8 Inspirational Men Share Their Transformation Journeys - Men's Health Magazine Australia

8 Inspirational Men Share Their Transformation Journeys

...with advice you can harness to get ahead.

Build x, lose y, add z, quit whatever. No matter what your goal is, there’s a practical way to reach it. Eight guys share their transformation journeys with advice you can harness to get ahead. 

“I had to get creative to reinvent myself”

Zion Clark may soon be the first person to compete in the Olympics and the Paralympics in two different sports. But he refuses to be defined by that goal alone – he’s got a greater philosophy about success.

If you’ve never seen Zion Clark wrestling, there comes a moment in nearly every one of his matches when he looks just like every other competitor: in the down position, flexing his broad chest, massive arms and sculpted back as he fights to escape his opponent’s hold and gain the advantage. But once he does, it becomes clear how he’s different: Clark, 24, has no legs, due to a rare condition called caudal regression syndrome. The Ohio native is well aware that this makes him unique, but he’s adamant about not being treated differently because of it. 

“What I’m doing blows most people’s minds,” says Clark, who now lives and trains in San Diego in the US, on a Zoom call in October. “The first thing they’re thinking is: Holy crap, he doesn’t have legs. And then next, it’s: Holy crap, he’s actually beating this dude up.” But in Clark’s eyes, he’s supposed to do that. He’s developed the life philosophy of “Be greater than” – as in, be greater than whoever you are today, or your last accomplishment, or your self-doubt. It may sound clichéd, but that mentality has kept him grounded and motivated as he works toward the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, where he hopes to become the first American to make both the Olympic and the Paralympic teams in two separate sports – wrestling in the former, wheelchair racing in the latter.

In the meantime, there are plenty of ways to see Clark’s indomitable spirit in action. You can watch him in the 2018 Emmy-winning Netflix documentary Zion, which chronicles his life and his high school wrestling career at Massillon High School in Ohio. There, Clark, at three feet (91cm) tall and 40kg, wrestled opponents who towered over and outweighed him, yet as a senior, he was one point away from making it to the state championship. You can tune in to his YouTube channel, where he provides a carefully curated look at his world, in which he dives into a pool, expertly plays the drums, crushes battle-rope workouts and box jumps, and even skateboards, all while offering more inspirational maxims similar to what you might hear during his motivational-speaking gigs. And just a few months ago, Clark set the Guinness World Record for the fastest 20-metre dash on two hands, with an impressive 4.78 seconds.

In the video he shared, you can see that his first time was actually faster, but he had to run the event again because he accidentally ducked beneath the sensor at the finish line.

Clark’s other motto – “No excuses” – is tattooed across his back. And while he might lean on platitudes, his authenticity and depth surface when he talks about past experiences and future goals. He grew up in Ohio’s foster-care system after being put up for adoption as an infant. Ohio is a wrestling state, so Clark began competing in second grade, in part to channel his energy and aggression. He lost nearly all of his wrestling matches until 2015, when, during his senior year of high school, he grew strong enough to compensate for his lack of leverage and started to pin opponents.

That same year, Clark was adopted by Kimberly Hawkins, his foster mother, and her advice – “If they are going to look at you, make sure they remember your name” – helped motivate him even more. (It’s also featured in his new photo book, Zion Unmatched.) Clark ended the year with a 33–15 record and continued wrestling while pursuing a business degree at Kent State University at Tuscarawas. 

By the spring of 2020, he had bulked up to 55kg and was preparing to wrestle in the US Olympic team trials ahead of the Tokyo Games when he tweaked his shoulder, which he has to be very careful with because he walks using his arms.

That along with COVID-19 regulations prevented him from staying in wrestling shape, since he couldn’t train with others, so he decided to focus on wheelchair racing, something he’d excelled at in high school. “I had to get creative to reinvent myself,” he says. “I wasn’t competing, but I was advancing my skills behind closed doors.” 

He began a cross-training regimen that he maintains today. “All of his sports rely on explosive athletic movement, so [his training] involves replicating a lot of that,” says Craig Levinson, a former professional basketball player who’s Clark’s manager and trainer. For example, Levinson will drop a medicine ball over Clark’s chest and have him catch it, then jump into an upright position. “We’ll do dumbbell presses on the floor, which don’t require as much core instability. It’s upper-body plyometrics, almost: a lot of box jumps that involve exploding with his hands.”

In June, Clark competed in the US Paralympic track-and-field team trials for the Tokyo Games, but he might have pushed himself too hard, aggravating his shoulder and back just before the event. Despite having the fourth-best time in the country, he was one spot short of making the team.

In response, he opted to change his approach to establishing and reestablishing goals: He’s stopped viewing success and failure as black and white. Instead, he looks for lessons from each experience. “Next race, let’s try to get faster with the hand speed and more accurate strikes on the wheel,” he says. “A lot of people will just think, Ah, I failed and feel sorry for themselves. I think, Ah, I failed – but I’m going to do this better next time.”

Today, Clark says he feels healthier than ever. “In wrestling, I’m faster and quicker in general, my hand speed is faster and the execution of my takedowns and submissions is faster,” he says. “At the end of the day, my technique is nothing if I’m not fast.”

He continues to rely on certain affirmations to keep himself going. “ ‘I’m going to get up today. I’m going to be strong. I’m going after what I believe in – even if I fail’,” he says. “Once you get the ‘I am’ mindset, nothing can break that.” But he bristles at the idea that his story fits the kind of archetypal motivational-porn narrative of adversity overcome that’s attached to so many Black athletes. He wants to make clear that he’s far more than the sum of his traumas or whatever exceptionalism surrounds his achievements. “When some people see my story, it’s almost like, ‘Oh, I feel bad for you and I’m sorry those things happened to you’. And I understand that, but at the same time, I’m not that kid. I really want to be known for what I’m doing and who I am.” 

So he is looking forward, not backwards. In recent months, that’s meant training for javelin throwing and sparring with some MMA athletes. And he remains clearheaded about the fine line between Zion Clark the person and Zion Clark the athlete. “I might be a wrestler, a track athlete and all these great things, but at the same time, I’d like to say that I’m a decent drummer – or just an all-around decent musician,” says Clark, who also plays the piano and trumpet. And he believes he can be greater still. “The people in my circle expect me to win,” he says. “Because they’re right there working with me.”

“I lost 405 pounds (184kg) with portion control and discipline” – Jordon Hurd, 48 

At my heaviest, I was 660 pounds (299kg). I loved going to the shooting range with my friends, but in January 2019, I remember thinking that I never wanted to do that again because of how much pain I was in. 

My first step, and probably the most helpful, was buying a food scale. I had no idea what a portion looked like. By measuring foods, counting macros, emphasising protein and limiting carbs, and reducing daily calories to 2000 (8300kJ) and eventually 1200 (5020kJ), I lost a total of 160 pounds (72kg) in 12 months prior to having gastric-sleeve surgery.

Before: 299kg, Current: 115kg, Lost: 184KG

It seems a lot of people go into surgery with the mindset that it will solve their problems. It will not. All their eating issues will still be there. I think that changing my diet ahead of it made things much easier for me. I also started working out a few minutes every couple of days before surgery; now I work out for 30 minutes six days a week.

Discipline is very important. On days I don’t want to work out or track macros, I tell myself, “Don’t let your weaker self win. Get up. Do the work.”   – As told to Marty Munson

“A therapy app changed my life” – Kaif Nasir, 20

In 2017, it felt like my whole life had fallen apart. My partner dumped me at the same time that my family was having some financial problems. My focus was wrecked. My so-called friends started cyberbullying me – they thought I was being “weird” in front of them when in reality I was just trying to hide the mental-health problems I was dealing with. 

At night I wanted to cry, but I’d been taught to never do that. “Man up” was what I’d hear. From holding back my tears, I’d have panic attacks at 2 or 3 in the morning. I didn’t tell anyone about it, thinking they’d judge me. But when the panic attacks kept coming, I knew I had to make a change. I searched online for resources where I could talk to someone and found the website 7 Cups (7cups.com). You talk to a “listener” who helps support you by hearing what your problem is. 

To be honest, I was scared at first and feared being judged about my problem not being a big deal. But that vanished within 10 minutes of talking to a listener. They made me feel that my issue was genuine, and I was pouring out my emotions and I no longer felt burdened. I felt at ease. I decided to volunteer and become a listener, too. If you’re going through something, acknowledge it and don’t hesitate to get professional help if needed. Be real to yourself and talk about it. – As told to Gina Loveless

“I’ll definitely be the fittest guy in country music” – Kane Brown

Kane Brown already has a stockpile of number-one hits. His next goal: become  the strongest man in the industry.

The transformation began like a song. It was the Fourth of July – a warm, sticky day in Nashville. Country-music star Kane Brown was on his back porch with his wife, Katelyn Jae, and some close friends. The conversation shifted to Granger Smith, Brown’s latest opening act, a guy who takes off his shirt after the last song and throws it into the crowd.

“He was just so shredded,” Brown remembers saying. That’s when singer-songwriter RaeLynn, a friend of his, says Brown lifted up his shirt, too. And they giggled. Not a hot-damn! giggle. A that’s-silly-because-you-don’t-have-Granger’s-body giggle. “So I told them, from then on, ‘Just wait. I’m going to get ripped’, ” says Brown. “And every day since then, I’ve started by working out.”

Before the platinum records and the CMT Awards, Brown was fit. At Chattanooga High School, he was the quarterback of the football team, the captain of the basketball team, a pitcher on the baseball team and a member of the track team. After graduation, Brown says, he considered trying to become a professional athlete or enlisting in the Army, but he stuck with music. His career took off after he bailed on The X Factor USA. (The show wanted the baritone to join a boy band; he had other plans.) And the lifestyle of a touring musician soon took hold.

“You’re having drinks before you go onstage and you’re eating whatever you can get your hands on, sitting on the couch all day, watching football, whatever – it starts to hit you. I’m not 21 anymore,” says the singer, now 28. “A lot of people think that it is gonna hit you in your 30s; it’s like, Nah, it hits you in your 20s – if you quit.”

And so, on July 4, 2020, after a good-natured jab from a close friend, Brown decided not to quit anymore. He and his security guard began exercising together from 9:30 to 11am every day. “I’ll usually take Sunday off, kind of like Chick-fil-A,” Brown says. “Whenever I’m in town, [it’s] Monday: weightlifting, like chest and biceps. And then Tuesday would be boxing, which works your legs, cardio and abs. And then Wednesday, back and triceps. Thursday, back to boxing. And then Friday, we would do shoulders. And then probably biceps again.”

Yes, Brown looks fitter, but he says he’s feeling the deeper benefits, too. It’s easier to pick up and hold his two-year-old daughter, Kingsley Rose Brown. He has more energy
– a lot more. “Ask anyone who has seen my show recently: I’m literally sprinting across the stage.”

Brown says his progress hasn’t been linear, though. “I remember I [worked out] for a couple weeks and then I stopped,” he says. “Now that I’ve been boxing and
doing cardio, I feel like my younger self again. I could actually run two miles (3.2km) without collapsing.”

The trick to keeping up with it, he says, is pushing past the letdown when the results don’t appear immediately. “I think it takes four to six weeks for you to see progress.” 

He’s easy-does-it with his diet and the rest of his lifestyle, too, choosing to take small steps and work them into his life.

“I also knocked out Gatorade because of the sugar. I knocked out fast food as much as possible,” he says. “I get the chicken and rice.” He still won’t eat broccoli, though, and is working on sticking to his sleep schedule. “I’m a huge video gamer,” he says of his vice. “When my wife goes to sleep, that’s when I play.”

So is Brown the most shredded guy in country music now? “Not yet,” he admits. His transformation is ongoing, but the gains are evident. “I’ve actually gained weight, in a good way. I started out at 170 (77kg) and I’m at 198 (90kg). I’m trying to get to at least 210 (95kg) or 215 (97kg). If I get there, I’ll be the fittest guy in country music.” 

Country Strong

On tour, Brown has embraced bodyweight training, relying on simple exercises done for high reps. Try his hotel routine when you’re tight on time and gear.

1/ Push-up: Brown does 5 sets of 30. Can’t get to 30 all at once? Do as many good-form reps as you can, rest 10 seconds, then do more reps; repeat this until you’ve done 30 reps.

2/ Plank Shoulder-Tap: Start in push-up position, hands directly below your shoulders, feet shoulder-width apart, core and glutes tight. Without letting your hips move, lift your right hand and touch it to your left shoulder. Hold for a split second, then return it to the floor; repeat on the other side. Do reps for 30 seconds; do 5 sets.

3/ Air Squat: Start standing, feet shoulder width apart, abs and glutes tight. Push your butt back and bend at the knees, lowering your torso until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Stand back up, squeezing your glutes. That’s 1 rep; do 5 sets of 15.

4/ Boxing: Whenever Brown can find a boxing gym, he makes a point to log some bag time. “It’s such a mental and physical workout,” he says. Sneak heavy-bag time or shadowboxing into your routine once or twice a week for a cardio workout that challenges your abs to boot. 

“You want to treat your body like you love it” – Jacob Batalon

Spider-Man and Reginald the Vampire actor Jacob Batalon lost more than 50kg –  and that part is under his control. Everything else? Well, he’s working on it.

The beautiful people are everywhere. They are on the movie posters, the red carpets, the covers of magazines. Marvel actor Jacob Batalon – who was cast at 19 to play Spider-Man’s best friend, Ned Leeds, and later became one of Spider-Man portrayer Tom Holland’s actual best friends  – says he’s not one of them. Not during photo shoots with his Adonis-like castmates. Not when he watches himself on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Not when he and Tom are filming a car commercial and FaceTiming Robert Downey Jr., who is on a yacht, and RDJ says, “Bro, Jacob, what the fuck’s up, man? Everyone knows your fucking name now.” Not even then. 

And especially not now, a day before his photo shoot for this magazine – even though the 25-year-old is 23kg lighter than he was the day he joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“I’m honestly pretty nervous,” Batalon says. “I feel like every time I watch a Men’s Health video, everyone in the video is already pretty jacked. I wish this was right at the peak of when I was working out super-duper hard, because I looked way better.” He says he’s anxious about the MH photo shoot because he’s always hated photo shoots. He was in LA in early 2020, shooting a cover for Teen Vogue. Beforehand, he looked in the mirror and thought, This is not good. When his picture from the shoot came out, he says he felt embarrassed by his weight.

Batalon adds that he was damaging his health for years. “As a kid, you don’t really know how to process,” he says, explaining how food became a remedy for private family stressors. “I never really fixed that trauma. Until now, food was that [fix] for me.” That is, until Batalon started to exercise. Now his workouts have turned into his therapy.

The actor’s weight-loss journey contains all the familiar aspects. He stopped eating junk. He started eating fewer, smaller meals and focused on lean protein and vegetables. He exercised six days a week, sometimes doing nontraditional workouts in his backyard, with a medicine ball and a bench, that “looked like I was humping the ground”. He dropped 2.5kg, and then he thought, Why not another 2.5? So he did that until it was another five, and then 10, and you get it.

But what’s different about Batalon’s story is how the Internet responded. “Being a fat person, you’re only ever the butt of the joke,” he says. “You can never win everyone’s love.” He says he’s tried hard to represent every community to which he belongs, but “I don’t want to get back to where I was. And I literally cannot consciously tell people to not be healthy.” 

In an ironic twist, Batalon recently scored his first lead role, in a TV adaptation of the Fat Vampire novel series. So he had to gain some weight back. And fans who once thought he was too heavy to play a Marvel sidekick now wrote, Hey, you’re too skinny to play a fat vampire.

Batalon says he’s returned to his diet after wrapping Reginald the Vampire, but keeping the weight off will be his ongoing struggle – physically and mentally.

“You want to love yourself, love your body,” he says. “But you also want to treat your body like you love it. And feeding it shit – that’s not loving your body. That’s not loving yourself.”

At the end of the day, Batalon says, as much as
you want to love yourself, it’s hard to face cameras for photo shoots and actually feel worthy. And so he is nervous for his photo shoot – and not just because it’s for a brand whose videos he watched while trying to lose weight. He says he knows the journey isn’t over yet. He’s still reevaluating his relationship with food. But he has a response for whoever wants to guess just why he did what he did: ultimately, he did it for himself – no one else. “Yeah, I lost a fucking shit tonne of weight,” he says with a Tony Stark–confident grin, “because I’m a fucking G.”

Jacob  Batalon’s Meal Plan

Breakfast:Two pieces of multigrain toast, three hard-boiled eggs.

Snack: Fruit, rice  crackers with peanut butter.

Lunch: Lean protein like chicken or fish with a cup of white rice and a cup of vegetables.

Snack: Protein bar, fruit. 

Dinner: Lean protein like chicken or fish with rice and vegetables.

“Running got my weight and cholesterol under control” – Sharif Aboelnaga, 48 

After an annual physical exam in January 2016, I received my usual bad results: I was overweight by more than 30 pounds (14kg), and my cholesterol was high. I had a six-month-old daughter and realised I needed to do something about my health if I wanted to see her grow up.

I’d been doing the occasional 5K and half marathon and I had been telling myself for 10 years that I needed to run more consistently. That year, I made a resolution and started running five or six days a week, about four miles (6.5k) a day. I slowly built up to five miles, then six. Once I got going, the weight started coming off and I started feeling and sleeping better. 

Before: 85kg, current: 69kg, Lost: 16kg

The key to staying with it is finding a time to work out that works. I began running early in the morning. That means getting up around 3:30am, but it works. I can count on one hand the number of runs I have missed in the past few years. I now do marathons and ran my first ultra in November 2020. Not only does it help me stick to a schedule, but it gives me time alone to think about how to be a better husband and father. I’ve lost almost 35 pounds (16kg) and my cholesterol is back to a healthy range. The key to being consistent isn’t doing a massive number of miles at first; it’s about getting out there frequently.

– As told to Emily Shiffer 

“Boxing challenged me to do something I never thought I could do”

Chef Michael “Chug” Beltran shed an entire person’s worth of weight to become a stronger version of himself.

Ten hours before chef Michael Beltran, 36, begins an all-night shift at his acclaimed Miami seafood restaurant Navé, he backs his ’61 Cadillac out of the garage and then slips on a pair of boxing gloves to start his day off right. Soon he’s striking his gloved fists into mitts held by trainer Jacob Hasbrouck as they spin on a concrete floor that’s stained with motor oil. Hasbrouck calls out punches – jab, cross, uppercut, jab, jab, jab – and when he eventually gives Beltran a one-minute break, the chef says, “Thank fucking God”. 

The pace keeps up for an hour. And it’s just the first of three workouts Beltran will face on this day. In the afternoon, a second trainer will guide him through an hour-long core workout before he finally begins the kitchen work, an endurance event that he sees as both exhausting and energising. 

Today, Beltran stands 178cm and weighs in at 88kg. But at his heaviest, just five years ago, he hit 165kg. Now that he’s cut out junk food and started working out five or six days a week, his tattooed arms ripple with muscle and his shoulders stretch his hoodie.

By losing more than 77kg, he gained a new appreciation for  how working out and stress relief are a powerful one-two combination. “What it really boils down to is: if you yourself are better as a human, you can lead people better,” he says. “I’m a much more confident leader and have a far better understanding of the shit I can do right and wrong.”

Growing up in Little Havana, Beltran was always the chubby kid, never saying no to his mum’s rich cooking. On the fifth day of high school, he showed up late to class holding a chocolate Chug and his teacher said, “Hey, chug-a-lug, you want to tell everyone why you’re late?” The nickname stuck: Chug went on to play defensive tackle in high school and at Averett University in Virginia, where he hit 127kg. 

The chef in 2017, near his peak weight of 165kg.

In college, Beltran got his first job, at Applebee’s. Once he began cooking in increasingly esteemed kitchens, he adopted the hard-partying lifestyle that often accompanies restaurant work. He smoked a pack-and-a-half a day, and he’d drown post-shift adrenaline with Jameson and Guinness, topped off with burgers or a big breakfast at dawn.  

By January 2016, he had achieved the dream of every chef: opening his own restaurant, the Cuban American fine-dining spot Ariete in Coconut Grove, Florida. But after six months, he looked out from the kitchen to see the place largely empty. He was stressed, burned out and temperamental. 

One day, on his drive to work, Beltran was about to open a brand-new pack of smokes when he realised he resented just how much he craved them. He tossed the pack out the window and quit cold turkey. A few weeks later, he cut back on booze to regain more control of his life. Two months after that, he headed to a boxing gym for the first time. 

He met Hasbrouck during that first Monday-morning boxing class at a Miami gym called Punch. “That first time working out, he’s not going to have much in the gas tank,” the trainer remembers thinking. “So I had to work him out just enough to where he’ll burn calories but also come back.” 

The new Beltran relies on double espressos to perk up and eats in a way anyone can copy: in the morning, he slathers a protein waffle with peanut butter. After his workout, he downs a protein shake, followed by a lunch of a simple protein like chicken breast.

If he’s doing a two-a-day workout, he’ll have protein cookies for quick energy and after dinner service ends, he’ll reward himself with a salad and another simple protein. If he’s sampling new menu items, he exercises extra hard the day before.

As he started getting healthy, “my confidence in myself and my food changed,” he says. By 2018, Beltran was earning rave reviews from local critics and two years  later the James Beard Foundation chose him as a semifinalist for its regional best-chef award. He’s since expanded his empire, opening Navé and a Cuban American diner he named Chug’s. During the lockdown, he decided to prioritise his
health even more by jumping into the ring. Learning how to avoid a jab and, when that fails, take the punch has taught him as much as anything about surviving different obstacles in life. “Boxing challenged me to do something I never thought I could do. For my mental health, it’s incredibly important.”

When Beltran finally arrives at Navé for his shift, he moves briskly around the restaurant. “Hey, this looks like fucking good food,” he shouts back to the kitchen as plates head toward the crowded dining room. “Just like that the rest of the night.” 

“Reaching out helped me stop drinking” – Jay Oza, 34

In college, I drank at parties. When I graduated into adult life, I didn’t stop drinking, and it crept in during the week. I was groggy and less efficient at work. My father had travelled a similar path, dying of complications of cirrhosis. I was also overweight, so I started intermittent fasting and saw results. I wondered how much better I could do by cutting calories from alcohol.   

After a couple months of trying to stop drinking, I realised that I would need some sort of help. I got a referral to a men’s recovery group and joined the StopDrinking subreddit. I also got support from my wife, who was also quitting. It helps to know you’re not the only one trying to quit. 

Before 84kg, Current 75kg, Lost 9kg

To manage cravings, I’d drink seltzer and I discovered that chewing gum, sunflower seeds and decaf coffee go a long way. Sometimes I’d consciously remind myself of all the progress I’d made. I’ve been sober for three years and
I feel like I have constant mental clarity. Staying sober has also allowed me to eat a proper diet and once I stopped drinking, I pledged to work out every day. Breaking any bad habit is hard; it helped that I didn’t have to do it alone.

– As told to Jesse Hicks   

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