Tim Ferriss Wants to Hack Your Body | Magazine
Photo: Lucas Foglia
Tim Ferriss is a self-made lab rat. The author and entrepreneur has been subjecting himself to audacious experiments in physical training and nutrition since high school. In perhaps the most extreme undertaking, he packed on 34 pounds of muscle while dropping 3 pounds of fat in 28 days. He recounts his adventures in a new book, The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman, a title he reverse-engineered from data he collected from the clickstream and Twitterverse.
The book is a sequel of sorts to his first book, The 4-Hour Workweek. Aimed at young men curious about wealth, leisure, and foreign travel, Workweek was rejected by some 26 publishers before Crown took a chance on it. Its viral mix of anything-is-possible enthusiasm and practical productivity tips turned out to be the formula for a publishing phenomenon—it’s still riding best-seller lists more than three years after it hit bookstores.
Now, in The 4-Hour Body, Ferriss, 33, turns to an entirely different set of keywords: weight loss, muscle gain, sperm count, and female orgasm. Wired asked contributing editor Gary Wolf—cofounder of the Quantified Self, a blog about self-tracking and self-experimentation—to interrogate Ferriss about his history as an n-of-1 guinea pig, his experience with performance-enhancing drugs, and his faith in heretical recipes for radical self-improvement.
Wired: When did you start experimenting on yourself?
Tim Ferriss: When I was a competitive wrestler in high school, I was prone to overheating. So I had to find ways to dissipate heat. Manipulating hydration was really my starting point.
Wired: Did you diet a lot?
Ferriss: In my senior year, I cut from between 175 and 178 to 152 twice a week. I did it by pure dehydration. You have to be careful with that, because you can have organs fail if you go about it the wrong way. I don’t recommend it.
Wired: How did you learn about these dark arts? I mean, you’re a teenage wrestler. Did your coach clue you in?
Ferriss: No, my only help came from other wrestlers who themselves had tested the methods of previous wrestlers. When you have good data, such as pound-per-hour loss rates, you can learn quickly through trial and error. I also read a lot about electrolyte balance. I wanted to find out what was just below the threshold of life-threatening.
Wired: How far did you take it?
Ferriss: By the time I was 21, I had refined the approach, and I was using diuretics as well. I cut about 20 pounds to compete in the kickboxing nationals; then, after weighing in, I hyper-hydrated. I weighed in at 165, and the next day I stepped onto the platform at 193. It was pretty funny. My first opponent stepped onto the mat and started looking around because he thought he was on the wrong platform. He was like, this can’t be right! I won a gold medal.
Wired: Diuretics aren’t banned?
Ferriss: Yes, in many cases they are. Not only because of their weight-loss effects but also because they can mask other drugs. In any event, at the higher levels of athletics this sort of thing is the rule rather than the exception. In any sport where power, speed, or endurance is a determining factor, everyone is using drugs.
Wired: You got your start with this stuff in the ’90s, just as the shadow world of performance-enhancing drugs seemed to be hitting the mainstream. It looks like you were able to stand on the border of those two worlds.
Ferriss: There are a lot of things that can be learned from the darker corners of athletics. You have doctors who view bodybuilders as cavalier amateurs of science. And then you have the bodybuilders who view the doctors as too conservative to do anything interesting. So I’ve tried to become the middleman for putting some of those pieces together.
Wired: Aside from the diuretics, what were you into in those days?
Ferriss: The cocktail that I began experimenting with was ephedrine plus caffeine plus aspirin. Basically, you’re hitting the accelerator.
Wired: These are all over-the-counter drugs.
Ferriss: Ephedrine was for a long time. But people were using it to manufacture methamphetamine, so they started blending it with other drugs to make that harder to do. But I don’t recommend it anyway. There’s an entire generation of male strength and endurance athletes, even recreational lifters, who have never gotten off the ephedrine-caffeine-aspirin stack. The process of getting off stimulants is really horrible. I’m more cautious now. Hey, um [pulling a bottle of pills and a plastic pouch of fine powder from a paper bag], I brought you some goodies. I don’t know what the law is governing these, so let’s say I’m giving them to you for visual reference only.
Wired: OK, right.
Ferriss: God knows I don’t want to be accused of “intent to distribute.”
In the Lab With
The 4-Hour Body is a lab report on more than a decade of diet, exercise, and sexual trials that Tim Ferriss carried out on himself. Here are some highlights.
To test the effect of cholesterol consumption on his lipid profile, Ferriss adopted a diet that provided almost 100 percent of his calories from beef and mixed nuts for three weeks.
Eating 2 to 4 pounds of grass-fed meat per day.
The meat-and-nut “reverse cleanse” reduced his cholesterol levels. It also helped triple his testosterone level.
To prove that the food he ate could be turned into muscle instead of fat, he spent 28 days trying to put on as much muscle mass as possible (without using steroids).
Methodically measuring his feces volume to test how well his nutritional supplements were working.
Ferriss gained 34 pounds of lean muscle and lost 3 pounds of flab in four weeks, dropping his total body fat percentage from 16.72 to 12.23.
To determine which meals were likely to add body fat and to assess the optimal timing for food intake around athletic activities, he had a device implanted in his side that tracked his blood glucose for three to four weeks.
The protruding sensor made it hard to shower. He also had to prick his fingers 20 to 30 times a day to draw blood for parallel tests to verify the device’s output.
Lots of nutritional insight. For example, it’s best to have a “post-workout” shake 20 minutes before hitting the gym.
To see if he could undo his athletic injuries of the previous 13 years—effectively restoring his body to that of a 20-year-old—in part by injecting a cocktail of his own refined blood, insulin-like growth factor 1, and stem cell growth factors flown in from Israel.
A “stupid and completely avoidable” staph infection in his elbow, caused by a botched injection, that required emergency surgery.
It took longer than expected, but after six months, he actually reversed the effects of all his major injuries. Most of the benefit came from physical therapy, not drugs.
To find a precise and replicable method for generating orgasms in women, he enlisted the help of tantric specialists, “sex commune” instructors, and porn stars, among others.
Finding enough willing subjects to adequately test his hypotheses.
After much diligent fieldwork, he hit on a technique capable of producing orgasms lasting up to 15 minutes. He says that it’s effective more than 95 percent of the time.
Wired: [Examining the bottle.] Good old piracetam. I wrote about these so-called smart drugs in the early ’90s. I’m still skeptical.
Ferriss: The pouch is micronized resveratrol, which you can’t buy over the counter.
Wired: Where did you get it?
Ferriss: I got it directly from the manufacturer. Resveratrol is fascinating stuff. One of the best sources of information about it is the Immortality Institute. They have a forum where some people are in the 500 Club, as they call it. They’ve been taking 500 milligrams for years. It’s a really great source of data.
Wired: Do you take it?
Ferriss: Not anymore. There’s anecdotal reports of joint pain, and I ended up having incredible pain in my elbows and lesser pain in my knees.
Wired: What do you think is the most dangerous experiment that you tried for The 4-Hour Body?
Ferriss: I had a chemical cocktail injected to reverse injuries. It included BMP, bone morphogenetic protein, and there’s a risk of it fusing your vertebrae. In retrospect, I probably wouldn’t have included that.
Wired: There’s a long section on sexual performance in the new book, where you get hands-on instruction on what you call “facilitating” female orgasm. Why did you want to include this?
Ferriss: This book is entirely a product of polling and asking people what they want to learn about. When you try to find out about female orgasm, you get into a lot of misinformation really quickly. Separating fact from fiction is really hard. So I figured, why not just do the tests? Sex is so key to quality of life. The way it’s discussed is always vague because we live in a puritanical society. I mean, they won’t show nipples in advertisements, so they’re definitely not going to talk about the anatomy of the clitoris.
Wired: There’s a shortage of sex advice?
Ferriss: I think most of the sexual advice out there is bullshit. It’s based on a book that was influenced by a book that was influenced by a book. There’s no testing. The sex is right in the subtitle of my book, and most people jump right to that section.
Wired: Speaking of testing, I assume you market-tested the title of the book?
Ferriss: Oh yeah, with about 4,000 people, in three separate rounds. Testing is how I ended up with the title of The 4-Hour Workweek as well. That was one of about 12 titles I tested using Google AdWords. I bid on keywords or phrases associated with the book content, like “world travel,” “401K,” etc. And then the ads that were displayed had the title of the book as the headline and the subtitle as the ad text. And then I just looked at the clickthrough rates.
Wired: What was on the pages when people clicked through?
Ferriss: Nothing—just “under construction.”
Wired: I have to tell you, The 4-Hour Workweek did nothing to reduce my workweek. In fact, I took the title as pure provocation. You know, if you’d said, “Improve your work efficiency by reducing the time you spend on email,” OK, that’s more plausible—if less interesting. I read the book. I still work a lot.
Ferriss: The basic premise was gaining control of your time so that you can reduce your hours to a volume that you want. For most people, life would be boring without meaningful work.
Wired: I see the same thing in The 4-Hour Body. Lots of people want to become superhuman without putting in any effort. To be honest, when I see a title like that, I say, “Bullshit.”
Ferriss: I’d respond the same way. And it’s going to be shelved between The Five-Minute Solution and—whatever—The Four-Week Solution.
Wired: Right. I have a book I bought out of perverse admiration called The One Minute Father. I thought, I need to have that book around just to use it as an example of things I hate. But The 4-Hour Body actually isn’t like that. It’s a big, thick book full of nonobvious advice, written by somebody who’s been on a dangerous mission of self-discovery. I’m not necessarily going to follow your advice, but I’m interested in what you’ve discovered.
Ferriss: Look, the titles are just about getting people’s attention. Whether they say, “Wow, that sounds really interesting,” or “That guy’s full of shit”—as long as they pick up the book or click on the link, I don’t care.
Wired: You discuss polyphasic sleep: Rather than sleeping six to nine hours at a time, we’re supposed to take, like, 20-minute naps every four hours. Do you really think this works?
Ferriss: I have never been able to do with less than six hours a day for more than four weeks. But I know several tech CEOs who have used similar schedules for approximately a year before social needs intervened.
Wired: One of your footnotes points to an analysis that debunks polyphasic sleep. So, what’s your bottom line?
Ferriss: One of my goals is to catalyze an army of good self-experimenters; part of my job is therefore to train readers to do their own homework. Richard Feynman famously remarked, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”
Photo: Lucas Foglia