I should have had a bona fide six-pack a long time ago. As a long time contributor to Men’s Health, I enjoyed privileged access to a constellation of fitness professionals who were more than happy to share with me their own philosophies which were shaped by both their own experience, new practicable physiology research, and the prevailing trends in the industry. During this period I was successfully hypnotized to lift more weight in the gym; I took part in a regional Olympic Weightlifting competition; I became very unpopular in the CrossFit community after I infiltrated their ranks for a month or two. And all throughout, I had the benefit of personal training sessions, often scheduled between those of A-list celebrities at an exclusive gym.
To varying extents, my body did change during this period—most notably when preparing to compete in the weightlifting competition. During those four months of training as much as twice per day, I grew thighs like ham hocks, calves like grapefruits, and shoulders that broadened so much that my head appeared to be shrinking—all while being encouraged to scarf 5,000 calories in a day. In a word, I got stronger, which fit in nicely with the persistent trend of stressing “functional fitness” above all else. I get the sense that this latest gonzo plunge into fitness is going to be different about 45 seconds into my first meeting with Ngo Okafor.
“I don't give a fuck about how much you can bench or how much you can squat and neither does anyone else,” he tells me, before pouring scorn on several other fashionable presentations of what fitness is or should be. “My food is waiting for me at Trader Joe’s,” adds the 43-year-old model, actor, entrepreneur, and Golden Gloves winner. “I don’t need to catch or kill it and neither do you. You’re not a caveman, you’re not trying to be a [uses air quotes] warrior. You just want to look great when you take your shirt off, right?”
“That’s right!” I say, relieved that I don't have to pretend that achieving my aesthetic ideal would merely be a welcome byproduct of meeting some other aim.
“That’s what we’re going to do,” he tells me. “Do what I say for four weeks and we’ll get you in ridiculous shape. I guarantee it.”
Before. Credit: Emilie Jackson
Rapid body transformations are his speciality. My editor told me about how Ngo had recently transformed an actor from being relatively soft to looking like he’d been carved out of mahogany in three weeks flat—just for a movie role where said actor would be nude for a few minutes. So I lobbied hard to go through whatever that process entailed. I always imagined that having a do-or-die date to aim for would be a difference maker in how successful I could be in changing my physique. Unlike every other Yes Man to date however, this project was largely dependent on the work what I was prepared to put it and for that reason, a lot more involved that letting some guy shoot botox into your scrotum.
Emboldened by his refreshing emphasis on aesthetics, I show Ngo a picture of a shirtless Brad Pitt in ‘Fight Club’ on my phone. I was worried that he was going to brusquely tell me to set my sights a little lower but he looks particularly unimpressed. I guess when you bill yourself as the "most downloaded black male model of all time” you get to be pretty stingy with praise.
“[Brad Pitt] just got skinny is all,” he says with a shrug. “But we’ll get you there.”
Before I leave our meeting, Ngo tells me to get a week-long jump on the transformation by making a picture of Tyler Durden—Brad Pitt’s character in ‘Fight Club’—the wallpaper on my phone.
“Until we’re done, I want you to think of every decision you in terms of whether in brings you closer to this ideal or farther away from it,” he says. “We begin next Monday.”
Within days of our meeting, I find myself standing in my underwear in front of a green screen. The end result will be a stop-motion 360-degree presentation of the “before.” I make the mistake of looking at some of those pictures. It’s a rude awakening. I knew I could do with some tightening up but the few pictures I could stand to look at were a world away from what I thought I looked like. Consequently, in the lead up to the start of the program, I’m in a funk. ‘Fight Club?’ I look more like a free samples vulture at Sam’s Club.
Ngo trains his clients at Chelsea’s Limelight Fitness which is housed in a 19th Century church that also did a stint as Peter Gaitian’s famed nightclub The Limelight in the 1990s. Clues to its schizophrenic history are everywhere: ornate stained glass windows, a votive candle stand, a couple of disco balls propped up in an open safe. I want to look around some more but we have work to do.
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Ngo swipes through the several of my “before” pictures and makes some on the spot decisions about what needs to be done. He tells me that we’ll be focusing on a different area each day of the work week. Mondays, chest. Tuesdays, back. Wednesdays, legs. Thursdays and Fridays will a second round of chest and back he says, but on those days, the workouts will also incorporate arms to a greater extent.
We walk up to a mezzanine below the vaulted ceiling where sits an array of cardio equipment. Ngo tells me that the sessions will begin with a mile run at differing gradient, sprints and climbs on a stationary bike, or a timed, 500-meter row. “Part of the special sauce here is tempo,” he says after I fall off of a treadmill, panting. “We want your heart rate to be up like you’re running the whole time.”
Before I could catch my breath, I’m shown how to perform the low cable fly that would benefit my underdeveloped upper chest and busted out twenty reps. As soon as I squeezed the last of them out, I was shown a spot on the floor on which to perform 20 push-ups, then instructed to flip around and give him thirty crunches—“we’re going to be hitting abs, several times, every day”—and then get back on the treadmill for three minutes of running at an 8 percent incline. I performed that circuit four times with a little rest in between each before progressing on to the next troika of terror.
In the precious seconds of downtime during the session Ngo tells me what I won’t be eating from now on. This list includes bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, sugar and alcohol.
“That sounds doable,” I say.
“Don’t get too cocky,” he warns me. “As we get down to the wire, it’s going to get stricter.”
He tells me to completely avoid protein shakes, protein bars, and creatine, explaining that it will frustrate my attempt to finally uncover my abs. Not only does Ngo not believe in supplementation, he’s highly critical of anything remotely truthy. Keto? “Bullshit.” Intermittent fasting? “Yeah I do that one. It’s called ‘sleeping.’” Calorie counting? “Eat until you’re satisfied, then stop.” Eating a certain amount of protein per pound of body weight to enable muscle growth? “Nope.”
Ngo makes a face when I mention some of the other fitness doctrines that are bandied about, such as: “if you’re expending way more calories than you’re consuming each day, your body will go into starvation mode meaning that your metabolism will slow and you’ll store fat.”
“America is the only country where the lie that to lose weight you need to eat more food gets any traction,” he says, bringing up that, while he was born in the US he spent his childhood and adolescence in Nigeria and, through his career, has travelled the world extensively. “If you keep training hard while maintaining a calorie deficit, you’re going to get lean.”
He has similarly short words for the belief that increasing muscle mass and reducing body fat can’t be done simultaneously and therefore has to be broken up into distinct “bulking” and “cutting” phases.
“Listen, you don’t need to take my word for it,” he says. “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. 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?”
At the end of an hour, with me having nearly barfed six or seven times, he shows me to an elliptical machine and cranks up the resistance to a level far beyond anything I’d ever attempted or even knew existed. “After every session we do together, it’s 30 minutes of this,” he says. “Have fun and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
That night, dinner consists of half a rotisserie chicken and some green beans sauteed in lemon juice, olive oil, and chili pepper flakes. I get into the habit of taking a picture of every calorie containing solid or liquid that found its way into my mouth and invite Ngo to observe by giving him access to a shared photo album. This allows him to give real time notes such as: “Your Brussels sprouts are shiny. Too much oil.” and “Who said anything about cheese?”
At the end of week one, I feel beat up but I’m already starting to notice my arms becoming more shapely, my waist trimmer—and my grateful girlfriend starts to notice too. At Ngo’s suggestion, I make a weekly massage at a local spot part of my regimen. Not only did it make me feel reborn after a long week, it was an opportunity to be good to myself that didn’t involve ingesting calories.
Though we don’t work together on the weekend, Ngo recommends that I take spin classes every Saturday and Sunday explaining that it was a great way to get a work out that minimized the risk of injury.
While seemingly everybody else in the city is sipping mimosas and eating eggs benedict, I arrive at Cyc to sweat it out on a bike. That’s fine because it turns out that I love this even more than brunch. I'm surrounded by ponytailed and bespandexed undergrads, social media managers, and junior ad executives—a class at Cyc is a mashup of the Tour de France, an Ibiza club, and pledging at a sorority. Though it’s bike-based, the class involves a fair about of upper body exercises with weights. The pink, red, green, and blue lights shining down give me an opportunity to check out my shoulders and triceps and biceps in the mirror, as the “Cycologist” implores us to “Bring. It. Bitches!” and “Work. That. Ass!”
Week two proceeds much as week one had done. I’m more confident about the movements and as Ngo sees that, he makes tweaks and changes to the program to keep me on my toes. Though the sessions are challenging enough for me to keep an eye out for the nearest receptacle to hurl into, we’re always sharing stories and having fun. At one point, he draws some parallels in our lives. We both grew up on the other side of the pond, obsessed with American culture. We both felt that we could increase our sex appeal by standing out from our peers. (In his case it was by sculpting a formidable physique which worked. In mine it was growing my hair and forming a heavy metal band, which didn’t.) We both came to the US as young men and forged careers that saw us achieve lots of improbable things. I became a sex columnist despite having virtually zero experience in sex or writing. He, among many other things, became a two-time Golden Gloves champion despite never having boxed until the age of 31.
By the end of week two, there’s no denying that some serious changes are taking place, and not just in my silhouette. My skin is looking better, my eyes brighter, and I’m generally feeling great. The thing is, I’ve made so many changes to my lifestyle, it’s virtually impossible to figure out what’s making the difference. Swearing off booze? Drinking more water? Going gluten free?
I’m so impressed with the changes that are taking place and so impressed with how fun (and therefore doable) it's all been, I ask Ngo for extra homework in the form of an extra battery of 100 push ups in the morning, a second cardio session at night and getting into the strict diet of the final week, seven days sooner. I’m not a masochist—I’m just very aware that Ngo’s throwing me four thousand dollars' worth of personal training gratis and I want to be proof positive of his methodology.
“More is better but you have to be careful that you don’t burn out,” he says.
Immediately, I burn out. A combination of going to the gym twice a day, not consuming enough food, and being unable to prepare chicken breast so that it doesn’t feel like an old Chuck Taylor in my mouth has me dazed, confused, daunted. I almost pass out at the gym and again during a visit to the VICE office. Ngo tells me to rein it in. “Stick with the push ups and just extend your cardio session to 60 minutes every day,” he says.
I decide to jump on the scale at the gym. 136 lbs. I’ve lost 17 lbs in a little over three weeks yet, the muscles in my arms, chest, back, and shoulders are both larger and more defined as promised.
For the final week, Ngo has a surprise in store. Instead of training me, he is going to train with me. “With some of my clients I’ve found that a little bit of competition can get them digging deeper,” he explains.
Another boost comes in the form of me learning to cook chicken breast in a way that’s palatable. I heavily pepper it, pan sear it for 90 seconds per side and then skillet-poach it in lime juice. I also start using hot sauce and cooking spray which both have a negligible calorie count. As a treat, I pop open a coconut flavored La Croix every now and again.
When my last session at Cyc concludes, it means I have just over 24 hours to go before the reveal. Ngo has already given me instructions for how I need to spend this last day in order to get the most out of all the work I’ve put in and assures me that whether it’s Christian Bale in 'American Psycho,' Zac Efron in 'Baywatch' or indeed, Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden, they all followed a similar skin-thinning, muscle pumping pre-shoot regimen.
First, I need to cut my water intake down to just a few sips over the next day. This “dry fast,” he says, is to rid myself of some subcutaneous water and make my muscles show through a little more. Not being able to drink water when you’re thirsty is of course, no fun—even dangerous—but I manage to get through it by swishing with water, chewing gum, and going to bed as early as possible.
The following morning I eat scrambled eggs. Then, two hours out from the shoot, I have a couple of rice cakes slathered in peanut butter which—after a month of no carbs and no peanut butter—is a heavenly experience, even when you have a mouth that feels like the bottom of a hamster cage. This particular combo is supposed to to prevent my muscles from looking too flat while not making me look full of food.
I even get to do some Ngo-approved day drinking. I slowly sip a glass of red wine which, he says, will help me look fuller while increasing vascularity. When Ngo arrives on set, however, I’m weak, drifting in and out of consciousness on a couch. It takes a lot of will power to get upright and start a battery of exercises that will pump my muscles with blood.
Ngo is genuinely concerned as he sees the color drain from my face and instructs me to eat another peanut butter-slathered rice cake immediately. Getting into the exercises—push-ups, bicep curls, tricep pulls, and lateral shoulder raises—perk me up a little and I somehow find the strength to tense my muscles as the camera takes pictures from every angle.
After the last of the after shots have been taken, I scarf a fist full of gummy candies, drink some water, and begin to look and feel somewhat normal again. It’s only now that I see the effect of the dry fast and the reintroduction of carbohydrates in conjunction with the muscle growth and the fat loss that’s been happening over the previous 28 days. With pale the afternoon light shining into the studio from above, I have a clearly discernible set of abs for the first time in my life, shapely pecs, sectioned arms, and a back like a roadmap of Antwerp.
“You did it man!” Ngo says, who comes over to give me a hug. “I’m so proud of you.”
I’m truly blown away by what we’ve managed to do is such a short period of time and just as blown away at how much fun I had doing it, which leads me to believe that those two things are intrinsically linked. The point of this project was to see if I could move my body toward my aesthetic ideal in just a few weeks—much like an actor preparing for a nude scene in a movie. Having done that, my mind immediately switches to how I’m going to retain the results Ngo has helped me achieve.
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