Over the past few months I’ve been asked numerous times about my thoughts on the Men’s Fitness 12 Week Body Plan (12WBP). Given the heavy marketing behind it, I already knew its general premise, but never enough to properly comment. Luckily, a former client of mine sent me a copy so I gave it a read. Given its popularity, I thought I’d drag the book through the rigours of science and see if it can make it through the other side in one piece.
Nick Mitchell, founder of Ultimate Performance in London, authored the 12WBP, which was published as a ‘Magbook’ (half magazine, half book) under Men’s Fitness magazine. Despite having no formal nutrition/training related credentials (e.g. a degree), Mitchell has built a solid reputation in the fitness industry, and has been labeled by Charles Poloquin (the Al Capone of the supplement industry), as “Europe’s number one body composition expert”. The following review will examine whether there is any truth to this statement, or whether the fact that Mitchell sells Poloquin’s supplements explains the endorsement.
What is the book & who is it for?
As the title of the book suggests, the book is about a 12 week training and nutrition plan, which can allow you to “build muscle, burn fat and get a six-pack”. In order to put substance behind the claims in the book, the plan involved a real life transformation of Joe Warner (then, deputy editor of Men’s Fitness magazine). As such, the plan is aimed at a beginner (<6 months training experience).
The book is generally broken down into 4 parts: the transformation, training, nutrition and supplementation, and will be discussed in the following sections.
Joe Warner’s transformation
Above is Joe Warner’s 12-week transformation using the methods outlined in the book, along with stated changes in bodyweight and composition. I’ve also annotated the monthly progressions with my estimated bodyfat percentage based on my experiences, as well as those of other nutritionists and trainers.
According to Mitchell and his skinfold callipers, Warner started the plan at 16.5% body fat and finished at 5.5% body fat. If we consider that his starting weight was 72.3kg and his end weight was 74.3kg, this would equate to a lean body mass (not necessarily muscle) gain of 10kg (almost 1kg per week!) and a fat loss of 8kg over the course of 12 weeks. If you recall from my previous articles (here & here), such a rate of muscle gain whilst simultaneously dropping that much fat would be near impossible for a natural trainee. I’m unsure of Mitchell’s competence with skinfold callipers or what equations/skinfold sites he used, but it is likely that the results were from a BioSignature Modulation assessment. My assumption is based on Warner’s comments, “My first session began with Nick measuring my body fat using callipers to work out where my body likes to store fat. This helped him build a picture of what my hormones were doing, and which supplements I needed to balance them” and “Some of the fat was around my chest – a sign that my body was making too much of the female hormone oestrogen.” I reviewed the theory and application of BioSignature Modulation previously.
It is also worth noting that a body fat percentage of 5.5% would be close approaching essential body fat for a man of Warner’s size. At such levels of leanness, there would be no noticeable body fat beneath the skin, whereas Warner has plenty of room for fat loss at the 12-week mark.
On closer inspection of the progress photos, they aren’t as impressive as the initial observation would lead you to believe. For example, in the first picture, Warner is relatively lean to begin with (as indicated by his serratus muscles), the lighting progressively gets better and he has shaved his body hair, got a tan, and got a pump on before the final picture was taken.
If we assume that the stated body weights are accurate, and using my conservative body fat estimates, Warner would have gained 4.5kg of lean body mass and dropped 2.5kg of fat mass in over the course of 12 weeks. Given that Warner went from a virtually untrained “lager-loving vegetarian to [a] meat-eating teetotaler” during this time, such a transformation would appear to be legitimate, especially if Warner increased his muscle glycogen stores prior to the final weigh in. Nonetheless, this is still very good work on both Mitchell’s and Warner’s parts.
The training programme consists of 46 workouts split across 8 microcycles with various training goals (e.g. strength; hypertrophy). Despite some questionable exercise selections and form, the training doesn’t seem bad on the whole, especially for a beginner. It focuses on progressive overload, which will result in strength gains and hypertrophy providing good nutrition is in place. However, the training seems to be overcomplicated for a beginner (e.g. the specific training phases and endless list of exercises). Instead, just focusing on steady strength gains in some key compound movements, with a few isolation exercises, across a decent rep range (i.e. 6-12 reps), will produce a similar training effect in a much more simplistic manner. Only as a trainee becomes more advanced, is there a need to properly periodise training.
According to the book, low intensity cardio should be avoided at all costs. Instead the focus is on high intensity interval training (HIIT). Though HIIT is generally better for fat loss on a minute per minute basis, doing it frequently will burn even a high-level athlete out; especially on top of hard weight training and in a caloric deficit. For this reason, I actually prefer low-moderate intensity exercise for fat loss, as it can be performed more frequently without eating into recovery capacity, which is compromised during dieting (thus resulting in greater net fat loss).
According to Mitchell, one exception to performing low intensity cardio would be fasted morning walking. His reasoning behind fasted cardio is that “you’ll have little or no stored carbs in your system, so your body will be more likely to use fat for energy”. However, this strategy generally appears to make little to no difference for fat loss when compared with fed cardio (in the vast majority of scenarios, at least). Ironically, before fasted cardio, Mitchell recommends taking “20g of BCAAs to prevent muscle mass losses without raising insulin levels, which would be counterproductive”. Firstly, if you’re consuming macronutrients before cardio, it technically isn’t fasted. Furthermore, BCAAs are veryinsulinogenic.
The nutrition in the 12WBP is fundamentally a low-carb, moderate-fat, high-protein diet. As part of Warner’s plan, Mitchell gave him some diet fundamentals to stick too, several of which I’ve highlighted below and interjected with my own thoughts.
“Breakfast is meat – preferably red meat and preferably beef – with a handful of nuts.”
If you recall from an earlier guest article on this site, Matt Jones nicely destroyed the ‘meat and nuts breakfast’ myth regarding neurotransmission. Not to mention the fact that the restrictions put on breakfast may hinder compliance. I do agree with eating protein at breakfast, but feel free to add some carbs, drop the nuts, or choose a different protein source if you prefer.
“Eat green and cruciferous vegetables with every meal”
Not a bad habit to get into, especially during a fat loss diet.
“All fats should come from red meat and oily fish only. In addition, you can also eat three to six whole eggs, three to four times per week”.
Despite no rationale being given, placing restrictions on where fat comes from isn’t likely to lead to long-term adherence.
“Aim to eat 4g protein per kilo of bodyweight, spread over six meals.”
If you recall from my protein requirements article, this amount would seem excessive, even for a drug-fuelled athlete. The recommendations outlined in the scientific literature are around 1.4-1.8g/kg for strength/power athletes. My recommendations are a tad higher at 2.5-3g/kg, and while also may be deemed excessive, I’ve seen such intakes work very well and such amounts of protein would not impede on the consumption of other macronutrients (i.e. carbs and fat). It is also worth mentioning that the protein intake on the weekly meal plan is far lower than 300g per day. For example, one day’s protein intake consisted of a chicken breast (~30g), a protein shake (~30-50g), a ham salad (~20g), and a steak (~40-60g), giving a higher-end estimate of around 160g.
“One whey protein shake a day and no more.”
Again, no rationale was given as to why. This point is beyond me since it would be extremely difficult to reach such an intake from solid foods alone as well as being very expensive. Not to mention the fact that solid protein sources haven’t been shown to be superior to liquid sources.
In the nutrition section, Mitchell also describes how to “use carbs correctly” and states that “rather than simply eating carbs on daily basis, science and anecdotal experience have shown that cycling your intake with low, medium and high-intake days will produce much better results for fat loss and muscle building.” Firstly, Nick must have seen some research that I haven’t. Secondly, randomly assigning low, medium and high-carb days is bordering on silly. This is another example of unnecessary over-complication, which is likely to hinder compliance in most people. If anything, daily carb intake should be reflective of energy expenditure (i.e. increased carb intake on training days/decreased on rest days).
Overall, the diet will get someone results as it focuses on high protein and a caloric deficit. However, the majority of beginners would find it near impossible to stick to, both from willpower and financial perspectives.
From the off, Mitchell scores some points by stating that supplements are “supplementation, not essentials. If you can afford them and you have your training and diet spot-on, then by all means experiment with them.” I’d completely agree with this statement, though I’d add ‘providing the supplement is safe’ to that list.
Warner’s supplementation protocol covers all the basics including: EPA/DHA, vitamin D, a multivitamin and creatine, along with more questionable supplements such as BCAAs, added leucine, holy basil and L-carnitine. With respect to BCAA supplementation, Mitchell recommends consuming 40-60g per workout (or 3g between each set). As highlighted in my three-part BCAA series, it seems very unlikely that BCAA supplementation would provide any benefit in the presence of a sufficient protein intake. Since Mitchell also recommends consuming 4g/kg of protein, this level of intake is unwarranted. For these reasons, it almost goes without saying that the 5g doses of leucine recommended post-workout and between meals, is also unnecessary. As Mitchell sells such supplements on his website (which also happens to be advertised in the book), bias cannot be ruled out.
It is also worth highlighting that since the book was published, Mitchell may have changed his stance on BCAA supplementation, judging by his support for the Supplement-Goals Reference Guidecreated by the guys at Examine.com. In this article on their website, they support my stance and state that BCAA supplementation is unlikely to have an effect on muscle gain or fat loss, providing that protein is sufficient.
To conclude, the 12WBP aims to radically transform a beginner’s physique in only 12 weeks, even to cover model standards. While I have my reservations as to whether you could take any average Joe from the street and turn them into a cover model in that little time, the recommendations outlined in the book would certainly allow a beginner to make decent improvements to their physique (assuming that they can adhere to the recommendations outlined within). Therein lies the problem, many aspects within the book are unnecessary, and would make long-term adherence a cause for concern, even amongst highly motivated individuals.
To be honest, I’m not a massive fan of quick transformations, as they send the wrong message to the general public. I’d much rather see someone make a few key, simple lifestyle modifications that they can maintain indefinitely rather than focus on some 'quick fix' or 'magic bullet'.
Regarding the transformation itself, it does seem to be massively exaggerated when you consider the amount of muscle that Warner was supposed to have gained. Clever lighting, tanning, shaving and ‘getting a pump on’, made the transformation appear more impressive than it actually was.
This book could have been much better if it stuck to the basics and nothing more, as that is what delivers in terms of maximal results for minimal time and effort invested. The beginner is who the book was marketed to after all.
Unfortunately, however, 'quick fixes' and 'cutting-edge' ideas sell better than middle of the road, simple advice; even if it is inferior. On the subject of money, did I mention that it's is full of adverts?