We all have some knowledge about the level of digital fuckery that often takes place before an already objectively beautiful person’s image is deemed acceptable enough to be placed on the cover of a magazine that can then take its rightful place amongst the gum, candy, and other impulse purchases at the checkout counter. What many of us may be less aware of is the degree of analog pre-production that goes into the appearance of a subject’s physique in the countdown to a photo shoot. I found out about this IRL photoshopping—let’s call it "pretouching”—because I subjected myself to some photo prep at the culmination of a four-week body transformation I went through in March.
Now, when I’m talking about photoshoot preparation, I’m not talking about the weeks and months of diligent nutrition and carefully programmed exercise periodization, but the final three for four days of tweaks that can turn already fit bodies into ones that are rarely seen beyond the pages of a Marvel comic. How effective his final sequence of interventions is at ratcheting up the look that sells magazines is almost entirely in the hands of the model or actor and, given how their careers can be impacted by the extent to which they get the desired look, the associated side effects and health risks of loading and cutting water are often overlooked.
I’ve never drunk as much water as I did during the program I just went through with sought-after trainer, Ngo Okafor. Burning upwards of 1000 calories per day in the gym would make anyone want to guzzle at every opportunity but, in addition to the effort I was putting in, my low carbohydrate diet had the commonly experienced side-effect of my body shedding even more water. I drank a gallon to a gallon and a half of water per day, experienced constant dry mouth and chapped lips for the first half of the experience, and couldn’t get through a night without having to get up and pee at least twice. I’d read, however, that drinking three or even four gallons of water per day, four three or four days leading up to a shoot was an indispensable element of action stars and fitness models bid to look as ripped as all get out. Though Ngo told me that “water loading” leading up to the shoot day wasn’t something I should worry about, many action stars—including Hugh Jackman in his stint as the titular Logan—swear by this protocol to look as jacked as possible for the cameras.
The point of water loading is to temporarily shift your body's homeostatic settings, so that when you finally deprive the body of water—which we’ll get to in a moment—it is still desperately bailing out fluid, taking a day or so to adapt to the fact that it’s no longer pouring in. Last year, an Australian study was published to bolster the method’s efficacy. When executed perfectly, people can attain a “shredded” and “separated” look with the skin seemingly shrink-wrapped to the muscles underneath on the day of the shoot.
“Though water needs are relatively variable depending on the size and muscle mass, drinking too much water in a short amount of time can actually lead to hyponatremia, meaning the dilution of the amount of sodium in your body,” explains Heather Milton, a senior exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Health, adding that sodium is one of the key electrolytes needed for muscle contraction and proper cell function. “When the gradients of sodium are not optimal, it can lead to muscle weakness, fatigue, and in more severe cases, seizures, and swelling in the brain may occur.”
Blogging muscleheads who get even more granular about this deluge of drinking water resulting in the release of aldosterone—a hormone that helps to regulate sodium content and blood pressure, Milton explains. “When sodium content is low, the body tries to correct itself by increasing sodium reabsorption,” she says. “Aldosterone is released to cause this process at the kidneys to occur. The kidneys, then do more work to reabsorb sodium and rid the body of more potassium to balance the body. This can actually lead to higher blood pressure and hypokalemia—or low potassium—which is not ideal for proper heart function.”
Luckily, Ngo said that the second part of this wet and wild technique—the water cut—would make enough of difference to my appearance on its own. Twenty-four hours out from the shoot, he told me to stop drinking water, save for a few little sips here and there. “I’ve lost five, sometimes ten pounds, just by cutting water for the day before a shoot,” he told me, explaining that this technique alone it can make the difference between a hinted-at six pack and one that’s looks like it’s been chiseled out of granite.
Some models and actors like to intensify the effect of the water cut by taking a diuretic, trying to sweat it out in the sauna, taking scalding hot Epsom salt baths, or jumping on cardio equipment while dressed to summit Everest. Again, Ngo didn’t think any of this is necessary. “You’re going to feel miserable enough, I promise,” he said.
For me, the first hour or two of the water cut was relatively easy but as the day dragged on, I start to present some of the classic symptoms of dehydration—darker urine, extreme thirst, confusion, fatigue, irritation. After pissing out a few squirts of what started to look like maple syrup, I stumbled into bed around 10 pm, well aware that in this state I was of no use to anyone. Ngo had warned me that cutting water is never fun and, after the fact, Milton explains why.
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“Our bodies need water to function properly,” she says. “[Dry] fasting can cause dehydration, which will actually decrease blood volume and blood pressure. In this instance, a number of negative consequences arise, from poor cell function, decreased brain and muscle function.
Not surprisingly, I woke up feeling groggy and resorted to sluicing water around my mouth and spitting it out. Chewing some gum and a lot of chapstick helped but being unable to drink a cup of coffee in this state didn’t. That morning, I ate only eggs as Ngo was mindful of any gassy bloating that could result from eating the sauteed cabbage, onions, mushrooms, and peppers that ordinarily accompanied them.
The peanut butter, rice cakes, and red wine Ngo suggested I nibble on and sip would serve a few purposes. They’d help get glycogen—a substance deposited in bodily tissues as a store of carbohydrates—into my new found muscles. This would cause them to swell while not giving me the look of a full stomach. Just as importantly, they’d stop me from passing out, a clear and present danger after a full day of virtually zero water intake and a pumping routine.
Anyone with a vested interest of making the most of their muscles is going to benefit from getting a good muscle pump—a state of affairs Arnold Schwarzenegger once likened to an orgasm. A pump refers to when muscles become engorged with blood and have to stretch to accommodate the excess fluid. An effective pump routine usually involves working muscles in isolation, explosively and with little rest between sets. Easier said than done when you’re seriously dehydrated and tipsy from a couple of glasses of mid-morning Rioja.
With no exercise equipment in the studio, Ngo created resistance on a towel that I pulled up to work my biceps, down to work my triceps and back to work my back. In between were sets of push-ups and lateral raises with Ngo applying varying degrees of downward pressure on my arms. As I went through it, I imagined how sets of movies like ‘The 300’ must look with all of the principal actors pumping their muscles between takes.
Beyond pumping and manipulating the level of water the body is carrying, other factors that contribute to how otherworldly Hollywood bods look even before retouching include specialized spray tans that accentuate the contours of musculature, and the photographer’s use of lighting. We made a decision to not bother with a spray tan though I did defy the Surgeon General’s warning and do a few sessions on a tanning bed in the lead up to the shoot. Ngo grumbled that the lights used in the reveal didn’t quite do justice to how lean I’d gotten in reality. The positive he took from that was that my abdominus rectus was just about poking through in flatter lighting conditions.
“If you wanna do another cut, I know a ton of photographers who can make those abs look ridiculous,” he said as we celebrated the culmination of our project by splitting a gigantic porterhouse steak.
“Can we give it a couple of weeks?” I asked, savoring a long hard pull of ice water.
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