The 12-week trainer transformation

I have a confession to make: I'm out of shape.

As someone who earns his bread helping others to get into shape, this is, to put it bluntly, embarrassing. It wasn't always this way. But over the years, while I helped others achieve their own success, my passion and focus on bettering myself fell by the wayside. Instead of making time to exercise, I worked out when it was convenient – such as downtime at work. My workouts, though certainly intense, were short – around 30 to 40 minutes. Cardio? I've always hated cardio, and simply didn't do it. After all, it was enough 'work', so I rationalized, that I squeezed in that quick workout.

Now, there's not anything wrong with a relatively quick workout; at Fitness Together, our workouts are 45 minutes, and we push our clients very hard in that time frame. But we seldom train people like myself who have many years of workout experience and for me, squeezing in short workouts – particularly given that I've seldom been able to stick to a single program, making my workouts sort of haphazard – is just not good enough.

We've started a friendly competition among the staff: a twelve-week trainer transformation. It happens that I had already started a new program, and have been making good progress. But the competition is a nice kick in the pants should the temptation arise to slack off.

I've spent so many years helping others that I've lost sight of the fact that I need to make my own fitness a priority. I've let "gym burnout" get the better of me when I should have been pushing myself through it. I want to feel better about how I look, and achieve the physique I've always dreamed of having. And importantly, as a trainer it's not just about me – I have a responsibility to my clients to lead by example, and I've neglected that responsibility. No more. Over the next three months I'm going to be posting my transformation here, for all to see. I'm going to give an outline of my program to show you precisely what I'm doing, and why.

But first, here are my unflattering 'before' pictures. We are making these look pretty sad – I downed a bunch of veggies, brown rice and water before taking the pics so I was nice and bloated, and made sure to slouch and look depressed – but certain things simply can't be hidden, even if I "sucked in".

My goals for the next twelve weeks are bodybuilding-oriented. The physiques I admire are those like the great two-time Mr. Olympia Frank Zane, who had a flawless combination of size, symmetry and definition:
Now, obviously I'm not going to look like Frank Zane in 12 weeks, if ever (Frank, like many bodybuilders, used steroids, trained for hours and hours every day, and had great genetics). But I like to keep that physique in mind as a sort of template by which to construct my own body.

Specifically, my goals are as follows:
  • Emphasize muscle development of my lower body. I've often neglected leg training, making my physique closer to a "bar body" than that of a bodybuilder. I stayed away from the squat rack because I couldn't use much weight, even though it's a biomechanically more effective movement than leg presses or hack squats. Now, leg days are a priority and much more intense than ever – with plenty of time at the squat rack!
  • Develop the shoulders. My shoulders are similarly neglected, and a weak point. They should be strong and broad, to create a contrast with the waist – what in bodybuilding is called a "v-taper". (My back, the other bodypart which contributes to the v-taper, is already pretty well-developed – it's my favorite bodypart to train!)
  • Reduce bodyfat. Packing on muscle will not amount to anything if I remain as smooth as I am now. I'm not going to get the Zane waist in 12 weeks, but my stomach should be flat with clearly defined abdominals.

How I'm going to do it

Frank Zane isn't just my motivation for physique development; my training routine also hearkens back to the bodybuilding routines of the 70s and 80s: volume and frequency. Nowadays, it's in vogue to train each body part once a week, and limit the volume to a moderate 10-12 sets or less. But I've done that for years with little to show for it, and you know the saying: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. I've experimented with higher frequency in the past, with great results.

To that end, my current routine is as follows:
Day 1: Legs
Day 2: Back and Shoulders
Day 3: Chest, Arms, and Abs

I do not like to plan for days off; I never have. After all, if you're feeling run down, it's counterproductive to force yourself to train. And if you take a scheduled day off when you feel rested and energetic, you've wasted an opportunity for a great workout. Ideally, then, each body part will be trained every 72 hours, not withstanding the occasional rest day.

Now, on to cardio. Remember how I said I hated it? Well, this may sound surprising, but I won't be doing any cardio. Frank Zane, along with most bodybuilders from that era, rarely if ever did cardio – and for good reason. First, research has shown that prolonged, low-intensity cardio (like jogging) can interfere with muscle growth. There's a reason why endurance athletes, like cyclists and marathon runners, are practically skin and bone – while high-intensity athletes, like bodybuilders and sprinters, are both lean and muscular. Even at Fitness Together, we generally recommend that our clients do high-intensity interval training to burn fat instead of prolonged low-intensity exercise.

The other reason is that my training, like Zane's, is high volume, with the goal of increasing that volume over time. Volume training is hard work – really hard work. My leg workout yesterday consisted of nearly 30 sets, and it should be closer to 40 by the end of the 12 weeks.

But such training is very demanding, and by pushing myself that hard I run the risk of overtraining. To be clear, it's important that I'm pushing myself; if my workouts aren't making me tired, I'm doing them wrong. To stave off overtraining, I've got to have my diet and rest in good order. I make sure to take time to put my feet up for an hour or two every day, and get a solid 8 hours of sleep every night. As my conditioning improves, I anticipate needing less rest during the day.

My diet needs the least overhaul. I already eat primarily whole grains, lean meats and dairy, vegetables, fruits and legumes. It's simply not practical to cut calories – I wouldn't be getting the nutrients I need. Since I'm trying to fuel high-volume workouts, I can't afford to drop my carb intake too much, as is vogue these days. Instead, I'm simply making some minor adjustments. I'm boosting my lean protein intake (chicken, fish, whey, Greek yogurt, lowfat cottage cheese), dropping my carb intake marginally, and ramping up the veggie intake.

Looking ahead

Technically, our competition started yesterday – March 1st. However, I had already been on this program for the last few weeks. In that time I've seen my waist get smaller, my legs and shoulders get bigger and stronger, and my energy levels improve. Amusingly, I went to the opera last weekend, and none of my dress shirts fit me – I couldn't button the neck button on any of them, and the sleeves were about an inch too short. My strength in lower-body movements has already increased dramatically. I've been steadily increasing the volume and intensity of my workouts, with more volume reserved for the bodyparts that need the most work. I'm confident that I'm on the right track. It will simply be a matter of making minor adjustments as I go.

The competition will end, of course, and my training will continue. While the competition is a nice kick in the butt, it's not my primary motivation. And I know that even if I don't win, I'll have made great progress for myself, and I'll continue to work toward the kind of Greek-like perfection that Frank Zane embodied. I'd say "wish me luck", but I know that luck isn't what I need – it's good old-fashioned hard work.


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