A few weeks ago I read a post on Tim Ferriss’ blog deconstructing how a pair of first-time authors secured a 7-figure advance on their first book deal. Turns out the book is a guide to fitness, specifically endocrinology, and the authors are two of the foremost experts on regulating hormones like insulin, growth hormone, and testosterone through diet and exercise to produce what they call the alpha male. Having already read and enjoyed Ferriss’ Four Hour Body (a 600-page monster compendium on all things health), I decided to read Engineering the Alpha and see what I could learn from it.
The way I see it, life is all about identifying and understanding various systems. Career, education, relationships, and so on. No single system in your entire life is as important as figuring out the system of your own body. Mental and physical performance supersedes everything else, which is why you can never invest too much in mastering this part of your life.
As a side-note, the authors of this book don’t mean alpha in an aggressive or chauvinistic way – they mean someone in control of their destiny. This is addressed several times in the book and I mention it because the selection of this word might turn some people off, wrongly thinking that this book was authored by meatheads.
As a neat bonus, the foreword to this book was authored by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and is available online to read for free. It’s linked below.
What makes Engineering the Alpha stand out from your average fitness book is the hormonal approach that it takes. The idea is that mental and physical weakness in men is due to our hormones being out of balance, and an oft-cited figure is how the average man’s testosterone has plummeted 30% in recent decades. The number of implications of this one change is huge, but among them:
- Depression and fatigue
- Reduced muscle mass
- Loss of sex drive
- Higher propensity for diabetes, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure
And the list goes on. The implications of testosterone at pictures at right but in summary, as an adult man with low testosterone, your life sucks. Obviously other hormones also play important roles in overall health and happiness, and those are addressed in this book as well. In the Tim Ferriss style of “body hacks”, this book includes a number of small tricks to regulate and adjust your body chemistry for optimal performance.
The Four Stages of Attaining Alpha
The authors of this book break down the entire process into four stages, which are spread out over a period of four months. Each stage has a specific goal, be it fat lass or muscle growth, and there’s an accompanying diet and exercise plan which are in harmony with your LBM (lean body mass) and caloric requirements. On workout days you’ll eat at surplus and on rest days you’ll be at caloric deficit, for example. The phases are called Prime, Adapt, Surge, and Complete.
Psychology & Physiology
In my opinion the most significant barriers to building a strong body and mind are psychological. Lifting weights, eating healthy, and sleeping 8 hours each day isn’t that difficult, it’s staying motivated and encouraged throughout the process which is where most people falter. To address this, a large portion of Engineering the Alpha is basically a self-help book for people who have very little self-control.
It’s peppered with stories of people who’ve lost hundreds of pounds and have completely transformed their lives. These stories are inspiring and useful in motivating total beginners, but as someone who’s been training and reading about fitness for over a year, at times I wished that it would be more about physiology and less about psychology.
I might have left more highlights in this book than in any book in recent memory.
“You don’t need a chemistry set to become superhuman. You can achieve that naturally. No pills, no shots, no injections. As we’ve already mentioned, the benefits go far beyond looking fucking awesome. Your hormones are the key to optimizing physical, social, and cognitive performance. This is basic endocrinology that’s sixty years of research in the making.”
“Not targeting your hormones through diet and training means less intelligence and a limited capacity for achievement. The key is a hormone called BDNF — one of the biggest scientific advances that no one is talking about. What it stands for (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) isn’t as important as what it means because if you don’t produce more BDNF, it could stand for “brain does not function.” The concept is best understood this way: Have you ever seen the movie Limitless with Bradley Cooper? In it, Cooper’s character takes a pill that maximizes brain functioning. He becomes brilliant — not because he suddenly has more knowledge but because his brain is firing and operating at a more efficient pace. This is BDNF.”
“Every day there are millions of cellular reactions occurring in your body. Some of this activity causes damage within your body. As with any equipment that is used a lot, the daily stress causes breakdown. Fortunately, your body is built for such circumstances and can naturally heal anything that isn’t working at an optimal level. This is autophagy. So what happens when your internal repair is slow and lazy and doesn’t get the job done? That’s when you have a damaged internal environment. More specifically, when your workers don’t repair your mitochondria — the cellular power plant of your body — then your body is basically fucked.”
As you can see, sometimes technical concepts are explained in layman, bro-like terms.
One thing I loved about this book was that it’s filled with references to The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. If you haven’t read that book, read it, because it breaks down the archetypical mores of every movie you’ve ever seen. In Engineering the Alpha, the authors portray you as Luke Skywalker on his uncle’s farm on Tattooine. You crave enlightenment and greater things, but you can only attain them after you’ve completed a journey. You must leave your ordinary world in order to become extraordinary. I love this analogy.
Amazon link: Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha
Learn more: Foreword by Arnold Schwarzenegger, How a First-Time Author Got a 7-Figure Book Deal, Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Body