How I Got Ripped Abdominals
For The Very First Time
By Tom Venuto, CPT, CSCS
never forget the very first time I got
ripped, how I did it and how it felt. I’ve
never told this entire story before or
widely published my early photos either.
place and seeing my abs the first time was
But before that, it
was a story of desperation…
I started lifting weights for
bodybuilding when I was 14 years old, but I never
had ripped abs until I was 20. I endured six years
of frustration and embarrassment. Being a teenager
is hard enough, but imagine how I felt being a
self-proclaimed bodybuilder, with no abs or muscle
definition to show for it. Imagine what it was like
in swimming class or when we played basketball in
gym class and I prayed to be called out for “shirts”
and not ‘”skins” because I didn’t want any one
seeing my “man-boobs” and ab flab jiggling all over
Oh, I had muscle. I started gaining muscle from the
moment I picked up a barbell. I got strong too. I
was benching 315 at age 18. But even after four
years of successful strength training, I still
hadn’t figured out this getting ripped thing. Muscle
isn’t very attractive if it’s covered up with a
layer of fat. That’s where the phrase “bulky” really
comes from – fat on top of muscle. It can look worse
than just fat.
I read every book. I read every magazine. I tried
every exercise. I took every supplement in vogue
back in the 80’s (remember bee pollen, octacosanol,
lipotropics and dessicated liver?) I tried not
eating for entire days at a time. I went on a rope
skipping kick. I did hundreds of crunches and ab
exercises. I rode the Lifecycle. I wore rubber waist
The results were mediocre at best. When I made
progress, I couldn’t maintain it. One step forward,
one step back. Even when I got a little leaner, it
wasn’t all the way. Still no ripped abs. When I
played football and they beat the crap out of us at
training camp, I lost weight, but STILL didn’t get
all the way down to those elusive six pack abs. In
fact, it was almost like I got “skinny fat.” My arms
and legs lost some muscle but the small roll of ab
fat was still there.
Why was it so hard? What was I doing wrong? It was
driving me crazy!
My condition got worse in college because I mixed
with a party crowd. With boozing came eating, and
the “bulk” accumulated even more. At that point, the
partying and social life were more important to me
than my body. I was still lifting weights, but
wasn’t living a fitness lifestyle.
Mid way through college I changed my major from
business management to exercise science, having made
up my mind to pursue a career in fitness. That’s
when I started to feel something wasn’t right. The
best word for it is “incongruence.” That’s when what
you say you want to be and what you really are don’t
match. Being a fitness professional means you have
to walk the talk and be a role model to others.
Anything else is hypocrisy. I knew I had to shape up
or forget fitness as a career.
But after four years, I STILL didn’t know how to get
ripped! Nothing I learned in exercise physiology
class helped. All the theory was interesting, but
when theory hit the real world, things didn’t always
work out like they did on paper. My professors
didn’t know either. Heck, most of them weren’t even
in shape! Two of them were overweight, including my
However, out of my college experience did come the
seeds of the solution and my first breakthrough.
In one of my physical
education classes, we were required to do some
running and we were instructed to keep track of our
performance and resting heart rates. Somehow, even
though I was a strength athlete, I got hooked on
running. After the initial discomfort of hauling
around a not so cardio-fit 205 pound body, I started
to get a lot of satisfaction out of watching my
resting heart rate drop from the 70’s into the 50’s
and seeing my running times get better and better.
And then it happened: I started getting leaner than
I ever had before.
The results motivated me to no end, and I kept after
it even more. My runs would be 5 or 6 days a week
and I’d go for between 30 minutes to an hour.
Sometimes I had a circular route of about 6 miles
and I would run it for time, almost always pushing
for a personal record. When I finished, I was spent,
drenched in sweat and sometimes just crashing when I
got home. And I kept getting even leaner.
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That’s when I started to
figure it out. If you’re expecting me to say that
running is the secret, no, that’s NOT it per se. I
was thinking bigger picture. In fact, I noticed that
my legs had lost some muscle size, so I knew that
over-doing the runs would be counter productive,
ultimately, and I don’t run that much anymore these
days. But that’s how I did it the first time and I
had never experienced fat loss like that before. The
fat was falling off and I had barely changed my
My “aha moment” was when I realized the pivotal
piece in the puzzle was calories. It wasn’t the type
of exercise, it wasn’t the specific foods and it
wasn’t supplements. Today I realize that it’s the
calorie deficit that matters the most, not whether
you eat less or burn more per se, but in my case
creating a large deficit by burning the calories was
the absolute key for me.
These runs were burning an enormous number of
calories. Everything I had done before wasn’t
burning enough to make a noticeable difference in a
short period of time. 10-15 minutes of rope skipping
wasn’t enough. 45 minutes of slow-go bike riding
wasn’t burning enough. Hundreds of crunches weren’t
enough. I put 1+1+1 together and realized it was
intensity X duration X frequency = highest the total
calorie burn for the week. How much simpler could it
be? It wasn’t magic. It was MATH!
It was consistency too. This was the first time in
SIX YEARS I stuck with it. Body fat comes off by the
grams every day – literally. Kilos and pounds of
body weight may come off quickly, but they come back
just as fast. Body fat comes off slowly and if you
have no patience or you jump to one program to the
next without following through with the one you
started, you’re doomed. In six years, I had “tried
everything”… except consistency and patience.
Then the stakes went up. I had finally gotten lean,
but there was another level beyond lean… RIPPED! My
buddies at the gym noticed me getting leaner and
then they popped the question: Why don’t you
compete? My training partner Steve had already
competed 3 years earlier and won the Teenage Mr.
America competition. Since then, I had been all talk
and no walk. “Yeah, I’m going to compete one of
these days too… I’m going to be the next Mr.
America.” Days turned into weeks, weeks into months,
and months into years. The only title I had won was
“Mr. Procastinator.” Then finally, Steve and my
other friends challenged me almost in an ultimatum
type of way. Well, the truth is, I set myself up for
it with my big mouth and they called me out, so I
would have been the laughing stock of our gym if I
didn’t follow through.
The first time you do a real cut - all the way down
to contest-ready - is the hardest. Not as much
physically as psychologically, simply because you’ve
never done it before. Doing something you’ve done
before is no big deal. Doing something you’ve never
done before causes uncertainty and fear, sometimes
even terror! I was plagued with self-doubt the
entire time, never sure if I was ever going to get
there. It seemed like it was taking forever. But
failure was not an option. Not only did I have an
entire gym full of friends rooting me on, I had
great training partner who was natural Mr. Teenage
America! The pressure was on. I had to do it. There
was no way out. No excuses.
Some other day, I’ll tell you all the details of the
emotional roller coaster ride that was my first
contest diet, but let it suffice to say, at that
point, I still didn’t know what I was doing. It was
only later that I went into “human guinea pig” mode
with nutritional experiments and finally pinned down
the eating side of the equation to a science (and
gained 20 lbs of stage-weight muscle as a result).
In the late 1980’s, the standard bodybuilding diet
was high carb, low fat. For that first competition,
I was on 60% carbs – including pancakes, boxed
cereal, whole grain bread, and pasta - so I guess
you can toss out the idea that it’s impossible to
get ripped on high carbs – although high carb is NOT
the contest diet I use today. But it didn’t matter,
because I had already learned the critical piece in
the fat loss puzzle – the calorie balance equation.
Understanding that one aspect of physiology was
enough to get me ripped. It only got better later.
In the end, I took 2nd place at my very first
competition, the Natural Lehigh Valley, and one
month later, I won first place at the Natural New
Jersey. Seven months later, the overall Natural
Looking back, was all the effort worth it? Well, my
good friend Adam Waters, who is an accountability
coach, teaches his students about using “redemption”
as a motivator. Remember the Charles Atlas ad where
the skinny kid got sand kicked in his face and then
came back big and buffed and beat up the bully?
That’s redemption. Or the dateless high school nerd
who comes back to the 10 year class reunion driving
a Mercedes with the prom queen on his arm? That’s
After all the doubt, heartache and frustration I
went through for six years, I not only had my
trophies, my abs were on the front page of the
sports section in our small Pennsylvania town
newspaper. The following year, I was on the poster
for a bodybuilding competition… as the previous
year’s champion. THAT’S REDEMPTION. You tell me if
it was worth it.
There are 7 lessons from my story that I want to
share with you because even if you have a different
personal history than I do, these 7 lessons are the
keys to achieving any previously elusive fitness
goal for the first time and I think they apply to
1. Set the big goal and go for it. If your goal
doesn’t excite you and scare you at the same time,
your goal is too small. If you don’t feel fear or
uncertainty, you’re inside your comfort zone. Puny
goals aren’t motivating. Sometimes it takes a
competition or a big challenge of some kind to get
your blood boiling.
2. Align your values with your goals. I understood
my values and made a decision to be congruent with
who I really was and who I wanted to be. When you
know your values, get your priorities straight and
align your goals with your values, then doing what
it takes is easy.
3. Do the math. Stop looking for magic. A lean body
does not come from any particular type of exercise
or foods per se, it’s the calories burned vs
calories consumed that determines fat loss or fat
gain. You might do better by decreasing the calories
consumed, whereas I depended more on increasing the
calories burned, but either way, it’s still a math
equation. Deny it at your own risk.
4. Get social support. Support and encouragement
from your friends can help get you through anything.
Real time accountability to a training partner or
trainer can make all the difference.
5. Be consistent. Nothing will ever work if you
don’t work at it every day. Sporadic efforts don’t
just produce sporadic results, sometimes they
produce zero results.
6. Persist through difficulty and self doubt. If you
think it’s going to be smooth sailing all the way
with no ups and downs, you’re fooling yourself.. For
every sunny day, there’s going to be a storm. If you
can’t weather the storms, you’ll never reach new
7. Redeem yourself. Non-achievers sit on the couch
and wallow in past failures. Winners use past
failures as motivational rocket fuel. It always
feels good to achieve a goal, but nothing feels as
good as achieving a goal with redemption.
Train hard and expect success,
PS. My journey continued. Since that initial first
place trophy, I have competed as a natural for life
bodybuilder 26 more times, including 7 first place
awards and 7 runner up awards. And yes, I finally
nailed down the nutrition side of things too. You
can read more about that and the fat loss program
that developed as a result at
About Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilder,
certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and a
certified personal trainer (CPT). Tom is the author of "Burn the
Fat, Feed The Muscle,” which teaches you how to get lean without
drugs or supplements using methods of the world's best
bodybuilders and fitness models. Learn how to get rid of
stubborn fat and increase your metabolism by visiting: