Yes, I've reached the end of the challenge posed to me by online running friend Chris K. With apologies for the long post, here are my thoughts...
Here's how I approached things during my 15 week odyssey:
• I lifted weights 2-3 times per week (twice/week toward the end) and did cardio 2-4 times/week (3-4x/week toward the end). I usually split my workouts into pushing muscle groups and pulling muscle groups, doing 2-3 sets per exercise of 8-12 reps per set, not quite to failure. I tried to hit all major muscle groups to keep my body development balanced.
• I received several questions regarding how many situps/crunches/ab exercises I did every day. The answer is…not nearly as many as you may think. I worked them hard, but like any muscle, they need rest to recover and rebuild. I did roughly 250 situps per week, with maybe 60 of those being weighted (i.e. while holding a dumbbell on my chest). More on this in the summary.
I planned my nutritional approach in five stages:
1. same basic diet as my regular diet, but slightly smaller portions (weeks 1-5)
2. removal of all beer & sodas from diet (weeks 6-15)
3. removal of all sweets & refined sugars from diet (weeks 8-15)
4. uniform eating plan (final month), with calorie & macronutrient counts
5. high protein, low carb (3 days during wk 14...which I abandoned)
WHAT I LEARNED
• Getting defined abs is much more about diet than it is about doing situps & crunches until you're blue in the face. You can have well developed abdominal muscles, but if there's a layer of fat over them, no one will know. So to all of those silly infomercials telling us you can sculpt rock-hard abs by using their gizmo 5 minutes a day...get real.
• The calorie deficit really started affecting my strength toward the end, as I lost both strength and endurance. During my stretch drive (roughly a month out), I started counting calories, feeling that I couldn't really get a handle on what my intake level was doing to my body without the numbers.
• It's REALLY difficult to get razor-sharp definition. I wanted to be even sharper than this, but I'll admit that my heart wasn't into it at the end. Again, more elaboration in the next section.
• It was fun to see the physical changes during this process. I've been relatively lean my entire life, yet never lean enough to have a clearly-defined "six-pack." There were times when the day-to-day changes weren't noticeable, but there were also days when I suddenly DID notice them. Seeing direct results from your efforts is motivating.
THINGS I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY
• I wouldn't restrict my calories as much. I was at roughly 1800-1900 calories per day in the early stages of the final month, but whittled them down to around 1500 per day, not trusting my body to reduce fat enough without the restriction. As I knew from reading many articles (and several books by leanness guru Clarence Bass), my body went into fasting mode and I actually lost more muscle than fat for a period of time.
• Watch the sodium intake. I dipped a little too low for me and probably dropped my blood pressure too much, as I was getting dizzy and nearly blacking out whenever I stood up several days in a row. This subsided when I bumped my intake back up (to ~1000mg/day, from about 500mg/day).
• I would also not try the high protein/low carb approach again. For a few days, I was eating 12 oz of chicken breasts per day, along with broccoli, black beans and egg whites and nonfat milk (with a few nuts & no-salt/no-sugar peanut butter), and that's it. By the third day, the thought of continuing made me nauseaus. Plus, the chicken felt like a brick in my stomach, as it didn't want to pass through. Yes, I lost a few lbs during those brief days, but it wasn't worth it. Once I returned to the previous calorie level, with the brown rice, other veggies and oatmeal, I felt better and my body composition actually improved (as did my mood). As the above mentioned Clarence Bass has also said, you won't continue with a diet & exercise plan if it's not an enjoyable experience. While I enjoyed about 85% of this process, that dreaded 15% was enough to make the later stages of this journey harder to endure. A bit more moderation could have changed that for the better.
• There were several weeks early on where I wasn't seeing much progress at all. Plateaus happen, and sometimes all it takes is just a minor change in diet and/or exercise to get things moving again.
• I was relatively lean going into this, so in reality I didn't need to make as many adjustments as I did. My personality is such that I aim at a target and charge toward it full-bore, consequences be damned, with the belief that nothing will stop me. That often leads me to overdoing things…which I did during this adventure. Yes, my goal was met, but I think with a little more "balance" (my key word for 2011, if you read my running blog), I could have gotten to this point with a bit less discomfort. I probably should have tightened my diet a little sooner, but not to the extreme I did during the later stages. I think I hit on the right combination early in my "calorie counting" stage (1800-1900 cal/day, along with the "clean carbs"). Unfortunately I didn't feel it was enough to get the job done. Lesson learned.
I believe I can continue staying pretty lean for the long-haul, although I'm not sure I can maintain a very low bodyfat level. I honestly don't know what my percentage is in the photos, as I don't have an accurate way to measure, but if I had to take an educated guess, I'd say somewhere around 7-8%. So, as of my 44th birthday, I'm leaner than I've ever been.
So, Chris K, who once commented "I bet you can't do it"...thanks for the challenge ;-)
Oh, a very special thanks to my wife and kids for tolerating my dietary disruptions and mood swings.
And with all that said, here are the photos (including some "bonus shots"):