“This is the year I'm going to get in the best shape of my life."
How many times have you told yourself this?
And how many times has it actually happened?
Well, this is exactly where I found myself at the at the beginning of 2020 when the COVID-19 quarantine began… but in 2020 it actually happened.
I’m going to share:
- How I went from 18% to 10% body fat and got in the best shape of my life
- Learnings and advice from my journey
January, 2020: Setting My Goal
In January, 2020, I set a goal to lose weight* and see if I could hit 10% body fat. I had put on weight* over Thanksgiving + Christmas time and was motivated to challenge myself and see if I could get in the best shape of my life.
**Quick tangent** *
For 99.9% of people, when they say, “lose weight” they mean, “lose body fat and maintain muscle.”
There are a plethora of other ways people say “lose weight” and you’ve probably heard/seen all of these before:
- I want to get leaner
- I want to get more toned
- I want to burn fat
- I want to get shredded
- I want 6 pack abs
In order to do any of the above things you need to lose body fat.
Even losing a few pounds of body fat can make a big difference. Here is the difference between 5 lbs of fat and 5 lbs of muscle:
This is why even a slight reduction in body fat leads to more muscle definition aka getting toned.
In summary, from now on, when I say "lose weight" what I actually mean is "lose body fat and maintain muscle."
I weighed in at 177.9 lbs with 18.3% body fat, measured via a DEXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry) scan.
I had my baseline measurements.
I was fired up.
I was motivated.
I had set my goal.
Watch out world.
September, 2020: Minimal Progress
Fast forward eight months to September, 2020.
After months of yo-yo dieting and trying to out-exercise diets I couldn’t sustain, I hadn’t made much progress.
In September, I weighed in at 176.0 lbs. I didn’t do a DEXA scan in September but chances are I was at a similar, if not slightly lower body fat % compared to January based on my bodyweight (-1.9 lbs from January). I might have lost some fat (my abs did look more visible or maybe that was just the picture), but I wasn’t close to my goal of 10% body fat.
I took a look in the mirror (pun intended) and a quote I recently read kept popping in my head:
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly, and expecting different results.”
- Albert Einstein
This was me. I couldn’t delude myself anymore or make any excuses: what I was doing simply wasn’t working and I needed to make a change to my approach.
December, 2020: Goal Achieved
The change I made worked.
In December, 2020, I took a final DEXA scan to measure my progress.
10.97% body fat.
Quick context on this scan: I did a week of ketosis + a day long water fast the day before the scan in order to deplete my body of glycogen. Why? Our bodies store glycogen in our liver and in our muscles. For every 1 gram of carbs you store, you’ll store an average of ~3 grams of water. This “water weight” is what you see when you have a very high carb meal or when you fast and see 5 lbs drop off the scale right away. By taking this scan completely glycogen depleted, I wanted to see what my true baseline lean tissue was without the influence of water weight from glycogen. This meant that depending on the results of the scan, I could see how much fat tissue I had and from there, I would be able to see where my “non-fasted, non-glycogen depleted” body fat percentage would be. Because I was fasted for 36+ hours during this scan, this meant that if I had a normal amount of carbs / muscle glycogen in my body from a normal day of eating (ie I wasn’t glycogen depleted), my “Lean Tissue (lbs)" would increase and my body fat % would be somewhere in the mid 10% range.
I had hit 10%.
From January, 2020 to September, 2020, in 9 months, I didn’t make much progress…
- I lost 1.9 lbs, going from 177.9 lbs to 176 lbs
But from September, 2020 to December, 2020, in only 3 months, I made rapid progress…
- I lost 18 lbs, going from 176 lbs to 158 lbs, an average of 1.5 lbs per week
I made more progress in 3 months than I had in the previous 9 months combined.
So what changed?
What was the secret?
Just kidding 😂.
But in all seriousness there were no shortcuts or tricks or magic pills here.
The change I made was:
I stopped focusing on the goal (10% body fat) and instead focused on building a system (sleep x diet x exercise x work) I could sustain, without exerting excess willpower.
If there is any single takeaway that was truly hammered in to my head after this year, which I can also apply to any other goals I set in life, it’s the following:
Systems > Goals. Don't just set goals; start building systems.
Now I'll walk through:
- How I built my system
- What my sleep, diet and exercise systems were
Disclosure: I am not a doctor (or a scientist)
I am not a doctor, and as such cannot diagnose or treat any medical issues. Readers are advised to do their own research and make decisions in partnership with their health care provider. If you are pregnant, nursing, have a medical condition or are taking any medication, please consult your physician. Nothing you read here should be relied upon to determine dietary changes, a medical diagnosis or courses of treatment.
Disclosure: The Parable of the Black Sheep
This is a sample size of one = my experience.
I'll repeat again: this is my experience and my experience only.
A sample size of one does not "prove" anything. But what self-experiments can help you do are:
- Understand how your body works
- Create a hypothesis and test it (against yourself)
Here's another way to think about it, using the Parable of the Black sheep
If you see even a single black sheep in the field, depending on your field of training, you can draw conclusions:
Three scientists were on a train and had just crossed the border into Scotland. A black sheep was grazing on a hillside.
The biologist peered out of the window and said, “Look! Scottish sheep are black!”
The chemist said, “No, no. Some Scottish sheep are black.”
The physicist, with an irritated tone in his voice, said, “My friends, there is at least one field, containing at least one sheep, of which at least one side is black some of the time.”
The takeaway here is
- The "truth" isn't that simple
- We must observe carefully without jumping to conclusions too easily
- Even sample size of one, from a self-experiment, and the learnings from that self-experiment can be good for something
How I Built My System: Invert, Always Invert
"Man muss immer umkehren" or, loosely translated, “invert, always invert.”
- Carl Jacobi
The great German mathematician Carl Jacobi had a unique approach to solving hard problems: invert, always invert.
He would write down the opposite of the problem he was trying to solve and found that by doing this, the solution became easier to find.
Instead of focusing on how to do something, you can ask yourself how should I not do it?
In other words: avoiding failure is often easier than "figuring out" success.
So I wrote down:
- The list of diets I had tried from January to September that I simply couldn't sustain (insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly, and expecting different results)
- Things I knew I shouldn't be doing if I wanted to succeed (avoid failure)
If I could avoid doing the things on this list, success would be inevitable. Rather than trying to figure out what to do I knew what I shouldn't do because it simply hadn't worked for me in the past.
And this list also gave me a starting point for what to do...
... ready for it?
The opposite of what I had tried / had been doing before. Pretty simple right? Here's the list:
- Sleeping and waking up at inconsistent times -> minimize this
- Restriction diets which completely eliminated certain food groups (Keto, or zero sugar, or no X etc) -> no complete eliminations, more moderation
- Big "cheat" (read: binge) weekends which would destroy away all my progress from the week / month in one meal -> low calorie, dense, high volume meals to fill me up and leave me satisfied
- Tracking my macros and obsessing over if I got the perfect ratio of fat vs carbs vs protein to hit some magical "golden ratio" -> hit my goal protein per day, get enough fat, and outside of that, have a mix of carbs / fat to stay in a caloric deficit
- Exercising consistently, but way too intensely while in a caloric deficit -> scale things back to what is sustainable every day
- Getting injured -> prioritize mobility and recovery
The above fit in to three categories, sleep, diet, and exercise, and I'll now walk through what my system was in each.
My Sleep System: "Why We Sleep" + Oura Ring
What was my sleep system?
- I go to bed between 9:00 pm to 10:00 pm PT and wake up between 4:30 to 6:00 am PT.
- In order to sleep at a consistent time, I am hyper conscious about when I start to "wrap up" work for the day, so that I am prepared to work tomorrow. This process usually starts at 8 pm for me so I can wrap up any final tasks, prepare my work plan for tomorrow, and get to bed by 9 to 10 pm. Instead of focusing on when I wake up, I focus on when I fall asleep.
- I wear blue light blocking glasses (Felix Gray) in the evening as I'm usually on my laptop doing work before bed.
- In the mornings, I look at my sleep stats on my Oura ring for 30 seconds and quickly evaluate what I did the day before. Sleep was good? Great keep it up. Sleep was bad? What did I do? Eat too close to bed? Bright screens before bed? Noted, avoid that.
- Rinse and repeat
What's most important: Sleep, Exercise or Diet?
As you might expect: they all are.
However, I've come around on sleep; I used to think that exercise was the "keystone habit" for me:
I was wrong.
I realized that the flywheel starts spinning when I nail sleep. Sleep makes everything easier. It is an uphill battle if you don't get enough sleep.
Exercise is harder. Sticking to your diet is harder.
Everything is harder.
Get 7-8 hours of sleep a night
If you keep saying, "Oh I should sleep more," you're setting a goal. You won't magically start "sleeping better" because you said this to yourself. Instead build a system to actually prioritize and improve your sleep and minimize the stretches of poor sleep you have.
Invest in getting better sleep. That doesn't mean go buy an Oura ring but actually do something about getting better sleep vs just saying you "should." Buy ear plugs. Buy a sleep mask. Buy a new pillow. Write a sign on your wall. Do something, don't just say "I should sleep more."
Over the twelve week period where I made rapid progress, you can see that I slept on average ~7-8 hours a night (red line).
There were days when I didn't, and there were days when I slept more (sleep rebound). Sleep debt cannot be repaid so as much as possible, shoot for consistent high quality sleep.
At the end of the day: if you're not getting 7 to 8 hours a night of sleep, you are facing an extremely uphill battle to lose body fat.
Sleep is a miracle drug. It makes EVERYTHING easier.
Final point on sleep. If you don't believe me that's okay, I'm no scientist or sleep expert. But Matthew Walker is:
When your sleep becomes short, you will gain weight. Multiple forces conspire to expand your waistline. The first concerns two hormones controlling appetite: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin signals a sense of feeling full. When circulating levels of leptin are high, your appetite is blunted and you don’t feel like eating. Ghrelin, in contrast, triggers a strong sensation of hunger. When ghrelin levels increase, so, too, does your desire to eat. An imbalance of either one of these hormones can trigger increased eating and thus body weight. Perturb both in the wrong direction, and weight gain is more than probable.
It's hard enough to lose body fat. Why go head to head against leptin and ghrelin as well?
If you take away anything from the above: Read Why We Sleep. It makes it hard, if not impossible to NOT care about sleep daily. Seriously, read the book. If you are not sleeping enough you are setting yourself up for failure.
My Diet System: Low calorie, dense, high volume foods + get enough protein
What was my diet system?
- I eat 3-5 meals a day.
- I have 20-50g of protein per meal to get enough protein (I target .7 to 1g of protein per lb of bodyweight).
- I get the rest of my calories from fat and carbs. The exact proportion didn't matter to me (as long as I got enough fat in my diet). Staying in a caloric deficit did.
- I do not restrict any food groups. Yes, that means I eat carbs.
- Once again, I eat carbs. Carbs are not the enemy for fat loss. Not being in a caloric deficit is.
- This means some days I might be "low carb" other days "high carb" other days "high fat" etc... As long as I was in a deficit that is what mattered.
- I eat dense, low calorie. high volume meals. I love protein ice cream.
- I stop eating ~2 hours before bed.
- I do a fast one-day a week (with trace BCAAs / EAAs and caffeine).
- Rinse and repeat.
Wait, you fast once a week?
Let me address the question I get asked the most first. Once a week, I do a fast where I have have a few vitamins (salt & magnesium), caffeine/teas, and BCAAs/EAAs before and after workouts (I do low impact cardio + strength training during fasts). Here is a thread on how I break fasts if you're curious.
Fasting doesn't magically make you lose body fat. But what it does for me (and it's why I have experimented with fasting for quite a while now and do it weekly, at least as of now) is:
- Long-Term: Longevity health benefits, autophagy
- Short-Term. Let's be real, I can't "feel" autophagy happening. And if the above reasons were the only reasons why I fasted I don't think I'd be able to sustain it for so long. So what are the short-term reasons? First, fasting gives me a reset from food. It makes me appreciate it more and it serves as a great reminder that food serves me, I don't serve food and need to plan and revolve my entire day around it. Second, on days I fast, I am eating less (practically zero) calories. This very practically helps me manage my weekly calorie intake.
Now, let me state the obvious. I could technically eat less each day and not fast and still have the same weekly caloric intake / deficit. Or I could eat more each day and fast two days a week and still have the same weekly caloric intake / deficit.
But what I've found is that a weekly, daily fast is sustainable for me and it balances the above short-term and long term benefits I've found.
So, how did this weekly fast impact my daily and weekly caloric intake?
How many calories did I eat?
Here is my calorie intake for the 12 week period. As you can see I ate on average ~1800 - 1900 calories a day (red line). I also had a few days (blue bars) where I ate A LOT more (keep on reading to see what happened and what I ate on the tw0 7500 calorie days). On days when I fasted you can see the bar is at "zero."
How did I know to be in a deficit by eating this much? To be honest, it was an educated guess. I just started tracking and saw that each week, I was losing weight and maintaining my strength. So I continued. If the weight loss stagnated, I'd reduce calories. If it decreased too fast, I'd add.
Be consistently inconsistent
The data above is completely wrong. That's right every day there with calories logged is pretty much off.
Why? A few weeks in I realized:
- I had been undercounting the amount of spinach I add to my salads, so I was short maybe 25 to 50 calories.
- The Essential Amino Acids I'd take pre and post-workout also had calories but I didn't count them
- IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO TRACK WITH 100% ACCURACY! Try weighing two slices of bread from the same loaf. They will have different weights...
The point here is just because it's impossible to do something with 100% accuracy doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.
I was consistently inconsistent or consistently "off with my exact measurements" but that didn't matter.
Being consistent and having a baseline to make changes against does matter.
Weight not going down? Okay need to up cardio or eat less.
Weight coming off too fast? Eat more or ease up on cardio.
It was as simple as that.
I DOnT WaNT tO TracK CaLORies FOREveR
Neither do I. And I currently don't track calories.
But I now have developed a sense of laser eye vision and can eye-ball a plate of food and know approximately how many calories it is and what it's made up of. But I didn't magically get that ability. And you won't be able to do that until you track calories for some period of time.
I have 12 weeks of data above but the truth is, because I was eating similar meals each day, tracking was as simple as "copy pasting" data. And now, I don't need to track calories. I had a rotation of meals I like and "tracking" was as easy as saving the meal and entering it.
Let me explain the importance of tracking calories for some period of time via an analogy.
Trying to be in a caloric deficit without tracking calories is like moving in to a new house and trying to walk around at night without the lights on. If you tried this on your first night in the new house, you'd fall down the stairs, bump in to counters, stub your toe and more.
You need to first turn on the lights and learn where everything is.
But after a few weeks, of living in your new home, you'll find that even with the lights out, you are able to navigate everywhere easily.
The same applies for tracking calories: think of tracking calories as "turning on the lights." And after you've had the lights on for some time (tracked calories) you'll be able to walk around in the dark easily.
Here's the truth:
At the end of the day, if you are not losing body fat, you are not in a caloric deficit.
I'm not making this up, this is physics: The First Law of Thermodynamics (Conservation) states that energy is always conserved, it cannot be created or destroyed. Body fat doesn't magically disappear. There needs to be a deficit.
So track your calories, turn on the light, and get in a deficit. Then in the future you can walk around with the lights off.
How much weight did I lose per week?
Below you'll see two graphs.
- The top graph is my daily weight and 7 day median weight over the 12 week period.
- The bottom graph is my caloric intake. As you can see, there are a ton of daily fluctuations in weight.
That's why I tracked my 7-day median weight, in addition to my daily weight.
If my 7-day median weight was going down, fantastic. If not, I either need to reduce calories from food, or up my exercise.
To maximize the amount of muscle maintained on a deficit, it is advised to target ~1% of your body weight in lbs lost per week. I started at 176 lbs here and on average lost 1.5 lbs per week. So I lost a little under 1% of my body weight per week.
When it comes to sustainable fat loss: slow and steady wins the race (for the long-term).
What foods did I eat?
You need a few meals you can go to in a pinch. Meals you enjoy and meals you can make in 5-10 minutes. Emphasis on: meals you actually enjoy.
The below meals are low calorie, dense, high volume meals which tasted delicious and kept me full, even while on a calorie deficit. Each meal below was 500-750 calories, had 20-50g of protein and actually left me feeling full and satisfied after eating it.
Protein Ice Cream
Here's a video breaking down the secret sauce behind this ice cream:
Miscellaneous Desserts (These Doughnuts are 🔥)
BuT I DOnT LiKE EaTINg thE ExACT SaME FOOdS EvERy DaY
Neither do I.
I don’t only eat the foods I mentioned above. But I eat the above foods a lot.
Because they're super fast to make, I like them and there are endless variations. And chances are, if you actually look at what you eat, you probably do eat very similar things on a daily, if not weekly basis.
Let me put it this way:
There are only 8 notes in a piano scale but there are an infinite number of songs you can compose.
- Some quote I heard
There are a few ingredients in each of my go-to dishes but there are an infinite number of variations I can create.
The above meals worked for me (and they still do). And I can mix up the toppings, sauces, protein choice, and more to mix things up every day.
If you don't enjoy the foods you eat:
- You will not reach your goal physique
- Even if you can brute-force your way there with foods you don't actually like, you will not be able to sustain your diet for the long-term.
You cannot rely on willpower to lose weight.
What were my macros?
As I mentioned earlier, I didn't "track my macros" in the sense that I wasn't targeting a specific macro ratio. However I was aware of three things:
- How many total calories was I eating per day
- Was I getting enough protein per day (.7 to 1g per lb of bodyweight)
- Was I getting enough fat per day (at least 50-60g per day is where I felt best)
If I was getting enough protein and fat, the rest of my daily calories could come from any mix of protein, fat and carbs.
This "moderation" approach vs restricting or limiting entire food groups outright was (shocker) so much more sustainable for me.
This also meant that some days I had more carbs, some days I had less, some days I had more fat, some days I had less.
But my top priority was to stay in a caloric deficit.
Find the diet that works for you
95% of people who lose weight regain the weight.
You will only be successful if you find a diet that works for you.
If you’re starving and craving other foods, it will never work.
You cannot rely on willpower to lose weight.
Let me put it this way: Do you really think that you’re that one person on earth who can:
- eat highly processed unhealthy food that make you want to binge and
- eat them in moderation and
- not feel hungry and
- not feel like you're starving
If that's you, kudos. But it's not me.
I know myself. I cannot eat one chip in the bag of Doritos and put the bag away. I can't eat a handful of M&Ms and close up the bag and put it in the pantry. I just can't do it.
And here's the thing: I have a ton of will power. I'm not trying to self boast here but when it comes to "not eating" I know I do. I've done multiple 7 day fasts before. That takes incredible will power. If you don't think it does try it (safely, of course!). And I also think I am a very disciplined person as well.
But I still can’t do it.
I can't eat one chip and then stop. I can't eat chicken, broccoli and rice every day. I can't restrict an entire food group. I can’t do it.
I was sick and tired of being hungry all the time. So I decided to change things so that would no longer happen.
And instead of completely avoiding the foods I enjoy, I simply started to eat lower calorie alternatives. And it worked.
- My ice cream doesn't taste as Ben and Jerries, but it gets me 90% of the way there.
- My mini pizzas don't stand a chance against Joe's NYC Pizza, but it satisfies any pizza cravings I have.
- My french toast doesn't have "100% natural Vermont Maple syrup" but the sugar-free version tastes just as good to me and has 10 calories per serving vs 200.
I’m not afraid to admit this: For almost 9 months, I lost weight, binged, put weight back on, lost weight, crash dieted, and none of that was sustainable. No matter how much willpower you have, you will eventually cave.
If you haven't found the diet that works for you yet, don't give up. Keep trying. Something out there will work for you.
"Cheat" Days (Read: Binge Days) Are Not Worth It
Let me tell you a story called "The Fast Before the Feast"
This year, I did my second annual "fast before the feast" where I fasted for 3 days before Thanksgiving. Because I was fasting for three days I decided I'd eat whatever I want, and as much as I want the day before fast.
Now I can seriously eat.
I could eat the dates off of a calendar.
So I went off the rails and ate 7500 calories in one day.
Here is what I ate:
I then fasted for three entire days, where I also exercised every day.
As you can see from the top graph below: It took me three days of fasting with exercise every day for my weight (blue line) to return back to where it was before.
Then Thanksgiving day came around. I again, went off the rails and ate whatever I wanted. This is the second blue spike in the bottom graph below. I ate close to 7500 calories again. It took a day of <250 calories and a full day of fasting (both days with exercise) to get back to where I was before.
Let me repeat this again: it took me three days of fasting with exercise every day to negate the effect of one day of eating 7500 calories.
When I realized this, I understood how in the past, those weekend "cheat nights" were erasing all the progress I had made that week.
Let me highlight in an example how even one weekly "cheat day" of 5000 calories, can easily erase a week's worth of hard work and lead to 7+ lbs of yearly weight gain:
- 6 days of 300 calorie deficit from 2000 calorie base = 1800 calorie deficit (Sunday through Friday night you were dialed in)
- 1 day of 5000 calories from 2000 calorie base = 3000 calorie surplus (you went wild on Saturday night)
- 3000 surplus - 1800 deficit = ... 1200 calorie weekly surplus!
A lb of fat is ~3500 calories. This means over one year, even if you're dialed in 6 days a week at a 300 calorie deficit, if once a week you cheat and have 5000 calories, you could gain:
- 3000 calorie surplus - 1800 calorie deficit = 1200 calorie weekly surplus
- X 52 weeks in a year
- / 3500 calories per lb of fat
- = 17.8 lbs over the course of the year.
To be clear here: "cheat meals" are okay... But if you are masquerading "cheat meals" with "binge days" that is when it becomes catastrophic for your diet. And that is what I was doing.
Even in the above example, if you were to go 13 days maintaining your 300 calorie a day deficit (14 * 300 = 3900 deficit), one epic cheat (read: binge) day of 6000 calories would... put you in a 100 calorie surplus over that two week span!
This series of events highlighted to me what should have been obvious before: binging simply isn't worth it.
The harsh truth I learned is: If you need to eat cheat meals then one of two things is true:
- Your diet "sucks" meaning your diet isn't satisfying enough. Yes that means you can eat "healthy foods" but if it means you binge every weekend or every two weeks, your diet "sucks" for maintaining a caloric deficit.
- You aren't eating enough. This means you are in too aggressive of a caloric deficit. Everyone want's a shortcut but unfortunately ghrelin (the hormone which says "I'm hungry") will eventually win and you will binge and eat away the progress you've made).
You cannot rely on will power to lose weight and keep the weigh toff. So find a diet that allows you to do this with minimal will power exerted.
What are some tips for managing hunger?
When you are in a deficit, the truth is, there will be times you are hungry. Here are some tips for how to manage your hunger and avoid binging:
- Eat low calorie, dense high volume foods.
- Eat enough protein. It's satiating.
- Drink water.
- Sleep more. You don't want to battle leptin and ghrelin. They will win.
- Stay busy.
All of these things will help you put down the fork.
Or chopsticks. Or spoon. Or glass. Or your hands.
You get the point. No matter what you eat or what "diet" you're on, you need to be in a caloric deficit to lose body fat. For me I found that if I ate low calorie, dense, high volume foods, it became so much easier to put the fork down.
- If you take anything away from my diet system: If you have always felt hungry in a caloric deficit, try eating low calorie, dense, high volume foods.
- If you can't find a way to stop overeating and stay in a caloric deficit for more than a few weeks you are setting yourself up for failure.
- If you need to eat cheat meals then your diet isn't satisfying enough or you are in too aggressive of a calorie deficit.
- You cannot rely on willpower to lose weight. If the diet you are following is something you can’t do for life, you will fail. The more weight you lose, the harder it will get. As you get skinnier you will get hungry. So find a way to solve this. For me it was eating low calorie, dense, high volume foods, to stay satisfied and full.
- If the above resonates with you, watch this video below and try a dish or two. You have nothing to lose (other than some body fat).
My Exercise System: Walks, Weights, Jump Rope and Short Runs
Here is my exercise system. It takes ~1 hour a day.
- I go on a walk every morning up and down a hill I live by (10 - 20 min; zone 2 cardio)
- I lift weights at least 3 times per week (20 - 40 min; resistance training)
- On non-lifting days, I jump rope or go on short runs at least 3 times per week (20 - 40 min; moderate to high intensity cardio)
- For mobility, I use my crossover symmetry everyday and on cardio days (and on leg lifting days) I'll stretch and/or do the limber 11
- Rinse and repeat
Morning Cardio: Walks Every Day (10-20 min)
I go on a 10-20 min walk every morning.
- This is up and down hills I live by
- It's also very meditative for me and sets the tone for my day
This is easy cardio. The technical term for it is zone 2 cardio = 50-60% of your max heart rate. You can learn more about zone 2 cardio here. The way to tell if you're in this zone is if you can hold a conversation during it. If I want to make it more challenging I toss on a 20lb weight vest I bought on Amazon.
Weightlifting: At a minimum 3 times per week (20-40 min)
I lift weights for 20-40 minutes at least 3 times per week. Depending on the day, I will either do this right after I go on my walk, or right before dinner.
Why "at least" 3 times per week? Because I really enjoy lifting. It de-stresses me and is such a great afternoon pick-me-up alternative to caffeine, so even on "non-lift days I'll sometimes toss in an AM or PM 15 min circuit. Here's an example of one of my favorite circuits called "Nickels and Dimes:"
Below is my current workout regiment which is extremely similar to the regiment I followed during my cut. I simply alternate between these workouts every other day (ie workout A, rest, workout B, rest, workout A etc):
Workout A: Chest, Triceps and Shoulders
Workout B: Legs, Back and Biceps
You'll notice this workout isn't insanely long. It takes 20-40 min max to complete. And it's sustainable. Because I'm not killing myself every session, every other day I'm excited to lift, excited to see if I can add an extra rep or add a few lbs to a lift, and I've also minimized my chance of injury.
Jump Rope / Short Runs: At least 3 times per week (20-40 min)
I do 20-40 minutes of moderate to higher intensity cardio ~3 times per week. This is pretty much primarily jump rope or 1-2 mi runs. Similar to the above, depending on the day, I will either do this right after I go on my morning walk, or right before dinner.
I love jumprope because 1) it's fun as hell to do and 2) it works so many muscles in your body.
And I like 1-2 mi runs because I get bored doing anything more than that. Simple as that.
Stop exercising to eat and eating because you exercised
There are so many forms of exercise out there. If you don't like a certain form of exercise, don't do it. Find one that you like.
Stop viewing exercise as a way to "eat more" or as "punishment for binging."
Why is this important? If you find yourself dreading cardio or weightlifting, you're either: going too hard or not doing a form of that exercise you actually enjoy. And most importantly: you will not be able to sustain it.
I'll use myself as an example: I love jump rope. I actually look forward to it. Every time I jump rope I'm practicing or learning new tricks. And it's a killer workout. That's what I call feeding two birds with one scone.
You cannot out-exercise a bad diet AKA "abs are made in the kitchen"
I fell victim to this for so so long.
I severely overestimated just how many calories you actually burn from exercise, especially weightlifting.
I used to think “oh I lifted for an hour, I can have a massive meal of whatever I want!”
But even from workouts that I thought were intense, turns out I only burned 400 calories…
You’ve probably heard the saying “abs are made in the kitchen.”
The above example highlights where this saying comes from. It's another way to say "you can't out-exercise a bad diet."
And to be precise, abs are made from NOT being in the kitchen because IF you are in the kitchen I assume you are eating and then you will not be in a caloric deficit.
If you are not losing body fat, you are not in a caloric deficit. It’s as simple as that. That doesn’t mean you can eat 1500 calories of plain sugar each day because you will feel like absolute crap and you won’t be able to sustain that. But losing fat, getting abs, getting lean, whatever you want to call it comes from being in a caloric deficit.
Rule Number 1 of Longevity and Fitness: Don’t Get Injured
I almost didn't include this, which is sort of what most people (including myself in the past) do when it comes to incorporating "mobility" or "stretching" into their exercise system.
I used to skip warmups or half-ass them when I did them.
And I didn’t take mobility seriously (or do it at all).
But as life often goes, I learned the hard way, by getting injured, that the above is important. And when I was injured I couldn't do any exercise, which made me feel like crap.
After a lower body injury and upper body injury directly attributable to a lack of a proper warmup + stretching, I got sick and tired of getting injured and started to seriously prioritize mobility + stretching.
At the end of the day, an an ounce of mobility/stretching is worth a pound of injury prevention.
- If you take anything away from my exercise system: if you are killing yourself with all-out cardio daily or "maxing out" every time you lift, you will crash and burn and will stop exercising or get injured
- Getting injured and burning out is setting yourself up for (read: guaranteeing) failure
- Rule Number 1 of Longevity and Fitness: Don’t Get Injured
- Stop exercising to eat and eating because you exercised. Find exercise you actually enjoy doing.
There's a lot more I could get into but I want to finish with a few final pieces of advice.
Know Your Why
I’m not an athlete. I’m not training for a gold medal and I don’t get any trophy for winning a championship or a ribbon for a new PR on a lift or for shaving a few seconds of my mile time.
So why do I care about health and fitness? Why set fitness goals in the first place? Why bother?
I want to look and feel as good as possible.
If wanting to look good is vain then so be it. But feeling good every day helps me perform my best in everything I do.
I want to see what my body is capable of.
I’ll be candid: growing up, I didn’t see (relatively) many “fit Indian people” whether that’s in my personal life or in entertainment. I always wondered: Why is this the case? Even in sports I was usually one of the few (if not the only) Indians on the team. I wondered: Because I am Indian, does that mean I physically can’t reach a certain fitness level? I’ve always wanted to see what fitness level I’m capable of.
On this note, I do think it's important and people underestimate how impactful it can be to people out there that "look like you" whether they're a "celebrity" or "role model" or even a neighbor or a friend doing things you want to achieve. It can show someone an example of what's possible.
That's why I thought it was awesome Chamath Palihapitya posted this picture:
And guess what: here is Chamath's system:
I want to be the world’s fittest 100 year old and win the “centenarian” olympics.
I’m not making this up. I think about this almost every day when I exercise after I listened to Peter Attia explain this concept. It sounds silly. I might not even live until I’m 100. But the point is: when I’m ”old”, I want to be able to do things I take for granted now and to do that, I need to train for it. Here are some examples:
- Carry in two bags of groceries -> farmers walk
- Put luggage in the overhead bin on a plain -> shoulder press
- Pick up my grandchild running at me -> goblet squat
- Sit on the floor to play with kids and stand up -> mobility
- Go on a walk and not get winded -> cardio
It’s so easy to think “JUST TELL ME WHAT TO DO AND HOW TO DO IT” but even taking 5 minutes to think about why we do anything has value. Clearly knowing why I was doing this was important to me as there were (and still are) days when I didn’t feel like exercising or prioritizing sleep or felt like cheating on a meal or skipping a warmup. Knowing my why helps me in moments like these which happen all the time.
Stop viewing exercise, diet, sleep and work as a tradeoff. It’s a flywheel.
I used to view exercise, diet, sleep and work as a set of tradeoffs. I could pick three of them but I’d always have to sacrifice one.
But once I got a taste of what it’s like to have exercise, diet, sleep and work in sync, I realized that these things aren’t tradeoffs, they’re a flywheel.
And when that flywheel is spinning it is addicting.
I feel like superman.
Another way to think of this is instead of thinking about it as "work-life balance" think about it as "work-life harmony." I think of it as "work-life flywheel:"
With a good nights sleep I’m well rested and crush my exercise. I eat well to fuel my body and my stamina at work is through the roof. I can work more hours and for longer with more focus. And at the end of the day, I can’t wait to do it all over again. And (so far) I've found that I can do it day, after day, for the long-term.
Approaching work x diet x sleep x exercise like an athlete can be a good way to think about this:
- I don’t just exercise for the 1 hour of benefits. I do it for the other 23 hours as well.
- I don’t just sleep for the 7-9 hours of recovery. I do it for the benefit in the other 15 to 17 hours of the day.
- I don’t just eat for the pleasure it gives me while I’m chewing or tasting food. I do it for the fuel and energy it gives me the rest of my day.
I do not naturally have ridiculous amount of energy and stamina. And I am definitely not blessed with godlike genetics.
So I keep my body sharp to keep my mind sharp.
Here is Justine Musk discussing this concept in a viral Quora post she wrote answering the question:
"How can I be as great as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Sir Richard Branson?"
If you haven’t gotten a taste of this flywheel, keep pushing and experimenting until you experience it, because it really is an incredible feeling and I believe anyone can achieve it.
Ignore the crabs
When you set a goal and say, "I'm going to improve myself and make a change," everyone will support you.
But the second you start to actually take action, you'll find that people out there will begin to tear you down and find every possible critique or reason why you shouldn't do what you're doing.
This is because as you change, people are easily reminded of their own failure to take action or their own insecurities.
It's the same reason why we all love gossip: it is much easier as well as far more enjoyable to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own.
The truth is, unfortunately, society resembles a bucket full of crabs.
If you put one crab in a bucket, it will crawl out.
But if you put many crabs in a bucket, you know what happens if one crab tries to crawl out? The other crabs will pull it down. And if the crab continues to try to crawl out, the other crabs will break that crabs leg.
The highest crime a crab can commit is to leap for the edge of the bucket and try to crawl out. You deciding to make a change is similar to trying to crawl out of a bucket full of crabs. There will be many people who try to pull you back down.
Don't let them.
Similarly, don't let yourself fall victim to the crabs in the bucket mentality. If you see someone else improving, rather than feel insecure about it, use it as motivation or fuel that you too can change yourself.
Health & fitness is not a video game where you can “press save” and coast. It. Never. Ends.
It. Never. Ends.
This is scary but true. I thought at times that once I hit my goal it’ll “get easier.” That magically, I can stop doing the good habits that got me here.
But the harsh scary truth is: It never ends.
Every day you have to face the same challenges and ensure your sleep, diet, exercise, and recovery are on the right track.
And the only way to sustainably do this is by exerting the minimum amount of willpower.
And the only way to exert minimum amounts of will power is by building a system.
The motivation that comes from a "goal" you've set is fickle. The discipline that comes from a "system" you have built is constant.
Don't just set goals. Build systems.
Why? Because It. Never. Ends.
Adherence is all that matters
There is one predictor of successful weight loss aka "losing fat and maintaining muscle." And that is: Adherence.
The diet doesn’t matter. Atkins, Paleo, Keto, Carnivore, Vegan. It doesn't matter.
All that matters is whether or not you can stick with it.
It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey to get there
This is so cliche that I'm gagging while writing it. But wow it is true.
Did anything magical happen when I “hit my goal?”
Did anything magically happen when I hit 10% body fat?
Did I achieve superpowers in the gym?
Did I still face days even that next week when I didn’t reaaaally want to work out or thought oooo some Oreos would be delicious right now?
Do I still wake up with the same fears and insecurities and doubts I had about myself before?
Did I get a magical trophy or award?
Did people start looking at me differently?
No. (Okay well I did actually get some comments that my face looked leaner).
At the end of the day, your body fat % is just a number.
The most important thing is how you feel.
Life really goes on the same way.
And as I said earlier, here’s the brutal truth: you don’t get to just hit save and coast. Health and fitness is not a video game.
Everything I did to get to this point is what I will need to continue doing and continue improving upon.
Now there are a few caveats to this. I can continue the same system, but I can also scale certain things back.
For example, I don’t need to be in a caloric deficit every week now. So I can have an extra slice of French toast. Or add an extra scoop of peanut butter to my ice cream. Or have that extra cheat meal (not binge day) once a week. Or instead of going on a 20 min morning walk I could do 10.
But the system I used to get me here is what will keep me here. And if I want to get even leaner in the future? I’ll remove that extra topping I add to my ice cream. I’ll add in an extra 15 min of cardio each day. But there must be a system in place.
This also doesn’t mean I’ll eat these foods or follow this exact system forever.
The bigger point is, for any changes I make (which I've already started experimenting with):
I am changing my systems, not setting goals and magically hoping that a system will arise.
This is why over 95% of diets fail. And it’s why I yo-yo dieted so hard for most of 2020. It's possible to brute-force your way towards a certain goal. But once you hit it, again, the brutal truth is: it never ends.
You cannot rely on willpower to lose weight and get in shape.
You have to wake up the next day and do the same thing over again. Every. Single. Day.
You don’t get to hit save and change everything you were doing.
And that is why it is important to truly fall in love with the process.
And not just the final process that works for you. But the process of discovering what you can actually sustain for the long-term.
Or put differently, as cliche as it is, it really is about the journey, not the destination.
I hope you enjoyed this write-up and I’d love any feedback. If you have any questions or would like any advice, the best way to reach me is on Twitter @arjunmahadevan 💪