Meet Mark

Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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January 26, 2009

Dear Mark: Body Composition Through the Years

By Mark Sisson
113 Comments

I got this email from a reader a couple months ago and was reminded of it when I stumbled across some old race photos recently.

Dear Mark,

I saw your photo on your blog post called Washboard Abs on a High-Fat Diet, No Ab Workouts and No Cardio and it got me wondering what you looked like as an endurance athlete when you were younger. Did you look like a typical long distance runner with hardly any muscle mass to speak of? You’ve noted that you used to eat a high-carb diet. How, if at all, do you think this played into your body composition at the time? Also, do you have any photos to share?!

Pat G.

Then my friend, blogger-cartoonist Enrique Gonzales (with whom I have had a few philosophical discussions as to “why be fit?”), asked this:

Dear Mark,

Did you at any time in your life ever up your calorie intake to get bigger? Since you were a marathon runner, I am guessing that you were not very large. Was it a clean bulk or did you simply adopt a primal-esque diet as the muscle slowly packed on? Also, what advice would you give to scrawny guys that wish to have nothing more than a light athletic build like Bruce Lee or Zac Efron?

In the coming weeks, we’ll be looking more into the question of just what constitutes “ideal body composition.” It’s a broad philosophical discussion that often pits genetics against lifestyle, body-building against functional strength, and even health against fitness. I thought today I might open by using the above questions to analyze my own changes over the years and explain how I got to where I am today.

I was a distance runner from the age of 13 until about 28. During that time, I had a typical high-carb diet (1000+ grams of carbs most days) which I burned off every day. Even though I also consumed large amounts of protein and I lifted weights as part of my training, I just couldn’t keep much upper body mass. Chronic cardio does that; it’s catabolic and sugar-driven. The signals I gave my genes from running 70-100 miles a week created the body-composition I wound up with. I raced at 142 pounds (actually a little heavy for a 5’10” marathoner) and 7% body fat, but was still over twenty pounds lighter than I am today. For grins, here’s a picture of me finishing the Boston Marathon in 1974. Typical body-type of a marathoner, but very lacking in muscle mass.

A series of classic overuse injuries forced me to retire from running at the elite level in 1980 and I found myself doing triathlons for a few years. I raced Ironman Hawaii (4th place overall in 1982) at 152 pounds. Running less, but swimming and cycling more allowed me to put ten more pounds of muscle on my legs, chest and shoulders (different gene signals). I was still at 7-8% body fat then, and I still needed tons of carbs (mostly from grains) to fuel the beast. Here’s a Runner’s World cover I did in 1986 at that weight. A little more upper body, but still not much.

I retired from all competition after I won my age-group in the 1988 Desert Princess Duathlon World Championships. My wife Carrie and I were about to get married. She and I had met at a gym so I knew she was into fitness. We did a photo shoot for Triathlete Magazine in January 1989 – almost 20 years ago to the day. Sorry about the neon Speedo – it was the 80’s.

Shortly thereafter, I completely revamped both my eating style and my exercise style. I cut way back on cardio and increased the intensity of my strength-training (as did Carrie). I also cut way back on carbs and increased protein and fat. Eventually I eliminated grains altogether (as has Carrie). Here we are last year in Cabo – nearly twenty years later. She won’t mind my saying that she’s now 53, and I’m 55 (52 and 54 in the photo below). Based on the gene signals (I call it “gene reprogramming” in the book) we have been generating from our diet and exercise styles, we are both at the same or lower body fat than we were 20 years ago when we were both doing far more cardio and both eating the Conventional Wisdom high-complex-carb diet! Today I weigh 164 and still carry around 8% body fat, so I have maybe 16 pounds more muscle than I did when I was a marathoner.

I have tried on several occasions to increase my muscle mass through a focused program of more intense weight-training and more copius eating. But I’m what we call a “hardgainer”. The most I was ever able to weigh was 169. That extra five pounds of muscle was not only difficult to achieve (and still keep body fat low) it was almost impossible to retain. I had to eat way more (and more often) than I intuitively wanted to and couldn’t skip more than a few hard workouts or I’d start to lose the muscle. I also couldn’t play hard without burning it up. I realized that this was a totally non-Primal pursuit.

The Primal Blueprint is about finding your own personal optimum body composition by eating and moving like Grok. It’s about functional strength and power-to-weight ratios – not excessive body fat, but also not excessive and “expensive to maintain” muscles. It’s about arriving at a comfortable lean mass that reflects the signals you have given your genes. In my case, at 55 years old, I just want to have fun, be able to move well and stay healthy. I said when I turned 40 that “I no longer want to be fit. I just want to look fit.” But the reality is that I work out now mostly to be able to play. I stay flexible enough to play golf (OK, not well). I sprint once a week and do leg work to be able to snowboard five days in a row or to dash for the long bomb in my weekend Ultimate Frisbee games. I do upper body work to be able to go out for two hours on a stand-up paddle surfboard. I hike because it’s play (not work), but if I decide to start running a trail, I can. So, I guess I am fit.

There’s another important consideration. I don’t want to get injured. Trying to pack on extra muscles that supersede your ideal body composition can invite injury. Muscles don’t get bigger unless you add more stress. It takes a lot more work for someone like me, who’s already been lifting “heavy” for 30 years to start upping it a notch. I hit a personal record on the bench press two years ago and am still paying for it with a rotator cuff issue. From here on in, I don’t want to have to sit on the sideline.

Finally, from a health and longevity perspective, the less I can eat and still maintain functional composition (Primal Fitness) the better. Because my high-fat, moderate protein, low carb diet has the effect of decreasing hunger and appetite, I naturally eat less than I would have in the old carb days. But since I also don’t work out as much, I maintain the muscle mass I do have on what many might consider a Spartan diet. Of course, the only “proven” strategy for increased lifespan is calorie-restriction, so that’s an added benefit of going for the Bruce Lee look versus the Hulk Hogan look. It just feels better.

Here are a few more pics to illustrate my changes in body composition through the years as they relate to the various signals I have sent my genes. A few are from this year’s trip to Cabo – almost 20 years to the day from the date the Triathlete Magazine photo above was taken. (You may need to scroll down the page a bit to view the enlarged version.)

Early Racing Photo Runner's World Cover Cycling Photo Cabo Photo Cabo Photo Cabo Photo

Further Reading:

Dear Mark: Healthy Body Weight?

A Primal Blueprint Sample Menu

Dear Mark: Weightlifting Weary

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113 Comments on "Dear Mark: Body Composition Through the Years"

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Fit Mommy
7 years 8 months ago

Very cool. I still do all those endurance sports cause I find them fun! Hoping I look that good when I’m 50!

JE Gonzalez
7 years 8 months ago
Thanks for the link Mark. I imagined your body composition right, but I was cracking up at the speedo image. I’m still laughing as I type, but oh well, you should see my hair style. It’s essentially a giant blonde jerri-curl afro. I keep it on because it adds about a good 4 inches to my height. If I may say so, your wife looks gorgeous! Is there any plastic surgery anywhere? If not, the Primal Blueprint is officially the better than Doctor 90210. The only signs of your age is the gray hairs and some subtle crow’s feet, but… Read more »
Lee
Lee
7 years 8 months ago

Forget Bruce Lee and Hulk Hogan. When I’m 55, I want to have the Mark Sisson look!

Holly
Holly
7 years 8 months ago

what a great visual to really see how the Primal Blueprint can change one’s body (esp compared to CW). thanks for sharing the pics… even if the neon yellow speedo might give readers nightmares 😉

Greg Lowe
Greg Lowe
7 years 8 months ago

If I cover your heads with my hand while looking at the pictures of the older versions of you, I would swear you both are in your 20’s. Looking good.

P. Singh
P. Singh
7 years 8 months ago

Great story and great pics, Mark. Grok would be proud.

Greg Lowe
Greg Lowe
7 years 8 months ago

I meant the newer version, as in when you are older… recently.

Robert M.
Robert M.
7 years 8 months ago

Needs a NSFW tag.

Joey Simmons
Joey Simmons
7 years 8 months ago

Great job, Mark.

It is good to read about body fat %, and not worry so much about weight.

I bought a body fat analyzer a couple months ago and really like it. It is amazing how much more you push yourself when the results are right there in your face. They are pretty inexpensive too. I bought mine online at http://www.vitalitymedical.com.

anna
anna
7 years 8 months ago

Lol @ roberts comment.

I think the speedo is hawt!! hee hee
and please tell your wife that i hope to someday have a bod like that.. its bangin!!

Sheri
Sheri
7 years 8 months ago

You both look great!

Has Carrie found living the PB lifestyle has been helpful to her with women’s aging issues (pre/post menopause symptoms)? Would she comment on that topic sometime for us?

charlotte
7 years 8 months ago

Fascinating post (and I’m not just saying that because of the Speedo!). Although the perverse part of me says “if you got a marathoners body eating high carb and running so much and I actually want a marathoners body…” You see where this is going, don’t you?

Also, I thought you wrote before that your wife & son were vegetarians. What does your wife eat if she doesn’t eat grains either? (She looks fab btw!!!)

Son of Grok
7 years 8 months ago

Straight up Mark.. you look WAY better now thn you did when you were younger. Look at those skinny little legs in the 74 marathon! Arnold would most certainly call you girly man.

But seriously, you have had amazing success in everything you have done and are an inspiration.

the SoG

David at Animal-Kingdom-Workouts

Very impressive Mark. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. You both look great!

– Dave

Tara
7 years 8 months ago

Oooooh the speedo. LOL. The look on your face makes that pic priceless!

I second Sheri & Charlotte! Im thinking a Carrie guest-post is in order.

Thanks Mark, for a great visual on how PB can change a body. Im only about 3 weeks in and I feel great!

Robert M.
Robert M.
7 years 8 months ago
Ok, now for a more serious comment on body composition: I notice a lot of people complain about plateauing on a diet. Similarly people plateau when they try and gain muscle mass. This appears to be related to the fact that people can fill fat or muscle tissue with lipids and protein respectively relatively easily, but the body doesn’t want to actually change the number of cells. A good piece of research on this subject is the Nature letter, Dynamics of fat cell turnover in humans Researchers used the amount of radioactive carbon-14 found in fat cells (leftover from open-air… Read more »
Jonas Colting
7 years 8 months ago
Great pics Mark! Your motivation to stay fit and healthy is obvious but I can´t help to wonder about something. Don´t you ever get the urge to participate in events that are fun; open water swims, trail runs, 5 k´s, sprint triathlons etc? Endurance events but still pretty short compared to what´s really out there. For someone that has trained and raced at that level you would recognize the mental boost of a really hard race effort and finishing an event as fast as one can. Yes, it hurts but it´s also a very satisfying feeling. And I don´t think… Read more »
Troy
Troy
7 years 8 months ago

hey mark,

awesome post!!! YOu explained how you are a hardgainer, and by the looks of it you are an ectomorph body type. I am sure you have got this question or comment alot already, but don’t you think its easier for an ectomorph to stay leaner than other body types on even a high carb diet. I have a mesomorph bodytype and i can’t stay as lean ass you unless i cut carbs below 30 or so a day and IF hardcore. Do you have any insight on body types?

thanks and you guys look great!!!
troy

crt
crt
7 years 8 months ago

on the speedo pic you look a lot like dirty harry… 🙂

congrats on living and aging so well.

MizFit
7 years 8 months ago

um, wow.

Im 10 years behind you and can only hope to look as good as you and your amazing wife…

Zen Fritta
Zen Fritta
7 years 8 months ago

Looking good Mark. Keep up the hard work.

Sonagi
Sonagi
7 years 8 months ago

You and your wife are the poster couple for primal fitness. You two don’t look good for your age. You look GOOD. Thanks for sharing your old photos.

Sue
Sue
7 years 8 months ago

I second Sheri & Charlotte and Tara! “Im thinking a Carrie guest-post is in order.”

Kat
Kat
7 years 8 months ago

You guys look terrific! It would be awesome if your wife wrote a post or if you’d post a bit about her workouts, food she loves, and other primal lifestyle experiences. She’s as much of an inspiration as you are Mark!

Donna
Donna
7 years 8 months ago

Mark and Carrie, you 2 look fantastic, but, also look good together, you’re both picture perfect of health!!!

You’re an example to us all to eat healthy, exercise, but you’re also an example to your kids which i’m a big believer to teach kids “early” in life the importance of eating Primal and sports. I learned as a child that exercise was fun.

I also agree with some of you, Carrie, i’d love to hear what you’ve got to say, how about writing a post here on MDA!!!
Carrie, you do NOT look 53 years young, what an inspiration you are!!

Earth Beauty
7 years 8 months ago

Wow you both look great!

TrailGrrl
TrailGrrl
7 years 8 months ago
Wow! The banana hammock and the sweat band are priceless! Your hair looks fabulous throughout though, and since I had the aweful overpermed 80’s look I really can’t talk smack about your fashion. You look the most muscular in the bike photo of all the old ones. I really appreciate this because I was leaning toward IronMan training again, and then I realized that although triathletes have much more attractive bodies than just runners or cyclists or swimmers, that I would have to train like a nut to get the lean muscle look. PB living has helped me see my… Read more »
shailja
shailja
7 years 8 months ago

Hi Mark,

Really fantastic pictures;very inspirational.

As a female and vegetrian,I would love to know Carrie’s diet and exercise plan.

Tom
Tom
7 years 8 months ago

You looked good too when you were a triathlete. So I think you are not that good exmple for the fact that endurance sports and high carb diet is bad for our health or leastwise for our look. But I do understand that you feel fitter in these primal days.

Star Trec
Star Trec
7 years 8 months ago

Fantastic post. I HATE exercise, but love to move when it is associated with something fun. It just makes you feel good to be playing soccer, hiking, or doing other fun things with your kids. The problem is…right now I’m too out of shape to do it! So, now I can focus on some primal changes…like the sprints (which take up so much less time) and weights (which I don’t mind) and the dietary changes and look forward to the body of a 53 year old!

Star Trec
Star Trec
7 years 8 months ago

Oh, and I would love to hear from Carrie, too. 😉

Alex
Alex
7 years 7 months ago
Dear Mark, In your blog I often see you mention that our genes change and signal something when we exercise. I trust that these events probably often happen, though I don’t know when and how they happen. I have no knowledge of processes on that molecular level, and I don’t see how I could use the fact that my genes possibly change along the way. You don’t give me any clue either. As far as I could see, our awareness of gene signals and changes produced no useful idea or tool for our practice of exercise and training. We exercise… Read more »
Terrilee
Terrilee
7 years 7 months ago

Hi, just wondering why Carrie doesn’t eat grass fed and finished beef???thanks

Stephan
7 years 7 months ago

Mark,

Great post! You look fantastic for a 35-year old (wink). Your wife does too. Much respect for leading by example!

Alex
Alex
7 years 7 months ago
Hi Mark, I read all the referenced posts about genes you gave me, and it was a waste of time. I’m all for the healthy lifestyle you promote, and I happily practice it. As for our genes, I’ve got it that the genes do not necessarily define our destiny, we have a good chance to influence our fate by our lifestyle. OK, that is clear, and that is about all that makes sense to me. The rest is useless guesswork because we cannot get any practical gain from gene information at the present state of science. This science probably holds… Read more »
Alecia
Alecia
7 years 7 months ago
Hi Mark Firstly, you and Carrie look amazing! I bet you feel that way too. I’ve been reading almonst daily your blog for a few months now and love it! Everything just makes so much more sense now. I have mostly been following it for that time as well. I feel alot better, but I want to loose 10lbs and 6%bf. I am 5’4″ 130. My thought is to really strictly adhere to a ketogenic diet for 8 weeks ish(re-evaluate at that point) Am I correct saying that would be to keep it under 50g carbs/day? I am also doing… Read more »
Mark Sisson
7 years 7 months ago
Alex, sorry you feel the references were a “waste of time” and understanding gene expression is “useless”. The book will explain all this in detail. I guess I missed Bonnie’s comments earlier as well. She suggests that there is no “good” or “bad” gene expression; and she is correct. Genes don’t know or care when they switch on or off. They simply respond to the signals they are given by other genes or by chemical signals in their immediate environment. Type 2 diabetes happens when some specific genes are desperately responding to a chronic excess of toxic sugar in your… Read more »
Mike OD - IF Life
7 years 7 months ago

Mark,

If this post alone doesn’t help people to try the Blueprint or buy your book, I don’t know what will! Fantastic stuff (well….minus the speedo). People love to see real changes and you certainly are a shinning example. This post should be the cover of your book….but only if you can PhotoShop some Hawaiian shorts on that old picture. 😉

Mike OD

Alex
Alex
7 years 7 months ago
Dear Mark, I suggest whenever you want to mention genes in your post, and speculate about genes’ promise and magic to influence our health, it is fitting to ask “How is it going to help the readers in their pursuit of better health and fitness?” Then you will find that in the majority of cases such science fiction about genes is not going to help anybody at the present state of science. You will find that it wouldn’t produce a practical idea or method for improving either health or fitness. I believe that such ‘dreaming’ changes the focus from practical… Read more »
Mark Sisson
7 years 7 months ago
Alex, it would appear from your tone that you haven’t read much on this site. I guess that’s the problem with a blog that has over 1300 posts and then someone discovers it and only reads a few recent articles. In fact, every post I do is contemplated to address the question: “how is it going to help the readers in their pursuit of better health and fitness?” Information about genes is no longer “science fiction” as you put it. Thousands of papers describe how specific genes react to specific signals from the environment. It’s the most exciting area of… Read more »
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7 years 7 months ago

[…] Combine training (20yd shuttle, 40yd dash), training style determines body image (see Mark’s changes), strength and rehab from Eric (also on glute activation and “creep“), progressive […]

Alex
Alex
7 years 7 months ago
Hello Mark, You said “When I work out or when I dine, I have a very clear picture of what’s happening with gene expression and there is nothing “magic” about it”. Would you please give us one example of practical method or idea implemented in a lifestyle that derived from specific information about the genes. Something that helped improve health or fitness, and no old method would work. Having “clear picture of what’s happening with gene expression” sounds to me as creating mental images rather than using genetic data. Maybe my skepticism comes from reading this fancy concept of gene… Read more »
Trinkwasser
Trinkwasser
7 years 7 months ago

I wish I could find a woman who got better looking as she got older people tended to overrestimate my age when I was younger and now tend to underrestimate it so I must be doing something right. But you two look to be doing *everything* right

Mark Sisson
7 years 7 months ago

Trinkwasser, thanks. I don’t know about “everything” but we certainly do our best to apply the information we’ve gathered, and in a way that is fun and playful.

Brett Cornwright
7 years 7 months ago

I have trained for two Ironmans, but I’m now starting not to enjoy the extended training time, plus I don’t really like swimming! I am now going to focus on some shorter races and start doing some more high intensity sprints and tabatas, etc. I have fat just beneath my navel that refuses to budge, so I’m hopeful this new approach will allow me to bust through a plateau I have had for the past three-four years. Hopefully, my genes will get the message! Thanks again for all of your advice via this blog!

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[…] fitness plan there is much less emphasis put on this aerobic energy path. I was a long-distance aerobic junky, as you probably already know, for years. It required massive amounts of carb-derived glycogen. For […]

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