This story is part of our ongoing “First Steps” series, where we share extraordinary stories of men who transformed their bodies, minds, and lives with a focus on the first steps it took them to get there (because, after all, nothing can change without a first step!). Read all of the stories here.

For Toby Allen, injuries led to poor sleep which led to takeout food and eventually weight gain and all the things that can stand in the way of your healthiest life. A photo of himself acted as a wake-up call and here's how his transformation unfolded, in his own words:

FOR ME, THE turning point came after my friend’s 40th birthday party. Someone sent me a photo of it, and in the picture my friend looks like a small child standing next to me—like I’d become this hulking monster with gray-hued skin. That was a real lightning-bolt moment: I needed to sort myself out.

I’d been through a lot by that point, over more than ten years. My wife was in a coma years earlier after a misdiagnosis; she’s home now, but I spend a lot of time caring for her. I’d had a series of rugby injuries, including a pretty serious back injury that left me in agony most of the time. Then doctors gave me medication that blunted the pain but left me mentally foggy. I didn’t sleep well with the pain, so I was just tired all the time. I ate a lot of convenient takeout food while caring for my wife, and that became a habit, which led to putting on more pounds.

"I really learned that HOW you lift is much more important than HOW MUCH you lift."

As I gained weight—at my heaviest I was 353 pounds (160 kg)—I developed scoliosis and bulging discs in my spine. The doctors said if I didn’t lose weight, I’d have to have major back surgery and might never walk again. So that was obviously a motivator. I knew I needed to change, and that I’d put it off too long.

I lost some of that weight, then started working with a trainer at Ultimate Performance. We started by taking stock of how my different injuries had affected my body. I’d had a broken leg at one point, so my legs didn’t have the same strength or flexibility. My shoulder was a mess. And my back issues meant exercises like deadlifts weren’t really an option.

My First Steps Were Literally Just Steps

WE STARTED BY simply counting steps. For the first four weeks, walking 10,000 steps a day was a real effort. It was a challenge to move that much. Soon, though, I was up to 15,000 and then 20,000. It got easier, and seeing those numbers climb was a real motivator. I might even get up to 30,000 or 40,000 steps, no bother.

I’d obviously trained for rugby, where there’s a little bit of a macho culture about who can put up the most weight. During this transformation I really learned that how you lift is much more important than how much you lift. Time under tension really matters.

And I learned more about diet as a key part of getting fit. Rugby has a pretty vibrant social scene, so after every match I’d be out drinking and eating, not really paying attention to what I put in my body. Working with a dedicated trainer, I learned to get quality proteins and pay attention to carbs. And I learned to swap water in for beer. I can be pretty stubborn, but once I saw how quickly the plan led to results—in about a month of eating better I saw a difference—I was on board, and my stubbornness worked in my favor.

I also learned (or re-learned) how important sleep is to a healthy body.

I Feel Like a Different Person

OVERALL, I LOST more than 88 pounds (40kg) and went from 35 percent body fat down to around 11 percent. Maybe more importantly, I no longer have to take any medications and I’m not in constant pain. My back feels great—I can stand up straight. I’ve had people walk right past me who hadn't seen me in a couple years due to Covid. They’re people who’ve known me 25 years!

After slimming down that much, we started working on bulking up a bit to address some of my injury-related imbalances. Training’s like a routine to me now, and that’s probably the best advice I can give. Take that first step. Once you get started, sure, there’s adversity, but it’s for the greater good. And by the time you’re 20 or 25 days in, it’ll be a habit.

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