May 18

Today concluded my 12-week Body For Life program. I committed to posting the before & after pics so let’s get this out of the way- here’s me in my boxers 12 weeks ago and today:

I learned a lot from this process and I’m happy with the results so far (nothing ends today – I’ll be continuing the training and the diet without a doubt). I did miss my goals of single-digit body fat and doubling the weight I can lift but I was able to move the needle from 18%BF to 14% and I can lift an average of 40% more now than when I started. Another twelve weeks and I’m confident I can attain both of those goals.

I figured I’d share some of the things I’ve learned that were non-obvious and that could be helpful to others considering the program. And let me preface everything by saying I have zero affiliation with Bill Phillips or his company. I just like his philosophy on eating and exercise and the motivational and instructional value of his book. In no particular order here’s a braindump to round out my last post of commentary from the halfway mark.

The Workbook

As I mentioned previously, the iPhone apps for tracking food and exercise are impractical as they add too much friction to the process of recording stats.  While they are better in that they give you nifty progress graphs, you’re not optimizing for viewing, you’re optimizing for ease of capture. It’s ultimately about how much weight you put up next time and even the best app I found still required too much effort to enter stats. Print out the booklet in a combed binder at Kinko’s for $15 and use that instead. I had them do the first and last pages as cardstock because your book will weather its abuse better that way. And a combed binder works best of any binding because it makes a handy place to store a writing instrument.

You live with this book for 12-weeks. It becomes an irreplaceable, authoritative archive of how/when/what you lifted and ate. Do yourself a favor and in big permanent marker put your name, phone, email and a nice note asking people to return it if found.  

I found the “actual vs. planned” distinction to be overkill. I think I only planned my meals and workout on the first day.  Realistically if you belong to a big gym and go at highly trafficked times you won’t dictate which machines you can use so you end up playing it by ear.  Same thing on meal preparation – it’s pretty unrealistic to plan out your meals for the week. You’ll end up getting a bunch of stuff at the store and deciding “at runtime” what to prepare. Lastly, I found his notation of tracking water consumption as a meal line item to be cumbersome. I just put hashmarks in the margins as a rough guess of how many glasses and at what point throughout the day I had them.

Customize the routines to your accommodate your goals

I found the program to be slanted towards fat loss as opposed to muscle gain. If I were to have followed the orthodox program I’d have only one upper body workout on alternating weeks – I found that unacceptable. Instead I altered the program to better fit my goal of muscle gain and would rotate pulling one muscle group out of the upper body day and focusing on it intensely on an adjacent cardio day.  This seemed to work well especially since 20min for cardio leaves a lot of room for doing other exercises. 

Google doc for streamlining grocery shopping

I’m not a big fan of grocery shopping (or any shopping for that matter). I find it tedious and almost always end up ping-ponging back and forth across the store because I forget an item in produce and then realize I needed some random cleaning product, oh and then the banannas, oh and then a toothbrush, etc.  I did come up with a simple way to streamline things: make a google spreadsheet with all the items you could possibly need ordered by physical location right to left in the grocery store.  Here’s . Of course I didn’t need everything on each visit but it’s way easier to skip items you don’t need rather than to forget the ones you do. 

Value of removing decision making

Much in the same way that Getting Things Done alleviates the burden of decision making and turns your todo list into a set of executable units, the BFL program does the same for eating and working out.  You know exactly what to do each day when it gets to a meal or workout- simply refer to the relevant page in the book and build upon what you did before. I believe this accounts for 50% of the magic of the program. The other 50% are the motivating stories from the book and Bill’s somewhat-cheesy but clearly genuine interest in helping people get over the hump and achieve their fitness improvement goals. 

Certain exercises can be done everyday

pulllupbarI found that abs and pull-ups are exercises that can be done everyday. I hung a wide-lat pull-up bar on my back patio and made a habit of doing a set when I woke up and before I went to bed. It cost a total of $50 for all the materials and took about an hour to set it up. Basically I drilled a hole through the beam and fitted it with a chain that held up the bar via a c-clamp. Doing a set of pull-ups and situps every morning and evening has become a habit.

Tupperware + cut fruits & veggies = awesome

I used to pay $7 for the pre-cut bowl of cantaloupe slices- what a waste. You can pay $.80 for a fresh whole cantaloupe and spend 10min cutting it up and have more and fresher slices that you save in a tupperware container for the rest of the week. This works with fresh veggies as well. I still buy packs of frozen but typically buy a fresh vegetable and then cut it up and store a few servings in the fridge for the rest of the week.

Burn your boats


I’m a fan of publicizing goals. I believe when you make a goal privately to yourself it’s very easy to blow it off and fall short. Posting them in a conspicuous place however puts the power of peer pressure in your favor: you know that people will be reading it and will hold you to it.  A number of times I was on the fence about blowing off the gym or having a dessert and I thought about the idea of posting a before an after pic that looked identical. I posted a set of goals on my bathroom mirror when I started and I don’t mind posting them here because I know my friends that read my blog will help hold me to them. Ultimately it’s about doing whatever you need to to get motivated and stick to your commitment. 

Well tihat’s about all the observations I have.  To be clear I did this using no supplements other than protein shakes and power bars. The majority of the change manifests towards the last part of the 12wks but if you stick to the plan a transformative change is possible in a short time.  I encourage anyone considering a diet / exercise program to check this one out. I’m very happy with the results and plan to continue the regimen of eating and exercise indefinitely. If you’re local in Phx and want to borrow the book, I have a very dog-eared and chewed up copy that I’m willing to lend anyone who asks.

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Apr 06

I’m exactly halfway through a fitness and exercise program I started six weeks ago and figured I’d share some halftime commentary that might be helpful to others considering undertaking such a program.

It’s a virtuous cycle if you can start it

First, this does work. I’ve seen a noticeable strength improvement but more importantly I’ve experienced a significant increase in energy. Before starting I would find myself hitting a wall of lethargy about 3pm and feeling sluggish in the evenings after work. The change in diet and exercise has resulted in better energy during the day and consequently better sleep at night (which improves the daytime effectiveness). The improvements didn’t fully kick in until about the third week so it’s a delayed effect but if you can get through that first bit it becomes much easier to stick with it. I can see how the initial hit in extra work without the energy benefits cause people to bail on the program. But I have a trick to propose for overcoming that New York New York threshold

Commit publicly

The same factors that make the idea of the Open Source Goals meme effective can be put to work for you in this situation. When you decide to commence a program like this, I would recommend going “all-in” and making a public declaration some place where you know people will see it and hold you to it. It could be as simple as a status update on your facebook or a post on your blog but whatever it is, go public with it. I took one of those dorky before pictures when I started (you know the ones where you hold up a magazine in the mirror so it proves what you looked like when you started). I’ll post the before/after pics here when I finish. I don’t even know how many people will see those pics but just the thought of having to do that has motivated me more than once to power through at 6am and make my way into the gym.

iPhone fitness programs can’t match paper

I had done a moderate bit of research to find the most popular iPhone app for tracking workouts. I ended up purchasing one called “.” Unfortunately after trying to use it I quickly concluded that no matter how much they improve the UI on these apps it’s still too much friction to enter the data during a workout. Nothing compares to a paper booklet divided according to how you plan your workouts (and a “combed” binder works best because it’s perfect for holding your pen). You need to be able to quickly jot down numbers and flip back to see what you did the week before. The iPhone interface while beautiful for graphing progress over time is not appropriate for quick data entry while in the gym. You’d be better off doing your booklet and then sending it to India for someone to transcribe it into a google doc or database so you can run reports on it.

BFL is geared towards fat loss

I’ve noticed that this particular program seems to be biased towards people losing weight. While that’s probably the typical use case I’m 70% interested in muscle growth and only 30% interested in fat loss. Accordingly I’ve tweaked the program to fit that goal. The typical workout consists of alternating between cardio and weight training so you’d do upper body, run, lower body, run, upper body, etc… and then reverse it the next week. I’ve found that it’s impossible on the upper body workout day to do adequate justice in an hour so I’ve taken to pulling out a muscle group from that day and throwing it in on an adjoining run day and focusing heavily on it. So for instance I’ll yank triceps from the upper body day and the next day I’ll run and devote 4 exercises to tris. I’ve found this works great (especially given that the cardio only takes 20min so there’s plenty of time left over).

Make a 20min power mix

I’ve not yet done it but I came up with an idea I believe will be very useful. The cardio workouts are supposed to be kept short (20min) and adhere to a pattern of hitting four “high points” during that time. So typically you’d start out with a jog that builds to a full sprint by minute five and then back off to a jog. Repeat that cycle four times and you’re done. The problem is unless you only ever run on the treadmill where you have a LED readout in your face telling you where you stand time-wise, you’ll find yourself constantly glancing at a stop watch trying to keep to the schedule. An obvious solution here would be to create a song mix with audible cues on when to change intensity. I came up with the idea to make a custom 20min song in Garageband that had adrenaline-type music with signals embedded at each switching point. There’s also a guy locally here in Phoenix who developed something called Prime Condition which is an advanced, online version of this concept and worth looking at.

The one good iPhone fitness app

runkeeperSo having said that all iPhone fitness apps for weight training are bunk, I will say there’s a really useful one for running outdoors. I’ve been using Runkeeper now for a few months and it rocks. I’ve found their free version to be exactly what I need. I can launch my iPod music in the background before a run and then fire up this app and have it track everything automatically. It records the route over time and produces a historical record of the run with a map and speed indicators at one-minute intervals. They’ve done an amazing job with this app. It can track other activities as well like hiking and cycling and it sends them automatically to your web account so you can get in-depth analysis of the activity. If you’re doing any amount of running and have an iPhone definitely check this one out.

Foods I never thought I’d eat

I’ve experienced first-hand that when you start eating high-protein foods and exert a lot of energy regularly, you come to have some weird cravings. I’ll share my average shopping list once I get it into a google doc but I’ve found myself making a hard-boiled egg / tuna / cottage cheese / dijon mustard concoction and while it sounds gross it tastes delicious when your body craves protein. The verdict is still out on whether beef jerky is a healthy snack but I’ve discovered all kinds of high-protein snacks like edamame, sardines, cottage cheese and protein bars that are totally edible and even tasty. The flash-frozen fish cutlets at Costco are _awesome_ – I’ll grill them up with teriyaki and lemon pepper and it’s better than stuff I get at most restaurants. I’ve found a little squeezed lemon to be a perfect substitute for butter in almost every scenario. And I now look forward to my frozen strawberry & banana protein shakes in the morning. Bottomline: do not fear the protein crazy foods – they’re actually really good once you get used to them.

Anyways, those are just some thoughts here at the halfway mark. I’ll post those embarrassing before/after pics when I finish. If you are engaged in any kind of fitness program, what useful or surprising lessons have you learned that you can share?

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