Meet my friend Saint, who has one of the most incredible success stories I have EVER seen.
Saint and I grew up together in Sandwich, MA, becoming fast friends when we were on the same basketball team back in 5th grade and shared a love for video games. We maintained a great friendship through all of high school, and even though we went our separate ways for college and life after graduation, we’ve stayed in close contact by meeting up in games like Everquest and Everquest 2 and exchanging hours of useless conversation daily on gchat.
After graduating college, Saint took a desk job as a computer programmer and watched as his weight slowly started to creep up…like every other average American. Over the past two years, he was able to slowly and steadily bring that down before having an incredible breakthrough that allowed him to transform so drastically that even Optimus Prime was impressed.
Here’s how he did it.
January 2009: 240 pounds
The picture above is Saint at his heaviest, coming in somewhere around 240 pounds.
One day back then, I got an gchat message from Saint saying that he “wanted to get in shape.” He had woken up that morning, looked in the mirror, and decided that he wasn’t happy with his life. At only twenty-four years old, he realized that he was headed down a path that would lead to a life decidedly less epic than he wanted, and it was time for a change.
At this point, I told Saint what I tell everybody who says he/she “wants to get in shape”: to start strength training and clean up his diet! Saint wasn’t really interested in strength training at this point nor could he afford a gym membership, so he did what most people do when they want to lose weight – he ate less bad food, tried to eat more good food, and just exercised more. Saint upped his hours of cardio on a weekly basis, started eating less calories while also consuming less processed food, and with strong dedication he was able to lose around thirty pounds over the course of three months.
Obviously, 30 pounds in three months is quite the achievement, which I chronicled here. Calorie counting, healthier breakfasts, more protein, and cardio will certainly give results for weight loss, as Saint will tell you. He settled in around the 205 pound mark at this point.
However, Saint wasn’t satisfied, hovering around 22-23% body fat, and felt like he still had more changes to make. He proceeded to try the same thing for the next year – eating less and moving more in order to get down to single digits in body fat percentage…
January 2010: 206 pounds
After another nine months of half-heartedly trying to get thinner, Saint’s body weight stubbornly remained at the 206 lb. mark. It was at this point that Saint emailed me and said “Steve, I don’t think there’s going to be anything left of me if I lose another 25 pounds (which would have been the proper BMI for his height), and there’s no way I’ll ever get under 200 pounds!”
“Let’s get nuts for a second…What if I wanted to look like Vin Diesel or Ryan Reynolds? What do I need to do?”
Again, I reiterated to the man: “Saint, if you make your diet flawless, focus on strength training, and become militant in your dedication to the cause, you can get there.”
However, it wasn’t yet Saint’s time to become inspired, so he jumped back and forth between various programs like p90x and insanity trying to find something that worked for him.
As you know, you can’t force inspiration and motivation; it has to come from within.
So another year went by…
December 2010: 203 pounds, 21% body fat
“Steve, I made a huge mistake.”
“Uh oh Saint. Okay, how much money do you need?”
“No it’s not that…I made a bet with my friends. I’m getting married in June 2011, and I want to be in incredible shape – I want to see my abs when I go on my honeymoon, because I’ll be looking at those pictures for the rest of my life. I bet my friends that I’d cut my body fat percentage in half and get into single digits by Memorial Day or I owe them $500.”
“Saint, Sarah’s gonna kill you if you have to pay your friends $500!!!!”
“I know…which is why I need to get to 10% body fat or less by the end of May.”
So, beginning in early January 2011, Saint started tracking every possible metric for his body: his body fat percentage, measurements of his waist, hips, chest, shoulders, and thighs, and also took a picture every two weeks to make sure he was headed in the right direction. He also tracked his meals for a few weeks so that we could analyze together what was working and what wasn’t.
Again, I pushed Saint towards strength training, explaining that drastic changes would need to happen if he was going to get drastic results. It was at this point that I fully introduced and educated Saint on the Paleo Diet, but he wasn’t ready to go all-in with it yet. He was also still hesitant to dive headfirst into strength training, so he signed up for some more free cardio/boxing classes at his office’s gym, continued to occasionally follow the p90x program, and put his diet efforts into Tim Ferriss’s “4-Hour Body” diet.
He was hopeful this would be enough to get him there.
February 2011: 197 pounds
After six weeks of a cleaned-up diet (but still not Paleo), hundreds of crunches (not my recommendation), and hours of cardio classes, Saint had lost around six pounds – a step in the right direction, right?
Saint had been tracking every metric listed above, and I noticed that his weight was dropping proportionally faster than his body fat percentage, and he wasn’t seeing a big enough change from picture to picture…which meant he was losing too much muscle along with the fat. Crap.
Saint’s dedication wasn’t the problem – he was working out for hours upon hours each week and “eating right,” but he wasn’t getting the results he wanted. He emailed me in a panic and freaked out, horrified that he was going to be $500 less wealthy come Memorial Day. His body fat wasn’t disappearing the way he wanted it to and started worrying about every single aspect of his day…I distinctly remember having to calm him down on a daily basis via email.
In my opinion, if you look at the pictures you can definitely see a difference between February and January – but Saint wasn’t losing the right KIND of weight – he was losing fat along with a bunch of muscle.
Desperate for more consistent results, Saint finally gave in and dove headfirst into strength training, signed up for a proper gym, and used his free personal trainer sessions to learn how to train properly: deadlifts, squats, overhead presses, pull ups, dips, and more. He put his focus on getting stronger and lifting heavier, while still playing basketball on his off days to stay active and push his body. He started training with his buddy Cliff daily who helped him push harder and lift heavier.
After I shared a few articles with him from Mark’s Daily Apple, Saint became hooked and decided to go full Paleo with his diet.
This is when I noticed a change in Saint. He stopped worrying about how many crunches to do (the correct answer is NONE), how many calories were burned during a particular exercise class, and just focused on clean eating and heavy lifting while playing basketball for fun. He stopped eating beans, cut out almost all carbs completely other than vegetables, and focused only only consuming things like meat, eggs, fish, vegetables, nuts, and fruits. He didn’t count calories; he ate when he was hungry.
It was during this time that Saint became one of the most dedicated individuals on this planet.
April 2011: 196 pounds, 9.9% body fat
Over the next two months, Saint transformed…and I’m not just talking about his body composition. Each picture in the montage below was taken over the course of January to April, resulting in a body fat percentage reading of 9.9% in early April (two months ahead of schedule), and a percentage even lover than that by early May. His weight barely dropped at ALL in these two months, but I think you’ll see from the picture that he was able to have just a tiny bit (ha!) of success.
He freaking did it, WAY ahead of schedule.
(This is a picture of Saint from May 5th, four weeks ahead of schedule, somewhere down around 8% body fat).
Over the past five months, Saint’s gchat messages to me have changed from “I need to lose weight” to “holy crap I just deadlifted 225 pounds for the first time today” and “oh man I just did a pull up!” He put his focus on getting stronger and faster, and his body started to change accordingly. He stopped complaining about not being able to eat certain foods and just “went to work.” always eating the right things and politely refusing things that didn’t line up with his goals.
Remember that the scale doesn’t always tell the whole story. As you can see in the chart below, Saint only lost a total of seven pounds in those five months, and even started gaining weight back at the end. In fact, he only lost .2 pounds from mid-February to mid-April!! However, during that time he also lost 6-8% of his body fat, which means that he actually lost a LOT (around 15 pounds or so) of fat..and packed on a significant amount of muscle. Now, these results certainly aren’t typical, but incredible gains of strength and muscle are certainly possible if a person is beginning serious training for the first time.
Why was Saint successful?
After two years of messing with various diets, spending a few months doing various exercise programs off and on, dumping tons of hours into cardio and aerobics classes, why was Saint suddenly successful this time? Although everybody’s body reacts differently to different stimuli, and different forms of diets and workouts will yield different results for everybody, I’m confident that Saint was successful for these reasons:
Competition: Saint never really had any sort of incentive to get in shape in the past. He just wanted to “lose weight” but had no timeline or reason to actually get results. Because of that, every effort was a half-assed attempt that quickly fizzled when he got busy or something new came along to distract him. Thanks to this competition, all of a sudden Saint had to get to 10% body fat by Memorial Day or he would have lost $500. Sounds like some pretty solid incentive to me!
Specific goals: On top of the competition, Saint was successful because his goals went from incredibly vague to ultra-specific. Instead of trying to “get in shape,” Saint had a specific goal (10% body fat or less) by a specific date (Memorial Day 2011). With the thought of losing $500 if he didn’t hit his number branded into his brain, he focused solely on taking steps towards this goal every single day.
Education: For the past two years, Saint had tried to get in shape the best way he knew possible: by moving more and eating less. Although it was enough to get him down 30 pounds and into relatively good shape, he had been consistently losing muscle along with fat and wasn’t where he wanted to be. For most people, Saint’s picture from January would be a great place to end up. However, Saint had an epic goal, so he started to do research on how to get there, paying closer attention to the links and videos and routines that I shared with him. It was this education and research that lead him to his most important discovery:
The Paleo Diet: If you are interested in getting to an incredibly low body fat percentage, the most effective way to get there is diligently following the Paleo Diet – I have no doubt in my mind that this one change was responsible for a huge part of Saint’s success. I am a strong endorser of this type of diet – regardless of whether or not people believe this is how cavemen used to eat, I know it freaking works. I’d guess that over the past three months Saint has probably been 98% successful with his meals being full-paleo: almost no carbs, only meat, eggs, fish, vegetables, some nuts and some fruits.
Strength training: If this were a movie, the Paleo Diet would have won Best Actor and strength training would have won best supporting actor. I am not surprised at all that Saint’s body composition started to change drastically as soon as he started to seriously strength train. Rather than doing hours of cardio, Saint dumped his focus into lifting weights…and lifting heavy. As we’ve learned from Mark Twight (the trainer of the actors from the movie 300), “appearance is a consequence” of fitness. Serious strength training allowed him to lose the RIGHT KIND of weight – just the fat, not the muscle.
Meticulous Measuring: If Saint hadn’t been tracking his body fat percentage, taking biweekly photos, or taking measurements, he might never have known back in February that he needed to adjust his path – his weight was dropping but his body fat percentage wasn’t. Luckily, he WAS taking measurements every week, which allowed him to notice the lack of change and was able to make adjustments on the fly. He also tracked his workouts, which meant he knew exactly how much he needed to lift each workout to be stronger than last time. You’ve already seen his meticulous photo taking; here are his measurements up until he hit 10% BF.
A support team: Saint and I would talk almost daily about his goals, what was working, what he was struggling with, and how much closer he was to success. He knew he had somebody to lean on whenever things got tough, somebody to share his successes with, and somebody that wouldn’t judge him. Constant accountability made sure Saint stayed on that tiny straight and narrow path he needed to succeed. On top of that, he had a buddy Cliff that worked out with him every day; they pushed each other to be stronger and faster with each and every workout
No Excuses: I’m not gonna lie; the old Saint would complain a bunch – “I don’t have enough time, I’m not getting results, it’s too hard, I can’t give this up, blah blah blah.” However, with the new Saint, every single day was an opportunity to succeed. Saint and I would yell at each other back and for on Gchat to keep each other pumped up even when one of us was down/sick/feeling bad. Our term? “RAH,” which we decided was a war cry somebody would yell after doing something epic. So, every day, we’d gchat each other: “rah?” “RAH!” and say things like “I just did my first pull up, RAH” or “I’m sad and feel like crap…time to go do 100 burpees, RAH”
Doing a gchat search for the number of times using the term “RAH” over the past five months would probably make my computer explode.
Dedication: I’m not gonna lie, I thought Saint was dead in the water when he took this bet – I had seen him struggle off and on for two years without getting the results he wanted…I didn’t expect this time to be any different. However, Saint attacked this challenge with a passion I have never seen before – rarely eating a bad meal, always taking his measurements, never missing a workout, often throwing in an extra high-intensity workout or basketball session on off days to get results. He made incredible sacrifices, drastically changed many parts of his lifestyle, said no to many obligations, and refused to eat meals that were outside of his goals.
A change of mind: I considered copying some of Saint and my chat transcripts from the past two years on here, but I figured I wouldn’t subject you to the hours of dumb inside jokes in between small lines about fitness. Just know that Saint used to be of the “I need to lose weight/if I do 1000 sit ups a day will that work/and how many grams specifically of _______ nutrient do I need to eat!?!?!?” mindset. Like many others, he was worried about every little detail, sweating the small things and expecting instant results while failing to see the big picture. Now, Saint focuses on getting stronger, eating when he’s hungry (provided it’s Paleo), and not coincidentally, he’s in the best shape of his life and has more energy than ever before.
Never satisfied: Saint got to 10% body fat like six weeks ahead of schedule…and then continued to lift heavy and eat right. Rather than celebrate with a huge pile of cookies and days off from the gym, Saint started asking “okay what do I need to do now to build more muscle?” and “if I can do two pull ups now, how much longer before I can do 10?” He’s an unstoppable machine at this point, constantly striving to be better, motivated to get stronger, and unsatisfied with his previous successes. Saint has become a completely different person, in all of the right ways.
And this is all coming from a guy who just a few short months ago wouldn’t consider serious weight training and thought that following the Paleo diet would be IMPOSSIBLE. Now, Saint says: “it’s just kind of what I do…and seems REALLY easy.” To me, his mental transformation is more impressive than his physical transformation.
Saint is my hero.
What can you learn from this?
I think there’s quite a few lessons that we can take from my boy Saint here. Your goals might be different (lose 100 pounds, gain twenty pounds of muscle, run a marathon, whatever), but there’s still a boatload of awesomeness that can be gleaned from today’s success story.
Set specific goals - don’t “try to get in shape.” Determine specifically what “in shape” means to you. Quantify it, put a timestamp on it, and then start taking direct steps in that directions.
DECIDE IF YOU REALLY WANT IT – People come to me all the time and say they want to “get abs” or “pack on muscle” but immediately start to backtrack once I tell them what to do. “But I can’t give that up” or “but what if I did this instead?” Remember: if what you were doing was working, you’d already want to be where you want to be. If you want incredible results, you’re going to need to make incredible sacrifices. If you’re satisfied with 80% of the way there, there’s nothing wrong with that…just don’t expect to get into the 99th percentile with anything less than 99% of your potential effort.
Make it a challenge - I’m not telling you to put up 500 bucks to force yourself into exercise…but I’m not telling you that it’s a bad idea either. Rather than being angry and associating exercise with a negative feeling (which makes it easier to skip), focus on realigning your attitude. Saint created a negative association with not exercising (losing $500), and as he started exercising he added a positive correlation to it (feeling better and looking better). This shift in his thinking built up momentum and carried him forward.
Your diet is the most important thing – Don’t try to outrun your fork; hours of cardio can only get you so far when it comes to getting into elite shape. Instead, focusing on CLEANING UP YOUR DIET and you will have far greater success more quickly. More real foods, less fake foods, grains, and other carbs, and maximize vegetables. It doesn’t need to be difficult.
Strength train – Had Saint never started lifting weights, he might have made it down to 10% body fat but certainly wouldn’t have the muscle mass that he does now. Fortunately, he put his time and effort into getting stronger and faster, which helped him keep the muscle he already had while also adding new muscle; it also allowed him to only shred the fat and keep the good stuff. I’m not telling you to join a gym, but I am telling you to start doing some form of strength training because it’s so damn important. Although I haven’t set foot in a gym in five months, I’ve been able to pack on eight to ten pounds of muscle in that time by following the body weight routines in the Rebel Strength Guide. You don’t need a gym, but you do need a plan that pushes you to get stronger.
“But I’m a woman and I don’t want to get too bulky!” Unless you’re on steroids or eating 5000 calories a day, you will NOT get bulky…not only that, but heavy strength training is the only way to get that “toned” look you’re after. I’ll be featuring a female success story soon that is full of strength training with barbells and heavy weights…and awesome results (with that look you’re after). Trust me on this one.
Track your results – And I don’t just mean stepping on a scale. Take measurements. Take photos. Buy a body fat caliper and test yourself every few weeks. You’ll be able to tell through comparison if what you’re doing is working. If you’re not getting the results you’d like, then you’ll have to make changes – Saint decided to go full Paleo and strength training after deciding his measurements, photos, and body fat weren’t where they should be. The more you can track, the better chance you’ll have to succeed.
Who’s on your support team? Who do you turn to when you’re having a bad day? Who do you share your successes and struggles with? It’s okay if you exercise alone – there’s a whole community of people waiting to welcome you with open arms and help. You don’t need to go it alone.
Do you have any questions for Saint? I’ll see if I can convince him to come into the comments and answer any questions you have that I can’t tackle as far as his specific situation went.
Are you struggling with crossing a plateau?
Would you like to see more success stories from other Nerd Fitness readers?
Saint, congrats buddy…so happy for you and Sarah and your wedding in a few weeks.
For the Rebellion. RAH!
Today’s Rebel Hero – Spencer M. in Beijing, China!
Funny story – I got an email from a reader a few weeks back that said “Hey, are you in Beijing? I was at a Kung Fu show here last night and saw a guy run by in a Nerd Fitness shirt, but I couldn’t track him down in time to see who it was.” I wasn’t even in China at that point! Not only did we have two NF readers in Beijing at the same time, but they were both at the same freaking KUNG FU SHOW. What are the odds!?
It’s official – the Nerd Fitness Rebellion is definitely closing in on World Domination.
A few weeks later, I got an email from Spencer telling me about his time in China, and pieced together the puzzle – he was the mystery man at the Kung Fu show, and was nice enough to send me a few pics from his adventures over there! I’m just waiting for the day when somebody lets me know knockoff Nerd Fitness shirts are available for sale for $2 in the back alleys of China and Cambodia – that’s when the Rebellion has officially arrived