“I Saw Your Spread”
I heard the words “I saw your spread” a few times last week and it just sounded SO wrong. The company I work for produces Fit magazine, which comes free with the Irish Independent every Thursday, and I pitched a story to the editor.
It was similar to the story I did for The Salt Lake Tribune, except longer, less jokey and more personal. Luckily the Trib allowed us use the same photos so I didn’t have to pose in my Speedos again.
I’m not a big fan of seeing myself in pictures, to be honest, but no story works without a beginning so we had to have those Before shots. Besides, people are fascinated by Before and After pictures, although it’s usually of people going in the opposite direction to the one I’m heading.
The article is not available online, so here’s the full story:
As a boy I dreaded Irish summers, and it wasn’t because of the rain. I’d have to wear shorts when the sun came out and how I loathed my chicken legs. Even today when I use the gym at the Trinity College Dublin Sports Centre I wear track bottoms.
I’ve been skinny all my life and have forever longed to have some extra heft — more muscle that would make me fighting fit. I’m 44, 5’8″ and 9.5 stone. I’d ideally like to be about 11.5 to 12 stone but despite being a big eater, it’s always seemed impossible to get there. It’s at least as difficult for me to gain weight as it is for others to lose it.
Now you’re probably thinking I should be happy to be thin. But it’s difficult for people who have never been skinny to know what it’s like to be that person.
I’m not looking to be a member of the Irish rugby squad or the Michelin Man, just a more robust version of me. In addition, everything I do in my quest to pack on the pounds is done naturally (i.e. no steroids).
After decades of frustration, I’ve just started a programme specially tailored for guys like me, which I’ll get to in a minute.
In preparation for that, I’ve enlisted the services of top trainer John Connor of the Irish Strength Institute in Dublin to sort out some muscle imbalances, thereby reducing the risk of injury, before I launch into my journey.
Connor deals with clients of all body types but it’s important to bear in mind that whether you’re going up or down, the same principles apply. The quest for lean muscle is all down to exercise and diet.
I’ve been down this road before. I lived in various parts of the States for 12 years and while working in Salt Lake City I went from 8.5 stone to 11 stone after getting a trainer to provide me with various workouts. The main reason it took so long was because my nutrition plan was laughably amateur. For instance, I never took protein powder shakes. As a result, the weight I had added was not all lean muscle.
You see, when I tell people how I yearn to add weight to my frame they say things like “Sure a curry chips and a flagon of Coke will sort that out”. But it’s ‘good’ weight I’m looking for — lean muscle mass.
Upon returning to Ireland in 2005, I came across a book called Scrawny to Brawny but I left it on the shelf as if having the book would be enough to magically grow muscle.
Months later I happened upon the Scrawny to Brawny (S2B) website and remembered I already had the book. After reading it cover to cover, it just made a lot of sense. Last year I found out there was an online version of the book that takes 200 guys from around the world and helps them bulk up. A team of four coaches provide daily lessons, workouts, meal plans and more so that you can develop great habits inside and outside the gym that will hopefully last a lifetime.
Think of my journey as a cross between Morgan Spurlock’s “Supersize Me” film and a Bridget Jones diary for skinny guys trying to add weight.
Half the battle will be won in the kitchen given that I have to consume at least 4,500 calories a day. I must ‘eat clean’, meaning I have to prepare food from scratch. This includes a huge omelette for breakfast (mostly egg whites), a salad for lunch with two medium pieces of chicken or fish, and a stir fry for dinner with the same amount of animal- or fish-based proteins.
In addition, I have to drink three ‘super shakes’ daily, which are essentially protein powder drinks ‘souped up’ with with fruit, nuts and spinach. The last ingredient makes this concoction look like something Shrek would drink. And I store the shakes in a large silver Thermos flask, which looks scarily like a canister for weaponised plutonium for which “24’s” Jack Bauer was often on the hunt.
The programme is a 12-month commitment and run by Toronto-based Precision Nutrition and founder John Berardi and his team, who also help overweight people lose weight. Berardi has an impressive track record having advised, among others, a host of top sports teams in North America and been invited by Nike to create a menu for the NFL Pro Training Camp. They even serve his recipes at Nike headquarters in Portland, Oregon now.
I could have hired a personal trainer a lot closer to home for a year, but I doubt there are many out there who turned themselves from whippets into huskies as the four coaches — Berardi, Paul Valiulis, Chuck Dertinger and new programme director Nate Green (author of Built for Show) — on the S2B program did.
When asked why it’s so difficult for scrawny guys to put on muscle weight, Berardi says: “Lifelong scrawny guys, called ectomorphs, have very unique metabolic needs that aren’t met by normal exercise and eating patterns. That’s why regular exercise programs and eating schedules aren’t very effective for them. I’m a former scrawny guy myself. So I know the personal struggles associated with being extremely thin and weak. With self-study and a PhD education, I finally figured out the scrawny to brawny puzzle.”
So how different is S2B to normal exercise programmes? “As a skinny guy, I learned to do the opposite of what everyone else was told to do,” Berardi says. “I needed to exercise less (as little as three to four short sessions per week) and eat more (upwards of 6,000 calories per day). Of course, the workouts had to be intense, using as much muscle mass as possible. And the meals had to be healthy, incorporating lean proteins, healthy fats, quality carbohydrates, and lots of fruits and vegetables. ”
And Berardi points out the scrawny to brawny quest is about a lot more than aesthetics. “Being scrawny isn’t just about how your body looks. It’s about how your body performs and how you see the world.
Over the years, in working with thousands of skinny guys, I’ve realised that gaining muscle size and strength isn’t about vanity. It’s about living the life that you want to live. About moving, eating and living better. Becoming your own hero. And that’s something everyone can benefit from.”
Given how I referenced my skinny legs as a kid, here’s me with my younger brother Fergal when I was about four years old… (I was a pretty cute kid… WTF happened?).