Fitness Lessons After Dropping 25 lbs and Doubling my Squat and Deadlift

I started seriously worrying about my health in late 2010. I graduated from Florida State University in 2007, got married in early 2010, and ballooned up to about 205. For a 5'11" guy with a relatively thin frame, this was really bad.

So I tried hacking away at lifting weights, but the lack of a real strategy constantly waylaid me, and I fell out of discipline. I’d restart a few weeks or a month later. This process repeated itself until late 2011. I started to really commit my time to listening to podcasts and finding materials from tested individuals. I found Dr. Layne Norton, who has written extensively and published tons of free online materials, including full-length bodybuiding prep guides (for the uninitiated, bodybuilding prep refers to the time you plan before a competition where the goal is to cut down bodyfat % as much as possible while retaining lean mass).

So I took Layne’s prep guide (linked above), his idea of “Power Hypertrophy Training” and just went with it. I stopped overthinking, I stopped reading every random garbage fitness article out there, thinking I was accomplishing something. So basically, I found a workable strategy for nutrition and training and didn’t worry if it was perfect or not, and didn’t entertain any delusions about it being the perfect way.

The Importance of Strategy

Your strategy is the leverage you use to act against a barrier in the way of your goal. Without a strategy, you are flailing and making it up as you go. That’s partly why so many people fail to change their lives or their fitness status — no real strategy. Here are mine:

Nutrition

“Just eat clean, brah” ←nonsense

Yes, we all know that if you’re perfect and eat nothing but fresh veggies, lean meats and fibrous fruits, you will lose weight and feel better. But it’s not how a man lives his life, and it’s not sustainable unless you’re an outlier. And you’re probably not. So in listening to Dr. Norton and other respected researchers and fitness practitioners who respect the science, I came away with these crucial concepts:

  1. Protein’s thermic effect (4 calories of protein isn’t 4 calories), satiety benefits, and muscle protein synthesis activation which maximizes lean body mass and minimizes fat gain from food;
  2. Fiber/bulk’s satiety value, primarily from vegetables, fruits, and reconstituted carbohydrates & starches (in that priority order, such as cooked rice, some pastas/grains, etc);
  3. Fat’s extremely useful flavor enhancing properties, cooking value, and (sometimes) satiety; and
  4. Order of consumption matters (when your grandma told you to eat your peas before you get dessert, there’s wisdom there). Eat what you least enjoy first (when you’re hungriest).

These concepts are in priority order. The first thing I deal with when I’m going to eat or even buying groceries or deciding on a meal is this: what’s my protein?

Research shows that ~20–40g of quality protein at periodic intervals of 4–5 hours (that link is a phenomenal resource if you’re interested in the details from a gold standard researcher, Dr. Stu Phillips) appears to be optimal for maintaining and gaining lean muscle. So 3–4 meals a day with ~40g protein (maybe more if you’re a big guy) is more than enough, and additionally is satiating. People who do intermittent fasting might not have protein for 16 or more hours, but anecdotally many of those people do just fine without following this method. I’ve found the frequency is very helpful in creating a rhythm of eating well, even if all I have some meals is protein.

But let’s make this really simple: eat more lean, quality protein.

Eating more than this is not detrimental, however, so overdoing this is not harmful. No, this level of protein intake has zero chance of harming your kidneys unless your kidneys are already not functioning properly.

Since I like meat and proteins, I tend to eat close to or above the 40g per meal mark.

Ok, so I’ve got my protein. All I need to do is pair that with more calories (sometimes I eat 5 eggs and some cheddar. I usually go with a piece of fruit or something since that’s already a boatload of calories).

Low carb, high carb, etc can be experimented with, but there’s no reason that everyone should be one way or the other. Do what works. But even though it’s a moving, tough target to pin down sometimes, the law of calories (thermodynamics) is immutable and you will not lose weight unless you take in fewer calories or spend more.

Research tends to imply that there’s little difference for most people if you’re low carb, high carb, etc, as long as you take in sufficient fats. Choose what is most sustainable. Many do not have a lifestyle conducive to “no carbs”, and anytime they go to a wedding, or on vacation, or on a cruise, they eat carbs. You don’t have to abstain from eating more at those times and be boring, but you shouldn’t create psychological prohibitions that become unglued during those times.

Training

Find physical activity you enjoy.

Afterward, if that physical activity does not include weightlifting/resistance training, add it. There’s nothing that compensates for becoming stronger and/or adding muscle. Absolutely nothing. Muscle and strength are king. If you really, really don’t want to lift weights or do pushups or something (WOMEN: IT WILL NOT MAKE YOU “BULKY”), fine. But even a little goes a long way.

You probably won’t add 30 lbs of muscle this year. You probably won’t add that over the course of your entire life, especially if you’re over 25. But if you replace even 5 lbs of muscle with 5 lbs of fat, you see stark differences in the mirror.

The bottom line is this: Just pick a strategy and freaking do it. Repeatedly. Consistently.

Change your Environment

After you have those strategies in place, you’re going to notice trends with those things that throw you off what you really want to do. Buy fewer sweets & treats, and put them in out of the reach places. I usually buy ~15 pieces of fruit at the beginning of the week (including a bunch of bananas, because they’re much cheaper than other fruits) and I put them in a bowl at my dinner table, much more readily accessible than anything else. If you eat more fruit and lean meat, you will find yourself crowding out other foods.

There are innumerable good articles on Medium about changing your habits. Create routines or “trigger” actions that you perform before you go to the gym or prepare to eat a meal — such as drinking a low calorie caffeine pre-workout before the gym, or drinking a full glass of water before a meal.

Rituals are powerful. Rituals set the stage for other actions and act as a gateway to maintaining larger habits. Isaac’s definition of “ritual” is an action you always take before you take another action or a series of actions. Your brain intrinsically links those behaviors. The ritual acts as an easier way to lead yourself into doing the harder actions that follow it.

If you’re starting from scratch, you’re going to fail a lot. That’s ok. Keep going. Your health is worth it.