The Tim Ferriss Experiment: Demystified

Tim Ferriss represents bodyhacking at its finest. He is his own best testimonial, and with such a wide and varied background, Ferriss explains in his book (and blog) how he gained 34lbs in 4 weeks. Experts say it is unlikely and impossible, citing that 2-3lbs per week of mass gain is more probable. In this article, we’ll examine the data on just how he performed such an impossible feat.

146 Pounds to 177 Pounds in 30 Days

“The goal is not to be the best in the world, necessarily. The goal is to use numbers to be the best you, the best version of yourself in these various domains; these various areas of physical performance or appearance.” -Tim Ferriss, speaking at Google Talks

From Geek to Freak

Ferriss has clearly done his homework and has covered every aspect of this self-experiment. Validation and reliability are key to providing proof for scientific experiments, and his own self-experiment could have been reduced to internet gossip had he not provided such evidence. Thus, Tim Ferriss had all of his measurements taken and approved by the Human Performance Laboratory at the San Jose University. Let’s look at the data and find out what he did to gain the muscle mass, while reducing his bodyfat levels and reducing cholesterol levels simultaneously.

  • Age: 27 (in 2005)
  • Weight before: 146 lbs
  • Weight after: 177 lbs (183 lbs three days later)
  • Bodyfat percentage before: 16.72%
  • Bodyfat percentage after: 12.23%
  • Total muscle gained: 34 lbs
  • Total fat loss: 3 lbs
  • Time elapsed: 4 weeks

Exercise Program

Tim Ferriss advocated a compound and multi-joint exercise routine in order to elicit the most growth from requisite muscles. His set and rep selection was selected to maximize hypertrophy, and strength accordingly. Many others have even reported success with his exercise selection (although with varying results, ie not a full 34lbs). [Keeping in mind, the use of machines when exercising as opposed to free weights keeps this routine much more “beginner friendly”, and others are able to see likewise results because of this.]

 Diet and Supplementation

The highly acclaimed author advocated the use of a slow-carb diet along with a laundry list of supplements, going from NO2 to BodyQUICK. Let’s examine each and how it may have helped expedite his goals.

Ferriss achieved his “4 hour body” with 4 simple rules:

  1.  Avoid “white” carbohydrates.
  2. Eat the same few meals over and over again.
  3. Don’t drink “calories”.
  4. Take one day off per week.

Following these guidelines has given him the ability to get swole and burn fat, even achieving “veins across his abdomen,” the least likely place to achieve such an affect according to Ferris.

Supplement When Dosage Effects
Nitric Oxide (NO2) Morning 2 scoops Aimed at increasing vasodilation in blood vessels and arteries to enhance nutrient blood flow.
Slo-Niacin Morning; Pre-Sleep 500mg Supplement aimed at reducing the amount of cholesterol and certain fatty substances in blood.
ChromeMate Each meal 200mg Often touted to reducing cholesterol levels in those with hypercholesterolemia. Inconclusive evidence for reduction in bodyfat and increases in athletic endeavors. 3
BodyQUICK Pre-WO; 30 min. prior 2 capsules A product from Tim Ferriss’ previously owned company BrainQUICKEN. No conclusive evidence was found that this product was effective. Many anecdotal evidence has people reporting that this product increases reaction time and focus capability.
Micellean Post-WO 30g A protein supplement (meal replacement).
Alpha-Lipoic Acid Pre-Sleep 200mg An antioxidant, evidence has pointed to the beneficial effects in several areas, particularly diabetes, preserving brain function, and its ability to attack free radicals.
Policosanol Pre-Sleep 200mg A mixture of phytochemicals from sugar cane wax isolated to lower lipid levels.4

The Reality of the Situation

If Tim Ferriss‘ experiment is mostly a combination of hacking via supplementation, diet, and exercise choice, how can we replicate this experiment? Looking into this question led me to dig a little deeper into Ferriss’ past, which reveals disquieting information regarding his previous bodyweight. Let’s take a snippet from some of his previous writings…

“In 1999, I was a gold medalist at the Sanshou (Chinese kickboxing) national championships in the 165 lb. weight class… I arrived on-site at 187 lbs., weighed in at 165 lbs., and stepped on the platform to compete the next morning weighing 193 lbs.”

Age: 21 (or 22; in 1999)
Competition Weight: 165lbs
Standing Weight (the next day): 193lbs
Method achieved: Various weight manipulation techniques involving metabolic fluctuations through food and water intake.

Barring the obvious health ramifications with weight fluctuations of such a range, we are looking at his highest weight, at 193lbs in 1999, six years prior to this experiment. Now this might seem irrelevant, but it is much easier to jump up in weight when you have a lean physique (146lbs initially, 177lbs at his final weight) with previous experience at a higher weight versus gaining the weight as a hardgainer with zero strength capacity (beginner level in regards to weight lifting).1

Further, lean body mass ≠ skeletal muscle mass. In this case, lean body mass refers to anything and everything in your body that isn’t fat (organs, blood, fluids, muscle, skin, etc.) Rather, what Ferriss exhibited in his self-experiment is more of a “lean mass” increase, as opposed to a “pure muscle” increase. One’s lean mass can fluctuate with changes in fluid and hydration levels, blood concentrations,7 etc., as opposed to an increase in skeletal muscle mass, in which there are obvious time and physiological limits involved in gaining and losing.
On top of taking these supplements, with several aimed at reducing cholesterol (one of his results), his physique and body composition changes may be attributed to the combined effect of these supplements working simultaneously. Further research with control and experiment groups is needed to clarify the supplements from this self-experiment.

Armed with this information, how best can we achieve these amazing gains? What is the minimal effective dose needed to maximize our gains?

We can look no further than Jason Ferruggia, one of the leading experts in muscle gaining in the U.S., which he states that “training with free weight and bodyweight exercises…aimed at building strength” is a key component for stimulating muscle growth. Ferruggia understands the intricacy of adding mass to a frame, seeing that every individual will have their own discrepancies, essentially looking at potential areas of injury, training years (beginner, intermediate, and advanced strength levels), along with diet, recovery, and stress. On his Facebook page, the strength coach advises, “If you’re a newbie and do everything right you can gain 8-10lbs [in a month].”

Tim Collins

Eric Cressey, the president and co-founder of Cressey Performance has a fair amount of experience dealing with skinny athletes as well. Tim Collins’ of the Kansas City Royals, was once skinny and is now huge, thanks to Eric Cressey and his staff. “The 131-pounder with the 25-inch vertical jump is now 172 rock-hard pounds with a 38.7-inch vertical.”6 Performance gains in addition to mass increase is another marker of what a healthy diet, proper exercise selection, and recovery can do for an athlete. What was his time frame for the 131lb to 172lb transformation? He was 17 in 2007, and turned 21 in 2010. Talk about the best time for hormone optimization.

From these sources, we can extract some useful information on gaining mass, particularly:

  1. Train for strength before training for size in order to see continued gains past the beginner level.
  2. Prioritize diet and recovery along with reducing training and general stress levels to optimize muscle gains.
  3. Use compound exercises that involve a variety of free weight and body weight exercises, while avoiding failure to elicit gains.

So after examining the empirical and anecdotal evidence, Tim Ferriss’ self-experimentation has evidently shown us what we can do to increase our physical gains, and from this we can derive several follow-up inquiries: What do you do exercise and diet wise after you gain a large amount of muscle mass? Further, what is the best way to achieve 34lbs of lean body mass, regardless of a timeframe, (assuming a beginner weight training level)? And contrarily, is it feasible to expect such large increases in muscle mass in short amounts of time for an intermediate or advanced weight lifter? With these things in mind, we can begin to see the tip of the iceberg in regards to successfully body hacking using the minimum effective dosage needed!

Geek to Freak Tim Ferris


If you enjoyed this post, subscribe for updates (it's free)