On August 3, 2011 I wrote about the beginnings of my journey to stop being a fat-ass. At the time I felt that the post was a little…premature as I was only down 20 pounds, but I desperately needed something to write about for the day, and I was otherwise out of ideas.
This post on the other hand, is a bit more justified.
We Can Rebuild Him, We Have The Technology
For people looking to lose weight there are so very many options out there. Pills, diets, and exercise programs in every combination; the best depending on your goals, interests, equipment and facilities you have access to, and most importantly what you can actually stick with.
In my case, I was not specifically looking to lose weight, my actual goal was to overhaul my body composition. I would be absolutely satisfied with being 300-some-odd pounds, as long as I managed to hit less than 10% body fat with an obnoxious amount of muscle. Well… maybe not that extreme. I am pretty sure that at 6′ 3″ with 10% body fat, being 300 pounds would require you to look disturbingly similar to the Incredible Hulk. This notion brought me to the “lose 100 pounds” goal, figuring that getting to 235 pounds and 10% body fat would be fit, but not monstrous.
My journey began with delving into the Fitness sub-reddit, an amazing resource for anyone who wants to achieve practically any fitness goal. There I read about one of the more popular beginner weight lifting programs, StrongLifts5x5. SL is marketed as a “biggest bang for your buck” kind of program, using compound barbell exercises to ramp up your strength, fast. The “beginner” part of SL is the fact that you start with the bar and ramp up the weight week by week, giving the uninitiated time to get used to proper form for the exercises and learn limits without hurting yourself.
I will leave the specifics to the experts, but the tl;dr of the program are as follows:
- Barbell Squats – 5 sets of 5 reps
- Barbell Bench – Press 5 sets of 5 reps
- Barbell Rows – 5 sets of 5 reps
- Barbell Squats – 5 sets of 5 reps
- Barbell Overhead Shoulder Press – 5 sets of 5 reps
- Barbell Deadlifts – 1 set of 5 reps
The key with SL and any beginner program is the simplicity: work out 3 days a week, and just keep rotating the days with the reps/sets specified above. As far as the weights, you start with the bar and each day you do a specific exercise, you increase the weights by 5lbs, except for deadlifts which increase by 10lbs. If you have been gifted with good genetics and some natural strength, the only modification I would suggest here is increasing deadlifts by 20lbs a session, overhead press by 5lbs, and everything else by 10lbs. I wouldn’t stray too much more, otherwise your progression will stall out way too soon and probably wreak havoc on your motivation and morale. As a beginner, taking the time to learn how to properly perform the exercises is far more important (especially if you want to stay injury free) than getting to weights that can stroke your ego.
The Err Of My Ways
StrongLifts proved to be an incredibly effective workout routine, I made considerable strength gains for months. As a direct result of the training, I gained a new found sense of balance and well being. More energy, better sleep, and a general awesomeness. The only problem was no matter what I did, my weight, and body fat percentage for that matter, would not budge past the initial 20lbs lost. Sure, I was noticing other physical changes from all the weight lifting, especially in my legs, chest and arms, but I continued to be haunted by my scale every morning.
Obviously considering all the effort I put in at the gym, there could only be one explanation for my ongoing difficulties with weight loss: my diet. Of course when I began this great experiment, I knew how important diet was in trying to change your body composition. I made it a point to eat as healthy as possible: whole-grain bread, wheat pasta, brown rice, tons of fruits and vegetables, and of course as much beef, chicken and eggs as I could get. I estimated that every day I would eat around 2,500 calories with possibly a little more on workout days. A number which for my height, size and activity level, I thought to be a reasonable enough amount where I should have been shedding pounds of fat like crazy. Since I was not doing that, I figured that estimating my daily caloric intake wasn’t cutting it. After some searching on Lifehacker, I found a nice site/android app which would let me easily keep track of every single thing I shoveled into my fat face and see if my caloric intake estimates were accurate.
I made sure to eat like I normally did, but just logging everything, I discovered that on off-days I was easily eating 3,000-3,500 calories, and on workout days I was closer to 4,500-5,000! To make matters worse, those calories were mostly from carbohydrates and fat, which is extremely counterproductive to losing weight and putting on muscle. No wonder my weight and body fat percentage wouldn’t budge!
Diet Is King
My new found interest in diet and exercise has led me to read through hundreds of articles, blog posts, and posts on reddit; all concerning various ideologies, strategies, and anecdotes for gaining strength, losing weight, and body recomposition. As contradicting as some of the resources can be, one common theme seemed to hold true: workouts, though beneficial for so many other reasons, do little for fat loss in the context of the magical Calories In vs. Calories Out equation. Contrary to what I always believed, a normal person’s workout, and obviously mine for that matter, will rarely make much of a dent compared to their calorie intake.
And this is simple mathematics, removing 1000 calories/day from the diet can be achieved with relatively more or less ease (depending on how bad the diet is to start with); the average beginner simply can’t burn that many calories with any realistic amount of exercise. At a low intensity and a calorie burn of 5 cal/min, that would require 200 minutes of activity per day, over 3 hours. At a challenging 10 cal/min, you’re looking at 100 minutes, an hour and forty minutes. This is simply beyond what most people can, are willing, or have time to do.
– Lyle McDonald: Exercise and Weight/Fat Loss: Part 1
Piling on to that incredibly depressing news, there is the common trap people looking to lose fat run into: as you increase your energy expenditure with exercise, you also increase your appetite. If you are not careful, you will at best be constantly plateauing on your weight loss goals like I did. Or worse, backpedaling and ending up with more body fat than you started with. So while exercise plays an important roll, controlling diet and caloric intake is the best bet for weapon of choice in trying to shed fat.
Much like my exercise program, Reddit helped me learn more about the diet side of things: tons of sub–reddits filled with people who shared similar goals and had all sorts of advice to help achieve them. With the new information at my disposal, I made substantial changes to my diet: cutting out almost all carbohydrates, reducing the amount of high glycemic index fruit I was eating, bumping up the amount of lean meat and vegetables, and of course shrinking the portion sizes of my meals. After the modifications, on off days I end up eating around 1,700-2,200 calories, and on workout days between 2,500-3,000 calories. In both instances I try to keep protein as the main source of calories, with most of the carbohydrates coming from fruits and vegetables. Once I put these changes into place, I found my weight and body fat percentage once again begin to steadily decrease.
Though the dietary changes I made were finally getting me on the right track, the real turning point in my weight loss was discovering Intermittent Fasting. Foolishly, when I stumbled upon IF, I didn’t follow the program exactly, just applied some of the basic fasting principles into my eating habits. By skipping breakfast, pushing back lunch a couple of hours, and making sure to stop eating after 9 or 10 p.m. (16 hours fasting, 8 hours to fit in a meal or two), I managed to kick my fat loss into high gear without severely impacting my effectiveness at the gym. There is no way that I could possibly recommend reading through the popular posts on LeanGains enough. Applying that knowledge into your own daily routine will help with almost any weight loss/recomposition goals.
Harsh Realities & Compromise
Anyone who has spent time in the wonderful worlds of weightlifting knows that there is always a balancing act between strength gains, and weight loss. When you reign in your diet to quickly cut body fat, most people will have a noticeable loss in strength. Others, the lucky or very skilled, will find themselves able to maintain their current strength levels but unable to progress in their workouts. The middle of the road option will allow for fairly slow paced weight loss and moderate strength gains, a frustrating situation that can lead to losing interest and giving up. Then there is the option of packing on as much muscle as possible and continue setting personal records in the gym. A situation where you will be forced to eat a ton of food to provide your body with the vital building blocks to gain weight in both muscle and fat. This is most obvious in competition powerlifters who typically eat over 6,000 calories a day to reach their strength goals.
Brandon Lilly’s daily diet: Breakfast: 1 Monster drink, 1 gallon chocolate milk, 6-8 eggs, 4-5 pieces of bacon, 1.5 cups oatmeal Snack: 2-3 peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwiches with honey Raising Cane’s pre-workout: Caniac with extra chicken finger (7 total), sub extra fries for slaw, bread, 3-4 giant sodas Dinner: 2 steaks, rice, sushi, Gatorade (source)
As much as I want to be the guy who can walk into the gym and make squatting 500lbs or deadlifting 700lbs look easy, I wanted to drop body fat much more. With that in mind I obviously couldn’t live, or more importantly eat, like a powerlifter. As expected, the calorie restriction, especially combined with a diet low in carbohydrates, quickly killed my progress in the various programs I worked through. Between the lack of energy, endurance, and increased difficulty in recovering post-workout, I just couldn’t keep up. At first a restricted diet wasn’t an issue since the weights started very light and the progression was relatively slow as I built up my technique and form. But when it finally did catch up to me, it hit hard, filling me with frustration from feeling that I was going nowhere. Weights that should have been easy to hit for the 5 sets of 5 reps were a losing battle, causing me to sacrifice form or otherwise cheat by significantly bumping up time between sets to make up for the lack of energy.
It’s easy for anyone – beginner or advanced – to want to get ahead of themselves. Your lifts will go up for a few months, but then they’ll stall – and stall, and stall some more. Lifters get frustrated and don’t understand that the way around this is to prolong the time it takes to get to the goal. You have to keep inching forward. This is a very hard pill to swallow for most lifters. They want to start heavy, and they want to start now. This is nothing more than ego, and nothing will destroy a lifter faster, or for longer, than ego.
– Jim Wendler: 5/3/1 2nd Edition.
As the failures became more frequent I ended up modifying my routine as called for by the program: three sets of five reps, and finally down to one set per exercise, fighting to keep enough energy to hit the higher weights. As much as I hated it, my beginner strength gains were at their end, forcing me to change gears and switch to an even slower paced intermediate strength training program, far sooner than I had hoped.
Reaping The Rewards
Like I said before, there is a balancing act between acquiring strength and losing weight, and my struggles with strength gains have netted me some major successes with weight loss. As of this post, I have lost almost 70lbs, over 10% body fat, dropped two shirt sizes (3XL to XL), and eight pants sizes (46W to 38W)! There are no words to describe how satisfying it is to notice clothing quickly becoming far too big to wear comfortably. When pants are so big that even a belt can’t do much to keep them up, you know you are on the right track. Never before have I been so happy to go clothes shopping, nor have I ever gone with such frequency. Every few months it seems I’ve needed to pick up at least a couple of things so I can look presentable when I need to, an awesome – if expensive – problem to have.
I am of course not done yet, but things are very promising. As I continue to read and learn more about the various nuances of diet and exercise and how to maximize my results, the pace of my weight loss just continues to increase.
An unexpected, but very welcome, part of all this has been the compliments. Excluding this post and its predecessor, I have not really publicly discussed my efforts to lose weight. So for me to receive completely unprompted compliments and praise from family and friends, has been amazing. From people who see me every day, to the almost comical shock from people who haven’t seen me since I started, the boost in motivation has far outstripped any disappointments from the plateauing of my strength goals. I never thought I would be so pleased to have old friends and acquaintances not recognize me.
The many months that I have been working towards my weight loss goals have taught me much. Mostly the So. Very. Many. Things I have done wrong out of ignorance. Probably the worst, second only to my stupidity with not tracking my calories, would have to be choosing StrongLifts5x5 instead of Starting Strength.
Don’t misunderstand me here, SL5x5 is a solid program and you will get strong working through it, but the greatest lesson I have learned so far is in the gym, like in everything else in life, knowledge is power. So trust me when I say: this book will not only make you strong, but very powerful. The intense, and sometimes overwhelming detail Rippetoe goes into in SS, makes this book invaluable far beyond the SS program. He breaks down for every major barbell exercise the what, when, how and why of the movement. I would wager that anyone who works through the book would think twice before writing off a powerlifter as an idiot meathead.
On the topic of workout programs, make sure you pick one you like, and for the love of all that is good and just, stick with it! I’ve noticed that one of the worst possible things a person can do to sabotage themselves is program hopping or not having a program at all. If you walk into the gym and don’t know exactly what you will be doing, you have failed on a very fundamental level. Planning plays a huge role in keeping yourself motivated and getting results. The last thing anyone needs is to be aimlessly wandering around a gym with a severe case of Fuckarounditis, especially if you are just starting out.
Speaking of Fuckarounditis: do yourself a favor, and stop with the goddamn bicep curls!
Okay, so I am not just talking about curls, there are innumerable bullshit exercises people do in the gym to try and get stronger, when all they are doing is feeding their vanity. I’ll admit it, I wasted my time with them before I knew better, looking for that sweet “pump”. But when it comes down to it, there is absolutely no reason for anyone new to weight training to do bicep curls, or any similar isolation exercise. I wasted years as a teenager following nonsense exercise routines with little to no results, definitely nothing close to the progress I have made with barbell training.
Barbells, and the primary exercises we use them to do, are far superior to any other training tools that have ever been devised. Properly performed, full-range-of-motion barbell exercises are essentially the fundamental expression of human skeletal and muscular anatomy under a load. The exercise is controlled by and the result of each trainee’s particular movement patterns, minutely fine-tuned by each individual limb length, muscular attachment position, strength level, flexibility, and neuromuscular efficiency. Balance between all the muscles involved in a movement is inherent in the exercise, since all the muscles involved contribute their anatomically determined share of the work.
– Mark Rippetoe: Starting Strength 3rd Edition
Rippetoe has a whole section on accessory work in Starting Strength, I highly recommend you read it for a more detailed breakdown. Accessory work can obviously be beneficial down the line, but only if it actually helps with a specific weakness detrimental to progressing in a main lift.
I think I will cut this section short with one final piece of advice: make sure to stretch post workout. Duh right? Sure everyone knows this, but few actually follow through. Stretching can make the adjustment period into any lifting program much, much easier, helping to mitigate soreness in muscles you didn’t even know you had. A particular area of interest would be hamstrings; most people have overly weak, and therefore overly tight hamstrings. A handy piece of equipment to have as an assist to any stretching routine is a foam roller, having 2 of different densities can assist a good amount in working out stubborn muscles
Long Road Ahead
After the many punishing months of toiling away at the gym and having to resist so many sugary temptations, I look back and would definitely do it all again. I never thought I would make the kind of progress I have, especially after years of failed workout and diet attempts. Though I would be doing a great disservice if I took all the credit, I would never have been able to battle through the plateaus without the support of my friends and family.
Even though I am very happy with how far I have come, I am not done yet. Not by a long shot. I still have my mind set on the 10% body fat goal, and remain driven to get there. Then when I do, I will move on to a new goal, because: “be happy, but never satisfied.”
A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.
– Bruce Lee