My “Gym Ready” body, October 2015, around 245 lbs
In my journey, I waited until I’d lost about 40 pounds before going to the gym or worrying about free weights to any significant degree. I knew that once I obtained a gym membership I was entering that cliched realm of people who make a commitment but perhaps don’t keep it. I figured I would focus first on obtaining a basic level of fitness completely on my own, independent of machines or complex racks that can form psychological impediments (“I need to just Buy This One Thing and I’ll Be Fit!) getting to a state where I don’t feel quite so embarrassed or self-conscious to be seen at the gym. But really, the key for me was that it was summer time and I was able to walk outside, ride my bicycle, and did some basic “circuit training” indoors after some of my walks, which eventually turned into jogs, never much longer than 2 miles. I don’t think you should wait until the summer to begin your journey unless you have a compelling reason to, but it’s only natural to want to start looking better and feeling better when the dog days of summer approach.
I had the luxury of nice days outside to put to good use, and found the gym completely indispensable during the winter months, so if I was doing this all over again and happened to be starting in the winter, I would just get a gym membership and use the same basic psychological strategy I used after losing my first 40 pounds (which gave its own sort of confidence): stop worrying about what other people think, wear headphones to keep you motivated and in your own world, and try to actually know what you’re doing so that you don’t set off peoples’ alarm bells when they notice you’re doing something destructive to your back, neck, and so forth! I learned that (at least in my case as a big guy), most people didn’t bother me unless they could see I was clearly setting myself up to get hurt, doing something without a proper neutral spine that clearly loads and strains the back. Perhaps more on that later, but let’s get back to the initial progression.
I made my walking, jogging, and cycling more difficult from time to time by wearing a hiking backpack with a heavy book in it, Arnold’s Bodybuilding Encyclopedia. I filled it up with emergency water packets and had it up to 40 pounds at one point. More than that was do-able but bad for my back for any long duration of time, and I typically kept it around 20 pounds. I was not obsessive about always training “loaded” because it took a lot of the fun out of the experience and gave me a miserably sweaty back all of the time, but I tried to make things increasingly difficult, like simply running more than I walked, or bicycling further and further distances, always focusing on uphill terrain on my trek away from home so that I could push myself and then mostly coast back home after gassing my energy out. I was incredibly slow about building up to running. I highly recommend the run-walk approach, and don’t recommend seeing running as something you do to specifically burn calories. You’re doing it to rev up your metabolism, which means you’ll burn more calories all day long, but don’t worry so much about going balls-to-the-wall running long distances. Life is short, unless you really like running a long time at a stretch, you can use running as a tool without burning away the precious hours of your day. These days, I barely run in the “long jogging” form at all, but I will do high-intensity sprints in my cul-de-sac, simply running at a full clip to the end, walking back, and repeating 5-8 times, 15 minutes and I’m done. I try to make walking a pleasurable, relaxing activity, and save my heavy intensity for the gym or for intervals.
I focused on having good neutral spine form when riding my bike, and found it very strenuous on my lower back simply to wear a pack. My circuit training was very simple, along the lines of:
- 20 pushups (after building up the ability to knock out 20)
- 20 kettlebell swings
- 15 burpees
- 10 kettlebell squats
I was able to handle a 20Kg / 44 pound kettlebell pretty early on but had poor swinging form for awhile and started out with 10 swings initially. Just that simple circuit 3 times in a row would totally kick my butt and drench me in sweat, and I tried to get through it at least every other day. In general, I tried to knock out at least 100 pushups every single day, in sets of 20, spread out throughout the day. Spreading out your activity is a great way to keep your metabolism gently hopping without massively increasing your caloric intake requirements.
I introduced myself to the world of pre-workout supplementation and at the time was buying overpriced blends with lots of caffeine, but they helped, and I got used to the “beta-alanine tingle” which means that blood is flowing through all of my peripheral blood vessels and pumping me up to get some real work done. I was able to lose 40 pounds in 2 months through calorie restriction, green juicing and protein shakes to replace many of my early morning meals, some intermittent fasting, and lots of activity increases and reasonable dinners. By “activity increases” I mean finding every excuse I could to stand up (including while making my juices), walking at least a mile every single day, swimming at the community pool as often as I reasonably could with my kids, cycling, and circuit training. By “reasonable dinners,” I meant that every dinner had a major protein component (steak, pork, chicken typically, not always lean, but more days than not) and every meal had a major vegetable component (asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and greens being the centerpiece). Not every meal had to have a carbohydrate component, but if I did eat a carbohydrate portion with dinner, I focused on things like sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, and quinoa, and saw them as necessary stimulation for my insulin regulation system, a necessary replenishment for my muscle and liver glycogen stores, and a necessary psychological component to being healthy with the expectation that I wasn’t going to be a “low carb person” for the rest of my life and be healthy and strong and energized at the same time. I “cheated” plenty, had plenty of desserts, sometimes day-after-day, but saved up most of my “bad carb” consumption for the end of the day, after dinner, because I could tell that the earlier on in the day I ate “bad carbs,” the stronger and more persistent the cravings were.
I knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep serious calorie restriction up (I consumed around 2,000-2,500 calories during this phase, weighing between 245-285) for more than 8 weeks, and actually took a good week-long break right in the middle where I gained back 10 pounds on a vacation, going from 250 all the way back up to 260.
I didn’t see this as a major setback, just a natural thing that happens on vacation, and continued to juice while on the vacation. What I’ve learned since then is that the single biggest determining factor for fast and furious “rebound weight gain” is indulging excessively in alcoholic beverages in addition to suddenly increasing your refined carbohydrate consumption (coincidentally the two tend to go hand in hand). If you have saturated fat and refined carbohydrates together (think dessert, think root beer float, pie a la mode, etc), you are indulging in an “insulin bomb” and are going to be storing a ton of fat calories. Add alcohol, and it’s the mother of all bombs.
Alcohol sets you up to rebound fast and hard, and the judgment effect of alcohol is not something to sneeze at. You can and will continue to lose weight and still drink on the weekends in moderation, but fewer days of drinking and fewer drinks translates to better results and less setbacks, less extra work put in simply to offset the damage you’re doing. If you’re trying to offset the damage that alcohol causes to your physique by working harder and not simply lowering your alcohol consumption, you’re in for a rough ride, because alcohol also hinders your ability to recover while raising your stress hormone levels and lowering your anabolic (growth and testosterone) hormone levels significantly.
Just this weekend I had maybe 7 beers in the course of 3 days while hosting a guest, had a couple of serious “cheat afternoons / evenings,” and put 6 pounds right back on my physique. I was starting to see muscle striations in my inner forearms and was at an all-time-weight-low (209 pounds!), which disappeared in the space of two days and will take much longer than two days to get back. Oh well, I can live with that.
Alcohol is a metabolic and hormonal bomb that triggers significant physiological changes, and if you want to see rapid results, you’re going to need to restrict your consumption quite a bit until you hit a plateau and want to experiment with simple everyday living.
So what happened the very first day I went to the gym? I tried to do everything, of course. I tried deadlifting well over 250 pounds with no experience and no concept of what “neutral spine posture” meant. Hey look, I’m picking up 250+ pounds! Good enough just to pick it up, right? I tried squatting 135 right away and was pleasantly surprised that I could do it. I realized I was unstable, and used a Smith machine to really push myself hard, getting up to 200+ in the squat my first day. I was so pleased with myself that I completely annihilated my body that day, and then went to a comedy show that night and had exactly four beers. Reader, my body was devastated for the rest of the week. I already knew what “DOMS” meant — delayed onset muscle soreness. I’d experienced DOMS whenever significantly pushing myself to a new activity level. For example, I experienced it the day after I started kettlebell training. I experienced it the day after I was fit enough to sprint or jog for a full mile. DOMS fades on its own, and some people welcome it because it tells them “you really pushed yourself yesterday / the day before” and some people assume that if they don’t experience it, they didn’t work out hard enough. This is a fallacious line of reasoning because your body will get accustomed to activity, and you can’t be constantly pushing yourself to new levels of fitness when your initial goal is to burn body fat, recover from exercise, and feel good, not miserable. Suffice it to say, going all-out in the gym and having four beers was devastating but I was expecting it.
Knowing what I now know about alcohol, I likely would’ve still drank at the comedy show, but would’ve pushed my first day in the gym to the following day, having recovered from the night of drinking first. I used to think “alcohol = calories, and you have to burn extra calories, and you’re drinking calories, so alcohol is like soda.” Calories in, calories out, right? But alcohol is a potent hormonal dysregulator, it’s a strong solvent that permeates your entire body and increases oxidative stress, and it’s a part of life for many of us. The truth is that you can be in very good shape and still drink once or twice a week, perhaps even more, without making significant dents in your physique. But if you want to see rapid progress, you need to reduce your consumption and make it as moderate as you possibly can. You have to realize that “just” having 2 beers in a day is still drinking, it’s still hormonal dysregulation, and it’s still your choice to make, no judgment. It absolutely does interfere with your ability to sleep deeply and restfully, and it’s best to “corral” it to a couple of days a week, tops, in my opinion.
Many people will say that a glass of wine every single day is healthy and fine — red wine isn’t really for me, it causes flushing and I really have the sort of personality that gets bored or tired after a single drink, and wants at least 2-3 in a session. Perhaps that could work for some, but in the early phase when you’re trying to see rapid results, consider if it’s truly helping you or not. Yes, there are many fit people who drink a glass of wine a day. Did they struggle to get where they are, or are they lucky and have no trouble maintaining their level of fitness? Are they truly fit, or just skinny-fat? Are they coasting now, and were they drinking every day before they got where they are? Consider the impact on your own cortisol levels, knowing that alcohol is relaxing psychologically but behind the scenes, physiologically, it is triggering a slight but measurable stress response and completely shutting down your fat-burning circuitry until every last bit of alcohol is metabolized.
When it comes to “doing this every day is good for me” logic, I would much rather get my antioxidants and other potent phytonutrients directly from fresh juices, and to get my grapey-goodness from supplements like grapeseed extract (for the pycnogenol, a potent antioxidant) and trans-resveratrol. Those are the two elements in red wine that provide the most benefits to men and women, without the alcohol in the mix to work against your efforts.
One thing I recently learned is that people with insanely low bodyfat (under 10%) levels tend to freak out about having a single beer, because they know it triggers this cascade of counterproductive hormonal effects, and a single session of drinking and poor judgment about food and poor sleep and poor recovery can cause noticeable changes in their insanely-trim physique. I would rather have a 10%+ bodyfat physique that I still feel good about, and would prefer to enjoy alcohol just about every week in moderation. I just choose not to see daily alcohol consumption as moderation, perhaps in part because I struggle nearly every day with eating after dinnertime, and already have enough in the “vice department” when it comes to over-eating well past dinnertime.