This iteration was written in April 2019. Two major changes have been made since then (“now” is March 2020): first, I’ve focused specifically on “Olympic Lifting” and not as much on “Crossfit”, and spent Summer 2019 in a much more intense training schedule in Colorado, and drastically increased my caloric intake to keep up. Second, during the fall of 2019 and Spring of 2020 I had to train with a very packed schedule, which made me modify some things about diet and training to balance my professional goals with my training goals.
Body fat percentage went from ~28% to ~12%, and then now hovers around 13-15% depending on the lifting cycle (and whether there is a global pandemic interrupting my training rhythms).
Dates: August 2018 to February 2020 (~18 months)
Squat: 225lbs –> 500lbs
Bench: 185lbs –> 275lbs
Deadlift: 315lbs –> 507lbs
Clean & Jerk: pvc pipe –> 308lbs
Snatch: pvc pipe –> 245lbs
OHP: 95lbs –> 165lbs
OH Squat: 45lbs –> 281lbs
My current goals are just to stick with the program and not lose too much strength while life is crazy and we’re on lockdown & social distancing. I’d like to deadlift & squat closer to 600lbs, and I know that will take at least a couple years if I work hard, but that it’s attainable. I’m focused on technique for the olympic lifts, since I can now comfortably snatch and clean and jerk in the range of my initial medium-term goals. After the shelter in place has lifted I’ll reassess what medium and long term goals look like.
Studies show that the degree to which you stick to a diet or exercise plan is more important than the plan itself. So even if you only improve by 5% or 10%, if you keep consistent, it will be better for you than completely overhauling your diet & exercise only to take frequent “cheat days” or become overwhelmed. Focus on keeping a positive attitude and being emotionally supported in your plan, not just “grinding” or “forcing yourself to do it”. Give yourself grace and give your body time to adjust to your new plan. It will be difficult, but if you do it in small increments, your body will even help you stick to your plan, instead of always “craving junk food”. In fact, after only two months into my plan, I really felt uncomfortable if I took more than two rest days from the gym, and I felt nauseated at the idea of eating more than the calories I had adjusted to. It really worked, but it took time.
Many well-intentioned eating and exercise plans begin with focusing only on the food and exercise. This makes sense, of course, but ultimately neglects the communal element which will help sustain you through the difficult times in executing your plan. I personally joined some Facebook groups, followed some Instagram accounts, and subscribed to some Reddit subgroup pages so that my social media time had some articles and stories regarding health and weightlifting. This was part of changing the ecosystem in which I was trying to achieve my goals. Often, I would ask questions or make comments to help others and to discuss the different resources posted on those pages.
In terms of support, my wife was my #1 source of support, and I had two other friends who also were attempting to change their eating and exercise habits. My wife very specifically would encourage me in my progress, and listen to all of the new terminology that I was learning about. My two friends would touch base here or there to talk about our workouts or share resources to help one another, and the classmates at crossfit also encouraged me to push myself and to attend class as frequently as possible. These small emotional positive feedback loops may not seem important, but linked together they gave me a significant motivational boost each day and associated learning with excitement instead of “guilt” or “punishing my body” or other negative reinforcement techniques.
I had many failures over the course of changing my body composition & changing my eating and exercise habits. I had days where I would go out with friends and overeat, I had days that I would deliberately miss the gym, and I had many meals where I was totally out of control with the quality and quantity of food I consumed. I also had days where I had a terrible attitude, and was engaging in this new lifestyle in unhealthy ways. As I saw successes, I also had days where I succumbed to the vanity of focusing purely on aesthetics, or thinking more highly of myself based on how visible my abs were, or how pointy my biceps looked.
When I found myself in these “negative head spaces”, instead of chastising myself or feeling guilty, I asked myself “why am I feeling this way?” or “why did I feel the need to eat so much at that party?” or “what’s going on in my life that is discouraging me from my goals and from my new healthy lifestyle?” and I treated each “failure” as a valuable learning experience. Each time, I typed out in a journal what I learned and how I can move forward in a positive and meaningful way (I use the “Day One” journaling app on my iPhone, but any note or even pen and paper works as well). I found that instead of punishing myself, learning from the experience was much more valuable, and could also be considered a success. Some things that I learned:
These lessons are all very valuable to me, and they help me grow and progress well in my own personal journey, as well as my food and fitness journey. Takeaway: don’t just “punish yourself” when you make mistakes, because you will miss out on important lessons about yourself, which will help you become more successful.
It’s easy to compare yourself to others or to use their metrics as your own. Many measurements of your body are deemed “good” and “bad”. As a thicker person, I’ve never fit into more fashionable clothes, and because I carry weight on my thighs, I have ripped many pairs of pants because they don’t conform to my particular dimensions.
Keep a journal or log of your workouts and the weight you lift and the number of repetitions, and ask yourself each day “about what effort did I put toward my workout today?” or “how much was still left in the tank?” and give yourself a rating, maybe out of 10, or out of 100%, or any metric that is most helpful to you. Maybe choose one workout per week to go as hard as you can, and focus on improving performance. Pick some tangible goals that you can see clear improvements on. Maybe it’s how many repetitions of squats you can do at a particular weight, or how many pull-ups you can do. Some easy metrics are how fast you can run 400m, 800m, or one mile. As you continue to improve, continue to measure your effort and not just your output. If you have a high effort day, but you didn’t improve your lifts or times, that’s still a success. It can also be an opportunity to assess if you are eating properly or sleeping adequately.
It is easier to measure quantitative goals, but they are not always the most helpful in your journey. For instance, I recently squatted a significant amount 6 sets of 4 repetitions. This was not the highest weight or the highest volume that I have squatted, but during the sets I felt much more confident and balanced than before. This was much more encouraging to me than last week when I squatted the highest number of pounds that I ever have. Because my goals are balance, mobility, and functional strength, it is more important to have balance and smoothness in my reps, as opposed to sheer weight even with questionable form.
Always always always stay connected to your ultimate goal, and don’t let the numbers drive your metrics for success. Quantitative measures are helpful and can point us in the right direction, but will never be enough to sustain a lifetime of fitness.
I want to emphasize that weight loss should be a secondary goal, not a primary motivator. Fixing your posture, improving mobility, and understanding your own mind-body relationship are all much more important and useful in the long run than specifically losing weight.
There’s an incredible TED talk: The Mathematics of Weight Loss presented by Ruben Meerman talking about what actually happens in the body for you to lose weight. This is important to dispel some myths and help you understand what is actually going on in your body.
Body composition simply put is what your body is made of! Mainly, body fat % and muscle mass is most important for athletes to track and understand in order to be successful in their activity or sport. Understand that when it comes to stepping on the scale, that number is affected by all sorts of factors: muscle mass, healthy fat mass, excess fat mass, intracellular water, extracellular water, your general eating schedule, your specific eating schedule, your bathroom usage schedule, your particular hormonal spikes and dips, hydration, other chemical reactions taking place in your body. With that being said, only careful monitoring your weight and several other factors frequently and over a long period of time will be able to give you an accurate picture of what is going on in your body. The number on the scale is only a very long-term measurement, and not even a very useful one at that.
During the entirety of my fitness journey, I used the MyFitnessPal iOS app to keep track of everything I ate. Studies show that even the action of logging the calories can change your success rate by a significant amount.
The three main macronutrients are Protein, Carbohydrates, and fat. Each of the macronutrients has a specific function in the body, and none of the macronutrients are “good” or “bad”. Think of your body as a business. You need some accountants, some salespeople, and some managers. You also need them in the right proportion depending on what you want to accomplish.
Protein is the food that your muscles need to grow. As your body uses energy, protein can effectively protect your muscles from being used up by your body as energy. If you are not consuming enough protein, you will not be able to build muscle. Additionally, if you are cutting weight, you may need to increase protein intake. Between .6 and .8 grams of protein per pound of body weight is sufficient, and anyone who says you need more than that probably is trying to sell you protein powder.
Carbs are an important energy source for your body! Low carb diets are popular but can also have adverse side-effects. Ultimately, I think that low carb diets can reinforce a “good-bad split” where carbs are seen as “bad”, which simply isn’t true. Think of carbs as fuel for you body’s engine. If you are engaging in high levels of activity, you will need carbs to fuel that activity, even if you are losing weight. If you are gaining weight or maintaining weight and have high levels of activity, you will need to consume a significant amount of carbohydrates to sustain that activity. Makes sense, right? If you are launching a rocket, you will need more fuel than if you are driving your honda accord to the grocery store and back.
Fat has gotten a bad rap, and things like “low fat” end up having so much sugar. Focus on eating healthy fats and don’t cut out fats entirely. Fat is important for the body and has significant contribution to body function. The brain is made of fat, and it runs on sugars and carbs.
Making sure to get enough micronutrients is significant for your body’s health and function. It’s also important to recognize that if you’re at a high level of activity, your body’s need for nutrients changes majorly.
Perhaps even more important than your physical relationship to food is your emotional relationship to food. This relationship has been conditioned and programmed through the culture and society where you were raised and influenced. Consider understanding your relationship to food by engaging with “intuitive eating”, a concept that helps you get in touch with your body and step away from unhealthy societal normative behavior about food. Below are some helpful articles:
Additionally, read about “Orthorexia” which is a type of eating disorder that results from obsessing over eating “healthy foods”.
Check out this article about “diet culture” here. This should undergird your understanding of “diet” and some of the context around the billion dollar industry.
If you are going to prescribe to some kind of “diet”, I’d recommend going for flexible dieting and focusing on macros for performance. Here is a great article to get you started on the principles.
Fad diets promise ridiculous and unsustainable results, and according to studies, do not lead to meaningful or lasting change. I want to make a life-long change in my relationship with food, not just drop weight or get my “Summer 2019 body”. Engaging with fad diets might help you understand principles of food, but I think that careful research and small changes over time are much more helpful.
Here is a Harvard doctor’s approach to the Keto Diet
So many diets feature low carbs, and it’s turned into an extreme form of fad dieting.
We shop at Costco and generally work our way around the back of the store, while skipping the middle parts (with all of the tasty prepackaged food). We primarily get the following foods:
Asparagus, broccoli, spinach, mixed greens (for salads), squash and zucchini, brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes (I know they’re more of a starch but colloquially still considered a “vegetable”), mini potatoes, green beans, and any other veggie that catches our eye that we want to try out.
“Cuties” mandarin oranges, kiwi, apples, pears, peaches, plums, grapes, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, etc. Comments: You can’t go wrong with fruits. Get whatever is in season, and grab the big bags (you could start with one bag the first week, and then try two the second week, but don’t get so much that it’s going bad).
Ground turkey, Salmon fillets (frozen or fresh), steaks, chicken breasts, chicken thighs, albacore tuna in the can, rotisserie chicken, ground beef, ground bison, scallops, shrimp. Note: If you’re trying to lower your body fat %, you want to get more lean meats, whereas if you’re “bulking” or don’t have as low of a cap on your grams of fat per day, you can get more fatty meats (sirloin, seabass, etc.). Usually the tastier, the fattier.
Note: This is a category you want to have something reasonable in. You can choose tortilla chips, or crackers, or celery/ carrots with ranch, or hummus and pita chips. Alayne calls this the “crunchy things” category. Because we have both a “sweet tooth” and a “salty tooth” we have to have something small that we can put in a bowl when we’re otherwise in danger of overeating or returning to old unhealthy habits.
Manchego cheese, cheddar shredded cheese, string cheese sticks, any cheese you really enjoy, but in general for our specific eating plan, we cut out most dairy, or kept it in small amounts for flavoring.
Pick a sweet treat that you enjoy and make sure to have it once in a while to treat yourself. Not as a “reward” for doing well, but simply because you enjoy it and want to enjoy it with others or by yourself. Having a healthy relationship with food means avoiding the “restrictive” mentality where foods are “good” or “bad”. As you learn more about sweets and what is actually inside, you’ll understand why you don’t want to eat 3 slices of pie, or half of an entire cheesecake (not like I’ve ever done those things personally…). Because you don’t want your body to be hyped up on sugar, or have such an unnecessary amount of those nutrients, fats, sugars, etc., all at once.
Note: I chose the “dark chocolate covered blueberries, acai berries, and powerberries” that come in a big bag at costco, because I can have three or four small berries for a 50 calorie snack with some fruit to help me recalibrate what dessert can taste / feel like.
A cutting diet is basically a diet that is geared toward losing overall body fat while not losing muscle. In this phase, keeping your overall performance steady, or increasing it at a slower pace is acceptable, because your body simply will not have the energy to output the power you need. It is not efficient to try to “build muscle” and “lose fat” at the same time. Jeff Nippard recommends that you go through “discrete cutting and bulking cycles” rather than mixing the two: make your cycles at least 8 weeks in length.
There are two ways to bulk: the dirty bulk, and the lean bulk.
The Dirty Bulk
Dirty bulking basically means eating as much as you possibly can in order to feed your body and your muscles, and to significantly out-pace your metabolism. Chronically skinny guys who “can’t gain weight no matter what they do” have often broken that cycle by dirty bulking. They usually just need to learn to eat more than they are accustomed to, but it takes the body time to adjust.
The Lean Bulk
The “lean bulk” is focused on adding calories over your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) without adding excessive fat. Some forums refer to this as “lean gains” or “putting on “lean mass” which just means you want to increase your muscle mass without increasing the amount of fat by an inordinate amount.
Maintaining your body composition after a period of drastic change is important so that your body can adjust and communicate properly with your brain when it comes to cravings or habits. After I lost 50 lbs, I needed to maintain at my new weight for a month or two in order to readjust and for my body to calibrate. Some sources encourage to maintain for as long as 6 months before doing anything drastically different.
If you want to improve as fast as possible, you want to train as hard as you can, as often you can, while not sacrificing muscle freshness, and making sure to get maximum rest. If you don’t let a muscle recover, you won’t be able to train it as well, and if you wait too long, the muscle is ready to be trained, but waiting and not being utilized to maximum potential! Of course, aside from an exhaustive list of every muscle in your body and a special machine to measure exact fatigue, you won’t be able to achieve this. However, good programming and following a strict routine can get you as close as possible to that goal!
Progressive Overload is just a fancy word for “do more than last time”. This could be increasing the amount of weight you did, increasing the number of repetitions you did for that exercise, or increasing the “time under tension” by doing slower movements. If you do the same exercises the same way every time, your body will adapt, and won’t improve as quickly. As Arnold Schwarzenegger says, you need to “shock the muscle” (please read in accent for full effect). Here’s a video of him explaining his principle: “You Need to Shock the Muscle” - Arnold.
There are so many weightlifting routines and plans on the internet, and it totally depends what you want to do. I personally had success doing “stronglifts 5x5” and “nSuns” to build my main lifts: squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press. But I think a really accessible regimen is a “PPL” routine which stands for “push, pull, legs” where you would do it two times in a week, so six days, and then take a day off. If you cannot make it to the gym 6 days per week, you can consider the PPL routine as a cycle of 8, 9, 10, or more days where you incorporate resting on more days in between. The most important thing is to pick a plan and to continue to stick to it for 6-8 weeks at least. Don’t change plans all over, because it’s discouraging and doesn’t fit with our decision to pick something and stick to it for maximum adherence!
Part of my fitness journey was a sweet deal on a Crossfit class trial and I really benefited from the specific coaching, the rigor, and the community. I recommend beginning at a normal gym for 6 months to a year to build up your understanding of basic weight lifting principles before joining a Crossfit gym, but as with anything and depending on your goals, your experience may vary widely.
Note: after joining Crossfit, it was the first time I could truly say that I began to really push myself in ways I simply didn’t / couldn’t when I was alone in the gym. Furthermore, the community is incredible and much more encouraging than any other sport, team, etc. that I’ve engaged with. Also, a very important principle from my Crossfit experience is “doing more than I could before”. I didn’t realize how encouraged and motivated I would become as my times, lifts, agility, and endurance improved week after week. It really translated into other areas of my life, and I began to see challenges in relationships, at work, and other areas of life as more “temporary setbacks” rather than “permanent failures / immovable objects”. I cannot emphasize enough how important this was in my personal journey.
Warning: Crossfit is only as good as the coaches. Some coaches allow and encourage bad form, others will be helpful and careful. I’ve had both, and have had to unlearn and relearn from some bad habits built in the context of the former. Always watch youtube videos from professions who are respected in their corresponding fields to supplement your in gym coaching.
Jeff Nippard’s youtube channel is the absolute best holistic resource for weightlifting walkthroughs, scientific breakdowns, and general fitness knowledge. I would 100% recommend without reservation anything he promotes on his channel.
“Buff Dudes” is a fun and also very informative channel of a few dudes who just want to be buff. They have some specific meals, workouts, and basic technique videos that feature “do’s and don’ts” of particular movements, and it’s all narrated with funny and “manly” voices and references. I have used specific programming, advice, and meal prep from their channel. One of the guys is about my height and weight, and so it was beneficial to model my physique goals off of him, and not someone shorter, like Jeff Nippard.
Oleksiy Torokhtiy is a Ukrainian olympic weightlifter who has similar dimensions to me, and lifts an unbelievable amount of weight. He has an entire line of weightlifting equipment, and also many useful youtube videos where he breaks down many of the olympic weightlifting movements.
Alan Thrall is an eccentric powerlifter / strongman / Crossfit athlete who has a ton of useful and relatable videos on youtube. He’s pretty humble about when he’s made mistakes in giving advice in the past, and he also updates his training plans and what he recommends as he learns new things. He also doesn’t pretend to be an expert, but he has a lot of experience.
I tried a pre-workout called “Thermovex” that is advertised as a fat burner. Of course, I don’t have a “control variable Jake” that did not take Thermovex in order to compare results, but I did feel a difference before and after with both my performance and my progress at the gym. So that’s worth at least the placebo effect to me. Pre-workout usually has caffeine, sugar, and other stimulating chemicals, so be careful if you have a history of heart conditions, or are sensitive to caffeine. I’ve accidentally taken it before a late workout and had trouble sleeping, so I usually do only half of a scoop if I workout in the afternoon / evening.
BCAA is a complete waste of money. If you are getting adequate protein from food and protein powder, you do not need BCAA.
Plant vs. Animal
There is “whey” protein powder which is made from animal products, and there is “vegan” protein powder that is made from plants. Some people enjoy one more than the other, but I can’t sense a big difference.
Whatever flavor you want to drink every day that you train is the best flavor for you. I’ve done strawberry for a long time, but in the last 6 months I’ve primarily had the Costco chocolate protein flavor.
Protein powder usually is expensive, and I’ve found the best way to get a deal is to wait for a sale on Amazon, or just get protein at Costco. Amazon gives 5% with its credit card and also sometimes there are wholesalers that are trying to move inventory. Usually any “new” “hip” or “new formula” proteins that are offering you a deal are not actually that good of a deal, and it’s too much work for me to keep up with all the promotions and sign up for all the newsletters and get junk mail, yadda yadda.
I encourage anyone on a journey to change their relationship with “food” and “movement” to also engage with the emotional elements, and even spiritual elements if that is part of your life. Any change you make that is connected to meaningful and lasting positive change in other areas is more likely to benefit you long term. Focus on activities that are applicable to a large age range and are extendable into the rest of your life.
Over the course of losing 50 pounds, buying new clothes to fit my new body, and improving my athletic performance, I was exposed to a lot of the both positive and negative ways that society at large, and specifically Western culture interacts with food and movement. I was discouraged to find that many people specifically objectified my muscles and my new body, and specifically disparaged and ridiculed my old “fat self”. I also saw that I was able to focus on eating well and exercising instead of engaging with my emotional problems, but there is no way to separate those two things and still make meaningful lasting change because we are whole people who need holistic solutions. I hope that this journey will continue to help me become the best version of myself, and also help me lead others into living their best life.