A Guide to My Recent Transformation Challenge

Every year, Gold’s Gym hosts it’s annual Transformation Challenge. As an employee, I’m obviously not allowed to compete, but the staff usually arranges a competition amongst themselves to keep us motivated and accountable for our own fitness each year. Last year I didn’t compete because I was in the middle of my 12 Week Shortcut to Size program review, but this year I did my own program and wanted to share the strategy behind the results.

The Initial Plan

My goal for this transformation, aside from cutting up, was to show that it doesn’t take nearly as much effort to lose weight and look great as bodybuilding ambassadors would lead you to think. With the exception of some exercises I performed to specifically grow my biceps and triceps, every exercise in my selection was a functional one.

To clarify this point, here is a list of common bodybuilding exercise choices and what I chose to do instead because I know this to be a more efficient choice:

  • Front, side and rear deltoid raises VS. Overhead Barbell Presses
  • Leg press, leg extensions, and hack squats VS. Squats
  • A million ab exercises VS. Barbell exercises with proper bracing
  • Face Pulls, Cable Rows, Lat Pulldowns VS. Pullups

Let me clarify that I have nothing against bodybuilders, and professional bodybuilders are more efficient with their time than amateurs who just mimic their movements. My point here is to just shed light on the fact that bodybuilding exercises largely target only a small segment of musculature at a time, requiring more time if one wishes to work multiple muscle groups. If your desire is to create specific proportions within those muscle groups, isolations exercises make perfect sense, but since most people would admit they just want to “get bigger” and would probably prefer it to happen faster and with less effort (who doesn’t like better progress?), bodybuilding exercises simply are not the best choice.

For this reason, my workouts were only 30-45 minutes and consisted of only a few primary exercises per workout. Here was my basic structure to the entire 12 Weeks of the Challenge:

  • Monday – Squat Movement (4-6 sets),  Horizontal Pull Movement (3-5 sets), Biceps burnout
  • Tuesday – Olympic Lifting (30 minutes),  Bench Press (3-4 sets), Incline Bench Press (3-4 sets)
  • Thursday – Deadlift Movement (4-6 sets), Pullups (3-4 sets), Horizontal Pull Movement (3-5 sets), Biceps burnout
  • Friday – Olympic Lifting (30 minutes), Triceps burnout, Optional Chest fly burnout
  • 1-2x/Week I would go Rock Climbing
  • I can count the number of “Cardio” workouts I did over the 12 weeks on one hand

This may sound extremely generic and un-specified, but this is more or less how the body interprets the stimuli when you exercise. Your body doesn’t know (or care) when you work the chest using a barbell, cables, bands, kettlebells or dumbbells, it only knows that the pectorals are being asked to work at a given level of intensity (fast, heavy, high-volume, or somewhere in between one or more of those). Knowing this helps trainers like myself create the desired stimulus for a client during busy times at the gym when the more common equipment is unavailable. I can easily shift the game-plan of most clients from something like a Seated Barbell Shoulder Press to a Standing Strict Barbell Press, Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press, Banded Overhead Press, or even a Handstand Wall Walk-up to create virtually the same stress on the shoulder.

Progression Modifications

In the first 3 weeks my primary movements were geared towards stability. Pistol Squats and Lunges were my squat movements of choice, and by week 4 I progressed to traditional high-bar back squats. Similarly my initial horizontal pushes and pulls were performed with dumbbells, and later progressed to barbell movements. My rep ranges were all targeted to failure, initially around 12-20 reps in the first 4 weeks, 8-12 in the second 4 weeks, and 3-6ish in the final 4 weeks. I had to make last-minute intensity and movement modifications based on soreness, schedule, and energy-levels, but this was the basic strategy behind the progressions.

It is worth mentioning that by Week 2, I had some serious shoulder tendonitis. I was performing heavy Snatches every Oly Workout in an attempt to increase my max, but that turned out to be a bad idea. I had to back off of should intensive movements for a week, allow the inflammation to subside, but was quickly able to return to normal exercise and thanks to a new shoulder warmup routine, never had any issues the rest of the Challenge. I lightened the load in my Oly lifts to reduce stress and focus on form, and just recently (post-challenge) began my first actual Olympic Lifting Program (5-days a week!). This is probably best suited for another post, but I’d like to say that this program has taught me that lifting lighter more regularly rather than heavier less frequently can be vastly more beneficial, if anything at least for highly technical movements like the Snatch and Clean and Jerk. Lesson learned.

Final Manipulations

I logged every single day of eating into My Fitness Pal, and I was able to average out my daily calorie intake for the Challenge, which I had estimated would come out to 2,500 calories. Turns out it came out to more like 2,900 calories, thanks to the very few but very dense cheat days I had. I didn’t bother to remove those outliers and see what my normal days averaged out to without the cheat days, because thats’ not really how our body works. Our bodies evolved to survive, which means they evolved to absorb food very efficiently, in this case storing any extra energy I consumed over what was largely a 12 week, 84-day calorie deficit. For 84-ish days my body was deprived of food, requiring it to tap into my pre-stored energy (fat) and steadily drift towards a greater risk of starvation (as far as your body is concerned), but obviously an improved aesthetic result and by no means near actual starvation.

This surprising 400 extra calories a day ultimately cost me a potential extra 5-10lbs of fat loss, but considering I ended up under 8% body fat by the end of the 12-weeks at 173lbs, I could realistically only afford about 7 more pounds of fat lost before coming dangerously low on fat stores. I had hoped to end with better definition and segmentation around the rectus abdominis (6-pack muscles), so now I know why I didn’t (obviously wasn’t terribly concerned about considering I was pretty happy with my progress in the final weeks anyway).

To get a little extra “chisel” though, I did manipulate water out of experimentation. About 5 days out from final photos, I increased water intake by an extra liter or so in order to get my body used to flushing more water. 2 days out, I cut water drastically, and even more the next day, sipping only about 12 total ounces that last day. This dried me out to make my skin thinner. By depleting my body of glycogen in my workouts 2 and 3 days out, the last day I was able to draw some subcutaneous water into my muscles by eating a moderate amount of carbohydrates, which when converted into muscle glycogen take about 3 grams of water for every gram of glucose, pumping up the muscles while simultaneously drying out the skin. Someone more familiar with the process could probably do it better, but I was able to add 3 extra pounds to my total pounds lost score, as well as get an ever so slightly extra sculpted look, so I’d say it was worth it.

Considering I did almost no “cardio”, did only 4 workouts a week which averaged less than an hour, and dieted conservatively with a handful of highly satisfying cheat days, I would have to say these are quite exceptional results, indicative of a pretty smart game-plan. Others I competed with dieted much harder, worked out twice as much (no kidding), and didn’t get results nearly as impressive (I promise I’m trying to be objectively honest). Knowing what works and what doesn’t makes progress more efficient and easier to attain. I’m a big fan of working smarter, not harder, but working hard none the less. My hard work paid off almost exactly as I had planned, and what I learned this time around will undoubtedly be applied to the next transformation I do, making my results even better.

Hope this helps you in your fitness journey and if I can elaborate on anything, just ask in the comments below! Thanks for reading.

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