While looking for an e-book to read on the train commute home, I found the book Engineering the Alpha. I bought it a few months ago after I heard Andrew Warner of Mixergy interview with author John Romaniello.
I’ve had weight issues for my whole life, and I’ve never found a fitness routine that I could stick with long term. I know about nutrition and exercise but I’ve never stuck with them. Aside from thinking about my long term health, my energy levels, and feelings of self-confidence, I found a spreadsheet where I tracked my weight 3 years ago, and I was at exactly the same dissatisfying level then. Lots of time where I patted myself on the back for trying real hard, giving an honest effort, blah blah blah, and I made exactly 0 progress in three years. Engineering the Alpha presented a compelling new motivation to try again.
The book is divided into three parts: the psychological foundation for changing your life, a scientific explanation for the diet and exercise program, and the program itself. The first part uses the Hero’s Journey to explain the phases you go through, from being a normal person to being the hero of your own life. It’s both inspring and rational.
The scientific explanation is very thorough. It focuses on the importance of changing levels of different hormones and how that improves your strength, energy, alertness, etc. The different parts of the program increase or decrease specific hormones to achieve the desired effect. I was a tiny bit skeptical at first because there were no footnotes or references, but in another review of the book, the author explained that the references were cut for space. But let’s be honest, I either believed the authors or not; I wasn’t going to read the research papers.
The diet and exercise section are very detailed, broken to four different programs for one month each. Every other review of the book I read started with “So I made a Google spreadsheet…”, and I did too. It’s tedious and helped me see a lot of the value that a personal trainer provides. I list some of the time, money, and planning I spent to comply with the program.
The basic nutrition program is that first, sugar and carbs are bad. You’re given a formula for calculating how many grams of protein, carbs, and fat you should eat per day (your macronutrients) and calories from each, based on your weight and body fat percentage. Second, spans of time where you are not eating are good for your body. This method, called intermittent fasting, means that you only eat during an eight hour window each day. He recommends noon to 8pm, but you can shift it to whatever works for you.
The exercise program varies from month to month. I don’t remember the details of the following months, but the first month (Prime) is four different workouts, done in a different order each week. Each is two or more circuits of 3-5 exercises that complement each other. They’re hard workouts, no doubt about that, but you can survive them and feel stronger afterwards.
Why Did I Follow It
I’ve complied about 80% with the workouts and diet, which is way more effort. I also spent a bunch of money and time when I could use more of both of those. What motivated me to put in the effort? In short, the authors make a very convincing argument for getting outsized results from following a specific program. They claim that changing your hormones lets you compete on a different level; your body becomes your ally instead of your enemy.
If what they claim is true, then their program is the key to succeeding where I’ve failed before. Given my lack of success with my health throughout my adult life, acting on a convincing argument is not the worst thing I could do. I was at a time when I felt the need to try again, and this gave me enough hope of success, enough to make a serious, concerted effort to test the program.
So far, through one month, it has been a great experience. Lots of observations and thoughts below, but the short answer is that I’ve lost 9lbs, I feel stronger and more confident, and I have hours more energy a day. We’ll see what happens over the next three months and beyond, but I have accepted the call and I’m on my way to becoming my own Alpha.
Thoughts on Month 1: Prime
- You have to eat some dang tasty food to get enough protein and fat to hit the macronutrient goals
- When I hit the macronutrient goals, I’m not hungry and I have no problem resisting other foods
- When I hurt my muscle, I decided to try a cheat day, and the sugar crash from donuts, milk, birthday cake, bread, and pizza dropped me like a Vulcan Neck Pinch
- I’ve eaten basically the same 5 meals for the last 4 weeks. The monotony has not gotten to me, because a) the meals are really good, and b) they greatly reduce craving and increase satiety
- Typical meal: 8oz chicken (or other meat), 2 oz shredded cheese, 2 oz salsa, 5 strips of bacon, 3-4 oz vegetables, 1oz butter
- Fasting breakfast is not that hard if you ate your protein and fat the previous day
- The workouts are hard but well designed. I workout more of my body with less rest than I did on sports teams as a teenager
- The workouts are long – 45-60 minutes. I’ve had to shorten them because it takes too long during the work day once I add in walking to/from gym and showering
- To shorten, I’d recommend cutting # of reps of each circuit rather than cutting out whole exercises
- It’s old-school – mostly dumbbells, bars and plates, and body weight. The only machine I’ve used is a lat pulldown because I can’t do pull-ups yet
- After workouts, I feel like I played sports, not lifted weights
- Workouts focused on core, legs, lower back, etc. When I lifted as a teenager, it was all biceps/chest/shoulders
- I took two workouts off because of a pain in a shoulder muscle.Not working out made nutrition compliance harder
Planning, Cost & Time
- I bought a fancy electronic scale to measure and weigh food. This has been invaluable.
- It took me hours to come up with a few days worth of meals that hit the macronutrient targets. I tried the resources recommended in the book and really, really didn’t like them, so much that I’m not going to look up their names or mention them. I found the meal planner in the paid version of Daily Burn Tracker to be much better
- I use the GAIN Fitness app. It’s free but I spent about $24 on their “packs” that add extra exercises to complete the workouts outlined in EtA. It’s worth it because it a) is very easy to use quickly in the gym to update rep count, weights, b) it’s a great way to keep pace for circuits, rest, timed exercise (planks!), and progress in different exercises across workouts, c) has visual and text representations of the exercises in the app.
- The cost of the book, scale, workout packs, etc was about $100. I’ve spent more on groceries but far less on restaurants because it’s hard to get exact macronutrient numbers without planning beforehand
- My gym membership is $69/mo. There were cheaper gyms (including the one in my apartment complex) but I paid more for the one close to where I am at the time of day I wanted to work out
- The biggest cost by far is the time I’m spending at the gym and cooking and measuring food – probably 8 hours a week (more laundry time too). This huge (comparative) investment made spending on the scale app a no-brainer
- I spent about 4 hours setting up the workouts in GAIN Fitness, including finding the same exercise but with different names, finding reasonable substitute exercises where there isn’t a match, and copying the text and images from the book so I remember what they are and how to do them when the app prompts me to do the substitute. I expect to have to spend a similar amount of time for each of the 3 parts of the program left.
- For timed exercises, make the rest for the previous exercise equal to the rest + the time for the next exercise
- Right now you can only edit workouts in the GAIN Fitness app, not on their website
- I lost 9.5 lbs the first week, 1.5 the 2nd week, gained 3 the 3rd week, and ended up down 9 lbs for the month
- Until I crashed on cheat day, I hadn’t realized how much extra energy I’ve had every day since I started the program
- The weight I used for exercises increased by 50-80%, although I started from pretty low weights since I haven’t lifted weights in years
- I’m walking straighter and with better posture – I feel about an inch taller
- My energy is so much more and steadier throughout the day. Before I would crash in the afternoon and be useless by 10:30pm. It was the crash in the afternoon that was part of my plan – I wasn’t getting anything done at work during that time so I thought I’d go to the gym instead
- I haven’t done any measurements (inches or body fat %), but clothes that barely fit a month ago are comfortable now, and clothes that were comfortable a month ago are pretty loose
- My arms and legs actually feel muscular now, and if you dig your fingers down far enough, you can feel my abs