The 4-Hour Body, by Timothy Ferriss
December 14, 2010
Reviewed by Chris Masterjohn
This is one of the coolest health books I've ever read. Certainly the most adventurous.
Allright, I admit I'm a little biased. Tim Ferriss's The 4-Hour Body is, to my knowledge, the first book that's ever had my name as an entry in the index. Ferriss also very generously, and almost certainly undeservedly, includes me in a list of 77 people who contributed to the book in some way, just to the left of page one, under the title "On the Shoulders of Giants."
Considering that Ferriss's last book, The 4-Hour Workweek, was number one on the New York Times, Business Week, and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists and was translated into 35 languages, I'm very excited about the prospect that The 4-Hour Body will bring high-vitamin cod liver oil, choline-rich egg yolks, and lacto-fermented vegetables to the masses.
Of course I know you're all dying for a critical review. Can someone really lose weight and build muscle this fast at the same time? Can a single book really have all the answers from bedroom secrets to batting like Babe Ruth? What are the flaws and limitations? Is there anything new, or have I heard it all before? Are all these chapters on sex woman-friendly or is this book aimed at chauvanistic, womanizing men?
I'll get to all these questions, but first I humbly ask you to indulge my excitement for a bit as we take a tour through the coolest parts of the book.
So Who the Heck Is This Tim Ferriss Guy?
Tim Ferriss isn't a doctor, a nutritionist, or a physical trainer. There's no RD, MD, or PhD after his name. So why should we listen to him?
The 4-Hour Body isn't unique just in its breadth — indeed, it covers topics ranging from fat-shredding to bulking up, sleeping better and functioning on less sleep, increasing male fertility and mastering the female orgasm, reversing "permanent" injuries, jumping higher, running faster, swimming farther, living longer, and even traveling to exotic locations to get MRIs — but it's also unique in its approach.
Ferriss was a CEO of a sports nutrition company for nine years but now lives off the success of his previous best-seller and has been performing endless experiments on himself in preparation for The 4-Hour Body. While he makes extensive use of published scientific literature, the rich abundance of anecdotal data resulting from his self-experimentation and his personal experiences working with elite coaches and trainers is what puts the book on the cutting edge.
Listen folks. We're talking about a guy who wants to know if yerba mate decreases food absorption and to find out simply takes yerba mate and weighs his own poo.
But he doesn't stop there. He hooks himself up to a portable sleep lab, gets an implantable prescription-only continuous glucose monitor made for diabetics, measures his body fat in every high-tech way imaginable, and more.
As a result, most of the book's content is still in the experimental stage. It may be decades before we have definitive data on how good some of these ideas work and how individual responses vary, but the book is jam-packed with 571 pages of darn good ideas to try. And what's best, Ferriss approaches it with a type of scientific objectivity rarely found in — well, rarely found anywhere.
Ferriss focuses on delivering what he refers to as the minimum effective dose. Rather than providing a comprehensive view of any of his chosen topics, he presents what he considers to be the 2.5% of information on each topic necessary to produce 95% of the desired results. This principle often slims down not just the information in the book, but often promises to increase your results by reducing your effort, following the maxim "do as little as needed, not as much as possible."
As an example, the book's title isn't just a reference to his previous book, The 4-Hour Workweek. It literally refers to how he managed to gain 34 pounds of muscle and lose four pounds of fat all in 28 days with only four hours of total gym time. Just eight 30-minute workouts over the course of a month proved to be the minimum effective dose.
The book has over 300 pictures, most of which are how-to photographs. Over half the examples used as case studies in the book are women.
The 4-Hour Body is meant to be read like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Ferriss recommends various tracks, all beginning with the chapters in the Fundamentals and Ground Zero sections, but thereafter winding up weaving their way through different sections depending on the reader's goals. The book may be almost 600 pages, but Ferriss believes each reader can get what he or she most wants out of fewer than 150 pages.
Each chapter lists extra resources accessible online. Many of these are additional photos and videos, and many are affiliate links to recommended products. Ferriss takes no profit from any of the product links — all the proceeds are donated to Donor's Choose, a charitable cause that benefits public schools. He has also committed to donate ten percent of his royalties to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
Now, on to the content. First stop? Bringing solid dietary information to the masses.
Tim Ferriss on the 4-Hour Diet
Tim Ferriss initially contacted me about a year ago to write a critique of The China Study for this book, to serve as a case study in bad science. This critique has apparently landed among the bonus materials available to readers online, but I was quite surprised to nevertheless find my name in the index of the book.
The "Chris Masterjohn" entry brings the reader to page 512, part of the chapter entitled "Sex Machine II: Details and Dangers." This section is actually an appendix wherein Ferriss details "the nitty-gritty" of his two testosterone-boosting protocols first introduced in "Sex Machine I: Adventures in Tripling Testosterone."
Ferriss had found his testosterone in the low-normal range, down at 244.8 ng/dl (nanograms per deciliter) and his sperm count declining. After spending 21 days in Nicaragua eating organic, grass-fed beef three meals a day for an entirely unrelated experiment and then spending three days protein-loading on two to three pounds of this meat every day, he reunited with his girlfriend only to find her crazy about him like never before, seemingly intoxicated on pheremones. What's more, he received three times the normal amount of eye contact from all women within a ten-foot radius.
Hmm, was his partner super-happy to see him after the two had been apart? Was he experiencing a modest dose of overconfidence rather than a ten-foot mushroom cloud of explosive pheremones?
We'll never know the true answers to these questions, but numbers don't lie. Ferriss nearly tripled his testosterone to 653.3 ng/mL!
There was something in the grass-fed beef. Through further self-experimentation, Ferriss developed two protocols for boosting testosterone, one for long-term health and one for acute boosts soon before sex. He was even able to reverse his declining sperm count and double his number of these little swimmers.
Green Pastures' fermented high-vitamin cod liver oil and high-vitamin butter oil mixture play a central role in Ferriss's long-term protocol. On page 512 he discusses Weston Price, Activator X, and my work on vitamin K2 and its interactions with vitamins A and D. He recommends egg yolks, grass-fed butter, lard, fish eggs, cod liver oil, organ meats, natto, hard cheeses, and lacto-fermented vegetables like kimchi and sauerkraut. In fact, Ferriss even recommends raw milk if one can find a clean source.
Ferriss recommends bringing 25(OH)D levels to 50 ng/mL. As I've written in "Are Some People Pushing Their Vitamin D Levels Too High?, the scientific evidence that a vitamin D level this high is necessary is, in my opinion, pretty poor. Nevertheless, vitamin D supplementation played an important role in Ferriss's experience, and I find it quite plausible that when intakes of vitamins A and K2 are abundant, vitamin D levels this high may be helpful.
Ferriss provides a warning very near and dear to my heart:
Supplemental vitamin D increases your need for vitamin A, so don't forget the aforementioned cod liver, which includes both.
In the end, Ferriss added several other critical components to the protocol, including an important source of our other fat-soluble friend, vitamin E, and concluded that his acute protocol could utilize other animal foods without even including red meat. I won't spoil the whole story, but suffice it to say this book will bring critically important nutritional information to a much wider audience than it has heretofore ever reached.
The 4-Hour Body's Prescription For Shredding Fat and Building Muscle
Ferriss's chapters on shredding fat and building muscle are aimed at both men and women. For women who aren't interested in putting on lean mass, Ferriss suggests a few modifications that turn his muscle-building protocol into a extra-super-duper fat-shredder.
In light of my recent posts on choline and fatty liver, it's exciting to see Ferriss recommend whole eggs and spinach for the choline and betaine. Cheese, natto, kefir, kimchi, sauekraut, fermented fish, plain yogurt, and kombucha also make their way into the plan. And a man who exclusively uses grass-fed butter, ghee, and macadamia nut oil ("the new and improved olive oil") "for all stove-top action" has my vote.
The dietary recommendations are not monolithic. Beans form an important part of his weight loss program, but he presents an interview with racing trainer Brian MacKenzie, who advocates a bean-free paleo diet. Raw milk has a place in his strength-boosting and testosterone-boosting regimens, but he excludes milk in his fat loss program. He discusses the potential use of wheat during a section on protein cycling for longevity, but in general recommends against the consumption of gluten.
Ferriss is against counting calories, unless it's the only thing you count. He makes a compelling case that if you want to make any progress with anything, you have to measure, measure, measure. But he recommends measuring inches, bodyfat, and performance rather than calories.
His fat-loss regimen sticks to a five-rule "Slow-Carb Diet" six days a week, but on the seventh day he resteth. This is the day for "reverse Lent," otherwise known as bingeing on whatever the heck you want. In fact, Ferriss considers overfeeding one day a week to be a critical component of his fat loss regimen because of its effects on metabolism-boosting hormones.
In this respect he seems to have come to conclusions similar to those of Ori Hofmekler of Warrior Diet fame, who advocates fasting in the day and overfeeding in the night, and Matt Stone, whose High-Everything Diet uses overfeeding as its very lifeblood.
Stone recently told Jimmy Moore that one of the issues he's still trying to tweak with his diet is to get rid of the initial gain in weight. Tim Ferriss may have solved that problem with his version of overfeeding, as folks on his diet usually gain weight on overfeeding day but nevertheless experience a net loss of several pounds per week from the very beginning.
Of course, Ferriss also has an entire "Damage Control" chapter dedicated to methods for minimizing any fat gain during the overfeeding period.
High-intensity interval training, kettlebells (he trained under the famous Pavel Tsatsouline), and a handful of mostly conventional weight training exercises underlie his approaches to shredding fat and building muscle. Of course, not to the exclusion of taking advantage of the thermal effect of water. And no, he's not talking about drinking it.
He slays the beast of genetic determinism by putting on 34 pounds of muscle with just four hours of total gym time despite verifying through three independent genetic testing programs that he had a "nonsense allele" for a gene called ACTN3, which should have doomed him to a life of geaky skinniness, or as one of the test results diplomatically put it, a "genetic advantage" for "endurance sports."
Purists may object to his allowance of canned foods, Eggology pourable eggs, some of the junk food he allows on the fat loss "off" day, and various supplements that he calls "drugs," but ultimately his approaches rely mostly on whole, natural foods and exercise programs that anyone can do, and are entirely amenable to a more purist-friendly approach (which I'd prefer) that uses healthy foods even during the overfeeding period.
Tim Ferriss on Better Sleep and Better Sex
I have, through my life, had lots of trouble sleeping. Personally, I've found complete darkness at night, physical activity and bright light in the morning, going to bed well fed, and cool temperatures under 65F to be most helfpul. Ferris comes to similar conclusions, although he identifies specific dietary approaches, blue light gadgets, and methods of cold exposure to give greater chances of success.
In the chapter on polyphasic sleep, written primarily by a guest author named Dustin Curtis, Ferriss recommends three different programs utilizing systematically scheduled napping to reduce one's night-time requirement for sleep. In the most extreme case, which Ferriss says should be reserved for meeting emergency deadlines only, you can cut your requirement down to two hours a night.
I've started taking 20-minute naps recently, and I've found them to be an incredible help for recharging my brain during the day or helping me get by on less sleep by night. I have little doubt that the more systematic methods in this chapter work.
Nevertheless, the theory behind polyphasic sleep emphasizes the importance of REM sleep, and the 2-hour plan is predicated on obtaining virtually all of your sleep as REM. This might help you maintain peak mental performance, but as Ferriss notes in the preceding chapter, the literature and his own sleep lab experiments showed that deep sleep is most important for muscle function. Thus, in addition to the well discussed caveat that the 2-hour protcol requires a rigorous napping schedule that can wreak havoc on your mental functioning if you so much as miss one scheduled nap, I very much doubt one can maintain peak physical performance on the extreme protocol.
Despite the back cover of the book boasting the more radical appraoch, Ferriss's approach in the text is clearly more moderate and realistic, and using the chapter on polyphasic sleep is likely to help people gain significant productivity boosts.
Many people must be wondering just how woman-friendly the chapters on the 15-minute female orgasm are. Ultimately, women will doubtlessly want the opinion of other women on this matter and I'm sure many female bloggers will be weighing in over the next several weeks.
While I'm a little uncomfortable with some of the methods needed to "test" these approaches, Ferriss's advice, obtained from a handful of famous (in some circles, anyway) professionals on the subject, is geared primarily at couples. Some advice is geared more directly towards women. Ultimately, the vast majority of the approaches in these two chapters is most amenable to successful development within the context of a sustained, long-term monogamous relationship.
People with sensitive eyes may want to skip these chapters, as they are extensively illustrated with how-to drawings and anatomical diagrams. With a little maturity and good intention, however, these chapters are sufficiently professional that most people should be comfortable with them.
The improving sex section also includes the chapters on boosting testosterone and sperm count discussed above.
The 4-Hour Plan to Jump Higher, Run Faster, Swim Farther, and Live Longer
Tim Ferriss reports his experiences with top-notch coaches in learning to perform all kinds of feats from the most basic to the most specialized.
He offers an invaluable chapter on how importing injectable stem cells from Israel and other high-cost treatments ultimately failed his test for reversing permanent injuries, but introduces the reader to far less costly and far more effective approaches. These include changing footwear to address lower back misalignments, Egoscue Method exercises for cervical/neck and mid-back problems, therapy to address referred pain and other muscular problems with Craig Buhler, known as "Dr. Two Fingers" among some NFL and NBA stars, and shoulder therapy with a veteran of 25 Ironman triathalons.
Ferriss's "Pre-Hab" (better than rehab) chapter provides approaches designed to injury-proof the body, starring Gray Cook, an injury-prevention specialist utilized by the NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA and US Army Special Forces. His "Hacking the NFL Combine" chapters provide similarly top-caliber expertise on how to master the vertical jump and the 40-yard dash.
He provides surprising information on why "less is more" when it comes to endurance training, and how mastering the marathon has little to do with long hours of running and much more to do with flexibility, musculoskeletal alignment, and boosting maximal aerobic capacity.
His intimate engagement with some of the most famous strength experts produces some memorable quotes:
Pavel Tsatsouline was punching me in the ass. It's not every day that you have a former Soviet Special Forces instructor punch you in the butt cheeks.
And he recounts how the Chinese national women's speed skating team dramatically increased the number of skate sprinting medals its members took home by using the deadlift of all exercises.
Ferriss provides an interesting twist on this exercise that involves dropping the bar rather than returning to the floor with an eccentric contraction — an approach I've never heard of. The coaches he deals with who have guys weighing 132 pounds deadlifting 661 pounds, however, definitely know some things about the exercise that I don't, and they claim it prevents injury. In fact Ferriss's star deadlift expert coaches a 132-pound woman who deadlifts 405 pounds, a 138-pound female distance runner who deadlifts 380 pounds, and an 11-year-old boy who weighs 108 pounds and deadlifts 225 pounds.
Ferriss reports how he went from hating swimming to loving swimming when former Google employee and current Twitter investor Chris Sacca introduced him at a BBQ to a method that increased his swimming max from two pool lengths (40 yards) to 40 lengths per workout in ten days and had him swimming one to two miles in the open ocean within two months.
He has an entire chapter deconstructing the architecture of Babe Ruth's baseball swing with the analytical wisdom of Jaime Cevallos, who increased Ferriss's baseball swing from 57 to 70 mph, with an estimated increase in distance of 35%, in just two training sessions. Many people train in batting cages and don't make a sliver of the progress that Ferriss made in two sessions with a little physics analysis and practice batting against a bag or batting a ball from a tee.
Ferriss's concluding chapter on living longer almost scared the heck out of me when I thought he was going to recommend immunosuppressant injections and vaccines, but in fact he comes out against virtually all of the currently hyped longevity boosters with just a few exceptions, the most interesting to me of which are intermittent fasting and protein cycling.
Intermittent fasting is advocated by many in the paleo crowd for evolutionary reasons but is also utilized by many of the world's major religions. The concept of protein cycling — eating less than 5% protein on one day per week — is especially consistent with the two days per week of near-veganism practiced in Orthodox Christianity, a topic I'll cover in more depth in an upcoming post weighing in on Jimmy Moore's recent inquiry into the reconcilability of Christianity and Paleo. This is also the spiritual tradition practiced by Nicholas Taleb, whose writings on probability Ferriss highly recommends and who is rather open about sharing his religious views in public.
Ferriss notes that periodic fasting from protein induces a process called autophagy, wherein the cell cleans out its mishandled, degraded, and aggregated proteins that otherwise accumulate. This is consistent with my experience. I had developed a problem with small wart-like risings on my hands and fingers at one point. Complete fasting for two weeks helped somewhat, but going vegan for two weeks made them completely disappear. The problem has never come back, despite my regular sumptuous feasting on animal foods of all kinds.
Perhaps protein cycling provides an answer to the question I had raised in The Curious Case of Campbell's Rats. Namely, is there an intermediate intake of protein that maximally protects against cancer, toxicity, and fatty liver under all conditions? Perhaps the answer is not an intermediate intake of protein, but a periodic cycling of protein intake.
Of course, none of these issues is settled, nor will any of them be settled for a long time to come. Which leads us to our final question: what, if there are any, are the flaws and limitations of this book?
Is Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Body Too Macho, Too Speculative, or Too Exaggerated?
On the whole I think that Ferriss's book provides plenty of ammunition for the development of a healthy masculinity in men and a healthy femininity in women, and I think sexual and gender issues are treated very professionally and fairly.
Perhaps the one chapter that comes close to violating this rule is the chapter on holding your breath, a chapter that is clearly designed only for people just itching to die, or otherwise just for entertainment value.
Ferriss discusses his adventures in breath-holding with David Blaine, a man who once encased himself in a block of ice for nearly 64 hours and took a month to be able to walk again. It provides a rush, for sure. Roni Zeiger, MD, Google's Chief Health Strategist, held his breath for over four minutes. "For me," he recalled, "it was like skydiving — I felt powerful, vulnerable, am lucky to have done it, and I probably won't do it again."
Good idea. Ferriss loads the chapter with appropriately and prominently displayed disclaimers and concludes the following:
Remember: don't be stupid. Never practice this in water. Better still, leave it to the professionals altogether.
Very excellent advice.
Thus, while The 4-Hour Body provides the occasional macho stunt for entertainment value, Ferriss emphasizes safety and professionalism throughout the book.
As discussed above, I also believe the book is very well suited for both men and women. Ferriss certainly intends it to be, and I look forward to hearing some women weigh in on this soon.
One of the best things about this book is Ferriss's rigorous documentation of all his results. One thing we do not know is how the "average" person will repond to any given technique.
Ferriss acknowledges the limitations of his approach with a degree of scientific objectivity rarely found elsewhere. He emphasizes going into the book that he wishes the reader to remain skeptical of everything he presents. He concludes with an analysis of data from 194 people who documented their experiences with his fat-loss diet. He provides an analysis of the limitations of that data set much more thorough and balanced than what you usually find in a peer-reviewed paper where a reviewer forces a group of scientists to admit more than they are willing about the limitations of their own data.
So, while not everything in The 4-Hour Body has conclusive, definitive evidence behind it, the book is jam-packed with almost 600 pages of well-reasoned, field-tested approaches to everything from the bedroom to the baseball field that, if nothing else, provide an excellent foundation for some of us readers to begin our own self-experimentation with and see what type of results we get.
Ferriss quotes Nicholas Taleb:
Understanding how to act under conditions of incomplete information is the highest and most urgent human pursuit.
In The 4-Hour Body Tim Ferriss handles this pursuit elegantly, never reading into his data more than is there, but always willing to push the envelope and give his readers the latest and most cutting-edge methods of self-improvement out there. I'm impressed.
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