Dieting Tips and Tricks: Vol.1 IIFYM – the right answer?

Dieting. Arguably the most dreaded word associated with bodybuilding and fitness. So many people want to lose the pounds but are unwilling to give up the juicy hamburger and fries pick-up after work. Nor the curry from the local Indian takeout that has become a Saturday night staple in our diet. Nor the tub of ice cream you’re probably gorging on as you read this! But don’t fret, for I was in this situation too! The biggest issue I faced when it came to starting my diet last January was misinformation. It’s often all too easy to get caught up with the pseudoscience constantly floating around the gym. Claims such as “clean eating is the way forward” and “chicken, spinach and rice only man” are all too common. You know they sound way too authoritarian, but why would you ever doubt anything that comes out of a personal trainer’s mouth? Or even the “knowledge” passed down from the biggest guy at the gym, whom you’re sure takes something else along with those “10,000 calories a day”. I for sure am definitely not going to claim that I know everything regarding nutrition, but here’s my take on dieting and its associated myths.

“Clean” eating

Arguably the biggest myth concerning dieting, many fall into the trap of thinking that as long as they stick to their “chicken, brown rice and spinach everyday” rule they can expect to get “shredded” within weeks. Thank god this isn’t the case! Flavourless, tasteless and simply boring to consume, this doesn’t guarantee results. At the end of the day, a calories is a calorie regardless of its source. You’re just as unlikely to lose weight over-consuming unseasoned chicken, brown rice and steamed vegetables as you are overconsuming those heavenly Jaffa cakes.

Furthermore, labelling foods as “clean” or “dirty” can be highly subjective. For example, in the 1980s foods that had high fat content were considered “dirty”. Think about that for a minute. Sure that includes the fry-ups and whatnot, but the likes of olive oil and avocado are equally as likely to fall into this category. And if you think these beliefs are out-of-date take a look at some of the food products at your local supermarket from the likes of WeightWatchers strongly advertising their “fat-free” products. We require fats as much as carbohydrates and protein to function, from organ protection to hormone control (no fat, no party). Processed foods also should be avoided according to this method, yet many who preach this can be seen downing a post-workout whey protein shake, which at its core is processed milk-protein.

Likewise, as pointed out by leading nutritionist Alan Aragon, categorizing individual items fails to assess the broader picture. Consider gym bro A; caught in the gym toilets sneakily scoffing his face down with Pop Tarts. Does that make his way of eating “dirty”? Would that still be the case once you realise it was just one pre-workout meal in a day that mostly consists of eating just unseasoned chicken and vegetables? Though not.

IIFYM: the middle finger to Dieting

Within the past few years, a new “revelation” has come to the fore of dieting and bodybuilding: If It Fits Your Macros or IIFYM for short. What originated as a rebellious stand from a few bodybuilders sick of constantly eating the same flavourless food, has now been taken up by numerous athletes, researches and average Joes.

So what is a Macro? A macro, short for macronutrient, can be one of the following: Proteins, Carbohydrates and Fats. IIFYM is based on the fact that as long as your food intake fits into your macronutrient and total calorie targets, you’ll be able to eat whatever you want and thus enjoy more freedom in food choices. The science behind it makes sense; Proteins have 4 calories per gram, Carbohydrates have 4 calories and Fats have 9 – REGARDLESS of the source. Therefore, you’re just as likely to lose weight eating a total of 200 calories from pizza and chips as you are eating rice and peas!

However, like with many things that start off well (Communism, the Transformers and Saw franchises being prime examples), what initially was developed to prevent gym bros from quivering in their boots about having a single “dirty” meal, blew up to a diet-destroying monster with it not being t0o common these days for diets of gym enthusiasts to consider of just fast food and ready meals.

The Middle Ground

The problem most individuals have on this matter is that they only see it in black or weight, without acknowledging the grey area in between. Pop tarts OR steamed vegetables. Angelina Jolie OR Scarlett Johansson. Why not both? As appealing as IIFYM may seem, clean eating also has its benefits. By consuming that unseasoned chicken and vegetables as opposed to that 16″ Mighty Meaty pizza, we’re taking in more of something that hasn’t been talked about thus far: micronutrients. For a few months of my cut, I too had fallen to having a fast food diet and although I was still progressing my weight loss, my workouts, energy levels and overall well-being noticably suffered.

The answer? The “wise man” Alan Aragon himself promotes a 10-20% mix of IIFYM into Clean Eating and while it may seem foolish to argue with someone as established, I may even say go for a higher mix if desired, having done so for my own cut. At the end of the day, point stands; track your macros and calorie intake, eat healthy but also enjoy life a bit! After all, what’s the point of getting those washboard abs if you can’t go out to a meal and show them off?

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Image courtesy of [Simon Howden] at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Personal Updates: Starting to look like I lift

Last Tuesday marked a month since I first had the idea of starting a fitness blog and making that idea a reality. It also nicely coincides with my 8-week lean bulk “anniversary”. Yet in that short period so much has changed: commencing another academic year at University (and all the highs and lows that come with it), changing workout plans, changing gyms to name a few. Yet there were other things that have remained the same: the dedication and work ethic to progress and get closer in reaching my bodybuilding goals being a prime example. As such I have decided to dedicate this post to showing you guys my progress, in particular the effects, if any, that the changes in my life, however minute they may seem, have impacted my progress.

Since the “after” segment of my transformation picture (refer to the first post cover image) three months ago, I have spent a month travelling around Asia and a week visiting the beautiful Switzerland. Five weeks abroad without my food scale, working at a miniscule hotel gym and enjoying the finest local cuisine did have its toll on my physique but more so on my strength! I had no regrets (especially none about emptying out a Lindt store in Switzerland), but I predictably came back smaller and weaker than where I had left off. Subsequently, I have been on a lean bulk for 8 weeks now and plan to continue to do so for at least a yearIMAG1485, unless circumstances change. Unlike the last time I attempted a bulk, I have been closely monitoring my bodyweight. As a “wannabe” bodybuilder, the way in which I look should take priority over my body weight and my lifts, but the mind can be deceptive at the best of times. Tracking my bodyweight every morning (refer to the image on the right) allows me to know more accurately whether or not I have gained mass, if so how much and whether any changes need to be made in my diet as a result. In these initial 8 weeks, I have managed to gain 1.2kg, which is well within my 0.2-0.69kg per month limit.

As well as gaining overall mass, the bulk was aimed at bringing up specific body parts that were lagging behind. Being torso-dominant meant that my chest and back grew at a much faster pace than the likes of my arms and calves, creating a Johnny-Bravo type of look, which although did look cool in the cartoons, is not exactly the look I am trying to go for! I started training my back (which although may not be a lagging body part; you can never have a back too big), legs and arms twice a week for a while, but this proved to be too much of a step up. As a result, along with a complete change in my workout plan, I have recently dropped training legs twice a week back to once a week but it remains to be seen how that will affect my progress going forwards. For now though, as you can see from the photos below showing me at the end of my cutting phase compared to the images taken within the last week (Left: July 2014, Right: October 2014), my lats and arms have grown although there is definitely room for progress.

imag0705_1_1IMAG1429imag0704_1_1IMAG1471_1

 

In terms of strength, a lot of progress has been made but at a much slower rate than normal. However this is to be predicted since the emphasis of my training has changed from being more strength-based with a mix of hypertrophy to being purely hypertrophy focused. Whereas I was benching 120kg for a 1-rep PR, I’ve been reduced to benching 50, 60 x3 and 70 kg for 15, 12, 10, 8 and 6 reps respectively. My squat and deadlift stats follow suit too. Likewise, the way in which I perform these lifts have changed with more emphasis being put on “feeling” the contraction of the target muscle group, rather than getting the weight up by any means possible.

Going forward, I probably will not be changing things much anytime soon (other than possibly increasing my calorie intake). One issue that will need to be resolved, would be my time-management and finding a consistent workout schedule where I can constantly give it my all. Either that, or I may be due a rest week, as I have been feeling strained lately, resorting to multiple cups of coffee in order to stay alert for University and get hyped enough to workout.

Feel free to share your progress or any comments you have in the comments below or on the facebook page.

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Out with the old. In with the new

So this Monday was a special Monday for me. Had the same sleep-inducing lectures, the same lengthy practicals and even the same hefty workload, BUT I finally started a new workout plan! Okay, it isn’t exactly something to throw a party about, but it has genuinely been something I have looked forward to.

My previous plan, German Volume Training (or GVT for short), was one that I was recommended and have followed for about a year now! To break it down into simple terms, it involves selecting a few (mostly compound) exercises and following a 10×10 split. That’s 10 sets of 10 reps – so 100 reps for each exercise! Combine that with a three second negative on each repetition and you can understand why initially it was a complete shock to my body. However, as with all daunting challenges, I came out “the other side” a stronger man; the rate of improvement in both my strength and physique were unlike anything I had experienced beforehand. So why the change? In all honesty, I was asking myself the same thing in the weeks leading up to the big decision. But after just a week at University the signs were there that change was definitely needed. Such a high-volume workout requires time, time which was of abundance in the summer but certainly not in a packed 9am-5pm Uni timetable and weighty directed studies. The four hour workouts were increasingly becoming harder to fit in, and I even had to resort to training at 5am on occasion! This further compounded the issue of being mentally drained; often not looking forward to the next workout and thus not giving it my best.

Taking that significant step from knowing that change is needed to actually going about making those changes can be rather intimidating. It is “common knowledge” amongst bodybuilders that a change in your workout split routinely can actually be beneficial in recruiting different types of muscle fibres, yet I stuck with my split since last October, with good reason too; why fix something if it isn’t broken?! I was continually making progress from the start to the day I changed my plan and it was the fear of losing this that prevented me from making the switch sooner. The internet can be a great place, providing a number of workout routines, but it’s hard to siphon out what you think would actually work for you! Eventually, the aforementioned drawbacks alongside the extreme burnout forced my hand, and as such I am trying a new pyramid style training program.

The change in my training regiment coincides with a change in my gym. Moving back up to my university in Birmingham meant that I could afford to choose one of three options to be my new Mecca for working out. First of all, there was the student gym. Despite being the cheapest of them all and the most convenient (just two minutes from my student halls!), it was easy to discard training here for one simple reason; student gyms mean having to deal with student egos; guys who have no clue what they’re doing, spend more time flexing than actually working out and bite way more than they can chew! On the other hand, there was “The Gym” around 10 minutes walking distance, which should rather be described a fitness centre than an actual gym. The 30kg dumbbell limit, the lack of resistance equipment and the poor taste in music (I once saw an East-Asian couple dancing along to Gangnam Style!) are all bearable, but like the student gym, the crowd it attracts is its biggest downfall. Which leads me to EasyGym, a newly opened training facility in the city centre. Whilst being equidistant as The Gym from the University campus, it offers much more with respect to facilities with the weights climbing up to 50kg rather than the 30. Although that may not be of significance to me at the moment, the environment and the whole feel of the place are much better suited to me.

All these calculated changes should work in my favour in the long-run. It has only been a week since these changes have been implemented and although it is almost certainly too soon to make any comments on whether they are working, I am definitely enjoying my workouts again! Only time will tell whether my progress in physique will match my reignited motivation.

The Balancing Act

Last Sunday marked the start of yet another hectic year of my University year. Within this first week I have been flooded with full days of lectures, draining practicals and forced directed studies. Yet, amongst all this I expected myself to have now found a part time job and to continue to make progress in the gym. Unfortunately, this has been an issue that I have been unable to solve since embarking on my bodybuilding quest.

Within months, what started off as a half-hour social activity with friends became hour-long intense sessions. Today it is not unusual for me to spend around three hours per day at the gym, with my longest ever session at the gym during the summer clocking in at a whopping 255mins! You might be questioning what I may be doing in that time, even wondering whether I actually spend that time training or getting distracted by external factors. The truth is when you combine the time spent stretching, foam rolling (the importance of which will be discussed in a future post) and warming up, alongside the intense volume of my workout regiment, the four hours seem more reasonable.

Spending four hours may seem fine in a summer where time would otherwise be allocated to re-watching episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air for the umpteenth time, but throw in a demanding University degree and it’s a whole different ball game. My second year was the perfect example of this. Being immersed in the “gym hype”, whilst still trying to recover from being the slob that I was during my first year, did not bode well academically. The time that was spent clubbing in the year prior, was now being allocated for working out. Although there may have been no hangover the next day, limiting myself to just 5 hours sleep was affecting both my muscle recovery and alertness during lectures.

This academic year, I had initially decided to work out BEFORE lectures, waking up at 5am, getting ready by 6.30 and back at 8.50. However after my first trial of this day plan last Wednesday, I’m not so sure. Granted I was able to fit my training, lectures and holy 8-hour sleeping window within the day, but there was not much time left to socialise and enjoy myself. Saying this, it is almost impossible to fit in all that we want to do within a day, and giving up social time for progress is a sacrifice I am more than willing to make.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to getting our priorities right. I remember being asked by friends whether it is possible to gain mass or lose fat WITHOUT stepping foot into the gym! Would you expect to earn your salary without actually working? We all have the same 24 hours, but it’s what you do with it that makes all the difference. Not many people are willing to sacrifice a night-out with friends for their own self-improvement at the gym. Even fewer would say “No” when pressured. There have been days when the motivation was lacking (especially last Wednesday), but just like with school and work, it WILL improve when you knuckle down.

Now that’s not to say I spend my days in solitary confinement, working, gymming and sleeping. I make sure I spend time with my closest of friends, and even have a designated cheat day once a week so I can fit that local Chinese buffet that has recently become our flat’s regular get-together. The best thing about it is, that full day of binge eating hardly sets me back (if at all) due to the hours of hard work and discipline I have been putting in the prior six days in that week! Being fortunate enough to have friends that appreciate what you do helps massively too, although that comes naturally when you associate yourself with like-minded individuals.

Whether I have got the balance finally right remains to be seen, with the initial major test coming up in the form of my January exams. Yet the initial signs seem to be encouraging. For those of you that want to get into shape but feel like you don’t have the time, please think again. Do you actually have no time? Or is that time being spent forming your Ultimate Team on FIFA, in the pub or any other activities that actually won’t aid you in achieving your goals?

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Brothers in Iron Vol.1: Meet Erik

Brothers in Iron is a mini-series I shall be doing that shares people or groups of people I have met through the world of fitness and whom I have looked up to at times for inspiration. They are people that I believe some of you, the readers, can look up to for motivation with regards to both activities inside and outside the gym.

I tend to workout at varying times during the day, depending on when I’m free, have enough energy and am mentally focused. Lately that tends to be sometime around mid day, where the gym’s quietest and there isn’t a half hour queue just to use the squat rack! Sticking to this routine has introduced me to a couple of likeminded individuals, most surprising of which is Erik. Everyday at 1.30pm, like clockwork, a slight figure can be seen walking around the gym in an England shirt, khaki shorts and black weightlifting belt.

I first met Erik 2 months ago when using the bench he wanted. The funniest part about the encounter was how he immediately stopped whatever it was he was doing and ran to try aid me grind out the last rep of my final set benching. Whether or not he helped is another matter but the thought and effort is definitely commendable! In an environment where testosterone rages and egos are at its highest, Erik quietly trundles around and goes about his getting his dose of “iron therapy”. But you couldn’t be more mistaken if you were to think of him as being weak. I asked him about his age once. Never again. “Why does it matter?” was the stern reply. I had already explained that it was for a feature in this blog but he was adamant that at no point should his age be mentioned. “But age is nothing but a number. It isn’t about how old you are on the outside, but more how old you are on the inside”. He certainly lives by those words, out training a lot of people around the same age as me!

Erik started working out as a student in 1956. “Way before you’re time”, he chuckled. Originally from Tajikistan, Erik moved to the UK in the 50’s in order to get his education. At the time, there was both class and race discrimination in Tajikistan with both Christians and black people alike being poorly treated. As a “lower class” individual he did not have any second thoughts about settling into the UK.

IMAG1250_1Since the 50’s, Erik has continued working out, describing it as a “drug”. He was never interested in alcohol or recreational drugs but fell in love the moment he stepped into the gym. He may not be the might he once was, but he still continues to perform major lifts (Squats, T-bar rows, etc.) to the best of his ability. At times he pushes himself too far, but refuses to accept help, which I can only assume it’s so he doesn’t get reminded about his weaknesses.

He may not have the best physique or form, but it’s his work ethic and his beliefs are what make him stand out. I asked him what keeps him motivated to work out to this day; “Too many people lose a purpose once they retire. They die mentally before they do physically. This is my purpose. This is what I enjoy,” he recited. I couldn’t agree with those words more myself. So many people in their 20’s “die mentally”, lacking any clear ambitions. An even smaller percentage actively work to try and achieve those ambitions. If Erik can, why can’t we?

On that day, I did not have my best workout and did not feel as mentally strong as I normally do. But after the interview, I was truly inspired. “We don’t beat the Grim Reaper by living longer, we beat the Reaper by living well and living fully, for the Reaper will come for all of us. The question is what do we do between the time we are born and the time he shows up. It’s too late to do all the things that you’re gonna kinda get around to.”, Randy Pausch, 2008. Take some time to find out what you want in life and put in the effort required to achieve those results.

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Pace yourself

The importance of taking your time with powerlifting and bodybuilding can not be stressed enough. We all have the ambition to achieve that 100kg Bench Press, those 18″ python arms, or to drop 10% body fat within weeks of starting to work out. But by setting your short-term goals too high you’re ultimately setting yourself up for failure. Many realise how little progress they’ve made in relation to their target and end up quitting. It’s like expecting sex on a first date; as desirable as it may be, nine times out of ten it’ll take more than just 30 minutes (when there’s no alcohol involved). Little progress is STILL progress.

Those who don’t quit end up looking for “fast track” ways of achieving their goals. I follow a former college peer on Instagram who started working out a year before I had. It was great to see his progress as he posted clips of any new PR’s on his major lifts and I often used him as friendly competition/motivation. It was saddening, however, to hear that he had started taking steroids. Even more so when he posted a clip of himself squatting a new PR of 140kg months after I had, using the hashtag “natty”. This isn’t a brag but merely a point I’m trying to prove; a lot of people go down the path of taking performance enhancing drugs in order to fulfil stupendous short-term goals, without properly educating themselves on the potential risks nor having a proper workout or diet regime beforehand. UK Social care charity CRI has reported a 645% rise in the number of steroid users between 2010 and 2013, with a growing majority of them being of the “younger breed”. Simply injecting yourself won’t get you that Schwarzenegger look nor will it get you that 200kg deadlift. That takes commitment, discipline, time and proper education. The great Michael Jordan once said; “Stay true to the game and the game will be true to you. If you try to shortcut the game, the game will try and shortcut you.”

Being impatient had cost me six months worth of bodybuilding. The pursuit to match and beat my friends’ personal records on lifts led me to “dirty” bulk for a 18 months. The goal was reached but my main target of achieving the physique that I desired was somewhat lost in the process. It was only after a reality check that I managed to get back on track with a gruelling six month cut, and I am almost certain that if I had paced myself and taken things slowly I still would have reached (or even beaten) the physique I have today and matched my friends’ PR’s without the additional mental and physical stress of having to diet for a while.

Set yourself realistic short-term and long-term goals. With a huge emphasis on the “and”. It is all too easy to set yourself an attainable short term objective, but once you achieve it, what then? I’m a firm believer of never being content with what I have and to always strive for more.  On the other hand, as was the case with me, if you set yourself long-term goals what happens when the motivation dips down occasionally and realise how much further you have to progress? The glass half-empty rather than half-full mindset. Having short-term targets that lead up your end game helps you to stay focused and appreciate all that you achieved thus far whilst on your journey.

This blog post doesn’t apply just to beginners. Just last week, midway through a gruelling back, chest and abs session, I was a victim of trying to jump the gun too. Tracking my progress and starting my lean bulk four weeks ago had made me strive to increase my weight on lifts every week, to ensure the weight gain I was experiencing was mostly due to increased muscle mass. But, I was so focused on this that I had unintentionally sacrificed my form doing cable rows just to accommodate the extra iron. As a bodybuilder, you learn that form goes a long way and not feeling the usual muscle contraction when performing the exercise was a clear indicator that I needed to calm my ego, drop the weight, focus on the contraction and try again the next week. As long as I continue to put the effort, I will get there eventually.

Be patient, have reasonable goals in mind and work your hardest to achieve those goals. Remember that tale about the hare and the tortoise? Who ended up winning? Big achievements come one small advantage at a time. One small step at a time. One day at a time. Good things come to those who wait, my friend.

And so it begins…

Hello! Welcome to my blog: Cakes to Weights. My name is Jadesh. Join me as I share with you my progression through the world of bodybuilding and attempt to fight my genetics to be the Asian Bond (the names Manivannan, Jadesh Manivannan – doesn’t work at all I know!).To start off, let me tell you a bit about myself and the story so far.

I first joined the gym slightly over 2 years ago! July 3rd 2012 – I remember the date clearly, as it was my birthday present to myself. At that time, I had just scraped through fresher’s year at University, spending most of my time partying hard at night, being too plastered to turn up to lectures and too broke to afford proper food. It was bad. REALLY bad. So bad that at it’s worst I was waking up at six in the evening, getting ready for pre-drinks at eight, clubbing from ten to five, before knocking out and repeating the cycle! All this mayhem on a student loan meant one thing; I was piss-broke, living off a portion of 99p chips and a can of baked beans a day!

UntitledNow, before University I was a stereotypical chubby Asian teen, always working hard academically and useless at sports, with the exception of swimming (got a kickstart with the extra bouyancy aka blubber). Being so poor at sports was down to a combination of two things; being lazy and my mum’s cooking! I know a lot of people post pictures on Instagram or write posts on Facebook showing off their family meals but boy does my mum know how to cook! From currys to cakes, she knew how to make the lot! And to such a high standard too! I was aware of the extra weight I was holding at the time, constantly being reminded at the school gymnasium changing rooms by my peers, but my parents were oblivious to it. More importantly, when I first brought up the idea of working out to them, they simply decline and told me to focus on my education. I’m glad they did as it’s worked and got me to the man I am today, but I’m sure you’ll understand my joy when I found out that I was losing weight at University surviving off chips and baked beans!

So why did I join the gym if I was losing weight anyway? Simply put, because I was bored at home in the Summer holidays and at the time, wanted to be away from the family as a rebellious adolescent teen. My first workout session was with my best mates from high school, and they all (unintentionally) showed me up for being so weak. Whilst they were busy curling 10kg on either side of a preacher bar for 10 reps, I could just about mange two reps of JUST the preacher bar! Whilst they were benching 60kg+ using a barbell, I couldn’t manage a single rep of the barbell! This is where my desire to start bodybuilding truly ignited, not just to attain that “Daniel Craig physique” but more importantly catch up with my friends!

I had my body fat measured at our next session together – 24% at 69kg! Granted, it was calculated using the untrustworthy hand-held body fat devices, but looking back I was there or thereabout. Hearing the personal trainer at that gym inform me that the measurements tend to be inaccurate after eyeing up my size in baggy clothes – I intentionally wore everything baggy to hide my size – had sparked the only decision I regret now. I was so focused on gaining strength and size that I decided to dirty bulk for a year and a half. All this was done just to catch up with the statistics some of my friends were claiming as their PR’s on certain lifts!

During the course of the year-and-a-half dirty bulk I shot up to 96kg at 35% bf! I was educating myself about the science behind fitness, but the mentality of “screw it, I’ve already been fat for 19 years, I can live with being fat for 2 years more” took over. My strength did go up, but not as much as it should have. I was eating way too much just to ensure I was well within a caloric surplus making sure I conformed to the “1lb of protein per lb body mass” rule, but my training was poor.

This was when I came across Mike, a personal trainer at the gym near my University. He introduced me to what I thought was a crazy new workout routine, leading to all sorts of strength gains! I had initially been pessimistic with the routine thinking that the volume was not high enough, but by the first week all thought of the regime not working was dismissed and replaced with fear of the next session after suffering from severe DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness)! It was all worth it in the end as my statistics shot up in just 12 weeks:

Before – Bench PR 80kg; Squat PR 100kg; Deadlift PR 120kg

After – Bench PR 120kg, Squat PR 140kg, Deadlift PR 150kg

Despite the huge strength progress, I was extremely insecure about my physique. But, the decision to go on a cutting phase was brought about over a Christmas dinner when my mum told me bluntly “Stop eating, you’re fat”. You know its bad when an Asian mother comments on your size! As such, I contacted Mike, who helped me out and I went on a 6 month cut. Which leads me to where I am today, having finished the cut and starting a lean bulk phase, and transitioned from a 96kg 35%bf beefcake to a respectable 70kg 10-12%bf!

And this is just the start! Unfortunately, I can’t go into too much detail in one post but join me as I continue pursuing my dream, sharing what I’ve learnt in the process and maybe even inspire you to make a change! I am ecstatic to share my journey, and I welcome and encourage all feedback!