What Tim Ferriss got wrong (and right) about lifting, food, and bodies in The 4-Hour Body

Revisiting the book that spawned a decade of "stacks," ice baths, redpill bros, and confusion on the forums.

What Tim Ferriss got wrong (and right) about lifting, food, and bodies in The 4-Hour Body
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 26: Author Tim Ferriss speaks during the Meet the Author: Tim Ferriss "The 4-Hour Body" at Apple Store Soho on May 26, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

The Question

I’m interested in getting into lifting weights, but I’m sort of confused where to start. Most of what I know about lifting comes from my brother, who is a longtime Tim Ferriss addict. Some of what he says seems real, and he IS ripped, which is the part of this that is hardest to deny. But he also does incredibly weird stuff that I don’t want to do. When I tell my brother I want to lift but don’t want to do the supplements, he gets frustrated with me and stops trying to help. But do I really have to do all of that stuff? —Brian W.

The Answer

It is hard to explain to someone now the absolute hold that Tim Ferriss had on the world of health in 2010-2012 or so. These days, it would probably be best to explain him as the author of the ur-text of productivity (The 4-Hour Work Week, 2007) as a kind of grandfather of biohacking (The 4-Hour Body, 2010).

While I’m not much for any Great Man Theory, it’s possible to draw a direct line from Tim Ferriss vilifying “white carbohydrates” to Jack Dorsey’s alarmingly ascetic eating habits; from his example eating schedules to today’s deluge of “what I eat in a day” posts; from his weirdly meticulous supplement regimens to Alex Jones’ dubious supplements.

This may be my media consumption bubble, but Ferriss surely does not seem as “everywhere” today as he did to me about ten years ago, nor as fervently recommended by followers. He seems to enjoy a fairly closed loop of a few million people who continue to listen to his podcast with its revolving door of celebrity guests and and consume his newsletter.1

But I think we are overdue for an appraisal of the effect, nay, the grip Tim Ferriss had on the health/exercise/nutrition landscape. Ferriss drove many peripatetic bros teetering on the threshold of the gym over to the weights in droves. He got them all nattering about “stacks” and “ice baths” and “cat vomit abs.”

Many of them have stopped, or moved on, which, I think it’s significant to look at why that happened. But some haven’t, and that makes it worth taking a look too.

I read The 4-Hour Body years and years ago and formed opinions on it then, and have since formed opinions of what I could remember of it along the way. But for the purpose of this post, I dug back in and read it again (available to borrow right away on Libby!) to see what it has to teach us about the long tail influence of health gurus who purport to have all the answers, and to look at it under the black light of our modern body of strength training knowledge. There isn’t time in the world to take on sections like the ones on sex, sleep, or medical tourism (??), so we’ll focus just on the fat loss, muscle gain, “reversing injuries,” and “getting stronger” sections. Here are my major takeaways from revisiting most of the book.

He’s breathtakingly sexist

Man (ha), if you want a peek back at what was a relatively mundane attitude toward women, gaze upon the works of Mr. Ferriss from the olden days of 2010: