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The BowTiedOx 90-Day Fitness Challenge: Results and Lessons
Fitness is key to preparedness. Here's what you can do in 90 days.
In the interest of accountability, let’s see how I did. Comparison pictures from the front:
And the side:
Let’s look at the numbers. On September 15th, I weighed 187.3 pounds with a body fat percentage of 24.3%. On December 13th, my Eufy smart scale recorded a weight of 166.8 pounds and 19.8% body fat. Down 20.5 pounds and 4.5% body fat.
I don’t want to get into comparisons of all of my lifts because that would be a long, boring post, plus I’ve had to switch up some things over the past few weeks. For instance, I had to stop hack squats because I hurt my knee and I’m now doing low back squats with a safety bar instead.
But here are some comparisons:
Iso-lateral chest press: 137 pounds x 7 reps on 9/15; 147 pounds x 8 reps on 12/2
Shoulder press: 120 pounds x 6 reps on 9/15; 135 pounds x 9 reps on 12/8
Squat: 135 pounds x 9 reps on 8/3, 150 pounds x 8 reps on 12/6
The squat comparison isn’t perfect because I had switched to hack squats in August and then quickly had to switch back from them, but you get the idea.
Strategies and Challenges
For the first week, I stuck to the Unprepared Fitness Plan, largely because I had just published a post on it. I still think it’s an excellent plan for beginners (maybe do squats instead of hack squats), but I wanted to try Ox’s (then new) 12-week push pull legs program.
It’s a grueling routine. Ox has you lifting four days per week and then doing light zone 2 cardio on your three off days. It’s not for beginners. However, it didn’t take long to feel—and then see—dramatic improvements, and I didn’t look back.
I rode my indoor bike on off days but didn’t do the other recovery items he mentions like sitting in a sauna (kind of hard to do here unless I buy my own).
Since my body fat percentage is still too high, I tried to maintain a daily caloric deficit of 500, which I track through the Cronometer app paired with the Apple Watch’s activity tracking. I try to maintain 150 or more grams of protein intake per day.
Challenges I experienced during the 90-day challenge:
Staying at a caloric deficit has grown harder. Some weeks I had to go back to maintenance calories to keep up my energy, I grew ravenously hungry some days and overate (I think due to colder weather + my ancient bear DNA), and my wife made two pumpkin cheesecakes, which I can only resist so much. Plus, if Cronometer is accurate, my metabolism has slowed so I have to eat fewer and fewer calories.
I had to take a rest week at the end of October. It had been 8 weeks since I had taken one, so it was time. I got to the point where I couldn’t sleep and my lifts were getting worse.
Four days per week in the gym is a lot when you have a job, side businesses, and three children. You definitely get a payoff for your trouble, but it put a lot of stress on my family and me.
I totally slacked off on cardio during November. I had taken to scything and catching up on other neglected farm chores instead until the Apple Health app chastised me for my exercise minutes dropping by half. Now I’m back on the bike.
Probably TMI, but I’ve experienced severe constipation over the past couple of weeks, I think due to a high-protein, low-fat, and low-fiber diet. I’ve had to readjust my diet a bit, replacing morning eggs with steel-cut oats and whey powder.
Lessons Learned from the Challenge
There are many things you can’t learn from a book, but only by your own personal experience. I learned a lot of things during this challenge:
Adapt your routine to what you have: Ox’s book tells you to find an equivalent exercise if you don’t have the machine he calls for, and I had to do that often. For instance, he’s a fan of sitting leg curls, but all my gym has a lying leg curl machine. So I did lying leg curls instead. Don’t let a lack of special equipment be your excuse; find an alternative!
You can do more than you think: Previously, I had been lifting three days per week with at least one day in between, and cardio a couple of times per week. I considered it a nice, easy pace that didn’t exhaust me. So moving to four days of lifting—often two days in a row—followed by three days of cardio was intimidating. I did have to slow down a bit at the end, but I found I could take on a lot more workouts than I thought.
Cardio for recovery: I always balked at the idea that doing cardio on off days would help you recover, but Ox explained it’s important to get the blood flowing. Well, you know what, he’s right—for the most part. Checking my Athlytic app, I found that my recovery score was consistently higher a day after spending 25 minutes on the bike. The exception was if my recovery was in the red. On those days, I take off entirely and rest.
The value of dumbbells: Many of the workouts in Ox’s program call for dumbbell lifts to supplement barbell/machine lifts. At first, I didn’t see the point because you can’t lift as much weight with dumbbells. However, the difference is in how much more range of motion you have with the dumbbells, which hits more muscle groups. Try some incline dumbbell presses after barbell or machine presses and see what I mean.
Preworkout and essential aminos acids are worth it: I had eschewed preworkout before because it sounded like it was just a bunch of caffeine. I get plenty of that and didn’t want to be more jittery. Then I picked up some C4 preworkout on a whim. The caffeine jolt is nice, especially in the early morning when I don’t have time for coffee before driving to the gym, but it doesn’t make me jittery. What it does do is improve blood flow, which makes workouts feel less strenous. Likewise, I have found my performance improving while driving water mixed with a scoop of essential amino acids. Plus, I drink more water because the peach mango flavor is yummy. (Don’t buy BCAAs, they’re widely regarded as a scam.)
Try the shrug machine for deadlifts: I had seen the deadlift/shrug machine in my gym, and thought it was stupid because deadlifts are about the easiest barbell lift there is. Then Ox’s program called for machine deadlifts near the end of the program. OK, sure, whatever. I did the machine deadlifts. They were easy. And then I was sore and miserable for two whole days. My chiropractor explained that machine deadlifts hit more of the back of your legs and your upper back. Clearly I had not been hitting those muscles enough previously.
I hope this inspires you to get in the gym and get lifting! Especially if you’re in your 20s. I’m pushing 40 and this stuff gets harder. On the other hand, I have far more discipline and drive than I did at 20.