Darren Johnson/Ultimate Performance
Darren Johnson, who lives in London and works in investment banking, gained weight during the pandemic, and a football injury exacerbated the problem. To get back to a healthy weight and reduce stress on his lower back, he decided he needed a little help. Here, he tells Men’s Health how he did it.
During the pandemic I saw my weight creeping up, and despite diet and exercise, I couldn’t quite bring it back under control. Later on, I tore a ligament playing football, which meant I wasn’t as active, and I soon saw my weight hit 100 kg (220 pounds). I’d only been there once before, when I’d developed a prolapsed disc in my lower back, with severe back pain resulting. And then there was the Euro Finals, when I put on my new, medium-sized England shirt, which historically would fit fine, and found it was so tight it was hard to distinguish it from one of those body-painted shirts.
So my goals were two-fold. First, I wanted to lose weight and, crucially, help reduce stress on my back. Second, I wanted to tone up and achieve the sorts of physical results I’ve not been able to achieve before, such as seeing if it was possible to get some pecs. Additionally, I wanted to learn more about nutrition, what to eat and the best supplements to use to support fitness training. And finally, for me the holy grail was seeing if I could learn how to maintain the results without living like a monk.
I signed up for a transformation with Ultimate Performance’s London City gym and got to work. Pain in my sciatica was pretty bad: it would take me 10 minutes to get out of bed and a lot of regular day-to-day activities, such as putting socks on or getting into a car, would be incredibly painful. Back pain can also be very mentally draining, as even sleeping can be painful so there is no let up. That’s the state I was in when I started, and something my trainer kept in mind as we progressed.
In my first two weeks, I lost 6 kgs (13 pounds), even though I had a back spasm at the beginning of my program, which meant I had to rest from weights for a week. My trainer, Reece, quickly revised my plans so I could still make progress, including sticking to my nutrition plan.
I didn’t think my pre-program diet was that bad, despite my love of pizza. Mostly my eyes were bigger than my stomach. I learned a lot working with the program, and Reece really gave me a great foundation for understanding nutrition, from the basics of macros, to guidance on supplements, to explaining the realities of food prepping. Tracking food and knowing what I was putting in my body helped me take things to the next level, and kept me accountable when I might have wanted to stray.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to cook your own food—yes, that’s me—it’s really worth having a fitness food prep company do it for you. I wouldn’t have made it without being able to customize my macros and have someone else do the work for me. That’s something to consider as you assess the best, most realistic nutrition and diet approach for your needs.
I hadn’t done a program like this before, so I was also excited to learn a lot about how to train. Correct technique is a big deal; I pretty quickly learned that I had bad form in a lot of exercises, meaning I was less efficient and more likely to injure myself. That was eye-opening. I got into a consistent routine of gym work two to three times a week, alongside daily cardio.
Even if I was just walking, that helped avoid a calorie surplus and keep me moving. And having a trainer took my sessions to an intensity level I’d never had before—working with Reece was probably 50 percent more intense than anything I ever did on my own, and I am sure were a big part in helping me achieve the results I did within the timeframe. I’m still working on keeping that level of motivation going on my own.
Overall, working with Reece and UP, I lost 16 kg (35 pounds) and dropped 5 inches off my waist. My body fat percentage went from 26 percent to 11 percent. I came out of it feeling stronger, fitter, and leaner than ever before. To give just one example: when I started I could do three or four pull-ups, while now I can do four sets of 10.
Looking back, I see how well this program worked for someone like me, who came into it wanting knowledge, motivation, and accountability. Anyone who wants that structure will really benefit from a program. And if you’re not sure if it’s right for you—if it seems too “macho” or overbearing—I think seeing all the different kinds of people who’ve done the work ought to show that really anyone can do it.
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