How I Got Ripped At 500 Startups

Editor’s note: Dick Talens is one of the founders of Fitocracy and an amateur competitive bodybuilder. Follow him on Twitter @DickTalens.

Little sleep, lots of stress, free food at all hours, and Paul Singh constantly try to booze you under the table. Sounds like the old college days when you tried to rush for Sigma Chi, doesn’t it?

But nope. That describes life at 500 Startups.

For a former fat kid like me, it’s an environment where I can accidentally gain 15 lbs in the blink of an eye.  Put a pizza or a tray of doughnuts in front of me and I will devour the goodies without a second thought.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), being the co-founder of a fitness startup does not afford me this pleasure.

I’m sure you’ve heard it before – the myth that losing weight is impossible for the busy entrepreneur.  As a veteran dieter, amateur bodybuilder, and nutritional coach, I knew that this was wrong, and decided to prove it. My time in 500 Startups’ 4-month program turned out to be the perfect case study to show that you can still play beer pong with Dave McClure and discover your abs.


I skipped cardio

Herein lies the greatest irony: in the office, we endlessly obsess over ROI; in the gym, however, we pound away on the treadmill for hours and hours (probably while thinking about none other than ROI). What most entrepreneurs don’t realize is that cardio is the very last thing that’s going to yield an appreciable return.  Think about how many lines of code you could have written instead of all that time on the hamster wheel!

Weight loss comes from nothing more than a caloric deficit.  You can either create a caloric deficit through diet, or additional exercise.  I chose the former.  In other words, would you rather gruel through 30 minutes on the treadmill (which may actually leave you hungrier afterwards) or skip the equivalent of four Oreos per day?

I focused on strength training

Instead, my time at the gym consisted of 45 minutes/session, 3 times a week, performing only 5 exercises.  These exercises hit every single muscle group in the body.  By tracking my workouts and making sure that I increased the weight or reps that I performed each week, I ensured that I was constantly building muscle. This was great, as lean tissue burns more calories pound for pound than fat does, even while sitting all day. Below is an outline of what my routine looked like:

Monday (40 minutes) –
3 sets of barbell squats
2 sets of stiff legged deadlifts

Wednesday (45 minutes) –
3 sets of dumbbell bench press
2 sets of incline dumbbell bench press

Friday (45 minutes) –
3 sets of deadlifts
2 sets of chin-ups
2 sets of barbell rows

(Each session also included 15 minutes of light warm up sets)

Creating a caloric deficit through cardio, instead of diet and additional muscle, is like flipping burgers to pay for a developer, when you already know how to code.  You’ll also notice that I did no abdominal work, which is another low ROI exercise.  Abs already get stronger from deadlifts and squats, and it’s fat loss which gets them “defined”.


I counted calories

At the end of the day, weight loss is determined by burning more calories throughout a day than you consume.  This is the most important determinant of weight loss.  I consumed 11 times my bodyweight in calories (a good starting point for an otherwise sedentary individual), which came out to 2000 calories/day. I tracked my calories on an online calorie tracker like  I did have some other tricks up my sleeve, however.

I only ate lunch and dinner

Breakfast? No thanks. “But you’ll be mentally lethargic!” is what you’re probably thinking right now.  That’s a myth.  The truth is, I’ve never been a breakfast person.  In fact, on days that I would eat breakfast, I often felt hungrier by the time lunch rolled around. I soon discovered the Leangains method, which entails skipping breakfast (a huge time saver) and consuming all of my day’s calories from lunch and dinner.  Many Leangains practitioners also report an increase in concentration and energy once they get used to breakfast skipping.

I ate lots of protein and skipped the other free snacks

While I avoided breakfast, I did not avoid protein.  In fact, I ate a lot of it, to the tune one gram per pound of bodyweight (180g for me). Eating protein kept me fuller for a longer period of time.  When free food rolled around the 500 Startups office, I only consumed the protein portions of those foods.  This kept my overall calorie intake lower while still being able to dine on Dave McClure’s tab.  From geeking out on recent nutrition studies, I knew that more protein in place of carbohydrates was beneficial in decreasing fat and increasing muscle.

I developed food staples

Since I aimed for 2,000 calories/day, I simply sourced meals that contained 1,000 calories each and ate them repeatedly for lunch and dinner.  One of those was a large plate of beef and vegetables from a Mongolian barbeque restaurant.  Another go-to was a foot-long Subway sandwich with double meat and baked chips.  These were extremely large, filling meals that left even a bottomless pit like me extremely satiated.

I restricted alcohol choices, not quantity

I limited my beverage of choice to liquor and diet soda with the occasional light beer, but I drank as much as I wanted. You see, alcohol’s fattening reputation is misleading. Alcohol in itself does not contain many calories (less than 60 calories per drink). When people talk about getting fat from college late-night partying, they conveniently forget about the Big Mac and fries they ate afterwards (as well as the not-so-attractive girl they brought home). It’s the sugary drink mixes and after party binge food that contain lots of calories, not alcohol.  I used this handy guide to determine my alcohol choices, and paid no attention to quantity.

Taking all of this into account, here is what my typical Friday looked like:

9-10am – Gym
10-12pm – Work/Meetings
Lunch – Footlong from Subway, chips, free food from 500 Startups.
12:30-8pm – Work/Meetings
Dinner – Large plate of barbeque beef with unlimited veggies
8:30-10pm – Work/Meetings
10pm – Party with the 500 crew.  Anywhere from 5-15 drinks.

I used the schedule above to achieve the results below. If it seems a little too simple, that’s because weight loss is just that – simple. There is no magic pill, no special trick.  The only secret is making sure that everything you do has high fitness ROI.

What I’m about to tell you is very powerful: Not only is weight loss possible with a hectic schedule, but it’s actually easier. Think about it. The more free time a dieter has on his/her hands, the more time he/she has to actually obsess over food. It’s why people eat when they’re bored. Thinking about dieting all the time ironically makes the process an uncomfortable, miserable one. Develop a plan with high ROI, stick to it, and then don’t think about it.  Take advantage of the fact that you’re too busy focusing on your work to focus on the tire that’s on your waist.