Body image/health and Strength Training and Goals

I grew up a skinny, tall, nerdy kid.  In many ways, I embodied the Asian stereotype, both physically and mentally: I was good at violin, math, and not much going on in the way of sports.  My diet growing up didn't help, as I ate the same thing everyday during my K-12 years.  Cereal and milk in the morning, a ham sandwich at lunch, and some sort of Korean dinner where I would mainly eat some combination of foods that invariably contained rice and bulgogi.  My diet, while not optimal, was probably a lot more regulated and "healthier" because my mom didn't allow many sugary type foods (she never got soda in the house, I only got it through other means).

I remember thinking that being skinny was part of my unchanging identity.  There was a moment in middle school when a girl had commented that I'd be so much better looking if I had gained some muscle.  Never mind my unspoken thought that she'd be a lot better looking if she lost like 15 lbs., I just gave it a shrug and thought, that's how I am, it's not going to change.  It was a combination of not being familiar with my own physiology and just having a set image that I didn't bother to hit the gym in any appreciable way, other than running for track (which made me leaner), and maybe horsing around the weight room a bit.  I was Doug, and Doug was skinny, and that was that.

My kryptonite.  It's...perfect.

My kryptonite.  It's...perfect.

It wasn't until my young adult life that I started to change physically.  Working at a corporate setting brought about a more sedentary lifestyle coupled with even more eating.  Because I had started with such a low base of weight (from 135 as a 5'11 high school senior to 145 as a 6' college senior) I was rounding out to be shaped like a normal sized human. 

Once I left work, weight gain started to become more noticeable.  According to American Express, I was having Shake Shack at least once a week for a two year time period.  It got to an apex around the start of 2011 at around 185 lbs.  I think that was the first time I became somewhat conscious about my body image.  So I started to train for a half marathon and dropped back down to 165 during my training.  Although I kept exercising after the race, my weight became sporadic and inconsistent.  "You can't outwork a bad diet", I was told.


Aging is something everyone knows will happen, but because it's a slow process (unless you have a whole host of other bad habits besides dieting such as drugs, cigarettes or alcohol), you don't really clock it until it hits you.  It's most apparent in professional athletes, where you see a definite trend of peak physical performance plateauing by your late 20s to early 30s and then dropping off precipitously after 40.  At my age, you start to see the superstars you've been following as a teenager get to the end of their careers, and how much they've dropped off.  Legends like Derek Jeter and Kobe Bryant who stick around longer than they're really supposed to play worse than a replacement player in the final seasons of their career.

While looking older may vary from person to person, everyone will feel being older at some point.  After college and a bit of work experience, I would pull all nighters relatively easily, being able to power through with just adrenaline and caffeine when a task needed to be done.  Nowadays, I would be in a lot of pain and anguish if I tried to Jack Bauer through the day.  This could be partly due to being acclimated to a lifestyle that doesn't require me to usually do long nights of work, but recently I've just felt the weight whenever I don't get enough sleep.  Being heavier, running and getting into running shape takes longer simply because I have more weight to carry.

As I entered my 30s, it dawned on me that:

a) there's more life after 30
b) i don't look that young anymore
b) I should probably plan on living for the next 40-50 years or so
c) my current lifestyle was probably not optimal

Back when I was a kid, it was like I didn't even picture life as an old person.  It wasn't due to being a morbid person and believing in one's own early death before 30, it was more like like a kid who didn't comprehend a number greater than 10 after first learning how to count.  And it wasn't until probably right up to 30 that I realized that life was going to go on for a while, and I was like, "Hey, maybe I should go see a doctor.  AKA, my dad."  

The results of a blood test I got didn't show anything remarkably terrible, but it did seem to show that I was trending towards unhealthiness.  As my family does have some history of health problems related to heart conditions and/or diabetes, it seemed unwise to continue on this path.

In addition to being bad for my health, being fat or noticeably aging did concern me because of my career.  Acting requires you to look a certain way, and looking young and fit is important.  Although it's less pronounced now than it was in the past, casting is still somewhat dependent on your aesthetic.  When I went into audition for a big role that I thought I was really right for a couple years ago, I was told by a casting director that while she liked my read they were looking for more of an athletic type of actor for a role I went in for and straight out that I didn't really have a shot.

Now, I'm not really the "jock" type in casting anyway, so this didn't bother me too much.  But looking older and fatter probably wasn't going to be advantageous, you don't see many fat old Asian dudes on TV.  And although I look young for my age (fortunately), I didn't want to climb an uphill battle in extending my looks longevity.

I decided to research how to get in the best shape possible.


Prior to my start in strength training, I had lifted weights during a short period in 2010 with my friend, Bobby.  He had introduced me to starting strength, a method of strength training that is as simplistic as possible, just add weight to the bar every session until you can't.  Bobby had originally got me into poker in a similar manner, we both kind of read up on an "expert" and went on from there.  While we made some progress, we definitely made mistakes.  I once pulled a deadlift with what was most definitely improper form and was bedridden for a week.  After a while, I just quit because I wasn't seeing proper results.

Paul's a pretty chill dude

Paul's a pretty chill dude

So in September of 2014, I asked a friend of mine who seemed like he knew what he was doing health wise (he was always talking about being swole and eating kale and shit), what I should do, and he directed me to the only Starting Strength coach in Los Angeles, Paul Horn.  Paul is a trainer who also runs a gym called Horn Strength and Conditioning in the Westchester area near LAX.  I didn't know what to expect when I first met him, maybe some sort of stereotypical breh's brah, but it turned out when I went in for a consult that he had a very methodical and analytical way of doing things like myself, and was actually pretty nerdy sometimes (ask him about his spreadsheets), despite being jacked.

Similar to the book, we did the three basic lifts (squat/dead/bench), plus a shoulder press every week, 3 times a week, varying the exercises every session.  As I was getting back into it, I started off small, adding 5-10 lbs a session until we couldn't.  Every session progress was recorded into the "Book of Gains" (a notebook with the weight you achieved).  I was prescribed a diet of anything I wanted, provided I hit my weight in protein (grams of protein per pound I weighed) every day.  For around 6 months of training (more like 9 months because of breaks in between for vacation and what not), I learned how to lift and how to do it correctly.

Now, Paul's not a cheap coach, but there's something about paying a lot of money that gets you motivated to get up and go to the gym.  And it was definitely valuable because you always want to make sure your form is correct.  The gains were steady and certain, and it was always helpful to have someone motivating you to do the work.  His job was simple, to get me strong and thus healthier, and he definitely accomplished that.

the book of gains in graph form

Here's a look at the progress I've made.  The data is basically what weight I can lift for 5 reps.  Starting strength preaches doing lifts in 5s and then adding weight when you've successfully completed the lift.  

Some of the things you can see from the graph is that progress is logarithmic in nature; you're going to see early gains quicker when you're out of shape and then slowly progress as you become more advanced in lifting.  Another thing you can see is that both the shoulder press and bench press plateau a lot quicker than the other two lifts.  The dips downward are mostly from extended breaks from lifting (the large noticeable one is a 3 week break in July of last year).  And towards more recently, lifts have been plateauing (and even dropping off) very noticeably, and I'll get to that soon.

Taking a week off doesn't affect your progress that much.  But taking a few weeks off can really be devastating.  I get temporary gym memberships for 1-2 weeks whenever I'm in New York now, just so I can keep the gain train intact.  

But aside from progress, I noticed I wasn't really getting the body I wanted, dat aesthetic.  As a result of eating whatever I wanted to get to x amount of protein per day, I had ballooned into an all time high of 195 lbs by June of last year.  Unfortunately, I was also in a film program where I was (told a week before shooting) that I was to be shirtless in the film.  Needless to say, I wasn't too happy with the shoot after watching it, and I knew that I needed to make some changes in my regimen to look acceptable for my chosen career.  It was time to cut.

After I trained with Paul, I moved on to a popular powerlifting gym in LA called Barbell Brigade.  I like the gym because it's convenient, squat racks, deadlift and benches are all set up, and it's got a chill but intense environment.  I started to also lower the caloric intake (as well as protein), and as a result I lost weight but my gains started to drop off dramatically.  However, I've maintained much of my strength, while dropping around 10-15 lbs.


The ancillary benefit of looking more attractive towards the opposite sex hasn't really materialized, at least as far as I'm aware.  In fact, the opposite is true, I've had more dudes comment on me being bigger and asking about it.  I remember some guy saying that I looked like I would back a lot of dudes (I'm assuming he meant Korean dudes in a game of pick up) easily in the post as a power forward and wondering, what dude is he talking to right now (I'm terrible at basketball).  Swole recognize swole, but I do want the physique more of a point guard, lean-ish but strong enough to be explosive.  Athletes also seem to look super young, I mean Kobe certainly doesn't look 37 years old.  

I have recently incorporated cardio into my routine, partly because of a bet I had made with Bobby.  The bet was made back in 2011, when I said that I could run 3 miles in 20 minutes if I had a year to train.  I think the closest I got was 24 minutes, and I gave up and paid him the money.  This year, we made the same bet, now both of us in it.  While we won't race each other to the death (it'll just be if we can beat 20 minutes or not), it's an exciting challenge nonetheless.

But I estimate with the cardio training, I'll probably burn close to 1000-1200 extra calories a week.  I'm hoping to lose weight rapidly, we'll see how that goes.

As for diet?  My diet is still terrible.  I suppose there are improvements I could make, but I really need a nutritionist to help me.  Maybe that's the next step.

My goals at the moment are trying to reach a body weight of around 175 lbs with a 1 rep max of bench (262.5 lbs), squat (350 lbs), and deadlift (437.5).  Currently, I can probably lift approximately 205/350/380 at 184 lbs.  

I'm pretty happy with the progress I've made and the lessons I've learned over the past year and a half.  Hopefully it leads to greater success, both in health and in my career.