When you scroll through his Instagram, you could easily mistake Marc Madilson for a professional athlete. His feed is filled with pictures of his sculpted physique, tough workouts, and vibrant meals—but just six years ago, the 34-year-old personal trainer from Toronto, Canada was about as far away from that as you can get.
As he approached his late 20s, Madilson became less active as he focused more on the comforts of his relationship, rather than playing sports with his friends. He knew that he was slowly gaining weight, but did his best to brush it off. Even as the scale tipped to 260 pounds, he justified the number, since everyone else around him seemed to be out of shape, too.
But he was still having a hard time ignoring the nagging signs. For one, his clothes just didn’t fit right anymore. Plus, two of his family members had passed away due to weight-related diseases, like diabetes and heart disease.
“I saw that picture and I thought, ‘There is no way that is me,’” Madilson says. “That was the moment. When I saw the most raw photo of myself, I knew I needed to make a change.” (See the photo for yourself in the “before” portion of the composite above.)
That picture and his family history was all the motivation he needed to take his exercise habits from zero to 100. When the new year hit, Madilson started by giving himself 30 days before checking in on his progress. He spent the entire month of January 2012 going to the gym five days a week.
He went full speed ahead with four sets of five exercises, 12 to 15 reps of each. “In the beginning, I was just trying to re-acclimate my body to getting fit,” he explains. “I wanted to make sure my technique was right.” For the first month, he focused on exercises like dumbbell curls, squats, chin-ups and pullups. For a cardio boost, he started walking at a steep incline almost every day.
After 30 days, Madilson evaluted his progress and was disappointed with the results. Even though he was constantly breaking a sweat, he wasn’t seeing the changes he hoped for. “It was very frustrating—things that would have worked great in my early 20s weren’t doing anything,” he recalls.
The culprit? While Madilson may have been diligent with his exercise, his diet of processed and sugar-loaded foods had not changed at all. As he researched why he wasn’t seeing the changes he wanted, he started to understand how big of an impact his eating habits were making on his progress, or lack thereof.
“I realized I needed to make drastic changes to my diet. I took out sugar and started eating only whole foods. I knew I needed to start cooking my own food, so I started teaching myself,” he says.
So Madilson got to work: He turned to countless recipes and started watching cooking tutorials so he could learn his way around the kitchen. Instead of buying fish filet and chicken sandwiches from a drive-thru, he started making his own chicken breasts and fish filets at home.
The diet switch was the key to Madilson's progress. After three months, he started noticing definition in his abs. As late spring arrived in Canada that year, people began shedding their heavy winter layers, and that's when people really noticed how far he had come.
“My friends were shocked. They couldn’t believe what I had done in a few months,” he says.
During that time, Madilson was still in school, completing a degree in environmental studies. But as he found himself spending hours at a time pouring over health-related information, he started considering a career in the field. As summer progressed, Madilson stuck with his lifestyle changes, constantly researching new ways he could improve in and out of the gym. That's when the lightbulb finally went off.
“I started falling in love with all the information I was finding,” he says. He started taking kinesiology and nutrition classes, and is now a full time personal trainer.
Since then, Madilson hasn't looked back, and currently hovers around 205 pounds, which you can see in the after photo above, taken in July 2017. He feels too good to fall back into his old habits, despite how tempting it can be.
“I stopped drinking two years ago, which has presented a few challenges,” he says. “I’m west Indian, and it’s part of the culture to drink. The toughest part is fighting the societal pressures of it, but I always say my greatest strength is my willpower. I never have thoughts of relapse.”
Last November, Madilson took his diet a step further and went full vegan, and liked it so much that he maintains a diet free of meat products today. “I stopped feeling sluggish after meals, and I felt so much more alive, that I just decided to stick with it,” he explains. Check out what the inside of his fridge looks like below.
As for his current favorite exercises, Madilson has a few that he attributes his success to. He regularly incorporates high-intensity interval training into his routine, particularly treadmill sprints. One of his go-to treadmill workouts is setting the clock for 20 minutes followed by alternating 30-second max sprints and 30-second rest until the clock runs out.
He also says increasing the range of a few basic movements, like the squat, chinup, and pullup, dramatically improved his fitness. “Adding in machine lat pull-downs helped me build up my chinup and pullup range,” he says. Lunges and planks are also go-to moves. He became hooked on running after training and completing the Chicago Marathon last year, so Madilson also runs an average of 30 miles per week.
Since he spends almost all of his time at the gym, bouncing back and forth through clients all day, he’s naturally become a master at maximizing 30 minutes.
“If I only have 30 minutes, I’ll pick five exercises, such as squat thrusters, renegade rows, walking lunges, side plank crunches and hamstring thrusts on the ground, and do as many rounds as possible of 20 reps of every exercise until time runs out,” he explains. “I’ll typically do these with dumbbells, picking a weight that’s about 60 percent of my max. So, something that will be challenging but something I can still do with some speed.”
When he isn't in the gym, you can find Madilson doing the one other thing he loves the most—traveling the world. Most recently, he visited Grenada, Barbados, South Korea, Trinidad, and Bali. Between his workout-oriented posts, his Instagram page includes incredible pictures of his trips, which he uses as a mental reset. “Fitness is just as much mental as it is physical, and for me, traveling is where I can recharge.”
So how does he maintain his physique while abroad? Madilson always travels with training shoes, a resistance band and occasionally a TRX. “I’ve even used stones or rocks as resistance for walking lunges or squats,” he says. “If I don’t have a lot of space, I’ll do mountain climbers, bicycle kicks, lunges on the spot, squats for max reps, side plank holds or decline pushups on a chair.” When he can, he'll go on a run when he’s in a new area to explore his new surroundings.
But even though he's come far, remember that Madilson started where a lot of guys do when they approach their 30s.
His advice? “I’d tell anyone about to embark on this journey that it is one solely for yourself,” he says. “Despite societal pressures from friends and family, you have to listen to that voice guiding you to your goal and ignore that other one keeping you away.”
The one thing he always tells his clients, his motto, is that it’s never too late to be in the best shape of your life. “We only get one opportunity in this life, so why not make that body the best version it can be?”
This article originally appeared on Men's Health