Men's Health Transformations Are an Institution, but Do the Gains Last for Life?

·12-min read

As a brand that promises results, MH transformations are where we deliver. The tradition dates back to 2005, when one dissenting writer said he didn’t think the magazine’s cover lines were realistic – and was tasked with disproving his point. The before-and-after has remained popular with readers while becoming a rite of passage for male staff in the years since.

While ‘realistic’ in the sense that these challenges did, indeed, take place, our MH transformations were arguably less so in other areas. Yes, we did get free supplements, gym memberships and personal training that might otherwise have been prohibitively expensive. No, we didn’t get time off work to train (we wish). Yes, we did use well-known physique trade secrets that, in all honesty, shouldn’t be so widely accepted: flattering lighting, fake tan and mild dehydration pre-shoot. No, we didn’t use Photoshop, steroids or diuretics.

The most ‘unrealistic’ aspect of our transformations? They are not designed for the long haul. No one can live like that forever – and no one who has ever done one would suggest trying. They are temporary challenges to show how much you can achieve with limited time and total dedication. The cycle of train, eat, sleep and repeat can be punishing, evena little dismal. But, at the same time, it can be enormously satisfying and enjoyable – and not just when it’s over, either.

Ultimately, a body is for life, not just a photo shoot, and the changes you make in the long term are what matter. So MH canvassed three of our most dramatic transformers to find out what recollections – and results – have stayed with them.

01\ Ted Lane – The Bachelor Turned Master

Then a recent journalism grad still living like a student, MH’s former deputy digital editor Ted Lane – now content manager for Lululemon – got an education when he signed up for a complete fitness overhaul back in 2015. Today, he’s a father of two with less spare time than ever. Do the lessons he learned then still help him today?

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI

When I left university, the owner of the chip shop shook my hand because we were on such good terms. I was in terrible shape. When I did my starting measurements, I had a metabolic age of 40. I was 25. It was eye-opening because I’d been living the same lifestyle as all my friends: drinking 10 pints in the pub on Saturday, then spending Sunday eating pizza. I suppose that made me feel like, ‘What the hell am I doing working at Men’s Health?’

I’d joined MH to be a journalist, but I was yet to get a deep knowledge of the subject matter. I knew I’d be given 12 weeks to look as good as possible but that I’d also get to spend five hours a week with a personal trainer and ask all the questions I wished. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI

Soho Fitness Lab, where I trained, was really close to the office. Because I was going five days a week before work, that made it a hell of a lot easier. I remember doing my first superset: bench press into press-ups. My upper body went to jelly. It took me until lunch to stop sweating.

My trainers Brett Durney and Sandra Calva wanted me to build muscle but keep the calorie burn high, because the main thing that was going to make me look better was losing fat. I did three four-week phases. I went from supersets to trisets then, by the end, giant sets, going round and round; I’d also finish every session with a Tabata. It was minging. I’d never done lifting before, and so they gave me all of the grounding: how to do a good bench press, deadlift, back squat and pull-up.

The diet was tough, mainly because of the lack of variety. I’d have salmon, eggs, rye bread and salad for breakfast every day. And then an iteration of chicken breast or steak with brown rice or sweet potato and broccoli or green beans for lunch. ‘Second lunch’ was the same, minus the carbs; dinner was the same again, with carbs.

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI

Today, when I train, I do two half-hour sessions. All being well, I’ll try to wake up before the kids and do some rope flow outside. I put on a podcast and work up the lightest sweat. Then, at lunch, it’ll be short and sharp, aimed at burning calories but also weaving in a bit of mobility. We chopped our garage in half and put some rubber flooring down. I’ll do some mobility, then sign myself over to some digital trainer. Or I’ll do sprints on the Air Bike and dumbbell exercises, but they’ll be more total-body moves: snatches and swings rather than benches and rows.

For me, the biggest shift has been exercising not because I need to control the way I look, but because I understand the benefits and want to add to my life, rather than take something away. Having kids has played into that, but it’s not the sole motivator. I want to feel healthy. I don’t get drunk as much. I eat more vegetables and less meat. I’m not interested in boom-and-bust. And altogether that means I’m happier.

I’d do another transformation – although I don’t know how I’d make. it fit. It was a great experience. And I got so much out of it beyond the 12 weeks. I have a really healthy relationship with health and fitness now that I didn’t have before.

02\ Kris Pace – The Hard Hitter

After fighting fat and winning with an early KO, one-time Men’s Health workflow director Kris Pace was so struck by his boxing-based transformation that he applied for a job with the studio where he did his training. Five years on, he’s the chief brand officer at United Fitness Brands – and has found a fitness rhythm that works for him.

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI

In my late teens and twenties, I lifted quite a bit. I was more into the bodybuilding side of things: Monday is chest, Tuesday is back… Then, in my mid-twenties, I did my first triathlon. After that, I was just going through the motions – lifting weights, doing cardio.

Like most guys in their twenties, I was drinking a lot on Friday and Saturday and feeling a bit jaded by Monday. The transformation came at a good time, following December with all the Christmas parties. I was told, ‘Right, you’ve got three weeks to eat and drink whatever you want, but on 3 January you’re starting this…’ A discipline-specific transformation – learning a skill such as boxing – appealed to me.

I was nervous because I’d never boxed before. But, for someone who looks quite scary and is incredible at fighting, my trainer Ian Streetz was one of the nicest guys I’d met. We’re friends to this day.

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI

We trained in his own time at 6am weekday mornings, then I did one day of cardio at the weekend. The first part of our sessions was pad work, foot drills, head movement; the second part was conditioning. If he felt I was getting too comfortable, he’d swap it round.

The worst thing we did was [a drill called] ‘in the corner’. Ian would stand in the middle of the ring and walk me into each corner, and I’d have to sidestep out. After three minutes, your lungs are burning. We’d spar, but he wouldn’t hit me, just move. I was like, ‘But what if I hit you in the face?’ Turns out I could get nowhere near him anyway.

I did a little bit of lifting, but light weight and high reps. I’d punch 3kg or 4kg dumbbells overhead as many times as I could for two or three minutes. Everything we did was as if I was actually fighting – even though I never did.

I ate five or six small portions of chicken or fish and veg a day, little and often, to maintain energy. Sweet potato was one of the few carbs I had. Rice was almost like a cheat meal. The week before the shoot, I was having steak and spinach for breakfast. It sounds nice, but first thing in the morning, it’s really not.

For six months after I finished the transformation, I’d pop down to Kobox every couple of weeks and do some pad work or a morning class. I wanted to maintain that clarity I felt throughout my day after intense endurance training. Sometimes, the founder of Kobox, Shane Collins, would jump into the sessions. One time, he said, ‘We’ve just opened a second studio, and I need to hire a number two with media experience…’ It was a lightbulb moment. I’d been thinking about a career change.

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI

My training is more sustainable now. I like to mix it up. If I have a few heavy weeks coming up, I’ll do more cardio for mental stimulation. If work isn’t too hectic, I lift weights, get a bit of a pump on. I drink less than I used to, for sure. I’m getting a little bit older now.

As much as I loved the transformation challenge, you can’t do that year-round. But it set me up well to understand my limitations and not let training burn me out for work – or vice versa. I’ll also pull elements from it to keep myself going, or to dig a little deeper when
I feel like I can’t be bothered.

I’d 100% do the same thing again, as long as it has a start and a finish! I’d approach it differently as well: be less hard on myself and enjoy it more.

03\ David Morton – The CrossFit Convert

With almost 15 years at MH and three transformations (at least that he can remember) under his ever-tightening belt, executive editor David Morton’s change has been constant. But it was 2014’s weight-loss challenge that had the biggest impact on his long-term outlook – and it still fuels his motivation today.

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI

My second transformation, in 2014, came at a good time. I was getting married that summer – I’d turned 30, so I couldn’t get away with not training or eating correctly. I’d also stopped playing rugby due to concussions and I had no real drive. I’ve always needed a structure to my training. I need a goal.

I’d see my trainer Bobby Rich, David Haye’s strength and conditioning coach, once or twice a week, often on a Saturday for a mega sesh. He’d WhatsApp me my sessions for the other days. He put the onus on me to look after my own training.

I spent a lot of time training on the Versaclimber. After the first month, I started doing half an hour of fasted cardio five days a week before work. The movements weren’t particularly advanced. The key was consistency and lifting progressively heavier. The first three or four sessions with Bobby in Haye’s gym (which is now closed), under the arches in Vauxhall, south London, were hard. At the end, I had to lie on my back with my feet up on a box because I felt so sick.

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI

We didn’t set too many dietary rules. Bobby just said, ‘Don’t eat too late, don’t eat too much red meat, don’t eat too much dairy.’ My then soon-to-be wife is an extremely good cook and at that point was a pescatarian, so we ate a lot of fish. Once I started doing the fasted cardio, I wasn’t eating until 9am, so I was having a proper 12-hour fast – before it was cool.

I was pleased with the result. I got accused of being a different person in the Daily Mail comments. A little while after that, I spent a few months at 3 Aces CrossFit in Kennington, south London, for a story and I loved it. It combined my love of training with the community element of rugby. That helped shape how I trained on my own.

For my third transformation, in 2018, I didn’t have a coach. I used the movements from Men’s Health’s Primal 9 training programme. I’d had two kids, moved out of London to West Sussex and lost all my hair, so I looked more like Jason Statham and I wanted the body to match. That transformation was the easiest. I got the train to and from the office, and went to the gym at lunch.

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI

I feel better when I exercise. I’m better at work, I’m better at home – to the extent that if I don’t train for a few days, my wife will send me out to do it. During lockdown, I followed one of our fitness editor Andrew Tracey’s free plans, OB-30: 30 workouts to be done with one bell. I had a 16kg kettlebell and I trained in the sun as a break from work. I now have a pair of 22.5kg dumbbells, a bench, a sandbag, a pull-up bar on the side of the house with rings and a rope that my kids use. I’ve also been vegan for two years, although I recently started eating eggs again. So I’m ‘veggan’.

I’d take on another challenge, but not a body transformation. I’ve been fitter, but I’m fitter now than I was at 29. I’ve got some abs. And I can do a lot more movements: clean and jerks, snatches, pull-ups, double-unders, handstand press-ups, very bad handstand walks, pistols. I’m more into skill acquisition than lifting for the sake of it. I’m 40 next year and I have a quiet ambition to compete in local-ish competitions as a ‘master’. That could be fun.

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