Rapid Body Transformations: Desirable or Dangerous?

The personal training industry these days is full of short term transformations together with ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures, but not everyone agrees that these are a positive thing and some argue that they can be damaging, unsustainable, and in some cases downright unscrupulous.

You know the ones; 12 week, 8 week and even 6 week fitness regimes that promise quick results for those willing to pump some serious iron.

Of course, in reality a transformation has nothing to do with a specific time frame. It simply refers to a marked change in form, nature or appearance. It can take as little or as much time as you need.

As of 2014, the average life expectancy in the UK was 81.06 years. We are, all of us, undergoing a 4215 week transformation whether we like it or not.

Despite this, within the context of the fitness industry the term transformation has come to describe the quest for extreme results in a matter of weeks. Often involving gruelling workouts and often extreme, restrictive diets.

They have gone hand in hand with the acceptance of resistance training as an effective tool for fat loss (which it is), and have fuelled the growth of some of the most recognisable names in the fitness and personal training industry.

Why undertake a rapid body transformation?

The concept of transformations tap into our desire to look good naked and need for instant gratification. They often have little to do with either health or fitness. Six packs sell, whether they’re sustainable or not.

As you might imagine, transformations are a deeply polarising phenomenon of the fitness industry. Both for personal trainers and the public.

12 weeks of soul destroying workouts with nothing to eat except chicken and broccoli can be an intimidating concept for many people, and rightly so. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger -  either that, or it leaves you with chronic back pain and a lifelong fear of cruciferous vegetables!

Before & after pictures – all they’re cracked up to be?

Perhaps one of the most controversial trends are before and after photos. They have become synonymous with transformations, almost to the point of cliche. Trainers use them to market their services, and social media is littered with them. They can be viewed as inspiring or shaming depending on your interpretation.

Photos are a fantastic tool for tracking and visualising results, but they are open to abuse.

A common practice is to take a before photo at the start of the first session, prior to the workout itself. Then a few weeks later to take another photo, but this time after the workout. The client’s muscles will appear bigger and more defined because they are pumped full of blood. I’ve even known trainers to instruct their clients to tense their muscles while taking after photos, in effect posing for the camera.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, as long as the trainer does not try and pass it off as a like for like before and after. Indeed, it can be very positive and motivating for a client to see a post workout photo midway through a transformation.

Unforgivable, however, are those unscrupulous trainers who manipulate steroids, lighting and use photoshop to achieve striking results. Is it any wonder that people have come to mistrust before and after photos? And, in many cases dismiss genuinely impressive transformations!

That being said, I personally love transformations, if they are appropriate for you. They can be positive life changing experiences for many people. They can grant a sense of accomplishment and new found self-esteem. While sustainability is always a concern with rapid, short term transformations, the potential long term physical and mental health benefits are undeniable if things are done correctly.

Is a rapid body transformation right for you?

So, we’ve established that there are pros and cons to transformations. How do we decide if it’s appropriate for you? We know where you want to go, but first we need to look at where you have been and where you are right now. Areas that we need to consider are:

Sleep

The quantity and quality of your sleep can be a useful indicator as to whether you will be able to handle the added stress a rapid transformation will place you under.

Over a third of adults sleep less than 7 hours a night, the minimum recommended amount.

If this is you, then your immune system may be compromised. Levels of T-cells may be reduced and inflammation increased. You may be more susceptible to infections and viruses, and there is an increased risk of heart disease.

You may not recover from exercise as quickly. Our bodies balance hormone production and replace neurotransmitters while we sleep. If this process is not allowed to take place it may cause low energy and mood, while increasing feelings of stress.

Two hormones of particular interest with regards to fat loss are ghrelin and leptin. Lack of sleep has been linked to increased levels of ghrelin and decreased leptin. This is likely to increase appetite and so total calories consumed.

It’s a vicious cycle as high body fat itself has a negative effect on sleep, which affects ghrelin and leptin, which increases appetite and calories consumed, which increases body fat and so on…

If necessary we can test adrenal glands, melatonin and magnesium levels. There are relaxation and lifestyle strategies that may also be useful to implement.

Nutrition

While I personally like to approach sleep hygiene first, nutrition is probably the single biggest factor in determining whether you are prepared for a transformation. That being said, in practice it is not possible to prioritise sleep or nutrition one over the other because they are synergistic.

A lot of trainers will simply give you a number of calories to eat and perhaps a macronutrient breakdown without first establishing what or how much you have been eating up to this point.

It is an incontrovertible fact that you must be in a calorie deficit to lose body fat. That is to say, you must be expending more energy than you are consuming. It does not matter how “healthy” or “clean” your diet is; if you are eating too much you will get fat.

Many people are just not eating enough, especially if engaging in intense exercise a number of times per week. If you are already in a calorie deficit, but are not losing body fat it is very likely that there is an underlying health issue that must be addressed alongside training. Examples of these are:

  • Poor digestive system function
  • Hormone imbalance - adrenals, thyroid, oestrogen imbalance
  • Bad bug (pathogen) imbalance (bacteria, fungus, parasites)
  • Food intolerance
  • Toxic load and mineral imbalances
  • Inflammation and oxidation

For example, I have had several clients over the years who it turned out were severely deficient in vitamin D. Trust me, it might be difficult for your training to go anywhere if you are in the same boat.

It’s become fairly common practice to take skinfold calliper measurements and attempt to use the results to profile a client’s hormones. While callipers are a useful tool in the trainer’s toolbox, they are not the be all and end all. They can be an inconsistent method for measuring body fat percentage. They are definitely not suitable for testing hormone balance. If possible, get specific hormone tests done.

Another aspect of nutrition, which is just as important as physical nutrients is your emotional relationship with food. Do you have any hedonistic or trigger foods? Those foods, which you just can’t stop eating and put down.

If a physical transformation is to be permanent and sustainable then it is often vital to understand why we make the food choices we do. There is often a lot of shame, guilt and compulsion associated with the foods that we eat.

Will power alone will only get you so far. Self-awareness, planning and organisation are critical to success.

Physical preparedness

Do you have any injuries past or present? What is your mobility like? Do you move well? Can you hip hinge, press, pull and squat with safe technique?

We live in a world where the majority of people are sat at a desk (as I am now), in a car or on a sofa while poking their chin forward to operate a mobile phone or computer. Almost everyone will have at least one area of less than perfect range of motion or faulty movement pattern.

Remember, the goal of a rapid fat loss transformation is just that; fat loss. It is not to “fix” your muscle imbalances or movement patterns. There simply is not time, and the sacrifice of addressing mobility issues and functionality in order to gain faster fat loss results is a sacrifice that deserves serious consideration.

The majority of mobility issues and even some injuries can be worked around by adapting the exercise and the training programme to you. Where is it written that everyone must barbell back squat ass to grass? The Gods of Exercise will not descend from the heavens and smite you if you fail to squat below parallel, but reinforcing a dysfunctional movement pattern is never a great idea and so squatting might be something that needs to be worked around in the short term.

The truth is, many people will never have the mobility to squat with a bar on their back. Some will never have the mobility to squat period. And that’s cool if mobility isn’t your main goal and rapid fat loss is (although addressing mobility at some point would be a good idea).

There is no place for sentiments like ‘no pain no gain’ in an intelligent transformation. Discomfort perhaps, but listen to your body - if it hurts, you might have slipped a disc by going hard when you should have gone home.

If you have an issue that is likely to be made worse through training, we need to ask ourselves is rapid fat loss an appropriate primary goal? Remember, we are talking about physical illness or injury, but it could just as easily be a nutritional or psychological consideration.

Only after assessing all of the above would I consider the training programme itself. None of the above is an absolute barrier to embarking on a rapid transformation, but you should approach such an endeavour with caution.

Alternatives to rapid body transformation

You may wish to reconsider the time it will take to achieve your goal and choose a less time limited approach that allows for a more considered programme. Or, you may decide to reevaluate the goal itself. You may decide to work with a nutritionist, functional medicine doctor, sports therapist or psychotherapist / life coach to support your training.

We are lucky at Optimised to be the UK’s leading integrated health clinic and personal training gym. As such, we have access to the above professionals in house. We can run specific tests and most importantly interpret the results without having to rely on pseudo-science or guesswork.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of trainers do not have access to this level of support. So, you may need to work with several different qualified professionals and businesses to get the answers you seek.

It is undeniable that fat loss is the primary motivator for most people to exercise. And as long as we remain a society intent on image and instant gratification, rapid body transformations will remain a reality of the fitness industry. And a positive, highly effective approach for some.

For those of you who tick all the boxes, this is where the “fun” begins. 12 weeks of gruelling workouts in a calorie deficit. Huzzar!

If after consideration, a rapid transformation is not right for you don’t let it deter you. So what if your journey takes 24 or 48 weeks instead of 12? The rewards will be just as sweet, and remember we’re all on our own 4215 week transformation whether we like it or not!

To your lean, healthy, optimised future,

Matt Arnold

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