Three years ago, I was in the worst shape of my life. I was approaching 300lbs, grabbing fast food at least once a day, and avoiding exercise at all costs. Though I’ve always enjoyed a nice, leisurely hike outdoors, I’ve never been athletic. The only sport in which I participated in high school was track, as a shotput and discus thrower. I did this because everybody who wanted to be on the team could be, no matter their level of athleticism.
In every track meet, consistently, I was dead last of all the throwers. I remember one time a guy who wasn’t even a thrower on our team just walked on during the meet—with zero training like I had been practicing for months—and threw almost twice as far as I did.
I then realized that I wasn’t athletic (or strong). Some people have it, and some don’t. I clearly didn’t: I was soft, weak, and slow.
So I began compensating for my lack of athletic ability and poor body composition. I became the life of the party; I was funny, outgoing, and would do crazy things to get a laugh. Over the years, I solidified my identity as someone who is amusing and charming at best, but unathletic and overweight.
I got used to being one of the most overweight guys in whatever group I was with. I became okay with it.
Dancing in the Streets
One Friday during that summer (3 years ago), there was a community event where I noticed a group of adults dancing in the street with choreography to some pop music on a loudspeaker. It had the vibe of a flash mob, but everybody was wearing the same shirt bearing the name of a dance studio. I wrote down the name and knew I had to check it out.
A couple of weeks later, I attended my first hip-hop dance class. I assumed we would start the session with 10 minutes of instruction, then finally perform the song all the way through, repeat with a couple of other songs, and that’s a class. When the music began, however, I was completely wrong. There was no instruction, and everybody else knew what they were doing. I was running around the back of the room trying not to get hit by the mass of people moving in sync.
It was all I could do to figure out at what point in the song I needed to move left and when I needed to move right. I did none of the footwork or arm movements everyone else was doing. I was a wheeled statue moving right, left, forwards, and backward. I was sweating not out of physical exhaustion but uncomfortable nervousness. I didn’t belong here.
I kept eyeing the door in the back of the room, wondering if I should wait for the song’s end to make my exit or just go now—something told me to wait it out. Finally, the hour was over, and I felt like a total failure. I thanked the instructor and waved bye to a few of the people near me in the class, and they all encouraged me to come again next week. They explained that it is hard for everyone at first, but you eventually get the hang of it. I had my doubts since I didn’t catch on to much during that first class, but I did enjoy that I was basically attending a dance club for an hour, in a way that is socially acceptable for an almost 40-year-old guy.
The following week I was back. A few people remembered me from last time, and it felt good to feel like I was making new friendships. Not to mention that besides the instructor, I was the only guy in a group of about 25 women, so I also stuck out a bit.
When the music started (I knew what to expect this time), I was delighted that it was a song I remembered from the last class. This time I tried doing some foot movements by watching the person in front of me and did a lot better at not bumping into the people to my sides. My arms still dangled with minimal moves because I couldn’t even fathom getting them involved—it was enough to focus on the feet. By the song’s end, I got about 30% of it, but it was progress!
The rest of the class involved some songs I remembered from last week and some new ones, but I felt way better than I did before. Finally, I felt like I was making progress, and if I stuck with it, I would eventually learn how to do some of these dances. So, I dove in. I kept coming back to classes, started learning everyone’s names, and practiced the dances during the week outside of class.
Hip-hop class quickly became a major social outlet for me, and while it didn’t exactly result in me getting in shape, it did halt my weight gain. Over the next few years, I would become an unofficial member of the dance community here in my city, getting to know which instructors taught where, and what their styles were. I could even dance different choreographed versions of the same song (shall we do Patrice’s version or Alex’s?)
Joining the Gym
The instructor who taught my initial dance classes, Alex, needed to close up his weekly class due to COVID-19 restrictions and other issues. There were still classes at the big box gym, so I joined there for $19/mo and attended classes about once a week. Again, I’m still pretty overweight at this point, but the combination of dancing and a half-assed attempt to eat better got me down to about 275lbs. However, I still had near-0 muscle mass and no athleticism (besides being able to do some fancy footwork to Doja Cat and Cardi B).
It bothered me that I looked like a bouncing potato sack when I danced. These dance rooms tend to be wall-to-wall mirrors, and though they are dimly lit, I can still see how I look compared to the other, leaner dancers in the room. Usually, I would ignore this feeling or stuff it deep down and remind myself that I’m a fun guy and don’t need to look athletic—but it still bothered me.
I started going to the gym during lunch hours. I would go on machines and move through the circuit of various body parts. This wasn’t the first time I had attempted to strength train, and as I would realize, just like every other attempt in the past, I was barely pushing myself—going through the motions, happy to have simply showed up to the gym. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, it’s an accomplishment for sure, but I would soon realize that for meaningful change to happen, I needed to push myself way harder.
Stop Being Fat
Okay, so this subheading is probably triggering for some and potentially offensive, but it was the mantra I had to come to in my head to light my spark for change. As I mentioned previously, there were identity statements that I had internalized and owned:
- You are not athletic
- You are not strong
- You are overweight (or, more bluntly: fat)
- You are the most overweight person in the group
- You don’t have to change anything about yourself because you are fine the way you are.
For some, that last statement is something they need to internalize for mental health, but for me, it was a barrier to taking control of my physical health. Being “fine” with how I looked had to change…I had to stop being okay with it. I had to want to rewrite my story. I had the relative health to do it, the financial means to join a gym, and a remote work schedule that allowed me to take my lunchtime to work out. I am intelligent and capable; the only thing standing in my way is me.
Bigger, Leaner, Stronger
I started pushing myself harder at the gym, adding more weights to my machine exercises. I got some creatine and decided I would bulk up my muscles and melt away my body fat. I was doing total body circuits three times a week, working each body part one or two sets per workout. I heard about “serious” bodybuilders doing “leg day” and such, but I was even more of a beast; I was working out my entire body in one workout. Booya! I’ve also heard of bodybuilders going through a bulk/cut cycle—what’s that for? Just bulk and cut at the same time. Efficient 🙂
I started listening to podcasts geared towards fitness, and one in particular—Muscle for Life with Mike Matthews—resonated well with me because he seemed well-researched and desired to “cut through the bullshit” so prevalent in the fitness community. He mentioned having a book that lays out much of what he preaches, so I ordered it from the library. In this book, I realized how little I understood about how strength is built. That is why serious bodybuilders split up their workouts—you need progressive overload during your workout to trigger the most change, which depletes your energy stores. By focusing on a portion of your body on separate days, you maximize those energy stores and push those muscles harder. A “total body” strength workout in one session is okay, but it limits how quickly you gain strength because you can’t push them as hard. So, I took Mike’s advice and started lifting a different body part daily, every day of the week. He wasn’t wrong; I maximized my gains over the coming months by exhausting my energy on specific body parts on certain days, giving them the rest of the week off (or allowing them to be secondary support muscles for other exercises).
“Many people don’t realize that the benefits of exercise go far beyond physiological and psychological improvements,”Michael Matthews
I also took Mike’s advice to work your sets in the 4-6 rep range, which means lifting something so heavy that you can do it at least four times but not more than six. If you can do six with good form, it’s time to go heavier. I realized that my token ten relatively easy reps that I called a workout weren’t anywhere near exhausting what I had been capable of. By bumping up my weights every time I hit six, I quickly found what my max workout ability truly was, and by pushing that week after week, the numbers grew measurably. I kept a spreadsheet on my phone that tracked how much I was lifting and what I should start with the following week. This made it so each gym session started with me knowing exactly what workouts I would do and with what weights. All I wrote down was what I should start with next time.
I’ve been on the Bigger, Leaner, Stronger plan for about six months now, and combined with a continued half-assed attempt to eat better, I’ve gained significant muscle and lost some fat. I can now see veins showing my forearms and individual muscles moving when I perform everyday tasks. I still have a substantial amount of body fat to lose and much more muscle-building potential, but I feel that I am about 1/3 of the way to what my physical best will look like.
I Accidentally Ran a Half-Marathon
Excited about my body starting to change, and my commitment to rewrite my story, I signed up for a half-marathon earlier this year. That part was not accidental, but you’ll see why I gave this heading here in a bit. I initially planned on lifting weights during lunch every other day (this was during my “total body” plan), and running every other day to prepare for the half. Once I learned from Mike Matthews that I should be ideally lifting every day to see maximum gains, I decided to put running on the back burner. In fact, I learned that running long distances actually catabolizes (eats away) your muscle mass, and was working against me in my drive to grow my muscled frame.
So, I basically stopped running altogether.
I hadn’t run for 2 months, and the race day was nearing. I was nervous. I had already paid for this half-marathon, and had done hardly any running to prepare for it. I was prepared to just not show up for it, but then I noticed that this race also had a quarter-marathon option. I figured I could eek out around 6.5 miles, even if I had to walk a few of them, so I emailed the race organizers asking if I could switch my race entry. They replied that it was not a problem and I was now entered into the quarter-marathon.
When the day before the race approached, I went to pick up my packet and noticed that my bib was the color of the half-marathon runners, and it said “Half Marathon” right on it. Everyone running the quarter had a different color bib, and we would be easily distinguishable while running. I knew from previous races that they have volunteers yelling and telling runners which way to go during the race, and I was afraid that they would try to yell me off of my quarter-marathon path and make me run the half, which would be a disaster.
Eventually, I just decided I would stop and explain to them that my bib was wrong and I was supposed to run the quarter only. So, with 0 recent training, I showed up at the race that morning ready to spend my run explaining to volunteers my situation.
The race began, and I chugged along at around 250 pounds, not a bit of me looking like a runner’s body, happy knowing that after about 1.5 hours I’d be enjoying half a bagel and a banana.
As it happens with races, the energy of the crowd running and cheers along the way can pump you up and make the first few miles much easier than they normally would running by yourself. Surprisingly, this energy kept up more than the first few miles, and by the time I reached mile 5 I was feeling pretty good. In fact, as I was approaching the split where they tell everyone to go in different directions depending upon which race they are running, I started asking myself if I had it in my to just run the half that my bib was so plainly stating I should be running.
To my surprise, there were no yelling volunteers, nobody telling me to run that half-marathon. I was completely free to choose which path I would go. I approached the split and at the very last moment, I turned away from the quarter-marathon finish line that was down the street on my left and decided to run another 7 miles to complete a half-marathon instead.
To be honest, I immediately regretted my decision, but nobody runs backwards in these races, so I just kept on.
I was able to push myself to run the entire race, not walking once, and asked myself if I could accomplish that with no training, what could I do with some actual training? As I write this I am signed up for another half marathon and have been training every other day in addition to my lifts…excited to see how my time will improve with the new dedication to training.
“Dude, You’re an Athlete”
Armed with a can-possibly-do attitude and enjoying the beginnings of a body transformation, I decided I would look for new ways to challenge myself. One such opportunity came at our community pool, while I stood at the end of the diving board, about to perform my greatest trick, a backwards dive. For some reason many people are afraid to do this, although it really just requires falling backwards off of the board with a slight bend so you don’t back-smack. It’s something I’ve been able to do since high school, and my only trick besides the cannonball.
I noticed kids doing all sorts of acrobatics off of the diving board, and while they were learning, plenty of back and belly-smacks. They just shook them off and kept trying until they were little gymnasts. I thought to myself, “I can probably do more than the back-dive if I am willing to endure some smacks in the process of learning a new dive.”
“It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”Theodore Roosevelt
And so began my training. The first thing I would attempt is a back flip. It just required more oomph to my back dive, and I knew I could do it back when I was in high school in my great-grandparents’ pool. It took an entire afternoon, but eventually I was able to pull one off…after over 20 years of not even attempting one!
The neighborhood kids thought it was great, because many of them couldn’t yet do the back flip, but for some reason most of them were able to front flip. So, a few kept egging me on to try a front-flip. I knew this would most certainly end in multiple belly flops as I worked on the mechanics of flipping my 235lb body in the air before smashing into the water’s surface. I wasn’t wrong. It was painful, but after about an hour, I was landing my front flips.
At this point, with a front and back flip under my belt, I thought I was done. Then I saw someone do an inverted dive. This is where you begin by facing backwards on the diving board, and jump backwards while you dive in forwards. It requires just the right timing and body positioning to not smash your face into the diving board, or crack your head on the edge.
To mitigate my risks, I decided to start working on these by jumping slightly to the side in addition to backwards, so that way I would be beside the diving board instead of directly in front of it. This was wise as a few attempts would have definitely cost me some teeth had I been in line with the diving board. After two hours of practice, I believe I was able to do it, but I had trained myself to always turn off to the side to protect myself, and I couldn’t do it properly straight back from the jump.
It took me a full week of practicing at the pool (mixed with continued practice on my flips) before I was able to do the inverted dive with good form, directly in line with the diving board, without smashing my face. Every time I do them for the first time, at least one onlooker gasps as they think I’m going to crack my head on the diving board, but every time I have the clearance I need and end with a minimal-splash inverted dive. It’s one of my favorite tricks to do now.
While the flips and inverted dive are my “big attraction” tricks, there are plenty of minor tricks that I’ve learned from the neighborhood kids, including a twist dive, running back-dive, cartwheel off the board, maximum-splash jackknife, sailor dive, starfish dive, and others. I even know the new tricks in my queue, that I need to work on in the near future (the 1.5 flip-dive and a gainer).
“Be not the slave of your own past – plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep, and swim far, so you shall come back with new self-respect, with new power, and with an advanced experience that shall explain and
overlook the old.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
Our community has an adult steak and ale party at the pool in mid-August. This involves unlimited alcohol and a smorgasbord of side dishes brought in by around 80 families. I stopped drinking alcohol on my birthday last year, and so was one of the rare sober people at this party. I also switched my large steak for a chicken breast and stuck to the salads as side dishes, so I wasn’t full or bloated either. As the evening went on and people began using the pool and diving boards (largely for cannonballs by us overweight dads), I ran through my repertoire of flips and fancy dives. Okay, maybe I was showing off a bit, but I also just really love doing them whenever I get the chance. I would have still done them with 0 audience. Afterwards, at a table where I participated in the drinking game “flip cup” (with a Coke Zero), I noticed the guy next to me, in his late 20’s, new to the neighborhood, sans shirt and with a youthfully muscled physique. Since I’m working towards altering my own body shape I tend to take notice of guy’s bodies more these days. I think “How close will I get to this body type? Will my muscles show like that? What is attractive or unattractive about his body? How can I use this image to motivate myself?” Anyway, this guy left me thinking “I hope that I’m not too old to attain a body like this.”
So, my new friend, next to me in flip cup, said “Dude, I saw you on the diving board. Were you on a diving team? I couldn’t even begin to do any of those things you did, you’re a true athlete.” And he continued cheering me on during the game by chanting “Athlete! Athlete!” Normally I would have wished he would have just taken the moment to remember my name, but I really didn’t mind the nickname. Besides, I’ve never been called an athlete before! Granted he might have been a bit drunk, but I’m not going to let that take away my happiness of that moment 🙂
Can’t Hurt Me
In recently reviewing some of the top nonfiction books on Amazon, I stumbled across the book Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins. I hadn’t heard of it before but it sounded interesting enough, so I ordered a copy from the library and found it to be full of inspiration. David Goggins was also nearly 300 lbs at one point in his life, and also has overcome some pretty serious obstacles and has been a Navy Seal, ran multiple ultra-marathons, and held the world record for most pull-ups in a 24 hour period (oh the random things that exist in the world of Guinness). The book outlines his mental journeys in overcoming barriers, and the many times his mind told him to quit, and he developed the mental toughness to keep going.
Goggins believes that we all have an internal governor telling us that it’s time to give up when we only hit about 40% of our potential. Ever felt too tired to keep jogging? Unless it’s from an acute pain or injury, it’s just your brain saying “I don’t want to do this anymore,” even though your body could actually handle much more before you were on the verge of collapse. Goggins has accomplished the feats of his life by pushing past this internal voice and doing things he once thought impossible. From the book:
“We each have a lot more in us than we know…everyone can achieve feats they once thought impossible. In order to do that we must change our minds, be willing to scrap our identity, and make the extra effort to always find more in order to become more.”David Goggins
This statement stood out to me enough to inspire this entire blog post. The thing is, I feel like the biggest change in me has been my mind. I have given myself a different story to follow. I no longer see myself as unathletic, or the guy destined to be overweight his whole life. I realize that there is so much untapped potential in me, in all of us, and often times we limit ourselves mentally and fall into what is comfortable.
Looking Forward to Part 2
As I write this I am still losing body fat while gaining muscle, and training for a half-marathon in a few months. I’ve lost around 70lbs of body fat from my greatest weight, and put on a noticeable amount of muscle. I am consistently pushing my muscles to lift weights 5 days per week, tracking gains religiously on my spreadsheet. I am a couple weeks into my running program for the half-marathon, running about 25 miles per week. I still dance for an hour once or twice per week 🙂. In order to pull this off without burning out, I strategically space out my training (run in the early morning, lift at lunch, dance in the evenings), eat well, stretch and use a foam roller, and try hard to get in quality sleep.
I am too old to join the Navy Seals, but I thought it would be fun to be able to meet their minimum requirements, which includes a handful of feats like 50 pushups in 2 minutes. I have been pushing myself towards this goal, and now can knock out all 50 in just over 1 minute.
As mentioned previously, I feel that I am at about 1/3 of my potential. I look forward to continued fat loss (I would love to get below 15% body fat), continued muscle gains (nothing specific other than to have a lifelong relationship with strength training, understanding I’ll hit close to my natural genetic potential in 2-5 years). I want to master more acrobatics off of the diving board, learn how to twerk without looking like I’m having a seizure, replace my wardrobe with well-fitting clothes that aren’t simply meant to hide my body type, and complete a half-marathon in under 2 hours. These aren’t even big, hairy, audacious goals. Each one has a roadmap. I’m even getting quotes to install hard flooring in my basement instead of carpeting so I can work on YouTube shuffling tutorials.
I’m 43 years old, bald, and overweight. The only hair I have on my head (facial hair) is starting to gray. I could easily accept the Homer Simpson archetype, the dad-bod, and count down the years as each of my joints slowly fails and needs to be replaced while I gain more and more body fat, complaining about how hard it is getting older. This isn’t my story, however. I’m a man on a journey. I don’t even know what I’m capable of yet. Right now, I’m a well-dressed, muscular, handsome, impressively athletic guy who owns any dance floor he comes across. I run towards challenges and am not afraid to fail. I hope that one day the average guy my age will look at me and say, “I couldn’t do that, I wasn’t born with those genes or wasn’t a star athlete in my youth like he must have been.”
Our potential is often much greater than we realize. Don’t settle into complacency. We get to write our own stories. I look forward to writing a second chapter to this post when I approach the next 2/3 of my potential.
My wife read this article and noticed how there was no mention of her in the process. It’s strange, because all along our relationship, she’s encouraged me to make healthy choices. I wish that would have been enough to motivate me. When faced with the decision to pull into a fast-food line to stuff myself with items from the dollar menu (yeah, those used to be a thing), I wish I would have said, “No, I’m going to choose to be healthy, to be around longer, to be active and energetic for my family.” Perhaps I even did say that to myself, but then ordered the fries anyway.
I’ve learned that it is really hard to be motivated to trade a sure thing for now (enjoying fries in t-minus 60 seconds) for an unsure thing in the future (living a long, healthy life). Motivation is tricky and illogical. For years I didn’t choose health or longevity, as much as that might have made my wife and family feel loved and important to me…more important than the extra trips to fast-food drive-thrus.
Despite all of this, she remained by my side as I put on the pounds. It was hard for her to observe and hurtful at times as she felt I was choosing temporary indulgences with long-term consequences over things that would benefit our relationship in years to come.
And yet, here I am—now full of motivation and making healthy choices. The journey above didn’t include being motivated by others, not even my wife or kids. The motivation came from a desire to change for myself, to want to be the best version of myself, influenced by external factors such as dance class mirrors and diving boards. It’s not a touching story; it’s just the truth. That being said…I am grateful for the support that my wife and kids have provided. The encouragement and patience I experience at home are a true blessing. One of the main benefits of slowly losing the pounds and—I’m assuming—adding years to my life, is the vibrant life I look forward to spending with my loved ones in the years ahead.
I keep thinking of things to add to this post. Typically I would use social media for these, but I am basically off of all social channels, so I’ll update here! Warning: some of these updates may sound like bragging because they are milestones for me, and very meaningful. I’m sure there will come a day when I am used to being “the new me”, but for now, I still deal with seeing myself as I was close to 300lbs. I post these updates here as therapy for myself to see myself in a new light.
Sept 7, 2022:
I started off the day not eating anything, and worked from a coffee shop until about 2:00. By then I was so hungry and was driving by a Rally’s (which has some pretty awesome fries and is not near my house, so a rare thing to drive by). I pulled in, got a burger and fries. Then afterwards felt like I had “messed up” already so I stopped at another place for an ice cream cone. Later that night, I had pizza and fried lasagna balls. I think I ingested about 4,500 calories that day. BUT…each day is it’s own battle. No, each minute is its own battle. Get back up, Battles. Dust yourself off, reflect on the learning lesson, and move on.
Sept 12, 2022:
There is a guy at my gym that I call “superman” in my head because he basically looks like superman 🙂 He’s solid-chested, lean, and has jet-black hair. He’s probably a few years older than me, but not much. I assume he’s in sales because of his looks and friendly demeanor. When I met him I asked if he was there every day, and he stated that he was, and it’s been a bit of an obsession for him for most of his life.
This guy was placed in my mind as someone I’d like to strive to be like, or at least to look like. So the milestone happened earlier this week when we met up at the drinking fountain and he said: “Dude, you’re putting up some serious weight back there. I saw what you were doing and was impressed. You’re strong, man! I haven’t been able to work out with that much on the bench for a while now. I did when I was in my prime, but no longer.”
I couldn’t believe it. I looked up to HIM, and here he was complimenting me on my strength. As I mentioned in the first section of this article…I was always the weakest. I am inclined to see myself as weak, or “not like most guys.” And now superman is telling me that he is impressed with my strength. I nearly cried after leaving the gym. This meant so much to me as it contrasts the narrative playing in my head.
Sept 14, 2022:
Had my annual physical today. My doctor was asking me how I’d lost nearly 30lbs since last year at this time. All of my markers had improved. I’m still on blood pressure meds but he asked if I planned on continuing my weight loss…and if so I should keep an eye on my lowering blood pressure so we can reduce or eliminate the meds. Eliminate sounds good 🙂
Oct 4, 2022:
My birthday was a few weeks ago. My twin daughters’ birthday was around the same time. I justified a few “celebratory” eating moments around those dates and got VERY loose with my eating, and started down a path of no longer tracking my intake or self-control. I am now recalibrating my eating and following an intentional eating plan, but every day is a challenge, especially in the evenings. I gained about 4 lbs since my birthday, and I’m guessing 2 of those are water weight and 2 might be fat. Hard to say, but I’m jumping back on the wagon. Workouts have been consistent.
I’m noticing that a lot of my snacking around the house, or late-night eating, feels like I’m chasing a dopamine hit that comes from snacking on something. I just want something sweet, or warm and greasy. I’m going to try to give myself an alternate dopamine hit when I find myself craving a snack, like some pushups? 10 mins of a video game? Sounds easier to type than to do in real life, but I’ll give it a shot.
Oct 16, 2022:
I ran a half marathon today and landed my fastest time in 14 years. I was hoping to finish under 2:30, and ended up with an official time of 2:26. I started off strong in the race, and after about 8 miles I found myself struggling. I wanted to walk, and did have a few moments of rest where I allowed myself to walk. However, I picked myself back up in part because I wanted to achieve my time goal, and I kept hearing David Goggin’s voice in my head saying. “You can’t run without legs.” That’s it. Too tired? You can run. You have legs? You can run. So, I did! In fact, I pushed myself like crazy in that last mile and ran as fast as my body would allow after already running 12 miles.
Next year, will I reach that goal of a sub 2:00 half marathon? We’ll see, but I need to continue to lose this extra weight and keep training.
Oct 17, 2022:
This will be my last update to this page. While I could keep going with regular updates, I realize that I need to have something to share in Body Transformation Part 2! Today I am buckling down on my eating and exercising, focusing on getting down to 200lbs. I weighed in this morning at 230lbs, so I guess that means I have to lose 30lbs. Yikes! However, I also want to practice the art of “Put up or shut up.” I don’t want to blog endlessly about how I want to lose 30lbs; I’ll just do it and then post about the process.
So, thank you for reading this far. See you in 30lbs. 👋