On June 2016, I was 24 years old, 5' 9" and weighed 95kg. I knew I'd let go of myself. I was a year and a half out of college, and I had no idea how to adult. Putting my professional life first was the only way I knew how to function, but when the fixed duration problem sets of college times became an infinite stream of work, I kept pushing myself further and further. The longer I worked, the more I needed to relax in my downtime. As someone who's always found comfort in friends and food, it was no surprise that it had come to a point where midnight department store runs to pick up chocolates and junk food had become a daily fixture. As the weeks ticked on, so did the pounds. When the snow started melting, the thick peacoats of a New York City winter couldn't disguise my ignorance any more. I had to do something about it.
In the next 8 months, I lost 30kg (66lbs) and became the fittest I've ever been. I measured in at 8% body fat and had a 6 pack for the first time in my life. Using data and YouTube videos to guide me, I changed the way I ate and started training while trying to balance a fair share of fun and a full-time job.
All body fat measurements are taken on a bioelectrical impedance scale and are likely inaccurate.
In the beginning, my goal was to religiously do a 12 week training program. I had a fixed end date in mind, and I'd hit the gym and eat correctly until that date. By the time I'd reached that date, I began enjoying the change, and I wanted to see how far I could go. It took about 16 more weeks to get to a six pack, and it's been 8 months since I started as of the time of writing this. There were five big changes to be made:
- Data and Measurement: Track progress to keep motivated and to be able to adjust and plan better.
- Nutrition: I used an intermittent fasting and ketogenic diet approach, and several supplements.
- Training: A thought out 4-days-a-week training plan.
- Grooming: Better, well-fitting clothes, lenses over glasses, and a clean shave.
- Motivation: Learn and stay motivated from people who've done this before. Fitness Youtubers really helped.
Looking at the mirror every day trying to spot a visible change is not a very scientific way to go about measuring change. I realized a few weeks in that I needed to approach this problem more methodically. One of my Computer Science professors in college once said something that really stuck with me.
How can you improve if you cannot measure?
JohnStoneFitness, one of the people I'd started following online for fitness advice and motivation, preaches data-driven training. He had religiously tracked his food intake, calories, macronutrient breakdown, weight, body fat, and front and side profiles for almost 6 years in his food logs. Every few weeks, he'd take body measurements too. While his methods may have been extreme, I found tracking your progress broadly (beyond just weight) and often to be extremely helpful, if not necessary, in gauging your progress and estimating how long it'll take you to achieve your goal. Seeing the scale tick down even 0.1kg every day can be immensely motivating. Here's my transformation by the numbers:
|Time||June 1, 2016||Jan 28, 2017||+241days|
|Height||5' 9"||5' 9"||-|
|Weight||95kg (209lbs)||64.9kg (143lbs)||-30.1kg (66lbs)|
|Body Fat Percentage||25%||8.1%||-16.9%|
|Body Mass Index (BMI)||31.3||21.4||-9.9|
|Bench Press Max||~135lbs||202lbs||+67lbs|
In order to record and track your progress, I used, and would recommend:
- Body Tape Measure: For taking measurements in your key body areas.
- Body Fat Weighing Scale: These scales estimate your body fat with bioelectrical impedance, by measuring how small amounts of electricity flows through your body. They are not accurate in measuring your absolute fat, but can track relative body fat change well. A typical one that costs $40 measures primarily in the legs, whereas the more accurate one that measures full body will put you back $90.
- One Rep Max Calculator: If you can lift X lbs of weight Y times, how much can you lift 1 time?
Tracking metrics daily, besides being motivating, can help you very accurately predict how long you have left until you reach your weight loss goals. Almost universally, the normal rate of weight loss is 0.1 to 0.2kg a day, or between 1.5 - 3lbs a week. Any quicker than this is considered unhealthy weight loss unless you're morbidly obese. Anything lower than 1lb should be a cause for concern, and lead you to tweak your plan. The important caveats are:
- You almost always will lose weight extra quickly in the first week, which is water weight loss, and is not to be counted in any prediction or average calculation.
- I've personally noticed daily fluctuations go from +-2lbs. In order to get as consistent a reading as possible, weigh yourself in the morning post-dump.
It quickly became apparent to me that losing weight would be 80% about eating correctly. A misconception I'd held is that it involved a lot of cardiovascular activity, like running. This isn't true. Twenty minutes, almost 5kms of running, burns about 200 calories, which is about as much as a Subway cookie. All that effort and sweat from running a 5k is equivalent to a mere cookie. That's why nutrition is critical to fat loss.
Old Nutrition Habits
I had an Indian upbringing, and relationship between an Indian and their food is divine. Growing up, I was a fat kid. In Bengali culture, the opposite of thin is "healthy". Food is a central part of celebration, and being fat is regarded as the norm. Sweets make up a critical part of the Bengali diet. In fact, in the city of Kolkata, where I'm from, 40% of adults are overweight and over 20% of men have high blood sugar. I was rarely ever denied food growing up. I had about 3 main meals and 3 snack meals every day. The philosophy with food has always been
Eat till you can't eat any more... and then have dessert.
Nutrition Theories and Tactics 101
When I started looking for a better way to eat, I realized most of my preconceptions of what healthy food was were wrong. The food pyramid we'd learnt growing up was obsolete and replaced by a very different distribution of nutrients, according to this Harvard Health study.
The nutrition principle most fitness folks follow is Calories In Calories Out (CICO). According to this theory, everyone has a Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), which depends on your gender, age, height, weight, muscle mass and physical activity. There are plenty of calculators online to help you calculate what your TDEE is. Mine was initially ~2400 calories. The theory postulates that if you consume more calories than your TDEE, you gain weight, and if you consume less, you lose weight. One pound of weight is 3500 calories, so if you incur a 500 calorie deficit on your daily TDEE, you'll lose a consistent pound a week. Of course, this has its critiques and may be an oversimplification, but seems to work in practice.
Another popular theory is that of the Ketogenic diet. What this diet states, contrary to CICO, is that all calories aren't made equal, and some are better for you than others. On a ketogenic diet, you almost completely cut out carbohydrates and sugar (a form of carbs) from your diet, consuming less than 50g of it daily. When carbohydrates are consumed, it breaks into sugar which provides the body with energy. If you don't use this energy, your body secretes insulin to control your sugar, depositing it into fat. The theory claims that if you cut out carbs, your body will break down fat for energy and your insulin will never spike, thereby preventing you from putting on weight. Does this mean you can consume as much of the other macronutrients (proteins and fats) as you want? Probably not. That being said, this diet has also seen its fair share of success.
Intermittent fasting (IF) is not so much of a theory as it is a principle to conveniently eat less without being too hungry. Most fitness professionals have the time and patience to diligently weigh, track and record the details of their daily diet, usually using tools like MyFitnessPal. While this works for them, it can be overbearing and time-consuming for a normal person. Often, all the work involved in just tracking calories is not sustainable and people struggle to do it for a sustained period of time. IF is a simple heuristic that lets you control your calories by simply minimizing the time you allow yourself to eat. Typically, in IF, you give yourself an 8 hour eating window, usually from around noon - 8pm. Because we tend to not be too hungry in the morning, and can delay our first meal with some black coffee, following IF is generally not very hard and doesn't feel too restrictive.
New Nutrition Habits
Because I had excess body fat, my diet was centered around what bodybuilders called cutting - when you try to lose weight and maintain muscle mass. This is in contrast to a diet a lanky person would take, called bulking, when you try to gain weight and muscle mass. My general approach to nutrition involved incorporating ideas from all of these theories and tactics:
- CICO I began to incorporate CICO principles a few months into my progress with Keto and IF. Initially, I tried to use MyFitnessPal to get an idea of the calorie intake of my most common meals in a week, and their macronutrient breakdown (fat-carb-protein). I left myself some leeway and aimed to hit 1600-1800 calories a day. After some time, I felt like I could accurately eyeball calories and breakdowns for new meals as well.
- Keto I cut out carbohydrates completely, including all rices, breads, noodles, pastas, etc. Sugars, desserts, and all processed foods were a complete no-no. Later on, I re-incorporated healthier low-glycemic index carbs like brown rice, farro and quinoa. My diet consisted primarily of vegetables and meats and healthy fats (nuts, avocado, and the occasional oil, butter).
- IF I would start my morning with a black coffee, and eat my first meal at lunch, maybe a snack after, and dinner at 630-7pm usually.
- Protein Intake Conventional bodybuilding wisdom dictates that you consume 1g+ of protein per pound of body weight daily, but I usually could not eat more than 150g.
Notably, I did not stop drinking. I usually consumed 4-5 drinks a week. I made sure to usually stick to neat hard liquors and wine. When I used a mixer, I'd make sure it was either diet coke or just soda. A drink averages out to about 100 calories, which, to me, was a small price to pay in a week for the lifestyle benefit.
I often have cravings. My best solution for savory cravings were usually some nuts, cheese, and pork rinds. For sugar cravings, the ultimate no-carb solution for me was the Quest Bar. I may have eaten over 100 of these during these 8 months and they're delicious.
Supplements, in retrospect, were by far the most overrated aspect of a transformation. At worst, they are an expensive placebo that keeps you motivated because you spent money on things. At best, they accelerate your progress by maybe 10%. I've used 4 supplements:
- Grenade Thermo Detonator: A scary name, but essentially a dosage of caffeine from concentrated green tea extract that's meant to be a fat-burner/pre-workout pill. It gives you some energy to focus, and suppresses your appetite. It is not very different from simply taking a packet of coffee. I used these for the first 4 months. You can find them here
- Multivitamin: Just to ensure you get your vitamin requirements for the day, but there is evidence to show this might not really be necessary. You can find the ones I used here.
- Fish Oil: I heard from many sources that omega-3s are good for you so I thought I'd get some here.
- Whey Protein: If you don't consume enough protein a day and are on a weight loss plan, you will lose muscle with your weight. 1 - 1.5g/lb of body weight is the general recommendation. Because it's not always easy to make sure you get that much pure protein, a protein shake is an easy way to quickly gulp down 50g of protein regardless of how hungry/full you are. I initially started with the most popular brand but realized that there were just as good and far cheaper options out there (use discount codes for the latter). I did an un-comprehensive comparison of protein prices too.
I do not represent any of these brands.
One thing I learnt was that many people who lose weight gain it back because their Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) goes down after they lose weight, so when they resume their original nutrition habits, they put it all on again. One way to prevent this is to increase your TDEE by building muscle while you lose weight. Having more muscle, for both males and females, means your body expends more energy, allowing you to maintain your weight whilst eating much more.
There are an infinite number of variations and ways to train, some negligibly better than others. My philosophy was to choose something I enjoyed and could stick with. This is what I did:
- Hit the gym 3-4 days a week for about an hour.
- Start with 10 minutes of cardio, with 50 minutes for lifting.
- Cycle the following lift routine, commonly called the bro split: Chest+Triceps, Back+Biceps, Legs, and Shoulders+Abs.
- Compound exercises are far harder and far more effective than isolation movements because they hit many body parts simultaneously. Each day has a corresponding compound exercise. Chest: Bench Press. Back: Deadlift. Legs: Squat. Shoulders: Overhead Press.
- For your compound movement, work first on perfecting form. Do 4-5 sets of 5-6 repetitions.
- After the compound exercise, hit 4 exercises in the training session for the muscle groups allotted to the day. Do 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions. You can look up an exhaustive list on bodybuilding.com.
- Each week, you should be focusing on either improving form of your exercise, or using more weight, or more sets or more repetitions than you were previously. This concept is called progressive overload.
Many more experienced lifters say that their mistake in their early lifting career was not doing enough compound exercises.
Besides the daily tracking, the source of motivation that really kept me going were fitness YouTubers. Here are my favorite fitness channels:
- AthleanX: One of the most popular fitness channels on YouTube that keeps producing great content.
- BeerBiceps: The best Indian-specific fitness channel.
- StudentAesthetics: Dutch guy. Focuses less on the science and advice, and more on balancing lifestyle with fitness. Amazing production quality.
- VitruvianPhysique: Canadian guy living in Australia. Very informative, scientific and funny.
- RobLipsett: Irish guy. Just a generally chill lad.
- OmarIsuf: A popular, old channel. Collaborates often, and focuses on powerlifting as well as bodybuilding.
- BroScienceLife: The most popular satire fitness channel.
- BuffDudes: Twins.
- JeffNippard: Very scientific.
- TerronBeckham: NFL player Odell Beckham's cousin. Extremely strong.
Many of these channels are mid-way between small channels and super-popular channels. I've found the 25-150k subscriber range to be ideal because the Youtubers have proven themselves but are still eager to get better. All of these channels feature people who I believe to be completely natural, and do not take anabolic steroids. There are plenty of channels featuring people that are on steroids, but they sets unrealistic expectations and give incorrect guidance. Although some of these channels are sponsored, I believe that their advice is authentic and not sponsor-influenced. They do not try to sell you stuff.
Other sources of inspiration include:
- r/progresspics: Transformations of real people.
- r/fitness: Great advice from real people not trying to sell you things.
- JohnStoneFitness: Very rich source of data.
A few last words
In the beginning, everything about this personal goal seemed difficult. The more I looked online, the harder and more confusing it seemed. The fitness industry makes a living on convincing you that it is hard. There may be a 1000 diets to choose from and a 1000 micro-optimizations you could make in the gym, but in the end it all boils down to science and consistency. If you know the scientific truths, and can consistently maintain better nutritional and training habits, you're guaranteed to succeed.
By no means do I embrace fitness as the best lifestyle to adopt. I would never consciously judge other people by their appearance. However, I've personally noticed a significant effect on how people interact with me and a huge confidence boost too. Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions I might not have answered in this post.
- My Google Doc Weight Loss and Measurement Log
- TDEE Calculator: How many calories can you eat daily and maintain weight?
- Strength Standards: How do your lifts compare to others with your weight and gender?
- Running Standards: How do your running times compare with others of your height and gender?
- MyFitnessPal and Google for calories: Instant calorie facts and nutrition data
- One Rep Max Calculator: If you can lift X lbs of weight Y times, how much can you lift 1 time?