Friday, January 7, 2011

Tim Ferriss “From Geek to Freak” a.k.a. A Tutorial In Before-And-After Photography

A friend of mine is reading The 4-Hour Body, a recent New York Times Bestseller. The book is based on the Pareto principle which states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. The principle appears to be pretty popular in economics, where it is observed that 80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients, or that 20% of the world population holds 80% of the wealth.

According to Wikipedia, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto developed his principle (also known as the 80-20 rule) by observing that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas. That’s all well and good, but a distribution of pea plant output is a non sequitur to the amount of effort put in. I bet the plants with the highest output had access to more and better nutrients, sunlight, and may have been successfully pollinated when others were not. In other words, this example does not apply to the amount of effort needed to see results in the weight room.

The 80-20 principle is an observation, and has nothing to do with cause and effect. Just because 20% of the world holds 80% of the wealth doesn’t mean they worked at 20% effort to get there.

However, applying this principle to exercise, Tim Ferriss says that you can get huge fitness results by only doing the bare minimum of work. Four hours per month, he says, is all it took to go “From Geek to Freak” and gain 34 pounds of muscle. Well, not quite… In an interview on, Tim credited his weight gain to minimal workouts for 8 hours per month. So which is it?

Other points that raise a red flag? How about the “no-fruit” diet, an exercise plan that appeals to laziness, and advocacy for an array of unregulated supplements.

And the biggest red flag? These almost humorously deceptive before-and-after pictures. They were so transparent, I just had to post an analysis. It looks like Tim used every trick in the book to make these photos as convincing as possible.

Tim Ferriss before and after photos four hour body

My analysis? Tim really did gain 34 pounds in 28 days, but was severely dehydrated prior to the test. It should have been relatively easy to gain the weight back, and still leave enough time to go tanning, get a haircut, shave his chest, and re-position the lights for his follow-up photoshoot.

I hope that this analysis is inspiring in a different way. As you tackle your New Year’s Resolutions, just remember that there are no shortcuts, and it’s up to you to make real changes in order to achieve your goals.

On a positive note, Tim Ferriss appears to be an advocate for skepticism. In the first chapter of his book, Tim writes “Don

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G. John Mullen says:

I have read the book and think it is a great read. Eric is correct, the science is not fully backed, but Mr. Feriss continually preaches the concept of self testing. I agree most of Tim’s ideas are not currently backed by science or evidence based, however, a lot of things that work are not backed by science and won’t EVER be backed by hard science. For instance, if a certain product works for 50% of people and doesn’t work for 50%, then evidence would show it does not work since the majority of people did not receive benefit. However, if it works on half the population, then it works. Research and evidence indicate what helps for the majority of people.

Moreover, research takes a while and certain practices can work for years before a researcher will analyze the idea. This may be due for many reasons including: funding, interest, knowledge, recruiting subjects, passing review boards, etc. However, people using anecdotal evidence on themselves on a common basis can provide more information to themself than reading some research articles.

All in all, being your own guinea pig is important to understand how your unique body responds to various stimuli, the toughest item is determining the important variable in the equation.

admin says:

Thanks for your input John! I agree that scientific consensus isn’t always appropriate for everyone, because the aggregate sample population isn’t representative of the individual.

I think Ferriss’ role as the “dark horse” for exercise testing is exciting, and could lead to new ideas. Even more exciting, he can do things to himself that wouldn’t pass the IRB for human subjects.

I just wish he would do it in a way that isn’t so typical of everyday charlatans trying to make a buck selling exercise books. The shady before and after photos, what’s with that? The extraordinary claims that he gained 34 lbs in 28 days, that’s a bunch of hype.

I think that self-experimentation is fine, but making recommendations based on personal anecdotes is inappropriate. If the book were written as a journal or a case study, that would be one thing. But from what I can tell it’s written as a set of guidelines and instructions based on his anecdotes – which, from a public health point of view, is dangerous.

I completely agree that people should try things out for themselves and see what works, then tweak things here and there. The spirit of self-experimentation in his book is well received.

I also didn’t like how he cited a lot of press releases and other popular print books instead of the actual articles in his references ( But I have to admit his references pdf is incredibly meticulous.

Cinn Fields says:


Cora D says:

G John Mullen… I know your post is from a few months ago, but I can’t let your comment slide:

‘a lot of things that work are not backed by science and won’t EVER be backed by hard science. For instance, if a certain product works for 50% of people and doesn’t work for 50%, then evidence would show it does not work since the majority of people did not receive benefit’

This reflects a basic & common misconception about how research works. If a treatment is effective for 50% of the people who use it, it most likely is and would be proven effective.

A treatment study uses TWO groups. One that gets the treatment and one that doesn’t (the control group). A difference between the two groups (whether in symptom relief, side effetcs, whatever) is what shows the effectiveness of the treatment- regardless of the number or percentage who gain the benefit.

If only half get a benefit, then likely more study would be done to figure out WHY that half and not the other so that treatment guidelines can be established (ie treatment A is recommended to treat high blood pressure, but only for people who do not also have diabetes).