Note: I originally wrote this review in June, four months into my eight-month coaching program. This updated version reflects my final results as of Mid-October.
For nine months this year, I was living out of a backpack in various hotels and guesthouses in Southeast Asia and South America. In that whole time, I never cooked other than making sandwiches or bacon and eggs a few times during the last month in Colombia. That’s right folks, I spent nine months eating out for nearly every single meal.
Now, most people would have fallen way out of shape under those circumstances. But not me- I’ve gotten into the best shape of my life, despite the so-so diet, lack of routine, and intermittent access to gyms. And I owe most of that to the fact that I’ve had a coach.
Yes, this will be a surprise to some of you, but even coaches have coaches. In fact, my coach occasionally employs coaches of his own. You’re never too advanced to learn from others.
John “Roman” Romaniello is the owner of Roman Fitness Systems, one of the most popular and successful fitness education companies on teh interwebz. He’s also one of America’s foremost experts on superheroes, ice cream, and Final Fantasy.
Roman, as the gentlebros call him, has been one of my favorite fitness gurus- as well as a role model for my own fitness business- ever since he made an appearance on Ramit Sethi’s website a few years ago. He’s the co-author of one of my favorite fitness books, Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha, as well as being a fellow fantasy geek and Game of Thrones fanatic.
I had never hired a trainer before, partly because I was doing alright on my own, but mainly because I didn’t have the money. But back in February I realized that a) I had plateaued in my quest for HUGE GUNZ, and b) I actually did have the money. So I joined Roman’s online fitness coaching program. Here’s what happened.
Cost and format
Roman asks for a minimum four-month commitment, and allows students to stay with him for a maximum of eight months, after which he figures he’s taught them all he can, and lets them go to make room for new students. Rather than email, he uses a proprietary web app called Apotheo. For those of you who aren’t language nerds or fantasy geeks and haven’t visited the U.S. Capitol building, apotheosis is the act of becoming a god. Roman sets high standards, is what I’m saying.
Apotheo is pretty cool. It shows me my daily calorie and macro targets for workout and non-workout days, and I use it to record my macro intake, weight and body fat percentage, as well as see a visualization of how my weight, body fat percentage, fat mass and lean mass have changed over time (more on that later). I used Apotheo to submit my monthly progress reports, including photos and measurements, as well as download a PDF of my new training plan every month. And of course there’s a built-in messaging app which Roman uses to answer his client’s questions, give them feedback, and swap Game of Thrones predictions.
Finally, there’s an exercise library which is still under construction- for the moment it redirects you to Roman’s Youtube channel, where he’s provided videos demonstrating most of the exercises he prescribes- particularly more exotic ones like the Y-press and javelin press.
As for the price, Roman is definitely one of the more expensive coaches out there. He normally charges $500 a month, but I only paid $249 a month. He runs specials a few times a year where you can get discounts either by winning contests that he holds on his blog, or via referral from an existing client. If you want to get a discounted rate, join my mailing list and watch your inbox for announcements about the next coaching special.
How Roman designs his fitness plans
Every month, Roman designs a new set of workouts, as well as a two-week schedule on which to do them- meaning that you run through that schedule either twice or two and a half times before getting your next month’s training program. In my case, every month has had me weight training in the gym 4-5 days a week, along with bodyweight training 1 day a week. Some months he also gave me one cardio-only day per week, along with the shorter cardio sessions at the end of most of my weight training days.
If you’ve read Engineering the Alpha, you know that Roman uses a phased strategy based around optimizing the body’s hormonal systems one at a time. For his private coaching clients, the workouts are different and are customized to a trainee’s individual needs, but the overall strategy is the same: methodically optimize your body’s hormones one by one, then unleash the beast and power towards your ultimate goal.
For the uninitiated: The first month is all about fat loss and improving insulin sensitivity, even if your main long-term goal is to gain a ton of muscle. This part is actually pretty common in the fitness world- it’s important to always precede a mass-gaining program with a fat loss phase to improve nutrient partitioning, priming the body to gain muscle, rather than fat, when you up the calories later. Unless you’re a total newbie to weight training, you won’t gain muscle in month one. The diet also sucks in the first month- no alcohol, very few carbs, and he didn’t even let me have a cheat day. *sniff*
The second phase is devoted to raising testosterone levels. Caloric intake goes up just a little bit, plus a cheat day every week or two, and the workouts here rely heavily on density training to stimulate testosterone production. The third phase builds on this by modifying the workouts to stimulating growth hormone production, while bumping up calories just a little more.
After those three initial phases, things start to vary a lot more depending on the trainee. In my case, month 4 was recomp-focused, with a small caloric surplus on workout days, a moderate deficit on non-workout days, and a bi-weekly cheat day. Month 5 is similar, with slightly more calories.
Roman’s workouts are all circuit-based, meaning you’ll do several exercises in quick succession before resting, then doing another circuit. Sometimes the circuits string together exercises that all hit the same body part, allowing you to totally shred that muscle group. Other times he’ll mix stuff like shoulder presses and lunges, or rows and jump squats, in order to produce a greater hormonal effect by stimulating multiple muscle groups together.
Regardless of which “phase” I was in, I’ve seen that there’s a general tendency for workouts to pack more work into a given amount of time. The number of sets per workout has slowly increased over time, as have the weights I used, while rest periods have gotten slightly shorter. Combined with circuit training, the workouts can be pretty grueling, but I’d rather deal with that then spend 2 hours in the gym doing the traditional “3-5 minutes between each set” training.
As for the diet, Roman favors flexible, if it fits your macros dieting. Every month, he tells you how much protein, fat and carbohydrate to eat on workout and non-workout days. You’re given broad latitude about what to eat, with just a few rules- eat vegetables 3 times a day, do your best to separate high-carb and high-fat items into different meals, and don’t eat a crapload of junk food even if it technically fits your macros.
He also has his clients practice intermittent fasting in the form of daily 16-hour fasts. Most months, my schedule has also included a weekly or bi-weekly feast/fast, which I’ve described in this article. I was already doing intermittent fasting, so this part was easy.
Finally, Roman provides a few supplement recommendations- multivitamin, greens powder, protein powder, and BCAAs. I didn’t follow any of this because I’m traveling, but I did eventually start taking a multivitamin. I also consumed post-workout protein shakes for one week when I was going to a gym that sold them; other than that, I haven’t tried to make my own shakes.
My 4-month results
So I have to be honest here- I didn’t do the best job of following instructions. I ate too many carbs and not enough protein. I went out partying at night. I missed workouts due to travel, lack of gym availability, sickness, injury, and because I hate cardio. I got sick. I injured myself surfing, of all things.
And in spite of only being about 70% compliant with the program Roman has designed for me, I made some really nice progress. Behold my amazing physique, and terrible camera skillz! Photos are at the start, 4 months, and 8 months.
In 8 months I went from 165 pounds at 13-14% body fat, to 162 pounds at 8-9% body fat. In other words, I’ve lost about 10-12 pounds of fat, and gained about 7-10 pounds of muscle mass. Strength has gone up considerably, although I wasn’t training for maximal strength- never below the five rep range, and usually higher. My cardiovascular fitness actually improved more than my strength in the weight room, largely since I’d been slacking off on that before.
Because of Roman’s phased approach, the focus of my training changed over time. In the begining it was mostly fat loss, then I gradually transitioned from a cut to a recomp, then into a pure bulk for a couple of months, before dropping back to a recomp in the last few weeks.
Oh, and I made ink gainz. Not many people know this, but it’s been proven that guys will always grow a chest tattoo when their bench press exceeds 200 pounds.
My impression so far
Overall setup- Excellent. Apotheo is an awesome program that makes it really easy to keep track of everything. By messaging Roman through it, rather than by email, I never miss any messages from him. It’s also great being able to see my progress, and download PDFs of my monthly workouts- which I can then read on my phone at the gym using iBooks.
Workout design and exercise selection- Amazing. I got a new set of workouts every month, customized both for my particular training goals (get jacked with a focus on big shoulders, while staying under 10% body fat) and the phase I was in. He changes up the styles of the workouts too, both between and within months- he’s had me doing traditional strength training, density training, bodyweight workouts, high- and medium-intensity cardio, lactic acid training, pyramid training, and a couple other things I’m forgetting. This is great not only from a physiological standpoint- it keeps forcing my body to grow stronger overall instead of just adapting to the particular type of training I’m doing- but it also keeps me from getting bored, which I do quite easily.
Roman also made some effort to tailor the workouts based on what equipment I have available to me, but that’s sort of a lost cause since I move around so much- sometimes there are no kettlebells, sometimes there’s no cardio equipment, and sometimes my gym has NO FUCKING DUMBBELLS OVER 12.5 KG WHAT THE FUCK?!
My only real complaint here is that the schedule didn’t incorporate planned de-load weeks. Even with my travel schedule causing me to occasionally miss workouts, I still felt the need to de-load at a couple of points. Though, how much of that is from the training and how much is the rigors of my travel schedule, and me catching various tropical diseases, I can’t really say.
Diet- Great if you’re a calorie counter, but a bit tricky given my travel situation and generally dislike of counting calories. Roman is definitely on the “count calories and macros” side of things, whereas I’ve always favored the “eat certain foods but not others, don’t count calories but maybe compare portion sizes to the size of your hand” kind of dieting. (Read up on the two kinds of dieters)
During my travels, I’ve rarely had access to calorie counts, so I’ve largely had to diet my way instead of his way. Unfortunately my way still didn’t allow a ton of consistency- I mostly at whatever was available, whether that’s char sui bao, zebra kebobs, or bandeja paisa. If I was back in the US instead of traveling constantly, following the macros Roman gives me would work just fine though.
Responsiveness- Good. Roman usually responds to messages within a day. There have been a couple times when he took close to a week, either because he was moving or because he just missed a message, but I didn’t really need a quick response. The PDFs he sendt me every month explained almost everything, so I had few questions after the first month.
Roman also made a few small mid-month adjustments when I needed them too. In once case he upped my fat intake when I as reporting low energy and sex drive, and in another case he adjusted my workouts because my shoulder was hurting. In once case I moved into a town only to find that the only gym in town was closed for remodeling; Roman offered to design a bodyweight-only program for me, but the gym reopened so I didn’t need him to.
Effectiveness- Great. Swapped about ten pounds of fat for muscle, which is about the upper limit on what a natural trainee at my level could achieve in 8 months, and I look and feel amazing. Strength, endurance and work capacity are way up as well, and the density workouts caused me to grow a tattoo. I also started sleeping better and having more energy during the day, which I partly attribute to the diet.
Difficulty- High, and it slowly got harder over time. Some of these workouts can be brutal, especially the high-speed dynamic workout and the lactic acid-based “growth hormone surge” workout. Great results demand great efforts, and some of Roman’s workouts have truly been a challenge to finish. If you want to train like Roman does, you need to adopt the mentality of “embracing the suck.”
Commitment needed- High, and I’m talking about all kinds of commitment here- time, effort, and money. This coaching program is designed for people who are willing to spend 4-8 months working out HARD, several hours a week, to get into amazing shape. It’s aimed at people with ambitious goals.
That’s not to say Roman couldn’t take more casual clients- he’s perfectly capable of just helping you lose 5-10 pounds, or designing programs where you only work out twice a week. I just don’t think that would be worth the cost, unless you’re so rich that several hundred a month is insignificant to you.
That doesn’t mean you have to be exactly where I was at to start with though- only that you should have big fitness goals, and a willingness to work hard towards them. That could mean getting a sixpack or get huge, but it could just as easily mean losing 50 pounds and telling obesity not to let the door hit it in the ass on the way out. The tagline of Roman Fitness Systems is “Where mediocrity goes to die,” and this program will work best for people who live by that motto.
Semi-final thoughts and future update
I’m thrilled with my results. A ten-pound recomp is truly an amazing result- I haven’t seen progress that fast since I got past my noob gainz phase many years ago. Aesthetically, my waist has shrunk while my shoulders have grown, and muscle definition has improved dramatically. Not quite to sixpack abs, but close. Work capacity has gone way up, maybe 20-30% for my upper body and 40-50% for my lower body.
Now that I’ve learned Roman’s training secrets, I can strike him down and take his place. As is traditional.
What’s really amazing about my results is the circumstances in which they happened- backpacking, living as a digital nomad, never staying in one place more than a month, and always eating out. Most people would have gotten the opposite result, porking out while losing precious muscle mass. While I no doubt would have done even better if I’d been at home the whole time, Roman’s coaching has gotten me into the best shape of my life, while allowing me to enjoy my travels and delicious exotic foodz, guilt-free.
Every time I’ve hired a coach for anything- fitness, business, singing, social skills- I’ve found myself wishing I had done it sooner. This is no exception. Hiring John Romaniello as my fitness coach is one of the best investments I’ve ever made, and I can’t recommend him highly enough.