As the editor of IronLife, I bet I know more about the right ways to train, eat and recover than the average commercial gym personal trainer. But that’s only because I have been lucky enough to regularly speak to some of the smartest and brightest minds in the fields of training and nutrition who contribute to IronLife. I have no formal fitness or nutrition qualifications and I am a journalist first and foremost. My biggest strength is listening, not lifting. My natural habitat is a bar, not under one.
And that’s the main reason how I found myself in the worst shape of my life. That’s not uncommon for a single guy in his early 30s, but what made it all the more inexcusable wasn’t just that I know what it takes to build a good physique, but that I actually once had one.
In early 2012 I built in 12 weeks – under the guidance of Nick Mitchell, owner of Ultimate Performance – a body deemed worthy of going on the cover of Men’s Fitness magazine, and Nick’s accompanying best-selling book, 12 Week Body Plan. And though I’d proved it possible to transform a skinny-fat physique into a cover model body in just three months, I’d found it impossible to maintain it.
If you want excuses I can reel them off until I’m blue in the face, but the only one that even half stands up is that I’d left my job to set up my own publishing company and my working day grew longer and longer.
A new challenge
When starting any new business a nine-to-five day day doesn’t exist. Getting it off the ground requires long hours, travel, and the constant pressure of having to quickly learn new skills, all the while facing and overcoming new challenges on a daily basis.
As we all know, the longer your working day becomes, the harder it is to find the time or motivation to work out. An after-work session is impossible when you leave the office after the gym has closed, and training before work won’t happen after too little sleep and a brain that refuses to fully function until you’ve poured four coffees down your neck.
I was too tired to train and any spare downtime I had I spent trying to catch up with friends. I kept taking the easy option and before I knew it my four-times-a-week gym habit had morphed into a four-times-a-week pub habit. Once that happens it’s impossible to maintain your current muscle mass or body fat levels, let alone improve them. Eating well becomes harder too and soon you’re in a vicious circle where you can see your body get into worse and worse shape and it becomes increasingly harder to get out of the downward spiral.
Suddenly, or so it seemed, I weighed the same as I was at the end my cover-model challenge with Nick for Men’s Fitness – around 75kg – but with a body-fat percentage in the mid 20s, rather than the low single digits. And I looked and felt a decade older than my 33 years. In short, I was out of shape. And didn’t know how to stop the spiral. And that’s when I got a call from Nick and was offered the chance to turn it all around.
Facing my fears
The next thing I knew I was on a plane to Spain, where Nick has a state-of-the-art gym in Marbella on the Costa del Sol, to be the guinea pig for his new book. He’d been commissioned by the publisher HarperCollins to write a 12-week body transformation book that could work for the masses, and needed someone to put through the programme to show that his new methods could work wonders.
The main difference between his new plan and his previous book, or any other transformation programme I’d ever seen for that matter, is that the basic 12-week programme can be customised based on your weaker body parts so you can focus more training time on those muscles or muscle groups that stubbornly refuse to grow as much as you’d like. What this means in practice is that the plan becomes bespoke to your individual requirements through specialisation workouts than complement the main plan.
I’d read Nick’s draft manuscript so I knew exactly how the programme worked in theory, but that did little to alleviate my nerves about being the first person in the world to put it to the test.
Don’t get me wrong, in Nick I had complete confidence. When it comes to a tried-and-tested record in achieving remarkable body transformations Nick’s resume is second to none. My fears lay in the concern that in me he’d picked someone in such bad shape that three months wasn’t long enough to change my body into one worthy of gracing the cover of his seminal book.
When I met Nick at his gym on day one of the programme he did little to ease my concerns about whether we faced mission impossible, unable to stop laughing when I took my top off for the starting point photograph. But after sitting me down and talking me through his plan, I remembered why he is one of the best in the business. Yes, he said, I was in a very bad starting position – this is when I gained a new nickname ‘human foie gras’, which will haunt me to my dying day – but he told me I had one key advantage that I didn’t have last time: I knew exactly how hard this was going to be.
In that one statement he accurately summed up what lies at the heart of any successful transformation challenge, and that’s the right mentality. You need to throw yourself into a challenge like this without hesitation. You need to accept that it’s going to be tough and it’s going to hurt and there are going to be times you want to quit but you need to want it more than anything else in the world. And seeing the ‘before’ picture of my pale and tired face and skinny-fat body, taken moments earlier under the Spanish sun, was all the motivation I needed to make this challenge my number one priority.
The blueprint for success
Nick then explained the format for the transformation was simple. I would do four weights sessions per week, with some additional high-intensity strongman-style training – prowler pushes, sled pulls and farmer’s walks – to help burn fat, either after the main sessions or on ‘rest’ days, if I felt sufficiently recovered.
Because of the unique nature of Nick’s plan – dividing the 12 weeks of training into four three-week ‘blocks’ to add in ‘specialisation’ workouts to develop a weaker body part every block – either arms, delts, chest, back or quads – we could dedicate more training time to those muscles that I’ve always struggled to build: my biceps, triceps and delts. As such, over the course of the 12 weeks we alternated between a three-week block of arms specialisation with a three-week block of delts specialisation.
The result was that I did more dumbbell curls and lateral raises in 12 weeks than I’d done in the previous 12 months but it was this intense focus that allowed me to add a serious amount of size to by arms and shoulders.
As for the diet, I had previous with Nick’s nutritional preferences for making the biggest physique changes in the shortest possible time, so I knew that carbs would be on the banned list of foods until I got lean enough to deserve them. My daily diet was based on lean meat, fish, eggs, a lot of veg and very little else. It’s tough, as it should be, but you need to have the mindset that you are no longer eating for your tastebuds – that’s what got me out of shape in the first place – and eating for your muscles instead. As with any new habit, preparation is key so you have no excuse for making a decision that works against, rather than for, your ultimate goal. Batch-cooking a couple of times per week meant I always had high-protein food options either in the fridge or in the freezer that I could quickly heat up with some fresh veg.
The final part of my introduction was Nick explaining my supplement regime, which was surprisingly simple. My peri-workout routine was BCAA capsules during my workout, and around 30g of whey protein with creatine and glutamine immediately after it. I also took a daily multivitamin and omega-3 rich fish oil, all from Reflex Nutrition. For the first time in my life I didn’t need to supplement vitamin D, thanks to the constant and baking heat of the Spanish sun.
Ticking the boxes
With the big-picture pieces of training, diet and supplements all clear in my mind, Nick then explained the real key to cracking this challenge. Imagine there are 100 boxes you need to tick to make positive body composition changes, he said. The more you can tick off at the same time, the faster you’ll make progress. Before I arrived in Marbella I was ticking just one of his 100 boxes. It was the first one. The one that requires you to be alive. Now I needed to start ticking as many as possible. His takeaway point is simple: do lots of little things – no matter how seemingly insignificant in isolation – right at the same time and they quickly accumulate and launch you on the path of progress.
Overnight I dramatically started ticking off his virtual boxes. I started working out – one box – but instead of just going through the motions, under Nick’s constant guidance I started training smarter and harder. That’s another one. I started thinking about every single rep and focused my mind on how the working muscle felt as I lifted and lowered the weight. One more box. And I stopped thinking about how much I hurt and how much I wanted to stop to think about why I am here and what I want to achieve. Tick, tick, tick.
I followed his nutrition rules to the letter, carefully considering every morsel that entered my mouth to make sure I was getting all the high-quality nutrients I needed to build muscle whilst still losing body fat.
Suddenly I was ticking boxes left, right and centre. And guess what happened? My body started changing shape. And fast. Fat melted away from my midsection and my muscles started to grow.
My point is if you want to make a radical change to how you look in your underwear then stop thinking you can out-train a bad diet, or believing that you will get lean by eliminating all dietary fat, or trying to burn the candle at both ends.
Sum of the parts
The key to a successful transformation is creating habits that are more than the sum of their parts. The positive effects of doing many little different things right don’t just add up – they multiply – and the result is even greater gains. Better energy levels, better hormone function, better digestion. Increased fat loss, increased muscle mass, increased positivity. Less stress, less cravings, less doubt.
In many respects, the hardest part of my transformation was the first couple of weeks because my life did a complete one-eighty from no training and eating whatever I wanted when I wanted to intense training and a strict diet plan. But once I found my feet and got back into a new routine I started to fall in love with training again and looked forward to my next session because I could see my body change shape, almost on a daily basis. And that’s all the motivation you need to keep pushing harder and harder because you know what you’re doing is working.
I won’t lie to you. There were times I wished I’d never met Nick. But they didn’t last long: usually for about a minute every workout when he’d pushed me so far out of my comfort zone I thought I was having an out-of-body experience. But that’s exactly what’s needed if you want to add the most amount of muscle and lose the most amount of fat in the fastest amount of time. And if I can do it, can you too. Start today. It’s not easy, but then nothing worth having ever is, right?