How simple math helped me shed fat, build muscle, and get ripped in 4-months.
At the start of 2022, I committed to the Body Fat Challenge (BFC) with 49 other guys. For 26-years, the BFC has been organized and run bi-annually by a close-knit group of friends in Miami, FL. I was fortunate to get invited to participate in this go-round.
While the “C” stands for “Challenge,” it’s a competition. There are strict rules and daunting penalties for breaking them, resulting in winners and losers. Participation requires signing a 10-page legally binding contract that — for your convenience — I’ve parsed out the finer points.
- Challengers must submit a signed bounty check made payable to the Organizers (mine was $25,000, others exceeded $250,000).
- Challengers must complete the start, mid-point, and final BodPod Machine weigh-ins on specific dates.
- Challengers in the bottom 20% of performers get their heads shaved by the top 10.
- Challengers in the bottom 20% of performers who are bald must wear wigs for 7-days following the challenge.
- Challengers’ scores are determined by their ratio of Body Fat Loss (70%) and Physical Events performance (30%).
- Failure to comply results in that Challenger’s bounty check getting cashed and given to a charity of the Organizer’s choice.
A participant’s Body Fat Loss gets determined by the delta between their starting and ending body fat percentages. For example, a participant that goes from 40% to 20% body fat would earn a 50% score for their Body Fat Loss, the same as someone who moves from 20% to 10% body fat. Meanwhile, the Physical Events are a run, bike, and swim challenge.
The BFC 2022 began on January 5th and ended on May 1st. A total of 117 days to transform oneself. There’s no prescribed diet or workout schedule; each participant must find their own path and stick to it.
My path didn’t go as expected, requiring me to abandon my strategy halfway through and reorient. Here’s that story and my lessons learned.
Part 1: You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure.
At 8:00 AM on January 5th, I stood in a sterile office room at the University of Miami Herbert Wellness Center. Wearing compression shorts and a swim cap, a technician ushered me from a scale to a stadiometer while asking simple demographic questions. He entered that data into the BodPod machine before I entered the alien-esq capsule for three 60-second readings.
A BodPod uses whole body densitometric principles to determine body composition (Fat and Fat-Free Mass) in adults and children. Essentially, it’s an egg with a tiny window that measures body volume and density using air pressure to determine body fat percentage. While no measurement device is perfect, the BodPod is well-respected and deemed accurate — especially when simple protocols are followed!
Exiting the capsule, I anxiously listened to the beep-bop-boop singing of BodPod’s computer module as it calculated my scores. My readout included the following data:
- Height: 6′ 2″
- Overall Weight: 212.30 lbs
- Body Fat Percentage: 21.70%
- Fat Mass (FM): 46.07 lbs
- Fat-Free Mass (FFM): 166.23 lbs
- Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR): 2,031 kcal/day
There are 2 data insights in this list that are important to understand and might be new to you — they were to me.
Body Composition describes the ratio of Fat Mass to Fat-Free Mass, which is significantly more important than overall weight. Fat Mass is actual body fat. Fat-Free Mass (FFM) is everything that is not body fat (FM), like bones, muscles, organs, water-weight, and toenails.
Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) is the total number of calories burned in a day when your body is entirely at rest. After participating in a 24-hour Netflix marathon, the body will have burned its RMR in calories to support breathing, blood circulation, organ function, and essential neurological functions (± some calories depending on the show you watched). Multiplying the RMR with an activity factor, like a 1.74 factor for someone active, gives you Total Energy Expenditure (TEE).
A pound (1lb) of body fat contains between 3,436 to 3,752 calories of energy. This means a person who burns ~3,500 calories can expect to lose around one pound of body fat. Burning all those calories does not happen in the gym. A 30-minute cycling workout may only burn ~350 calories, while 30-minutes of weight lifting ~200 calories; it’s disappointing, right? So when it comes to fat loss, comparing TEE to caloric absorption always supersedes deliberate physical exertion (i.e., exercise).
Subtract from TEE the total daily calories consumed in a diet to calculate a Caloric Deficit or Caloric Surplus. Then divide that result by ~3,500 to determine how much body fat is being burned off, or packed on, per day. A negative quotient indicates fat burned, while a positive quotient indicates gain.
Let’s imagine I got my chubby little fingers on a diet that delivers 2800 calories daily. Also, I consider myself an active fella whose TEE hovers around 3,400 kcal daily. My daily body fat loss equation would be:
Now, is this a perfect prediction formula for weight loss? No. Absolutely not. A million factors play into fat loss, like a diet — a.k.a. Where are those calories coming from? How many calories are absorbed vs. consumed?
Are these numbers practical guidelines for systematically approaching body fat loss? Yes, they absolutely are. In fact, they are so effective that I wish I understood them on January 5th…
Part 2: My Initial Approach
Knowing one’s body composition metrics makes it easy to determine the gains and losses required to hit a target body fat percentage. I mapped 3-paths for myself to reach 10% body fat — an arbitrary yet ambitious goal.
The numbers above demonstrate that 10% body fat can be achieved while losing or gaining overall body weight. This is important to understand when adopting body composition as a guiding metric instead of body weight. Shaquille O’Neal in 2004 weighed 335-pounds; off-season binge eating? No. His body fat was 11%, and it was during the season!
Tim Ferris’s book The 4-Hour Body details a compelling methodology for rapid body recomposition with an emphasis on gaining muscle. In the book, Ferris documents gaining 28lbs of lean body mass in a mere 30-days using Occam’s Protocol and the Slow Carb Diet (both linked for your reference).
During the year 1 PC (Pre-Covid), I dropped 23lbs of weight over 3-months following the Slow Carb Diet and an interpretation of Occam’s Protocol — I wasn’t tracking body composition at the time, just overall body weight. At its core, a Slow Carb Diet provides 4 easy-to-follow rules — Ferris having engineered the 4th:
- Eat 30g of protein within 30-minutes of waking up.
- Eat Lean meat, Non-starch Veggies, and Legumes as much as you want.
- Do not eat any Grain, Dairy, Sugar, or Starchy foods or drink Alcohol.
- One day per week to consume whatever–and as much as–you want (a.k.a Cheat Day).
Occam’s Protocol prescribes only 30-minutes of weight training per week. For the BFC, I felt compelled to spend more time doing weight training and cardio. So instead of entertaining Occam’s approach, I purchased a Push/Pull/Legs strength training program from YouTuber and natural bodybuilder Jeff Nippard. This 4-month program provides six body-building workouts per week.
Like many people, I’ve always considered myself allergic to traditional cardio and have purposefully sought opinions that belittle its importance. Replacing traditional cardio with interval HIIT training is widely endorsed across the blogosphere, so I did. I took the liberty of tweaking Nippard’s workout cadence to three weight training days per week while substituting aerobic HIIT workouts on the days between.
Starting January 5th, six days a week, early morning or late evening, I was at the gym. My workout calendar was:
- Mondays: Legs (Quads/Glutes/Hamstrings/Calves)
- Tuesday: HIIT
- Wednesday: Push (Chest/Shoulders/Triceps)
- Thursday: HIIT
- Friday: Pull (Back/Biceps)
- Saturday: HIIT
- Sunday: Rest
While the Slow Carb Diet does provide its rules, I added my own flavor. Considering my gym output and the food, I felt compelled to load my furnace with added supplements.
Casein and whey protein for both fast and slow-digesting proteins. Pre and post-workout routines consisted of caffeine, L-citrulline, L-theanine, and creatine supplements to make me feel like I was being scientific. Multi-vitamins, brazil nuts, fermented cod liver, and butter-fat oil in the mornings and evenings as a natural testosterone booster; roar!
My daily consumption schedule was more demanding than the workouts. It looked like:
Breakfast — 7:30 AM
- 4 hard-boiled eggs and coffee
- Morning supplement pack
Snack — 10:00 AM (Pre/Post Workout)
- Protein shake with peanut butter
- Whey/casein blend, creatine L-citrulline, L-theanine
Lunch — 12:00 PM
- Meat, madras lentils, and salad
Snack — 3:30 PM
- Protein shake with peanut butter
- Whey/casein and almond milk
Dinner — 6:00 PM
- Meat, madras lentils, and salad
- Evening supplement pack
Remember that the Slow Carb Diet encourages you to eat as much as you want from the approved food groups. My idea in structuring this diet was to optimize for body recomposition (i.e., losing fat while building muscle, at the same time) by eating high protein and fat with very few carbs.
I did not believe I had to lose much weight. I only had to shift body fat to muscle (FM to FFM). So I rigorously worked out and ate while seeing my bathroom scale remain constant. From January 5th to March 5th, the digital display between my toes eeked up to 215.3 lbs, and my body changed noticeably for the better!
I was thrilled with my body and progress. Friends were making comments on my improved physic. Surely, I thought, my mid-point numbers in the competition would be formidable. So again, I stood there in the sterile office room at the University of Miami and listened to the beep-bop-boop singing of BodPod as it calculated my mid-point scores:
- Overall Weight: 215.20 lbs
- Body Fat Percentage: 20.70%
- Fat Mass (FM): 44.07 lbs
- Fat-Free Mass (FFM): 170.03 lbs
I was devastated. After 2-months of intense workouts and diet, I gained 4-lbs of muscle gain and lost 2-lbs of body fat. My 1% drop in body fat percentage to 20.7% earned me 37th place in the mid-point rankings — just shy of the red zone (a.k.a. getting shaved).
Throughout my life, I’ve been an athlete — notably a Division-1 collegiate rower. Fitness and healthy eating were always my things — at least, I told myself as much. However, at this point, the only thought racing through my brain was, “what the &^@%!?”
Part 3: I Never Knew How Much I Had to Lose
The friend that invited me to participate in this whole shin-dig is a BFC veteran. In years prior, he had podiumed and did so by employing the help of professional fitness and nutrition coaches. After enduring me lamenting how disappointed I was in my mid-point scores, he shared two straightforward critiques.
- Add traditional cardio
- Follow my diet plan from BFC 2018
Despite my destain for cardio, I was desperate and conceded. I immediately replaced HIIT workouts with 30-minute cardio sessions completed on the Concept2 rowing machine and Peloton stationary bike. Quickly, the Peloton classes became something I looked forward to; despite fond memories of 5:45 AM mornings at my University’s boathouse, I still can’t stand stationary rowing.
Starting March 5th, the workout calendar changed to:
- Mondays: Legs (Quads/Glutes/Hamstrings/Calves)
- Tuesday: 30-minute stationary bike (Peloton)
- Wednesday: Push (Chest/Shoulders/Triceps)
- Thursday: 30-minute stationary bike (Peloton)
- Friday: Pull (Back/Biceps)
- Saturday: 30-minute rowing machine (Concept2)
- Sunday: Rest
The diet he shared with me was different than any other diet I’ve tried; that list includes Keto, Veganism, Vegetarianism, Pescatarian, Carnivore, and Paleo. Unlike these diets, which usually instruct to stop eating one or more food groups and live happily ever after, this one was best defined — quite simply — by portion control.
Dairy, grain, meat, nuts, vegetables, and fruit were all represented and eaten in specific quantities six times throughout the day, starting early in the morning and late in the evening. No intermittent fasting or anything remarkable, just simple meals consumed roughly every three hours.
I said, “screw it, I’m doing it.”
Every day, alongside my workouts, I ate the same six meals for 61 consecutive days. My meal prep was significantly streamlined by purchasing bulk frozen foods (chicken breast and cubed sweet potato) and eliminating variations. The time and equipment required for preparing each meal were:
- Breakfast: 8-minutes | Non-stick skillet, toaster
- Lunch/Dinner: 12-minutes | Microwave
- Snacks: 2-minutes | None
Bringing it back to the simple math, following this diet in combination with an activity of 1.74 factor delivered the following daily fat burn.
Being human, I came up with small ways to make meals more enjoyable; salt, pepper, apple cider vinegar, and stevia sweetener. That said, the most important thing I did for those 61 days was adhere to the meal plan as if it were a religion. I’d eat my prescribed meals before going out to snazzy dinners with friends just to sit while nursing an espresso on the rocks. A bright yellow 1-liter Nalgene water bottle never left my side that I refilled roughly 5-times per day. Additionally, I constantly drank straight-up espresso and cold brew coffee with a fiend-like fervor.
This brings me to the point where I share with you the world’s #1 non-invasive fat loss tool readily available for purchase. Drum roll, please… it’s a food scale.
You can’t manage what you don’t measure doesn’t only relate to your body metrics. Equally important — if not more — is accurately quantifying your food intake at each meal. The tips and tricks that people like to share, such as “just eat slowly until you’re full” and “your appropriate meat serving equals that of your clenched dominant fist,” are cute but worthless to someone pursuing a fat loss goal. Therefore, every meal I ate during the 2nd half of the challenge was weighed on a food scale.
For the final week of the challenge, I adopted a “cutting” diet. While the diet I followed for the 54-days leading up to this last phase is plain, it’s actually very satiating and enjoyable; chicken, sweet potatoes, arugula, yum! However, the final week was absolutely awful.
Considering how this blog post is written, I hope you’re under the impression I am at least moderately intelligent and articulate. I point this out to add some gravity when I say that by day 5 of the cutting diet, I was having trouble forming basic sentences. Honestly, I felt and was acting stupid. My brain and body felt operated in a constant state of panicked alertness. I’d cut out all sodium from my diet to exacerbate fluid loss and hated every moment of the day. However, I stuck through it.
On May 1st, 2022, one last time, I stood there in the sterile office room at the University of Miami and listened to the beep-bop-boop singing of BodPod as it calculated my final-point scores:
- Overall Weight: 194.40 lbs
- Body Fat Percentage: 12.6%
- Fat Mass (FM): 24.9 lbs
- Fat-Free Mass (FFM): 169.9 lbs
After 2-months of workouts and highly regimented eating, I lost 20lbs+ of actual body fat while only losing a negligible 0.4-lbs of lean muscle. My 8.1% drop in Body Fat Percentage to 12.6% earned me 4th place in the final rankings — I kept my hair!
Part 4: Post Challenge Maintenance and Awareness
Yes, I am a vain man, and my primary motive for participating in the BFC was to look incredible. My overall body composition change of 3.67lbs FFM gain and 22.9lbs FM loss was all it took to get me into the best aesthetic shape of my life. With that on the table, here are two points that you may be thinking about:
- “3lbs muscle gain and 20lbs fat loss don’t seem like that much.”
- “The before and after photos look good, but… whatever.”
It’s common to see and hear claims of losing X many pounds in an attractively short time frame. That’s because all of the expectations we’re advertised for the efficacy and efficiency of diet and workout plans are predicated on a very misleading metric; body weight. My Caloric Deficit which equated to roughly -0.4lbs per day of body fat when multiplied by 61 (i.e., days on a diet), calculates out to 24.4lbs of expected body fat loss; remarkably close to my actual results.
Meanwhile, within 30-minutes following the final weigh-in, I gorged on a cookies-n-cream milkshake, double-patty bacon cheeseburger, french fries, and a Dr. Pepper at Shake Shack. Three hours later, I performed a wholesale slaughter of Hometown BBQ’s beef rib and ordered two pints of Van Leeuwen’s ice cream through Uber Eats on the drive home. Post ice cream, I lay miserably in bed, sick through my stomach, and fell asleep while sweating profusely.
The following day I woke up and stood on the scale, weighing in at 208lbs. I immediately returned to the chicken and sweet potato diet. Within 4-days I was back at 194lbs. Fat wasn’t gained or lost; fluids were retained and drained.
I articulate this to again iterate the importance of tracking body composition over body weight. Body fat gain/loss — as well as muscle gain/loss — happens at a very moderate pace. Becoming aware of that with your body provides incredible peace of mind and patience when pursuing body transformation. It comforts you that you’re not killing yourself to accomplish something and then ruin it all in a day.
However…what do those weight fluctuations look like?
That’s officially my segue into the following; tracking progress through pictures.
When visually measuring progress, don’t cheat yourself by intentionally manipulating the environment to make you look better or worse. It’s essential to be disciplined and ensure that the lighting, clothing, posture, and camera are consistent between each photo. Otherwise, a comparison is too imperfect to be helpful or insightful.
For my before, during, and after photos, I was meticulous about having:
- Flat light and well-lit room
- Compression shorts
- The camera is positioned in the exact same spot
- Refrain from flexing or getting a pump
- Pre-lunch and well hydrated (1 ~ 2 liters)
Controlling these factors allowed me to observe my month-to-month adaptions and understand what results to expect from my body at various composition metrics.
The key phrase there is bolded. How some celebrity or influencer looks at X weight or Y body composition is not how you’re going to look by achieving the same numbers. The only way you’ll ever know how you’ll look at X FM or Y FFM is by actually getting to those numbers and documenting yourself along the way. Only with accurate measurements will you honestly determine whether you’ve achieved the goal — or, more importantly, know when to stop pursuing the goal.
It’s been five weeks since the BFC ended. In that time, I’ve continued the diet, adopted one cheat day per week, and become lenient with myself on adding and/or substituting some fun ingredients to the meals. My body weight consistently fluctuates between 195lbs and 200lbs — having hit a high of 211lbs after a five-day trip to the south of France. Meanwhile, I look better than ever.
The three photos were taken over the last 3-weeks, all after adopting more lenient and “maintenance-focused” eating habits. Meanwhile, my strength in the gym has increased between 15% to 30% across the board on my major exercises (squats, deadlift, bench-press, shoulder-press, rows). I share this because a) I’m proud and gloating, and b) the importance of eating enough to strength and physic cannot be understated. Upping my caloric intake since the BFC hasn’t resulted in regaining fat but more substantial and fuller muscles.
Part 5: Closing Thoughts
Maintaining a caloric deficit is very, very different from starving oneself. In the final week of the BFC, I was practically starving myself and suffering. At that point, my musculature became lean, though at the significant expense of strength and energy — mentally and physically.
Maintaining a moderate caloric deficit while eating consistently throughout the day (every 3 to 4 hours) keeps one’s metabolism running while ensuring the body continues to deplete fat stores. That, right there, is what I believe is the most attainable balance between diet and exertion that leads to gradual yet sustainable body fat loss.
It’s no secret that the most valuable tool to achieving any goal is discipline. The discipline to consistently follow and adhere to a routine leads to results — even when applying mediocre strategy. No diet or workout routine is powerful enough to influence change or transform someone who does not consistently practice it.
Thanks for reading, and good luck on your health journey!