Ngo Okafor knows what it’s like to look good: Thanks in no small part to his rippling six-pack, the Nigerian-born, New York City-based personal trainer has been called the internet’s most downloaded black male model. But he knows how to move, too: At 31, the one-time computer scientist took up boxing—and won the national Golden Gloves championship two years in a row.

As the owner of Iconoclast Fitness, he’s helped Hollywood stars like Naomi Campbell and Brooke Shields transform their bodies for roles and tours—and at 47, has also kept himself in killer shape. The key to transforming yourself in the same way?

“Stop babying yourself,” he says. “You’ll wake up at whatever time if your boss says to wake up or you’ll be fired. You wake up and you go. So stop being soft. Get up and do it.”

Here, he shares even more more straight talk on dieting, transforming your body, and staying fit well into your thirties, forties, and beyond.

You’re known for transformations that result in a shredded look that lots of people are after. But not many of us get there. In your view, what’s the missing piece in their training that’s keeping them from reaching those goals?

The most important missing piece is lifting with an elevated heart rate. Be it doing circuit training, or doing cardio before you get started so that your heart rate is elevated, you’re burning a lot more calories from that. So it feels like you’re you’re doing cardio, even though you’re lifting weights—because your heart is elevated.

What keeps people from getting there? Too much rest between sets?

It’s ego. You know, “I’ve still got to be able to do two plates.” But if you’re not resting, you can’t do two plates. You just have to make a decision.

Like I’ll have guys who say, “Yeah, I know, logically, I want to get cut. But emotionally, I want to lift heavy.” That’s the battle. Somebody walks past and they see you benching one plate, and you’re like, “but I can really do two, or two and a quarter!” Nobody gives a shit. So don’t get caught up in what people are going to say, or what you “should” be lifting, or what percentage of your body weight you should be benching or squatting. If your goal is to get cut, your goal is to get cut.

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It’s about stress. Your body’s not a scale. So if what you’re doing is hard [because the pace makes lighter weights feel harder], your body doesn’t know that it’s 200 or 300 pounds—all it knows is, “This is hard for me, so I will do what I need to adapt.”

What’s your solution to get guys over that ego stuff? And what’s the high heart rate training you prescribe them?

I say, “Listen. Just give me 30 days.” Thirty days of putting that ego aside. Put whatever you’ve read before, put it aside for 30 days, and afterwards you can go back to it.

My 28-day transformation program breaks the body up into chest, back, and legs. Monday, we do chest. Tuesday, we do back. Wednesday, we do legs. And then Thursday, we do chest again. Back again on Friday. And then on Saturday and Sunday, you do an hour of cardio, stretching, and abs.

We do abs every day because I believe you can hypertrophy the abdominals. A lot of coaches don’t believe that. But if you can hypertrophy your biceps, I believe you can do it on your rectus abdominis [the six-pack muscle].

[In each workout,] depending on their conditioning level, we’d do three to four rounds. It’ll be pushing for max output for 15 reps [on each move in each round]. So let’s say we’re doing chest. We could do either cable flies, flat bench press, pushups, situps, leg raises, and then jump on a bike, treadmill, StairMaster or rowing machine for three minutes. Then boom, right back to lifting. We do that for three or four rounds, and then I’ll do a chest finisher at the end.

It could be dips and incline dumbbell bench press. We just go back and forth for time. At this point, you’re fatigued, so you’re sort of lumbering over, but it feels like you’re running back and forth. [The whole lifting section] is for an hour.

Then, the first two weeks, you would do 30 minutes of cardio right after you train, or within the same 24 hours. The second two weeks, you’d do the same, but the difference would be you would do an hour of cardio.

I try to keep the cardio to lower impact. I advise clients not to run more than a mile or two [during this time] because we’re putting a lot of stress on your body, and I want you to finish 28 days without any possibility of injury. So the bike is great. Elliptical machines are great. An incline walk is great.

Sounds intense. How do you make sure they’re able to recover and train for 28 days straight?

The goal is not to destroy them where they’re so sore they can’t move, where they can’t train the next day. You want to be right at that fine line where you’re sore, but it’s not debilitatingly sore.

You’ve got to be smart about it. We’re doing this every day for 28 days, and number one, you don’t want to burn out. The program is designed to be challenging, to be tough. But don’t break your body down so much that you can’t move, like you’re just sore to the touch, where you feel like your soul is sore. We don’t want that kind of soreness.

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Is this similar to how you train?

This is how I train every day. But I also do things like—do you know the Cindy workout?

So I would do a five-minute Cindy, and then I’ll do chest afterwards or legs afterwards. It will literally be a sprint—how many rounds can I get in with five minutes? I don’t ever do like, one set of squats, then check Instagram. I don’t do that.

When my wife got pregnant, I was like, “Oh fuck, I got to get my kid to Harvard. So I’ve got to work my ass off.” So I would do 13, 14 training sessions per day [as a coach], and I’ve got a 30-minute gap. I wasn’t ever going to let myself get out of shape. So I created a workout I could do in 30 minutes that’s super-intense, builds muscle, and gets me what I need. That’s how I created my program.

But with your clients, the workout is longer?

I’m used to suffering, but I know most people aren’t. So I took that 30 minutes and relaxed it a bit [laughs].

For those same guys trying to make a big transformation, what tends to be missing from a diet perspective? Too much sugar? Too much fat, because we’re already carb conscious?

We eat too damn much. You know that whole “rule” that you should eat your bodyweight in grams of protein? That is like the greatest error in this business. For a 200-pound man to consume 200 grams of protein—the amount of food you have to consume and supplements you have to consume to make up for that, you can’t cut those last few percent of body fat. [You] just keep shoving all this protein and shakes.

Just eat like a normal fucking person. Eat a normal-sized portion. A normal-sized plate. Most people don’t need to consume more than 10 or 12 ounces of steak or chicken in one sitting.

We all have a slight sugar addiction, so carbs are hard for people to cut. Which is why I have my clients eat oatmeal in the morning, so you get some carbs. And then for your snack, you get like a handful of nuts. You can have some raisins and cranberries in it so you get some sweet taste, so you don’t feel like like you’re suffering.

What about quick, extreme transformations, though? One that still resonates even 20 years later with is Brad Pitt’s look from Fight Club. To get that shredded, you’ve got to be more extreme, right?

If the studio is investing millions of dollars in you, then you can’t fuck around. You want to do another [film]! This is like a coming out party, so you go balls to the wall. It’s going to be hard. You’re going to suffer. But you suffer for 30 days, and you get to live the rest of your life as a superhero. No man that has seen Fight Club will ever forget what Brad Pitt looked like in that movie.

So number one, no drinking—that’s the real number one, for multiple reasons. The first being calories. Second, your inhibitions go down. You don’t know what the hell you put in your mouth after you have a bottle of wine, you know?

Without the “studio” dropping $10 million on you looking good, how do regular guys make that mental switch to achieve a transformation that big?

Stop being soft. Stop babying yourself.

You know, we will work and slave for somebody else, but we won’t put in the work for ourselves. You’ll wake up at whatever time your boss says to wake up or you’ll be fired. You wake up and you go. So stop being soft. Get up and do it.

Anybody that puts their mind to it can soldier through for four weeks—it’s 28 days. You’re not going to die from it—that’s my motto. If I’m doing a workout that’s like extremely painful, I’m not going to die from it. You’re not going to die from it. So just shut the fuck up, man! Stop being soft and do it.

Everybody that listens to me and says, “I’m going to trust you,” after the 28 days, that toughness they built in those 28 days can transfer to everything else in their lives. Because outside of losing someone, nothing else you do will be as hard as denying yourself things and training every day for 28 days.

What about trying to “soldier through” in your thirties and beyond, when your recovery has started to slip? You won your first Golden Gloves title in your thirties: What are the keys to attaining a big fitness or athletic goal at that age and beyond?

First of all, I don’t agree with the recovery thing. I’m 46, and will be 47 in December, and I recover just the same. But my mindset is the key, because I refused to believe I’m deteriorating. I’m actually getting better.

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You know, guys over 50, they read stuff that says they can’t build muscle over 50 years old, or you can’t build muscle the same way over 50. And I say the reason you don’t build muscle as well as you did when you were in your twenties is because you don’t live like you did when you were in your twenties. We start saying all this shit to ourselves, like, “Oh, leave it to the younger guys.” You’re going to leave looking good to the younger guys? All right.

The longer you work at it, the better you get it it. I’m looking at my fitness journey as a continuum, so I’m not going to try to squat all the weight today or bench all the weight today. I continue to look at it as incremental growth. So I’m going to keep getting stronger, but I’m not going to destroy my joints today by maxing out all the time. Also: I do cardio and mobility work every single day, and they’s what keeps me moving.

You will continue to get better until, god forbid, your bones just break or your heart just gives out. If you look at it as a continuum and as a process, you will continue to get better.

Do you think there any advantages for us slightly older guys, too, as we try to reach these big goals?

I’m smarter than I was in my twenties. If I knew then what I know now, I would feel so much better. I would have been stretching so much more, working on doing more doing yoga. Just working on keeping my hips mobile and open, which prevents lower back pain, helps your posture, helps you stand up more upright.

When I first started boxing, people laughed at me—literally. Boxing’s always anti-strength training, anti-weights, and here I come with muscles. They thought I would be slow.

You just keep working on the fundamentals. It’s like playing piano. Nobody woke up and became Mozart overnight. You’re going to suck for a long time. But when I started boxing at 31, what helped me win was my life experience. I was able to be an outsider looking in. I could dissect boxing and figure out what solution, what math equation I can apply to boxing and cut down the time.

A lot of these guys had been boxing since they were like six, seven, eight years old. I fought guys in their twenties. I fought a guy that was 18 years old, and he’s been boxing since he was six. So I needed to compress 10, 12, 15 years into 12 months. [My life experience] let me analyze boxing and figure out how to win.

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