Not long ago on my Facebook page, I offered my two cents on “before & after” photo physique transformations:
Even though the marketing is undeniably effective (and I still use them on occasion), they also run counter to my philosophies on health and fitness.
Namely, that there should even be an “after” photo.
This is supposed to be a lifestyle that evolves with us as we shift from one phase of life to another. Not something that ends on a fixed date; one that can’t get here soon enough so we can resume our “normal” life of beer, Doritos, and blissful mediocrity.
There’s also the fact that mere photos, while captivating, don’t offer a story or even context. Going from flab to fab is cool and all… but how did YOU change as a person?
And more important, how can this new “you” benefit society beyond inspiration?
Of course as a coach, clients send me progress photos all the time.
But they’re just that: progress photos.
There’s no “after,” no “before.” Only pit stops on a journey to some place better, or at least a place where looking jacked in a tank top is celebrated and appreciated and even gets a busy barista scribbling “Nice Armz! Grrr!” on your triple espresso.
Still, I can appreciate a good “holy shit” moment.
A while back I was reviewing my client Caroline’s file…
Caroline is a busy 25-year old personal trainer at a fitness club in downtown Chicago. While she’s very strong (she comes from a powerlifting background) and knows her stuff, she wanted my help shifting her body composition towards a leaner, more aesthetic look. Both as a personal goal and to better reflect the type of physique her clients often hire her to help achieve.
However, as clients, fitness professionals present a slew of problems. They work crazy swing shifts, have lots of stress, often eat erratically, and enjoy a level of job burnout that would make any sane person question why the hell you’d you even enter such a profession.
Admittedly it was tough sledding. She was dutifully logging and doing the work in the gym, yet her bi-weekly progress photos showed slow improvements.
Sensing frustration, I had her focus more on her daily process rather than the photos. We started looking for wins every day in execution, how she felt, gains on the bar, etc.
And I admit, I started to give her progress photos just a cursory look.
Until these ones showed up…
And just to put things into better perspective, this is how she looked when she started just 4 months prior…
Talk about a whoosh effect. I nearly fell out of my chair. I even texted her at 10 o’clock that night to offer congratulations.
But after speaking to her in depth, she made it clear that while she liked seeing such dramatic changes in the mirror, she still sees herself as just a work-in-progress. One with plenty of wisdom to share.
Here’s what she had to say, in her own words.
What was your approach to nutrition before we started working together?
“As a fit pro and someone who previously lost a lot of weight, I had plenty of knowledge on healthy eating. But I was inconsistent and wasn’t tracking food choices or portion sizes very hard.
I’d also recently moved back to Chicago from California and my boyfriend’s bad snacking habits had started to rub off on me.”
How important was it to get into a consistent daily pattern?
“Consistency and structure with eating has been a huge part of my success. Eating the same meals at the same times helped regulate my hunger and allowed me to focus mental energy on more important tasks.
Additionally, eating this way made meal prep much easier. I work long hours and have a really small kitchen, so I needed to quickly prep my food for the next day on a nightly basis. Now I can make two meals in less than 20 minutes and know exactly what to buy at the store to prevent waste.”
[Note from Bryan: This is a huge point. The key to making a “healthy lifestyle” stick is setting a structure that you can actually stick to. That’s so much easier do if you keep it simple, practical, and above all, repeatable.]
Still, I recall the weekends being a problem?
“Weekends were the real killer.
I’d make homemade, healthy meals during the week but every weekend would eat out multiple times, often pigging out on stuff like wings or Asian food, with no concern for portions and no attempt to make healthier choices.”
[Note from Bryan: Weekends are often harder than weekdays for adhering to a meal plan. Two days away from the regular eating pattern can also trip up the consistency you were trying to establish from Monday to Friday. Caroline and I kicked around ways for her to still enjoy a social life and make good choices, while keeping it as stress-free as possible.]
For the first few months’ progress was at best slow, though consistent. Then suddenly you made AMAZING progress. What change(s) did you make to kick-start things?
“The first month or so of working with you, we kept my calories relatively close to maintenance and just focused on building good eating habits every day and getting back into the routine of tracking and logging. At this point much of my energy was focused on adjusting to a higher volume of training, which was a big shift and kicked my ass for a while.”
[Note from Bryan: Sometimes you can’t address everything all at once. Sometimes you have to just focus on training or diet or lifestyle in phases to build on success, establish good patterns, and minimize overwhelm.]
“But even though progress was slow, I felt I was turning a corner. I had a few big wins when I successfully navigated social weekends by staying more or less within my plan while still enjoying myself and not stressing out.”
[Note from Bryan: PREACH!]
“The biggest physical changes happened after we decided to drop my weekly calories into more of a deficit. This meant I had to reign in my weekends even more. However, by this point I was ready: it was more important to me to get to my goal.
So my boyfriend and I started cooking all our weekend meals at home, except when we had special plans with friends or family. And when we did go out, I tried to pick places where I could order meals that fit within my plan. This was when I started to see real progress.”
What challenges do you continue to face?
“I still struggle with my relationship to food.
I sometimes feel that I’m pretty good at dieting but not so good at maintenance.
If I’m chasing a goal that’s important to me, I can stay motivated through the tougher phases of a diet and make difficult choices when necessary. The challenge for me is once the diet is over; when a shift to a more relaxed approach allows old bad habits and problems to creep back in.”
[Bryan’s thoughts: Well put. I always say the hardest part of a diet is getting on with life after it’s over, another reason all Before & After photos should have “two years later” updates.]
“Also, full disclosure: for many years I’ve struggled with bouts of binge eating of varying degrees of severity.
Even after my first three months of working with you, I went on an overseas vacation that ended up being a bit more stressful than anticipated. When I came back the old binge habits came back with a vengeance, and I struggled for several months. To this day I would say that I am in a delicate state with my eating.
For me, this is where the most meaningful work and coaching takes place.
I know that I’ll probably always struggle with my eating to some degree, and it’s important to do the deep personal work to address the underlying issues so I can feel both relaxed and in control in social situations.”
[Note from Bryan: While I don’t fancy myself as an addiction counselor (nor did I assume that role with Caroline) I did help her see that she is NOT alone and that having episodes of bingeing does not make you weak or stupid. Food is powerful and assumes many roles in our lives beyond mere nourishment. Acknowledging this and identifying your triggers is key.]
How are you continuing to work on that?
“I’ve found that planning is my best friend in helping me deal with situations where I may be vulnerable around food.
- When I eat out, I try to look at the menu beforehand to avoid decision fatigue.
- I try to eat fewer total meals on days I go out to eat.
- I try to make sure I’m not ravenously hungry when I arrive at the restaurant.
The biggest thing is I’ve gotten to a place where I no longer freak out or beat myself up if I do succumb to a binge or otherwise feel out of control with my eating.
After a particularly bad Thanksgiving week, I made the mistake of stepping on the scale and saw a massive ‘weight gain’. I texted you in a panic, worried that I had undone my many months of hard work. I felt extremely defeated, guilty, and upset. After you talked me down, I returned to my normal routine and saw the weight fall back off in a week or so.
Now if I have a bad weekend, I simply acknowledge what happened and get right back to normal without judging myself. This was a big change for me and has helped me look more honestly at what’s really going on when I binge. It has also improved my self-esteem and helps me make better choices on a day-to-day basis.”
[Note from Bryan: How do I add to that? Holidays are meant to be enjoyed. And you earn this privilege by treating and feeding your body with respectful restraint the balance of the year.]
Outside of your physical transformation, what other areas of your life have transformed?
“I can honestly say that getting in shape changed everything about my life.
I gained the confidence to pursue hobbies and passions that I never would’ve explored when I was overweight. I was able to overcome my shyness and insecurity enough to approach strangers in social situations, leading to many wonderful friendships with interesting people. I discovered a passion for health and fitness that is blossoming into an exciting, meaningful, and totally unexpected career.
The past 9 months working with you has expanded upon this.
In particular, I love training to build muscle. As a fit pro, I feel some pressure to disavow hypertrophy for myself and for my clients. I think there’s a pervasive attitude in my field that this kind of training is ‘vain’ and that we should only be training for ‘function’ (whatever that really means). Although I have a background as a competitive powerlifter and do love lifting big weights, I really just wanted to look good and look like I lift. Your approach to training has validated my goals, which motivates me to work harder in the gym. I find higher-volume hypertrophy training to be super fun and empowering.”
[Note from Bryan: Kaboom.]
Lastly, any word of advice for other women that may relate to your story?
“Find a goal that’s important to you, practice patience, and execute consistently. If your goal or motivation for training doesn’t truly resonate, you won’t be willing to put in the work or make any necessary sacrifices and will simply end up plateaued and frustrated.
Understand that any physique transformation takes a long time, often much longer than you expect. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or seek out the advice of someone wiser and more experienced.
And finally, be nice to yourself.
Everyone struggles and the people that will ultimately find success and happiness are those who learn to really love the process and themselves.”
Wow, some great insight there.
I have no doubt Caroline has a very bright future as a fitness pro, because she gets what’s really important. That the the daily process is the real goal, and big dramatic transformations only happen after months of executing a few simple, important things, every day.
And that there’s no such thing as an after picture, only “most recent progress.”
Because a true transformation is never really over.
[Sidenote: live in the Chicago area and want to train with Caroline? Check out her site here.]