
If you’re really skinny, you’re going to need to eat a crap ton of high-quality food. Eat more than you think you’d need. Whole milk, whey protein, and peanut butter will be your friend here.
And yes, you’re going to put on some chub. You may even get “skinny fat.” (Gasp!) That’s okay. Remind yourself that fat is easy to lose, while muscle is hard to gain, but pays dividends down the road. With all the new muscle mass you gained in the process of bulking, you’re going to look jacked when you get around to shedding that fat.
If you’re not skinny, but not fat…
If you’re hovering around 15-18% body fat, but dream of having just 10% body fat one day, simply focus on getting bigger and stronger. It will help you look even better when you’re ready to cut.
And yes, this will mean you’re going to get fatter. You might even push yourself up to 20% body fat, but as long as you’re getting progressively stronger, don’t worry about it. Stripping body fat is easy (it’s just a matter of diet), and thanks to your prioritizing muscle mass and strength, you’re going to have a lot of dense, sexy muscle beneath that fat. Letting yourself get fatter in the short-term will allow you to look more jacked in the long-term.
This is the camp that I fall in. I typically hover around 15% body fat. I’ve gotten down to 12% before, but it makes me feel terrible when I do, so I stick to around 15%.
When I started strength training with my coach Matt Reynolds, he set me up on a diet that involved eating a lot more calories than I was used to. I was eating so much food, I was pooping two or three times a day. In a few months, I started to get a belly, which Kate referred to as “the Rippetoe Belly” because it kind of looked like the famous paunch sported by Starting Strength’s founder, Mark Rippetoe. My face got chubby, and my body fat went from 15% to 20%.
But I was getting stronger and stronger, so I didn’t care. If I had training sessions that went crappy, it was usually due to my not consuming an adequate amount of calories. Whenever I got back to eating the way I was supposed to, the gainz started rolling again.
When I needed to lose some body fat for a photoshoot I did for Huckberry last August, Matt adjusted my diet. He gradually reduced calories and shifted my macros from more carbs to more fat. Basically, it was a paleo diet. My workout consisted of a lot more HIIT cardio.
In a few months, I leaned up significantly and got back down to 13% body fat. But because of the muscle mass I gained during my bulk, I looked bigger and more jacked than the last time I was 15% body fat.
Looks aside though, my strength suffered significantly. Weight that was once easy to lift, felt like hefting lead.
After a few weeks of enjoying being more shredded, I got back to focusing on getting big and strong. That meant gradually increasing my calories and welcoming back my fat face. With the return of the Rippetoe Belly, my PRs started climbing again.
Once I hit a few more PR goals of mine, I’ll probably do another cut.
If you’re fat…
Now if you’re fat, and we’re talking about 25%+ body fat, you can actually reduce calories and still make significant strength and muscle gains when your first start training because, well, you’ve got a lot of energy stores to work with.
You shouldn’t eat like a rabbit or else your performance is going to suffer. You want to consume about 250 calories less than what you usually eat to maintain your current weight. Consider doing a Paleo-type diet in which you reduce or eliminate carbs completely and go heavy on protein and good fats (like you find in coconut oil, nuts, and avocados). If you’re dropping about a half inch around your waist each week while maintaining your body weight (because you’re increasing muscle mass), and you’re not noticing any decrease in performance (i.e., you can complete each of your workouts), you’re on the right track.
Follow a barbell training regimen like Starting Strength’s novice linear progression program. Nothing packs on muscle and adds strength like doing compound barbell lifts. At the end of each workout, do 10-15 minutes of HIIT cardio. Airdyne sprints, prowler pushes, and kettlebell circuits are all great exercises for HIIT.
You’re not going to notice dramatic changes in your body. In fact, you may gain some weight and your clothes may fit around your chest a bit tighter due to increased muscle mass. But keep measuring that waist. If that keeps going down, you’re good.
Once you get below 20% body fat, you can start upping the calories a bit to put the muscle gains in overdrive.
Advanced Dieting for Strength Training
For most beginning weight lifters, keeping your diet simple is ideal. Eat enough good food so that you adequately recover between each workout.
As you get more advanced in your training, you can start doing things with your diet to mitigate (not eliminate, remember, that’s impossible) fat increases while trying to get bigger or mitigate muscle loss while trying to shed fat.
These types of diets require you to meticulously count your calories and macros and adjust things on a weekly or even daily basis depending on how your body responds to your diet. It’s a tedious affair at first, but soon becomes a natural habit. You can read my complete guide to macro tracking here.
That sort of thing can wait a few months if you’re a rank beginner. Put on that muscle mass and get strong (AF!). It will reap dividends for you later on when you decide to get beach body ready.
Conclusion: Do You Want to Train to Get Lean or Strong?
The bottom line here is that getting lean (or “ripped”) and getting strong are two different goals that can ultimately be achieved at the same time, but can’t be trained for at the same time.
Some guys just want to be strong, and don’t care about aesthetics, which is why you often see powerlifters who don’t look “in shape” or “ripped” like an action movie star, but are still strong as all get out.
On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got guys who just want to consistently look good in a tank top, are lean and ripped, and don’t care that they’re not pulling in huge numbers on their lifts.
Finally, there are guys who want to get as strong as possible, but also sometimes want to shed their power belly, and they work on these respective goals in phases: first bulking up, and then leaning out.
Whichever category you fall into, just understand what you’re aiming for, and what’s possible when.