Today I have a guest post from my client, Tyler. When I first announced I would be doing a limited amount of online coaching last March, Tyler was one of the first sign-ups. I could tell he was sincere in his desire to reshape his body and was willing to put the necessary work in.
Unsurprisingly, he got great results, adding 65 pounds to his deadlift while achieving single-digit body fat for the first time. I wanted you to hear from him directly about what the whole process entailed and what he learned from it. Tyler followed the exact program and diet that appears in my Truth About Strength Training e-book.
I heard Sean’s announcement back in March about being a guinea pig for his 12-week transformation plan. I knew I could do it because I am comfortable with the big lifts, and I have access to a gym with power racks, a TRX, and old-school Nautilus machines.
The only problem was picking a goal. I was leaner and more muscular than the average joe walking down the street, but looking at me you wouldn’t say I was “jacked” or “ripped”. I was walking around at about 192 and 13% body fat. I wanted to get bigger AND leaner, which Sean said was possible by putting my diet in a caloric deficit and gearing the training toward building as much muscle as possible.
I went with the calorie deficit and I’m glad I did, and that brings me to the first lesson administered by the very wise Obi-Sean Kenobi…
LESSON #1 GET LEAN TO GAIN MUSCLE
There are a lot of skinny bastards out there “bulking” on ice cream and sucking down 1,200-calorie shakes between meals. They THINK they’re skinny and that they have to eat big in order to gain weight. But when they take their shirts off it looks like they are wearing a fanny pack under their skin. (A quick word on fanny packs: I wish they would come back in style because they would be so damn convenient. I have big legs, at least compared to my waist, and these new big phones with protective covers made of flypaper don’t slide in and out of the pocket very well. But I digress…)
The bottom line is that these guys look skinny in clothes, but in reality they are probably 16–18% body fat, probably insulin resistant, and going to have a tough time partitioning this surplus of nutrients toward building muscle. They shoudn’t be bulking up to see their muscles; they should be cutting down.
With me, personally, the issue was my “Bigorexia”. I knew I was a long way from living in “Shredsville”, but every time I would clean up my diet, my shirts would fit a little looser in the shoulders. I would look in the mirror and see the marginal, but hard-earned mass in my upper body eroding away and immediately go crush a large pizza to help bring it back.
But it’s really an illusion.
You bigorexics out there just need to STAY THE COURSE AND TRUST WHAT YOU ARE DOING. Depending on how you carry your fat, 10-11% is where the magic starts. From this point on, every week you will see a new level of musculature and vascularity. It will make you look bigger, and certainly better, than if you just tried to gain more weight when you’re already fat.
[[Let me interrupt Tyler with an aside. So Tyler is saying that most guys have to lose fat before they can look muscular, but that scares them because they think getting leaner means getting smaller/weaker. That didn’t happen to him, or me, or any of my other clients, and it didn’t happen HERE:
This study is an extreme example but it showed that obese men who lifted weights and did cardio and stuck with a caloric deficit lost more than 16 pounds of fat while gaining 9.5 pounds of muscle at the same time (it doesn’t say that in this abstract but I found more information on it elsewhere on the Web and that’s what happened).
THIS study looked at obese women and they also gained strength and muscle while dieting. Yes, it’s true that muscle gains in a calorie deficit are most prominent in beginners with a lot of fat to lose (all the more reason for overweight guys lurking on this blog to start using its information!), but it CAN be done. You don’t need to be in a constant state of calorie surplus to pack on good size—that’s a myth. The research shows that proper weight training leads to muscle growth in ALL cases.]]
LESSON #2: EAT LESS AND EAT CLEAN
There is this great debate going amongst the “gurus” on the significance of quantity vs. quality of food. I have heard the argument that you can eat whatever you want “if it fits your macros, bro”. I have also seen certain members of a bandana-sporting, high-volume Olympic lifting, no periodization-using fitness group that also get really lean by not counting anything. They simply eliminate processed food and anything with possible allergens.
My question is, why does it have to be either/or? Think of the progress you could make if you take in the proper quantities of macronutrients for your goals AND get those macros from whole foods. Meticulous food-tracking isn’t how a lot of people would choose to live their lives, and they don’t have to. Just get a better sense of what you’re really eating, and you’ll ensure the best results and look back with no regrets. So suck it up, stop eating crap, and stop eating so much.
LESSON #3: PICK A PROGRAM
The Internet will help you find a plethora of information on diet and training. The only problem is that we are now bombarded with every fitness Tom, Dick, and Harry [[note from Sean: yes, there are indeed plenty of “dicks” out there]] starting a blog and manipulating the basics, trying to find their niche in the market.
For example, I am a regular reader of a certain bodybuilding website and in the same week you will find articles completely contradicting each other on things such as high carb vs. low carb, or intermittent fasting vs. frequent feeding, and that’s just one site! The take-home point here is that everyone has opinions based on what works for them but the key is to put your faith in ONE philosophy and don’t commit fitness or diet “adultery” until that program is over. It was vital to my success on Sean’s program that I trusted in him to cover all bases.
I emailed Sean 4 weeks in and wanted to add some strongman training on my off days and some barbell complex finishers after a couple of workouts per week. He told me to tap the brakes, chill out, and if I wanted I could do some jump rope intervals a few times a week. Despite my eagerness to add volume, I restrained myself. I might have benefitted from these additions and gotten even better results than I did, but I also could have gotten injured doing something that was probably not going to be that much of a help to me. I could have gotten overtrained and mentally or physically burned out. So when making your transformation, outsource your training and diet to someone you trust to save you from yourself. It is easier for an unbiased outsider to keep the day-to-day decisions in line with the big picture because he doesn’t have emotions involved. He can judge the situation, and YOU, objectively, and make the smartest decision.
LESSON #4: BE ACCOUNTABLE TO SOMEONE ELSE
It doesn’t have to be the fitness director of a major magazine, but bring someone in on your journey. Ideally, it will be a workout partner, but it can be a friend, gym member, or significant other. Let them know your goals and show them your training journal.
I read somewhere that Arnold used to write every set of his workouts on a blackboard in the gym where he trained. He did this so that everyone around him knew what he was supposed to accomplish that day and it helped him keep grinding when fatigue and pain start setting in. If you don’t look like Arnold, I wouldn’t recommend writing on the walls in your gym, but you can get a similar effect by being accountable to another person.
I am a high school baseball coach and I underwent my transformation during the season. This meant several 16-hour workdays and pulling the bus through McDonalds after games. This took discipline to not indulge, but it was easier knowing I had given Sean my word that I would stick to his program verbatim.
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LESSON #5: CARBS ARE NOT THE DEVIL
Before this program, I experimented with different carb-cycling protocols. At one time, I was convinced that if I ate a sugar or starch before my workout, a switch would be flipped and I’d go into emergency fat storage mode. But as it turns out, I got better results eating low(er) fat and clean carbs both before and after my workouts.
I still took in a majority of my carbs post-workout—because I ate 1,200 of my 2,100 calories at dinner! [[Note from Sean: So much for the myth that you “can’t eat carbs at night” and still get lean.]]
I used to hammer almond butter and 6-egg omelets with bacon and wonder why I couldn’t see my abs. Quality fat does a lot of great things for our body, but it is super calorie-dense and delicious so it’s easy to over-do it. Carbs should be your main fuel source, and therefore the nutrient you eat the most of in a day.
LESSON #6: GET STRONGER
Yes, I know that when you walk around your neighborhood Globogym you see the big dudes doing pec-deck, concentration curls, and leg extensions. You think, “Well, shit, that must be how to get jacked.” But those guys are exceptions, not the rule. And if you weed out the ones on steroids or who have fortunate genetics, you’d be looking at a group that puts in an equal amount of time on the basic barbell lifts—or at least did when they were making the bulk of their gains many years ago.
The key to long-term progress is progressive overload on basic lifts. If your posterior chain sucks, do some reverse-hypers or glute bridges. They aren’t as sexy as loading up the leg press, but they will rejuvenate your squat and deadlift. Sean’s program featured a lot of single leg work that I believe helped stabilize my squat and make the weight feel lighter. He had me doing glute-ham raises every week which no doubt kept my deadlift from stalling. Now I pull for sets of 8 what would have been a heavy triple back in March.
Lighter, hypertrophy-focused programs can be a nice break for the joints and they’ll get short-term results, but progressing the big lifts, which have the most potential for adding weight to the bar, is the best way to avoid plateaus in physique enhancement.
Tyler deadlifted 405 for the first time at the end of the program
LESSON #7: EMBRACE THE MAIN LIFT OF THE DAY
When it was bench, deadlift, or squat day, I would wake up that morning thinking about the lift. If the majority of your progress comes from these lifts, then the majority of your focus should be on them. With Sean’s program, I spent as much as 45 minutes of my hour-long workouts doing the main lift for the day. This was great, because when you are training heavy (especially while in a calorie deficit), you need to keep the supplementary lifts to a minimum. This helps you psychologically. You look forward to the squat and beating your previous performance on it. When you have too much fluff work to do, your mind will hold you back.
LESSON #8: KEEP A LOG; BEAT YOUR NUMBERS
Very simple: Write down your lifts and improve your performance week by week. Include notes!
When you have a shitty session, you can go back and look and see how it differed from your better ones. Maybe you didn’t do enough warm-up sets? Maybe it was too many? Maybe your numbers are better after you foam roll or do some explosive jumps beforehand.
You can also progress more than just weight. Sean gave me very broad rep ranges for assistance work, like 2–3 sets of 8-12 reps. We went in 4-week cycles, so my log looked something like…
Cross-body Hammer Curl
Week 1: 2×12 @ 30lbs
Week 2: 3×10 @ 35lbs
Week 3: 3×12 @ 35lbs
Deload 2×12 @ 35lbs
Rather than push myself to handle heavier loads and risk breaking form, I would often just try to do more reps with the same weight, or throw another set in.
A log can help you spot the weaknesses that hold you back. If you look back at your journal and find that you can deadlift four plates for reps but can’t do three proper glute-ham raises, that’s telling you that you’re either fat or sporting some really weak hamstrings. Address these issues to keep the weights climbing and the imbalances and injuries at bay.
LESSON #9: VIDEO YOURSELF
Even if you train with a partner, you still need more feedback on how you’re performing the big three lifts. In the past, my squat spotter was too busy watching the bar to realize that my knees wobbled in like a young Bambi when I came out of the hole.
When I started setting up a camera to record how I was lifting, I finally started learning how to do the lifts properly.
If your form or depth is a little less than perfect, keep trying to get there. Doing so will mean taking weight off the bar. Instead of worrying about a certain number, keep the focus on the maximum weight that can be lifted with perfect technique. Keeping the technical aspect in check will allow for greater progression in the long run and also keep you healthier. You can’t improve your squat when you can’t squat, period.
I can’t say enough about what Sean’s program specifically taught me as well as what it allowed me to teach myself. There is as much philosophy in The Truth About Strength Training as programming and after completion you will be able to design your own nutrition and training protocols much more efficiently and effectively.
Sean was incredibly helpful, encouraging, and, most importantly, ACCESSIBLE throughout the entire process. You will no doubt have questions or concerns and it is good to have someone in your life with the answers who cares about you achieving your goals more than the fact that you bought his program. Sean invested a ton of time not only in designing this, but also troubleshooting, advising, and answering questions throughout the program.
Don’t think of this as a one click download and boom, you’re on your own. He’s always willing to help.
The training is not easy, but it is easy to understand. Same with the nutrition. This program can be done alone. This program can be done in a decent home-gym. Meal frequency is left completely up to you, and you get to destroy piles of rice and potatoes.
So stop swimming in circles and let this program do the thinking for you. If you put in the work and follow the diet guidelines you will be absolutely shocked with what is possible in 12 weeks.
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