Getting in the best shape of my life at the ripe old age of 41 was an eye-opening experience. Beyond feeling and looking better, I became acquainted with how the human body functions, how it adapts to stress, and the speed at which that adaptation can take place.
But as my muscles grew and my love handles and paunch melted away between March 5th and April 2nd, I became fixated on what on earth I’d been doing wrong up until that point. I certainly can’t chalk up years of middling results in the gym to willful ignorance. For the previous decade, a large part of my income was dependent upon understanding the fundamentals of getting harder, better, stronger and faster, then relaying that information to the interested readers of several pertinent publications, including Men’s Health, Muscle and Fitness, and Eat This, Not That. I practiced what I preached but, even at my fittest, I never had a body that I felt was commensurate with the amount of effort I was putting in.
It was around week three of my recent body transformation that it occurred to me that my job had made me particularly susceptible to fitness dogma—the nuggets of wisdom you overhear being shared by bros partly because they were slotted into magazine articles by me and people like me. As I watched my body change at a dizzying speed, even with a first-hand understanding of how the sausage gets made, it took awhile for me relinquish my views on what was demonstrated to work by research.
But the guy standing in front of me—the guy who, for 28 days straight, tells me that virtually all of it is “bullshit”—has the physique of a Marvel superhero. Ngo Okafor’s methodology worked for him and it continues to work for me despite every asshat with a muscle shirt, YouTube channel, and “CSCS” after his name insisting that it almost definitely won’t.
“Hard work and dedication are hard to monetize,” Ngo says, with a shrug. “On the other hand, it’s pretty easy to get people to buy things that are linked to the findings from some study. How many pages of a fitness magazine are dedicated to ads for protein, creatine, fat burners?” Ngo’s inference of course, is that, a lot of health media outlets are directly and indirectly owned by people who want to sell shortcuts to fitness.
“This stuff gets perpetuated and becomes insidious,” he says after we perform a battery of ab exercises in unison, like a couple of synchronized swimmers in an drained pool. ”People— including some of my past clients—are so convinced that the way I look has to be more than commitment, consistency, and common sense that they insist I’m a [uses air quotes] genetic freak. Not only does that undermine the fact that I work out as much as three times a day and am mindful about what I eat, it can come off as racist.”
Ngo’s process worked well for me, so I decided to air out some fitness myths that he urges his clientele to be wary of.
"What you can achieve in the gym is largely genetic."
Hang around with enough gym rats and you’re bound to hear something like that sooner or later.
“I’m really glad that you are an everyman,” Ngo said to me when the four-week project ended. “You showed up looking like a lot of guys your age who have sedentary jobs like you do. In 28 days we made you look like a different person. That’s a big ‘fuck you’ to people who talk about genetic advantages and disadvantages. People who say that kind of shit are just giving themselves excuses to not do the work.”
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At least one study backs up his assertion. Published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, the research saw 16 pairs of identical twins perform exercise and measured several markers of exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD). Researchers demonstrated that twins do not experience the same level of EIMD following identical exercise bouts leading the study’s authors to note: “This suggests that the individual variability following high-force eccentric exercise cannot be attributed to genetic differences, refuting the idea that an inherited subclinical predisposition is responsible.”
“You have to eat within an hour of working out.”
Protein bars and shakes are convenient, often tasty, sold in gyms and virtually everywhere else. It would make sense that their manufacturers them would want you to think that your workout session would have been in vain if you didn’t shovel 30 grams of protein down your gullet while exiting the gym.
“Your body will tell you when you need to eat,” Ngo says. “It’s called hunger. And when you begin feel it, eat something that was grown, or that ran or swam—not something that you have in the bottom of your gym bag.”
Kurt Vogel, a sports scientist based in Australia says that while timing food intake around workouts is important to improve recovery for greater workout intensity over the next few days, it’s importance is a little out of whack. “For specific athletes this is crucial,” he says. “However, consuming food hours after your workout compared to immediately after has been shown no drastic effect on muscle growth or fat loss.”
To back this up, Vogel directs me to three studies that refute this often parroted idea, including a meta analysis of research on protein timing and hypertrophy that was published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2013.
“You can’t add muscle and lose body fat at the same time.”
For virtually everyone, being healthier and looking better are largely dependent on lowering body fat while preserving or increasing muscle mass. It’s often said, however, that those two things can’t be done at the same time. People who want to pack on muscle and show off their abs, whether it be for a fitness competition or just to look good on the beach, often opt to eat a lot to fuel muscle growth—called a “bulking phase”—before altering their energy intake and macronutrient ratios for what’s known as a “cutting phase.”
“If you put in the work here and at home, in 28 days’ time, you’re going to have a bigger chest, wider shoulders, a broader back, larger arms, but a much slimmer waist,” Ngo said, on the first day of our four-week challenge. “Could we grow your muscles a little bigger and faster if we didn’t give a shit about having a gut? Yeah. But what would be the point of that?”
Indeed, I did manage to reduce weight and build muscle in a 28-day period. My success actually may have had to do with my being a little pudgier at the start than I was prepared to acknowledge. “An overweight or obese client may start to exercise and change their diet, seeing these two things happen simultaneously,” says Heather Milton, senior exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Health. “When you are of normal weight and healthy body composition, it becomes harder because you must have some body fat to help hormones that have a role in muscle building to function properly.”
Jessica Bihuniak, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at NYU Steinhardt suggests that my ability to do that may have also been helped by the amount of protein I was consuming. “Research in athletes consuming a lower calorie diet which included a higher protein composition—2.3 g/kg/d—showed a reduction in weight and body fat and maintenance of muscle mass,” she tells me.
For me, that works out to about 147 grams of protein per day or roughly one gram of protein per pound of body weight. While there may have been days when a 3-egg omelette, half a rotisserie chicken, a hearty serving of lean beef chili and a couple of glasses of milk got me there, it was more usual for my daily protein intake to be in the 80-100 g range. Which leads me neatly to another belief that makes Ngo roll his eyes.
"You need to eat a gram of protein per pound of body weight to grow muscle."
For my transformation, Ngo forbade me to eat bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, sugar, and alcohol. With all that stuff literally and figuratively off the table, the calories I needed to not feel hungry came from meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, a little dairy, and the occasional handful of almonds. Consequently, I probably consumed more protein than I would have otherwise but certainly not the gram per pound of bodyweight that often comes out of trainers' mouths as an article of faith.
“Eating protein does not guarantee muscle growth,” Bihuniak says. “There are a number of factors to consider.” She explains that the recommended daily allowance (RDA) set by the the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council/ National Academy of Sciences is 0.8 g/kg or 0.36 g per pound of bodyweight. She adds that active adults and people looking to increase could better meet their goals by doubling that amount which is very nearly the fabled 1 g per pound for body weight.
“This [1 gram per pound of bodyweight] of is a classic rule of thumb used by coaches,” Vogel says. “However, you can consume half a gram per pound of bodyweight and grow muscle if your calorie consumption is higher than your calorie output. The reality is you don’t need as much protein as you may think.”
"You need supplements."
Another of Ngo’s peeves: widely held notions about supplements for muscle growth—protein bars, shakes, creatine, pre-workout drinks, etc. “When I drink a shake, it’s as a last resort,” he says. “But I’m much more likely to go to a store where I can get some chicken and some greens and you should do the same.”
He tells me about a client of his who would guzzle shakes and chomp bars on a regular basis. “We worked together for years before I finally convinced him to cut it out,” he says. “Within weeks he had an 8-pack showing through. People are eating these things not realizing how much sugar and carbs they contain. It’s much better to get fuel from real food.”
“Supplements are not essential for improving body composition,” says Bihuniak, agreeing with Ngo that changes in body composition can be achieved with just food and exercise. “Yes there are studies that have used protein supplements and observed changes in body composition, but there are also studies that have used food sources of protein.”
"If your calorie deficit is too big, your body will go into 'starvation mode' and hoard fat."
Ngo doesn’t think that this is something I should worry about at all. “Work out hard and eat when you’re hungry. When you’re satisfied, stop,” is about the extent of his advice on this front. As you’ve probably already gathered, he is not a calorie counter.
Out of all of the fitness fitness dictums I’d heard however, this is the one I was most wary of falling foul of. A calorie deficit simply means expending more calories than you consume in a day. Accidentally putting my body into a place in which it’s storing fat would be, to say the least, a painful irony.
My resting metabolic rate (RMR) is around 1,500 per day. Another 150-200 calories per day are expended in the digestion of food. During the last two weeks of the four-week program, I was eating enough to cover this daily 1,700 calorie-ish expenditure and no more. That meant that every calorie I expended in the gym added to the deficit. Some days, I would conservatively estimate that exercise-based deficit to be around 1000 calories which, according to the experts I was speaking with, could be a bit much. The consensus was that over a long enough period, I would slow my metabolism to a crawl and suffer the same consequences as yo-yo dieters.
“Rule of thumb is 200 calorie [deficit per day] for healthy loss, 500 calories for quick loss, and anything higher than that can affect your metabolism,” Vogel says. He adds that creating a big deficit could yield great results for about four to six weeks before plateauing. “Once you start to go back to eating more calorie dense foods, the body reacts quicker to hold onto it in the form of fat rather than use it as energy.”
Bihuniak directs me to an assessment of energy expenditure and body composition people who underwent a two year period of energy restriction or calorie deficit. “One week following the…restriction period their body fat percentage and energy expenditure was relatively low,” she says. Bihuniak adds that when they returned to eating whatever they wanted, they had gained a significant amount of weight, which was mostly body fat, and their energy expenditure remained low even though they had gained weight back.
Ngo even concedes that it’s not sustainable to keep anything more than a modest daily calorie deficit for more than four weeks. “It’s probably a good idea to go through slight cycles,” he says. “I’m not talking about bulking and cutting. Just set a goal four weeks out. Meet that goal. Then celebrate what you’ve done and eat normally. Grow a little and then strive to hit your next goal. Not only will it keep you progressing, it will keep you sane.”
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