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How to Build Your Perfect Body Without Needing To Look Like a Model

You can develop the perfect body that you've always wanted without needing to look like a model. We cover fitness, nutrition, and a secret ingredient: lowering your expectations.

Tam Pham
Tam Pham
14 min read
How to Build Your Perfect Body Without Needing To Look Like a Model

The Ultimate Guide On Looking Good and Feeling Amazing for Average People

I wanted to be ripped like Kumail Nanjiani.

Nanjiani is an actor who went from looking like a nerdy Indian kid to a jacked Chad in preparation to play a superhero in the Marvel movie, Eternals.

However, Nanjiani's description said it best.

In my own words: I had the best help in the world and devoted all my hours to looking like this. It is most likely not possible [or desirable] for you.

My desire to be like him felt right in the moment. But when I took a step back, it is so silly to compare my average self to someone who's getting paid thousands of dollars to be a superhero in a Marvel movie.

What I've realized (again and again) over the years is that a healthier goal is to not shoot for your dream body, but to massively lower your expectations.

Would I be happier with less? What is good enough for me?

A good daily reminder for me...

I've had issues with my body image throughout my whole life. I've failed new workout plans, trendy diets, and have generally lost hope in looking good.

But after years of coaching, therapy, and joining a year-long nutrition program during the pandemic, I genuinely feel the healthiest and happiest I have ever been in a long time.

I promise to share what I eat and what workouts I do because that's probably why you clicked on this piece. But after reading this essay, you may not even have aspirations to look like a model anymore, and live a happier life because of it.

Understand Your Motivation

If I was being brutally honest, I wanted to look good my whole life to

  • Date hot women: I was never the ladies' man growing up and thought women didn't want to date me because they could find a better-looking guy elsewhere.

  • Confidently take off my shirt at the beach: I was that fat kid who kept his shirt on until the very last minute... then quickly jump into the water so my friends wouldn't see all my belly rolls.

  • Be happy with myself: I used to look in the mirror, squeeze my belly fat, and tell myself that I'm such a fat piece of sh*t. I hated my fat stomach. I hated my skinny arms. I hated my baby face.

At the core, I just wanted to impress people and love myself.

But why do I have such a huge need to impress women? Why do I care what my friends think about how I look? And why can't I just love myself the way that I am?

As I invested more time into my personal growth, I questioned if having a ripped body is even the right answer.

  • On dating: I grew up believing that all women wanted this big, tall, muscular boyfriend. But as I conquered my fear of dating (a whole different story), I went on 20+ dates during my travels to places like Cape Town, Atlanta, and Thailand. It turns out... women all around the globe liked me even though I wasn't in tip-top shape! Also, I didn't expect my future partner to have a perfect body. So why was I holding on to these standards for myself? While external validation is usually not the answer, I'd be lying to you if I said my romantic escapades weren't a huge boost to my ego and self-esteem.

  • On self-love: I grew up believing that being fat is bad and that no one would love me if I wasn't skinny. I've tried therapy for the first time, engaged in supportive and non-judgmental conversations with friends about my insecurities, and read books like The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. After a ton of personal breakthroughs, I'm now at a place where I can look in the mirror and be genuinely proud of who I am. As it turns out... I'm pretty fucking awesome. 😎

OK. So if I can date awesome women and love myself exactly for who I am... what is my motivation for working out now?

I originally had goals to look good. But as cliche as this might sound, I really want to feel good.

  • I want to have high energy to do meaningful work and be fully present with my friends.
  • I want to dance bachata and salsa! I want to play sports like volleyball or try Muay Thai.
  • I want to have better sex. No description needed.
  • I want to hike. I want to travel and wander the cities that I end up visiting.
  • I want to be happy! That feeling after a great workout is amazing and invigorating.

I didn't need six-pack abs and a huge chest to do what I wanted in life. If I told my younger self all of these cheesy things, he wouldn't believe me. Luckily, clarity comes with action.

What I thought I wanted was no longer what I desired or even needed in the first place.

I feel so much at peace after lowering my expectations and changing my body goals. Ironically, I am stronger, more consistent, and more motivated to be healthy today without any external goals.

I believe more people would be happier if they didn't have unreasonable standards for themselves. It all starts with self-inquiry.

  • Will looking ripped like a Marvel superhero truly make you happy? If yes, why? Is that reason true or just a story you grew up believing?
  • Is your fitness motivation designed to make YOU happy? Or are you doing this to satisfy someone else's expectations?

If your goals changed after reading this, congratulations! I just saved you years of agony over a quest that you probably didn't even need.

But now that we have covered the most important part of living a healthy life, I'll now share the tactics on what I did to make my new goals of feeling good, a reality.

Focus on the fundamentals

I really loved the nutrition program's emphasis on getting down to the basics.

Unlike most programs that promise you six-pack abs in five weeks or whatever, this program focused on building fundamental habits slowly and deliberately. The two habits that had the biggest impact on my growth were:

  1. Eat until you are 80% full.
  2. Eat slowly.

Yep! That's it.

Even after reading the famous book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, I still ate mindlessly all the time, scarfing down my food like I had somewhere to be.

But having a program to give me structure and a coach to keep me accountable was instrumental in my growth.

I naturally ate less and actually enjoyed the food that I did eat! Combined with working out 3x/week, I saw results quickly which felt extremely motivating.

Lost 6 pounds in 3 months, mostly body fat

"Bulking" isn't the only option to gain muscle

I was naive and thought there were only two ways for men to get strong.

  1. Stay lean and have a runner's body
  2. Lift heavy and bulk up by eating 3500 calories a day

Option #1 didn't excite me because I didn't want to feel strong. Option #2 was the biggest reason why I initially gave up the idea to work out again. Every forum online told me that this was the optimal way to gain muscle mass and look good.

But I've tried this before. Working out in a gym was boring. I hated logging my food, counting calories, and having to eat so much. I quit this lifestyle every time.

Luckily, the coach in my program recommended I focus on recomposition, a fancy way of saying to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.

I loved the idea of this! So much more doable than Option #2 and fit perfectly with my lifestyle.

This shift alone was one of those "aha" moments that was worth my investment.

Pick a diet that you will stick with

Should you do a keto diet? Intermittent fasting (IF)? Vegetarian?

What I've learned is that what you choose doesn't really matter. Every option is pretty solid and doesn't really matter especially if you are at the beginning stages of eating healthier.

What matters more is what you do consistently.

For simplicity, I have no specific diet. I simply eat two or three meals a day that is nutritious.

My normal plate includes:

  • Lean protein
  • Colorful fruits and vegetables
  • Slow-digesting, high-fiber carbs
  • Healthy fats

Most importantly, I eat all my meals slowly and mindfully, to 80% full.

My super boring meal prep system

Every healthy person that I know cooks their own food.

So if you're late to the game, don't worry about it, because cooking is a lifelong skill. You only need to know the basics (like I currently do) and be relatively fine.

Here's what I do at a high level.

I cook my vegetables, carbs, and proteins all at once, usually within a day but sometimes throughout the week depending on my schedule.

  • Vegetables: I roast them in the oven to get that crunchy, delicious taste. I rotate between broccolini, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, and carrots. I also buy a box of spinach and red bell peppers.

  • Proteins: I cook chicken thighs and salmon on the pan. I always have eggs in the fridge. Shrimp is a nice treat!

  • Carbs: I roast sweet and gold potatoes in the oven. I eat black and red kidney beans from the can.

  • Fats: I add roasted cashews or almonds to my plate. Or half an avocado.

  • Snacks: Bananas, blueberries, some chips, and dark chocolate.

I cook everything that I can and store them into glass Tupperware.

Whenever I'm hungry throughout the week, I take out the Tupperware containers and scoop a portion of different items on my plate. Microwave for a minute or two and voila! I have a full meal in front of me.

How much do you eat?

For men, the program recommends eating 2 palm sizes of protein, two fists fulls of vegetables, two cups of carbs, and two thumbs of fats. Obviously, adjust to your body type and health goals.

I used to sweat over the optimal amount of calories to eat and hated that lifestyle. But by focusing on these BIG changes in my life, like cooking more and eating less junk food, I ironically had better results.

I eat slowly, until I'm 80% full, and move often throughout the day (more on working out in a second).

What happens when you get bored with your meal prep?

When I get bored, I add variations to my meals.

I'll get chicken legs instead of chicken thighs. I'll add BBQ or Pesto seasoning instead of Herb Garlic. I'll try new vegetables, different carbs, or a protein that I haven't eaten in a while.

To keep things fresh, I never eat the same plate twice in a row. So this morning, my plate had salmon, asparagus, broccolini, sweet potatoes, and cashews. For lunch, my plate has chicken thighs, brussels sprouts, red bell peppers, black beans, half an avocado, and a cup of spinach.

For dinner, I repeat some things I ate earlier or go out with a friend.

I can eat eggs for dinner and salmon for breakfast. Big corporations paid millions of dollars to trick kids to eat a sugary dessert to start their day. Everything is made up. There are no rules.

For simplicity, just eat generally healthy in all your meals.

Do you eat out?

Yes! I'd shamelessly order take-out all the time. But it is important that I eat that burger and fries slowly and to 80% full. Or I can eat half of my order and combine that with some veggies that I had prepared earlier.

As long as I'm still being active and eating healthy most of the time, I can fully enjoy my steak burrito guilt-free. If you're curious about digging deeper into improving your relationship with food, I highly recommend reading, The Food Therapist.

Your Willpower is Not Enough

I have this special talent where if I see a box of cookies in my home, I can eat the entire set within finishing one episode of The Office.

If something is out of sight, it is out of mind. So design your environment to have healthy options conveniently around. Make it difficult or impossible to eat the unhealthy options.

This essay could be your wake-up call to get up right now and throw out all the junk food in your place. Or if you must keep a few items, put them far away, like in your garage or something, to increase friction.

You will eat less junk food if you have to walk farther, reach higher, or find that bag of chips in your storage closet than if it was conveniently in your pantry.

Once you get rid of something, you must replace it with a new item (at least for the short term).

Here's what I swapped out:

  • Potato chips ⇒ Roasted almonds and cashews
  • Milk tea with boba ⇒ Mango LaCroix (sparkling water)
  • Take out everyday ⇒ Meal prep
  • Uber Eats pizza ⇒ Frozen pizza
  • Cookies ⇒ 82% Dark Chocolate

A frozen pizza isn't the healthiest thing in the world. But it is smaller, cheaper, and healthier than my default habit of ordering an expensive, large, and meaty pie.

The whole point is to eat healthy food more often and eat unhealthy food less often.

Once you make one small change, the other changes become easier, and the effect compounds over time. So while this may not seem like a huge difference, this has allowed me to reduce an insane amount of sugar and carbs than I would normally eat mindlessly.

You can lose body fat with minimal effort simply by rearranging your environment. This is dramatically more effective than resisting snacks that are just sitting on your kitchen counter.

Choose workouts that fit your fitness goals

Because my goals have changed from wanting to look big and muscular to simply feeling energized, my workouts don't need to be as strict.

The nutrition program came with a strength training workout plan that I've used for the first couple of months. But naturally, I got bored and wanted to try something new.

I do a mixture of strength training, calisthenics, yoga, HIIT, dance, and now Muay Thai all free on YouTube.

It's finally summertime here in Toronto so I just started running and biking again just for fun.

What is more important than what type of workout you choose to do is the workout that you will actually be consistent with. Pick something that is challenging and potentially fun!

It's also 10x more enjoyable when you can work out with friends.

How do you get out of a slump?

I've been in many slumps during this lockdown.

I had my habits locked in and I was feeling good. But things happen (like me getting kicked out of Canada because of VISA issues) and all of a sudden, I'm off the wagon again ordering Uber Eats and watching Netflix.

When I brought this up to my life coach many years back, she shared a lesson with me that I still remember to this day.

It doesn't matter how many times you fall off the wagon. What matters is how fast you get back on.

So instead of me not working out for 3 weeks and feeling guilty, I just need to start doing something, literally anything, to get back on the wagon.

Life can be complicated and messy. Obstacles will come in our way. Unexpected tragedies can strike us at any moment. This means we are going to fail.

Instead of trying to prevent the inevitable, we should prepare for the moment when things fall apart.

After going through an incredibly stressful transition back to Canada in the middle of the pandemic, I fell back into a slump. I had been traveling constantly with no access to a kitchen. I was stuck indoors all day because of the mandatory 14-day quarantine and new the Ontario stay-at-home order.

When I finally moved into my new place and got all my stuff back from storage, I finally felt like I had stability. Now I could focus on getting out of my slump.

What I used to do was go "all out" and work out every day to make up for a month's worth of doing nothing active. But I knew that I needed to work up towards where I once was and to be patient with myself.

I needed to focus on 1% improvement— tiny changes that compound to create dramatic results over time.

My high-impact habits that I track every day. Abbreviations short for the activities like Walk, Dance, Yoga, Strength Training, Running, Muai Thai, HIIT, Abs, Biking. M is for meditation.

How can I be 1% more active than I was yesterday?

I started going on daily walks now that the weather was warmer. I started to cook in my own kitchen for the first time in six months.

Then I added 10 pushups to my regimen. Then 20 pushups. Then some bodyweight squats along with yoga. I had momentum on my side which made leveling up so much easier than if I had started out from nothing.

It was crucial for me to not track anything or to be super disciplined in my comeback. I simply needed to focus on consistency and trusting the process.

I used to try and race towards that "perfect body" instead of realizing that your physical health is, and always will be, a lifelong journey.

The joy is in the climb.

Final Thoughts

The secrets to being healthy are nothing new or profound.

  • Rethink your motivations
  • Focus on building fundamental habits
  • Pick a diet and workout plan that you will be consistent with
  • Falling off the wagon is normal— what matters most is getting back on
  • Your physical health is a marathon— Enjoy the journey and focus on 1% improvement every day

Today, I work out consistently. I eat just the right amount of food every day. I learned to cook and meal prep. I look good.

More importantly, I feel good.

I'm not ripped like Nanjiani but even if I was, I don't think I would be that much happier anyways.

Just because these lessons sound simple does NOT make it easy.

61% of Americans have gained weight since the COVID lockdown. We have a massive mental health crisis around the world. Life is HARD right now.

After all the progress I've made in my personal growth, I still fall into slumps and have to relearn everything I just shared.

I'm not going to pretend that changing your health happens by adding a few pieces of broccoli to your plate. It is difficult but improving your physical health is something that I believe is worth struggling for.

If you are able to, I'd recommend you join a program or work with a coach to help you get on the right track. If you want something more cost-effective, start a group with friends to work out once a week over Zoom.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Or you simply do something small, like go for a walk, just to get the momentum back on your side.

A big part of living a healthy life is not about the new diet or workout plan. It's about your motivation. Your relationship to your body and food. How you respond to failure. How open you are to changing your behavior and ultimately, your lifestyle.

Good luck with your marathon. I'll be cheering you on from the sidelines. 🏃

Personal Growth

Tam Pham Twitter

I'm a writer and bachata dancer currently bouncing around Latin America. Trying to make the most out of my one wild and precious life.

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