Nick Mitchell is a leading body composition expert and the founder of the Ultimate Performance global personal training gym. He is based in Los Angeles.
When I was approached late last year by a book publisher wanting the definitive guide to a successful body transformation, I needed a guinea pig to put through my 12-week training and diet programme. Not just to appear on the book’s cover, but more importantly, to prove that some of my newest ideas for creating the best physique possible in the shortest conceivable time frame can really work in the context of a generally attainable four times a week weight training programme. For that position I had only one person in mind: the editor of IronLife, Joe Warner. The reasons why, and what we went on to achieve, might surprise you.
I trained Joe for a three-month transformation back in 2012 and this experience provided me with the knowledge that Joe possessed the single-most important factor required for a successful body transformation challenge.
No, it wasn’t that he is genetically predisposed for building muscle and burning fat – a former marathon-running vegetarian does not lend him or herself to carving a rock-hard physique. Nor was it that he would have ‘muscle memory’ from his previous training experience with me – 12 weeks of hard work in 30-odd years doesn’t last a lifetime, alas. Neither was it that he had the time, energy or recovery ability to train twice a day, six days a week – this had to be a four times per week training plan, not least because Joe is the full-time editor of IronLife, as well as one of the UK’s leading health and fitness journalists.
But the one quality that he does have is the one quality that you need to put front and centre when undertaking a similar physique-changing challenge – and that’s becoming Mr Consistent. I know what buttons to push with Joe, and I know that he will do exactly what I tell him to do.
Yes, he may moan and whine at times, and he’s by no means a robot, but he’s a determined SOB with a massive heart. I’ll also freely admit that whilst muscle memory is a wholly irrelevant concept for a man who has trained for 12 weeks and then taken nigh on three years off – as Joe had prior to starting the new programme – I think it’s fair to say that he had ‘psychological memory’ so he knew what he was letting himself in for and I didn’t need to ‘break him in’, so we could go for it with a gusto that would have taken a few weeks of coaxing had he been a complete neophyte.
Joe arrived at my UP Marbella gym in the worst shape of his life, and he’d be the first to admit that he’d let himself go beyond recognition, a likely combination of long, hard hours and work, not enough exercise, and too many pints too often. He actually had hard-to-grab cellulite on his stomach – a condition I had yet to encounter in my 30-odd years in gyms – and his body-fat percentage was well into the mid 20s. He looked and felt unhealthy, and years older than his actual age.
While this was undoubtedly my biggest-ever challenge as a personal trainer, I knew that Joe would do what I asked, when I asked, eat what I told him, when I told him, and be consistent every minute of every day to work towards our goal of transforming his physique as quickly as possible.
I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve been asked whether training or diet is more important when wanting to rapidly change a physique for the better. It’d be great to say it was a 50-50 split or give a definitive ratio of training versus diet versus supplements versus everything else.
It’s impossible because everyone is different. We are all unique. Some of you will respond well to training no matter what you do, and see decent results regardless of the programme you follow. Or you may well respond very well to carbs as part of a transformation diet, whilst others might need to avoid them like the plague. The simple truth is that there are too many individual variables to consider to give a one-size-fits-all statement that will propel you towards the perfect physique. (That’s why my new book covers every single angle possible for a male body transformation. There’s even around nine separate diets, each with a full week of meal plans included.)
We all have different strengths and weaknesses, whether that’s biomechanical, the ability to recover, your tolerance to carbs, and so on. The list is endless, and that’s before we even consider your starting point in terms of training age, body-fat levels, lean muscle mass, injury history and myriad other considerations.
And while training, diet, rest, recovery and your genetics are all, obviously, very significant factors in how far and how quickly you progress, it is your ability to be consistent every single day that’s the real secret to building a bigger and leaner physique.
Your training sessions need to be set into stone in your weekly schedule. Your meals need to be prepped in advance and eaten at the right time. Bedtime needs to be regular so you get in the habit of getting enough high-quality sleep. Winging it rarely works, which is why so many people fail to achieve the physiques that they strive for. As Joe has just proven, it really shouldn’t take you all that long to build a respectable physique or fitness competition body.
Consistency – or more significantly, the lack of consistency – is the biggest obstacle I’ve seen in my decades in gyms that prevent the majority of people from reaching their genetic potential and building their best body possible.
It is the appreciation of consistency that makes bodybuilding one of the hardest ‘sports’ in which you could ever compete, because these athletes have to work towards their goal every single minute of every single hour of every single day in the lead-up to a show. I don’t mean fitness modelling because that really shouldn’t take too long at all if we look at Joe’s example, but proper bodybuilding is an exercise in the patient application of effort and dedication.
And I’m not over-playing their sacrifice with hyperbole – this really is the case because in the physique game if you are not moving closer towards your goal then you are moving further away. You must remember that your body does not want to be lean and muscular; you have to fight it tooth and nail to positively adapt to the training stress that you put it under. That’s because your body doesn’t stay the same: it’s either anabolic or catabolic. There is no middle ground, which means that the inconsistent trainee is always an unsuccessful trainee.
The selfish game
Radically changing your physique is one of the hardest challenges you can ever undertake. And I don’t mean just physically, but equally mentally. It requires round the clock attention and dedication, and this means that you need to be selfish. You must begin, before doing anything else, by striking a deal with yourself and all those around you that for this relatively short period of your life you’re going to put yourself and your transformation challenge first.
What this doesn’t mean is you have carte blanche to do whatever you want whenever you want. It’s not an excuse to never take the rubbish out because you’ll be ‘losing your gains’ by doing slow, low-intensity cardio. But it does mean that training, food prep, and recovery must come first, at the sacrifice of more pleasurable endeavours. No more late nights with the boys or long weekends away with your significant other. Any activity that is detrimental to your overall objective of building the best body possible has to be put to one side.
If you have always struggled to add lean muscle mass, then it’s here where the old bodybuilding maxim of ‘not wasting calories’ is at its most prudent. Don’t run when you can walk. Don’t walk when you can stand. Don’t stand when you can sit. Don’t sit when you can lie down. You grow when you rest. Bear that in mind at all times. If you need to shift body fat fast then you will probably need to factor in some cardio work, and you can read about my personal preferences in last month’s issue of this magazine.
Finally, I really want to hammer home the importance of controlling the controllables and then applying them on a consistent basis. You can control when and how you train. You can control what and when you eat. You can control what time you go to bed. And you can control – to an extent – your stress levels.
Cortisol, the major stress hormone, is not the demon hormone that some make it out to be. For instance, we need it to mobilise fat for energy, and without it you literally wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning.
However, whilst acute levels of cortisol have a beneficial purpose – running away from something dangerous or getting ready for a hard gym workout – chronic cortisol secretion caused by ‘over stressing’ can have a very negative effect, especially in the short-term when resulting in lower energy levels, fatigue and lower testosterone levels, all key killers of a successful body transformation.
One little fact about cortisol that you can use to justify your gym habit: studies have demonstrated that whilst there is an acute rise during training, there is a statistically significant drop (versus a control group) at night. Which is exactly what we want.
To optimise your muscle-building and fat-burning efforts you must learn to differentiate between causes of stress that matter and deserve your attention and those that don’t. Your family, your health, and your job are all important. The person who cuts you up on your drive to work, the kid playing music out of his tinny phone speakers on the train, or your team’s centre forward who couldn’t score in a brothel, aren’t worthy causes of worry.
Wrestling with a particular stressful scenario? Ask yourself whether this problem will still be an issue in a year’s time. If not, you can afford to let it go and get back to your primary focus of building the body you want and deserve.