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How I Got Fat Again and Ripped Again and You Can, Two

Urban Primalist


It’s fun!  It’s not particularly difficult.  It does take some time, commitment, and occasional mild discomfort.  It is infinitely worth your trouble.  The reward is maximum health (abs are a fun bonus.)

Before we go any further: I don’t want your money and have nothing to sell you.  Please, just be healthy and happy.  That is all I want from you!  Deal?

Here is what I did in the last 17 weeks:


Yeah, well, you looked better in the first pic.  I don't like a man with too many muscles.



I have to catch a plane.  Supposing I did want to get ripped, can you give me the executive summary?

In order of priority:

1.     Stop eating fake foods.  Eat nothing but real human foods, the kind your ancestors ate.  In an urban environment, that means you have to buy and prepare most, if not all, of your own food from basic ingredients.  You must also locate a supply of clean water, neither unfiltered tap water nor water in plastic bottles, and drink throughout the day.  This is probably the most awkward step but is also the most important.  Sorry about that.

2.     Start focusing on the foods that are especially nutritious for you.  I do well with berries, bison, and healthy milk products.  Wild salmon in particular is like a magical healing potion to me.  But I’m a cold-weather person with upper-latitude lactose-tolerant DNA, so my experience is no substitute for your experiments.  Whatever you do, get plenty of healthy animal and/or coconut fat.  If you’re very overweight, eliminate starches and limit fruit while still eating your fill of healthy fat.

3.     Increase your strength with free weights: barbells or dumbbells.  Squat, deadlift, and some kind of press should account for 80% of your focus.  Starting Strength is an excellent beginner’s resource.  The book is worth the money, but you can get started with the free FAQ instead, or the YouTube channel.

4.    By the time you achieve beginning strength standards (EMI Level 1 perhaps), which may take several months, you will already have drastically transformed your body.  You will then be ready to take things even further by controlling your food intake.

5.     Establish your macronutrient targets for training days and rest days.  Hit them with the same menu every day using the most nutritious foods possible.  If you are getting full-spectrum nutrition, this will not be very difficult, though it will feel weird for the first week or so.

6.     Enter a powerlifting meet.

Step 6 is not mandatory but is strongly encouraged.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  Buy and prepare all my own food from ingredients?  You’ve got to be kidding me.

Look, I know how grim that can sound.  I lived on a steady diet of fake food my entire life until age 33.  That got me the body you see in these before pictures.  It also got the developed world an obesity epidemic.

The stark-raving, in-your-face, skull-palming truth is that food is THE decisive factor in improving health.  If you never went past step 1 in the list above, you would already achieve a near miraculous transformation.  It only takes about a month.  Here, look at these primal success stories.  They are what first convinced me to eat only real food.  Most shocking of all, it wasn’t long until I didn’t even want fake food anymore!  Real food is actually more satisfying!  Your tastes are just as trainable as the rest of your body.  Understand that if I could do it, you can too.

I’ve vastly oversimplified nutrition for the sake of brevity.  Marksdailyapple.com is an excellent way to study what we know about the subject (less than people think) in detailed, practical terms.  There’s useful stuff about exercise and lifestyle there, too.  Frankly this article is kind of redundant.

Come on.  You seriously ingested nothing but primal food?

Well, actually no.  Primal eating is not about re-enacting the Stone Age, that’s ridiculous and impossible. It’s about understanding how our bodies evolved so that we can make the most of our opportunities here and now.  Humans are all about exploiting new environments.

If my ancestors were alive today, there are many things they would thrive on that weren’t around back then.  Such as casein, the slow-digesting milk protein.  (Proteinfactory.com has the best I’ve found; its Heliogen Casein is grass-fed and contains nothing other than sunflower lecithin.)

I also load up before my workouts with BCAAs and L-Tyrosine.  The one thing I consume that is clearly NOT primal is 1MR by BPI Sports.  This witch’s brew contains caffeine, various herbs (my favorite is a catecholamine reuptake inhibitor), B-vitamins, and... artificial colors, sucralose and acesulfame potassium.  Sadly there is no unsweetened, uncolored version.  But I make no apologies because it lights me on fire!  And I can cycle off it any time I want.

Now that we’ve established you’re a high-functioning drug addict going to paleo hell, give me the details of your diet and training.

This is my third time losing significant weight.  I wrote all about the second time last year.  (The first time is discussed here in a fan letter to Mark Sisson.)

I ended up a bit scrawny and starved at the end of the last diet.  So this time I set some new goals:
1) Deliberately gain a lot of weight to build muscle
2) Drop the weight over four months to get under 165 pounds for a powerlifting meet
3) End up leaner than ever before
4) Sustain the leanness for a reasonable period of time without bingeing my face off

Why and how did you deliberately gain weight?

Bodybuilders pursue a strategy called “bulking and cutting”: they gain lots of muscle and fat, then diet off the fat while preserving the muscle.  Here’s a look at how the pros do it.

However, they are just exploiting a universal human adaptation.  Humans are meant to gain and lose fat.  We are the greatest masters of adaptation of the animal kingdom, and energy storage is among our primary talents.  Apex predators fast and gorgeFluctuations in the food supply defined human evolution.  Our ancestors were obliged to “bulk and cut” on at least three different time scales:

1)      Diurnally, as we attended to our chores in the morning, then ate later in the day and rested

2)      Weekly, with light eating and activity on some days, and heavy eating and activity (hunting) on others

3)      Seasonally, with months of abundance followed by months of restriction

Beyond mere caloric balance, these cycles also included fluctuating levels of different nutrients – micros and macros, even alcohol.  For countless generations, natural selection shaped human biology to dance to these rhythms.

Therefore, to live according to our innermost nature, we must bulk as well as cut.  We should not stay fat forever, nor should we stay lean forever.  Constant adaptation is the defining human experience!

That’s deep, man.  But you didn’t tell me how you made yourself fat.

In a word, milk.

My role model Richard Nikoley originally inspired me to start lifting (in particular, via this article, and this video).  It is no exaggeration to say that heavy lifting made me a man, in a very real hormonal sense.
Earlier this year Richard experimented with a milk-only fat-loss diet.  Inspired again, I employed a similar, more popular strategy for weight gain:  One gallon of milk a day.  Raw, full-fat milk from the Jerseys at Clover Farms.  Plus whatever else I wanted within reasonable paleo bounds.

When I was finally 16 weeks out from my meet, I had achieved 192 pounds.  Goal #1 achieved.  I was fat and healthy (fat and unhealthy looks like this on me) but was, nonetheless, rather too fat.  The milk produced steroidal strength gains but at significant cost. 
None of my clothes fit.  My energy levels were dragging.  The milk was crowding all the real food out of my diet and I was started to get malnourished.

Worst of all, I had zero appetite for food.  Eating held no joy.  It felt like going blind.  In fact, I may never enjoy milk again.

After eight weeks of that, dieting came as a huge relief.  Immediately I felt better.  After a couple of days of eating less (and much healthier) my energy levels shot through the roof.

So how was the fat-loss diet different this time?

Having no appetite at all was actually a tremendous advantage.  My body was in such an overfed state (maxed-out leptin, etc.) that the fat came flying off.  I literally couldn’t finish my meals for the first two weeks because I was so stuffed on the contents of my own adipose.

This taught me that hunger on a diet is the enemy.  Last time I thought that if you felt body-hunger (distinct from habit-hunger, or peckishness, or bored-or-dehydrated-hunger), that meant your diet was working.  Wrong!  It means your diet is failing!  Body-hunger means your hormones are crashing.  You’ve overdone it and fallen into a cycle of misery, plateaus, emaciation – and ultimately post-starvation hyperphagia (“bingeing your face off”).

But if you’re not really hungry, the fat flies off.  Therefore, precede caloric restriction with a high-fat diet, then defend your hormones with heavy protein intake.

My fat-loss macros this time:

Training day: 220g protein, 40g fat, 225g non-fiber carbohydrate
Rest day: 220g protein, 75g fat, 25g non-fiber carbohydrate

In terms of food choices, this was almost identical to the last diet.  The only changes were to drop a bag of blueberries at lunch on training days and replace it with an extra ¼ cup maple syrup in the Shredula (huge gustatory and carb-backloading win).  I also added 48g casein to the Shredula on training days (making it essentially a thick chocolate tapioca maple mousse) and used 48g casein as a chocolate dip for the dessert strawberries on rest days.  Net increase of 40g protein both days.

The high-fat start, slight carb-timing change, and increased protein were decisive.  Hunger was never more than a subtle distraction throughout the diet, and then only towards the end.  Muscle retention was also much better.  Being leaner at 160.6 than last year at 155 (visible linea alba below the navel) meant an additional 6-10 pounds of lean mass, which is apparent from the pictures and favorable for a drug-free man of my age and training experience.  Goal #3 achieved.

The more muscle you have, the faster and easier your fat loss, which is a major reason to build strength before leaning out.

I did not change my macros at all until week 14, when I gradually added carbs because I had achieved my weight goal and wanted to build some strength for the meet.  Goal #2 achieved.

In doing so, I stumbled on another major insight: Engineer a soft landing for your diet.  Think of it like landing an airplane.  You don’t dive towards the ground at two pounds a week and crater the runway.  You slow your descent gradually until you touch down ever so gently at your goal.  Then you can walk away and have a modest lunch in the pilot’s lounge instead of being evacuated by ambulance to Taco Bell.

Indeed, well after the end of the diet, it feels like I could stay this lean indefinitely, no more interested in junk food now than four months ago.  Goal #4 achieved: the best result of all!

One week of fat-loss consumables (dropped the creatine)

Cool story, bro.  What about training?

There were four major improvements:

1) Instead of three bench press work sets, I did 13.  Theory being that the brain just doesn’t know how to press with force unless it’s specifically trained, and thus technique and neural facilitation are the limiting factors for novices, not lean mass.  (Squat and dead are different because they are similar to everyday motions of standing and picking things up.)  I actually built pressing strength throughout the cut.

2) Eight weeks into the diet, I discovered a technique to provoke adrenaline spikes before lifts.  The method is to induce hypertension via the Valsalva maneuver, then induce orthostatic hypotension.  At ideal intensity, the overcompensating action of the baroreflex produces a massive adrenaline dump that can be exploited for lifting.  Not only did this dramatically improve strength on the initial reps, repeated applications also resulted in a noradrenaline-mediated fat-burning state even more powerful than HIIT.  My weight-loss pace doubled in the weeks after discovering this.

Mind you, this is some bleeding-edge stuff (established risks include passing out, seizure, and profound public embarrassment) so I can’t recommend it to anyone right now, but will continue research and publish later.  It seems that nobody else in the world is talking or writing about anything like this, but please correct me if that’s wrong as it would be easier not to reinvent the wheel.

3) Fourteen weeks into the diet, I discovered on my latest reading of Starting Strength that pressing grip is actually different than pulling grip!  Mirabile dictu: Holding your bench or overhead press like a deadlift places the bar off-center of your forearms.  Correcting this produced dramatic improvement in mechanical efficiency.  It took me 2.5 years to realize this.  Fortunately, you don’t have to wait that long.  I am a particularly slow learner, but regardless of your experience, remember that you are always one insight away from a decisive improvement to your technique.

4)  With the help of the baroreflex maneuver from step 2, I overcame my irrational fear of deep squats and started going as deep as possible every time instead of just past parallel.  This was at first a bit painful as my hips and knees adjusted to the larger range of motion.  But the salmon healed me up quick as ever, and the improvement in squat strength and mobility was profound.  Always squat as deep as you can with good form.  It's vastly more effective than squatting heavy but shallow.

Can you show me what some of this training looks like in practice?

I constantly post videos of my successes, failures, and related outbursts on the UrbanPrimalist channel on YouTube.

My favorites from the past four months:

415x1 deadlift
225x6 squat
120x7 overhead press
First-ever muscle-up
First-ever powerlifting competition

In the comments, you will encounter the rich diversity of educated opinion for which YouTube is held in universal high esteem.  Just remember that I train only according to my best judgment, and so should you.

I’m bored, can you tell me a bedtime story?

We live in a terrible age, when obesity through malnutrition afflicts hundreds of millions.  With no need, they suffer, die young, or worst of all -- fail to live.

We live in a wonderful age, when anybody with access to good food, free weights, and the internet can transform their health and physique any way they wish.  No need to pay a brother, endure pain, or worst of all -- do cardio.

What's your problem with cardio, anyway?  Maybe I like cardio.  Maybe you should do some cardio.

I exaggerate.  There's nothing wrong with any physical activity you enjoy.  But training endurance and strength at the same time sends conflicting signals to your body.  Endurance is mostly a collection of metabolic adaptations that can be trained up in weeks.  Strength involves building actual muscle and bone mass which takes months and years, and this happens much faster when you focus on it exclusively.

If you enjoy endurance sports, consider squatting yourself some thunder thighs first, and then training them for Boston or whatever.

Can you get me another glass of water?

Remember that the Tea Table of Health is supported by three legs: Nutrition, Training, and Rest, all holding up the central pillar of For God’s Sake Don’t Injure Yourself.

Now it’s your turn!  Enough reading, go lift something, starting with your own butt.  Bodyweight squats are an excellent start.

Questions or comments?  Email me at this domain.

Seriously, go do squats now

All text copyright © 2010-2013 Timothy Williams