Chapter 4 in Book 2: Enso Temple
"From Businessman to Beast" is the story of Michael's awesome physical transformation - where he gained over 20lbs of muscle in 6 weeks, on less than 2 hours of training per week. This chapter, along with two others in Book/Part 2: Enso Temple, comprise what I consider to be the foundations of physical transformation and peak performance.
"The Tao of Nutrition" chapter teaches you how (not necessarily what) to eat for sustainable energy, a lean, strong physique, and greater mental focus, while "The Austrian Actress and the Shaolin Imperative" tells the story of Verena's rapid transformation, and provides the training and dietary prescription for rapid fat loss.
While In Pursuit of Weightlessness covers a lot of territory, these three chapters are essential for anyone serious about fully owning their physical development and performance. I dare say that in matters of physical transformation - fat loss, strength & muscle gain, and sustainable, effortless nutrition, THESE ARE ALL YOU'LL EVER NEED.
Enjoy Michael's story!
Once in a while, a project comes along that allows me to ride the line between applied science and art that makes me love my job. Michael, proud beer-drinking Dane, CEO of Industreams, and the only other dedicated member of the Shanghai Dice Club, with its noble commitment to furthering mindfulness, randomness, and antifragility over beer-filled conversations and challenging dice challenges, visited Enso with a very clear objective (more on the Dice Club in Book 3).
“I’ll give you one hour a week for six weeks, to transform my body and teach me everything I need to know about fitness for the rest of my life. I’ll do anything I need to do on my own to supplement or complement my time with you.”
Now this is something I’ve heard more times than I can count. The majority of prospective clients start a program with a confidence that has no rational foundation. They overestimate their ability to control their schedules and their cravings, and their ability to maintain that same state of motivation when the training actually gets tough. And it does.They’re used to controlling their environments, environments that fall under their domains and become increasingly easier as they dissect, understand, and manage. But fitness, my friends, at least transformative fitness, does not get any easier with time. It’s a constant uphill battle that requires continuous adaptation for survival.
But Michael was no ordinary client, because he is no ordinary man. I’d never met anyone with greater willpower and focus. Industreams and Enso Temple were siblings of sorts. They were born less than a year apart, both infused with a creative energy and passion that came from difficult dice-dictated protocols and assignments used to enhance growth and expand product offerings. When he’s not wheeling and dealing with big swinging dicks in investment banking, he’s generally fixated on some philosophical, economic, or more recently fitness query. But he’s never been one for reading and leaving.
Michael implements every single point of interest that he cannot rationally discredit, and he does so by scheduling tons of five-minute focused efforts throughout the day. These are mini-timelines with clearly defined goals. If he wasn’t brilliantly effective, one might call him neurotic. But he tests and experiences everything first-hand with a healthy skepticism, much of it guided by the die.
When Michael told me he would do everything necessary for transformation, giving me only an hour of his time each week, I smiled. He’s a doer, not a sayer. So it was no surprise when, after six weeks, Michael had gained fifteen pounds of weight and considerably reduced his body fat. I never take body fat measurements because they pale in comparison to strength and stamina metrics when designing a progressive program, and the sense of confidence, or lack thereof, that you feel standing naked in front of a mirror trumps any number a little gizmo might display about how lean you are.But this isn’t rocket science. If someone gains weight and their tone improves (which is predominately a byproduct of reduced body fat), then lean muscle gain exceeds the number of pounds added on the scale. Michael, in six weeks, gained about twenty pounds of lean muscle and lost five to eight pounds of body fat.
His transformation was so rapid that friends believed he was on steroids. His own physical strength, performance, and confidence skyrocketed. His girlfriend thanked me. His before photo was a portrait of your average desk jockey, with poor posture and no meat to speak of, a bit of cushion around the midsection.When we made a video synopsis of Michael’s results six weeks later, he was lifting weights that in some cases reflected gains of 100 percent or more. His frame had filled out to that of a conditioned rugby player with thick, full biceps, well-developed traps and shoulders, and a thick thoracic region. His before and after images were so impressive that his video testimonial alone sent me several similar projects over the following years.
The irony is that Michael’s friends were not entirely wrong. While I didn’t have Michael sticking needles into his ass, the training regime I had him on, coupled with extreme calorie shifting, did cause his body to release copious amounts of anabolic growth hormones. While Michael was in the game to get fit and transform himself, my goal was simple: make him as strong as possible, as quickly as possible, by doing as much damage as possible.Nature couldn’t care less how good you look naked or what dress size you wear. Nature respects power, strength, and stamina. It just so happens that the default physique of a strong, powerful human is a lean, ripped physique with a good deal of muscle. I was sending a very clear message to Michael’s neuromuscular system: Grow or die.
This is where most novices (and I dare say many trainers) go terribly wrong in the gym. They believe they can train for bigger muscles. Size is not a virtue that nature respects. More size is more weight. Nature much prefers a strong and very lean physique, making individuals lighter and faster. To add significant bulk, there must be a real biological threat to your health and an overabundance of nutrition.Stress must be great enough that your body has no option but to build up a wall of protection – that is, fast- twitch muscle fiber – in order to accommodate your environmental needs. If you train to become bigger, you’ll probably fail. If you train to become stronger, you’ll probably succeed, with the unintended consequence of adding a good bit of muscle.
So how did Michael add approximately twenty pounds of lean muscle in six weeks?
• Fundamental compound exercises• High-tension, high-intensity resistance training (heavy weights) • Calorie shifting and carbohydrate cycling, while eating real food
Compound exercises are those that use multiple muscle groups to perform a certain lift. A triceps extension is an isolation exercise. The bench press is a compound lift. A bicep curl is an isolation exercise, a pull-up and a bent-over row are compound lifts. There is almost no reason, save for elite bodybuilding, to use isolation exercises. In sports, combat, and play, we all use the many to attack the few, the coordinated whole to accomplish a single end.
Dividing and isolating our strengths weakens us. I’ll admit that isolation exercises may have a place within a program to supplement compound weightlifting, but they should never replace or supersede the larger compound movements. For the needs of the masses, isolation exercises are totally unnecessary.
From the time a child begins to move, it moves in synchronicity. A head doesn’t turn without the entire body turning along with it. Reaching for a toy is a fully committed action, with both arms extending and the knees bending to support. It’s only as we mature that we begin to fracture this natural muscular union. We become stronger, so we use less energy.
But the question we should be asking ourselves is the following: how did we become stronger in the first place?
The first movement a baby performs is a modified push-up, lifting the head and shoulders off the ground. This is followed by a crawl (resembling that much-dreaded exercise, the mountain climber), and later by the almighty squat as babies begin to stand. When old enough to play, they pick up toys with textbook deadlift form.
To this day, when clients travel and ask what they should do to maintain their practice while away, my response is always, “Squats and push-ups.” They can be done in any hotel room or park. There are no excuses. They are the foundation of fitness. Why? Because they’re what humans do. Dogs run like hell, cats stretch and leap. Humans push, pull, squat, and press.
If you aren’t pushing and squatting, you’re not training. This always seems to elicit a sigh of frustration; they want a sexy little circuit to carry with them. But there’s nothing sexy about it. We grew from infants to children on squats and push-ups. You’ll grow from unfit to fit following the same method.
Without needing to learn anatomy in depth, you can break down the necessary compound movements according to five vectors of force: push, pull, squat, press (overhead), and twist. These vectors, when performed as compound lifts, exercise every muscle in the body.
When weight is sufficient, they can develop a perfectly lean and muscular physique. No machines, gadgets, or esoteric techniques are necessary. Have a look at the physiques of power lifters (non-heavyweights), and you’ll see beacons of symmetry and health. These athletes focus on the primaries: the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
Since the beginning of time, warriors and military men have been conditioned on the bread and butter of fitness – push-ups, squats, pull- ups, sit-ups, and running. Simple? Yes. Effective? Nothing is more effective. When someone needs fitness for survival, as a soldier does, you’d better believe they’ll implement the most efficient and effective exercises. I don’t recall anyone complaining about the physiques of military men recently.
Furthermore, they concentrate on exercises that directly involve moving their own bodyweight through space, not exercises performed while locked into a machine. Why? Because fitness has everything to do with performance, with powerful movement in the real world, and not with an occasional photo shoot.
To make it even simpler, only one exercise in each vector (assuming the weights used are heavy enough) is sufficient for complete muscular development. You don’t need three or four different exercises per vector. You can pick one from each of the following lists:
• Push-ups (and if strong enough, one-arm push-ups)
• Bench press
• Incline press
• Bent-over row
• High pull (upward row)
Squat (add weight to increase intensity and resistance)
• Shoulder press
Twist (use the muscles required for stabilizing twisting movements. Actual twists are not necessary)
• Oblique crunches
• Supported decline twists
After Michael’s first session, he looked like absolute shit. He was trembling, unstable, and weak. Destroyed. The first session contained only three lifts – the dumbbell chest press, the dead lift, and the shoulder press. Each exercise was performed for four to five sets to failure, with repetitions ranging from three to fifteen (depending on his level of fatigue). Every effort was 100 percent to failure. He rested and repeated.Following our session he went for a large bowl of pasta and chicken, followed two hours later by a large plate of meat and veg. He had two full dinners in the course of four hours, and more than 60 percent of his daily caloric needs in the same period of time.
We sent every signal to his nervous system that his current physique was inadequate to handle the stresses of his environment. In providing an immediate carbohydrate meal, his glycogen stores were quickly replenished and his insulin spiked, increasing his cellular receptivity for recuperative nutrients.Two hours later, he received all the nutrients he needed to reconstruct damaged tissue with mixed vegetables and lean meat. He consumed no juices or powders. He ate real food when his body needed it most.
Michael couldn’t walk or move well for the following three days. He cursed and condemned me via text message. But he kept his word and finished two short supplementary workouts before I saw him next, each consisting of less than fifteen minutes of high-intensity bodyweight circuits, focusing on push-ups, jump lunges or squats, and mountain climbers.
You avid gym goers out there may be wondering why there isn’t any core work. The reason is simple. Core work is bullshit. The venerators of the esteemed core have grown into a cult of modern mystics. Few can explain what the core actually is. Even fewer can explain what it does. But everyone thinks they have a weak one, due to muffin tops squishing out over their belt line.
Let’s demystify the core a bit. The muscles of your midsection (most notably the abdominals, the internal and external obliques, and the muscles of the lower back) have one coordinated function – to stabilize movement. Without the core, no complex motor movements are possible. As such, it’s always working. When you’re doing a push- up, what do you think keeps your hips and thighs off the ground? Your core.When you’re performing a squat with weight on your back or held in your hands, what do you think keeps your upper body from collapsing under the weight? Your core. When you’re pressing heavy weight above your head, what keeps your spine from twisting and collapsing under you? Yep, still the core.
It’s the most overrated region of the body to train, and the least understood. My clients constantly tell me they have a weak core and ask if we can spend more time on it. When I ask why, they point to belly fat. At this point, we have a gentle heart-to-heart on the differences between fat and muscle and how they are diametrically opposed in form and function.One can have a very strong core and still look very soft on the outside. Pudge is fat – energy stored as a result of the overconsumption of certain foods and poor nutrient selection. It has nothing to do with strength or stability. If someone is capable of holding a plank for a minute or more with no lower back pain, their core strength is sufficient to prevent injury through general mobility and bodyweight exercises. Period.
Compared to most trainers, I give very little direct attention to the core. However, my method of training constantly calls on the muscles of the core to act as they are intended, namely to stabilize complex movement. It isn’t until weeks into a program, once my clients begin to develop a trim waistline and a lean, toned midsection, that they stop asking for more core work.The way I teach people, using their bodies to push, pull, and control their own weight through resistance training and a variety of short, intense, cardiovascular exercises, provides indirect but highly effective core work. Only those who rely on isolating gym equipment, which removes the core from compound exercises, require extensive supplementary core work.
You want a strong core? Do a standing shoulder press, not a machine press. Use heavy weight. You want a strong core? Perform a heavy deadlift, not a seated leg press or (even worse) a leg extension. Lift and move as you would if you were actually lifting and moving in the real world, and you’ll be amazed at how strong you are as a whole.
Two to five minutes of concentrated abdominal work at the end of a comprehensive full-body workout a few times per week is sufficient for a strong, lean core. Hell, if you’re training properly, you may never need to crunch or plank, as your abs and obliques are contracting like hell to stabilize high-resistance movements.
Week after week, Michael sported a thicker, more defined physique. What mattered to me more was the direction of his stats, and those too were climbing at a rapid rate. As his recovery time improved, we added other vectors, until he was including a big pull, like the bent-over row, and a weighted squat (holding the weight in front of his chest with straining and trembling biceps). All the while his core was being used to stabilize extremely intense efforts with weight extended above or in front of him.
Now, how do we define intense? The definition is exceedingly simple. If you can’t continue the effort for very long, it’s intense. By definition, then, nothing exceeds the intensity of a one-rep max. This is lifting as heavy a weight as you possibly can.
Ever wonder why power lifters (excluding heavyweights) sport such well-developed physiques when they only practice three basic lifts? They lift extremely heavy weights. The muscle fibers that grow larger from stress, fast-twitch muscle fibers, are targeted with heavy weight. Slow-twitch muscle fibers are responsible for walking, jogging, reading, writing, and playing mahjong. They don’t have the growth potential of fast-twitch fibers.But fast-twitch fibers need a reason to grow.
They are only called into action and recruited to perform their duty when slow-twitch fibers are insufficient to complete an effort. Therefore the amount of weight lifted and the intensity of the exercise are directly related to fast-twitch fiber recruitment, damage, and subsequent muscular hypertrophy or adaptation.
If you can’t safely lift to your maximum muscular potential with certain muscle groups, time under tension becomes an increasingly important factor. I had Michael perform his lifts with a slow cadence, where the eccentric (stretching) and concentric (shortening) phases of the lift lasted about five seconds each.When newbies enter the gym, they get so excited to pump iron that they throw weight around like a toddler on the playground – but momentum is the enemy of strength. A fast, explosive muscle requires some ballistic training, but the strength required for fast, explosive movement is best trained under sustained tension, which may include a static contraction with no movement whatsoever.
Our primitive ancestors were incredibly strong. Do you think they did repetitions of exercises? What for? What’s a rep?
When you need to lift, move, or chop, you hold, stabilize, and move the object as quickly as possible. If I ask you to move a boulder, you’ll find a way to jockey it up to your chest, squeezing with your arms, and deliver it to its destination post-haste. All the while, you’ll be fighting the insane burn in your biceps and upper back. You won’t lift and curl, release and repeat, checking yourself out in the mirror looking for perfect form. You’ll fight to complete the assignment, and you’ll rest fully.
If you were hunting, you wouldn’t jog lightly for extended periods of time and then, when the clock dictates, slash repeatedly in defined sets and reps. You would walk leisurely until you corner your prey (which seems to be the preferred method of hunting in hunter- gatherer societies), conserving as much energy as possible for the kill.
You would approach quietly. And in one all-out burst you would sprint, and stab the creature until its life was extinguished. Then you would commune for Friday night dice club over prehistoric beer and burgers.
Intensity and tension are required for both strength and power. With every set, Michael’s muscle fibers were screaming for release. His face was straining, his body shaking, his voice occasionally growling. He held nothing back. Week after week, his numbers went up. Most novices make the mistake of linking soreness or fatigue with a productive workout. That’s generally because at the beginning of any program, these are coincidental sensations.Most people can’t walk after the first session. Some people puke. And they realize rapid growth. But after you’re somewhat conditioned, feelings of exhaustion and delayed-onset muscle soreness begin to wane. But trainees still chase the sensation of feeling like they’ve been hit by a train, because they believe that’s what training is all about. Pain means gain.
It doesn’t, necessarily.
In the beginning, pain accompanies gain. As you become increasingly conditioned, soreness and fatigue become non-indicators of progress (although they may and often do accompany productive work). The only factors that indicate progress are strength gains – defined by the ability to perform more work – and power gains – defined by the ability to perform more work in the same or a shorter period of time.
This generally means a reduction in rest times if all other variables remain the same. I know before I start a session with a client exactly what they need to perform on the day to ensure progress. (If your trainer doesn’t, what are you seeing him or her for?)
The caveat is that sometimes clients finish a day’s session, reaching all targets, and feel that they have more energy and want to do a bit more work. They are indeed stronger. They’ve adapted. But the key to intelligent training is not to use your feelings of strength and weakness as factors to determine intensity, but rather to use your numbers.If you’ve lifted more than last week or performed more sets of a high- intensity cardiovascular exercise, regardless of how you feel, you’ve done enough to elicit growth or stimulate fat loss. This is a gift. Take it. Go home. Rest. Let your body grow and recover without pushing it more today and eating into limited energy reserves. Doing so won’t lead to additional growth. It will merely make you need longer rest and more recovery time.
The master enters the gym, knows his objectives, does his job, and goes home. No more, no less. The novice does as much as possible for as long as possible and goes home feeling exhausted, maybe feeling like shit. He crosses his fingers and hopes. The master grinds out his results, patiently adding to his numbers week after week, the way a professional poker player grinds out his winnings. He rarely goes all- in and risks everything, because long-term health and strength are his priorities. Staying in the game trumps the big win on any single day.
Nearly two years since Michael’s rapid body transformation, he’s not only maintained his physique, but has established a tremendous base of strength. He no longer needs my assistance with his fitness objectives. He’s become an independent, expert fitness enthusiast. At present, I’m only responsible for his martial arts development on Friday afternoons before the Dice Club’s weekly burger and beer session.
In the beginning, every push-up and squat is an act of all-out effort, requiring full concentration and maximum strength. After a while, children grow and begin to play, incorporating many push-ups and squats over the course of the day. There’s no way around it. For a baby, every movement is a power lift. After they become stronger, those movements become anaerobic strength-endurance exercises, as two, three, four, and more steps become a walk. A while later, these movements enter the realm of aerobic exercise as the child plays for hours on end.
But lets not look only at the result. Let’s examine that fascinating stage when one becomes two, becomes three... but not four. Let’s examine the realm of strength and power training exhibited by our younger, natural selves.
As children, we rarely lift, squat, or push to failure, because it means we can’t do more of it. We play a bit, rest a bit, play a bit, rest a bit, rarely extending our activity into the realm of extreme discomfort or exhaustion. Through this process children become incredibly strong, despite a lack of structure and the drive to train until they get sick.
Russian power lifters employed a similar method for decades. They would perform heavy, maximum-effort lifts for the same muscle groups up to ten times per week. They created an environment that required certain strengths and skills for survival. Children are not under such pressures; they’re driven mostly by curiosity. But both are examples of adaptation to environmental stressors.
Michael now sticks to the basics: the deadlift, the bench press, and the shoulder press. He hits each lift a few times a week, and lifts quite heavy during at least two of those sessions, tapering down on the third to provide active recovery. He works week to week to push his three- and five-rep maxes to new heights, and rarely trains with high volume to failure. He’s only gotten stronger since his transformation, and his physique has acquired a sinewy taper that gives a thick, lean, and raw impression. He just looks strong.He fuels this sustained growth with a paleo-esque diet of fish or meat, varied raw or cooked veggies, nuts, and the occasional piece of fruit. Grains and sugars are nearly nonexistent for him unless he’s visiting his in-laws in the countryside of Chengdu. Beer and whiskey are consumed for business purposes, of course.
Strength training should be undertaken with the priorities of improving the contractile force and myofiber density of muscle, and increasing the strength of tendons and connective tissues. To accomplish this, heavy weight training is necessary, with sets of heavy three-to-five-rep maxes at least some of the time.
Lifting in sets where repetitions exceed eight puts you in the bodybuilding category, and you’ll stand a greater chance of increasing the sarcoplasmic density of muscle cells (the non-contractile muscle cell fluid that stores energy for high volume work). This might be a fine early stage conditioning or rehabilitation rep range, but once conditioned you should diversify with heavier training.
If one is very committed to the path of Weightlessness, most adapta- tions to strength and physique enhancements can be accomplished with five reps or fewer per set, five sets per vector. How many vectors you can train per day depends on your overall conditioning. As we discussed, the stronger you are, the greater your potential for intense exertions. As such, as you get stronger you’ll have to reduce, not increase, the number of vectors trained per day. Each vector should be trained in some form two times per week.
This training protocol ensures the greatest strength increase relative to size. Your strength to weight ratio has a direct bearing on the speed at which you can move, as well as the perception of difficulty within that movement. Being very strong, without being exceedingly heavy, is a defining trait of the weightless person.
Thanks for reading!
Truly hope this story provided a little entertainment and inspiration. Tomorrow I'll be popping back in with a chapter on dumpster babies and mindfulness meditation - Reviving the Dumpster Baby, with a much needed paradigm shift around the deep application of mindful awareness.
Tom Fazio | Owner & Performance Coach @ Weightlessness | Mind Body Performance Coaching