I’ve been struggling with my weight for most of my adult life. From being a thin child and teenager, once I started putting on a bit of bulk I never stopped. I briefly got a bit fitter in my mid-twenties, but after that I just got heavier and heavier, less and less fit.
I’ve documented previous years of small and temporary successes followed by repeated failure on this site but I’ve decided to write this because I believe that 2019 has been the year of long term lifestyle correction.
First, a bit of recent history. Back in 2015 I started working from home full-time. I decided that it would be a good idea to join a gym so that I’d at least replace the small amount of exercise I got from my commute, especially as I’d just found out about a health issue caused entirely by being overweight. That lasted approximately three weeks.
Between then and my forty-first birthday I didn’t do a lot, and then on my birthday I joined a new gym and put myself on the waiting list for another gym. I was given a full body workout to do three days a week and an idea of how many calories I should eat per day with a breakdown of what proportion of protein, carbohydrates, and fats I should consume. That lasted three and a half weeks. And I skipped a week in between visits.
And then, for reasons I can’t explain, I went back to the gym on the 14th of November 2018 and never stopped going. Since then I’ve been training three days a week without fail and have recently changed that to six days a week.
Has it worked? Well, I have pictures and measurements to let you draw your own conclusions.
On 1st January 2019 I weighed in at 128 kg / 282 lb / 20 stone 2 lb. My body composition was body fat at 41.3% and muscle mass at 26.4%, with a visceral fat rating of 22 (1 – 12 being the healthy range). I’m 1.81 cm / 5’11” tall.
I didn’t take any photos on that day, but I did three months later after making some progress.
At the time these photos were taken, on 13th March 2019, I weighed somewhere between 122.9 kg / 270.9 lb / 19 stone 5 lb and 117.5 kg / 259 lb / 18 stone 8 lb so I was making some progress.
Here are some photos taken today for comparison:
Today I weigh in at 94.2 kg / 207.7 lb / 14 stone 7 lb. Body fat is down to 24.6% and muscle mass is at 35.5%, with a visceral fat rating of 12 (the top end of the healthy range).
That’s a weight loss of 33.8 kg / 74.5 lb / 5 stone 4.5 lb (down by 26.4% of my original weight), body fat decreased by 16.7% (down by 47.9% of the original percentage) and muscle mass increased by 9.1% (up by 34% of the original percentage).
Note: any numbers for weight and body composition have a level of inaccuracy, so might differ from reality to a small extent or be based partly on time of day or how much water I’ve drunk so far that day. I don’t worry about this, the trend it what is important.
I can’t explain why this has happened now, but I can tell you how I did it. I’ve discovered that I really enjoy weight training.
When I’ve attempted to do some exercise before it’s generally been in the form of cardio. I’ve tried running, I’ve tried spending time on an elliptical in a gym. I’ve never enjoyed a minute of it, and I can’t stick to it.
With weight training I’ve found something that I don’t get bored by and that I can make measurable improvement in. Everything else has revolved around this. Yes, my diet is much improved, but it is improved because it drives my progress in the gym. Yes, I do more cardio than ever before, but I do this because it drives my progress in the gym. I’m lighter and fitter than I’ve been in more than fifteen years and stronger than I’ve ever been in my life.
I think that what works for me is the immediacy of the feedback. If I’m trying to deadlift a barbell I know straight away if it’s going to move. When I run I struggle to find a pace that is both sustainable for the distance I want to achieve but also pushing myself – there’s a 30 minute delay on the feedback. If I load up the bar too much I find out right then and I can take a bit of weight off, take a minute to get my breath back, and try again. If a dumbbell is more than I can handle I might do six repetitions instead of the ten I intended. No problem, next set I drop the weight and try again. Not feeling that I pushed hard enough? In two minutes I’ll be doing another set and can adjust accordingly.
This immediacy and ability to adjust so that I’m working as hard as I can every time I step foot inside a gym means that I can make measurable improvements. These measurable improvements mean that I spend time thinking about my next session when I’m not at the gym, not with dread but with anticipation: what am I going to achieve, what do I think I might achieve?
I started out lifting light, steadily increasing to find my limits. By the middle of the year I was able to set a few goals for 2019. Nothing very impressive by the standards of many people, but a challenge for me. 80 kg bench press, achieved 6th November, 150 kg back squat, achieved 25th October, and 150 kg deadlift, which I was doing really well with until I stalled at around 140 kg.
On the last day of the year it just happened to be a back training day. With twelve hours to go I thought I’d have a last try at a 150 kg deadlift. It’s definitely a bad idea to try to lift 7.5 kg more than you’ve ever attempted, especially when that felt like you were already at your limit. I’d recently backed off to 130 kg and was slowly putting weight back on the bar each week to try and break through the barrier that I’d hit a few months earlier. Still, I decided to give it a go but without pushing too hard – injury is my biggest fear as I don’t want to lose the progress I’ve made. After a few warmup sets I put on my wrist straps and stepped up to the bar. With little expectation of being able to overcome gravity I started to pull… and to my amazement it moved! Three repetitions later I could do no more, but I’d done it! And did it again for another set of three. And then couldn’t get it off the ground by so much as a centimetre on the third working set. But no matter, I dropped the weight and completed that lift.
I don’t think any other single event pleased me more in 2019 than getting that bar off the ground, so I go in to 2020 motivated to see what I can achieve. If I’d failed it wouldn’t have been a big deal, there’s always next time (or the time after that…), but every personal best, whether measured by the weight of an individual rep or the volume of a set or workout, is a small triumph.
Now, I don’t want anyone reading this to think I’m trying to sell you on this as the best or only way to lose weight, get fit, or achieve whatever physical goal you’re trying to achieve. This is what works for me. Trying to do what I thought I was supposed to do did not work, at least in a way I could sustain.
The key, I think, is to try to understand what will motivate you, to give you something to build everything else around. The need to lose weight wasn’t, on its own, enough for me. It was why I first stepped in to the gym but it wasn’t why I stayed there. I got hooked on something, weight training, and the desire to improve drives the healthier eating and increased cardio exercise that have become part of my lifestyle change.
If what you love is playing for your local cricket team but it’s a little hard chasing those outfield shots then use that as your motivation. Increased speed on the cricket pitch is the driver, the time on the treadmill or easing off on the Friday night pizza is the work you put in to achieve your goal.
It took me more than fifteen years to figure this out for myself so I’m not putting this out there as the One True Way™ or suggesting that it is in any way easy, but if you’re struggling with more traditional ways of thinking about improving your fitness then maybe give this a try.
I’ve also not done this on my own. There are lots of people that I have to thank for guiding and supporting me, but there are two in particular that I’m going to call out here.
I split my time between two locations in the UK so a good gym in both places is important. The people at the gyms I train at have been a critical part of the progress I’ve made.
In London I train at Dr Zak’s Pumping Iron Gym. This is a pretty hardcore bodybuilding gym but the people there are friendly and happy to help, even if your max is their warmup weight! I’ve had people with biceps the size of my legs compliment me on the progress I’ve made and it’s nice to get that sort of encouragement. Zak has offered me great advice, including how to work around the start of a niggling injury that didn’t get any worse because I was able to adjust my routine.
In my home town on the Wirral in the North of England I train at The Zone. James, one of the trainers there, put together the original full body workout that I used for the first three months of training, and then the pull / push / legs three day split that I used until six weeks ago. The five day split (plus a cardio and abs day) that I’m doing now is based on a lot of the knowledge that these initial training routines has given me. James also figured out the diet (by which I mean the way I choose to eat, not strict adherence to calorie control or restricting types of food) that I am following to this day, and while I have, of course, craved foods and fallen off the wagon occasionally, I’ve not been hungry or felt weak or tired on it.
So, what’s next? My goal isn’t weight loss anymore. In fact, I think there is a good chance that I will end 2020 heavier than I am today. My initial focus is going to be to turn that 22.6% body fat in to 15%. I’m still carrying too much body fat but now I’m in good shape to get rid of it. To do that I need to further improve my diet, eating cleaner by cutting out a lot of the processed foods that I overly rely on and eating at intervals throughout the day rather than having three quarters of my calories in one big meal in the evening. After that I want to slowly increase my calories until my body composition is fairly stable and work on increasing my strength.
Wish me luck!