Throughout a decade of working as a personal trainer I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of my clients make some drastic changes in their lives and in turn their appearance. Jakob is one such story.
Not everyone comes to start training looking for a total life change, some just want a bit more motivation or information on how to train a bit better, but Jakob had reached a stage in life where things had to change. Of course, many transformations that appear on the internet happen over comparatively short periods of time, it makes them seem remarkable and emotive and often alludes to some sort of secret formula or system behind the scenes although there rarely (if ever) is. The disappointing truth is that the age old principles of hard work, dedication, persistence, commitment, and desire all win over any particular training system or supplement (more on that later). So, this isn’t so much a transformation rather than a journey, and one that has been incredibly hard to summarise. Plenty is left out even though I’ve tried to be as candid and honest as possible.
Jakob is a true “hard-gaining ectomorph”, a definition that gets used rather casually these days to describe almost anyone untrained and not grossly overweight. The fact is that true hard-gainers simply cannot gain muscle like Casey Viator in the infamous Colorado experiment. If they could, the term ‘hard-gainer’ wouldn’t be very apt. Our very own Sarah Lindsay recently worked with a similar hard gaining ectomorph in Mens’ Health journalist Ed Reeves. Ed faced many of the same challenges as Jakob: food became a chore, gaining mass was a lot harder than losing weight, and intense training sessions could leave his previously untrained body struggling to recover.
Pictures don’t tell half the story
Before and after photos don’t tell you a whole lot. Sure you get to see two points in time side by side, but so much valuable information is missing. Age, training age, training experience, hormonal/anabolic status, work and life stress, training frequency, sleep, nutrition, and many other variables mean that in the ‘real world’ it is a lot more complex than how many sets or reps you did or what programme/diet you followed. In Jakob’s case we had to compete with a job where he often got up for work at 4.30 a.m and spent most of the day on his feet walking; basically hours of long slow duration cardio, the weapon of choice for the body-builder looking to lean out. His job meant that eating alone became a serious challenge, not to mention the effect it was having on sleep and recovery.
Typical of a true ectomorph Jakob was relatively lean when he started, coming in at 17% bodyfat, within the ‘normal’ range for a male. However, he had the kind of diet that makes a trainer visibly wince when they look at the food diary, full of sugary drinks and snack food. He also had two habits synonymous with not gaining muscle from before the days of research studies guiding training habits: smoking and soda consumption. If we were to succeed, both of these had to go. Over time our biggest challenge remained getting enough food, 4000Kcal a day was our target but it proved tough and on occasion impossible. It started to become a chore and required the need for liquid nutrition to bump up the calorie quota. Protein shakes can be a great supplement, but I am sure that they tend to cause bloating and body fat gain when used in large amounts.
By trying to clean up the diet (clearing out the high amounts of processed food and sugar) we made it harder. Protein and fat are a lot harder to over eat than simple sugars; they also tend to require more digestive effort and deeper pockets. However, there was no way Jakob was getting into shape on Cola, cigarettes, and chocolate bars so they had to go. This took considerable effort as the addictive nature of nicotine, sugar, and caffeine, make it tough work to swap out for broccoli, quinoa, and chicken. However, two years later taking it one step at a time, we have got rid of the cigarettes and sodas and made a big old dent in the chocolate consumption. We found a very effective approach was to blend periods of high calorie eating with a ‘recovery’ week where he could relax about getting enough food and concentrate on just living.
As far as supplements go, it has been a case of keeping it simple enough to stick to. Essential fats, zinc, magnesium, BCAA’s and cycling of various herbals aimed at improving sleep and anabolism. Nothing complex. Nothing illicit.
Training variables are often given pride of place in discussions on training effectiveness. However, not a lot has really changed in this world since Doug Hepburn first pressed 500lbs. Age old principles of progressive overload and good recovery are as valid now as they were then, although less attention tends to be given to recovery with many of the lower volume approaches being marginalised. Australian Ian King, responsible for innovating and refining many modern training methods, has stated that he believes the influence of anabolic steroids to have been a major contributor in how modern training programmes are created. These training programmes are often high in volume and can challenge the recovery ability of those not set-up for body-building. The ‘average’ man now is battling many catabolic stresses and needs to ensure that training doesn’t simply become another of those; training volume seems to be the key factor in this equation.
Over the two years we experimented with several approaches, but the fact is that so many other variables confounded things that we still can’t be sure what programming approach produced the absolute best outcome, if any did. My gut instinct is that keeping total work sets relatively low, times under tension high, and using (sparingly) techniques such as 21′s, 1 1/4 reps, and giant sets, was most effective. Going to failure was essential but not on a week in, week out basis.
And, just to fly in the face of the latest trend in functional training, we much preferred the use of bodypart split training with a healthy spattering of isolation work concentrating (after having established decent base levels of strength in all major movements) on areas that would favour the ectomorph build, trying to add width at the shoulders and thickness to the back. It was a lot of fun. Too many of these training methods have been rejected by the modern influences on the personal training industry. They simply aren’t cool enough. As an aside from this, we found that focusing on a particular area to develop was a better motivator than simply concentrating on weight gain, which often wasn’t reflective of the changes in size and shape.
It is the relationships we build with our clients that really make this job fun to do and this one has been one of the best. Jakob’s single-minded determination was inspiring although paired with a steely resolution to bend rather than break to my suggested advice. I have learnt over the years that personal training courses pay little real attention to the actual art of coaching and understanding peoples desire and motivation for change, yet as a coach probably no other skill is more necessary than the ability to change someone’s behaviours. Jakob has become a different person to train, capable now of pushing himself hard to failure and beyond. Our first sessions nearly broke him, the bench on Bishopsgate outside Liverpool Street becoming the post-session refuge; but over time he has developed the confidence and ability to train independently with great success. As a coach, it was about Jakob knowing that I wanted him to succeed as much as he did, perhaps sometimes even more. As the client Jakob bought commitment, respect, and enthusiasm that often lifted me and inspired me to keep trying my best to help him stay positive and focused without being overly narcissistic or obsessive. He was adamant that he still wanted a fun life, drinks with friends, and a training regime that worked with his job.
Despite a few bumps in the road, I think we got there…..
I’ve been training with Foundry Fit’s Graeme Marsh for almost 2 years. I arrived as an underweight, chain smoking, coke drinking fitness-novice on the cusp of a midlife crisis. Initially every training session was pure agony. I had no strength. My body was shaking. At times it felt like torture. But, Graeme, your endless positive energy and utter commitment to my physical and emotional well-being saw me through. My health, lifestyle and confidence have improved no end. You were with me all the way. And for that I’m eternally grateful. Still drinking coke though.