Almost everyone loves a good before-and-after picture. Like watching a feel-good romantic movie where the awkward guy/girl finds an attractive mate at the end, it awes and inspires. But there’s a dark side to many fitness transformations that you don’t see…one that doesn’t have a happy ending.
Those reading this probably know about my former-fat-kid background by now. There’s a side-by-side before and after picture that made its way around the Internet, even being covered by CNN.
But pictures like these are misleading. They merely describe a snapshot in time, and not a true ending. The truth is that many fitness transformations are like a Kardashian marriage: destined to fail, short lived, and full of psychological repercussions at the end.
Dieting for my Bodybuilding Show
In 2006 I decided to enter a bodybuilding show. At the start of my diet–16 weeks away–I weighed 203 pounds.
For four straight months, I ate six perfectly times meals each day, consisting of only “healthy food” such as chicken, broccoli, whey, and brown rice. Here was my diet:
Sample Training Day Diet
Meal 1: 8oz chicken breast, 1 oz almonds, broccoli
Meal 2 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz chicken breast, 1 oz almonds, broccoli
Meal 3 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz chicken breast, 1 oz almonds, broccoli
Meal 4 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz chicken breast, 1 oz almonds, broccoli
Post Workout Meal: 2 scoops whey, 50g dextrose
Meal 6 (exactly 1 hour after post workout meal): 4 oz chicken breast, 100g of carbs from potatoes
Sample Rest Day Diet
Meal 1: 8oz lean steak breast, 1 oz almonds, broccoli
Meal 2 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz lean steak, 1 oz almonds, broccoli
Meal 3 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz lean steak, 1 oz almonds, broccoli
Meal 4 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz chicken breast, broccoli
Meal 5 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz chicken breast, broccoli
Meal 6 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz chicken breast, broccoli
I also did an hour of cardio every single morning and trained 4x/week for an hour each session. Sure, I had some slip-ups, for which my coach yelled at me, and told me to stop being a lazy and show some self-control.
It paid off…or so it seemed. By the end, I weighed 155 pounds and was in the best shape of my life. I also ended up placing third in the contest.
I was on top of the world. Finally fit, I’d conquered my fat-kid demons…right?
Not So Happily Ever After
The evening after finishing my contest, physically starving and psychologically deprived of food, I had a (well-deserved) day off. I gorged on everything imaginable… pizza, cupcakes, gummy bears, and some incident with a sandwich made up of marshmallow fluff, peanut butter, and honey that I don’t fully remember.
The next day, I stepped on the scale and weighed a whopping 20 lbs. Could I have gained 20 lbs in one whole day? Thankfully, the Internet assured me that I couldn’t have, and it was only water weight.
Then something funny happened. Like the movie Groundhog Day, I couldn’t stop repeating my actions of the previous night. I developed an uncontrollable hunger and started putting on real weight. Feelings of guilt would lead to a vicious cycle–I would binge until physical nausea, then feel extreme guilt the next day, which only led to more urges to eat uncontrollably.
My roommates noticed that I was gaining weight, so I started hiding food. Binge sessions started to take on characteristics of what I can only describe as an out-of-body experience. It was like I floated above my body, watching myself in third person, helplessly unable to put on the breaks.
My bodybuilding contest was on November 16th, 2006. By the middle of January, I looked like this:
In a little more than two months, I got back to 205 pounds, roughly where I started. My back-of-the-envelope calculations tell me that I was eating upwards of 6,000 calories a day for months straight. (My toilet confirmed this.)
A Cautionary Tale: Where to Go From Here
While some people make true, sustainable transformations, my story isn’t uncommon. For example, most Biggest Loser contestants end up regaining their weight and then some.
But I’m glad I had this experience; it was the first event that gave me an inkling that sometimes we can’t just exert more willpower and self-control, and it’s the reason I preach this passionately as a coach.
There was no amount of willpower that could have kept me from binging daily, and now I know that it’s likely a limited resource. This experience is the reason that I write so much about self-compassion, protecting your willpower, and loving yourself.
My mistake is that I tried to transform my outside without first transforming myself inside, and I now know that because of this experience.
Instead, focus on transforming yourself inside first and understand that fitness isn’t about simply “eat less, move more.”
These days, I use the picture below as my signature “before and after.” This transformation was made by truly understanding myself, rather than futilely relying on willpower. (Also it has a cat.)
In reality, there is no such thing as an “after” picture. That’s because side-by-sides like these are merely a snapshot in time… “After” pictures are constantly becoming our new “before” pictures, and we’re all trying to try to find our final form.