I just finished reading Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman. The book promises a lot. And it’s based on Tim Ferriss’ own form of research. He operates as a rogue researcher, not within the confines of peer review scientific scholarship. It frees him up to do some crazy things that might not receive ethics approval from an academic research council.
He uses himself, family (especially his dad), friends, and seemingly passing acquaintances as test subjects. He has some recommended “paths” through the book (even he recommends against reading the book from start to finish, and says most people won’t need more than 150 pages to ‘reinvent’ themselves), based on your goals.
The goals the book caters to are: rapid fat loss, rapid muscle gain, rapid strength gain, and rapid sense of total well-being. The book presupposes, as do most physical fitness programs, that its readers are non-disabled individuals who are not thriving physically.
It’s a funny book in lots of ways, not just because the author is quite funny and a great story-teller, but also because it has a mixed message. He starts off talking about the “minimum effective dose,” arguing that in general, where all things fitness-wise are concerned, we tend to do more than is necessary to achieve our desired results. Between that claim and the whole “4-hour body” idea, it seems as if he’s going to hand us a really do-able program.
But then so much of what he recommends is beyond extreme. The preferred diet, for example, is what he calls “The Slow Carb Diet.” The first info he gives about it details the massive food intake on “cheat day”–bear claws, chocolate croissants, grapefruit juice, coffee, pizzas… But cheat day comes only once a week. Outside of cheat day, the diet is ultra-restrictive. No “white” carbohydrates (bread, rice, cereal, potatoes, pasta, tortillas, fried food that’s breaded, or anything white [cauliflower is allowed]). Pick a few meals and eat them over and over and over, spacing them out by four hours. Do not consume any calories as drinks. No fruit (NONE). One day off a week — that’s your “cheat day.”
Any diet that cuts out food groups is a bad idea. It’s not sustainable over the long run, despite Ferriss’s repeated claims that he and some of his friends who followed this diet for his research ended up loving it. He himself maintains that on his Saturday cheat day he eats himself sick.
This is not a big surprise. It’s a documented fact that diets lead to a sense of deprivation that results in binges. Just calling the day off a “cheat day” is itself a sign of dysfunctional eating and an unhealthy attitude about food, where some foods are “bad” and others are “good.”
This may have “worked” for Ferriss and his friends. I have no doubt that they lost weight quickly. Anyone will lose weight on a restrictive diet that cuts out whole food groups, such as carbs. But the real question is, do they keep it off? I have not seen a report of where Ferriss and his test subjects ended up five years out. Are they still eating like this — highly restricted 6 days a week with one splurge day?
Ferriss does not address any of the research about the failure of restrictive diets to produce longterm results. It’s not super-impressive that people experience rapid weight loss when they change their eating patterns for a month and follow a strict diet of the kind Ferriss recommends. The whole thing screams out “fad diet”!
Ferriss is a big believer in drug “cocktails” to bolster muscle and strength gains. One of his go-to consultants for elite training is Charlie Francis (Ben Johnson’s trainer–Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in the 1988 Olympics after testing positive for banned substances that his trainer had him on…). For most of the fat-loss “studies” undertaken in The 4-Hour Body, he relies 60% on diet, 10% on drugs, and 30% on exercise. Vegetarians or others who can’t follow the diet will need to do more drugs. No thanks.
He is also a big proponent of measurable results. Lots of tracking and weighing and measuring. In one of his experiments, he even weighs his poop. Since I have an aversion to careful tracking, a feeling not shared by all, this approach (poop aside) simply wouldn’t work for me.
The book is for “rapid” changes to body composition and strength. It’s easy to get caught up in Ferriss’ enthusiasm for getting the job done quickly. But after immersing myself in that crazy world for some time, I started to wonder, what’s so great about “rapid” changes?
On balance, I’d rather have slow, sustainable changes. I and lots of people I know have experienced rapid physical changes on extreme programs in the past. But the real question is always about the longer term. Will the dramatic, rapid changes I make over the course of a month still be with me one, two, five years from now? Will I have new, healthy habits that contribute to my overall well-being? Again, as in the chapter on fat loss, Ferriss doesn’t address this issue.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve encountered so many programs and plans that say “if you just do this, then you’ll achieve these amazing results.” For many of them, it’s absolutely true that “if you just do this you’ll achieve these amazing results.” The difficulty is that no one can do “this,” whatever the “this” may be, forever.
I’ve only focused on the section about fat loss. But many of the other programs for rapid change also strike me as unlikely to be sustained over time. For example, “Occam’s protocol” for rapid muscle gain involves what seems like a fairly manageable workout schedule, but the food requirement is unbelievable. Not many people could do it even for a month. And again, there is no follow up advice. Once you’ve achieved this massive muscle gain in a relatively short period of time, what then?
That leaves me skeptical about the success, for most people, of the “plans” outlined in much of the book.
I am not equally skeptical of everything, however. For one thing, Ferriss has convinced me that kettlebell swings are worth incorporating into a resistance training program, and that there are better ab exercises out there than crunches. I am also totally sold on his endorsement of Total Immersion Swimming. I have experimented with it in the past. Reading about it again in Ferriss’ book has convinced me to revisit it. And I agree with him that body weight and BMI are not useful measures, and that body composition (ratio of fat to lean mass) gives us more useful information.
The chapter on “incredible sex” is written pretty much entirely with a male heterosexual reader in mind. It’s all about how to give a woman an orgasm that lasts for 15 minutes (I first thought it took 15 minutes to get there, which isn’t all that impressive. But an orgasm that lasts for 15 minutes — worth reading about and working on the technique with your partner) and how to increase your testosterone and your sperm count. The sections about women’s orgasms were useful in that it’s not a bad thing to educate heterosexual men about women’s anatomy.
He interviewed some heavy hitters for his information about women and sex: Nina Hartley, Tallulah Salis, and Violet Blue. They provide some interesting, practical suggestions that he reviews in detail. And though Violet Blue provides some excellent advice for the woman who may never have had an orgasm, it’s hard not to feel like the whole reason for spending so much time on women’s orgasm is to give heterosexual men a way to feel like rock stars.
Ferriss has written an entertaining book filled with great stories and fascinating, crazy experiments in rapid physical changes (I hesitate to call them “improvements”). He ends with the words “it’s never too late to reinvent yourself.” This may be true. I doubt, however, that the focus on rapid change so emphasized in The 4-Hour Body is a successful formula for “reinvention.” At most, a lot of the recommendations will produce only short term, even if rapid, results.