June 15, 2017
So recently.. this happened:
And through this process, I’ve learned I have a lot to say. And even more strangely, people sometimes listen1. So I’ve decided to consolidate the advice that I’ve given in one semi-long diatribe about health, food, and our bodies.
I had a lot of titles for this post. Just to be fun, here’s some:
And a bunch of others. Most seemed shitty and generic. In other words, they sounded a lot like the kind of crap the fitness industry puts out on a daily basis. You know, the multi-billion dollar industry that consistently claims to have the secret 7-minute answer to all of your problems.
Most (but not all) of that industry is mind numbingly awful for humanity. Most of that industry thinks bacon is quite bad for you, and I didn’t want to have even a twinge of association with the health and fitness industry oeuvre.. so bacon won.
Sometime well after this transformation had begun, I was at my favorite Saturday breakfast spot, ritually eating my eggs and bacon while watching an older guy sit outside ritually eat his Saturday breakfast. I’d seen him before, but had never really noticed him. He was probably 60, way overweight, chainsmoking cigarettes with shaky hands and inhaling black coffee and a chocolate donut. He was feigning interest in the sports section, but he couldn’t seem to maintain his concentration in between puffing, slurping and chomping.
A one word description of the scene popped into my head and something clicked: this scene was morbid. That word connotes death, and I felt like I was literally watching someone actively kill themselves. What clicked in my head was why the medical field had chosen the term “morbid obesity”. It literally means you are actively killing yourself through food. It’s not the fault of the donut. It’s the context and responsibility around the donut that can make it either a fun treat or a deadly habit.
Since then, I’ve paid closer attention to all sorts of people in public and the decisions they make about what they eat and how they move. It’s become very clear to me that the everyday decisions we make all the time, each one, can either bring us a fuller life or take us closer to death. I’m sure that seems very extreme, but that’s why it’s so frightening. It’s a very slow, gradual process and so we don’t notice it everyday. But it adds up over time.
Which is exactly what happened to me. I’ve always been fairly athletic. I grew up very active outside and playing sports. I entered college at about 200 lbs and exited college around 230 - some muscle and growing, some fat. I’m now in my mid-30s, and for about ten years after college, I hovered right around 240.
240 seems like a lot. I’m a big guy, so it’s a pretty good 240. I’ve always carried a lot of muscle, and even when not actively lifting weights, I could go in and bench somewhere over 250. Four years ago, I ran a 24:40 5K at that weight (7:59/min miles), and competed in the Bethany Beach Duathlon. Had I entered in the Clydesdale division (225+), I would’ve won (I refused on principle).
Nobody would ever claim I was skinny, but I certainly wasn’t fat. I could eat pretty much whatever - and I did - and it wouldn’t change that much. Most people guessed my weight at 200. And for a long time, I was happy with that.
But then a few things happened. My wife and I started having kids - 3 in five years - and the midlife metabolic switch kicked in and I lost my ability to inhale food with no ill effects. The weight started creeping up in a gradual, barely noticeable way. Jump forward a couple of years and I was suddenly 275 with a decent sized gut, wondering what happened.
Unfortunately, that still didn’t kick me into gear. But some heart concerns sure did.
I went to see a chiropractor to see if it would help with some mobility for powerlifting (more on that shortly). While there, he took my blood pressure and got a reading of 170/115. That is disastrously high - so high that the chiropractor said to me, “I’m pretty sure that this is wrong.” I still got worried, and followed up.
A trip to a primary care doctor confirmed the readings and followed it up with an abnormal EKG. At this point, I was freaking out and on my way to a cardiologist. He turned out to be a fantastic doctor. After calming me down and assuring me that this was almost definitely just essential hypertension (elevated blood pressure with no additional problems), he gave me some extremely sage advice. He said, “Listen. You’re going to live a long life and play with lots of grandchildren. You’re just an adult now and you’re not invincible anymore.”
He said, “Listen. You’re going to live a long life and play with lots of grandchildren. You’re just an adult now and you’re not invincible anymore.”
Truth. Hard truth. I’m not invincible anymore.
So I set about adulting.
I had already thought that 275 lb. number was a bit high, so I had already been doing some research into the ketogenic diet. The diet appealed to me for a bunch of reasons. It had a great scientific explanation. It helped regulate your insulin levels (I have a family history of diabetes). It was not pushed too much in the fitness industry. It let you eat a lot of delicious food.
After seeing a cardiologist, it seemed like an imperative. With confirmation from the cardiologist that this was a good idea, I set about doing it.
So I should tell you what it is, and what I did. This is also a good time to remind you that I’m not a doctor and you should definitely listen to one. This is simply the basics at a high level, so here we go..
Generally glucose is the easiest form of energy your body has, so it will use it if it can. Glucose (mostly) comes from carbs. Carbs make your blood glucose and insulin levels spike and cycle based on when and how you eat. This in turn also causes your appetite to fluctuate and for you to get hungry. If you eat extra food, your body stores it as fat.
The ketogenic diet is a very high fat, moderate protein diet. You eliminate almost all carbs and all sugar from your diet. In turn, your glucose intake goes to near zero. After a small period of time while your body adapts to this new world, your body enters a state of ketosis. This does a few things:
And boom, you start losing weight. Pretty damn quickly.
As you start reading and learning more about some of the different diets out there, you’ll probably run into a religious debate about calories.
Some people are completely convinced that the only diet rule that matters is how many calories you eat. As long as you count calories and sit in a calorie deficit (eat less than you use), you’ll lose weight. Macronutrients, timing, sugar, etc. don’t matter at all.
Others say that managing hormone cycles and macronutrients is the key to weight loss. The body is a complex system with lots of different and intricately linked metabolic regulatory paths that need to be controlled somewhat to produce any effect.
The physicist in me - which usually wins - says that of course it’s a straight energy equation and calorie counting is the only thing that matters2. The biochemist in me says that of course the body regulates and manages the energy supply it gets and uses it in different ways. There are studies on both sides, and I really don’t want to have to care too much about an incredibly complex biological process like the conversion of sunlight to edible plants/animals to human energy.
The thing I really like about keto is that it covers all the bases.
See, a keto diet does an incredible job at regulating your insulin cycle and forcing your body into a state where it’s used to dealing with very little sugar. It responds by producing these ketone things from your fat stores. So there’s quite a lot of chemical trickery going on.
At the same time, the fact that your insulin cycle is suppressed means that you aren’t spiking your insulin, and so you don’t feel hungry. So it’s also very easy to eat way less calories than your basal metabolic rate says you need (more on that shortly).
Now that we’ve got some basics down, let’s take a look at a practical way to get this rolling.
First, go get a BMR calculator and get a sense of your basal metabolic rate. This is the number of calories your body will burn if you do nothing all day. If you stay under your BMR everyday for your calorie count, you’ll be set. And if you add exercise, you’ll be killing it.
Next, do some research to find the keto foods that you enjoy. Restricting yourself in any way is hard, especially if you’re not used to it, so don’t make it extra hard by eating food you don’t like. There’s a big difference between this being simple and being easy. This is definitely hard, so work to keep it nice and simple.
Once that’s set, just get going. Start. Especially at first, having a schedule of a few simple meals that you enjoy will make it super easy to follow. For the first week or so, use MyFitnessPal or a similar app to track your calories and the amount of fat you’re getting. It’s actually hard to get 70-80% fat! If you get too much protein, your body will end up producing glucose from the protein and you won’t enter the state of ketosis.
Here’s what worked for me:
The first week was definitely tough. I still wanted “normal” food. But once I got through the bad part, the difference is pretty remarkable. I feel better, I’m not hungry hardly at all (even tho I’m under 2000 calories a day), and I don’t really miss the food much. It’s very sustainable.
So now we’ve covered literally 90% of the work. Seriously, diet is by far the biggest component. Every single time you see one of those completely shredded and strong girls/guys on Instagram, 90% of the effort was in the kitchen.
Every single time you see one of those completely shredded and strong girls/guys on Instagram, 90% of the effort was in the kitchen.
But there’s that last 10%, and it’s definitely important. It’s a habit that changes the way you think, the way you feel, and the way you look. Diet makes you look good in your clothes. Exercise makes you look good naked.
Diet makes you look good in your clothes. Exercise makes you look good naked.
When most people start trying to get into shape, they start running. So let’s get this out of the way.. you shouldn’t run3.
There’s only two kinds of people that should run:
Now, why shouldn’t you run? Lots of reasons - it can be boring, it’s hard on your joints.. but the biggest reason is that you won’t get the results you want.
Most people want to look more like a sprinter than a marathon runner. They want muscle definition, a good butt, and a nice back, not efficient, spindly legs. A few miles at a nice steady pace just doesn’t achieve that look. To look the way you want, you need to ditch fat and build muscle. And the way to do both of those things is to lift weights. Heavy weights. Lots of heavy weights.
Which is basically what powerlifting is - lifting heavy weights and focusing on the 3 big movements - the squat, the deadlift, the bench press. These three exercises are the kings of the gym4, the best overall movements you can do to build your body and all of your muscles. Want the best exercise for abs? That would be the squat. Second best? Deadlift. Best for legs? Squat. Second? Deadlift.
It’s ridiculous how all-encompassing these movements can be. They work the biggest muscle groups you have, which means they require a huge amount of energy, thus burning tons of calories. And because they’re all barbell movements and require balance, they also work a lot of secondary and core muscles.
Powerlifting is still a niche enough sport that most mainstream people have a skewed perspective. Most people probably think of a powerlifter like this:
But that’s pretty far from the truth. Powerlifting as a sport is weight-classed, and if you’re going to be the strongest 148 lb. guy around, there isn’t much room on your body for fat. Only the biggest super heavyweights carry a lot of fat. For instance, all of these guys are 240-300 lbs and still completely jacked.
Need something more realistic? How about Jesse Norris, one of the best at 198 lbs.
And girls.. don’t worry at all about “getting jacked”. You won’t be muscle-bound, instead your body will get functionally strong while still looking amazing.
So head to the gym and focus on the big barbell movements. Especially when you start out and the weights aren’t that heavy, you can squat every workout. Find a good program that focuses on the big barbell movements, and add in some accessories near the end of the workout. CrossFit is another great place to start5. I started out using Jason Blaha’s Ice Cream 5x5 Novice Program. I’m a pretty strong guy and it worked great for months. When you get started, make sure to learn proper form and then push the weights - in that order! Learn the RPE scale and how to use it - your sets should be in the RPE 6-8 scale for the most part. Plan on spending 3-5 hours a week at the gym; about 60-90 minutes per workout. Get plenty of rest too. It should be hard and you should be sore.
Being sore is undervalued today. Most people live comfortably and happily without much exertion, ever. But feeling sore the next day is an incredible reminder that you are alive. That your body is one hell of a machine, and that it is working for you. That you are actively not dying today. You are improving and getting better, that’s what being sore should tell you. It feels GOOD and it’s incredibly motivating to do it again, better, the next time.
You are improving and getting better, that’s what being sore should tell you. It feels GOOD and it’s incredibly motivating to do it again, better, the next time.
Motivation is huge. This type of transformation, a real transformation, takes consistency and dedication. You’ve got to want it - not in the “It would be really cool to have abs on the beach one day” kinda way, but in the “holy shit I love this and can’t wait to get to the gym today and do some work!” kinda way. You’ve got to love the process, not the outcome.
You’ve got to love the process, not the outcome.
To push yourself and effect change, you’ve got to be smart about this too. And that probably means getting a trainer or a coach. A good one.
A big chunk of personal trainers out there are junk. The ones at most commercial gyms are junk. Their purpose is to teach novices how not to get injured6 and to inject motivation into the workout. But look.. if this is going to work, the motivation has to come from you, not from someone else. It still probably does take someone else to help diagnose your weaknesses, your problems with form, answer questions, and to come up with programming that will push you without overdoing it.
The nice thing these days is that the internet enables you to find someone good wherever you are. I found my coach on Instagram, and he is awesome. He’s the kind of coach you should get. I post videos to track progress and I get suggestions, criticism, and kudos. I ask questions and get answers the same day, all the time. And he leads by example, and works as hard or harder himself than all of his clients.
And that’s your motivation. Find someone better than you and emulate them. Stop making excuses - and there can be so many made so easily - and just start. Wherever you are, just start.
Starting is simple. But holy crap is it hard. That’s why we like all of those life-changing yet mendacious fitness headlines. They feel good. They feel simple. They make us feel like less of a failure, even as they set us up to fail again.
And there is some truth in all of them, just like there’s a hard but honest truth in the phrase “morbid obesity”. We all have choices to make about life and death. And choosing to make our lives better really is simple. Eat less, move more. Lift Weights. Be sore on a regular basis. Make small good choices. Be consistent. Work hard. But above all, just start. And keep going.
2. You should totally watch this talk which describes the math and chemistry behind weight loss. I was amazed to find that, when I burn fat, it exits the body as 80% CO2 I breathe out and 20% H2O I pee out.
3. You can definitely do cardio for weight loss. You just shouldn’t do it in place of lifting weights. If you’re already lifting 3 or more times a week, then adding HIIT and LISS into your routine will do amazing things. HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training - 30-60 second sprints with rests in between is one example. LISS is Low Intensity Steady State cardio - just going for a pleasant morning walk.
4. There’s another gym route to take, possibly even better than powerlifting, and that’s olympic lifting. The two main lifts here are the snatch and the clean & jerk. They require all the same core, leg, and major muscle group strength as powerlifting while adding much more flexibility and balance. If you’re starting from scratch, this may be the best route.
5. CrossFit is an awesome way to get started. Where it fails is by making novices think that a WOD by itself will get them where they want to be. A lot of people see the CrossFit athletes on TV and think that their 20 minute workout is enough. It isn’t. You need to spend some more time in the gym to move the needle.
6. It’s pretty important to be able to avoid injury. As the weights have gotten heavier, I’ve had to learn how to focus more on mobility and flexibility. A complete novice probably should have at least some in person training to get the gist of what’s going on. CrossFit gyms can excel here.