This is a Blog post about a specific Diet and training régime I followed for 11 weeks with my trainer David O’Hara, at Elite Training and Nutrition in Glenageary, South Dublin. As always, it’s important for me to clarify that I’m not a qualified nutrition or fitness expert, therefore everything you’re about to read is the whole story, warts and all, from a regular guy’s point of view! Myself and Dave have agreed that it might be somewhat irresponsible of me to list my exact diet, supplementation and workouts because what worked for me, might not necessarily work for you, and while my training was aimed at cutting fat, and increasing strength and overall fitness for my requirements as an escapologist, your training might be aimed at something completely different.
I’ll apologize in advance as it’s quite lengthy because it’s very difficult to briefly write about an 11 week experience like this in detail, so hopefully you’ll stick with it!
A Challenge accepted
So, approximately 5 months ago, I was training in Elite Training and Nutrition when a member of the PT team approached me with an idea…before we go any further, you’ll have to understand that I did literally all of my training for the TV series in Elite, so the team there would have seen me train with James Cummins every day, if not twice a day in the lead up to filming (which you can read about here), and would each have a good understanding of my strengths and weaknesses, and the type of person I am – as is the supportive nature of the environment there! Dave said:
“You’re always putting yourself in these really tough situations for your series, yet you seem to love your job and it’s pretty obvious that you like a challenge”
…my interest was peaked…
“would you be interested in doing a ‘Cut’, having me train you through it and document everything as we go along?”
‘…Yes! ‘ I said enthusiastically…”Wait….what’s a ‘cut‘!?”
I guess in laymen’s terms, doing a ‘cut‘ involves following a course of strict and intense training régimes for a set period of time, whilst also adhering to an incredibly strict diet – elements of which change and become more minimal as you progress through the various stages until you reach your target. The word ‘cut’ in this context refers to the ‘cutting’ of body-fat, which is not to be confused with losing weight. In short, it’s
A hypo-caloric diet where the goal is to decrease overall body fat, while concomitantly maintaining or even gaining muscle mass. Often, a small amount of muscle loss is expected and acceptable.
Apart from that I honestly didn’t really know what was involved, I loved the idea of a challenge and pushing myself as far as I physically could in a set period of time though, so we sat down and had a chat about it so that I could learn a bit more. David O’Hara is a 30 year old competitive Powerlifter and one of the busiest Personal trainers in South Dublin – when he’s not working with his clients in Elite, he’s working on his own business “Strength and Performance Personal Training”. Fortunately for me, Dave was in the final stages of his own personal ‘cut’, which meant that during our initial chat, by drawing on his own experiences, he could speak honestly and candidly about the amount of commitment involved, the intensity of the training and how the diet would affect everything from my mood, energy levels and my personal appearance. The phrase that kept popping up was that
“It’s a challenge…and you’ll learn a lot about yourself along the way. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it”.
I had a 3 week window where I had nothing major on in the mornings, then I had 10 days blocked off for filming, and after that I was free in the mornings and evenings for about 7 or 8 weeks, so we figured we’d aim for an 11 or 12 week cut and if something cropped up within that time, we’d just find a way to work around it. I was also extremely lucky to have the support and sponsorship of Ultimate Sports Nutrition Ireland (USN), who provided me with the best supplements around to help me achieve my goals.
Instead of starting the cut in that first 3 week window, we settled on the idea of doing a 3 week phase of German Volume Training instead (which you can read all about here) to get my strength up. In plain english this meant that we could shock my muscles into growing that extra bit more before stripping away layers of body fat in the cut and leaving a (hopefully!) muscular physique. It also gave me time to rehab a shoulder and knee injury which became an issue again after we shot two big escape stunts for the series. After these three weeks I headed off on a shoot for 10 days, and when I came back I was ready to rock.
Before we begin…6 reasons to avoid a Cut.
You! Yes..YOU, do not want to do a Cut. Honestly, you shouldn’t even consider it. Here’s why:
You don’t want to do it because you really enjoy going out and drinking with your friends on the weekends, and hell, maybe you enjoy a bottle of beer after a long day of work! Why would you want to give that up?
You don’t want to do this because your mother makes the most delicious home-made meals, and you sit down with her once a week to enjoy aforementioned meals with the rest of your family for a catch-up and a few glasses of wine!! you can’t give THAT up right?!
You don’t want to do this because deciding that “ugh, I’ll just have a sandwich for lunch” is way easier than planning out your meals, cooking them the day before, separating them into the exact portions your body needs and sealing them in little lunch boxes which you’ll carry with you everywhere! “F_k that, I’m definitely getting a sandwich!”.
You’d hate to do a cut because you love Sauce. Sauce with everything! Because sometimes, food just tastes better with sauce! Why would you not use sauce!?
You’d hate to do a cut because when your ‘energy levels’ drop, you love to have some chocolate, and maybe even a can of Coke to get those levels back up again! It’s the only option right “and sometimes you just need it !” !?
You can’t do a cut because working from 9am in the morning till 5pm in the evening is draining and leaves no time for personal improvement. Besides, who has the time to spend 45 minutes in a gym everyday anyway – you’d rather sleep for an extra few minutes in the morning, or get some more tv-watchin’ time in during the evenings…whilst drinking beer, coke and wine, and dipping your chocolate bar and sandwich in sauce!
Ok – I Know, I sound like a total asshole. BUT, these are actually just a few of the complaints that I personally had during my Cut! The fantastic actor Don Cheadle says that whenever acting students ask him for one piece of golden advice, he tells them on the spot not to pursue their dreams of being an actor, he tells them to do literally anything else. His theory is that if him saying that is enough to dissuade them, then they shouldn’t even try in the first place. So, if you see yourself in there somewhere, then keep reading, because maybe we can all relate!
Firstly, let’s talk food.
Growing up, we’re all taught that breakfast is the most important meal of the day – never a truer word has been spoken, because what you eat in the morning will set you up for the rest of the day. The most common breakfast in most households, I’m guessing, is toast, cereal and some kind of fruit juice. Well, if you’re doing a cut, unfortunately that’s all gone. Yes, even your Special K…which, by the way, is full of questionable ingredients, low fiber, some trans fats, a high sugar content and high fructose corn syrup…but we won’t go there! (If you want to lose weight, do yourself a favor and switch to whole foods!). This type of lifestyle is statistically represented by this accurate pie chart below:
The most valuable dietary tip or ‘trick’ that I’ve learnt since stepping foot in Elite is the effectiveness of the Red Meat Breakfast. Yes, you heard me – Red Meat…for breakfast! The high Protein content in red meat allows for a slow rise in blood sugar, which helps to keep cravings at bay throughout the day, but more on the benefits later!
The diet that was tailored specifically to me for my cut required me to eat a certain amount of Red Meat over the course of the day, so each morning I’d get up at the crack of dawn and cook up about 700 gs of Red Meat, like Steak / Steak pieces, mince / burgers, Venison, occasionally Lamb etc. and spread that out over the day, with whatever vegetables or salad I could have.
Ok, so a lot of you might be thinking…’Rua, you idiot! Isn’t red meat really bad for you‘?.
When I heard about the amount of Red Meat I’d be eating on the Cut, I decided to do a bit of reading about the various different theories behind this whole thing so that I could make an informed decision. Yes, there was a study published on March 12th 2012 by the Harvard School of Public Health, that linked red meat consumption to an increased risk of early death. This study hypothesized that for every 3 ounces of processed meats like sausages / hot dogs, bacon / rashers you eat, your risk of heart disease and Cancer goes up by 20%. It also said that for every 3 ounce portion of processed red meat eaten that risk goes up by 30%…so that means that if I eat 12 ounces of red meat every day, I’m 50% more likely to die of Cancer or heart disease.
I’m the furthest thing from an expert in nutrition, and the author of this study is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, and only really smart people get into Harvard, so I’m not going to argue with him. However, I quickly found out that the inconsistency in the public’s understanding of this study is that it doesn’t actually distinguish between the quality of meats, but instead uses cheap store-bought meat and the kind of meat you would find in a fast food place like MacDonalds as the basis for it’s thesis. So…eating burgers at fast food joints makes you fat? They also published another groundbreaking study revealing the fact that if you walk in the rain, you might actually get wet … Just kidding! But hopefully you see my point!?
Another thing to keep in mind about this is that the study refers to Corn-Fed Red Meat only, and not Grass-Fed. Why is this important? Well, Grass-fed beef is high in Omega-3′s (about 4% of it’s overall content) which reduces inflammation in the body, improves brain health and cardiovascular health, while also improving your mood. It’s loaded with Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) which has the benefits of improving the immune system, and is also great for managing your cortisol levels and managing dangerous visceral fat that can hide behind your abdominal wall – so it’s actually quite important for your health. Lastly, grass-fed beef has a much higher Selenium content than Corn-fed beef, and the more Selenium there is in your diet, the lower your risk of contracting Cancer. All very positive stuff, right?
So, from a Research Methods stand point the study is very well laid out and it succeeds in highlighting the risks of regularly eating processed, cheap and unhealthy cuts of red meat. But it also says stuff like:
The Harvard researchers hypothesized that eating red meat would also be linked to an overall risk of death from any cause. … And the results suggest they were right: Among the 37,698 men and 83,644 women who were tracked, as meat consumption increased, so did mortality risk.
So, this means that if I grill up a Sirloin Steak today, the risk of me being hit by bus on monday increases by 20%!? I didn’t go to Harvard, but that seems kind of unlikely right? If you’re worried that a bit of red meat might cause Cancer, there are bigger risks involved with simply walking down the street these days! (A quick example: Non-smokers increase their risk of developing lung cancer by 20% to 30% and heart disease by 25% to 30% when they are exposed to secondhand smoke alone, and we won’t even get into the risks that expectant mothers are exposed to because of second hand smoke – it would make you sick!).
Anyway, moving forward, I read the research because I wanted to make an informed decision for myself, and if you’re in any doubt you should too. I can tell you first hand that as a result of following a red meat breakfast diet I felt fuller, I had an increase in mental focus and productivity whilst working, I had more energy, and most importantly I was leaning out very quickly because of it!
That said, I can appreciate that it’s tough to get up in the wee hours and cook up a steak or a burger every morning – and towards the end of my Red Meat Phase, even I was getting a bit fed up with constantly chewing down pieces of steak! My teeth hurt, and it got to a point where I was just choking it back. A necessary evil!
Diet + Carbohydrate Cycling
Prior to the cut I never properly knew what a Carb Cycling Diet was, and boy was I in for a rocky ride. However, while the results you see in the photos were achieved through a huge amount of training, Carb Cycling was the nuclear weapon that blasted my body fat from just under 22% to a neat 10% in 11 weeks, and was the most crucial factor in the transformation.
There are three types of days while on this diet: a
NO CARB DAY
A LOW CARB DAY
HIGH CARB DAY
These days are rotated, or cycled equally with the goal of tricking your body enough to induce a relatively rapid fat loss. There are many different formulas for Carb Cycling, but we kept it simple and manipulated my carb intake over a simple 3 day cycle of no carbs, low carbs and high carbs. Generally whilst carb cycling, you’ll eat a specifically proportioned meal 5 or 6 times a day, with each meal containing a Protein source and some vegetables. The Protein source and vegetables are relatively simple on this diet, and on any given day I was eating upwards of 600-700 grams of meat, leafy greens and a kilo of vegetables (not of the ‘Root Vegetable’ variety on the ‘no carb day’ though!), and drinking 3 – 4 liters of water a day too.
High Carb Day
This was normally the best day of my life whilst on the Cut because I had a precise amount of either Brown Rice, or Sweet Potato that I could eat over the course of the day. Throughout the Cut, the carb intake is stripped again and again at certain points, so while I may have started on 250 grams of Carbs on my high day, that will have be cut to something close to 100 grams or 75 grams towards the final weeks. So I really enjoyed those lovely carby days at the start! My mood on these days was generally pretty good because of the small amount of carbs I would have had the day before, so I never had any issues here.
Low Carb Day
You’ve probably guessed by now that the low carb day consists of eating a lower amount of carbs than you would have on your high day, so for example, if my high day allowed for 250 grams of carbs, my low day might consist of 175 grams. On my Low Carb day I found myself to be extremely tired and lethargic because of the lack of carbs on the previous day. As well as that, I was training twice a day (by choice), in rehearsals for shoots, and traveling around Ireland to different gigs, so it was tough to stay on top of my meals and keep the energy levels as high as they normally would be!
No Carb Day
Good lord I hated these days! Half way through we switched from Red Meat, to Chicken and salad, chicken and salad, chicken and…You get the idea, and let’s face it, there’s only so much a man can take! This day consisted of no carbs at all, so the meals were regular…but extremely bland, dry and monotonous, especially towards the end, but more on that later! Energy levels were ok because of the High Carb Day I would have just had, but as the weeks went on I found myself getting random bouts of tiredness that just came out of nowhere…which is very awkward when you’re sitting in a meeting and wondering if anybody would notice if you just closed your eyes or put your head down for a minute. My shopping trips started to regularly look like this:
On paper, you might think that this sounds easy enough because ‘hey chicken salad ain’t so bad!‘. But remember, this isn’t a chicken salad with dressing, or little breadcrumbs and a bit of tasty sauce! This is a cooked chicken breast, and some dry leaves, maybe some balsamic vinegar here and there…6 times a day for 11 or 12 weeks!. You might really like to drink fancy coffees when you hit an afternoon slump, but they’re gone too – No sugar, no sweeteners, no milk, and no little biscuits either! It’s black coffee, Green Tea or water! While it’s a hotly debated topic in the health industry, Fruit is full of natural sugars which cause a spike in your blood sugar levels. This means that if you eat a bowl of fruit in the morning, your blood sugar levels will go up, and later on your body will send them back down again (this is often called yo-yo’ing), which in turn gives you cravings for more sugar so that you can get those levels back up again. Some carb cycling diets still actually allow for fruit (this might differ for you, and you might get a few blueberries here and there), however, my body isn’t great at dealing with insulin levels, so we decided to take fruit out of the equation all together. I’m not complaining at all because the results speak for themselves, but the perspective of somebody who’s finished a cut is vastly different to somebody who’s just beginning!
The no carb day was the most psychologically challenging because the cravings start to creep in out of nowhere. If I was going out for a walk, I’d leave my credit cards and cash at home so that if something hit, I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. You start bargaining with yourself and wondering ‘is it really going to make a difference? Nobody needs to know!’. I’m not being funny when I say that I’d regularly be walking down through Dun Laoighaire or Blackrock and suddenly get a craving for something completely random, and the most common one for me was a Rocky Road bar. I don’t like Rocky Road bars and I don’t eat them at all, but all I knew at that moment in time was that I really wanted one, and if I didn’t get it….
Mood and Emotions whilst Carb Cycling
Anybody who’s ever met me will tell you that I’m always a really happy guy, easy going and full of energy (and very, very modest). Without realizing it, Carb Cycling very slowly ate away at me as 11 weeks became 6 weeks, then 4 weeks, then 2, each time with a bit of food being stripped from the diet. I was still my happy self 90-95% of the time, but the first change that I quickly noticed was that my tolerance levels dropped dramatically. I don’t want to sound like an asshole, but I’m sure we’ve all had to hold back a few thoughts when we’ve met an unhelpful cashier in a shop, had to deal with an unreasonable employer, or even just dealing with a customer service agent on the end of the telephone. The key word here though, is ‘hold back‘. Occasionally I found myself in similar situations when dealing with what I sometimes like to call ‘Stupid People ‘, and what happened was that I lost that filter that allowed me to hold back thoughts, a switch was flipped, and I found myself saying some very honest and mean-sounding things to these people, but immediately afterwards I’d call myself on it in my head and think “Crap, that was a horrible thing to say, I wish I never said that…WHY DID I SAY THAT!!?”, which put me in an even worse mood because I would then be angry at myself! We also did about 2 weeks of filming on my TV series, which was incredibly tough, and caused me to have my first slip up in my sixth week – some sweet potato fries from Eddie Rockets! On the opposite end of that ‘zero tolerance’ spectrum came another incident, which I promised everybody that I’d write about so that I was giving you all the 100% truth, and because…we all laughed about it for a while afterwards.
It was a Saturday morning, I woke up hungry, but there was no food in the house and I had to stick around to let somebody in, so to kill some time I opened up my laptop and went onto 4oD’s website to see if I could find something to watch. I see an add for a documentary type series called ‘The Undateables’, about all these genuinely lovely and caring people who have trouble meeting other men and women because they each suffer with different physical challenges, but they sign up to a dating agency to find love…I don’t know why, but I decided to watch it. Long story short, there was a scene in which the guy we’re following gets stood up by a girl he was meant to go on a date with, and you can visibly see the guys heart break. At that very moment in time, something happened inside me. A lump developed in my throat, my lips started to quiver, eyes started to water, and I had a bit of an emotional breakdown for about 30 seconds. That’s right, ‘Ireland’s most exciting new star of death defying challenges‘ had a bit of a cry whilst watching The Undateables! I quickly regained my hegemonic masculinity by turning on a Mark Wahlberg action film instead – It was terrible. That was the only emotional incident I had over the course of the 11 weeks, but some people get it a lot worse – I guess it depends on your state of mind.
The actor Tom Hardy Carb Cycled throughout the shoots for the fight scenes in his film WARRIOR, and spoke in an interview about getting incredibly short tempered with members of the crew and saying some really regrettable things. However, on the last day he went around apologizing to everybody and explained how the diet was affecting him physically and mentally. For the sake of clarification, I have to say that for the most part I was in a fantastic mood if not a little exhausted, and only had a very small number of incidents where I spoke my mind a little bit too honestly!
You have to remember as well that when you’re carb cycling, you’re kind of out there on your own because nobody around you is going to do you any favors – your friends will still want to go for beers, which you can’t have, and they’ll want to go a fast food joint afterwards which again, you can’t have. Events come out of nowhere, like Weddings or birthday parties for example, and everybody around you will be drinking and eating cake…and you’ll really want to join them, but you can’t! I stuck with it through Halloween, my 25th birthday, Christmas day, and St. Patrick’s Day. As an example, during my last week I was having a bit of a ‘dark day’ and of course Cadbury’s were giving out free GALAXY chocolate Bars at the DART Station where I get off at most mornings – just my luck! Those promo girls really get in your face about taking a free chocolate bar too! Another unwanted temptation! Anyway. She’s dead now.
The point is that you can’t plan for the unexpected, and things will happen that’ll frustrate you, anger you, and challenge your will power. If you decide to Carb Cycle, I’d strongly advise telling everybody around you about it before hand, in as much detail as possible, so that they can try to understand a little bit about what’s going on with you.
80% of this change happened in the kitchen – I’ve no doubt in my mind about that. However, if the other 20% wasn’t absolutely perfect as well, then everything would have fallen apart. By choice, I trained twice a day (AM and PM), 4 days a week: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Saturday mornings I did Strongman classes taught by Lindsey Doyle at Elite, which were hardcore, vomit inducing, anti-catabolic / fat burning sessions. So I had Wednesdays and Sunday’s off. In the below photo, I’m moving so fast that I’m blurry. I swear.
My AM sessions were all Superset weight training programs, which I loved! Every 4 weeks Dave changed the workouts and rep ranges so that my body never had the chance to get used to anything. So for example, one Program might have consisted of a simple 10 – 12 Reps on each muscle group, the next might have been 6 reps Barbell Press on Incline Bench, immediately followed by 8 Reps Dumbbell Press on Flat Bench, immediately followed by 10 reps decline Flies. So I’m sure you can imagine, those workouts were tough at 7am or 8am in the morning after a steak breakfast! While our priority was to get lean, Dave also wanted to increase my strength, which is somewhat of a Holy Grail amongst trainers, and sure enough he was successful in doing so! All of my 1 rep Max’s went up and up from the beginning, and I was still getting drops near enough to the 1% mark every week. A truly incredible result!
My AM sessions looked like this:
Monday: Legs / Back
Tuesday: Biceps / Abs
Thursday: Chest / Hamstrings
Friday: Triceps / Shoulders / Abs
My PM Sessions were all anti-catabolic / Strongman programs aka High Intensity Interval Training, and instead of talking too much about it, I can just show you a video I took on my phone. This is me in my second session on a Friday, on my 5th and final set of that program, so obviously I’m shattered and my form is off, but you’ll get a sense of what we were doing! Oh, and that’s Dave shouting at me. 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off:
These sessions, as you can see, were very very tough. But for me, it was a case of sticking the headphones in and just banging them out. As the weeks went on I got fitter, faster and more resilient to the workouts, but just as I got used to one, we’d change it up entirely to shock my body! Adapt or die I guess!
It’s important for me to tell you that I didn’t do any jogging / running, nor did I step foot on one treadmill, rowing machine, cross trainer or bike during these 11 weeks. A lot of magazines and trainers would have you believe that the best way to lose weight is by running or using these cardio machines, but for me and many others, anti-catabolic training delivers dramatic results in a shorter period of time, and is better for your overall strength and fitness. If you’re interested in trying some of these, Dave runs classes in the mornings during the week in Elite, and Lindsey Doyle runs classes on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings. There’s always an amazing group of people both male and female, young and old(ish) from all walks of life, which generates a great atmosphere of camaraderie and determination in Elite. Surround yourself with people who are trying to achieve the same goals as you, and you’ll have no choice but to keep up! Look how happy and sweaty we all look:
It’s very easy to get caught up in the hype of Supplements – Some promise instant muscle gains, and others promise instant weight loss, and it’s hard to know what’s good, what’s bad and what’s actually necessary. My friends at USN Ireland were really helpful throughout my cut, and I guess somewhat curious to see if we could actually cut body-fat while increasing strength at the same time. So as usual, they gave us any information we needed about their products so that we could choose the best ones for me. Protein shakes and BCAAs were the closest I got to luxury on the Cut, and in the interest of being truthful, I only ever took a protein shake immediately after a training session while the anabolic window was wide open.
For this cut, we kept everything scientific and simple, so here are some of the supplements I took throughout:
USN Protein IGF-1 (Insulin Growth Factor)
USN Multi Vitman
USN Green Tea Extract
USN Fishoils (Omega 3s)
I previously wrote about the benefits of using each of these specific products here, and also about the importance of using BCAAs here, so if you’d like to learn more, give them a read! In addition to these, I took a Pro-Biotic every morning and a Zinc tablet 3 times a day. I also cycled fibers such as Psyllium Husks, Inulin and Apple Pectan throughout.
So, there you have it, my experience of doing an incredibly tough, challenging and rewarding diet and training program for 11 weeks. Not only did I learn a huge amount about how to train in the most effective way possible, I also learned a great deal about nutrition and what works for me in practice. As the weeks went on, I had close friends, family and training buddies in Elite tell me that they couldn’t believe how much I was leaning out, especially in my face, because as you drop body fat features like your jaw line become more defined. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the finished photographs, and they’re something that I’ll always have as a reminder that I can do anything I set my mind to. It was tough, but absolutely worth it – so a huge, emotional thanks to David O’Hara for taking me on this journey, and for being the one to land the plane at the end. This is a photo I took on my phone right before getting the professional photos taken – hopefully you can tell how happy I am:
If you’re the kind of person who has an image in their minds as to how they’ve always wanted to look, I can only recommend giving Dave a call (085 627 7787) to make it happen. Maybe you have a sun holiday coming up this summer and you want to turn heads on the beach, or a Wedding outfit you need to fit into before your big day. Take this challenge, and surpass your own expectations of what you think you’re capable of achieving.
‘Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right’. – Henry Ford
You can view the images in HD glory here:
If you enjoyed reading this, you should watch a documentary on YouTube called ‘I want to look like that guy’, which is about one regular tubby guy’s journey through a cut, leading to his taking the stage at a physique competition. Try to ignore his moani-ness though. It’s available for free online, and part one can be viewed here.