Seven Keys to a Successful Body Transformation

You've seen the jaw-dropping before-and-after photos. Maybe it's the guy with the gut turning into the guy with abs. Or the spaghetti-armed geek becoming the bruiser with biceps. Chances are, you started training with the goal of transforming yourself from one extreme to another.

Sadly, these transformations are relatively rare. Sure, most of us add some muscle, lose some fat, get stronger, feel better. Nothing wrong with that. But very few make those head-turning, "holy shit!" transformations.

Anthony Ellis
Anthony Ellis, one of the first Body for Life champions.

So what are the secrets of those who do succeed?

I hate to quote Anthony Robbins here, so instead I'll paraphrase him: Success leaves clues. People who've succeeded exhibit common traits. Take 100 successful physique transformers, and I'd guess that 90 percent of them took similar routes to success. There are no secrets, but there are patterns.

So what are those patterns? To get the answers, I contacted coaches whose clients have achieved successful transformations, along with some individuals who own amazing sets of before-and-after pics.

I asked one question: "What do people who make successful physical transformations all have in common?"

Here's what they told me.

1 – They Become Assholes ... for a While

When you turn on the TV and come across a show about weight loss, you'll see a lot of crying, hugging, and syrupy-sweet one-liners about having a positive attitude.

Well, fuck that. In the real world, successful people get pissed off.

Success story Chris Bartl describes his experience like this: "I didn't like the way I looked, the way I felt, or the way I was leading my life. I was fat and it pissed me off."

Chris Bartl
Reader Chris Bartl knows the power of negative thinking.

Bartl didn't feel sorry for himself, and he didn't stand in front of the mirror repeating positive affirmations. He got angry, and even unleashed some rage on his mentors and coaches. I know because I was one of them, along with Christian Thibaudeau.

"People who get angry and fed up with being out of shape always have the most amazing, lasting transformations," says Olesya Novik. "They feel like they've got nothing left to lose, so they push themselves to extremes and keep coming back for more."

Why does anger work? Here's my take:

The human animal is a predator. He doesn't track and kill his prey by kinda-sorta wanting it. Achieving a goal isn't a marathon; it's a sprint. You have a short, intense window of opportunity to break bad habits and smash through obstacles.

"Successful people share a willingness to get uncomfortable," Alwyn Cosgrove says. That applies to their training, diet, and lifestyle.

Now, how does a self-pitying whiner deal with discomfort? He quits. How does a guy who's willing to be an asshole deal with it? He gets ticked and fights through it. And he wins.

Anger isn't the only socially unacceptable personality trait that comes into play. "Significant change comes with getting a little selfish," says John Berardi, Ph.D. "That doesn't have to be a bad thing, although some of your friends and family may think so."

Even if it feels weird to set aside time for yourself and your own self-improvement, it's the only way to pull it off, Berardi adds. "You have to get a little selfish and take some of your time back." That allows you to avoid distraction while focusing so intensely on a single goal.

Another dickish trait common to physique success stories is a certain sense of superiority. You don't have to hold the weak-willed people around you in contempt, but it helps to remind yourself that you're stronger and more determined than people who skip workouts and succumb to the siren call of Dunkin Donuts.

If you feel guilty about your newfound arrogance, remind yourself that it's temporary. Use it, get what you want out if it, and then drop it like a bad relationship.

Take-home lesson: Positive changes often occur with the use of a negative attitude. Being an angry, self-centered asshole with a superiority complex helps body transformers reach their goals. Just be sure to cut that shit out when you're done.

2 – They Surround Themselves with Like-Minded People

"Your results and expectations are directly related to those people with whom you spend your time," says Dave Tate, a successful powerlifter, entrepreneur, coach, and transformer. "If you're trying to get strong, then get around strong people. Get around those people who see you as you'll be, not as you are."

Dave Tate
Dave Tate knows a thing or two about body transformation.

"You're the average of the five people you spend the most time with," says Charles Poliquin. If you're trying to lose fat, then hanging around sedentary junk-food junkies isn't going to work. They're more likely to bring you down than you are to bring them up.

Why does it work that way? It's perhaps related to a concept known as "cultural para-stimuli." Nobel laureate Victor Starling coined the term after conducting an infamous study on cats. First, he took half the cats in the study and performed a type of brain surgery on them that made them act in bizarre, often self-destructive manners. Then he put them in with the rest of the cats.

Did the crazy cats normalize their behavior to match that of the sane cats? Nope. The normal cats adopted the crazy behaviors of the surgically brain-damaged ones.

Think of the self-destructive behaviors of your friends and family, the ones who overeat, don't train, and otherwise damage their bodies through their lifestyles. Do you bring them up, or do they drag you down? Chances are, it's the latter.

"Most successful body transformations begin by surrounding yourself with fit people going after the same goals," Berardi says. These could be friends who're at your level, or mentors and role models who pull you up to their level. "Either way," Berardi adds, "Relationships like these insulate you against the sort of negativity that comes from friends, family, and coworkers who aren't on board with your quest for self-improvement."

Take-home lesson: The most successful people are those who surround themselves with others who have the same goals. Likewise, they remove themselves from the "crazy cats" who bring them down.

3 – They Set Specific Goals, With a Deadline to Reach Them

A goal has to be specific, and it must have a deadline.

"The last day is the key," Dan John says. "It can be a wedding day, a reunion, the 28th day of the V-Diet, or whatever. Just find an end date. Open-ended goals, like New Year's resolutions, usually don't last a week. Why? Because there's no end date."

Thibaudeau concurs: " 'Getting leaner' isn't a goal. A good goal has a measurable objective, a time frame, and a reason." He offers this example: "Starting on January 15, I want to drop down to 5 percent body fat to peak for a bodybuilding competition on May 21." That's a real goal.

"I've had some of my chubby clients schedule photo shoots three or four months from the date we begin working together," Novik says. "At first, they thought I was crazy, but once that date really registers in their minds, they'll do anything in their power to be ready.

Novik sees this with experienced figure and bodybuilding competitors: "They don't have superhuman powers, or access to anything special. They just know they have to be on stage in a tiny suit in a few short weeks."

Joel Marion, a Body for Life champion and coach, puts goal-setting at the top of any would-be transformer's to-do list. "Compare someone with a goal of 'I want to change my body' to someone whose goal is 'I want to weigh 175 pounds at 10 percent body fat by April 1, 2009,' " Marion says. "The second person is about a million times more likely to make a dramatic change to his body, and it all starts with a highly specific goal."

Joel Marion
The evolution of Joel Marion

Chad Waterbury notes that specificity applies to methods as well as end results: "It doesn't do any good to say, 'I want to lose 20 pounds of fat.' You must make an action plan like this: 'I'll limit carbs to 50 grams per day, take three Flameout capsules twice a day, and add 20 minutes of energy-systems work in the morning for the next three weeks."

Take-home lesson: You can't finish a race if you don't know where the finish line is. Set a specific goal with a specific end date, and give yourself specific methods for reaching that goal.

4 – They Keep Logs

If you can measure it, you can manage it, Cosgrove says. The successful transformers he's worked with track and measure everything that matters. That, he says, makes the process less of a crapshoot.

Start by measuring how much you eat, and when you eat it.

"A nutrition journal might seem simple and boring, but it's one of the most powerful dieting aids you can have," Thibaudeau says. "It forces you to be precise, makes you accountable, and helps you make adjustments."

Waterbury agrees: "No sane person wants to count calories, and you don't have to forever. Just keep a food log for one week. Buy a nutritional almanac and write down the carb, protein, and fat content of the foods you eat. What you'll learn in that week will provide a lifetime of knowledge, because you'll learn which foods to eat or avoid in any phase of body transformation. That's invaluable."

Take-home message: Food logs are a pain in the ass. They're tedious. But you'll never reach your full potential if you don't ball up and keep one, at least for a while.

5 – They Choose a Plan and Stick to It

I spoke with a female pro bodybuilder once about how she handled cardio when it came time to get lean for a show. Her plan was simple: Every morning she'd go outside and run up and down the stairs of her apartment building.

That's it. Nothing fancy - no treadmill, stopwatch, or heart-rate monitor. And it worked. Why? Because she stuck to it.

Too often, those who want to build muscle and lose fat develop "programming ADD." They adopt a training program or a diet, do it for a couple of weeks, then jump ship as soon as something new comes along. And something new always comes along.

The truth is, the new program probably isn't better. It's just different. Those who win are often those who adopt a plan of action and repeat it until their goal is reached.

"You can't mix and match diets and expect results," Thibaudeau says. "If you pick one, follow the plan no matter what, train hard, and you'll get results."

Novik adds, "Any program takes time to work. If a person understands that in the beginning, and has complete trust in the program and its creator, that person will end up seeing results much faster than those who question everything and experiment too often."

Take-home lesson: Jump from program to program, diet to diet, and you'll always be the newbie. Pick a workout program, adopt a diet, and stick to it. Give any program enough time, and you'll see results.

6 – They Train Brutally Hard

People who don't achieve their physique goals often underestimate the time and effort it takes to change their body. They're inundated with commercials on TV promising amazing results in only 20 minutes, three times per week. Inevitably, the model using whatever gadget is being advertised is in phenomenal shape.

The implication, of course, is that the model developed his or her physique with the gadget, training just 60 minutes a week. Which, as we all know, is horseshit.

"People who make successful body transformations work out intensely at least six days a week," says Cassandra Forsythe, an author and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Connecticut.

If the models have amazing physiques, you can bet they train an hour a day, five or six days a week. And you can be pretty sure they train hard for at least some of that time.

Marty Wolff
Marty Wolff lost more than 100 pounds on The Biggest Loser; his workout routine was comparable to an Olympic athlete's, according to a doctor on the show.

"The harder a workout is, the better it is for changing your body," Waterbury says. "People tell me they can walk on an incline for an hour, but when I hand them a jump rope they typically end up gasping for breath after five minutes."

Take-home lesson: There is no such thing as an easy body transformation. It's going to be harder than you think. But if you expect the difficulty, welcome the challenge, and face it with brutal effort, you'll succeed.

7 – They Pre-Plan Their Meals

Dan John makes an interesting point in his seminars. He talks about how people lose fat when they simply add three apples a day to their diets. It works because the apples, more often than not, replace less healthy, calorie-dense foods.

So let's say a person hears this advice and decides to eat three apples a day for the next seven days. That's when John asks this question: "Do you have 21 apples in your kitchen right now?"

The point is brilliantly simple: A plan is a great thing to have, but preparing to execute the plan is even more important. That's where it pays to understand the magic of Tupperware.

"I've found that most people successful in changing their body tend to pre-prepare meals," Berardi says. Sure, the Tupperware-toting gym rat is kind of a cliché, but clichés exist for a reason. In this case, the Tupperware shows that the gym rat is serious about preparing his food in advance and managing his portions - two crucial keys to success, Berardi says.

Take-home lesson: Make meals in advance and stock your home and office with the foods you need to stick to your diet plan.

Five More Actions for Body Transformation

What else do those who've made successful physique transformations have in common? Here are a few more patterns our experts have noticed:

Chad Waterbury: "They eat fat. Fat is the most underrated and misunderstood nutrient. You need at least one-third of your calories to come from it. Just make sure it comes from the right sources, like nuts, fish, grass-fed beef, and olive and macadamia nut oil. And there's nothing wrong with a moderate amount of natural saturated fat."

Alwyn Cosgrove: "Reduced-carb diets seem to outperform any other dietary manipulation. Yes, I know that you can get lean just cutting calories, but cutting calories from carbs, and particularly refined carbs, seems to make compliance easier."

John Berardi, Ph.D: "Every single person that I've seen go through a successful body transformation has increased his or her awareness of what they're eating, and how it contributes to a healthy, better-functioning, and better-looking body. So, rather than just eating whatever's available whenever it's available, as most people do, they're more discerning about what they eat, when they eat, and why they're eating it."

Cassandra Forsythe: "They don't drink beer!"

Olesya Novik: "People who are most successful allow for minor setbacks. Most people who convince themselves that they'll be 100 percent dedicated and will lose at least two pounds a week for four months usually end up dropping the whole program as soon as they step on the scale and see that it only moved a half-pound down. Those who're patient with themselves, set smaller goals, and actually expect to have a bad day once in a while end up ahead because they're never disappointed enough to quit."


I have a personal rule that goes like this: If a dozen smart, successful people who've achieved something great are all giving the same advice, take it.

Well, if dozens of coaches and successful physique transformers all tell you that a food log is crucial, or that you have to train hard to succeed, then the debate is over. Quit trying to find an easier way, and do what works.

Success leaves clues. Follow them.

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram