Why Bother Being Ripped?

The irony in this blog is that although I’ve posted several shirtless photos of myself to document my progress, I almost never take my shirt off in front of others in real life, not even at the beach (although I don’t find myself there too often). So what gives? Why bother getting ripped if nobody knows what’s under my clothes (with the exception of my wife)? For me, being ripped and staying ripped is the product of living what I deem a healthy lifestyle, although every person might have a different concept of what a healthy lifestyle is. I’m certainly not suggesting that if you’re not ripped you’re not healthy (in fact, I believe the two are generally mutually exclusive) but rather it’s that the habits I consider healthy and have incorporated into my life also happen to produce a ripped physique.

150 lbs @ 7% body fat. Mostly functional with a touch of vanity.

150 lbs @ 7% body fat. Mostly functional with a touch of vanity.

Vanity vs Function

Although I keep it to only a couple of minutes per week, I do admit that I enjoy taking photos of myself in the mirror. I like to track my progress. Is that vain? Is it more about form than function? There’s probably some vanity involved, but the lion’s share of everything I do is functional; it’s not for show. In my case, form follows function. I’m not interested in being ripped for the sake of it; I’m interested in having a healthy body, and being ripped just happens to come with it.

Let’s take three individuals with similarly impressive physiques, but for whom appearance tells only part of the story and can belie the truth about each person’s health.

Person 1: The “bulker” and cutter

This person prefers to be ripped for a portion of the year, using the bulk and cut method to put on muscle and [what I consider to be] a good deal of fat, then cut down for several months, losing fat and some muscle. Many bodybuilders engage in this practice for their sport. While this is perfect for some people (and probably necessary for bodybuilders), it’s not my cup of tea, especially considering that I don’t compete or have any aspirations to do so. I don’t like the concept of swinging fat stores and overall body weight in general so drastically over the year. I make no comment about how it factors into the health of others, but I know it’s not right for my health. I also believe that it can lead to more licentious eating (like things out of boxes or sweets) during the bulking phase. It doesn’t mean that all individuals who engage in a classic bulk are doing it, but it’s a common occurrence. Further, eating so much food creates a pro-inflammatory immune response and reduces the body’s ability to use energy for cellular repair because it’s so busy working to break down and integrate nutrients all the time. A ripped physique says nothing about blood profile or cellular health.

Person 2: The sculptor

This is an individual who is more focused on creating a ripped physique and less so on developing functional strength. He or she performs many sets of many reps of a mind boggling array of exercises to target every muscle from every angle. This is awesome for some people, but I stay far away from anything that resembles this type of routine, which results in little functional strength development, central nervous system inefficiency, and imbalances between muscle groups because I believe it’s simply impossible to know, say, how many triceps kickbacks must be performed for how many reps and sets under what kind of load at what speed to properly compliment the four sets of pec-isolating cable flyes you just performed. Why not just bench heavy instead?

Person 3: The full-body metabolic conditioner

Think CrossFit or boot camp style training. Lots of people love routines like these; they can be great for developing functional strength. I’ve personally done absolute monster loads of strength-based metabolic conditioning in the past. But if you’ve read my posts about walking, you probably know how I’ve come to terms with how counterproductive metabolic conditioning is for the average person (like me). I think it’s definitely helpful for certain types of athletes in small, judiciously applied doses, but otherwise I prefer to stay far away from it the same way I do targeted sculpting routines. Some (only some) CrossFit practitioners see peeing blood as the result of exercise-induced muscle tissue breakdown (a.k.a. rhabdomyolysis) as a rite of passage and wear it as a badge of honor (I personally think that’s the most absolutely insanely stupid concept/ practice on the planet). Metabolic strength routines can be hell on the joints and connective tissue. Those explosive movements can take a major toll on the body after years. I’ll be 33 years old soon, and I want to stay very strong in the least stressful way possible.

Person 4: Me

If I stand next to any of the three types of people described above I might not stack up visually, but there’s a good chance that I’d be ahead on the spectrum of functional strength, joint health and possibly blood health. Since I’m not interested in sculpting my body in the least, but I am focused on minimizing gym time, I perform absolutely zero targeted muscular work i.e….

  • no biceps curls
  • no crunches
  • no shrugs
  • no triceps kickbacks
  • no dumbbell rows
  • no cable flyes… no cable work at all
  • no pec deck
  • no leg extensions
  • no leg presses
  • no leg curls
  • no calf raises
  • no shoulder raises
  • no… you get the point

…and use only heavy compound barbell lifts, chin-ups, pull-ups and dips. This is how I’ve developed a relatively high strength to body weight ratio in virtually any anatomical position. I can strictly front squat 125%, back squat and bench 170% of my body weight for reps, deadlift almost 190%, overhead press 100%, chin and pull-up 130% and dip 160% for several reps. I list these stats not to brag, but to make the point that one not need look very strong to be very strong. If you’ve ever watched American Ninja Warrior you might have noticed that the most successful competitors are those who are masters of their own body weight. They’re people who can maintain precise control over their bodies under exceedingly physically taxing conditions for extended periods. These individuals are ripped more often than not, but they’re also usually only carrying moderate amounts of muscle. Whenever I see someone big and ripped ready to attack the course, I know they’re likely not going to be completing it because it’s virtually impossible for them to overcome the weight of their own muscle, much as the way an enlarged heart is more likely to fail. This is no knock on big muscles by any means–it’s simply a statement that I prefer to maintain a high degree of mobility and an ability to carry my weight in a more effortless manner. Ten years ago I was at 166 lbs (big for me) with 10% body fat, and I was a tortoise with poor endurance. And since being ripped is a year-round state for me, I’m not drastically swinging my eating habits. I might add a couple hundred calories into my diet by opening my eating window to four hours per day for a couple of months when I want to add a little more muscle, or close the eating window a bit if I want to lose a little fat, but this is primarily for reasons of vanity. At its core, the lifestyle I follow heavily favors function and integrated health before all else, and rippedness follows.

There’s No Such Thing as Cheating

I see a good number of mentions of the concept of “cheating” during a diet. Many individuals who are cutting plan for what they refer to as “cheat” days or meals, a time during which eating guidelines are loosened. I never cheat because I don’t believe that there’s such thing as cheating when it comes to food. For example, I eat ice cream and chocolate and drink wine several nights a week. But it’s not cheating. How does that make sense?

According to Mirriam-Webster online, cheating is “to break a rule or law usually to gain an advantage at something.” Considering that, I see cheating in relation to whatever activity, whether it’s on an exam, on a spouse, in a sport, on a resume, or whatever else as just plain wrong. So then why would I program cheating into my lifestyle? If cheating provides an unfair advantage, how does eating “bad” or “dirty” food provide an unfair advantage? If anything, foods typically on the “cheat” list are nutrient sparse and sugary or fatty. Wouldn’t eating those things set a person back on the path toward their goals?

Here’s another question: assuming that there was some sort of pill that could make a person ripped overnight, providing a truly significant time advantage over getting ripped via traditional diet and exercise, would taking it constitute cheating? In my opinion, definitely not. Who would that person be cheating? Perhaps if he or she were competing in a “get ripped naturally” competition, then yes, but otherwise, it wouldn’t be cheating. It’s like saying that someone who has their stomach stapled is cheating to lose weight. So even if the logic of a “bad” food being a “cheat” held water (i.e. that it somehow was a hack for losing fat faster) the concept that it is cheating to hack a process that is unique to the individual and affects nobody else is illogical on its own.

All this is to say (if I hadn’t made my opinion clear already) that nothing about the concept of cheating with regard to food makes sense, which is why I don’t schedule cheat meals. They simply don’t exist in my mind. For me, a food is either ok to eat regularly, ok to eat occasionally, or not ok to eat ever. I’m not a proponent of the “If It Fit Your Macros” (IIFYM) paradigm, since I prefer to eat foods with a high nutritional content, but it’s still important to me to have some freedom to eat something less nutritious if I want it. For example, I enjoy having a serving of full fat, sugared ice cream a few times a week or 20-30 grams of 100% dark chocolate (yes, I love baking chocolate) with some red wine, but I would never eat, for example, a soy-based product, margarine, or a product sweetened with agave. I draw an eat/ no eat line and stick to it.

I also think that applying the concept of cheating to food can be detrimental because it puts a negative slant on the act of eating. It means that by eating that thing, you’re doing something bad or wrong. In my opinion, that’s the type of psychology that can provide conditions conducive to the development of an eating disorder.

How I reconcile eating less nutritious foods with my goals

On several pages across, I explain that my philosophy about diet and exercise revolves around sustainability. Physique goes along with this; my interests are not in bulking and cutting cycles, since by definition that practice means that each condition is not sustained. My diet is part of my lifestyle, not something that comes to a halt, so maintaining it had better be as close to effortless as possible. I include less nutritious foods in my lifestyle because they allow relief from periods when I might be too low on calories or not be taking in enough fat or whatever. They provide psychological grease by effectively addressing the natural phenomenon of cravings.

Dietary Periodization

Just as I believe that the most effective lifting programs employ a periodization protocol that cycles the type of lift, load, set volume, rep volume, rep speed and rest interval at multiple scales (intra and inter-day, week and month) — see the RF Strength Method here, eating should be the same. Periodization in the gym is highly beneficial because it can help reduce fatigue, improve recovery, prevent psychological staleness, and reduce plateauing and stagnation. I find periodization as it relates to food consumption to be beneficial for the same reasons. I cannot eat below maintenance for months on end while lifting heavy if I want to slowly drop to 5% body fat. Although I might not adhere to the more strict periodization guidelines I set for my lifting, I might need a day or two each week to eat at my maintenance level to offer my body a break. I might need some good food high in naturally occurring saturated fat and cholesterol, like a few eggs cooked in a couple of tablespoons of lard to allow my hormone levels to reset. I might need an enormous bowl of oats with coconut oil and honey and dark chocolate to replenish glycogen stores sometimes. Ice cream is just something I love, so it’s a great psychological treat. Maybe I’ll have a double serving of red wine one night because I just enjoy the ensuing relaxed state. Does this sound like I’m doing something bad to myself (like a “cheat meal/ day” implies) or am I creating the ideal environment for mental and physical growth and progress? You know what I’d say.