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How to Get Ripped: Go From Average to Lean in 12 Weeks

woman flexing bicepAbout 2 years ago I sort of accidentally on purpose stumbled on the way to make myself go from average athletic (20% body fat) to, well, sort of ripped (12% body fat).

I say accidentally because my only intention was to exercise and eat right and maybe “tone up” a little bit. But each month, my mirror was showing me amazing results, as were the body calipers. The below plan is what worked for me. If you have ever wanted to try getting “ripped” and are already in pretty good shape, give it a shot and see how it works for you!

My Get Ripped Diet

When I started, I was already a fairly healthy eater. I had eliminated grains from my diet because of a gluten sensitivity and decided to try to remove most dairy, too, because of a childhood milk allergy. So I was left with fruit, vegetables, lean meats, legumes, tubers, and healthy fats like nuts and avocado.

I decided that since I was building muscle, I should focus on lots of protein and veggies, so I made that the central focus of each meal. Here was my daily plan:

  • Meal 1 – 2 eggs + lean meat + starchy carb + fruit
  • Meal 2 – protein shake with protein + fruit + leafy green vegetable + healthy fat
  • Meal 3 – lean meat + veggie or legume  +  veggie
  • Meal 4 – lean meat + veggie or legume + veggie
  • Meal 5 – protein + healthy fat

So here is what a typical day looked like:

  • Meal 1 (7am) – 2 egg omelet with seasoned ground turkey, bell peppers, 1/2 sweet potato, and apple slices
  • Meal 2 (12pm, post-workout) — protein shake with whey (I have since eliminated whey powder, read why here), 1/2 cup frozen fruit, 2T of flaxseed, 1 cup of baby spinach – here’s how to make a perfect healthy smoothie.
  • Meal 3 (2pm) – grilled chicken breast with alfalfa sprouts, bell pepper slices, avocado, tomato, and onion wrapped in 2 collard green leaves
  • Meal 4 (6pm) – salad w/ field greens, smoked salmon, red and green onion, red and green bell peppers, walnuts, cucumber, celery, balsamic vinegar/olive oil for dressing
  • Meal 5 (9pm) – steamed edamame or mixed nuts

Looking for your own healthy meal plan? Here’s a 4 week one I created for you.

Here were some guidelines I set up for myself:

  • alcohol was limited to social engagements only, and then red wine or clear liquor/soda was top choice
  • all fruit and carbohydrates consumed before 3pm (read more here about nutrient timing)
  • 2.5-3L of water every day (read more here about how much water you should be drinking)
  • organic and grass-fed foods whenever possible
  • “fun” or “cheat” meals once a week, or during social engagements, or when I felt like I needed one, not to exceed 1500 calories
  • avoid pasta, bread, grains, and cheese as much as possible (for reasons stated above)
  • no artificial sweeteners or sugar, besides a teaspoon of raw sugar or honey in my coffee
  • I followed these serving sizes

For the most part if I followed this plan I didn’t have to count calories, just journaling for accountability.

My Workout to Get Ripped

Before this plan, I alternated traditional strength training and cardio at the gym 5 days a week. I found HIIT bodyweight workouts on YouTube one day when I couldn’t make it to the gym with a sick child, and after that day I never went back and have been working out at home ever since.

Read more here about HIIT training and why you should try it.

When you first start HIIT, 1 or 2 times per week is enough. It can be hard on your central nervous system and leave you with too much of a negative energy balance, which will stall your efforts and make you feel like crap. Sub another type of workout in the meantime until you can do it more often. Here is what my workout schedule looked like each week once I worked up to HIIT 3x a week:

  • Monday – 40 minutes of circuit training (full body strength training with 2 minute intervals of cardio, like jump rope, in between sets)
  • Tuesday – active rest day (walking, yoga, etc.)
  • Wednesday – HIIT workout – 12-20 minutes + 20 minutes of cardio (running or jump rope)
  • Thursday – cardio (run or jump rope) 30 minutes
  • Friday – HIIT workout – 12-20 minutes + 20 minutes of cardio (running, jump rope)
  • Saturday – active rest day (walking, yoga, etc)
  • Sunday – HIIT track and field workout, 30-40 min (combination of plyometrics, sprints, tire flips, broad jumps, stadium running, etc., completed at local high school track)

Every day I also walked to pick up my children from school, about 1.5 miles.

I found my HIIT workouts through Zuzana Light, Nike Training Club and just using Google or YouTube to search.

I’m Not Always “Ripped”

This is not a year-round plan for me. It’s a tool I use every so often to reach a goal, but it’s not my lifestyle. I used it to get in shape for my wedding. And I use it before summer, or to get ready for a photoshoot. The rest of the year I’m much more flexible with what I eat and how often I eat, although the number one priority is always health.

I am still in good shape, but with a little higher body fat percentage. I buckle down and follow these guidelines for 12 weeks to reach that goal for whatever reason, then I’m back to just eating whole foods and balance. (I do follow this exercise routine year-round but it’s because I really enjoy it.)

Have you ever been “ripped”? How did you do it?

  • Susan Parris

    Thanks so much for this. I love it with just one teeny weeny exception. Going from 7am to 12noon. As a diabetic I feel that I would go into a hypo.. Your thoughts?

    • Deanna Schober

      You might! Feel free to adjust it to six smaller meals or to move times around, I’m sure it wouldn’t make any difference. Good luck!

      • Susanne Parris

        Thanks Deanna.

  • christina

    Thank you for sharing! What protein would you recommend for vegetarians?

  • Deanna Schober

    I’d use tempeh, beans, Greek yogurt to start.

  • melissa

    I feel that I need to eat better or more times a day. I am about 149 and have a bad habit of eating less than 1000 calories…. I started to eat brekfast and smaller meals throughout the day but started gaining weight. What should I do?

    • Deanna Schober

      It’s hard to give advice without knowing your diet and exercise habits, but generally you should not gain weight eating a balance of whole foods with a focus on lean protein, fresh vegetables, and fruit and staying active everyday. Make sure your food is high quality and nutritious and not just low calorie, this can make a difference. Also remember the scale can fluctuate because of water weight, muscle gain etc so try to go by how your clothes fit instead.

  • Linda

    I have a hard time eating eggs in the morning. Do you have any suggestions, I drink a protein smoothie for breakfast, workout, drink a post workout protein shake. Is this a healthy option?

    • Deanna Schober

      It depends on what you are putting in the shake…if you’re using a refined protein supplement, I’d limit it to just once at best (make sure you read the link above about protein powder) but if it’s all whole foods I wouldn’t worry about it. You could try oats with berries and peanut butter with a side of raw veggies as an alternative to eggs, mixed with milk it has a significant amount of protein.

  • Butterfly Eyes

    Deanna, you mention to avoid cheese. What are your thoughts on Allegro cheese (4% milk fat) and cottage cheese as additional vegetarian sources of protein?

  • Deanna Schober

    I’m not familiar with allegro but many ripped athletes/bodybuilders have consumed cottage cheese daily with great success. I eliminated it because I felt my body reacted negatively to dairy.

  • Littlechick

    Very inspiring! When you went from 20% to 12% body fat, what did that do to your weight? I ask because while I am very small, I am skinny fat and have a hard time building muscle. I tried once before cutting way back on carbs and eating more protein while on a HIIT workout plan for 10 weeks but I just lost a few more pounds and didn’t seem to gain much muscle at all. I think maybe I needed more calories of protein/veggies per day. You are inspiring me to try again and I want to do it right. Is it more about the quality vs. the quantity of food? I.e. were you in a steep calorie deficiency or not so much? Thank you for the great advice and meal ideas.

  • Deanna Schober

    I only lost 3-5 lbs (fluctuated) but my clothes fit differently.
    It is absolutely about the quality of food over quantity. I saw a huge change in my performance when I got enough calories which enabled me to build more muscle and burn more fat. I was eating about 1750 average calories and according to Body Media, burning about 2300 (up to 2800 on really active days) per day, so never more than a 1,000 calorie deficit. Good luck!

  • Sarah Mae Siddons

    That’s awesome! So I have a few questions….I’m a 20 yr old female 5’8″ tall. About 6 weeks ago I started an intense fitness program (which was my first time seriously getting back to working out in 6 months because of bad knees, i’ve since had surgery). I track all of my calories using LoseIt and I was eating about 1300 a day for the first 5 weeks (Every day I drink Shakeology, and the rest is all fresh fruits and veggies, chicken, fish, some olive oil in cooking, basically nonprocessed foods, and I drink about a gallon of water a day). Well I wasn’t really “seeing” any results (no loss in inches), I felt great, and I could see more tone all over my body, but I wondered if I wasn’t eating enough. So I did the 12xbody weight and saw that i should try eating 1800 calories a day. So i’ve been doing that for a week. When I got on the scale a couple days ago, I noticed that I had gained about 7 pounds in roughly 8 weeks (about 152 to 159). Is that normal? Should i just keep doing what i’m doing and not stress too much about it? All of my clothes still fit the same as before so I’m feeling discouraged and a little confused. Suggestions? Motivation? Thanks!!

  • Deanna Schober

    I don’t get near my scale anymore since I began this program. Putting muscle on will make the scale go up even though you’re getting your desired results. At your height and with intense exercise I think staying on the higher end of caloric range is probably best. If you measure your body fat with calipers and see THAT number going up, then I would lower calories a tiny bit until you reach the magic number where body fat is going down but performance doesn’t suffer. Good luck!

  • JC

    I was told to do intense muscle training before doing intense cardio (running or cycling etc) because it will tap into your muscle energy if you do the exact opposite. I am trying to build more muscle since I know muscle burns more calories at rest. Im doing alot of kick boxing, cycle classes to help with my endurance also. What’s your opinion? Does it matter greatly how I exercise?

    • Deanna Schober

      Our theory is that the priority goes first, before energy is spent. So yes, I’d stick with what you are doing, strength training first for building muscle as a priority. If, for example, you were training for a marathon, then running would come first. Hope that helps.

  • Suzanne

    Sounds like a fitness competitor’s plan (and body fat percentage)! Nice details, getting “ripped” is definitely a matter of degree. If I got down that low in body fat I’d look unhealthy, so I stick to around 20% (though to see abs for photos it has to be more like 17-18%).

    • Deanna Schober

      Suzanne, that’s sort of how I did it “accidentally”, I found the main ideas from a bodybuilding website and figured, if it made them bikini-competition ready, it would help me cut fat! And good point, everyone looks different at different % based on where they are genetically pre-disposed to carry fat.

  • Amber

    Hi!Thanks for the thorough information on this site!I’ve been following the bodyweightx12 recommendation and wanted to ask something about the cheat meal option – should I lower my calories for the rest of the week to reach the desired number (example:I eat 1500 every day,but if I want a higher calorie day should I do 6×1400+one day of 2100 kcal)?

    • Deanna Schober

      Yes, if you want to average it out you’ll need to adjust the rest of the week. Good luck!

  • Jenna

    I just found your website. It’s wonderful!! I just ‘graduated’ from physical therapy after dislocating my hip and two labral tears. I will be visiting your website alot to figure out what is the best workout plan now. Everything here is explained well and is super motivating!

  • Dayna Carton

    Just wondering, do you adjust what you eat on workout vs non workout days? Or do you just tend to eat around the same calories all the time?

  • Deanna Schober

    I’ve experimented with this, and at times have taken out the starchy carbs on non-workout days. Usually it’s only when I hit a plateau.

  • Deanna Schober

    Awesome Jenna! Good luck!

  • Tasha FCruz

    Thank you…this is awesome! I’m really going to try to follow this plan. So I walked to pick my daughter up everyday from school as well but it’s only a 3 minute walk which my child complained about a lot. Did your kids have to walk 1.5 miles back home everyday? lol

    • Deanna Schober

      They did and they complained every time :)

    • LoraLee

      just a note! If you get lots of exercise, ie: walking miles and miles(when I was a teenager), my body did not forget this and gave me great lest etc as I am older~~ you could try to bounce a ball back and forth during the walk to get her mind off of walking? Make it a game~ She will love you for doing this..

  • Kelly Smith

    Awesome post Deanna – I have shared with my fitness buddies – but how would we adapt this for us who work out at 5.30am in the morning and then hit the office around 8am?

    • Deanna Schober

      I’d move the protein shake to breakfast or right after workout, and eat the rest of your meals at work by prepping ahead of time and storing. Move as much as you can at work. Good luck!

      • Kelly Smith

        Thank you :)

  • LoraLee

    This ‘PLAN’ is very inspiring…thanks for posting it!!

  • Terrylynn

    Good plan, Deanna. My Personal Trainer has me currently lifting heavy with little time in between sets (aka super sets) for one month and we are calling it Phase 1. Phase 2 will look more like what you have described in your getting ripped plan. I however feel fluffy and do not like the way I look right now. I am only on week 2. I know I have body fat on top of my muscles but I want to see more definition, like your photo above. Do you agree with lifting heavy for a month with no cardio or do you suggest I incorporate a steady state cardio for a 30-45 minutes a couple of days a week? Or would you suggest something different. Thank you.

  • Michele K

    I’m going to give this a try. The food alone is great!

  • Deanna Schober

    Hi Terrylynn, you can certainly get great results just from heavy lifting, especially if lifting is giving you an anaerobic workout (is it intense? Do you feel short of breath?) I like cardio just because it breaks up the monotony a little. The magic of melting fat will happen in your diet, though, so I’d start there.

  • Christa

    Thank you. This is laid out so strait forward and easy to follow.

  • Marlin

    Great post!! I exercise in the evenings just before dinner. Would you recommend I have my first starchy meal in the morning for breakfast and my second one post workout for dinner?

    • Deanna Schober

      Sounds like a good plan to me!

  • Jen B

    this is great information, i get soo bored with foods and everyone keeps telling me im not eating enough, i also keep hitting plateaus i will give this a try, thank you

  • Roger Aucoin

    Hi, Deanna,

    I’m not understanding something. You mention you have all of your fruits and carbs before 3p, but you have a salad afterwards. I thought fruits, veggies, and salad stuff were all carbs? What am I missing?

    Thanks – Roger

    • Deanna Schober

      I don’t count veggies as carbs even though they technically are. I save all fruit and grains for before 3pm. Salads after 3 are all veggies, fats, seeds, and protein. So for example, during this time period I might have quinoa for lunch or oatmeal for breakfast, but not after 3. Same with any fruits.

  • Deanna Power

    Hi! I have been hitting the gym for about a year and a half now and I’ve read that along with a weight lifting program you should implement more supplements into your routine as well, so what I’m wondering is if there are certain times of the day that are better for taking supplements, and which ones do you recommend. I’ve been taking a multi vitamin and calcium supplement in the morning with breakfast, a B100 complex with lunch, and glucosamine 1300 mgs at bedtime. Anything I should or should not be doing there?