02 Apr Nathan Johnson Case Study – The Struggle From Chubby Skinny Kid To Lean & Ripped
We’ve known Nathan Johnson for a while now, and over the past few years have seen him go through a real outstanding physical and mental transformation.
Besides developing his own physique, he’s also quickly grown into one of the best results producing PTs around. In fact, on our recent podcast interview with Nathan, he labelled himself the ‘Hired Hitman’ of RNT.
Having witnessed the transformation with our own eyes, we thought it’d be cool for you to learn more about Nathan’s back story, as we think the struggles he went through will be relatable to many of you on some level.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
What was your biggest struggle during your own transformation?
Adherence. We all know that – even as the ‘Hired Hitman of RNT’ – there’s no secret bullet. Sticking to the plan, showing up everyday, ticking all the boxes and being consistent is what we know to be the secret to fat loss success.
To drive this consistency, it’s important to have a ‘why’ and to be intrinsically motivated, as opposed focusing on the exterior – which can often lead to falling off the plan when the grind kicks in.
This is where I’ve always struggled. I’ve always found it difficult to stick to a diet, follow my coach’s advice and essentially ‘being a good client’.
It took me over 3 years to finally overcome this. I really had no idea how much physical and mental strength it took to maintain adherence throughout an entire transformation.
Tell us about some of the issues you had at the beginning…
I was always small and chubby growing up, and so yo-yo dieting was a constant in my life. Between 2013 and 2015, I was on a ‘diet’ that involved 5 extremely low carb/calorie days during the week, followed by two big cheat days on the weekend. It certainly worked, and I lost 12-15kg.
The problem was, this style of dieting left a bad mark. I fell into the cycle of restricting myself and then bingeing. It also left me constantly hungry. So much so that I’d eat to the point of throwing up. I had no control. While I was losing weight, this only worked for so long. And I soon fell into a long self-induced plateau.
How did you try to break this cycle?
In 2015 I joined a personal training company where it was requirement to go through a ‘12 week transformation’ of your own, in order understand and conceptualise what your clients have to go through. I thought this would be a great idea to finally break out of my rut.
In the back of my mind though, I also thought, ‘why can’t they just airbrush a 6 pack on, so I can go enjoy my favourite oat and raisin cookies from Sainsbury’s on the way home?
During the first two weeks of the diet it was all smooth sailing. I was 4kg down and I was already starting to see more definition in my abs and arms. It was all positive.
However, the colleague helping me at the time decided to give me a refeed based on the aggressive drop on the scale. The orders were to have a bowl of cereal post workout, and an extra potato for dinner. This is when I knew I could never buy a box of cereal again. I ate the entire box and immediately gained back 2kg on the scale. I just couldn’t help myself.
How did you recover and get back on track?
I didn’t. At this point it became a game of cat and mouse. Mentally I’d already lost it. I felt like I was back in the cycle of restrict/binge, and it was becoming a race against time to get into the best possible shape for my shoot.
I hated being hungry, and just couldn’t deal with it.
As the weeks went by, calories continued to drop, and cardio kept going up. I felt worse and worse, both physically and mentally. I had to battle everyday against the late night walk to Sainsbury’s for extra food.
The low point came when I began to eat white fish and greens 4 times a day at work, and then going home and drowning myself in anything that would take the hunger and feeling of ‘suffering’ away. I just couldn’t handle it.
So did you do the photoshoot?
Despite all of this, I still lost 10kg. It was a significant change but I was in no type of shape to be doing a photoshoot.
I felt embarrassed.
Especially as I’d somehow convinced myself to ‘carb up’ the night before. Instead of the prescribed 50g of carbs, I tucked away a box of Golden Graham’s and 4 chocolate filled croissants.
Upon reflecting over the 12 weeks, I concluded that I just didn’t know how to handle the mentality required to get into incredible shape. I couldn’t endure any bit of discomfort for a goal, and I know I needed to fix up if I wanted to set an example for my clients.
What was the next step? What sparked the change?
The real change was in my training. I started training with my best friend, and we pushed each other hard! I was building momentum in my training, getting stronger and gaining a lot of muscle. I started to think of food as fuel for my muscle growth, instead of the reward I used to see it as.
My clients were also getting into great shape, and I wanted to prove to them that I could do it too. There was a photoshoot date coming up for new employees, and I’d also booked a beach holiday, so it was perfect timing.
This time I had a real point to prove.
My training partner and I coached each other and as the weeks went by, it was all going great. We were both getting lean. Cardio was minimal and I wasn’t struggling at all with the food.
What could go wrong?
I got complacent. I had passed my best level of conditioning, and I was loving the changes I was seeing in the mirror.
I said to my training partner, ‘dude, it’s time to turn the screw and take it to that next level’.
Famous last words!
I wasn’t ready at all for what was in store next. I couldn’t sleep, I was hungry all the time, and I was always tired from doing cardio twice a day.
My mental strength was being put to the test and I was really struggling again. Thoughts started flooding back to previous diets and old behaviours. While I was nowhere near as bad, I did started sneaking in cheat meals again and I made no further progress.
The ‘next level’ eluded me still.
On the day of the shoot, I felt comfortable and happy with what I looked like, and I felt like I belonged. My clients were impressed, and so on the surface of it all, it was a success.
However, upon reflection I realised that the reason I didn’t make it to the next level was because my ‘why’ wasn’t strong enough. If you want to take yourself to those dark places of a diet, you need something that really drives you internally. Or you’ll slip off.
This shoot was a freebie, and I considered beating my previous condition as a win. But I knew deep down I copped out.
So we’re now at the tail end of 2016, how did you take it to that next level?
I was getting really strong at this point. I was focusing all my efforts on progressive overload, and it was paying off big time. Ever since the last shoot, the goal was purely on building maximum muscle mass so that when I next dieted down, I’d be in better shape.
I also remember telling some of my friends that the next time, I’d love to do a more modelling style shoot in a cheeky pair of trunks somewhere in the sunshine!
At the start of 2017, the perfect opportunity arrived. I moved to Dubai, and so I was living a new lifestyle in a new country where, most importantly, there was sunshine!
This time I hired the services of Josh McHale, a brilliant bodybuilding coach based in the UK (whose interview with Adam you can watch here). I didn’t want to think about what I should do with my diet or training – I just wanted to focus all my mental energy on adherence and executing the plan.
I also scheduled in a photoshoot with a top photographer in Dubai for October 2017.
Talk about accountability! That must’ve flipped a switch for you?
100%. I can honestly say that by investing in a coach and paying for a shoot up front made me completely fixated on the goal. The blinders were up, and it was tunnel vision to the end now! I wanted this so badly – no excuses this time.
We decided on a 20 week diet, which was significantly longer than previous ‘preps’, and also plenty of time to get into the best shape possible.
Throughout these 20 weeks, I had three holidays planned too. But each one of them I managed to drop body fat and come back leaner. These were huge mental wins for me, as I’d never done this. Normally I’d come back with ankles like elephant feet and a stomach like I was 8 months pregnant!
Sounds like a changed man. How did you deal with it all this time when the grind kicked in hard?
Coming into the last 8 weeks I was already beating my previous best condition and it had been an easy ride so far. The consistency was paying off.
I consciously had contingency plans in place for when the mind games kicked in. I didn’t want to repeat previous mistakes, so here’s what I did if I ever felt like going off track:
- Added more green vegetables
- Brushed my teeth
- Go for a walk
- Skype with my girlfriend, family or friends
The last 6 weeks were tough. The sleepless nights began, the hunger was through the roof, but this time I was different.
I was strongly accountable to my coach on a regular basis, and I had someone taking pictures of me in my underwear, so there was no hiding.
I also knew that if I gave in, I’d be letting myself down more than anyone.
How did the shoot go?
Waking up on shoot day this time was complete euphoria. I was so happy and I couldn’t believe I’d finally done it.
I was lean, I was had veins coming out on my abs, and my muscles were full.
I’d achieved what I set out to do three years previously, and I was over the moon.
Awesome. What lessons did you learn over the three years?
I learned a lot about myself from all the failures. To anyone looking to transform their bodies, here’s what I always recommend:
- Find your ‘why’. This is what will allow you find the strength to withstand the suffering of hard dieting
- Create accountability with yourself, to your family and friends, and to a professional. The latter cannot be overstated enough – it makes all the difference having an objective person to report to on a regular basis.
- Don’t chase perfection. Instead, rack up small wins and know that there will be times you mess up. That’s fine, we’re all human. It took me three years to do it, but I got there in the end. If you fall off, the best thing to do is just straight back on it. The stronger your ‘why’ and accountability is, the easier this is to do.
- Embrace the process. Suffering is part of the process, and everyone has different levels of suffering. Yours could be going to social situations and missing the usual glass of wine. For others it may be the daily hunger and fatigue. It’s all individual and relative to you, but the real key here is to embrace it, and know that it’s only helping you towards your goals.
Great tips. Thank you for sharing!
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