This book by Bill Phillips, was published in 1999 and was very popular for the next few years. It was famous for it’s impressive “before and after” shots, taken 12 weeks apart. This was my original review from 2002:
Some of the differences in physique are amazing. The first section is full of examples of people who have experienced an incredible turn-around in their health and in other aspects of their lives, due to following the BFL program. So you feel immediately intrigued to know what could get those results in just 12 weeks, and read on.
In the introductory sections, Bill’s philosophy seems sound. He talks about things like planning, goal setting, not over-training, not eating a diet too high in carbs and getting enough water. He is an inspiring writer and motivator. But then you get down to the nitty gritty.
Despite the talk of not overtraining, the exercise part of the program involves doing a high intensity workout 6 days a week. On alternating days, you do either a 45 min weights routines or a very intense 20 min aerobics routines. The weights programs are alternating upper and lower body, so within a two-week period you work each muscle group three times.
The structure of the weights programs is one that I hadn’t heard of before. For each body part, you do 5 sets of one exercise, with increasing intensity, followed immediately by one high intensity set of a different exercise. Then on to the next body part.
He recommends lifting weights while saying to yourself “Body for life” and lowering them to “I’m building my body for life”. This is to get you lowering the weight slower than you lift it, to get the full benefit of the negative part of the rep. But I think I’d feel a bit of an idiot doing that.
The aerobics workouts start with two minutes warm-up, followed 4 sections of 4 minutes each where you gradually increase your intensity from a 6 to a 9, then drop down to 6 again at the start of the next 4 mins. On the last “set” you have an extra minute where you go for an all-out 10 in effort. Finish with a minute of warm-down. Believe me, this is an intense workout!
On the plus side, this is a very structured, intense program with no messing about. I’m sure it can work. There is a well-illustrated section giving you a range of weights exercises to choose from for each body part. Demonstration videos can be seen online at www.bodyforlife.com Charts are provided for you to photocopy and use to plan each workout and record your progress.
But there is not enough guidance about how to choose your exercises. Someone who is new to weight training might wonder: Which exercises are best for the first exercise, and which are good for the second? Should I do the same thing every workout, or rotate them? Do some exercises complement each other better than others? Or worse still, they may not know to ask these questions and choose inappropriately.
There is no mention of stretching. I believe that stretching is a vital part of any exercise routine and feel it’s a major oversight to not mention it.
Most experts in weight training say that you need around a week between workouts for your muscles to recover and rebuild. The recovery periods in this regime are not long enough to do that. Both the aerobic and weights sessions will give your heart a good workout. But there is only one day a week to rest your heart. This scenario is likely to lead to overtraining in the long term.
I’m sure there are personal trainers out there who give good nutritional advice to their clients. But from my observations, the level of nutritional knowledge amongst many trainers is woefully low. Bill Phillips seems to know just enough to be dangerous.
His recommended diet guidelines are :
- Eat 6 small meals a day, one every 2-3 hours
- Eat a portion of authorised protein and a portion of authorised carbs with each meal (a portion being a serving about the size of your hand)
- Add a portion of veges to at least two meals a day
- Have 1 Tbs unsaturated fat daily, or salmon 3 times a week
- Drink 10 cups of water a day
- Use performance nutrition shakes if needed to make sure you’re getting enough nutrients
- Plan & record your meals and plan your grocery shopping
- Once a week, on your free day, eat whatever you want
Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? But then you look at the details of what is “authorised”:
- Proteins – Only low fat proteins are recommended eg. chicken breasts with no skin, fish, lean red meat, low fat cottage cheese, egg whites (no yolks) or egg substitutes like Egg Beaters, or protein drinks. In fact, 3 of his meals a day come from protein shakes.
- Carbs – potato, brown rice, oatmeal, barley, pasta, sweet potato, yoghurt or fruit.
- Vegetables – most non-starchy veges allowed
- Fats – Saturated (ie solid at room temperature) = bad. Unsaturated = good.
- Water – Drink 1-2 glasses of iced water with every meal
For people who have largely been existing on a junk food diet, this regime might be an improvement. But there are a number of things that alarm me about this, for long term use. Firstly, this regime is one that might work for a Carbo/Agriculturist metabolism. But a Protein/Hunter-Gather type would be very deficient in fats and purines, and would be eating way too much carbohydrate.
It is now well known that egg yolks do not cause health problems. If you are eating eggs, eat them the way nature designed them – whole. And as for Egg Beaters!! In “Nourishing Traditions”, Sally Fallon reports on a study done on rats. Some were fed on whole eggs after being weaned – they thrived. Some were fed Egg Beaters – they all died. Enough said, really.
Although he doesn’t emphasise fish especially, I know a lot of body builders rely on fish quite heavily. There is a potential health risk in eating fish too often, because of the possibility of mercury contamination.
Relying on protein shakes, even if they are well balanced, is a concern. One a day, as a post workout snack, is the most I would recommend to most people. Whole foods are much better. If you want to use a protein shake, check out Michael Cogan’s article on the best sources, and this guide to the best brands.
His explanation of fats is very simplistic and just plain wrong. Butter and saturated fats are natural fats that your body knows how to absorb and use, though how much you need depends on your metabolic type. Cold pressed olive oil is good, but most other vegetable oils are very unstable and should be approached with care.
He also recommends Nutrasweet (aspartame) as a sweetener. The health risks of this have been well documented, and it should be avoided at all costs.
I also have grave reservations about having a day where you “have to” eat what you’ve been craving for all week. If you’re eating the right diet, you are less likely to have cravings. If you are craving a food because you are addicted to it, reinforcing the addiction once a week is not going to help. If you are craving because you are missing out on essential nutrients, better to find out what they are and correct the imbalance. I’m not saying don’t eat a little of what you fancy from time to time. It’s only human to do that. But don’t build it into your week.
Bill recommends that you drink two glasses of water WITH a meal. But I’d prefer to go with Dr F. Batmanghelid, author of “Your Body’s Many Cries For Water – You Are Not Sick, You Are Thirsty” opinion on this one. He is considered by many to be the leading expert on water,and he recommends drinking a glass of water half an hour before every meal to “prime” the digestive system. But says you should then not drink for a couple of hours afterwards, so as not to dilute the digestive juices.
It is good to make sure you do get enough water though, so drink plenty first thing in the morning and between meals. Some people like iced water, but others find it too much of a shock to the system. And avoid tap water (fluoridated and chlorinated) where possible – mineral water is better.
Bill seems like a good motivator and I agree with some of his ideas on goal setting and positive living. Using the power of the mind over the body does, as he says, allow you to work much harder. He provides a support network on his website www.bodyforlife.com and through an 1-800 number.
This program looks like it may be effective in the short term. However, I would be interested to see the health of people who have been following the program for longer than a year. For protein types, problems could show up even quicker. The long term effects are likely to include :
- “Rebound” weight gain
- Signs of malnutrition, especially in protein types
- Chronic fatigue and other chronic illnesses
If you’re still really keen to get that lean sculpted look, give it a go. But I would highly recommend eating according to your metabolic type, instead of using his diet outlines. And be aware that that level of intense exercise can’t be sustained in the long term. You may wish to drop down to weights twice a week and aerobics twice a week after a while. The remaining days you can do something lower intensity like walking. Finally, be on the lookout for signs that you are overdoing it or not giving your body the nutrients it needs.
My perspectives on this program are those of a nutritionist and a gym-user. To give you another perspective, that of a personal trainer (PT), here is a conversation overheard just after I started to write this review. An American visiting New Zealand for 3 months came into a local gym to sign up, and spoke with one of the trainers.
New member : Have you heard of Body For Life?
Trainer : Oh, yeah, it’s as common as muck.
Member (looking surprised): Is that a New Zealandism?
Trainer : Yes, it means it’s everywhere, like muck.
Member : So you don’t think much of it then?
Trainer : It’s vanilla.
Member : How do you mean?
Trainer : It’s just what any PT anywhere would come up with.
Member : I’ve been hanging around gyms for years, I need something with structure.
Trainer : Well, it’s certainly got that.
This particular trainer obviously doesn’t have a very high opinion of BFL!,
Since posting this page, we have talked to a couple of other trainers. In their experience, everybody who tried BFL found it not sustainable in the long term.