This is the exact explanation of how I have lost 50 pounds in five and a half months including the logic behind all of the actions I have taken. First a little bit of back story.
I am 29 years old. I was a high school athlete but spent my 20s yo-yoing in weight. I completed P90X in 2012 and was at a weight of 180 pounds. Since that point I have bounced between 195 and 223 pounds. In 2013 I obtained a personal trainer certificate and worked briefly in a gym. After that point I was all over the place. I hit my highest weight of 223 pounds in January of 2017. I felt awful, none of my clothes fit, it was a terrible experience. I’ve made pacts with myself before saying “I’ll drop the weight this year for (insert reason).” This year I am turning 30. That was a powerful enough reason for me to make a change. On January 23 of 2017 after failing for 23 days to stick to any sort of routine at home despite having a full ensemble of weights, I decided to join a gym. Not just any gym though, a gym that’s a 40 minute drive from my house. This was going to take some serious commitment to stick with it. My original objective was to lose 50 pounds which would put me at a weight of 173 which is close to what I weighed all through high school. In high school I fluctuated between 170 and 180 but I never had that coveted 6 pack. Since high school I have grown an inch taller and gained quite a bit of muscle so after an ample amount of research I determined that to get the 6 pack I would need to be right around 170 pounds so that was my goal. Now I have dropped 40 pounds and am hovering quite comfortably at 183 pounds. I am still on my quest for 170, and when I get there I will update all of the information in this paragraph to reflect that.
Enough back story, let’s get into the good stuff… How exactly have I done this?
I am going to split this up into 3 sections; consistency, diet, the gym.
Part 1: Consistency
This is critical and without it, you will fail. This isn’t just about losing 50 pounds before I turned 30. It sounds good, I like the idea of it but deep down the main objective here is to build a healthier lifestyle for the long term. That means I had to come up with something that I could sustain over a long period of time. Cutting calories and exercising hard for a short predetermined amount of time is something I have done many times before, it works but ultimately the weight always comes back very quickly and typically more of it. I knew going balls to the wall for 6 months then just going back to my old ways would work but that’s not what I want. I want to be healthy for the rest of my life. Being overweight felt horrible. My allergies were worse, I got sick more often, my clothes didn’t fit. Basic tasks like putting on my socks and shoes were a chore, even walking up the steps was less than pleasant.
I don’t want that again, so I had to take a look at the things that I was doing in my life that were causing me to continue to gain weight and find a way to change them, and not only that, find new habits to replace them. If there aren’t new, better habits to fill the time of the old habits it was pretty likely that I would go back to the old habits. Especially in those first few weeks.
I determined that I had to exercise, but I needed a combination of cardiovascular exercise and weights to reach the body that I desired. I also determined that every time I ate fried food I felt terrible, the same was true of sweets. Based on this information I decided that I had to quit eating both. I also know that to lose weight I needed a daily caloric deficit. That was it. Now, how to stick to it? Having a personal training background and having been interested in fitness for as long as I can remember I have a weight bench, dumbbells, and various other implements at my house. It doesn’t get any more convenient than that, however time and time again I failed to stick with it. So I joined a gym, 40 minutes from my house.
The logic of choosing this gym was pretty simple, the closer option is lacking in equipment, the next closer option I use to work at and quit without notice, and the YMCA is quite expensive. That left driving 40 minutes to the gym. I found a gym with equipment I desired, primarily a stair mill (more on that later) and a good free weight area.
However you decide to make your changes it’s very important that you find things you are willing to do every single day. I only go to the gym 6 days a week but the diet is full time. That is 24/7. If I slack off for just one day I notice.
Let’s talk about the diet.
Part 2: The Diet
In order to lose weight you must have a caloric deficit. In other words you have to burn more calories than you consume, every single day. You can do this and eat terribly unhealthy but that’s not what I wanted to do. Fried food, sweets and a lot of bread make me feel horrible, so while I could lose weight and still eat those things this is about the long term and I prefer not to feel horrible. Using reputable formulas I made a calculator that tells me exactly how many calories are burned each day if I do absolutely nothing and it also gives an estimate of how many calories are burned each day using estimated daily activity levels. I have made this calculator available for public use, it can be found here. This is where I started, by just using this. I set myself up on a diet where I aimed for consuming 2000 calories a day. After a few days I wanted to know a more precise answer to exactly how many calories I would need to eat each day to reach my goal by the set date for reaching that goal, so I made another calculator that does just that. This is the calculator that I base everything off of.
My goal is quite aggressive, in the beginning I was averaging a deficit of 1400 calories a day. I absolutely do not recommend this. The recommended range is 500-1000 calories of deficit a day. Within that deficit you can expect to lose somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 – 2 pounds a week, that is healthy, that is sustainable. At that enormous deficit I experienced some pretty crazy mood swings, I was tired mostly all the time and I was for the most part always starving. I also had days where just existing was a chore. However I made it and dropped an average of 2.5 pounds per week. Since I was so aggressive in the beginning I am now in a position to only be at a deficit of 750 calories a day and still reach my goal. This is much more doable. I have not had the mood swings, the severe exhaustion or any of the horrible side effects from having a deficit of nearly twice that.
My advice here is that if the calculator tells you (I have it set up to give warnings) that your goal is crazy, it probably is. Slow down and enjoy the process.
I had to figure out how to eat just 2000 calories a day and still feel satisfied. The trick here is to eat healthy foods. All the fried food, sweets, sugary drinks and alcohol are filled with calories that leave you still feeling hungry afterwards.
In the beginning I still ate a little bit of candy here and there. This lasted for probably the first month. I also continued to get my 500+ calorie Frappuccino’s from Starbucks pretty regularly. I would intentionally not eat breakfast so that I could have my Frappuccino some days. Now I am not consuming any sweets at all. Since that first month all I had was a piece of pie on Easter, I should note, it was the smallest one I could get out of the pan. I thought sweets would be hard to give up as I use to love them. I would often times get 2 or 3 king sized candy bars from the store and have them gone in 10 minutes. I also use to love cookies and cake. Surprisingly not eating this stuff has proved to be super easy. I remember how I use to feel when I would eat it and I think that helps deter me from wanting it.
Fried food I gave up from the beginning. This one I thought would be easy. I didn’t really eat a lot of fried food anyways. However, this one is proving to be the difficult one. I really just want some french fries. It has been a consistent thought for at least 2 months now. I am ok without them though. Again, I remember how fried food made me feel and don’t really care to feel that way again. The one exception to this was tortilla chips when we would go out to a Mexican restaurant. Those also left the diet on May 1.
Sugary drinks, aside from the Frappuccino, weren’t really a problem. I was already pop(soda) free for 8 years when I started this journey. Gatorade isn’t my favorite and my primary drink is unsweet iced tea anyways. After the first month of Frappuccino’s this has been easy.
I also don’t have much dairy, but that was easy because I have a minor lactose issue so I already was restricting myself to just small amounts of cheese here and there. That is still the policy. Probably once a week I will get a sandwich at Starbucks with a slice of cheese on it.
Now I am sure you are wondering, with all of those restrictions, what do I eat? Well, lots of things. I keep it to lean meat, vegetables and for carbs I will occasionally have bread but usually I keep it to rice or potatoes. I still eat out. We have found that Applebee’s has some great options that are very low in calories. They have most of their calories on the menu which makes it easy. I also still drink beer on occasion, have to be careful with this one though, one 20 ounce beer is 300+ calories.
Since I am just counting calories I have a set goal of calories to hit for each day, typically right around 2000, so I make sure my food intake is under that. There have been times where I have had to go to family functions at restaurants that don’t have the best choices but I have found that most places have some sort of lean option and if they don’t their calories are usually online. If we are in a pinch and have to get fast food I will get an Arby’s roast beef sandwich or SubWay.
I leave a little leeway in here is well. There are tons of apps out there that will help you track and measure calories but for me I find it easier to just look thinks up as I go. Using this method is definitely not an exact science but to me it seems impractical to carry around a scale, weigh everything and get an exact calorie count. It’s much easier to just aim for 2000 even though I need 2500 and add it as I go. If my addition puts me right at 2000 and I was a little off then I have 500 calories to play with. If my addition puts me right at 2000 and I feel like I am starving to death I know that I should probably eat 100-200 calories more. I have been doing this for long enough now that I can tell about what I have had calorie wise just based on how I feel. I also eat almost the same things every day so I have a pretty good idea of how many calories I am eating without having to look up a lot of things or put in a lot of effort to find how many calories are in something.
I don’t really do what I would consider “cheat days.” On the weekends I will bump my calorie intake up a little bit. I will aim for 2500 – 3000 but I don’t go crazy and eat things I wouldn’t typically eat. I just eat more of what I am already eating. This gives my body a little break from the deficit and allows it to recoup a bit.
Commonly I am questioned about supplements. No, I absolutely do not take any supplements. I don’t think they are necessary. I do not think it’s good to put a powdered concoction of god knows what in your body. I don’t take protein powder, I don’t take anything. NO supplements. For whatever reason this seems to be hard for people to believe but I absolutely do not take any supplements.
I do drink coffee. Plain. Black. Unsweetened coffee. For one I like the taste, for two it helps me with digestion, and lastly it keeps me from getting hungry. I don’t drink it every day. My preferred time is after my last meal of the day but there are times I have it in the morning. I do not like drinking it before I workout as it makes me too jittery.
The diet for me is probably the hardest part. It’s fairly complex and I love food. However by aiming for 2000 calories a day, staying away from fried foods, sugary foods and drinks and allowing myself to have a little extra some days I have been able to sustain this pretty easily.
The diet is just one piece of this puzzle.
Part 3: The Gym
I want to look ripped. I don’t want to be “skinny fat.” I want people to see me and not have to question if I work out. I happen to know that doing a program of solely cardio will develop just that. Strength training is of upmost importance. My gym routine looks like this: 10 minutes on the bike, 45-80 minutes of weights, 30 minutes stair mill, 10 minutes treadmill.
I’ll break that routine down in a minute but first I would like to say for me the main purpose of the gym is to gain muscle and burn calories. If I burn more calories, I can eat more food. Play around with the various activity levels on the calculators linked above and notice how much your burned calories increase as you increase your daily activity levels. Building muscle also burns calories. A pound of muscle burns more calories at rest than a pound of fat. Therefore building muscle is a no brainer. One last thing before breaking down my routine, ladies, you will not get bulky if you lift heavy, you will not get “toned” by lifting light weights. To get bulky you need testosterone, and “toning” isn’t a thing, you either build muscle or you don’t. Now that we have that out of the way, let me break down my routine for you.
10 minutes on the bike. I do this to get warmed up. The main purpose here is to get the body ready to move, wake it up a bit and to start sweating. I don’t like working out cold, the weights don’t move as well and overall I just don’t feel as well. This isn’t anything crazy. I set the bike up manually and put it on level 5 which on the bike at my gym is a pretty easy level. I don’t want a lot of resistance here I just want to loosen up. I have had to cut this out a few times on my journey due to time constraints and I have found that when I cut it out of the program my head isn’t into the game as much either. The bike is as much of a mental primer for me as it is a physical primer. When I first started my journey I just peddled along and monitored my heart rate without paying much attention to anything else. Now that I am in fairly decent shape I try to go 3 miles before the 10 minutes expire. I almost always make it but days when I am particularly sore I sometimes fall short. This is a good pace for me to start sweating and feel ready to workout.
Weights, this one varies a lot. Some days it’s quite short, others it’s quite long. I have 3 routines that I just indefinitely cycle through. I have changed them up a bit as I have progressed along but for the most part I have kept a split that puts Legs on day one, Chest, Shoulders and Triceps on day two and Back and Biceps on day three. I’ll come back to these routines in a bit.
Day four is scheduled as a rest day however I don’t always take it as a rest day. Based on how my body feels I have gone at times 10+ days without a break. Other times I have taken 2 days off in a row and sometimes I take a day off, go back the next day and end up taking the third day off. It’s all about feel with this one. If you feel like your body needs a break, take it. Don’t use this as an excuse to get lazy though. I have had two extended breaks in my journey. Fairly early on I contracted influenza, I was in bed for 6 days. Obviously I didn’t go to the gym during that time. I think I ended up being out of the gym for 8 days total. The other break was from a hip injury. I didn’t go to the doctor but it was fairly severe. I was in bed for 2 days from that one due to an inability to walk and missed the gym for 4 days. Aside from those two exceptions and a few times where I have taken more than just the fourth day off I have stuck to one day off a week very well.
Before I go into the workout routines I want to give a quick primer on rep count. I like to shoot for 8-10 reps on all exercises. However I also believe to get gains you need to fail, or at least get to that point. I never let myself fail on squat and if I don’t have a spotter I won’t let myself fail on bench either. For all other exercises I choose a weight that will allow me to fail somewhere in the range of 8-10 reps. Sometimes I don’t make it to 8 and that’s ok. The idea here is to put stress on the muscles to stimulate them to grow.
The other thing I would like to talk about is strength loss. I have absolutely lost strength on this journey but not a lot. I have noticed it primarily in the upper body movements. With the hip injury I didn’t squat for 2 months but in the 2 weeks that I have been back to squatting my strength is nearly where it was prior to the injury.
I’m not going to talk about the weights I use here as it’s subjective and I don’t want what I am able to do to influence your mindset.
With the workout routines I always start with the big compound lifts. These lifts activate the most muscle groups and will often exhaust some of the smaller ones in the process. In the gym I see a lot of people that do the rotator cuff exercises prior to doing shoulder press or bench. This is something that I absolutely do not agree with. When you execute the bench press you are using your shoulders, rotator cuff, triceps, and chest muscles. The rotator cuff muscles are the weakest link here. It doesn’t make sense to pre exhaust them as this just sets you up for injury. The routines I use below are built on the idea of trying to exhaust the big muscles first which will start to wear out the smaller muscles, as the routines progress the muscles exhaust in the order that you need them. For example on chest, shoulders and triceps day I start with two chest press exercises, these will work on the pectoral muscles while simultaneously working the triceps, shoulders and rotator cuff, ideally this will exhaust your pectoral muscles. From there we move to shoulder press which works to further exhaust the shoulders while also working the rotator cuff muscles and the triceps. Next Skull crushers which target the triceps. Next we finish burning out the shoulders with the 3 different raises and finally we cap the workout off by exhausting the rotator cuff.
I think routines should always work from biggest muscle to smallest. Similarly if you have a limited amount of time to workout I would suggest only doing the compound movements: bench press, squat, deadlift, bent over rows, overhead press. I certainly wouldn’t do them all every day but if you have a limited amount of time to exercise and want the most bang for your buck, those are the ones to do.
Without further ado, the workout routines.
Squats 3 x 8-10
Deadlifts 3 x 8-10
Box Step Ups 3 x 5 per leg
One legged Squats 3 x 10
Hamstring Curls 3 x 8-10
Calf Raises 3 x 8-10
Some sort of abs
Chest, Shoulders, Triceps:
Bench Press 3 x 8-10
Incline Dumbbell Press 3 x 8-10
Seated Shoulder Press 3 x 8-10
Skull Crushers 3 x 8-10
Lateral Raises 3 x 10
Frontal Raises 3 x 10
Rear Delt Raises 3 x 10
Cable Tricep Press down – until failure (burnout)
Rotator cuff exercises with a band.
Some sort of abs
One Arm Rows 3 x 8-10
Lat Pull Down, wide grip 3 x 8-10
Cable Rows, one cable per hand 3 x 8-10
Lat Pull Down, close grip 3 x 8-10
Cable Rows, close grip 3 x 8-10
Some sort of abs
That’s it for the weights. I have cycled this through since the beginning with a few changes along the way. When I first started I was altering things a lot to find a program I liked. No two days were ever really the same. Some of that was from the complete sensory overload that came from never having access to a lot of the machines. I have found this routine has served me well to this point. However at the time of this writing I am planning to change things up a bit. As I lose weight my goals are shifting a little bit. This was planned I just wasn’t sure exactly where along the journey it would happen. As I lose the weight my goals are shifting more toward building strength and potentially looking at the idea of competing in power lifting. I am not 100% sure if I will ever compete but at this point the idea intrigues me. I do not plan to update the routines in this as what is written above is what has gotten me to where I am.
I didn’t always finish up with abs every day, that’s a fairly recent development. I realized that I was having core stabilization issues when I was squatting and deadlifting so in an attempt to fix it I added daily abs. I am happy to report that the increase in volume for that particular body part has worked tremendously and I have seen increased stability in the squat and the deadlift. When it comes to abs on one day I use the decline bench and usually do 3 sets of 20 reps with a little twist at the top. The next day I will do leg raises in the captains chair. I also do obliques. I do them standing. For most of this journey I just held a 45 pound plate at my side and used my obliques to pull it up. Recently I found a new exercise that involves putting a 45 pound bar on my back as if I was going to squat but instead I just do the same motion that I was previously doing with the plate held at my side. I’ve found the barbell on the back has been far better and I will continue to use that method.
After I finish up with the weights and abs I head over to the stair mill. If you don’t know what that is, it’s the thing that looks like a giant revolving staircase. This is my cardio of choice. There are several reasons for making this choice. First and foremost, I don’t enjoy running any more. I ran in high school and am over it. I also can’t imagine trotting along for miles and miles on a belt under my feet. After ruling that out it came down to doing some research. I had to figure out which machine had the most bang for its buck. As it turns out climbing a never ending stair case is the way to go. It works basically all the same muscles that a squat works and elevates the heart rate.
A word about why I am doing weights and cardio, every time I go to the gym. The cardio serves a couple of purposes. First off I want to have a healthy cardiovascular system. There are a lot of power lifters who are ripped and in great shape but can’t run a mile without getting winded. I don’t want to be that way. I also see it as an assistance to the weights. If my cardiovascular health is good then I should have an easier time lifting weights. Cardio also burns calories. If I am to believe the most likely inaccurate calculator on the stair mill I burn 500+ calories in just 30 minutes. That’s pretty substantial.
When I get on the stair mill I select a program. The gym I go to recently got new machines, on the old machines I use to select fat burn which was a form of intervals. It would ramp up the speed, then back down over and over for the duration of the exercise. The new machines have the same thing but it’s called “Hills Plus.” When I first started going to the gym I was only able to do 10 minutes on the stair mill at level 4. Now every machine is different but the machine I was on meant on level 4 it went pretty damn slow. Over time I worked my way up to 20 minutes at level 10. This was when the new machines arrived, back to square one. On the new machines there are a lot more options. I always go in the Hills Plus menu as I think the interval training is the way to go. Within Hills Plus there are 4-5 different programs. I usually just cycle through them. One day I do the first one, then the second the next day etc. When the new machines arrived I was doing level 8 for 20 minutes. At the time of this writing I am able to do 30 minutes on level 10. Usually I bump it up a level when the slowest periods of the program get to be too easy. Currently the slow periods are 69 steps per minute and the fast periods are 101 steps per minute. The programs range from 140-150 floors in 30 minutes. By the end of it the machine is covered in sweat and I am soaked.
On the stair mill I do not hold on to the hand rails, ever. I believe to get maximum benefit it’s critical to force your legs to do all of the work. Using the hand rails even just a little bit takes away from this.
Last but not least, I get on the treadmill. I set it to 2.5mph, no incline and walk for 10 minutes to get my heart rate back down and to hopefully stop the process of pouring sweat. Much like the bike is a mental prep for getting to work, the treadmill has become a bit of a mental prep for going back to the real world. This is where I really try to relax and just appreciate all the work I just did.
Part 4: Conclusion
What is detailed above is what works for me. It is hard, some days I want to quit quite badly. What it comes down to is that I want to reach my goals more than I want to quit. I want my goals more than I want that cookie or piece of cake. Not every day is hard though, in fact I would say most days are just fine. Most days I feel great and enjoy every second of the gym.
You have to find what works for you. Everybody’s body responds differently to different things. It’s an experiment, a process, a lot of trial and error to find the exact thing that works for you that you can stick with.
Some things remain constant though, to lose weight you have to be at a deficit, to have muscle you have to do strength training, to increase your cardiovascular health you have to do cardiovascular exercise.
I hope this insight into my journey has been helpful. I wish you the bet of luck on your journey. Have a wonderful day!