Everything’s bigger in America. But we aren’t in America, and I’m not even American. So when Word asked me to spend two weeks changing my body for the good of humankind, I emphatically said, “Sure.”
In a small third-floor office, down a narrow side-street alley, a circle of writers and photographers clutched annotated photocopies of the month’s upcoming stories. As my eyes scanned up and down the page, quickly bypassing blue ink scribbled across the already nailed-down articles, I stopped at two capitalised words — ‘Ben Style.’ Raising one eyebrow and clearing my throat, my journey started with the simplest of questions, “What’s Ben Style?”
For the unfamiliar, Ben Style is a menu of no-frills health conscious muscle-bursting grub delivered for a premium only over the network of food delivery websites available in Saigon. The brainchild of bodybuilder and personal trainer Ben Dell, his brand of nourishing meals has garnered quite a following in this city.
Over two weeks I was to endure a stringent diet of Ben Style fare and a rigorous exercise regime to slim-down and bulk up with sit-ups and weight heaving.
Walking out through the gated entrance of the Word office, I contemplated the task assigned to me. I had not visited a gym in months, and was never an avid patron of any such facility in my life. I had never had the desire or motivation to increase muscle or gain a beach-worthy physique. I always had a confident sense of what I looked like, and when it came to body modification, I always ran in circles that preferred the ink-on-skin or metal-through-flesh route. What did I really have to offer this experiment? Moreover, could I really commit to the endeavour as I had no will to support such devotion in the past?
Shaking my head and wiping the Saigon heat from my forehead, I drove away on my motorbike wondering, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’
Later, tapping my skinny, red, correction pen on my cold glass desk, a blank page of lined paper lay in front of me. I wrote in the top-left margin, ‘May 23rd, Deadline.’
The Experiment Begins
Like all good experiments, there needs to be a set of criteria to assess observations. After much correspondence with my editor, I settled on the four criteria — strength increase (using the Epley formula), body fat percentage, physical feeling and emotional feeling.
These, along with caloric count and my workout routine, would be recorded so I could accurately compile the results at the end of the experiment.
I was slated to begin my sentence at the luxurious facilities of the Sofitel Plaza Hotel on Le Duan in District 1. The Sofitel has great, well-maintained equipment and a sauna and steam room to sweat out your daily stress.
I was going to begin my first workout in the evening after a long commute from District 7. And as I rode the elevator up to the third floor fitness centre and spa, I tried to calm my mind and focus on what exercises I might try tonight and how much this was going to hurt tomorrow.
A solemn, serious expression stretched across my face, as I peered inquisitively into the large-mirrored room of silent figures and torturous machines. Increasingly horrible groans seared over exasperated breathing. For me, an infrequent patron of the gym, this was the third of Dante’s circles, or a scene from Goethe or maybe a verse of Milton.
The only feeling I could muster was complete and inexplicable indifference. When balanced against my post-workout gorge of 1,100 calories of various Ben Style’s goodness, I could only contemplate indigestion.
Clutching the soft white towel, a confident step led my body towards the least threatening device available. Mounting the seat and securing my feet into straps, adolescent freedom resurfaced as I started cycling on the high-tech stationary bike.
By the end of Day 1, after a full-on hour traipse around the circuit machine and weights area, I felt a sobering confidence. Nothing hurt, nothing ached, and the Ben Style post-workout meal was pleasant and tasty. Returning home and resting my head for a full night’s sleep I smiled and thought what an easy two weeks this was going to be.
Waking up to a crushing hangover I can deal with, or dragging my under-slept body from beneath my covers into my frigid air-conditioned room, but the struggle seemed acute and overbearing that first sun-break.
Oh, how my confidence slipped soberly into reality.
“Here we go,” I thought, holding various muscle groups — wondering which one may fail me — as, grasping the staircase railing, I shambled down to the ground floor kitchen to start my protein-fueling day with three eggs, a two-avocado smoothie, and a splash of iced water to the face.
I decided to seek some expert advice. As it were, in the catalogues of Saigonite transients, I knew an honest-to-goodness athlete in the form of Ben Wisniewski of the Saigon Heat. Wisniewski, a forward for our local ASEAN league basketball team, was going to be my sole contributor of useful, applicable and achievable advice for the duration of the experiment.
I visited Wisniewski at his home on a sunny weekday morning to glean some knowledge. I mean, how could I not take the advice of a man who moves for a living?
“Yeah man,” looking up from over his pre-heating frying pan, “the only advice that really works for me is to just eat all day.” He said this while nodding with a deadpan expression.
“Have as much protein as you can, and eat a lot of small healthy snacks as well as your regular meals,” Ben suggested. “And make sure that you are using those calories in the gym and letting your muscles rest so they can recover.” I squinted my eyes and nodded my head as if I was listening to an old wise man quote Confucius.
I heeded Ben’s timely advice and sliced, steamed and scooped my way to stuffing my face on an hourly basis. The next five days were going to push my boundaries physically more than they’ve ever been pushed in the past.
Seeing the Change
By the end of Day 6, the physical improvements became recordable evidence. I was lifting more weight, feeling less pain and cycling further within a time limit.
By the end of Day 10, the typical morning drag became a bouncing routine. There was a definitive increase in morning energy, although my typical grumpy morning self stayed fully intact. Two days until the 9am photo shoot, and I was upbeat to do some hilarious face-stuffing of Ben Style food as I broke standard gym rules.
On the morning of Day 13 I donned my workout gear for the second-to-last time of this experiment (ever?). This was the morning of the shoot and I had brought Ben Style’s legendary Fatman Burger to chomp away at as I pushed and pulled and held a pose for the lens. A lift here and a bite there, and I could only feel embarrassed as the onlooking staff pointed, covered their mouths with the palms of their hands, and attempted to laugh secretly as I ate a giant hamburger for breakfast.
By the end of Day 14, I was in a fantastic mood. No traffic jam or rainstorm, not even running out of gas could bury the feeling of completion. I felt considerably more energised in the morning and taught myself a little more about the importance of having good nutrition when you lead a busy lifestyle. I unlaced my running shoes, shoved them in my bag and exited the Sofitel into the warm evening air for the last time.
Over the duration of the experiment I had been tracking the criteria every three or four days. The moment had come for me to weigh-in, tally-up and pen-down my findings before I started to clack away at my black laptop keys.
My final results indicated I had lost 0.4kg, which may have been from the absence of Ben Style food that I would soon ingest; my toes even rose up to try and newton my way to extra weight. From my starting maximum lifting dumbbell weight of 12.5 kg, my right arm gained 3kg. The effects were the same for my left arm, and the maximum lifting weight of my other muscles increased in step. I had more energy in the morning and was sleeping solidly most nights. However, I was not feeling any significant emotional effects and, interestingly, my roommates had commented that my grumpy morning persona had been replaced by a grumpy evening persona. And finally my body fat, which I monitored throughout the process, remained the same at 13 percent.
Looking back I have some misgivings about the process and progression. Ben Style has some healthy bicep-busting cuisine and takes the guesswork out of how to count calories, protein and carbs. But the VND3 million I spent only on Ben Style food begged the question — could I spend less and get the same results preparing my own dishes? Well, for someone with long-term goals a good mix between convenience and cost would best serve a busy working life. If you have an hour to spend at the gym, then you probably have 30 minutes to spend making healthy meal choices for your macho body goal.
Ben Style can be contacted on 0906 912730 or through the likes of vietnammm.com or eat.vn. The Sofitel Plaza Fitness Centre is on the third floor of the hotel, 17 Le Duan, Q1. Membership costs from VND3.15 million++ per month, with discounts available for long-term subscriptions