Shredded: The Quest for Low Body Fat

Time to Read: ~13 Minutes

Take Home Points:

  • The term "shredded" generally means a body that has a decent amount of muscle mass and low body fat percentage. The specific amounts of each can vary based on personal preference.
  • To become more shredded individuals will need to spend time gaining muscular size and then time reducing body fat. They will likely need to cycle between these two phases repeatedly to reach their goal.
  • Reducing body fat is often complicated by biological factors such as human evolution, sex, age, individual genetics, and fat loss history.
  • Environmental factors such as stress levels, calorie confusion and hyper palatable foods also make fat loss hard.
  • Many individuals who are successful in becoming shredded are able to remove fat loss barriers, but doing so takes substantial effort and consistency.
  • While most people will not be able to achieve a level of shredded like their favorite fitness model, some progress can certainly be made with dedicated effort. 


Fitness goals can vary significantly among individuals and at different times in an individual's life. Many of these goals involve building muscle and losing fat. Sometimes the approaches and results to achieve these goals are relatively straightforward. However, sometimes goals can be complicated to achieve. For example, when I ask my clients to tell me their current fitness goals, I sometimes get a response of "I want to look shredded." This is no simple undertaking and in this article we will discuss the path to achieving this goal and the many obstacles that might stand in one's way. 

What Does Shredded Mean?

To begin let's define the term "shredded." Shredded is a term more often used by males, but regardless of gender it refers to a physique commonly held by fitness models and competitive bodybuilders. In more descriptive terms it represents a body that has a significant amount of muscle mass and a very low amount of body fat. So, in essence, muscular and lean. Now, because I can hear some of you out there thinking "but I don't want to be muscular, just lean," let me explain. As an example, let's take a look at my 10 year transformation below:



On the left I have extremely low body fat, but I also have extremely low muscle mass. Is this a good look? I don't think so. In addition, I wouldn't be able to grace the cover of any fitness magazines, nor would I have many people following me for my physique on social media. In truth, me on the left simply doesn't fit the bill as "shredded" because I don't have enough muscle. On the right, after years of training hard, I gained significantly more muscle mass, and on the day of this photo I was also fairly lean (low body fat). I am nowhere near as muscular as a bodybuilder, but you can see the difference having muscle makes. Now, am I shredded in the picture on the right? Certainly more-so than on the left, and it just so happened that this was shredded enough for me personally at the time (body weight = 200lbs, <13% body fat). But compared to many fitness models (example HERE) and physique competitors (example HERE), I'm not that shredded here. Compared to them I could have a bit more muscle mass than I do given my height (6'3") and I would need slightly lower body fat to have my full "8-pack" of abdominals be defined.

The takeaway: "shredded" is a spectrum and "shredded-enough" is subjective based on what the individual is looking for. Still, regardless of how deeply into shredded you want to get, the approach you need to take is the same: you must conduct strength training for size and manage your nutrition for fat loss. You then will likely need to cycle between these two approaches for multiple cycles to achieve your desired look. 

Phase 1: Strength Training for Muscle Development

My recommendation is to begin by conducting strength training for a significant period of time. I have written before on why you should begin your fitness journey with strength and how to go about this efficiently with the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression, so I won't go into any more detail here; check those articles out now if you haven't already. However, I do want highlight a three reasons why I suggest beginning with strength training: 1) strength training requires quite a bit of time to build muscle mass, 2) every time you reduce calories to drop fat, you will lose some muscles mass, and 3) your resting metabolic rate increases by about 75 calories for each 5lbs of muscle that you gain, so having more muscle let's you eat more food (PMID: 25293431).

Phase 2: Nutrition for Fat Loss

After you have built a base of strength and developed a decent amount of muscle mass, you will next want to spend some time reducing your fat levels. Unless you were carrying a lot of fat on you to start or were brand new to strength training, you likely will have gained a bit more fat than you had when you started Phase 1 (yes the processes of gaining muscle and losing fat work against each other - you will gain some fat when you gain muscle and, as mentioned previously, will lose some muscle when you lose fat). Our goal in this step is to lose that newly added fat from Phase 1, plus a bit more. To accomplish this you must consistently reduce your calories to below your maintenance calories.  

Everyone's maintenance calories (the level of food intake that does not cause an increase in body weight) are different. This value can also be a moving target based on how active you have been, how many attempts you have made at losing weight in the past, how much muscle mass you have, and so on. There are equations you can use to estimate your maintenance calories, but ultimately you will need to find the right value by adjusting your food intake and monitoring your body composition (or body weight).

Slow, gradual reductions in calorie intake are recommended for fat loss. Consistently dropping your calories 25% below your maintenance calories is a good place to start. If you see success at this level, just keep going. If you start to plateau, drop your calories a bit more. More advanced approaches may be needed down the road and we can help you with that here at SFF, but this gives you the fundamental approach from which you can get started.

I often get asked about exercise or cardio as a means to drop fat. The data we have to date indicates that it can be very helpful to the process, but is not an effective primary driver - the calorie reduction must be there. In theory, if you pushed yourself to extremes with cardio, it may become effective as a fat loss standalone. However, 1 hour+ moderate to high intensity cardio pieces performed 7 days a week is a huge time commitment, a volume of work that will likely burn you out, and a stimulus that will cause you to lose a large amount of muscle mass. As such, I do not recommend this approach. That being said, you can do some cardio during this phase and 100% should resistance train (lift weights) during this phase to minimize muscle loss.

Phase 3: Cycle Between Phases 1 & 2 As Needed

As mentioned above, Phase 1 (muscle gain phase) and Phase 2 (fat loss phase) work against each other a bit, but they are both needed. So, you probably don't want to stick with any one one of those phases for too long a period of time. For example, you will run into logistical issues if you try to run a fat loss phase out for an entire year. Given this reality, most individuals like to alternate between those two phases for multiple cycles. Basically, alternate between them as many times as you need to achieve your target physique. How many times you need to alternate will depend on a lot of factors. How long you run out each phase will also need to vary somewhat. For example, the more years of strength training you have under your belt, the longer a block of time you will need to see muscle mass (and strength) gains. For example, 4 weeks may be enough when you start, but you may need three or more months of continuous strength training to gain muscle if you have already been training for several years).

Simple But Not Easy

If this article was just intending to give you the key steps you needed to take, I would end it here. Yes, the process needed to achieve the goal is simple (simple = does not have a lot of complexity in the steps that need to be taken). However, although the process is simple, it is not easy (easy = effortless to execute effectively). There are many factors that work against us in this process which explains why many people end up unsuccessful and why, in turn, only a small proportion of the population actually looks shredded.

In the next few sections I go into the reasons why this process is often hard, so that you can manage expectations. But before we move on, I want to mention that these barriers are nearly entirely concerned with the fat loss phase. The strength gain phase, by comparison, doesn't have these significant barriers. As long as you eat well, have a good training program, and train long and hard enough with good technique, you will gain strength and muscle. Yes, it will be hard work, but it tends to be much easier to execute than fat loss.

Biological Barriers

Human biology presents several significant barriers to fat loss:

1. Evolution. Our history as a species is one where over the course of hundreds of thousands of centuries we did not have easy access to food. Calorie dense foods in particular were not easy to come by. We had to hunt animals and get lucky foraging for edible fruits, vegetables and tubers. We rarely were able to consume enough food to be in a surplus and starvation was a constant threat. This resulted in adaptations that linger on today in most humans. Namely, the tendency to hold onto fat as a preventative measure against starvation. Today's modern world in wealthy countries) where high calorie food is abundant represents only a small fraction of Homo sapiens' existence and as a species we have not adapted to this high availability of food.

2. Sex. Males generally store less fat than females. Higher fat levels in females may be a built-in evolutionary protection to promote more successful pregnancies (excessive fat reduction can impair hormone production).

3. Age. The younger you are, the easier it is to gain muscle and keep fat levels low - hormones are on your side. As you get older, these factors work against you somewhat. In addition, as people get older there is data to suggest that they become significantly less active. Although nutrition is the primary driver of fat loss, how active you are matters. Becoming very inactive or sedentary can definitely swing the pendulum towards fat gain, or at the very least, hinder fat loss. 

4. Individual Genetics. Some people just have a much easier time staying at low body fat percentages. We don't full understand the reasons, but one theory is that some genes make individuals less efficient at absorbing calories (they need to consume more food to get the same energy). In addition, some genes may predispose people to carrying a bit more fat. This is important to remember. For some people, their individual genetics may simply prevent them from achieving the level of "shredded" that they desire.

5. Your Fat Loss History. We really don't have rigorous studies on this phenomenon, so it's only data from personal observation, but it is something that myself and other nutrition coaches have seen. Namely, individuals that have gone through aggressive fat loss phases with significant fat regain phases can find it extremely hard to lose weight and keep that weight off. I suspect some form of hormonal disregulation has happened that may not be easily reversible. 

Environmental Barriers

There are several environmental barriers that can pose significant friction to fat loss:

1. Your Overall Stress Levels. If you are living under constant (chronic) stress, the elevation in cortisol can inhibit fat loss. Similarly, if you are not achieving quality sleep each night, hormone levels (Growth Hormone, IGF-1, etc.) will not be optimal for losing fat and keeping the fat off.

2. Calorie Confusion. Our current society makes it very difficult to keep track of how much food (how many calories) we are consuming. For example, when you go out to a restaurant, you have no idea how much of each ingredient you are consuming. And if you get the same dish on different days, the ratio of ingredients could even vary from day to day. When you travel out of town, most people are faced with this situation in every meal. Some foods do come packaged and with nutrition labels. So, you can estimate your calories from these, but the time and discipline required here is too much for most people. Making all your meals from scratch is the best way to know exactly how many calories you are eating, but this requires a tremendous amount of planning and dedication to execute consistently. 

3. Hyperpalatable Foods. Even if we did know just what we needed to eat to achieve our goals, much of the food being sold is processed and highly palatable. These foods play havoc with our body's signals for satiation (feeling full) and can often lead to cravings which make adherence to our desired food intake levels even more difficult.

With All These Barriers, How Is Anyone Shredded At All?

Given all the barriers listed above, how can anyone be shredded at all? Are the people who grace fitness magazines and model underwear faced with each of the barriers listed above and just come out of the battle victorious? Yes and no. 

1. Many Take PEDs. If you take performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) it is a lot easier to gain muscle mass and stay lean. I have no problem with people taking these types of drugs, but when they take them and claim they have not, it really hurts the general population because it sets unrealistic expectations. Many people take these drugs. Keep this in mind.

2. Some People Are Just Genetically Gifted. To some extent I am one of those people. It is very easy for me to stay lean. Even in my mid 40s it is very challenging for me to pack on much more body fat that I have in the above-right transformation picture.

3. Many People Are Young or Started Young. Another thing to consider is a lot of successful "shredded" people are young. If the person you are looking at is shredded and 18 years old, you should not be trying to compare yourself to them if you are 34 years old. They got started much younger. Similarly many older people who are shredded got a start when they were young and then just kept it up. It is much easier to maintain a given level of muscle mass and leanness than it is to achieve one that is new.

4. Shredded People Are Often Making Hard Choices. Unless genetically gifted, those who do not take PEDs and are successful at becoming shredded (and staying shredded) are constantly making hard choices. They are prioritizing the process towards that goal over many other things in their life. For example, if there is a trip that would derail their training and eating, they won't take it. When the holidays come, they just keep eating and training as normal. If weighing all the food they eat is the only way they stay in the calorie deficit they need, they do it. And so on. Remember nearly all of these hard choices are even harder if you are older, in a relationship, work insane hours, have kids, etc.

I want to close this section by reemphasizing that those who are successful at becoming shredded are consistent. Consistency is key to success. You have to be consistent in your strength training but also in your nutrition. You have to be consistently eating the right number of calories below maintenance to lose fat. As mentioned above, this is extremely hard to do. The people who are most successful will weigh and measure their food and prepare it themselves. They will thus learn how many calories are in these foods and can modify as needed over time. The farther removed you are from the actual making of the meals you eat, the harder this becomes. A hard truth is that being mostly consistent often doesn't work. For example, if your breakfasts and dinners are all self-made and identical every day, but your lunch is a take-out burrito bowl, that might not be consistent enough. The amount of each ingredient in the bowl can vary based on how the server makes it. Similarly, if all your meals are identical Monday through Saturday, but on Sunday you swap a meal for 2 pieces of pizza and some ice cream, that might not be consistent enough. Yes it is only one meal, but the total calorie intake for the week matters and in this case it may be higher than it was previously. 

Will Aiming For Less Than Shredded Be Easier?

Perhaps you aren't aiming to get quite as lean as I am in the above pictures. You may be thinking that the process will be a bit easier in that case. This is partly true in that the more body fat you have, the easier it generally is to lose fat. However, you still need to follow the same steps and deal with the same barriers, it's just that you won't necessarily need to deal with them for as long if you are only interested in dropping a small amount of body fat.

Final Thoughts

Having a fitness model physique with a body fat percentage of less than 18% in males and less than 25% in females is extremely challenging for most people to accomplish. Therefore, to set yourself up for success, create smaller, more manageable goals to start and then focus on the process that will move you in your desired direction. Figure out how much consistency you are willing to give and how long you are willing to commit to the process. The more you can give, the more success you will have in achieving your potential for "shredded."


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