When my editor asks if I want to get hench over lockdown, I'm already three beers and half a bottle of red wine deep. I type in a tipsy-confident haze: "I've been neglecting my gains for about a year (lol), so I'd like to try." Hitting send sobers me up: I immediately realise I've fucked it.
Lots of people began lockdown promising to get a new "quarantine bod", but they had a get-out: they could just... not. I don't have the same escape route – it is now my job to get hench. There'll be no quitting gym memberships and setting off to the boozer with the refund, no faking injuries to get out of it, and no half measures.
This isn't about getting a "beach body" or losing weight – it's about putting myself through hell for a laugh, trying to build as much muscle as I can, while dropping as much body fat as I can, in a limited timeframe, using only the stuff I have available: a modest set of weights, and gravity.
On the first day of the challenge, I wake up, note the chocolate peanut butter protein powder I bought at quarter to midnight and consider the phrase "you are what you eat". Beer is probably my favourite food. I rarely eat meat, but I also regularly wilt spinach in a lot of butter, a la James Martin on Saturday Kitchen.
I haven't been to the gym in ten months and I haven't been for a run in roughly four years. I don't have an office commute, as I work from home. The gig economy doesn't allow time for fitness. But when my new scales arrive and I see that both my BMI and body fat percentage pop up in the "mildly obese" area, I realise I should probably start to making some time – not least because of the long-term health risks (type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, liver and kidney disease, to name a few) associated with that phrase.
Having photos taken at the start of the challenge is horrible. Nothing on my photographer, Chris – he's class – I've just never liked being in front of a camera. With each click of the lens I feel layers being zapped from the thick skin I've grown, exposing my self-consciousness. We make a point of taking unflattering photos using a flash and white backgrounds, to bring out my pasty chubbiness and the Dairy Milk residue coating my teeth.
As soon as Chris leaves, I have an urge to exercise. I do five press-ups and then groan face-first into my yoga mat.
203 pounds, 33.4 percent body fat
I've put my weight on here, but it's not the focus – putting on muscle often leads to weight gain, so I'm not so bothered about that. What I'm focusing on is body fat percentage, because I've read that any man can have a six pack if his body fat is somewhere near 15 percent, and I want to see what I look like with abs.
There are some things you inexplicably remember in life. You won't think about them every day, but you will remember them forever. For me, one of these things happened on the 23rd of August, 2018: Kim Kardashian announced that she does 1,000 squats per day. I remember this because yesterday I did 200 squats, and I can barely walk. Going to the toilet is a real issue. I imagine Kim forcing herself to the bathroom like Bambi on ice, grimacing every time she wipes. I have a lot of respect for her.
The next evening I decide to give the Brutal HIIT Ladder Workout a go to see roughly where my fitness is at. Ten minutes in, my blood feels like cider vinegar. I limp to the end of the session and lie on the floor for somewhere between ten minutes and an hour. While on the floor, an email pings up on my phone: "We've scheduled you weekly Zoom meetings with Zack George, the fittest man in the UK, starting on Monday. He’s going to send workouts for you to follow."
Having access to someone like Zack for free is a luxury, but you can't buy willpower. So while he's going to email me workouts to help me get responsibly fit, he isn’t going to watch my workouts or check my fridge – and I already know I'll ignore him every single time he suggests sprints or running. Either way, a call with him means I’ll at least be less in the dark about this working-out-stuff next week.
For now, I’m left to my own devices. Tweets about Fitness Blender and Joe Wicks fill my feed as everyone else also seems to be at the Dry January stage of lockdown. I follow a load of fitness accounts, then discover a person who becomes my new demigod: Jeff Cavaliere from ATHLEAN-X™ (more on him later). I click a video titled "Brutal Triceps Workout (SORE IN 6 MINUTES!)" and note the common theme of "brutal" in the headlines, wondering if this brief foray into fitness will turn me into a lifelong masochist.
I watch each video before I do them, because I often have no idea how to physically do any of the movements (dumbbell reverse fly????), which means they take twice as long. I also have to figure out which videos are home-workout-friendly. The couch proves surprisingly useful for dips, incline press-ups and other moves I've never heard of before.
The six minutes pass and I ache like hell. I down a lumpy chalky protein shake that tastes like the guilt-inducing advent calendar chocolates you eat a day early. I’m wondering if I’m allowed rest days. I’m also regretting not drinking my beer supplies before starting, because I know I can’t have one, which is miserable, but not as miserable as not having one.
204 pounds, 30.5 percent body fat
I meet my personal trainer, Zack George, on Zoom. I ask about pain at one point and he says: "If you’re struggling to walk in the morning, we’ll do a light session that day." Which is reassuring. I notice how ripped he is and become both jealous and concerned.
"I don't think you’ll build much mass, it’s hard," says Zack. “Most people take months to do that in an actual gym. Perhaps if you were genetically gifted…"
I am not genetically gifted, and I quickly lose interest in what’s being said, resurfacing when he says, "You will be able to improve how you look in a month." I get my first workout:
50 reps of each exercise for time:
Dumbbell snatches 10kg
Leg Raised Crunches
In total, I’ll end up gritting my teeth through 75 Zack-intensity workouts across five weeks, plus the 21 I set myself.
Not long after, the UK's quarantine properly begins and I move into my girlfriend's family home. It's my first visit, and I quickly realise I can’t maintain my relationship while eating like a bodybuilder, scoffing tuna and brown rice, and refusing to drink beer. I can’t smell of sweat all the time and make weird straining noises in the wee hours of the morning. I also don’t have access to a shower or kitchen for 14 days, as it seems safer to quarantine in the lounge, so protein shakes are made in the downstairs toilet, where I wash my armpits. I'm also unsure how to turn any of the radiators off, which makes for a challenging climate: I can wholly recommend never doing HIIT in a "hot yoga" environment.
My first morning at the house, I have a mild anxiety attack. This is because I thought I could work out in front of my girlfriend, but I can’t. Ten burpees in, I feel myself jiggle while she kindly holds a camera for my Instagram stories and I inexplicably stop and sulk face-down on the bed for about 20 minutes.
While sulking, I realise this is about much more than hench. It’s about me accepting that I don’t like my body and confronting that I do, in fact, want to change how I look. Not because I look bad, but because there must be a reason I won't have my photo taken, or why I have a mild meltdown within 30 seconds of exercising in front of someone I want to like me. As the camera rolls, I'm already thinking about the "after" photos for this challenge. Even though I want to put in even more effort to get there, I can't look past the immediate difficulties of how much harder I'll have to work. I'm only human.
201 pounds, 26.4 percent body fat
I wake up to the best Christmas present I've never received: an actual bicep. I feel it when I cup my chest before looking in the mirror. It’s hard. Later, when I bend over to suck in oxygen mid-workout, my stomach seems to hang in a more vertical-oval shape than the rounded-square blob I’m used to. I feel great. Then I try to do a run and my back gives out. So the day becomes a rest day, which I am allowed once a week. I spend it feeling my little bicep child between watching workout videos.
I have a real itch to be active, but settle for exercise of the mind. Hench literature is my life now, and I am transfixed. After a couple more hours, in which I've absorbed endless pearls of wisdom – "on a minute-for-minute basis, the burpee is one of the most effective exercises for burning calories" – my girlfriend interrupts.
"You’re staring intently at that prawn, and you’re NODDING AT HIM." She is referring to ATHLEAN-X™ demigod Jeff Cavaliere, and his "5 Dumbest Forms of Cardio (DON’T LOOK STUPID!)" video, in which he takes a dump on running, my nemesis.
"He has 5.3 percent body fat – you cannot just call him a prawn!" I hiss.
Toward the end of the week, I ache to the extent that it’s difficult to get dressed, but I've learned to exercise through it (I can’t explain how, it just sort of happens, like I imagine "learning to walk" does). The idea of doing exercise becomes part of the shopping basket of my day, not a bulky extra item that keeps trying to fall out.
199 pounds, 23.4 percent body fat
I’ve lost more than 10 percent of my body fat. My arms have visible "resting" muscles, in the right shadow. There is the faintest line running vertically down the middle of my stomach. When I place my hands on my hips, there is no cushioning. But I am desperate to have my chat with Zack later this week – I need him like a cub needs its mother.
My post-breakfast snack is a smoothie containing: pea protein powder, faba bean isolate, flaxseed powder, kale, brown rice and more. You know when you mix paints and they become that browny-greeny-grey, like the colour they made cigarette packets to put people off smoking? It looked and tasted exactly like that. But I don't care. I am oozing health.
Everything is just sort of falling into place. I’ve learned the fitness world has many acronyms and that optimisation is everything, like Kevin’s small talk in The Office. One specific thing I have discovered is that the EMOM workout works for me. It’s an acronym for Every Minute On The Minute – so say you do ten burpees in 39 seconds, you then rest for 21, and it's on to the next thing. It suits me, because the harder you work, the more you rest.
At the end of the week, I leave my girlfriend’s house. I feel like I’ve grown a lot there, but I mainly feel bad that the weeks I’ve spent with her have been ruined by my challenge. I hope she thinks I’m hotter or something now. Perhaps I’ll buy a Connell-esque silver necklace to accentuate my gains, or I’ll just keep working out so that we can both eat a load of junk food whenever I see her next. Either way, the train ride home makes me realise how successful people often come across as arseholes, and it gives me pause for thought.
197 pounds, 23.1 percent body fat
I’m staring out of the window and everything seems beautiful. I look at the kebab shop’s neon sign and feel a warm breeze through the window. It feels like I'm on holiday. This is mainly because I’m having a beer and there’s a pizza in the oven. Now that my lockdown challenge is over, I'm thinking about what I have achieved and how it's probably relatively insignificant – a 5/10 effort compared to what you'd see if this feature was published in one of those fitness magazines with sinewy tattooed cover stars.
I've noticed some things about my body since trying to become hench. For example, it turns out that when you grow a little family of biceps, pecs and lats, they tend to stick around. The muscle fibres retain information and remember how to contract. Weeks on, I can still tense my pecs on cue, and my arms feel firm when I cross them. I’m not working out as often – perhaps twice a week, if I have time – but more than I did beforehand, and actually, the results are still there.
By the end of the challenge, I’ve lost a third of my body fat – a pretty radical change. Even as a celebratory pizza and beers bloat my very faint abs into non-existence, the muscles beneath them have actually developed considerably. I stand straighter and correct my posture when sitting at my desk. I feel stronger, my back doesn’t hurt nearly as much and my neck doesn’t need clicking three times a day. My leg muscles, which were always a bit abnormally apparent, are even more apparent. There’s a new bit of definition where my thigh meets the inside of my knee, which looks strange, but I’m into it.
Aside from the physical changes, there are other things I've realised. One is that many aspects of this challenge would suit a single person far more. In fact, other than helping you keep a grasp on reality, this challenge is entirely suited to not being in a relationship. It takes a chunk out of your life: it replaces quality time with cardio and crunches, a few drinks and dessert with an extra pint of water. You don't see Lady and the Tramp locking lips over a protein cookie, do you?
The challenge did make me feel confident enough to post my first ever selfie, but I wasn’t prepared to temporarily ruin my life to look good and then revert back to normal. Under these circumstances, where everything is already strange, keeping some sense of normality was more important than ever.
My relationship with exercise has definitely changed. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I love it, or that I want to count each millimetre of fat my body dissolves, but I do now spot a 20-minute gap in my day and think: 'I could spend that moving about, with or without heavy things in my hands.' I think the fact I've formed a much better relationship with fitness than I ever had before is the real gain.
Over the past five weeks, I've been mindful of my feelings towards my body. Sometimes I got slightly neurotic about how I look, but then I remembered that "getting hench" was a ridiculous goal from the get-go. What I'm proudest of is seeing a difference in my appearance within a specific timeframe. I gained muscle and it made me feel good, though it hasn't made me feel like a better human being. It's a novel achievement, a bit like climbing a mountain, in that I’d recommend doing it if you’re curious and fit enough – I got some aches and pains and a nice view at the end – but I'm glad to have descended back to normality.
WATCH: The video version of Rhys getting hench
I don’t imagine I'll keep up Zack's punishing regime beyond lockdown. But I remember him saying he’s been training his entire life, and he lumps the word consistency into conversations about five times an hour. He is 29. In the world of gains, I am about four weeks old.
According to science, habits are made in 66 days, and I’m now halfway to that. Even if I drop myself down to a few workouts a week, I’ll be a machine, relative to my former self. And come the height of summer, who knows – maybe I’ll enjoy looking at my reflection in the window of the pub. So that’s the plan: just try to keep at it, at my own pace, responsibly. Here’s to trying.