The Ferriss Experiment – 4 Hour Fact or Fiction?

Many of you are familiar with Tim Ferriss, author of the excellent “4-Hour Work Week“. Tim is a personal hero of mine (one of his productivity tips is mentioned previously in my post “The Urgent vs. Important Matrix“) so naturally I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of his sophomore effort “The 4-Hour Body“. The new book promises to be “An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman” – a bold claim indeed.

Tim has written about fitness before, posting two articles with similarly outrageous headlines on his blog – one called From Geek to Freak: How I Gained 34 lbs of Muscle in 4 Weeks and another titled How to Lose 20lbs of Fat in 30 Days – Without Doing Any Exercise. These two posts together give us a glimpse of the principles Tim fleshes out in “The 4-Hour Body”. Is it really possible that Tim has cracked the code on fitness? One year ago, I decided to find out by combining Tim’s published writings into a comprehensive fitness plan and measuring my results. My goal – to determine whether Tim’s methods actually work in real life. This is what I discovered.

Let’s set the scene – back in high school I was an athlete and in decent shape, about 6’1″ and 180lbs. After 4 years of college and too many beers, I graduated in May 2008 at 205lbs and started a job in investment banking. The next 18 months of takeout dinners and 90 hour weeks at a desk pushed me up to 217lbs, with had back pain, acne, and very low energy. I regret now that I didn’t have my body fat analyzed, but I expect I was pushing 30%. I needed to make a change, and quickly. And so in November 2009, I began “The Ferriss Fitness Experiment” to see if Tim could deliver on his promises.

The fitness plan I developed is based directly on Tim’s posts, which are themselves a modification of the Paleolithic Diet (Tim’s modified version is called “The Slow Carb Diet”), combined with exercise methods based on The Colorado Experiment. For the Cliffs Notes crowd, Tim’s methods can be summarized in 4 bullets:

  • Avoid white carbohydrates. If it is white or can be white (bread, noodles, rice, cookies, crackers, etc) – cut it out completely.
  • Focus your diet on lean proteins (chicken, fish, sirloin, etc) and vegetables.
  • Don’t drink calories. No sodas or juices. In combination with the above, that also means (gasp) no beer. We’ll allow wine and hard liquor (straight or with diet soda) because a guy’s got to have a life.
  • Exercise to exhaustion. Two or three 30 minute high-intensity workouts are more valuable for building muscle mass than 5x weekly moderate sessions.

I’ll break down the diet and exercise strategies in a lot more detail below. If you’re impatient, you can skip directly to the results of my experiment.

Diet – “Eat Real Food, Not Too Much. Mostly Vegetables.”

The basic idea behind Paleo eating is to consume only foods that our ancestors from the Paleolithic Era had access to (lean red meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, nuts, vegetables, fruit, etc), and exclude foods that developed in the more recent Neolithic, post-agricultural era (processed grains and dairy, sugar, and other “fake” foods). Focus your diet on proteins and vegetables, avoid processed carbohydrates. Volumes of literature have been written about the reasons this makes sense, particularly the ways that carbohydrates and simple sugars are metabolized – they are literally killing you by spiking your insulin, damaging your small intestines, and more. If you want to dig into the science behind how carbohydrates are digested, read this article by Robb Wolf on Tim’s blog. Robb is the former review editor for the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, so he knows his stuff.

One note – this is not the Atkins diet. You don’t have cart blache to eat anything as long as it’s not a carbohydrate. Ribeyes are delicious, but if you think you’re being “healthy” just take a look at an uncooked ribeye – it’s nearly all marbling (fat). Beef isn’t off limits, but be aware of what you’re eating. Hamburger meat is rarely, if ever, a good idea. Focus on lean cuts (filet, sirlion) or other lean meats like buffalo or pork.

Tim and I both make an exception to the above diet so it is both less miserable (more sustainable) and more practical. I allow for 1 “cheat day” each week when I can eat whatever I want. No only does this help keep me sane and disciplined the other 6 days, but spiking caloric intake once per week increases fat loss by preventing your metabolic rate (thyroid function, etc) from down-regulating due to extended caloric restriction.

Exercise – High Intensity, Elevated Heart Rate

Now let’s discuss exercise. The two things you’re shooting for are consistent elevated heart rate and lifts to failure. You can accomplish this with cycle training – begin with 15 minutes on the treadmill to get your heart rate up, then move around the gym lifting several muscle groups to failure, with no rest in between. Do all your sets slowly (5 up, 5 down cadence) and to failure. It will burn, but you’ll build muscle mass very quickly.

During your workouts, make an effort to focus on compound movements like squats, pull ups, bench press, lunges, etc. People avoid these exercises because they hurt, but there’s a reason they burn – all of the above target large muscle groups in your body. When your muscles are torn down and rebuild, they release testosterone, which helps build extra muscle, puts hair on your chest, and is generally beneficial for a lot of other reasons. Larger muscle groups release more testosterone. Your biceps is a tiny muscle, you’re not burning many calories or releasing much testosterone doing curls. Do an ass-to-ankles squat on the other hand, and you’re activating your entire lower body, as well as your stabilizing core.

Another benefit of a high intensity workout with minimal rest is that you can be in and out of the gym in under 45 minutes, including locker room time. Do this 2-3 times a week, and you’ll get maximum impact with minimum gym time. This was a huge benefit for me while working in investment banking, when I didn’t have the time to fit in long workouts.

The Results – Do Tim’s Fitness Methods Really Work?

So now we come to the important part – results. Do Tim’s fitness and diet methods actually work? Tim promises his methods can result in either a 34lb muscle gain or 20lb fat loss in 30 days. So how did a combination of the two turn out for me?

When I began my Ferris Fitness Experiment, I tipped the scales at 217lbs. After 3 months of Slow Carb/Paleo eating and 3x weekly 45 minute workouts, I was down to 200lbs. My skin was clear, and my energy level was noticeably higher. After 3 more months I was at 180lbs, with no lower back pain at all, and in the best shape of my life at 15% body fat.

Based on my own experience, Tim’s methods blow away every fitness plan I’ve ever tried. I lost 37 pounds, 4 inches on my waist, and reduced my body fat by over 10%+ in 6 months. While that’s significantly longer than the 30 days Tim promises in his posts, I recognize that I didn’t singularly focus on weight gain or fat loss – I aimed instead for general fitness and overall health by combining high intensity strength training with the Slow Carb diet. All in all, I highly recommend Tim’s methods to anyone looking to improve their health and fitness level. If the content of Tim’s blog posts on fitness so far are any indication, “The 4-Hour Body” is a must read – you can order your own copy here.

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Bill D'Alessandro