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22 Lessons I Learned in a Fitness Program Test Group

By Jess Barron ; Updated July 18, 2017

In the summer of 2012 I was in a test group for a DVD mixed martial arts fitness program. In 60 days I lost 20 pounds (16 percent of my total body weight) while adding muscle and definition. My "Before" and "After" photos below were even used in the official advertising for the workout program.

Yes, it is true that I am not smiling in my “Before” photo. That is because I wasn’t feeling 100% comfortable about how I looked in a bathing suit at that moment (and in front of the photographer to boot). It is also true that I had my hair professionally done and a spray tan in my “After” photo. (A spray tan helps to better show muscle definition that was gained — that is why competitive body builders keep themselves very tan during competitions.) My smile in the “After” photo is very real, because I was feeling great. The professional scale had verified that I had lost 20 pounds, and I had also gained muscle definition.

One thing I tell everyone, is that while it can be nice to look thinner and have your clothes fit you better, the best thing about losing 20 pounds is feeling better. I’m literally lighter on my feet, and I have more energy to do the things I want to do - whether it's walking up eight flights of stairs in the parking garage or running a half marathon.

What Were the “Tricks?”

Friends and family who saw my dramatic "Before" and "After" photos asked me what the "tricks" were. "How could it possibly be that you dropped that weight so quickly?" What was the trick?

There weren’t any “tricks,” but there were definitely MANY lessons I learned that will help anyone committed to losing weight and toning up:

1. Set a goal for yourself and write it down. When you start any program or diet, the first thing you should do is set a goal for yourself, and write it down. My goal was to lose 20 pounds in 60 days and to see muscle definition in my abs and arms. Also, I wanted to be fit enough to be able to run a half-marathon by the end of the program.

Think of not only what your goal is, but why you want it. I wrote down my goal on an index card and also why I wanted to achieve it. I wrote, "I want to lose 20 pounds in 60 days because my clothes will fit me better and I will have more energy. Also I want to see muscle definition in my abs and arms. Finally, I'd like to be fit enough to run a half-marathon by the end of the program."

2. Visualize your goal. Take some time before you start your program to really visualize what it will be like when you achieve your goal. How will it feel? What will you look like? Spend a minute or so each day thinking about your goal and reaffirming why it's important to you.

3. Take your "Before" pictures the day you start your new fitness program. If you're not feeling like you're in the best shape, I understand that it may not feel great to take off your clothes and pose for the camera. I didn’t love taking my "Before" photos, but they did help to motivate me through the program and they served to visually tell the story of my fitness achievement.

Without the pictures, it's not as apparent how much of a difference 20 pounds made to my appearance. Even if you only aim to lose five or 10 pounds, love handles will disappear as well as a stomach “pooch.” Sometimes photos will show more impact than the number on the scale! By the way, it's understandable and fully acceptable NOT to smile in your "Before" photos. (I didn’t smile in mine!) You may not feel happy with how you look. The "Before" photos may be a wake-up call that you are unhappy with what you see.

Also, I should mention that you don't need to show your "Before" photos to anyone. You can keep them just for yourself. For men, take the photos wearing shorts or a swimsuit without a shirt on. For women, take the photos in a bikini or tight gym shorts and a sports bra. It's important to see your stomach, and be sure not to suck that tummy in! You may see your most pronounced changes in the stomach area. That's where I saw mine!

Here’s more info on how to take your “Before” photos:

4. Record your measurements and weight the day you start your program. Sometimes you will lose inches from your waist and legs before you lose many (or any) weight on the scale. Just grab a tape measure. Write them down and write down the date as well. You should take your measurements again after 15 days have passed. And then, measure yourself again on day 30 and day 60. Write it all down. Here’s a video that shows how to measure yourself:

5. If you can, find out where you can get hydrostatic underwater body-fat testing done. It's the most accurate way to know what your body composition is. I did hydrostatic body-fat tests before and after my test group. It showed that I had lost 21 pounds of fat, while gaining one pound of muscle. If you’re wondering what a hydrostatic body-fat test is like, here’s a video that shows exactly what happens.

6. To see dramatic body changes, plan to work out six days per week at high intensity. The seventh day (Sunday for me) is either a rest day, or even better: "active recovery" day where you do yoga or some other stretching or go for walk or a bike ride.

7. Schedule your workouts on your calendar and make them “can't miss” appointments. During the test group I participated in, we were not allowed to skip more than two workouts over the course of the entire 60 days. I entered all my daily workouts at their specific time into my work calendar and I wouldn't let anyone schedule meetings or appointments that conflicted with my workout times. If you goal is important to you, you need to make your workouts your most important appointment of your day.

8. Lift weights at least two or three days per week and try to make sure they are heavy. You should be sore the next day. Incorporate three days of cardio and three days of weight training into your six-day weekly program. There are many benefits to weightlifting. For your cardio, focus on burst training or interval training rather than steady-state cardio (such as jogging or elliptical machine).

9. Invest in a heart rate monitor and use it in your first workout. I recommend the Polar heart-rate monitors with the chest strap. Your heart-rate monitor will help you to understand how hard you're pushing yourself and give you an estimate of how many calories you're burning with each workout. In the test group workouts, women of my size aimed to burn 400-600 calories in about an hour. Men usually burned about double that.

10. Eat a healthy, high-protein calorie-restricted diet. In my test group, we stuck to the program’s meal plan, which recommends 1,200-1,400 calories a day for women and 1,600-1,800 calories per day for men. While this may not seem like many calories, the truth is when you eat whole foods this amount of calories can get you through the day and not seem too terribly depriving.

For example, during my program we mostly ate eggs, lean meats or fish with green veggies that were simply steamed. We only ate a small serving of fruit each day (particularly the women) and were instructed to eat the fruit directly following our workouts. Truth be told, I did not eat any pasta, oatmeal, cereal, bread or white rice during my 60-day fitness program. When I ate a bison burger for lunch, it was on a shiitake mushroom bun.

11. Plan and prepare your food for the week in advance. If you're always in a rush on workdays, prepare your food in ahead of time on the weekend. Hard boil or scramble up some eggs, and put them in the refrigerator. They will take only a minute or so to re-heat. Grill all your chicken, tofu, or fish for the week and portion it into containers, so it will be easy to grab-and-go and also so that you won’t be tempted to eat a larger portion. Here are some other helpful meal-prep tips.

12. Track your calories you eat as well as the calories burned through exercising using an online and mobile app. I used LIVESTRONG’s Calorie Tracker app religiously during my 60 days in the test group. Being mindful of your calories and logging each meal or snack before or after you eat it can definitely help you to stay on track. It also helps when you’re getting hunger pangs to check in on how many calories you have left for the day.

13. Don't drink alcohol. Every participant in my test group had to agree that they would give up all alcohol for the entire two-month duration of the test group. Even though I love a glass of pinot noir or a scotch and soda, it's a good idea to occasionally cut alcohol out of your diet, just to see what effect it has on you.

For people who enjoy a glass of wine at the end of the day as a stress relief, swap in meditation, a walk, a jog, yoga or stretching. When you're trying to stay within 1,200-to-1,400 calories per day while working out, you can expect to be fairly hungry. It doesn't make the best sense to blow 130 calories on a glass of red wine, especially when having the first glass may lower your resistance to having a second glass. And then who knows, you may decide to have a few snacks too, right.

Yes, there were friends' birthday parties, baby showers, weddings, and class reunions that occurred during my 60-day test group. I went to many get-togethers where I drank water, unsweetened green tea or sparkling water. In fact, sparkling mineral water with lime became my go-to drink at bars. It even cut down on commentary about my “alcohol-free(!?) diet” among friends and acquaintances, because most people presumed I was drinking a gin and tonic.

14. Eat healthy fats. During the course of the test group, we ate 1.5 or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter or nut butter (almond butter, cashew butter or sunflower seed butter) three times per week as our snacks, usually served with raw vegetable crudités such as baby carrots, jicama or cucumber slices. Check out these 10 unexpected lower-calorie peanut butter snacks.

15. Get a buddy who shares your goals and motivate each other. I had some great workout buddies during my test group. Whenever we were feeling hungry, sore, grouchy or having a hard time sticking to our diets, we emailed or stopped by each other’s desks to commiserate. If you don’t have friends who are dieting, you can always meet some buddies online such as Ashley Donahoo (who lost over 100 pounds using MyPlate to track her calories) in our LIVESTRONG.COM Community forums.

16. Competition (and prizes) can help motivate you to achieve goals you never thought possible. In the Beachbody test group, we were competing against the rest of the group for all kinds of weekly awards including “most enthusiastic attitude” during workouts, most weight lost, longest time holding a plank position (I won this one by spending more than seven minutes holding a plank position - I can't even describe how sore my core and abs were the next day!), longest time in a wall squat (my friend Norma won this one!)

17. Cut out salt or any dressings or seasonings that contain salt. Since salt makes you retain water, it can make you look and feel bloated.

18. Eat a small post-workout snack (approximately 200 calories total or less). After working out, you will be hungry. Eat your fruit and a small amount of protein immediately afterward. Here’s a list of The 9 Best Post-Workout Foods.

19. Drink large amounts of water and unsweetened herbal or green tea. I had a large container of water and a cup of green tea on my desk at all times. I drank 4-5 cups of green tea per day and about a gallon of water. The green tea seemed to help give me energy and help cut down my hunger a bit.

20. DON’T drink diet soda or chew sugarless gum. A study conducted at The University of Texas Health Science Center found that the more diet soda a person drinks, the greater the chance that he or she will become overweight or obese.

21. Determine whether morning or afternoon/evening workouts are best for you. During the 60-day test group, I tried evening (6 p.m.) workouts at first, but then realized that morning (7 a.m.) workouts were better for me to give it my all. Reason is, that by the end of the day, I was tired from all my workday meetings and I had less energy to expend in my workouts.

22. Get seven-and-a-half to eight hours of sleep per night. You will be tired from working out hard and from eating a calorie-restricted diet. Getting enough sleep will help you maintain insulin sensitivity, and help you from avoiding late night hunger and snacking. Check out these 10 surprising steps to get a good night’s sleep.

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