Coaching Cured My Fat Ass
In the last installment in this series, I described the long, painful process of getting my body moving properly after 20 years of powerlifting abuse.
This article will discuss an even more important undertaking: going from a fat mess with horrendous eating habits and blood work to match, to leaner, muscular, and much healthier.
This installment is also about coaching. Throughout the series I've noted the times when mentors have had a tremendous effect on my development as an athlete and as a man.
Whether it was the guys at the old barbell club who took me under their wing when I was 16 to my bodybuilding mentors at Hard Bodies, to the greatest powerlifting coach of all, Louie Simmons, I've been blessed to have some brilliant minds steering me throughout my journey.
I've listened to them (maybe not at first), learned from them, and through their guidance accomplished some impressive things. And to pay it back, I've tried to help others whenever I could, both on my own and through my company, elitefts.com.
In 2006, I was fat and bloated and couldn't move for shit. But I was also a powerlifter – albeit a broken down one – and it wasn't like people weren't taking what I had to say seriously just because I didn't have a six-pack. The thought of dieting to "see my abs" was about as appealing as dumping benches and floor presses for cable moves so I can "sculpt my chest."
My reality check came after my annual physical with my friend and physician, Dr. Eric Serrano. My bloodwork was, in his words, terrifying. Total cholesterol, HDL/LDL ratio, and triglycerides were all shot to hell.
That in itself didn't phase me – I'd dealt with so many injuries throughout my career, and had doctors tell me it was a miracle I could still walk upright, that seeing some abnormal numbers on a printout was nothing – until Serrano asked if I wanted to see my kids graduate high school.
For that to happen, getting this shit in order was no longer an option. It would have to become a priority.
Part of being a good coach is knowing your limits. As a strength coach, I'm confident I can help just about anyone get stronger under the bar or in their sport.
The whole body composition thing, on the other hand, isn't my strong suit. Fact is, it bores the hell out of me. And when something bores me, I generally suck at it and quit – unless it's a priority, whereupon I'll hire a coach to help me.
Dr. John Berardi
I'd heard of John Berardi through our mutual association with T Nation and had seen him speak at a few seminars. I knew he was smart and a good communicator, and unlike a lot of the bodybuilding coaches, I knew had a very strong academic background.
Don't get me wrong, in the trenches experience trumps the theoretical every day of the week, but I also have a background in nutritional biochemistry and exercise physiology. I wanted someone with that type of background to assist with a peculiar problem I'd been experiencing.
Following my dressing down from Dr. Serrano, I started making a sincere effort to "eat clean," which to me meant egg whites, chicken, rice, the odd vegetable, and zero junk food. In other words, '80s bodybuilding 101.
But every time I'd eat a "clean" meal, I'd wind up puking my guts out an hour later. It didn't matter if I switched up the proteins or tried different "clean" carbs – I'd eat, and an hour later it was in the toilet.
The weird thing was, if I switched back to my junk or fast food staples, no problems. Try to force down even one clean-ish meal and I was back praying at the porcelain throne.
When I reached out to my lifter friends about my issue they just about pissed themselves laughing, but Berardi took my problem seriously. He knew that the most important thing was teaching me what healthy eating really was.
So he started from the ground up. It began with me getting a wack load of blood work done, including a glucose tolerance test. Berardi then sent me lists of different foods to experiment with along with food prep tips that I actually used.
To get past my hang-up that all healthy food tasted bad, he had me trying out different recipes that were fast, easy, and tasty. I'd never followed a recipe in my life, and now I was making "Dr. John's Chili" and this peanut butter Metabolic Drive shake that was better than something you'd find at Dairy Queen.
This was huge for me. I was used to seeing food as either "tasty" or "diet/clean," meaning food that I – and the rest of the family – loves or hates. And as anyone who's done this knows, when one person in the family diets, the whole household kind of diets.
While my wife and kids were free to eat what they wanted, it's much easier when everyone eats from a similar menu. My kids liked some of this new clean food more than the junk food, and I was able to keep it down.
You can read more about it here, but I worked with Berardi for the better part of a year and all told lost about 50 pounds. My blood work also got a lot better and it completely changed how I look at food. JB restored my health.
Considering how far I'd come and the changes I made, I felt pretty good about myself and chalked it up as a goal accomplished. That, as I'd learn, was a big mistake.
Since I was "done," I stopped communicating regularly with Berardi. I figured I'd just take a break before switching to "maintenance," despite not even knowing what that was!
I realize now that after the goal has been reached is when you need your coach the most – to transition you from "diet mode" to a "lifestyle" mode that you can maintain for life.
My maintenance turned out to be just shuffling back into my old habits of junk food and haphazard eating, and before I knew it I was up 30 pounds. Once again, I needed help.
In 2007 I brought bodybuilder Justin Harris into the elitefts family as a sponsored athlete. He was also a coach, and I was fascinated by his approach to dieting down bodybuilders, and I constantly picked his brain for advice.
Justin saw the progress I'd made with Berardi and was disappointed that I let things slide after reaching what I thought was my goal. "You missed out on the best part of the whole process, the rebound."
"Rebound?" I asked. "You mean where I slap on twenty pounds of fat in a week? Don't worry, I experienced that."
"No," he said. "Where you gain ten pounds of muscle in a month."
Ten pounds of muscle? Now I was curious.
Justin explained that once the body gets really lean it wants to replenish itself and is highly sensitized to nutrients. It's a magic "window" where if you give the body what it needs – tons of calories and twice a day workouts – it packs on muscle and glycogen at an incredible rate, with negligible fat gain.
I wanted in.
There was a catch. I needed to get a lot leaner.
With JB I went from a fat mess to a lean-ish 8% or so, but then I quit. Justin said I needed at least another month or two of hard dieting to get to the zone where he felt the best rebound for me could occur.
I told Justin that I'd be willing to do whatever it took to get to where I was about three weeks out from a show. I knew that in bodybuilding, like in powerlifting, nothing you do in the last three weeks is ever good for your health or your sanity. Justin said that by three weeks out I should be at the rebound-ready place.
You can read more about Justin's approach here, but the first thing he said was that I'd have to change what I was doing.
Since I was a bigger guy, Justin said that I shouldn't diet like a smaller bodybuilder. He had a number of theories to support this but needed guinea pigs to test them out on.
Most of the guys that Justin worked with were competitive bodybuilders and he couldn't afford to play mad scientist with clients that had upcoming shows. Since I just wanted to get lean enough to rebound, I signed on for whatever he had in store for me.
The first thing Justin did was cycle my carbs. His setup had low days at around 100 grams, moderate days at 200-300 grams, high days at 500 grams, the occasional zero day, as well as some super high days, where I ate 1200 grams of carbs a day from stuff like Fruity Pebbles.
I sent Justin my pics every week and he adjusted the number of days according to my condition. The leaner I got, the more high days I could have. There were adjustments every week.
Training was also different. With Berardi, it was assumed that I knew how to lift weights so John just worked on my diet while adding in cardio as things progressed.
With Justin, training had to match the diet. That meant off days were low or zero carb days, while lifting days were moderate or high days. Super high days were usually set on lower body lifting days. As for cardio, we started at zero and peaked at 45 minutes a day, four days week.
It was a major pain in the ass. Each day required a different set of meals and every week would have different days, so you couldn't even get into some sort of pattern where Monday is low day, Saturday is high day, whatever. Everything depended on how I looked.
The low-carb days were easiest as there were less meals to prep, whereas the high-carb days required that I pack a stupid cooler to take with me wherever I went. As things progressed I found myself simply not going anywhere that was more than two hours away from my fridge. This started to wear on my family and my sanity, but holy sheep shit did it work.
I actually put on muscle while dieting and got into my all time best condition – 235 and ripped and full. I loved how it looked and got some great pics out of the deal.
But I was also ready for the rebound. I'd been counting down the days until I could eat like a pig and train heavy again. I was so stoked, I booked a 10-day vacation to coincide with ending the diet.
Another big mistake. Although I trained as much as I could and tried to eat as cleanly as possible, it was still a vacation. I cheated often – more than often. I cheated all day long.
I put on 50 pounds in 10 days. When I came back to work my staff didn't recognize me. Wendler, in particular, almost shit himself when I walked in. I went from 235 to 285, and the water bloat was unbelievable. It hurt to walk, much less train, and my face looked like it was going to explode. I missed how I felt dieting at 235!
I did get a nice rebound out of the deal but I looked and felt like a total pig. The bloat slowly came off and according to the calipers I did add about 10 pounds of lean mass – but calipers can be tricky when you're a bloated pig.
Considering how I looked and my strength, I'd say it was more like 3-4 pounds of muscle and a bloat load of water and fat.
Don't get me wrong, the concept is still sound – I was just a crappy student.
I decided to wait for the bloat to come off before I contacted Justin again, but found myself getting busy, and cheating more. Hey, I was busy and had a family and a company to run. Besides, I already had the after pictures; who cares if I put on a few pounds?
Big mistake, again.
2009 On My Own
2009 was a rough year. It was the recession and my business needed the bulk of my attention, as did my family. As such, my training was increasingly put on autopilot, which for me meant basic strength training, although I was still limited in what exercises I could do.
I found myself falling into a routine where I'd pick a basic strength movement that didn't hurt me too much, like a floor press or yoke bar squat and train it like I was approaching a powerlifting meet. It was a fun change after doing so much bodybuilding work, and getting to strain again was like visiting an old friend.
I also fall back into old habits. And the more I trained like a powerlifter the more I ate like crap. My weight crept up, and the old injuries started to appear again.
By the end of 2009 I remerged a fat, beat up, former powerlifter.
2010 Shelby Starnes
Justin Harris went back to school, was running his business, working full time, raising a family, and working with top bodybuilders. I really didn't want to add to his workload. Berardi was busy with his company, Precision Nutrition, so I needed to find a new coach. Shelby Starnes had a log up at elitefts and a lot of guys I worked with were using him for diet help.
I doubted how well I'd fair. I didn't want to be stuck with some Nazi who'd cardio the crap out of me while making me eat chicken and rice three times a day, especially not after being with Berardi and realizing that type of thing wasn't necessary.
Shelby turned out to be anything but. He was like a balance between Berardi's lifestyle approach and Justin's hardcore bodybuilding mindset. We set up a carb cycling type of framework, and I could pick foods from a pre-approved list of choices as long as the quantities fit the parameters.
It was easy, relatively speaking, and within a few months I was under 8% bodyfat. What was interesting was that usually at 8% my body starts to revolt; this time I sailed cleared through. I think this was partly due to being at this level already with Justin – my body had "learned" how to get there.
Shelby used a basic carb cycling setup: high, medium, and low days. There were no super high or super low days like Justin had, nor were there cheat meals, at least not for a long time.
Shelby said cheat meals were counterproductive until you were very lean, unless you had to have a mental break. He also determined super-high carb days worked better for me than cheat meals.
Shelby would watch my training log and when my numbers started to plummet, he'd schedule in a high-carb day, usually on a lower body day. Shelby also wanted pictures and bodyfat measurements weekly but used how my training was going to make adjustments.
While the geek in me liked Justin's super technical approach and the results were spectacular, Shelby was already looking into the future. He could see where I'd screwed up before and wisely started working me into maintenance mode even while we were still in the depths of dieting.
He'd let me eat foods that he knew I'd be eating in the off-season including some pre-approved fast food, provided the macros added up.
This wasn't a concession he'd normally make with a competitive bodybuilder, but it didn't make sense to get me eating a certain way if there wasn't a hope in hell I'd eat like that after the diet was done. He wisely developed my plan based around my noncompetitive needs.
So while 8-ounces of chicken and brown rice might be ideal, in a few months a triple chicken sub on flatbread from Subway would be reality. Shelby programmed that in now so I'd be better set come the offseason.
It should be noted that right when I started working with Justin, Tim Patterson from Biotest contacted me regarding some new workout nutrition products he was developing. Even though neither product had a name or even flavoring, he offered to set me up with his special "protocol" so I could experience it for myself.
The stuff tasted like ass (did I mention it was unflavored?), but considering the guy was sending it to me, I decided I'd find a way to choke it down.
I was blown away. I felt the difference after just one week. I was so impressed I had both Justin and Shelby build the protocol into the diets they made for me.
Plamza™ – 2 scoops
MAG-10® – 2 Scoops
Surge® Workout Fuel – 1-3 scoops (based on carb allowance)
Flameout™ – 6 caps a day
Curcumin – 6 caps a day
Surge® Workout Fuel was the most variable; I'd have more or less depending on whether it was a high, medium, or low carb day.
Training wise, Shelby still matched the heavier training days with higher carb days, but we kept a balance between bodybuilding pumping and strength work. Although I'll never be a powerlifter again, I need some straining to make me feel alive, especially as the calories drop.
I got in great shape with Shelby – most of the pics you see on T Nation are from working with him – and I stayed leaner, longer. This was partly due to his more sustainable approach that kept my dieting foods as close as possible to off-season foods. You can read more about it all here.
The other reason is that I finally figured out what every fitness asshole has been preaching for 100 years – that this shit is a lifestyle. I still haven't fully grasped that concept, but I'm working on it.
What Would I Do Different?
Right now every strong fat guy is wondering what I'd do different so they don't make the same mistakes I made. Which coach was the best? Who gave me the best results?
I'd stick with just one coach.
Don't get me wrong, each coach was awesome. They all did exactly what I asked them to do, and any failures I had in keeping the weight off was my own.
This begs the question, if each guy was so good, then why didn't I stick with just one?
Part of it was availability – some guys were busy when I wanted to kick start the process again. The big thing was my goals were different each time I tried this.
When I worked with Berardi, I was a ticking time bomb who needed to get healthy and learn how to eat food that wasn't from a drive thru window.
With Justin, I wanted the underground knowledge, the stuff that only the pros know. There's a reason the biggest, most conditioned guys in the world are where they are and it's not all drugs and genetics.
Everybody on stage at the pro level has good genetics, trains hard, and has access to the same "supplements." The only variable left to push is diet.
After Justin got too busy I needed a coach. I wanted someone who could "marry" both the health and bodybuilding effects into a cohesive approach that was effective yet easy to understand and most importantly, sustainable. Shelby was my choice here, and it worked out very well.
Yet one thing that sticks with me is this: suppose I was able to stick with just Berardi for five or six years, or Justin, or Shelby? What if I had just one coach through multiple diets and off-seasons?
That coach would have years of data on me and would know which foods worked, which didn't, which macros left me exhausted, and which left me with the energy to train and strain. That coach would be able to make the best recommendations for me, backed by years of previous experiences.
I realize now that – provided he or she is competent – the best coach is the coach you stick with. Jumping from coach to coach is no different from program hopping in strength training. It's the same old "frogs on a lily pad" syndrome.
How are you supposed to learn what works if you don't stick with an approach long enough to build up a frame of reference?
I'd sign up to extend past the diet into the off-season.
Looking back, I always made the mistake of ditching my coaches the day my diet was done. In hindsight, especially considering some of my destructive habits, I should've kept it up for at least six months past the original end date.
The off-season is the hardest part. You're no longer "dieting" so suddenly there's less structure, less pressure, more flexibility, and more freedom to "wing it." Some flourish on this type of freedom and make excellent choices, others – especially the type who do best with structure or have food issues in the past – fall apart in the presence of any type of flexibility.
This is when a good coach can set you up with the type of habits that keep you lean for life. After all, anyone can be in shape when they carry a cooler with them and never have a piece of cake at their kid's birthday party. While that sounds hardcore, it's easy. It's simple binary thinking – yes or no, black or white.
However, when you work in things like being sociable and practicing a little moderation is where many fall off the wagon. It's when I needed a coach more than ever.
Don't overestimate what they can do.
A good coach can help you eat better and see food as a tool instead of an indulgence, but they won't cook for you, or shop for you, or wash your dirty Tupperware. You still need to do the work and most importantly, follow the plan. The best diet in the world is useless if not followed, just as how a strength training program is worthless if you skip more workouts than you hit.
I think there's a tendency, especially amongst the coach-hoppers, to give the coaches too much blame when things don't go as planned. Before you blame your lack of success on your diet or the person writing it, honestly assess how well you followed it. I submit that if your compliancy is less than 90%, then you have no business blaming anyone but yourself.
We all need coaching.
Some might say that a diet coach is just for physique athletes or pro bodybuilders, but I submit we all need coaches in areas of our lives where we aren't proficient.
I know enough about strength that I won't hire a kid in an NSCA polo shirt to write my training programs, but when I don't have a set diet I fall apart. I know this, so I have a coach doing my diet. It's an area where I'm weak, so why not pay someone good to get my back? It only makes sense.
My injuries will never go away so my days of training like an elite strength athlete are behind me. Sometimes I look at myself and laugh at how I'm becoming what I used to make fun of back in the day: a guy who looks jacked but isn't strong for shit!
Bodybuilding and dieting is hardly my passion. I'll never get giddy about a new diet protocol or talk endlessly about how awesome my pump was after I carbed up on sweet potatoes.
But if looking jacked is all I can do now, I'll run at it to the best of my abilities – and when those abilities fall short, I'll have a coach help me.
It was the best decision I ever made.