The One Thing That Successful Fitness People Have in Common


Shortly after I began coaching, I started recognizing patterns in those who are successful vs. unsuccessful in their fitness endeavors. People who find fitness success all have one thing in common, and it has to do with the way they think.

Unsuccessful people think about fitness through lists.

Successful people think about fitness through mental models.

As a predictor of success, this model is so powerful that using it gives you a “spidey sense” of sorts for predicting who’s going to succeed.

A Look at The Two Ways of Thinking


First, it’s important to understand context: there is more fitness content now than ever before. There are other factors other than sheer volume that add to the confusion–contradictory research and authority figures selling health immediately come to mind.

List thinkers cope with the myriad of information by adhering to simple rules. The rules tend to use binary adjectives in nature and anything health related is characterized as “good or bad,” “toxic or healthy,” “these exercises lead to abs, but these will give your child autism.” A cursory look at Yahoo’s aggregation of nutrition articles will show you exactly what this persona is particularly vulnerable to.

On the other hand, the successful type of persona creates a mental model of how fitness works. They then use this model to make decisions. For example, a carbophobe might subscribe to the insulin hypothesis of obesity–you get fat when insulin is chronically raised. (Even when you don’t eat anything apparently. I guess they believe you can store air as fat?)

Now here’s the kicker.

Subscribing to a mental model is so powerful that they don’t need to be completely factually correct. In fact, they’re often effective even when they’re downright wrong, because they allow someone to make decisions during imperfect scenarios. As economists would say, they allow people to deal with the issue of “scarcity.” (“Let’s see…I’m at a party I can go with the insulin-raising donuts there, or avoid the path to diabetes altogether and go with those sliders. As long as I peel the buns off.”)

List thinkers are doomed from the start. There is no possible way to mitigate all of the information they’ll encounter. For that, you need a mental model…a framework of sorts…for that. In lieu of a framework, they constantly seek the newest, most up-to-date content. They replace one list with something equally bad, presumably because someone somewhere sells them on the fact that there’s been groundbreaking research.

Cheesy “Where to Go From Here” Section

Fitness professionals, stop fucking making lists. I don’t mean all lists–just overly-simplistic ones that people may use in lieu of a mental model.

Non-fitness professionals, find a mental model that resonates with you. Whether it’s tracking calories, eating intuitively, or even going full Paleo, any mental model is better than none.

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Images by Great Beyond and vassilis galopoulos.

Figure Out Your Body Fat Pecentage from Waist Measurements

Figuring the body fat percentage of you or your clients can be tricky. Sure, you can use images, calipers, or a something more accurate like a Bod Pod or hydrostatic test, but sometimes you need a way to figure it out on the fly. In this case, you can use the simplified charts that I created below.

Semi-Scientific Methodology

First off, take these with a grain of salt. They’re based on a few hundred data points that I had from men and women, for whom I had waist measurements and a reasonable guess about their body fat percentage.

A Gompertz curve did a pretty good job predicting body fat percentage when plotted against waist measurement, so I used the data points to create a rather unwieldy function, then spat it out into two tables for ease of reading.

While there are obviously cases that don’t fit, the lookup tables have been surprisingly accurate. Try it for yourself.

Lookup Table for Men

Waist (inches) Approximate Bodyfat Percentage
25 5%
26 6%
27 7%
28 8%
29 9%
30 10%
31 11%
32 13%
33 15%
34 17%
35 19%
36 21%
37 23%
38 26%
39 29%
40 31%
41 34%
42 36%
43 39%
44 42%
45 44%
46 46%
47 48%
48 50%
49 52%
50 54%

Lookup Table for Women

Waist (inches) Approximate Bodyfat Percentage
25 15%
26 15%
27 16%
28 17%
29 18%
30 21%
31 23%
32 26%
33 28%
34 31%
35 34%
36 37%
37 40%
38 43%
39 46%
40 48%
41 51%
42 53%
43 56%
44 58%
45 60%
46 62%
47 63%
48 65%
49 66%
50 67%

The Dark Truth About My First Fitness Transformation

Almost everyone loves a good before-and-after picture. Like watching a feel-good romantic movie where the awkward guy/girl finds an attractive mate at the end, it awes and inspires. But there’s a dark side to many fitness transformations that you don’t see…one that doesn’t have a happy ending.

Those reading this probably know about my former-fat-kid background by now. There’s a side-by-side before and after picture that made its way around the Internet, even being covered by CNN.

Before/After picture from CNN’s article describing my transformation.

But pictures like these are misleading. They merely describe a snapshot in time, and not a true ending. The truth is that many fitness transformations are like a Kardashian marriage: destined to fail, short lived, and full of psychological repercussions at the end.

Most before-and-after pictures are like this. Who wants to bet this couple didn't last?

Many fitness transformation pictures are like this. A nice glimpse at some point in time… but who wants to bet this couple didn’t last? (see: prom tattoo)

Dieting for my Bodybuilding Show

In 2006 I decided to enter a bodybuilding show. At the start of my diet–16 weeks away–I weighed 203 pounds.

Right before deciding to do a bodybuilding contest.

Right before deciding to do a bodybuilding contest.

For four straight months, I ate six perfectly times meals each day, consisting of only “healthy food” such as chicken, broccoli, whey, and brown rice. Here was my diet:

Sample Training Day Diet

Meal 1: 8oz chicken breast, 1 oz almonds, broccoli
Meal 2 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz chicken breast, 1 oz almonds, broccoli
Meal 3 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz chicken breast, 1 oz almonds, broccoli
Meal 4 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz chicken breast, 1 oz almonds, broccoli
Post Workout Meal: 2 scoops whey, 50g dextrose
Meal 6 (exactly 1 hour after post workout meal): 4 oz chicken breast, 100g of carbs from potatoes

Sample Rest Day Diet

Meal 1: 8oz lean steak breast, 1 oz almonds, broccoli
Meal 2 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz lean steak, 1 oz almonds, broccoli
Meal 3 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz lean steak, 1 oz almonds, broccoli
Meal 4 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz chicken breast, broccoli
Meal 5 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz chicken breast, broccoli
Meal 6 (exactly 3 hours later): 8oz chicken breast, broccoli

I also did an hour of cardio every single morning and trained 4x/week for an hour each session. Sure, I had some slip-ups, for which my coach yelled at me, and told me to stop being a lazy and show some self-control.

It paid off…or so it seemed. By the end, I weighed 155 pounds and was in the best shape of my life. I also ended up placing third in the contest.

I was on top of the world. Finally fit, I’d conquered my fat-kid demons…right?

Not So Happily Ever After

The evening after finishing my contest, physically starving and psychologically deprived of food, I had a (well-deserved) day off. I gorged on everything imaginable… pizza, cupcakes, gummy bears, and some incident with a sandwich made up of marshmallow fluff, peanut butter, and honey that I don’t fully remember.

The next day, I stepped on the scale and weighed a whopping 20 lbs. Could I have gained 20 lbs in one whole day? Thankfully, the Internet assured me that I couldn’t have, and it was only water weight.

Then something funny happened. Like the movie Groundhog Day, I couldn’t stop repeating my actions of the previous night. I developed an uncontrollable hunger and started putting on real weight. Feelings of guilt would lead to a vicious cycle–I would binge until physical nausea, then feel extreme guilt the next day, which only led to more urges to eat uncontrollably.

My roommates noticed that I was gaining weight, so I started hiding food. Binge sessions started to take on characteristics of what I can only describe as an out-of-body experience. It was like I floated above my body, watching myself in third person, helplessly unable to put on the breaks.

My bodybuilding contest was on November 16th, 2006. By the middle of January, I looked like this:


As you can tell by my face, Dick was not happy.

In a little more than two months, I got back to 205 pounds, roughly where I started. My back-of-the-envelope calculations tell me that I was eating upwards of 6,000 calories a day for months straight. (My toilet confirmed this.)

A Cautionary Tale: Where to Go From Here

While some people make true, sustainable transformations, my story isn’t uncommon. For example, most Biggest Loser contestants end up regaining their weight and then some.

But I’m glad I had this experience; it was the first event that gave me an inkling that sometimes we can’t just exert more willpower and self-control, and it’s the reason I preach this passionately as a coach.

There was no amount of willpower that could have kept me from binging daily, and now I know that it’s likely a limited resource. This experience is the reason that I write so much about self-compassion, protecting your willpower, and loving yourself.

My mistake is that I tried to transform my outside without first transforming myself inside, and I now know that because of this experience.

Instead, focus on transforming yourself inside first and understand that fitness isn’t about simply “eat less, move more.

These days, I use the picture below as my signature “before and after.” This transformation was made by truly understanding myself, rather than futilely relying on willpower. (Also it has a cat.)

In reality, there is no such thing as an “after” picture. That’s because side-by-sides like these are merely a snapshot in time… “After” pictures are constantly becoming our new “before” pictures, and we’re all trying to try to find our final form.

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