Why do we do it to ourselves?
Human psychology is dumb. Why is it that most of us chow down on unhealthy foods, and refuse to exercise knowing that one day this is going to come back to bite us? We really are creatures of comfort, preferring to binge-watch Netflix on the couch instead of actually moving our bodies and looking after ourselves. What would it take to step back, take a long hard look ourselves, and decide to change our poor lifestyle choices? Luckily, it feels to me that more and more people are taking action and taking care of their health and fitness in recent times.
This is my personal story of how I transformed my weak, inactive “nerd body” to something much more athletic.
Up until last year I had only been to the gym a little more than a handful of times in my life. I didn’t enjoy it, and it was expensive. Why would I pay to do an activity I didn’t enjoy? It was painful, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would enjoy that burning feeling in the muscles that you get when you lift a weight. Besides, I was playing table tennis regularly, and occasionally having a skateboard session. I even walked around a snooker table for a couple hours a day too. Surely that’s enough physical recreation to keep a 25-year-old man fit and healthy? Evidently, I still had a lot to learn.
I was doing my best to ignore little signs that my health and fitness was declining. I was getting ill more often, my digestion was poor, and my weak body was stopping me from participating from certain activities. For instance, I barely played any tennis anymore since I couldn’t perform an overhead service action without shoulder pain. My knees started aching when I went skateboarding, and my achilles hurt if I ran too much. The funniest part is, I just thought it was an inevitable part of life. At some point in your mid-twenties, you reach peak physical shape. After that it starts declining until you eventually die. Isn’t that the way life works?
This was the way I was living – in a vicious circle of inactivity to avoid pain and injury. Luckily at the time, I was living and travelling with a certified gym nut. He would go to the gym almost daily, and hounded me to go with him for about a month. Eventually, I agreed, under the condition that he would sneak me in for free.
The false start
The first workout, I just blitzed my body. I performed each set to failure, and it was painful, just like I always remembered working out at the gym to be. My body was wrecked and achy and I couldn’t go again for another five days, when I just did the same thing. After the third or fourth workout, the staff at the gym found out that my friend was sneaking me in after hours and said that I would have to buy a gym membership. That was the best thing that could have happened, and since I joined the gym I would have to go more often to get my money’s worth.
Getting up to speed
I started to go five or six times a week. By this point I had honed in on my weekly schedule. Monday through to Sunday I planned my sessions in this order: Legs, Chest, Back, Shoulders, Calisthenics (sometimes), High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). This body split allowed me to work around my delayed onset muscle stiffness (DOMS). For example, I knew after doing my leg workout that I wouldn’t have to do another one for at least six days, and I could work out my upper-body during the time I was recovering.
Here are the main exercises I performed in the gym:
Legs: Squat (front and back), deadlift (regular and sumo), dumbbell lunge, leg press.
Chest: Bench press, incline dumbbell press, decline dumbbell press, cable flyes, dips (weighted).
Back: Lat pulldown (wide grip), seated row, bent over dumbbell row, pull-up, inverted row
Shoulders: Military press, dumbbell shoulder press, lateral dumbbell raises.
Calisthenics: pull-ups, dips, L-sit (on a dip bar), back extensions.
HIIT: A mixture of jump squat, box jump, broad jump, sprints, handstand hold, plank, high knees, mountain climber, bear crawl, push up, pull up, burpees.
Rep ranges were 6-8 for most sets, and HIIT sessions would be three sets of a 9-exercise circuit of 45 seconds on/ 15 seconds rest, with three minutes between sets. I would also incorporate about 20 minutes of basic stretching at the end of each workout.
I logged each workout and in the first month I had 12 gym sessions. In the second month I recorded 25 gym sessions.
Here are before and after photos.
What I ate
I made an effort to reduce refined sugar intake. Other than that, I didn’t change my diet much. My go-to meal was roasted chicken drums or thighs with steamed mixed vegetables. Sometimes I added some mixed beans in. When I went out for dinner, I didn’t change my eating habits. I just chose whatever I wanted. My diet was already high in meat consumption so I didn’t consume any protein supplements or any other workout supplements.
Here are some of the lessons I learned during this two-month period.
Sport isn’t the same as exercise.
One of the distinctions I learned during this period is that the effect of sport on the body is not the same as the effect of exercise on the body. I can’t think of any sport (other than weightlifting) that would produce the same kind of body transformation as what this gym program did. That said, participating in sport without gym workouts beats complete inactivity.
Think in terms of body recomposition instead of weight loss/gain.
So many people (myself included) focus on weight goals when they start working out. They want to lose or gain a certain amount of pounds or kilos, and are overly attached to this goal. I kept a close eye on my weight throughout the training period. At the start I was 59 kg (130 lbs) and by the end my weight was fluctuating between 59 kg and 62 kg (130-137 lbs), so there was no discernible weight change. While most people know that when they work out most of the strength gained is the consequence of more muscle mass (hypertrophy), not many people think about the amount of fat that they shed too. As a result, those who are looking to gain or lose weight get frustrated that the number on the scale isn’t changing quick enough. Instead, they should be focusing on increases in strength and endurance that they are making, indicating that there are positive changes occurring in the body.
Write as much as possible.
I found that logging each workout in terms of how many sets/reps of each exercise were done (and at which weight) was really beneficial to getting more out of the workouts. Memory alone would not be good enough to remember these parameters, so it was useful before the workout to see what I had done the previous week on the same body split. That way, I could make sure I progressed in one way or another during the session, instead of trying to work out how much weight I could lift each time.
Almost never go 100% effort.
In hindsight, I know that my early workouts where I went to failure with each set were a bad idea. Not only is it painful, it is really taxing on the body. The amount of hydrogen ions produced in the muscle can get to a dangerous level, meaning that not only could I not work out for the next five days due to muscle stiffness, I was potentially making it very difficult for the muscle to grow too and putting my body under a lot of stress. Not many people would disagree that doing the same workout at 75% effort each day for the five days would achieve a greater result than one session at 100% followed by four days of rest. Another reason I didn’t go 100% is so that I could achieve a progression in weight/reps in the next workout. Nowadays, the only time I would personally go 100% is for competition or testing, which is rare.
Make your workout as fun as possible.
Most people don’t go to the gym simply because they don’t enjoy it, not because they deliberately want their body to lose all strength, function and mobility. I knew that to get the maximum compliance to the program I was planning on doing, I had to make the workouts as fun as possible. I chose to do my favourite exercises in each body split while discarding the ones I didn’t like. I didn’t work to failure, making it less painful and keeping myself fresh for the next workout. I also incorporated new skills like L-sits and handstand holds into my workout to give me the novelty of learning something new.
Exercise for the right reasons.
Before immersing myself into a regular workout program, I knew I needed to outline the reasons to work out. A weight goal or appearance goal would cause impatience and a craving for quick results. I still kept an eye on these things regularly, but I did not base the success of my program on these things. Instead I decided that one of the reasons I would be working out was to be able to learn to muscle up (an exercise on a pull-up bar where a pull-up transitions into a bar dip on the top of the bar), so I would need to increase my strength in order to achieve this goal. Another reason was to remain injury-free and increase my mobility so that I could increase performance while playing sport. In the end, I defined success as simply just going to the gym. Any time I went to the gym, no matter what happened in the workout, I would view it as a success.
Get to know how your own psychology works to destroy your excuses.
How do you hack your brain to want to go to the gym? I realize that everyone is different, so everyone has to think about their own psychology and how they make decisions. Are they more likely to skip gym if they planned to go after work or before work? Do they always bail on leg workouts? Incorporate leg exercises into each workout. Workout buddy always bails on you? Go alone. Personally, I knew that making the workout fun and not exerting myself were keys to getting me to go to the gym. The promise of a nice meal after the workout, as well as living close by to the gym, and having a gym-going roommate were factors that helped to get me to the gym more often. I also followed lots of Instagram profiles of calisthenics athletes who were performing muscle-ups so that I could be reminded of reasons why I should keep to my planned workout schedule.
You don’t need to do crunches and leg raises to get a visible six-pack.
Abdominal workouts are easily my least favourite, so I didn’t do any targeted abdominal work. Even so, I still managed a pretty impressive body transformation and more visible abs. For anyone with a goal of “getting abs”, I would focus on diet. Consider reducing carb and sugar intake, or intermittent fasting (although I didn’t fast during this training period). In terms of actual exercises, I believe sprinting, interval training, and HIIT sessions to be valuable since the rectus abdominis (six-pack muscles) is the main muscle used in a forced exhalation. On top of that, try to engage your core in exercises where most people don’t, like performing push-ups or pull-ups in the hollow body position. However, if training for strength, then core muscles should definitely be trained, since core strength will help with any big lift.
I didn’t know how unhealthy I was until I became healthy.
Looking back at old photos, I did not see how much my appearance was declining at the time. My face was fat, my skin was bad, my muscle tone was non-existent. Only when I started working out did I realise that I was light years away from peak physical shape, and it was no wonder I was getting injured and sick all the time. The good news is, it wasn’t even very difficult to get into half-decent shape. Obviously, everyone is different. Someone who is in worse physical condition than I was may think they’re too far gone so their health and fitness will never go back to the way it was when they were young, but in my opinion it’s never too late to start being more active.
Conclusion: Exercise, have fun, and never stop.
Overall, the I found the keys to successful body recomposition are to partake in focused exercise instead of/alongside sport, and to do it consistently over a period of time. Be in it for the long haul by having fun and not working too hard, as health and fitness is a continuous, lifelong journey and not just a remedy for poor health. Think of the times you have been sick or injured, and how much that affected the rest of your life – work, relationships, self-esteem etc. Why wait for it to happen before you finally decide to achieve the health and fitness you want?