In December 2010, Tim Ferriss released his new book, the 4 Hour Body. A book that outlines how to get the biggest beneficial impact in all manner of health related topics, with the least effort. It covers weight loss, muscle gain, strength gain, endurance and speed as well as lifestyle topics such as better sex, reversing ‘permanent’ injuries and how to get a great night’s sleep.
It’s no secret that I’m a massive Tim Ferris fan boy, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Infact, it’s the only product that I’ve EVER pre-ordered.
Now, I’m very lucky in that I’ve never had a health issue. I’ve never been fat, I exercise regularly, I sleep reasonably well and while I eat what I want, I tend to naturally follow a healthy-ish diet. My doctor regards me as ‘boring’.
But there is one thing that I’ve always struggled with – putting on muscle. Admittedly I’ve never tried very hard as up until now I thought the only way to ‘bulk up’ was to become one of those dreaded gym junkies and start spending a lot of my time moving heavy objects up and down.
I find gyms to be the most boring places on earth. And I find moving heavy objects up and down, for the sake of building some bulges incredibly stupid. But there’s no denying that I still envy Brad Pitt’s ripped physique in the movie Fight Club.
So when I read the section of the 4 hour work week regarding building muscle, and exactly how LITTLE effort seemed to be required, I thought I might as well give it a go. I certainly don’t want to become the next Arnold, but I’d quite like a 6 pack and some upper body muscle definition.
Occam’s Protocol & Minimum Effective Dose
Occam’s Protocol (OP) is the training framework outlined in the book. The premise is simple: Combine the correct exercises, with the correct number of repetitions, with the correct number of sessions per week, while eating the correct foods and taking the correct medications and you will gain muscle fast.
In Tim’s case, he was able to put on 15kg of muscle in 28 days with a total of 4 hours of gym time (!).
But what’s the correct amount?
This is where the concept of Minimum Effective Dose comes in.
The book makes the case that in terms of muscle growth, less is more. You need to do only enough exercise to stimulate muscle growth and then stop. For instance, if 1 set of 5 repartitions is enough to trigger your muscle growth mechanisms, there is no benefit for doing additional sets. In fact, all you do is risk damaging the tissues by over working.
It’s this principle that under-pins the idea of how you can achieve big results with very little gym time.
What I did
First things first, I went and got measured so that I would know my baseline. I used a technique called a DEXA scan which gives you a detailed picture of your body composition. My starting numbers as at 17 February 2011 were:
Total Mass: 68.12kg
Lean Body Mass: 54.79klg
Fat Mass: 10.45kg
Fat %: 15.3
These numbers are neither good nor bad – they just are what they are. I think an achievable goal would be to get to 72-75kg with 10-11% body fat. At these numbers I should definitely be well on the way to looking like Brad Pitt.
Next I mapped out my gym routine, which followed the recommendations from the book.
Over 6 weeks I would do a total of 12 gym sessions of approximately 20mins a session. 12 x 20mins = 6 hrs. Even I can tolerate 1 hr per week in a gym if I’m going to get results.
Specifically, I alternated the following routines:
Machine shoulder press
Incline bench press
OP also recommends adjusting your diet and complementing your gym activity with a number of supplements including Cissus quadrangularis, Alpha-lipoic acid, L-glutamine and Creatine monohydrate. Erm OK?
After mapping the gym stuff I was already feeling a little overwhelmed so I made the decision at the outset that I would focus on getting the gym activity 100% correct, and worry less about diet and drugs.
This is not to say that I ignored these aspects altogether, I did alter my diet for the experiment but I didn’t follow all recommendations as extensively as the book lays out.
Diet wise I tried my best to:
- Increase the amount of protein I consumed and when I consumed it. Each morning I would try to eat at least 2 eggs within 1 hr of waking up OR if this wasn’t convenient I would have a protein shake.
- Minimise junk food and fast food and tried to avoid chips, chocolate or sweet bakery items.
- Reduce the amount of white foods such as white rice, pasta and bread.
- Bulk up my meals with beans and legumes and more vegetables.
- Cut out diary except for 2% milk in my protein shake
In terms of drugs I did nothing except add a 30g scoop of whey protein powder to a banana milk shake.
And after 6 weeks here’s what I got:
DEXA scan, 31/3/2011
Total Mass: 70.38kg
Lean Body Mass: 56.39kg
Fat Mass: 11.15kg
Fat %: 15.8
So I gained about 1.6 kg of lean muscle mass and also gained about 700g of fat.
Pretty underwhelming hey?
The DEXA scan actually breaks down the body into segments so that you can see the composition of your arms, legs and abdomen.
Interestingly, the most prominent gains appear to be my abs where I’ve lost 50g of fat and added 300g of muscle.
So there was definitely progress but it wasn’t the transformation I was hoping for when I started.
So what happened? What went wrong and why can’t I bench press an elephant?
There were 3 main problems that I ran into when doing this experiment:
1. The book lacks detail
Having never embarked on anything like this before, I immediately ran into a lot of unfamiliar terms. Words like protein and incline bench press for a start.
It literally took me 2 hours on a Saturday afternoon to re-read the relevant chapters and then with a pad and pencil map out how all the different components were supposed to fit together. What I was going to eat and when. Which exercise routine I was going to do on what day. How much weight was I going to lift and for how long.
So in this regard I now think of the content as an introduction only. If are like me and couldn’t pick out the Smith machine in a gym you’re going to need more info.
2. Gym Setup
I’ve only used a gym maybe 3 or 4 times before and never with instruction. So while it was easy enough to follow the pictures in the book to determine what I was supposed to do, I immediately struggled with how I was actually supposed to do it.
For example, on the machine should press, should the bar be infront of my head or behind it? How low should I go? After the first gym session I realised that I had no idea if I was doing the exercises correctly, or even safely. I subsequently spent about 2 hours on youtube and a variety of personal fitness websites understanding what the correct technique was.
Which was great except it’s hard to know what you’re actually doing when you don’t have someone to spot you.
To rectify this I grabbed my video camera and started recording each exercise as I performed it. This was a pain and it took until the 3rd week for me to be confident that I was executing the motions as required.
3. The diet and drugs
I got totally overwhelmed on this front. While the Slow Carb Diet isn’t very complicated – just don’t eat carbs and eat more protein. When you are trying to gain weight you need to add in carbs and again the book doesn’t really do a good job of giving you the finer points on this. I believe this is called the information overload or the paradox of choice (or maybe a combination) – there’s just too much info saying do this but don’t do that so that the end result is deciding that it’s all too hard.
Same thing with the drugs. Too complicated. Take X before your meals and Y after the gym but then have a day off before taking Z.
Really all of these things stem from number 1. Not having the right information or being unable to execute on it.
What I’d do differently next time
I’m going to definitely try this again, now that I have a better understanding of how OP works.
The number 1 thing I would do differently is find a buddy so that I have someone with me in the gym to make sure I’m doing the right thing.
I’d also take the time map out my meals and supplements for 4 weeks and then make sure that I rigorously stick to it as it’s clear that without these aspects working in sync with the gym time, the results just aren’t going to materialise.
Stay tuned for round 2…
UPDATE: Round 2 has taken place. Does Occam’s protocol work?