I can’t quite capture in words the sense of awe sheer musculature and physicality can inspire, and, as they say in local parlance, NPNT.
So here you go:
Apart from waking up at 6 AM to go to the gym 6 days a week, Terence, a 26-year-old radiology student, used to monitor his diet carefully.
He admits, “I went through this phase where … I refused to eat [my mum’s cooking]. Whenever I’m not too sure what it contains, I’ll just tell her ‘no’. I’ll just not eat.”
Instead, Terence would prepare his own meals so that he could track his caloric and macronutrient intake.
“Now that I think about it and look back, it’s not very nice. For my mum, for me also—do you know how shitty that felt?”
He asked that in a rhetorical fashion, but as a matter of fact, I actually do.
This sudden frenzy was, in part, motivated by the opening of a new 24-hour gym just 5 minutes away from my house. More significantly, I’ve always been bothered by how emaciated I look. All elbows and sharp angles, I hated looking into mirrors as much as people tended to avert their eyes from me in orientation camps, clubs, classrooms.
A paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, I was 100% that skinny bitch. And the gym and a bulking diet were going to get this bitch out of his ditch.
Subsisting on a diet of chicken breast, brown rice, and broccoli, I put on an average of 1 kg of weight (muscle, I’d like to think) per month, and my lifts were increasing by 2.5 kg per session. When I met friends whom I hadn’t seen in a while, their first comment would almost always be: “You look different. Have you been going to the gym?”
Yep, just occasionally, when I have the time, I’d murmur, waving away their observation, while feeling as if my cold heart had been lit up by a cosy fire.
In retrospect, these changes were almost too promising. I was experiencing what is known in the fitness circles as ‘noob gains’: a sudden, explosive increase in muscle mass when you start working out because of the rapid adaptions your body and central nervous system have to make in response to new stimuli.
But these noob gains convinced me that I was doing something really right, and if I persisted with my diet and gym habit, I would soon be equipped with a six-pack while boasting bulging, sinewy muscles.
But when you’re committed to them just a tad too much, they tip over into the territory of obsession, and these positive qualities quickly become liabilities.
My life started to revolve around my gym sessions and diets. The weighing scale—both the body and kitchen variety—became my new best friend.
When it comes to competition season—a time when pairs of eyes scrutinise every fold of your skin—even your pinkie has to be throbbing with veins and muscles, so your diet gets even stricter.
Terence’s experience was not that bad: he only “brought [his] scale out” every time he had a meal, reunion dinner included.
For 27-year-old lawyer Joshua, food wasn’t the enemy—water was. A week before he was due to appear on stage for a physique competition, Joshua underwent a dehydration regimen.
He recounts: “Friday, Saturday, Sunday, you’re going to start loading up about 10 litres of water a day to flush out excess water. At the same time, 0 carbs … Monday to Thursday, [just] 1 litre of water.”
His programme sounds sane so far—that is, until the day before the competition.
“For the first part of the day I was supposed to suck ice cubes for water. After 3 PM, no water completely. And 6 PM onwards, you load up on as much carbs and sodium as possible. No limit. I ate a double Carl’s Junior burger and a Pizza Hut stuffed crust pizza.”
A restriction on liquids is torturous enough, but when combined with high levels of sodium (i.e. eating lots of salty food), it’s a guaranteed way to simulate being parched in a desert.
“I cotton-mouthed like 40 times in the night. I literally couldn’t sleep, I kept waking up, rinsing my mouth.”
“This dehydration thing was the worst.”
Joshua emphasised repeatedly that his dehydration regiment was not par for the course; most competitors begin this process only a day before the show itself. However, he was put on it earlier because his coach felt that he was still too ‘fat’ to show on stage and could benefit from more water loss.
But at their core, both competition preparation and everyday dieting serve the same master: the desire to look good without clothes on. They are, therefore, less a difference in kind than degree.
Fitness is an insatiable beast. It’s not like a buffet where, once you are stuffed, the food ceases to bring pleasure. Terence says, “You’ll never be happy with what you have. You’ll always want more, want to look bigger, look better.” Daryl, a 29-year-old entrepreneur, agrees: “Once you embark on this fitness journey, it’s normal to think you’re not good enough.”
Indeed, even though Joshua declares himself “relatively satisfied” with his physique, he admits he still harbours some bugbears.
“My abs are a sore point … I’m always trying to get my abdominal fat lower. So that’s an area which I’m not happy with. Shoulders could be broader, lats, arms could be broader … You tend to be dissatisfied with your weak points.”
For fitness enthusiasts/bodybuilders/aesthetic chasers, there is no point of diminishing returns. You will perpetually hunger for an extra inch of bicep or increased abdominal definition.
I grew to dread going to the gym because of the disappointment I knew I would feel if I couldn’t lift a weight heavier than what I did at a previous session—something that occurred more and more frequently as the initial honeynoob period wore away. It got so bad that I started to be plagued by anxiety attacks while waiting for the lift to the iron temple.
I also lost all interest in food. Meals became a physically tiring chore because my jaw would ache chewing endlessly on tough and tasteless chicken breast. As if having to ingest cardboard wasn’t bad enough, at the volume I was eating in order to gain weight, I would feel bloated and nauseated at every meal.
I also had really nasty protein farts.
Despite shredding my sanity to pieces, I wouldn’t allow myself to skip a single gym session or a single unhealthy meal because I looked, well, shredded. I feared that one day of compromise would be enough to shrink me to my original scrawny size.
Thus, I turned into an obsessive recluse, guarded by the jealous partner that is fitness. The one time I agreed to meet some friends for lunch (because one had just returned from an exchange programme), I ended up being 3 hours late.
My friends suggested meeting at some roast pork or saucy pasta place, I can’t remember, so I flaked on that and trawled around Singapore looking for something that fit my macronutrient goals. This was before the time of Lean Bento, The Daily Cut, and all the protein bowl places that have sprouted up in the last 5 years. So it took me some time wandering the streets before I found something palatable—not to my tongue but to my diet.
During Chinese New Year reunion dinner, I even brought my own packed dinner (chicken breast and low-GI rice, what else?) and refused to eat anything but the obligatory strand of vegetable (for longevity) and raw salmon (because healthy).
My relatives showered me with pained smiles and ersatz, Asian nods of understanding: it was, as Terence said, a really shitty feeling.
Once you’re half-way into the woods, you’re also half-way out. Where ‘out’ leads to, however, depends on each individual. Some ardent gym-goers let that flame fizzle out. Some let the inferno consume them, embracing a life of performance-enhancing drugs, 2-hour training sessions twice a day, and 500 g of chicken breast per meal.
I belong to the former camp: after missing birthdays, dreaming guiltily of squats because I had skipped them in the day, getting into an argument with a close friend because I didn’t want to eat sushi (refined carbohydrates!), I gave up.
Well, not entirely. I still go to the gym, but once I put myself before the numbers, allowing myself to deviate from my gym regime and nutrition plan, eating and going to the gym became fun again. It’s like the difference between playing catching and training for a 100-metres sprint.
Terence agrees: “You cannot be too obsessed with all this. There is a line that you have to draw … Everyone can count calories [and go to the gym]. That’s very simple. But how can you [do these things] without letting [them] affect your daily life? That is the main thing.”
All this Terence tells me between bites of his Filet-O-Fish and fries (unsalted).
For this article, I talked to Terence Chua, Kenneth Seet, Joshua Woo, and Daryl Yeap—all of whom are fitness enthusiasts and boast thousands of followers on Instagram—hoping to find out how they manage to keep up with strict diets and gruelling 6-days-a-week training routines (AND documenting it on Instagram) without going crazy like I did.
The nasty faux-journalist in me was also hoping for stories of similar psychological trauma and social estrangement. My working title for this piece was: “The Fitness Hunks You See On Instagram Are Actually Miserable!”
In truth, the only miserable person was me. All my subjects turned out to be perfectly healthy and well-adjusted in terms of their fitness pursuits, so I was unable to include most of their stories in my narrative of angst.
“My physique always fluctuates … [But as long as] I feel good, I look good, I’m happy already,” Daryl says.
Joshua “believe[s] in sustainable fitness … Not being able to prep your food, not being able to do a two-hour workout in the gym … shouldn’t be an impediment to you attaining your fitness goals, whatever they may be.”
For Kenneth, “Fitness is supposed to be a lifestyle, it’s not supposed to be a chore. So you should enjoy what you’re doing, enjoy working out, enjoy food … If you think that working out or eating clean is going to be unsustainable, then you’re doing it wrong, I think.”
And I think Terence’s burger, fries, and ice cream cone from McDonald speak for themselves.
My conclusion, then, is rather bathetic: everything in moderation! Satisfice, not maximise! This notion applies to all aspects of our lives, whether in terms of career (there is no ‘perfect’ career), relationships (there is no ‘The One’), and even our interaction with the natural environment (Greta, you are my idol).
Perhaps the most exciting thing I’ve learnt from the process of writing this story is that you can eat McDonald’s and still maintain your abs.