I am sort of the black sheep in my family. They are hardworking, but exercising wasn’t a priority at all when I was growing up. So no one ever taught me how to work out or lift weights.
I lived in Monterrey, Mexico until I was 16 when we moved to different parts of the U.S. for my dad’s work as a mechanical engineer. As a child, I was your typical skinny kid. I didn’t have muscles, but played a few sports growing up. I probably had around 15 to 20 percent body fat then.
Our family did have membership at a club sports venue in Mexico where I played racquetball as a teenager. I remember one time at the age of 14, after I finished a match the guy that I was playing against went to lift weights at that gym next door. So I went to see what it was about and joined the gym that day, which was the start of my fitness journey; I began lifting weights.
The outbreak of COVID-19 saw all gyms closed and I didn’t have the motivation to work out in the way that some people do in their own home—even though I’m a personal trainer. I had the equipment but lacked the drive to do it, so I just completely stopped working out. I found myself sitting down all the time in the house, constantly ordering delivery from Uber Eats and eating fast foods.
Before the pandemic, I had been in pretty good shape but as I became inactive over the course of 2020, I slowly started losing all the muscle I’d gained. As well as fast food, I was eating cookies and donuts, as I have a sweet tooth, and I was also drinking alcohol occasionally.
I gained around 30lbs of fat, bringing my weight to 200lbs. I’m only 5′ 6″ so that was quite heavy for my height. My body fat reached 25 percent in 2020. When I was in shape before the pandemic, I was relatively lean and had around 12 percent body fat, so it doubled, and then some.
It was the heaviest I’d ever been in my life, but at the time, I didn’t realize when I looked in the mirror. You see yourself everyday, so you don’t notice the difference and neither did my family.
But others around me started to comment and say: “Oh Lalo, you’re getting bigger” or “Lalo, your stomach is a little bit bigger than what it used to be” and I’d just say “Oh, I guess you’re right.”
After a while I remember looking in the mirror and thinking: “Okay, maybe this is not the Lalo that I used to be before.”
I’ve had lower points in my life and I wasn’t sad or mentally struggling with being overweight. I was just going with the flow of life at the time and just ate without really noticing the damage I was doing to my body.
I’ve now been a personal trainer for about four years but in 2020, I only had a few clients. These guys were looking up to me and I knew I wasn’t being the best role model for them. It definitely crossed my mind that I needed to set an example.
All of this pushed me to begin my body transformation in January 2021. I already had the muscle on me—all I had to do was get rid of the fat that was building because of my bad eating habits. So that month, I started making small changes, such as just getting out of the house more often, which I was able to do as more COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. I didn’t suddenly cut out all fast food. Instead of five times a week, I’d bring it down to twice a week. I was still enjoying myself, and drinking alcohol maybe once a week.
Even at the gym, I didn’t go straight into doing hardcore workouts. I started with low-intensity training for about a month or two, where I was doing full body workouts three times a week with relatively low weights. Then, I began ramping things up with some cardiovascular exercises and gradually extending the gym sessions to one-hour workouts where I was mainly doing strength training and hypertrophy workouts which are intended to build muscle.
I then made a decision to start eating a little bit cleaner. My main goal was to keep my protein intake high to be sure that I repair the muscle tissue that I lost while I was inactive. So I was on a high protein diet, including dairy and meats.
I always tell people that you shouldn’t be removing the foods you love because it just wouldn’t be sustainable. So my breakfasts at the time included omelets made with egg whites, cheese and ham. I was also making egg burritos with tortilla wraps, French toast with egg whites and sugar-free syrup, because I have a sweet tooth, as well as high protein pancakes.
Once a week, I would cook for an hour to prepare my lunches for the week, dividing it evenly into small containers. I would make a batch of rice and grilled chicken breast for the week. Other foods I was eating for lunch were poke bowls, tilapia with rice, pork chops with pasta and shrimp cocktails, but mainly it was chicken breast cooked in different ways, as I actually enjoy eating it. Every single meal had at least a cup of vegetables, usually zucchini as it is one of my favorites.
For dinners, I’d try to switch things up and eat food that was different from my pre-cooked lunches. Sometimes I would have tuna with tostadas, sandwiches or tilapia with rice or pasta. Other foods I had throughout the day would be snacks like protein bars, Greek yogurt with fruit, low-calorie protein ice cream, popcorn, and occasionally peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
It was all just about balance and balancing my life.
By the end of my transformation in December 2021, I had lost 30lbs. In fact, I lost 35lbs of fat, which brought me down to 165lbs, but then gained five more pounds of muscle. My body fat percentage dipped into the single digits, to nine percent. At the time, it was the leanest I’d ever been in my life but months later I went even lower than that.
I’d always wanted to tackle a personal challenge of mine and that was to compete in a bodybuilding contest. At the end of December 2021, my body was already halfway to where I needed to be to compete, so I just kept going. I went from being lean to shredded, as my body fat went down to six percent and my weight dropped to around 155lbs.
In order to get to 6 percent body fat my training routine had to change a little bit towards the end. It had to include lower impact exercises that didn’t require too much energy; I had to remove all compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, or heavy presses. The key to getting even more shredded for me was to lower my calorie intake and increase my cardio considerably. At the end of my preparation I was only consuming 1,500 calories per day and I was doing around 80 minutes of low intensity cardio per day; a specific regimen to achieve my bodybuilding goals, rather than an every day routine I would recommend to clients. I was still eating the same foods that I was consuming at the beginning of my fat-loss journey, just in smaller portions.
I took part in my first competition in May 2022, winning second place in my category at the NPC Southwest USA Show in Arlington, Texas. Then in June 2022, I competed in the NPC Adela Show in Austin, Texas, where I won first place in my category.
Preparing for these bodybuilding contests was one of the most difficult physical challenges I’d ever faced and it’s not sustainable on a long-term level. My weight is now back at 170lbs and at nine percent body fat, which is a far more balanced state for my health.
I exercise to live longer, not as a sport, so I’m not interested in bodybuilding as a profession. I’m currently preparing to open my first fitness studio in Austin, Texas.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned through my body transformation has just been a reminder of what I’ve already known for years—that consistency and discipline are what’s going to get you the results.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As told to Soo Kim.