UPDATE: Several Things Have changed in the year in a half since I posted this article. Edits have been added in bold text.
This is a case study of myself, and I’m not special.
Growing up I was over weight. My nickname in elementary school was “The Pillsbury Dough Boy.” In high school I rotated between states of skinny-fat (being very soft despite not having a large circumference waist), and just regular chubby. I exercised quite a bit. I started competing in Powerlifting at the age of 13, and I was also on the track team as a sprinter in high school. At that age it’s difficult to build a meaningful amount of muscle (although you can get significantly stronger). In college, I did what many people do, I simply gained weight. When I took a job at a gym in town as a front desk attendant, I saw it as an opportunity to “get back in shape,” which looking back is an odd notion for a 19 year old to have. It’s hard to think at 19 you already have some period of your life to look back on that you’d like to get back to. I didn’t look back for long though, because with a more hormonally mature body, it was much easier to burn fat and build muscle. I was also armed with a bit more knowledge, which still wasn’t a lot.
At this point in my life I didn’t have a lot of personal responsibilities, and my main focus was my physique. My free time coupled with my 20 year old body made change easy. I’d reached what I’d consider my best shape in a aesthetic sense. It was around this time I also made the decision to purse a career in fitness. What I quickly learned is that there is a big difference between being personally interested in your own fitness, and helping other people. The former takes a lot of dedication, time, and energy, but it’s all invested in yourself. The latter takes a lot of self sacrifice. The majority of personal trainers probably get into fitness careers because they are fitness nuts themselves, and because they’re lacking the empathy, true desire to help others, and the knowledge it takes to train someone who’s body you do not know intimately, they never transcend beyond the level of “personal trainer,” into what I consider to be a real “coach” which is where real long term progress and change can happen for your clients, in my opinion.
Immediately my own fitness took a back seat to my career. Over the next few years, I gained both weight and strength, until I settled in around the 112kg(246lbs) range. At 5’9, no one would consider me “lean” but I was pretty capable and generally felt alright. I ran a 5k with no training, I could squat and deadlift over 500lbs, and bench press over 300lbs. Nothing Earth shattering, but I certainly was above average in terms of fitness. I was working a job that I felt had no real future. I had just gone through a bad break-up, and looking back it’s pretty obvious I was depressed and dealing with undiagnosed anxiety, which manifested itself in all kinds of strange ways. This eventually brought me to my doctor’s office with a laundry list of odd and unrelated symptoms. Unfortunately for my doctor, and myself, I was great at hiding my anxiety and depression. This lead my doc to running a wide variety of tests, which is when he discovered a heart condition called WPW. Although it’s more common than people think, it technically can cause sudden cardiac arrest, so he referred me to a specialist.
The specialist recommended I have a procedure called an ablation, and assured me it was a low risk operation, after which I wouldn’t have to worry about the WPW again. I had the procedure done, and everything seemed to go fine. Little did I know, the ablation damaged the natural rhythm of my heart, and over the next few years I developed a progressive heart block, meaning not all the electrical impulses created by my sinus node were getting to the ventricles (the lower chambers of the heart). What started as a mild type I block eventually developed into a “persistent type III” block. When this was finally properly diagnosed, my resting heart rate was on average about 30 bpm (normal is 60-90), and I was having frequent dizzy spells. Since heart rate and metabolism are intimately linked, I was gaining weight like crazy. Couple this with the fact that I had almost zero energy, and I had opened my own business and was in the first year of operation (meaning very little time/energy for training and focusing on nutrition), I had ballooned up to a massive 313lbs, with my waist over the 56″ mark. The doctors had placed a pacemaker in me, and when I was finally cleared to exercise (about two months after the implant), I can honestly say I was in the worst shape of my life.
I knew having a normal heart rhythm, would mean a better resting metabolism, more energy, and of course, not feeling like I might pass out would be a bonus. “Getting back in shape will be easy” I thought. In truth, 10lbs came off of me immediately without much effort at all. It was a great start, but I had so much further to go, and it was time to start taking my training and nutrition seriously.
Learning From the Past
I looked back to my late teens and early 20s, when I was at my leanest. It would be easy to attribute my success to age, but I poured over old training and diet programs. My focus then was strength training. Nothing fancy, nothing complicated, just 3-4 days a week of progressive strength training. My diet was what I would call “clean eating” but I did count calories and macros at that time. (long before it was en vogue as it is now). Having been in the industry for over a decade, I’ve seen a lot of fads come and go, but one thing study after study after study confirms, is that total calorie intake is the biggest determining factor in weight loss. When I think about my experience in my early 20s, was it really the “clean foods” I was eating, or was it the fact that I had hard limits on how much I would eat? The science pointed to the latter, so that’s where I decided to put my attention now.
Over the next year, I tracked my macros diligently, and hit my target numbers consistently. I’ve lifted weights 3x/week and added in no aerobic exercise or “cardio.” With these 3 hours of strength training a week, and eating foods that I enjoy (like poptarts, pizza, doughnuts, pancakes, sour patch kids, bagels slathered in butter, fried chicken, ice cream, etc…) I lost weight. As of the time of this writing, I’ve lost 53lbs, with another 30ish to go to hit my “long term goal.” It’s important to note that despite eating all of these “junk foods” I almost always came within 10% of my target macros
When I stripped down my training and my nutrition to the very basics, is when I saw success. I realized one thing i had been doing over the last few years, was complicating everything. Complicating my training program, complicating my nutrition, like so many others do with diets with strange and restrictive rules like Paleo, Keto, or Whole 30. Don’t misunderstand me, if you have any hopes of eating an adequate amount of protein, and a healthy but not overabundance of fats and carbs, you will have to eat a good amount of whole foods. Most of my meals consist of a meat, a starch, and a vegetable, but almost every single day, I eat some type of food the common public would consider “unhealthy” or “fattening.” In reality though, is it the occasional “treat” that is making us overweight, sick, and unhealthy? Or is it our long term and consistent decisions that determine our outcomes? Is 300 calories a day from poptarts worse than a 5,000 calorie blowout every weekend when you slip up on your restrictive diet with an unbridled binge? That question is rhetorical.
What Changed with the Weight Loss
A lot about my life has changed being 53lbs lighter. First and foremost, my feet and back hurt much less after a long day of work. That alone is probably worth it. In fact most of my “injuries” have seemed to evaporate. It’s a lot easier to tie my shoes. I can sit comfortably on an airplane. I’ve had to buy a lot of new clothes because everything is too big. I sleep better through the night. I have better sex. I can use the rower at the gym and not be uncomfortable. It takes me less time to walk my dog because I walk faster and with greater ease. Although I’ve never struggled much with confidence, I do feel more confident, energetic, and outgoing. People take my training and nutrition advice more seriously. I was able to go skiing for the first time ever, and do it for 3 hours straight without being totally wiped out. My digestion has improved greatly. The hernia I had is gone. I’m less camera shy. I’ve also rediscovered my personal love of training. I could go on, but you get the point.
Me vs You
When we see other people that have accomplished something we want, it can be very easy to attribute it to factors that are beyond our control. Everything from steroids to genetics, to work schedules and family obligations. I’m not shy about the fact that I have some distinct advantages over other people. I’ve been in the training game a long time, and have a huge wealth of knowledge to draw upon. I live with a nutrition coach that loves to cook. I don’t have any kids. But for every factor that is an “advantage” unique to me, is a factor that is uniquely disadvantageous.
- For most people the gym is an escape. A place where they can go to shut their brain off for an hour and relieve some stress. Because I own the gym, the gym is my greatest source of stress. Can you imagine working an 8 hour shift at your job, and then needing to spend another hour and a half there to try to take some time for your own personal growth? Sometimes it’s not fun.
- I don’t have kids, but I do have a business and that’s almost the same. Imagine being dependent on your 3 year old to provide your income for you. That’s kind of what owning a business is like.
- I have a pacemaker, and I can’t train any horizontal pressing. That means push-ups, bench press, dips, and just about any other pec exercise you can think of is out. That takes a lot of options out of my repertoire. It also makes movements like front squats and cleans a bit scary. Update: I now have additional, much more severe exercise restrictions. I cannot do any exercise that places more than 30lbs of pressure on my shoulder. This includes even just holding a weight in my hand with my arm relaxed. I also cannot do anything that has me repetitively moving my arm in specific ways like jumping jax, indoor rower, etc…There are now only 5-6 exercises I am allowed to perform.
- My pacemaker is causing heart failure. To be fair to the team of doctors I have working on this, it’s not 100% known that the pacemaker is the source of my diminished heart function, but it is known that occasionally a pacemaker can cause heart failure…I have a pacemaker, and I’m experiencing heart failure. What this means is that most days after I train I feel absolutely exhausted for the rest of the day. Since I usually train in the morning, this makes my work days really challenging. Update: It was the pacemaker that was causing heart failure. I had another procedure to change my pacer from a “two lead” to a “three lead.” This reversed most of the damage done to my heart. Everything was going great until about 4 months after my procedure, I broke one of the leads. This required me to have another procedure to replace the leads which is extremely dangerous. The surgeon told me that 8 out of 1,000 lead extractions will cause internal bleeding in the heart, which will require emergency open heart surgery. 8 out of 1,000 are decent odds. The only was problem is, of those 8, half don’t survive.
The point is, we all have obstacles in front of us. We can’t change who we are, all we can do is work to overcome those obstacles, and it’s important to see them as that: Obstacles, not insurmountable challenges, because that point of view turns obstacles into excuses. In reality, 3 hours a week is not much time to dedicate to your health and fitness. In fact it’s only about 1.7% of my total week, and yet with just the tiniest bit of dedication, I was able to drastically change my life, my physique, and ultimately my health. But I was CONSISTENT. I trained 3x/week no matter what. I usually train on T/TH/S, but if something came up that prevented me from doing it on one of those days, I would switch Tuesday to a Wednesday instead, or I would stay late after work to do it then if I didn’t get it in the morning of. I tracked my macros every day. AND IT WAS EASY. When someone tells me that it’s too much of a hassle to put their food into an app like MyFitnessPal, and then turns around and spends 4 minutes scrolling social media in the middle of their workout, it makes me want to slap the phone out of their hand. You can literally track every thing you’re going to eat for the day in less than 5 minutes. Even if I wasn’t able to accurately reach my macro goals for the day, I still tracked everything, that way I stayed in the rhythm of tracking my food.
The difference between me and you, isn’t much. I stopped believing my own BS. If you’re sitting here reading this and wishing you could lose weight, you can, the difference between me and you is you haven’t’ decided for yourself that you really want it. You want the result, but you don’t want to put in the work. Is it easy? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but it’s certainly not complicated.
How to Get it Done
- Start a really good strength program. Most people aren’t strong enough to work hard. Getting stronger makes you more capable. The more capable you are, the easier to change your body.
- If you’re local to us, come sign up. This part will be taken care of for you.
- If you’re not local to us, find yourself a really good strength coach. No I’m not talking about Joe-Blow personal trainer at your local globo gym. I’m talking about a legitimate coach that works with athletes.
- If there are no good coaches available to you, find a tried and true strength training program to follow like:
- Starting Strength
- LSUS (aka Kyle Pierce 10-5-3)
- Stronglifts 5×5
- Wendler’s 5/3/1
- Do that program every week, consistently, without missing a workout for six months. Yes. Six months. If that seems like too much to ask, you are not ready to make change.
- Start tracking your food. Don’t worry about how much just yet. Just build the skill of learning how to track. Do this after a month of hitting the gym consistently.
- Get some good macros to follow
- If you are local to us, again we can help you out.
- If there isn’t a coach in your area you trust, use a reputable online service like
- Avatar Nutrition
- Be compliant with your macros (within 10%) every day for at least 30 days straight, and then 27 out of every 30 days after that.
- If you “fall off the wagon” skip the pity party, and get right back on the wagon again. In the past 15 months I’ve had my share of “noncompliant” weeks. It happens. Don’t turn a mole hill into a mountain. Just acknowledge that you can do better, and get back to it.
- Get family and/or friends to do it with you. This does make it a lot easier, especially if you’re doing it with people you’re in cohabitation with.
- Try to identify any habits you have in your life, and eliminate them. Habits are unconscious actions. If you are shutting your mind off, you cannot make conscious choices about your health and well being.
- Look at your phone constantly? Put it on silent, or block off periods of the day where you purposely leave it in another room.
- Always stop at a certain coffee shop on the way to work? Take a different route.
- Hit your snooze button when your alarm goes off for the gym? Put your alarm out of arms reach so you have to physically get out of bed to shut it off.
All the Other Stuff
- Supplements: I do not take any supplements, with the exception of protein powder and a topical magnesium. Protein powder has no added benefit other than an easy way to get to your protein goal each day. If strength were my number one goal, I would take creatine. If you are the type of person that freaks out if they see a minor change in the scale from day to day, creatine is not for you, as it can make you hold a bit of water weight, which will make your daily weight fluctuate more frequently. If I didn’t have a heart condition, I’d also take a pre-workout, but only on days when I was tired, not every day. I truly believe everyone should use a topical magnesium. We carry some at the gym. It’s inexpensive, and a bottle will last you months.
- Sleep: Minimum of 8 hours. I make sleep a priority. I attribute a big part of my success thus far to making sleep a priority.
- Television: I don’t really watch it except when I’m folding laundry. It’s amazing how much more free time you have when you don’t watch TV.
- What about cardio? Nothing wrong with cardio, I just don’t have the extra time to do it. If I only have 3 sessions a week I can train, those will be dedicated to strength training, since strength training is more well rounded, has a greater effect on metabolism, and having a muscular body is more appealing to me then just being thin. I also think strength training is more intellectually stimulating. I don’t exercise to burn fat, I exercise to be capable. I eat at a minor caloric deficit to lose fat.
In the end, it all comes down to choices. Not motivation. Motivation is a unreliable. I’m just like you, I’d rather eat pizza than grilled chicken and asparagus. I’d rather sleep in and watch TV than go to the gym and then work a 10 hour day. But I simply choose to do the right thing, because right now, I’m looking back at the last year of my life, and I don’t remember any of those moments when I chose chicken over pizza, or the gym over sleeping in. Not one. I’m not sitting here with a single regret saying “damn, remember that time you really didn’t want to go to the gym, but you did anyway? You blew it.” But I vividly recall the feeling of wanting to make change, caving in to my cravings in the moment and then instantly regretting it afterwards. You have to choose to be stronger than your excuses. You have to decide, if you really want something, or you just want the outcome. You have to be stronger than your excuses. A lot of people sign up at gyms all over the world, hoping that the new training program, or the new coach, or the new nutrition system is going to be the answer to all their health and fitness dreams. And every year thousands of people give up on themselves and quit. As a coach and gym owner, it’s one of the worst feelings in the world, seeing someone give up on themselves. It’s not like their goals just evaporated, they just accepted defeat, and there isn’t much any coach or trainer can do about it, because truly, no one has the solution, except you. It’s the best feeling in the world to have the power to change your life, but some people let the fear of that responsibility scare them away.
I’ll see you in 30lbs for part II. Update: Since this original article was posted I’ve had to have two more procedures on my heart, and have much more severe exercise resrtictions. As someone that has spent their entire life building a career around exercise, this has been a difficult period for me. I’ve gained back 10-12lbs from my lowest (250lbs), and have been spending the last few months figuring out how to structure my training to continue with my goals. Moving into 2020 I have a solid gameplan and I am already back on track to reach my long term goal of 231lbs. No matter the obstacles, it can and will be done!