Working at a desk is a one way ticket to messed-up joints and terrible posture. One MF writer took to the gym to see if he could undo years of mobility issues in just 12 weeks – and build muscle too.
Maybe I was always doomed to have bad posture. As a tall guy, I’ve slouched rather than standing at my full height since my teens. And since becoming a responsible adult, I’ve been spending eight hours a day hunched over a desk.
My shoulders had tightened over the years, but it was only when I noticed my back hurting that I even considered I might have some issues. That’s the trouble with mobility – by the time you notice something’s up, you’ve got half a decade’s worth of bad habits to reverse.
If this sounds familiar, don’t be surprised. A study carried out by the Universities of Loughborough and Leicester found that the average adult spends 50-60% of their day in sedentary pursuits. No matter how good your sitting position is, the chances are you’ll end up straining your back. The NHS says that in 2013, 15 million work days were lost due to back pain.
I only realised how bad a state I was in when I went for a training session and tweaked my back while squatting. It turned out that my hips were as tight as my shoulders and I couldn’t safely do half the exercises many take for granted.
Now, I wasn’t about to resign myself to making increasingly elaborate shows of getting in and out of chairs as I got older. I wanted a fix. But, let’s face it, I work full-time and can’t spend hours and hours a week at the gym. I wanted a solution that wouldn’t consume my life and – if I was going to commit – would make me look and feel good too.
Gone are the days when you’d chase an aesthetically pleasing physique at the cost of genuine fitness. Gyms are more focused on how functional movement and mobility underpin any training programme, and W10 Performance in west London is one of the fitness centres leading the change. I went to the owner, Jean-Claude Vacassin, with a proposal: can you sort out my mobility issues and get me ripped at the same time? He said yes. Challenge accepted.
To fix these problems in just 12 weeks I’d need to put some serious effort in at the gym – and that was the first obstacle. Because of the nature of my problem I just didn’t have the physical capacity to put in the work needed.
Vacassin devised a plan that would both improve my work rate and fix the problems with my movement. The training plan consisted of four hour-long workouts a week. The week would begin with a heavy upper- body and a heavy lower-body session, followed by a high-rep full-body workout and a modified strongman session later in the week. ‘The strongman sessions are there to increase your work rate,’ said Vacassin. ‘To see the results you want, you need to be able to get a lot more done than you can currently manage in the other sessions.’
Four hours a week didn’t sound too bad and, while Vacassin assured me that I’d need all the rest I could get between sessions, I didn’t think it would take over my life. Naturally, I was wrong.
My first doubt arrived exactly three minutes and 44 seconds into my first warm-up. I was pedalling on the Airdyne bike when I realised that although four hours a week sounded OK, it added up to a rather more daunting 48 workouts over the course of the programme. I finished that session being a teensy bit sick.
Mobility restrictions in your shoulders and hips are likely to be your biggest problems. A two-move warm-up will help. For your shoulders, hold a band out in front of you in both hands with your knuckles facing upwards, and slowly widen your arms. For your hips, get into a press-up position and move one foot to the outside of your hand without rotating your back, pushing your knee outwards. Repeat on the other side.
Early on the focus was to loosen up my body. ‘You haven’t got the mobility to squat,’ said W10’s Steve Kowalenko. ‘We’re not even going to think about doing anything like that.’ Instead my upper-body sessions were filled with row variations designed to open up my chest and draw my shoulders back. Those were complemented by resistance band pull-aparts to strengthen my shoulders, and 45° dumbbell flyes to stretch my pectoral muscles. It may not sound like much but I was starting from scratch and each session left me feeling beaten.
Contrary to the popular gym-related internet meme, I enjoyed leg days more. Split squats featured heavily because they served to even out muscular imbalances in my legs and improve the range of movement in my ankles and hip flexors. Standard squats and deadlifts were out, but I used a trap-bar deadlift because it requires less mobility to do safely.
It took a couple of weeks before I started to enjoy the sessions – but as I began to see progress in the gym and improvements in my posture, the workouts that had me close to tears at first (just close, OK?) suddenly seemed more bearable. Unfortunately, the workouts were only half the battle. There was also the small matter of my diet. Turns out you can’t fuel a training regimen on sugar.
As a tall, naturally slim guy I’ve generally got away with eating what I wanted. Or at least, that’s what I told myself when I drank beer and Coke and ate pizza far too often. As a result I’d achieved that awkward ‘skinny fat’ frame, where I had limbs like linguine and a paunch in the middle.
I was expecting to be told I’d need to consume a monstrous number of calories to fuel my workouts and muscle growth, but I was getting ahead of myself. ‘We could put you on 5,000 calories but without the capacity to work you’ll get fat,’ says W10’s Olli Foxley. ‘It’s better to increase calories gradually over time. That’s especially true if you’ve never trained before.’
I started on just 2,300 calories a day but it was still a challenge because all my food had to be clean – no filling up on sweets and takeaways. Instead my days were punctuated by regular meals of lean meats, vegetables and a phenomenal amount of quinoa. I also avoided alcohol for the entire 12 weeks. Cooking isn’t my strong point so I enlisted the help of Fresh Fitness Food (freshfitnessfood.com), which delivers bespoke meals based on your nutrition requirements. It meant I could worry about training and eating while someone else worried about cooking.
Vacassin increased my calories every couple of weeks and soon I was eating five meals a day with constant snacks in between. At the end of the 12 weeks I was eating more than 4,100 calories on training days. The food itself wasn’t the problem – the Fresh Fitness meals were delicious – but the sheer volume made it the toughest part of the challenge. I’ve always had a bad habit of skipping breakfast so starting the day with a big meal was a shock to the system, and sometimes I’d finish a meal feeling totally full but knowing I’d have to eat another meal and a snack within the next hour. The good news? I had no desire for junk food – I didn’t have room.
Turning a corner
Although I’d started to enjoy my sessions more, I still had blips. About halfway through I had two sessions in which my energy was nonexistent, and getting to the end was a struggle. I was told it’s natural to have bad sessions but it weighed on my mind. I’d made the mistake of acknowledging to myself my least favourite moves, which put a huge block up for me when I had to do them. (Sled pushes, seated rows, walking lunges and farmer’s walks, if you’re interested.) I also found that when I had a good session I’d mentally take my foot off the gas, and the next one would inevitably be harder.
As much as I didn’t like certain parts of the workouts I couldn’t deny that they were working. As well as getting comments that I was standing up straighter, I was amazed at how much more mobile I felt. I wasn’t creaking about when I moved and my clean diet meant I didn’t have mid-afternoon crashes or hazy hungover mornings.
By the end my body fat had fallen from 15% to 9% and my strength had improved dramatically. Opening up my shoulders and stretching my pecs allowed me to more than double my bench press, and I managed to lift twice my bodyweight on the trap bar deadlift as my hips improved.
These were concrete improvements in my ability to work in the gym, but the biggest change I noticed was that I was being shouted at less by my coaches. I’d been conscious of the concerned looks I was getting at the start, and to see them lessen felt like a bigger victory than anything else.
I’ll admit that as the last session drew closer I looked forward to ending the programme. But I was also thrilled with my progress, especially since I hadn’t initially had the physical ability to push myself in the gym. As well as my improved ability to move, I looked better. Gone was the horrible combo of podgy middle and skinny arms. I was now more in proportion and, while I was never going to be considered huge, it was nice to have more muscle on my arms. Now I just have to keep it up so I don’t have to go through the same thing in a year’s time.
Contact 0203 489 5428 or drop us an email on firstname.lastname@example.org to find out about training and nutritional advice at W10 Performance.