From financial modeler to fitness model: How I lost 47% of my body fat in 4.7 months
[Case Study Snapshot = 2 min read] [The Full Story = 12 min read]
Oh. I did it while spending 60-80 hours per week in an office, eating lots of bacon, and with absolutely no traditional “cardio”.
Eating and training for fat loss does not have to equate to treadmill marathons, self-starvation, or metabolic-boosting supplementation. During this case study, I consistently consumed massive cuts of calorically dense meat, smothered veggies in butter, and indulged in chocolate-banana-honey-peanut butter bowls. I exercised less than I did before trying to lose fat and ran only a few miles in total throughout the experiment.
I lost nearly half of my body fat and slimmed down to belly fat levels less that of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Mr. Olympia 1975.
This is not a Cinderella story of Fat-to-Fit. Physiologically, it’s more extraordinary than that. It’s a consultant’s story of Fit-to-Freak…
Case Study Snapshot
Total physique transformation
Phase I: Muscle gain “Bulk” = 3 months, 0 days
Phase II: Fat loss “Cut” = 4 months, 20 days
- Total body fat: 17.7%
- Belly fat (android) : 16.7%
- Total body fat: 10.1%
- Belly fat (android): 5.7%
The Principle to Progression
Accumulate a long-term negative energy balance (caloric deficit) while maintaining muscle mass, mental and physical energy, feelings of satiety (fullness), and a normal life.
1) Real Food Diet – high quality ingredients; limited processed food, sugar, and alcohol
2) Carbohydrate Cycling – six days low carb, one day moderate carb
3) Strength Training – two strength training sessions / week
4) High Intensity Interval Training – two HIIT sessions / week
5) Workout Less – decreased training frequency
6) Prioritize Sleep and Recovery – maximize sleep time and quality
7) Intermittent Fasting – skip breakfast, eat nothing until lunch
8) Calorie Cycling – aim for net-zero energy balance on training days, negative energy balance on rest days
A combination of these methods allowed me to maintain my guiding Principle to Progress. All methods fit within my normal day. Flexibility enabled consistency. Consistency enabled results.
The Full Story and The Science
One year ago…
I set out to integrate health and fitness into the workweek.
The first few weeks…
comprised of determining how to satisfy the bare minimum health requisites, despite a demanding job.
Three months in…
I started to form the foundations of FitInCorporate – I was on a quest for health, a career, sanity, and a six pack – simultaneously.
Six months in…
A healthy routine was established and sustained personal fitness, nutrition, and performance
My career was stimulating, interesting, and progressing rapidly
My sanity was on the rise as I worked towards a passion project
My six-pack abs were yet to appear…
It was time to push the boundaries of work-life-health balance, test the limits of routine, and find out how significantly I could transform my physique while working 12+ hours/day, 5+ days/week.
I set out on a two-phase total physique transformation process in November 2016, comprised of a building muscle in the remaining winter months and losing fat in the spring. In gym-rat jargon, this is a ‘Winter Bulk’ followed by a ‘Spring Cut’.
Here’s how the phases and timeframes played out:
Phase I: Bulk
Goal: build muscle without increasing body fat percentage
Timeframe: 3 months, 0 days (December 1, 2016 – February 28, 2017)*
Phase II: Cut
Goal: lose fat without losing muscle mass
Timeframe: 4 months, 20 days (March 1, 2017 – July 21, 2017)*
* Note: my primary goal was fat loss, thus, more time allocated to Phase II
Few data points can illustrate a physical transformation story more thoroughly than ‘before and after’ photos, but in order to determine precise magnitude of change, quantitatively comparative baseline and final measurements are necessary. For these numbers, I used DEXA scans, a gold-standard body composition measurement technique. DEXA measures lean mass, fat mass, and bone mineral content distribution across the body, costing about $100 per scan.
I had three separate scans*, administered by Cenegenics in Boston:
12/6/16 – Baseline
5/21/17 – Mid-cut progress check
7/21/17 – Final
* Note: a few experimental enhancements for next time:
- Conduct the second DEXA scan ‘post-bulk’ rather than ‘mid-cut’
- Capture before and after photos with identical poses, locations, and cameras
- Run extensive bloodwork before and after the study
Hindsight is 20/20. Here is the analysis with data obtained:
Phase I: Bulk summary – gained 2.5 lbs of muscle in 3 months
I gained 3 lbs from December 6th to March 1st. Visual observation showed minimal deviation in body composition (I looked like I did at baseline, just a little bigger). This lead to the assumption that muscle and fat mass accumulated in proportion to my baseline body composition, i.e., 2.5 lbs muscle and 0.5 lbs fat* .
Adding nearly 3 lbs of mostly lean mass was not a huge result but this was enough to check the ‘success’ box, given muscle gain and minimal body fat percentage change.
* Note: I did not account for this incremental body fat change in ‘before and after’ calculations to avoid confusion; bone mass change during this time was assumed negligible
Phase II: Cut summary – lost 15 lbs of fat in 4 months, 20 days
I lost 47% of my total body fat mass in 4.7 months and ended with 5.7% belly fat…
To put this in perspective, modern bodybuilders compete in the 3-6% total body fat range. In the early days of bodybuilding, this range was several percentage points higher – Arnold Schwarzenegger likely competed above 5 or 6% throughout most of his competitive career.
In the end, I was left with demolished expectations, a Schwarzenegger-esque six-pack, and an incredible article title…
These photos below were captured 7 months apart. The fat loss period comprised of 4.7 months, 60% of total program…
I understand that these photos are not apples to apples (or abs to abs) – they are the best comparatives that exist.
Here’s my disclaimer to ensure scientific objectivity:
** Disclaimer – These photographs were captured by different photographers, with different cameras, and in different locations. Variable lighting and environmental conditions may have affected the appearance of the subject. Activities portrayed in photographs are of variable physical intensity. Physically intensive activities (e.g., jump rope, running, kettlebell exercise) induce muscular contraction which may increase perceived muscularity and vascularity **
Before and after – DEXA and analysis
* GE Healthcare Lunar DEXA administered by Cenegenics in Boston
** Fat loss period: March 1st – July 21st (4.7 months)
*** National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999-2004 data
— How I did it —
Below details the guiding principle, strategies, and tactics I followed in order to drastically drop fat while working as a management consultant and spending most of my days (and nights) in a corporate office.
I’m not saying that you should test out the methods I used. But I’m certainly not saying you shouldn’t…
Important experimental context:
- Application of basic principles before sexy tactics breeds efficacy (e.g., experiment with vegetables before experimenting with calorie cycling).
- Each strategy in isolation likely had differing impacts. It is impossible to implicate individual contribution.
- I advocate for sustainability. I worked up to regimen through trial and progression. If you are going to test any of these strategies, start with one and start slow.
- This case study might be perceived as ‘extreme.’ ‘Extreme’ is relative. Tactics employed were meant to push boundaries of routine.
- The slower the fat loss, the more likely it is to remain lost – is a notion widely accepted as true. Choose the routine intensity that best suits you.
- I synthesized lots of research to provide explanations for potential driving biological processes. ‘Biological backups’ contained in each method description are research-based, non-exhaustive hypotheses.
- There is a lot going on biologically, most of which ‘we’ do not fully understand yet, and I certainly don’t pretend to.
- I’m not a doctor, take all this advice with a grain of salt (metaphorically for most, literally, if you lack electrolytes).
High quality ingredients; limited processed food, sugar, and alcohol
The majority of meals were personally prepared ahead of mealtime (see Meal Prep). Ingredients were high quality i.e., mostly organic produce and grass-fed/pastured/wild caught animal products. Most meals contained protein and TONS of vegetables cooked in healthy fat. I sought to:
- Boost intake of fibrous, nutritious, and antioxidant-rich, real food eg., high quality meats and fish, dark leafy greens
- Reduce intake of processed, nutrient-void, sugary foods, and alcohol eg., bread, pasta, pastries, fruit juice
Along with real food and I drank LOTS of water.
High quality food is more satiating and bio-available per calorie than lower quality food. Nutrient void food can cause cravings that lead to unintended calorie consumption. Processed ingredients and alcohol introduce toxins that can cause elevated inflammation, stress hormones, and fatigue. Chronically high levels of inflammation, ‘fight or flight’ catecholamines, and fatigue can increase fat storage potential and limit physical exertion.
Ample hydration enables feelings of satiety, cell recovery, and detoxification – all variables that can promote fat metabolism.
Six days low carb, one day moderate carb
I consumed low-carbohydrate meals six days/week and moderate-to-high carbohydrate meals for one day/week. Low-carb here means low-net carb i.e., total carbs, minus carbs from fiber. I ate a TON of fibrous veggies like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, which contain fiber that did not count that toward carb totals. However, I also did not count macros or calories.
An average day’s macronutrient breakdown resembled something like the following:
- 50-60% fat – olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, nuts, grass-fed and/or pastured animal products
- 20-30% protein – grass-fed beef, pastured eggs and chicken, wild caught fish
- 15-25% carbs – almost entirely from vegetables e.g., spinach, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, butternut squash, sweet potato, onion, pepper, mushrooms, zucchini, cucumbers, sauerkraut
A significant reduction of carbohydrates paired with ample dietary fat intake can induce a state of burning fat for fuel (nutritional ketosis). Ketosis suppresses hunger. Prolonged hunger suppression enables reduction of calorie consumption and a long-term negative energy balance i.e., burning more calories than consumed. However, some level of carbohydrate storage is widely accepted as healthy and useful for athletic performance, thus, replenished during an established 24-hour carb-refeed period.
Two strength training sessions / week
Sessions were 45-min to 1-hour, consisting of compound movements (e.g., bench press, back squat, shoulder press, deadlift, pull up) as well as accessory movements (e.g., dumbbell fly, cable deltoid raise, glute bridge, hanging leg raise)
I usually focused on one or two large muscle groups or movement patterns per workout e.g., chest + biceps = push + pull
An average workout cadence and volume included:
- 5-8 exercises
- 3-5 sets per exercise
- 6-12 reps per set
- Pyramid loading to a single work set (max effort to failure at ~8 reps) + a drop set; e.g., 5-set bench press:
- Warm-up set #1 – 10 reps, 50% weight of work set
- Warm-up set #2 – 6 reps, 75% weight of work set
- Warm-up set #3 – 3 reps, 90% weight of work set
- Work set – aim for ~8 reps, rep to failure (as many reps as possible)
- Drop set – rep to failure, 75% weight of work set
I targeted weekly progression through increased weight and/or rep counts.
Lifting heavy loads induces micro muscular damage, signaling nutrient partitioning toward muscle synthesis rather than fat storage. Progressively overloading muscles causes hypertrophic adaptation i.e., muscle mass and strength increase in response to continuous loading increase.
Two HIIT sessions / week
HIIT sessions were 45-min to 1-hour, consisting of full body compound movements conducted successively at a rapid pace. Perceived exertion throughout these workouts remained moderate-to-high i.e., an intensity level that maintained an elevated heart rate and heavy breathing.
Average workout cadence and volume included:
- 9 movements divided into 3, ~3-min circuits
- Each circuit repeated 3x
- 3-minute rest between circuits.
Combining calorically demanding metabolic conditioning with strength components can facilitate an increased metabolism and muscle preservation.
Decreased training frequency
I reduced my training frequency by one session every two weeks to incorporate more time for physical and mental recovery.
Strength training and metabolic conditioning raise stress hormone levels. Acute cortisol release aids in mobilizing fatty acids (burning fat) and repairing tissue damage from training (building muscle). Too much exercise without enough rest can cause chronically high levels of cortisol that encourage fat storage and muscle loss. A negative energy is an added physiological stressor. Rest enables muscular repair and full system recovery.
Maximize sleep time and quality
My work schedule was often unpredictable. I hit my personal record of a 21-hour workday (8:30am-5am) and worked until 2am several other nights during this stretch. I accepted circumstance and optimized the variables I could control around the constraints I could not.
Although sleep was variable, I maximized sleep time and quality. This meant reducing workout frequency, sacrificing leisure for sleep, and improving sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene hacks included:
- Limited afternoon caffeine – 2pm cut-off
- Relaxing pre-bed routine – soft tissue mobilization (see Netflix and Roll)
- Reducing melatonin-blocking blue light before bed – blue light blocking apps on electronics e.g., F.lux
- Sleeping in darkness – blackout shades and tinted film on LED alarm clock
- Limit sleep disturbances – phone on airplane mode
On nights when I did get home at a reasonable hour, I went to sleep early to recoup sleep debt.
Sleep deprivation causes an imbalance of hormones – leptin (signals fullness) decreases and ghrelin (signals hunger) increases, growth hormone decreases, and cortisol increases. This puts the body in a calorie-craving state with a diminished ability to gain muscle and heightened ability store fat. Impaired decision-making under a calorie-craving state can lead to increased calorie consumption. Lack of sleep limits recovery and causes fatigue that decreases movement frequency and intensity over the course of the next day. Increased calorie intake and decreased expenditure with imbalanced hormonal physiology can yield fat storage.
Conversely, more sleep and improved sleep quality reduce cravings and aid muscle anabolism. In addition, sleep facilitates cellular repair and daily energy that promote greater frequency and intensity of movement over the course of the day. Fewer calories consumed, more calories metabolized, and greater conversion of calories into muscle is a prime combination of variables for fat loss and muscle gain.
Skip breakfast, eat nothing until lunch
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day – to choose whether or not to eat…
I followed a ‘feasting and fasting’ protocol commonly known as 16:8 dieting or Lean Gains. I ate during an 8-hour feeding window (from 12pm-8pm) and fasted the 16-hour remainder of the day (~half comprised of sleep). I also experimented with a few 24-hour fasts.
My eating schedule was as follows:
Morning: amino acid supplement (for muscle preservation) and greens powder (for nutrients and antioxidants with minimal calories)
Lunch: sizeable lunch, usually a large salad with protein and balsamic/olive oil dressing
Snack (optional): handful of mixed nuts, hard boiled eggs, or fatty coffee
Dinner: very large dinner with protein and tons of vegetables
Snack (optional): scoop of nut butter and square dark chocolate
Prior to intermittent fasting, I had gotten used to ‘fat-assisted-fasts’ i.e., fast + fatty coffee. I slowly decreased the calories I consumed in the morning until I was at zero. After a few days, I was biologically used to skipping breakfast and realized it was a huge time saver and provided me with a consistent morning energy stream.
Unless training and eating for muscle mass or specific performance, I maintain this feasting and fasting format nearly every day.
When the body is in a ‘fed’ state, consumed calories provide fuel for metabolism. When outside of a fed state, stored calories (eventually fat) provide fuel for metabolism.
Aim for net-zero energy balance on training days, negative energy balance on rest days
I attempted to consume an amount of calories about equivalent to the amount I burnt on exercise days. On rest days, I aimed to consume fewer calories than burned. I relied on hunger cues rather than calorie counting.
Following training, the body is prone to partition calories toward muscle synthesis rather than fat storage. After the closure of the ‘anabolic window,’ a calorie deficit yields fat utilization for energy while sparing muscle catabolism.
All in all…
I trained hard. I ate well. I slept as much as life allowed. I was socially active. I ate carbo-loaded cheat meals. I skipped planned workouts. I took vacations throughout. I felt good throughout. My energy levels were consistently high. I never felt deprived.
A combination of these methods allowed me to follow The Principle to Progress i..e., burning more fuel than consumed in a way that enabled muscle preservation, high energy levels and feelings of fullness, and a normal life.
All methods fit within my normal day-to-day.
Flexibility enabled consistency. Consistency enabled results.
In the end, this is a story of what worked for me and why I think it worked for me. It is empirical but non-exhaustive. It is not a prescription and should not be used as one.
The most sustainable long-term solutions are usually the most effective long-term solutions.
Just remember… abs are carved with spoons, chiseled while sleeping, and there are many methods to mold a washboard.
Stay tuned for v2.0 in 2018…
Matthew J. Hersh
Business strategy consultant | Fitness coach | Health blogger
Follow me @the.fit.consultant