This post is a follow up to my previous blog post outlining my transformation.

In the 8 months ending February 2017, I'd lost 30kg (66lbs) and slimmed down to 65kg. I was at 8% body fat, and it was the first time in my life I'd ever seen my much anticipated 6 pack. I had documented the details of my transformation in my previous blog post and the response to it was phenomenal. Aside from the plentiful compliments, it's especially moving when you can use your experience to help your own friends with their own fitness goals.

With time, sadly, the compliments begin to wane, and the boring part of fitness sets in: maintenance. Many had said that this kind of physique seemed completely unsustainable in the long run. No surprises there: when you've achieved the aesthetic goal, what motivation do you have left? There's no big payoff at the end anymore: just you looking pretty much the same. I knew it wouldn't be easy, and with travel, an increasingly time-consuming full-time job, and the unwillingness to sacrifice weekend nights of fun, even less so.

Nonetheless, in the next 8 months, I'd managed to maintain my 6-pack and keep my weight stable in the 66-68kg (145-150lb) range. Despite 3 months of travel,a long grand wedding, and many nights out, I'd consider my maintenance period successful. The only secret to making it happen was to keep it simple and focus on the basics (nutrition, training) without sweating the details.

Physique progress from February to September. Aside from slight variations due to filters, lighting and muscular pump, my physique has more or less remained consistent.

Contents

My Ten Fitness Principles

The only ten commandments of fitness that I follow are:

  • Two meals a day. Eat two meals a day to keep your calorie count low. Use coffee in the morning to stave off appetite. Choose tasty slightly worse meals over the optimal, but disgusting counterpart. This technique is called intermittent fasting.
  • Avoid carbs. It's okay to cheat in small amounts (from veggies or mixed into a dish), but avoid dessert and all forms of sugar entirely, as well as simple carbs like rice, pasta, etc. Complex carbs like farro or brown rice are okay sometimes. This is popularly known as the ketogenic diet.
  • Calorie and Macro estimation. Train yourself to eyeball calories and macros of food. One week of MyFitnessPal obsessiveness should help you. This is based on the CICO school of thought (calories in vs calories out).
  • Get enough protein. I try to ensure both of my meals are protein-centric. Technically, I should try to consume 1g/kg of body weight daily. A protein shake gives me 50g, and I try to get the rest from my meals, but I'm not meticulous about the math (I target 150g). Protein is necessary to retain muscle.
  • Don't sacrifice fun. Eat unhealthy on special occasions (birthdays, weddings, etc.), drink socially. Compensate for cheat meals (1-2 times a week) by skipping or reducing meal sizes before or after. Treat a cheat meal as a moderately unhealthy meal, not an excuse to eat anything in any amount.
  • Measure. Weigh yourself and take body measurements on a regular basis. This should be as habitual as checking your teeth for food. Measurements are essential to evaluating progress, allowing you to look at raw numbers and not people's opinions.
  • Don't skip cardio. While absolutely non-essential for aesthetics, cardio is the backbone of general fitness. You don't want to be that person who looks shredded but pants after a few staircases.
  • Train. Workout 3-4 times a week in a push-pull-leg (PPL) routine. If you can't make the gym, do a home workout with dumbbells or exercise bands. Something is better than nothing.
  • Do Compounds Movements. Compound lifts - bench press, squat, deadlift - bring monumental benefits. They train muscles you can't hit doing simple exercises, and help develop a uniform physique. Not doing these can lead to assymetric physiques with points of weakness.
  • Keep it simple. The most important principle is to never sweat the details, and remember the bigger picture. The exact amount of protein and fats and the exact amount of sets and reps can be left to the pros. The more supplements you do, the less likely you'll continue to do them. Fitness companies want you to believe this is difficult so they can sell you more things, but it's really basic. The more precise you try to be, the harder it will be to sustain in the long run because of the large mental overhead. Stick to the repeatable basics. Being slightly disciplined forever is better than being ultra disciplined for a short time.

It's worth noting that these principles apply to me because I classify myself as an endomorph, someone who tends to pack on weight very easily and remains naturally fat. If you classify as an ectomorph, or someone who is naturally thin, these tips do not apply to you. You'd probably want to consume more calories and more carbs.

The Data

In my last post, I talked about how essential data was to guiding my progress. I was inspired by JohnStoneFitness, an engineer who had also transformed his physique and meticulously tracked his fitness progress over 6 years with size measurements, weight, body fat percentages, food logs and pictures. It's very easy to be mislead by Instagram celebrities and bodybuilders many of whom are likely on steroids (or other performance enhancing substances) and can afford to dedicate a much larger portion of their time dedicated to fitness. Amidst these unrealistic expectations, John Stone provides a great baseline to look up to being a natural lifter (a natural lifter is one who does not use steroids) and an employed professional. I use his method of tracking my vitals, measurements, strength and cardio numbers at key intervals, and have tabulated the changes below:

Pre Transformation Post Transformation Post Maintenance Maintenance Change
Vitals
Time June 1, 2016 Jan 28, 2017 Sep 12, 2017 +227 days
Height 5' 9" 5' 9" 5' 9" -
Age 23. 24 24 -
Weight 95kg (209lbs) 64.9kg (143lbs) 67.2kg (148lbs) +5lbs
Body Fat Percentage 25% 8.1% 9.2% +1.1%
Body Mass Index (BMI) 31.3 21.4 21.9 +0.5
Measurements
Waist 37.5" 27" 28" +1"
Hip 42" 34.5" 35" +0.5"
Chest 42" 37" 38" +1"
Bicep 15.5" 13.5" 13.5" -
Thigh 27" 22" 22" -
Calves 14.5" 13.5" 13.5" -
Primary Lifts
Bench Press Max ~135lbs (3%ile) 202lbs (67%ile) 208lbs (67%ile) +6lbs
Deadlift Max N/A (0%ile) 260lbs (45%ile) 324lbs (68%ile) +64lbs
Squat Max ~95lbs (0%ile) 190lbs (31%ile) 275lbs (68%ile) +85lbs
Total ~300lbs 652lbs 807lbs +155lbs
Training Age ~0 days ~241days ~468 days +227 days
Cardio
Running (1mile) ~10:30+ ~7:00 6:00 -1:00
Running (5k) ~35:00+ ~22:10 N/A -
Running (10k) N/A 46:40 N/A -

Training

One of the biggest conclusions from the past 8 months was that strength and size are not synonymous. While it is true that for elite strength athletes, a larger one will likely be more powerful than a smaller one, the same does not hold across the spectrum. During my maintenance phase, I saw quite large increases in strength especially in the squat and deadlift. I've almost hit 70 percentile (amongst other lifters in my weight class) for all three of my lifts. This is categorized by Symmetric Strength as Proficient with a strength score of 71, corresponding to somebody who has been lifting for an average of 2+ years. The focus on compound lifts has also shown marked differences in my strength symmetry and overall functionality. It was evident, however, that if you are not in a caloric surplus, i.e., you're not eating more than your maintenance calories, these gains in strength will not correspond to gains in size. My size gains have been insignificant despite being able to lift more than far bigger people in the gym.

My style of training is sometimes regarded as power body building. It focuses both on lifting for aesthetics as well as lifting for strength, using the primary compound lifts. It combines bodybuilding style training - lifting weight in the 8-12 rep range for hypertrophy - with a focus on large muscles and aeshetics, as well as powerlifting style training, a sport where you're judged by how heavy you can lift in the 3 primary compound lifts - the bench press, squat and deadlift. One reason I enjoy this style of training is because when you cease to be driven purely by aesthetics, seeing the amount of weight you can lift on your primary compound lifts go up and comparing yourself to elite strength athletes serves a huge motivator.

The three primary compound movements and powerlifting movements.

My biggest change from my training during the transformation was moving from a Bro Split (4 day cycle) to a Push Pull Legs (3 day cycle) split. The fourth day of the Bro Split, Shoulders and Abs seemed like a light day in the gym. The Overhead Press, the compound movement for Shoulder and Ab day, is not a part of the core powerlifting trio of bench, squat and deadlift, which made me okay with letting it go. I moved the rest of my shoulder workout to my Chest and Tricep day, forgoing training abs given that all my other compound lifts indirectly trained them. The general layout of each day of training was 10 minutes of cardio, a 5x5 (5 sets for 5 repetitions) of my compound movement at heavy weight to build strength, and 4-5 isolation exercises each in a 3x8-12 (3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions) which was supposed to target hypertrophy (or size). I'd occasionally vary these 4-5 isolations and I try to end my workout in a drop set, where you keep decreasing the weight on a machine by one notch and attempt as many repetitions as possible until you cannot physically push any more weight. In addition, I introduced foam rolling after my workout, which is common amongst powerlifters, because I noticed that it greatly reduced soreness and supposedly prevents injury in the long run. My foam rolling routine is called Agile 8. Overall, this is how it looked like:

Day I: Push (Chest, Tricep, Shoulders)

  • 10 minutes running at 8-10mph
  • Bench Press 5 x 5
  • Dumbell Incline Press 3 x 8-12
  • Dumbell Flys 3 x 8-12 OR Dumbell Shoulder Press 3 x 8-12
  • Cable Tricep Extension 3 x 8-12
  • Machine Tricep Extension 3 x 8-12 OR Lateral Shoulder Raises 3 x 8-12
  • Foam rolling - Agile 8

Day II: Pull (Back, Bicep)

  • 10 minutes running at 8-10mph
  • Deadlift 5 x 5
  • Lat Pulldown 3 x 8-12
  • Machine Row 3 x 8-12 OR Dumbell Row 3 x 8-12
  • Cable Bicep Curl 3 x 8-12
  • EZ Bar Bicep Curl * 3 x 8-12 OR *Hammer Curl 3 x 8-12
  • Foam rolling - Agile 8

Day III: Legs (Quads, Glutes, Hamstrings, Calves)

  • 10 minutes running at 8-10mph
  • Back Squat 5 x 5
  • Leg Press 3 x 8-12
  • Calf Extension 3 x 8-12
  • Machine Leg Extension 3 x 8-12
  • Machine Leg Curl * 3 x 8-12 OR *Stiff Legged Deadlifts (SLDL) 3 x 8-12
  • Foam rolling - Agile 8

Nutrition and Supplements

Eating right when trying to maintain weight is much easier than when trying to actively lose it. I stuck to my basic principles that I listed in my principles. Given that I was travelling, I was not going to sacrifice my happiness by limited what I eat. I lowered my threshold drastically for what was healthy for such special occasions, but still kept to my 2 meals a day policy. My appetite in general was not where it used to be, which definitely helped. With dessert, I wouldn't hesitate to try a spoonful but I'd never order a whole one on my own. The key to drinking was avoiding sugary mixers even when consuming alcoholic beverages.

Many people tend to believe that my transformation was so quick because of my reliance on supplements, particularly the Grenade Thermo Detonator, a fat burner comprised mostly of green tea extract, which looked frankly quite intimidating. While this does not definitively disprove anything, during my maintenance mode I didn't consume any of it.

In fact, the only supplement that I did take during my maintenance period was protein powder (and the occasional unrelated Vitamin D supplement). Like I said last time, and this is not a sponsorship, but my protein of choice is MyProtein Impact Whey because of the far better price point when you apply discount codes (which are always available). I particularly enjoy the Chocolate Mint and Strawberry Cream flavors. I order in bulk, and pay about $6-6.50 per pound of whey, which is far cheaper than the classic Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard which will set you back $11-14 per pound with no marked improvement in macronutrients, quality or flavor.

Equipment and Costs

I've made several fitness-related purchases, and wanted to tally all of them for anyone who might be curious:

  • Gym membership (Variable price)
  • Gym shorts x 3 ($10/pair)
  • Portable foam roller ($22): For stretching after the gym or while travelling
  • Lacrosse balls ($10): More helpful than a foam roller in massaging the glutes.
  • Yoga mat ($22): To foam roll on, at home.
  • Nordic Lifting Gloves ($20): To prevent callouses on your hands, and they come with wrist wraps.
  • MyProtein Whey ($11/month): A 5kg tub of $65 will last 6 months with one shake a day.
  • Blender Bottle ($10): For drinking protein.
  • Resistance Band ($20): For home workouts.
  • Powerlifting belt ($40): For core stabilization during compound lifts at heavy weights.
  • Grip Trainers ($10): To help train grip at home, for higher deadlifts.

That's a total one time cost of $184 and a recurring cost of $40/month, assuming a cheap < $30 monthly gym membership. Most of these are not intended to be essential, but an accruing list of items I use. The cost in terms of time is usually 4-6 hours a week, or about 5% of your waking time.

Other things I have not purchased yet, but may come in the future:

  • Knee wraps ($15): For assistance on the knees when squatting
  • Wrist wraps ($10): For assistance in grip when doing deadlifts.
  • Powerlifting shoes ($80): Flat-soled shoes that assist in powerlifting. Currently, I perform them barefoot.
  • Elevation Training Mask ($50): Lowers air pressure for more intense cardio sessions.

Common Myths

In the past year and a half, people have asked me what program I've been following and subsequently tell me many of their common fitness myths. I thought it would be helpful to compile a non-exhaustive list:

  • Superfoods Farro, quinoa, kale, acai, spinach may individually be good for you, but they have no magical effect. They're all small components of an overall balanced diet. In the end, it's the macronutrients and calories that you consume that matter.

  • Healthy eating is disgusting Many tend to conflate small pure-leaf salads with healthy eating. That does not have to be the case. My go-to meal, a Dos Toros salad bowl, is a mixture of lettuce, farro, black and pinto beans, chicken, spicy sauce, guacamole, sour cream, tomatoes and cheese. It's filling, flavorful, spicy yet still quite healthy.

  • Healthy foods aren't filling You're probably not having enough of them, and doing too much of a calorie deficit. Some calories make you feel fuller than others. Greens and proteins feel you up quicker than carbs and processed foods. If you eat a healthy 750 calorie carb-less meal, it's unlikely it won't fill you up.

  • You need 6 small meals to keep your metabolism going Although this is a prevalent practice in bodybuilding, modern research has dismissed this hypothesis. All that matters is the calories and macronutrients you consume at the end of the day with marginal impact on your metabolism.

  • Lifting more means being bigger Like I explained above, you can lift a lot and be small. You can lift a lot and not be shredded and lean as well. To increase in size, you need to be in a caloric surplus.

  • "I can't eat so little" If you slowly decrease the amount of food you consume, your body's leptin levels, and thus appetite, will adjust accordingly.

  • "I don't want to not be able to drink." You need not have to sacrifice that. Know that a few beers means you should cut back a few hundred calories some other time. Know that some drinks and many cocktails have mixers that are all sugar. Avoid those, and stick to drinks < 100 calories with little sugar. If you have a big meal coming up, skip a meal or go light on a meal before that. Try to ration the days you want to go out vs stay in. For me, 5 days on schedule, 2 nights might let loose.

  • Girls shouldn't lift because we'll become big and bulky That's a complete myth. The bodybuilder woman you have in your head consumes a lot of steroids and has been training hard for multiple years. Strength training will make you look fuller and more attractive.

Looking Forward

The common next steps after an initial transformation and an extended period of maintenance is to undergo alternate bulking and cutting cycles - get bigger during winter and cut the fat in time for summer. Like I said before, gaining muscular size requires a caloric surplus. Human bodies cannot solely put on muscle without putting on a certain amount of fat as well. Typically, the way natural bodybuilders gain size is to lean bulk: eat in a macronutrient-wise healthy slight caloric surplus while training hard so that most of the additional weight they gain is muscle. Then, they undergo a cut where they consume protein and train with the aim of losing mostly the fat and retaining the muscle. If done correctly, an entire cycle will leave you with more muscle but the same amount of fat as before. A common misconception is that this leads to a massive bodybuilderesque body, and this is wholly untrue. All bodybuilders are on anabolic steroids. After a bulking and cutting cycle, I do not expect to add more than 1.5 inches to my chest and maybe 0.75 inches to my bicep. Putting on muscle is a slow process, which eventually plateaus.

It is entirely possible I decide not to bulk and cut, but as it stands now, that would be the most likely next step.

Useful Links

I'm compiling a list of the useful links I'd posted last time as well as some newer ones.

From last time:

New:

  • SymmetricStrength: Another great resource to track and compare your lifts to others. Has an iOS app.
  • r/brogress: A fitness subreddit that focus on power bodybuilding style training.
  • Starting Strength: A popular strength training programs introducing powerlifting to beginners, started by Mark Rippetoe
  • Texas Method: A popular strength training program for intermediate/advanced lifters.
  • Allometric Scaled Strength: How to compare your lifting proficiency with those in a different weight class
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