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ODO provides the following definition for the word ripped:

3. informal having well-defined or well-developed muscles; muscular:
through his slightly-too-tight shirt you could see he was ripped
they’re going to the gym daily to get buff pecs, ripped abs, and tight buns

How did this sense of the word come about?

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Interesting that OED gives a similar definition of ripped but no etymology other than rip vi + -ed, and rip doesn't mention a sense where there could be a meaning of ripped = "built" –  Andrew Leach Jan 17 '13 at 18:39
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5 Answers 5

The very earliest citation given by the OED is

1974   C. Gaines Pumping Iron ix. 172   There was Leon Brown with his perfectly chiseled, wasp-waisted build, and his quiet polished routine; and Bob Birdsong,..looking very ripped and close to the skin.

Which unfortunately doesn't give any help as to the etymology.

The 1981 edition of the book makes it clear that ripped originally referred to the "clarity" (definition) of the muscles, not to their size:

1981   C. Gaines Pumping Iron 230   … everybody else, it seems, has got muscularity—which is a combination of both size and clarity of the muscles. Everybody is both big and ripped …

My guess is that ripped refers to the way that the muscles and veins of bodybuilders with very little subcutaneous fat appear to "rip" through their skin (as seen on this gentleman).

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I agree. "Ripped" is a higher level of "Cut". It's the definition being emphasized. +1 for OED citation where the quote defines ripped by adding and close to the skin. –  ghoppe Jan 17 '13 at 23:54
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Ripped may be a variation of of rippled, but there are a number of other synonyms that also suggest something cut, for example from Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures (Luc Reid - 2011):

buffed, buff, cut, defined, shredded, sliced, sliced and diced

It looks like ripped came from an extension of cut, itself an extension of defined and moulded by way of having all that is extraneous removed, leaving just muscle. Other terms such as chiseled, razor sharp, shredded, sliced and lacerated follow the same pattern.

The Oxford English Dictionary has ripped from 1974 with an origin in bodybuilding. They say it's also used as ripped up.

Ripped up mirrors cut up, that came from cuts, cut, and clear cut, referring to the sharp angular shape of built-up muscles. These uses of cut goes back to at least 1940, all within the bodybuilding community.


Here's an early January 1976 use of two of the terms together (Muscle Builder, Vol 17, Num 1, Page 43, January 1976), and interesting to see cut-up, which shows similarity to the early ripped-up:

John Isaacs, 45 years young, was unbelievable ripped - more cut-up than a Christmas goose - and he gave the youngsters a lesson in muscularity by winning the coveted "Most Muscular Man" award.

And the next paragraph shows cut used as a noun rather than adjective:

Among the also-rans, Dave Mastorakis was massive but lacked the former cuts he displayed last year.

More cut elsewhere:

  • Paul, the giant 225-pound block of granite from Wales, was sensationally thick and cut to ribbons.

  • Sharp cuts, posing and symmetry gave him a surprise 2nd in the Tall Class.

  • Joe Nista, 46, returns from retirement with all his former density and cuts.


If we trace the history of cut, we can see how it was used to describe sharp muscles, and how it spawned other similar adjectives and nouns.

This 1974 description of Mr. Universe winner Louie Ferrigno describes exactly what cut meant (Muscle Builder, Vol 15, Num 3, Page 24, July 1974):

Ferrigno needn't have posed, needn't have twicthed a single muscle fibre, or lifted a toe. Just to see him inert was to believe the unbelievable. The biggest superstar ever, and all of him cut to shreds; lacerated, the skin beaten and hacked away so that only sinews and tendons and veins and striations and unbespeakable musclemusclemuscle remained. . .


The following shows why the adjective cut was used, and how it changed into a noun.

IronMan, Vol 23, No 6, Page 11, September 1964:

Randy [Watson, Jr. Mr. America] has maintained his superb definition or "cuts" as the fellows now prefer to call it.

IronMan, Vol 18, No 2, Page 9, September 1958:

Tom [Sansone, "Mr. America 1958"]'s 14½ inch forearm is cut into planes when flexed, rounded and full when relaxed.

Strength & Health, Page 26, November 1952:

[George] Paine wins "best legs" and it's easy to see why. He has the deepest "cuts" I've ever seen in his thighs. They look like they've been chiseled out of marble.

Strength & Health, Page 23, July 1940:

"Chick" Deutsch, won the Best Abdominals and it was quite an easy victory for him. Seldom have I seen such fine clear cut straight abdominals and external obliques as this young favorite ad popular athlete possesses.

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Like most slang, sometimes it's hard to pin down the exact origin of the phrase. I'm sure it was used in bodybuilding circles before the 70s, but I couldn't find any citations earlier than that.

My feeling is the term was popularized in the general public by the book Ripped: The Sensible Way to Achieve Ultimate Muscularity which was published in 1980.

An interview with a Gay Games competitor in the June 20, 1994 edition of New York magazine had this comment on bodybuilder Jargon:

Bodybuilding Jargon:Cut means you have sufficient definition; ripped is a higher order of cut. If you’re shattered, you are without any fat whatsoever. By the games, I will be ripped.”

So while there may be some coincidental relation to the tearing and rebuilding of muscles to build them up, I believe the jargon was developed from the previous metaphor of muscles being “cut” — as if the bodybuilder was chiseled from stone by Michelangelo.

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In Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1978 Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, there's a description of bodybuilder Chet Yorton's stage style that uses the verb rip to describe the act of bodybuilder posing. Is it possible that this was common bodybuilding jargon at the time? I can't find any proof of it, but thought it was worth mentioning.

http://books.google.com/books?ei=Rcf4UNipOZLM9gTjt4HQDw&sqi=2&id=MQbripC1OtQC&dq=%22ripped+*+poses%22&q=ripped#search_anchor

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I wonder if this use of ripped is in the sense of torn. Muscle growth I believe comes about due to damaged or torn muscle fibre.

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While we are speculating....there was a period during the 80's when torn (actually vertically slashed) shirts were popular attire among bodybuilders. I started hearing the word after that, so perhaps the word initially refered to the "ripped" shirts? –  T.E.D. Jan 17 '13 at 21:06
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My speculation is similar to @T.E.D.'s - but it goes back a bit further. When those torn shirts were in style, I always thought they were meant to look like the Incredible Hulk in the middle of his transformation. –  MT_Head Jan 17 '13 at 23:42
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