If you follow me on social media I’m sure you have heard me mention Nadim by this point – my long time client and dear friend who taught me everything I know about living (as opposed to merely existing).
I posted his contest pictures a while back and I’ve been getting a lot of questions about his story ever since – the story of how he went from being a completely healthy #bro to having a (now vascular) pacemaker planted in his chest after his open heart surgery.
His journey towards recovery, and eventual triumph, was inspirational to say the least and I wanted to share it with you because I believe we can all learn something from it.
As I started to write it however, something just felt off. It felt sterile, stripped of all its organic layers of life; it was story that I had written as an observer, not as a protagonist, a story narrated post-hoc that looked good on paper but did not feel like da real thang.
It felt like marketing – and I hated it.
So I decided to ask Nadim to write his story as a guest post.
I’m very happy to share with you the extraordinary story of a guy with a heart the size of Manhattan, and no, I’m in no way referring to the thickness of his myocard.
My Journey: From Bodybuilding to Open Heart Surgery and Back
This is a personal essay on the art of lifting (not a typo) in an opaque world where nothing is certain and where all you can do is learn to take the lemons life throws at you and squeeze them into your BCAA shaker so that it tastes a little less like ass.
Before Veins Mattered and Pacemakers Were a Thing
My gym love story begins in 2009.
Up until that point, I was fairly mediocre in pretty much every aspect of life, body composition and sport abilities included. I had done some training in the weight room during my late teens but I never really got sucked into it the way it is often portrayed in the blogosphere.
When I gave up on lifting during my teen years, I had no idea that the gym would one day become a big part of my life, that the love of lifting would be the light of optimism guiding me through the dark days of ill health that were waiting as my heart would fail me.
The gym would become a metaphor for true strength, willpower and the refusal to live life passively; it would be in the gym that I would develop the resolve to take action and to harness my everything to make this a life worth living.
Lifting would become synonymous with living because I knew that as long as I was able to lift then I was still alive.
But back in 2009, none of this mattered.
Following the end of a long relationship, I decided I needed to make some changes in my life and adding some muscle mass seemed like a good place to start. I applied for a gym membership and bought my first Super Alligator Max Pump Gainer® (or something similar).
After asking the gym owner about the best way to gain muscle mass, I lifted hard and ate the world, which resulted in me gaining about 66lbs over 6 months and bragging rights about my first double plate bench press – ok, perhaps bragging rights is a bit of an exaggeration considering how fat I had gotten in the progress.
This period of my life taught me two valuable lessons:  there is a qualitative difference between fat and muscle weight and  – critical thinking is a useful skill.
Bonus lesson number 3 was that not all gigantic gym owner bros sitting on a pair of veiny hamstrings actually know what the hell they’re talking about.
How To End Up In Cardiac Surgery In 3 Simple Steps
And thus began my adventure into the fitness world: I had set my mind to learning as much as I possibly could on the manipulation of nutrition and training to improve my body composition.
Initially, my lifting routine was low volume and minimalistic in nature; it was as simple as it was effective. I also learned that nutrition was a game of letter combinations (LCHF, GI, Paleo, BRO) – so I tried them all. Luckily, a close friend introduced me to the letter combination that was going to be the game changer for me personally.
IF, or Intermittent Fasting immediately hit home. It has been one of the best tools I’ve used to date.
While studying nutrition protocols, the training progressively became more hardcore – it was balls to the wall - every single session. I recall at one point having a high fever and still heading down to the gym for a heavy squat session. Soon I was pulling off two training sessions per day with no concern for periodization or deloads.
After a while I started feeling physical discomfort. I could feel in my gut that something was wrong- but I ignored it, and by 2012 I decided that I wanted to compete.
Needless to say, things got worse.
By the summer of 2012 my body was in really bad shape and by now I had started to notice that my heart wouldn’t stop racing. I’d wake up after five hours of sleep with a sensation comparable to that of a full grown bull stomping inside my thorax.
My heart would race at an insane rate of 172 beats per minute – in my sleep.
I realized this was bad, I just had no clue just how bad.
One ECG later and I was rushed in an ambulance to the nearest hospital.
I was diagnosed with a genetic form of enlarged heart disease (Dilated Cardiomyopathy) a diagnosis that I was reasonably familiar with since my uncle had suffered from the disease and had recently gotten a heart transplant. The doctors presumed I had inherited the disease from my mother’s side of the family, given that my grandmother had also passed away prematurely due to heart related issues. By this time, I was heavily medicated with beta-blockers and blood thinners, and discussions revolving around the possible need for heart surgery had already begun stirring.
Being in a haze from everything that was suddenly happening around me, I was having a hard time taking in all the information. The only things that had been made clear to me was that I would not be allowed to step foot into a gym again.
Personal Record in One-Arm Triceps Pushdowns
Resistance training in relations to my physical condition is a very poorly researched area, which is why it took six months of lengthy discussions before my cardiologist would let me try to lift weights again.
And when I finally did get back in the gym, my body was in the worst condition it had ever been. The workouts were plain hell – but I loved every gruelling minute as I could gradually feel my strength come back once I was able to (very carefully) increase the intensity, duration and frequency of my workouts.
A year after my initial diagnosis the discussions about heart surgery got more intense. The doctors recommended the implant of an internal defibrillator (ICD) with a pacemaker function. I was very hesitant at first but ultimately decided to follow my family’s wishes.
Understanding my dedication and determination to keep lifting and living an active life, my doctor, being a true #bro, actually made my surgery as lifter-friendly as possible: he opted to plant a newer, smaller, version of the ICD higher up in my chest so as to reduce the risk of it interfereing with my training.
Three days after surgery I was back in the gym doing one-arm triceps pushdowns, calf presses and seated leg extensions. It wasn’t much but I was back!
Eventually, as my body and I started to form some kind of new relationship (based on mutual respect, understanding, forgiveness and bicep pumps), my dream of stepping on stage slowly started to come back to me.
It was probably the most irrational idea I’d ever had considering what I’d been through. But it was also a challenge, a fight against mediocrity and a refusal to allow myself to become a victim.
I had to try, no matter how terrified I was.
When I first started researching intermittent fasting I stumbled upon a guy named Bojan Kostevski. Apparently he was some hotshot emergency doc who also was into strength training and nutrition. Considering my current situation and medical history (yeah, I had one of those now) I knew that if I were ever to pursue this crazy dream of mine, I would need help. So I contacted a few of his clients and after a few weeks of email exchanges I knew he would be the perfect guy for the job.
I reached out and told him about my situation.
I was terrified of being rejected, of getting the same response I’d been getting from every other person I’d ever shared my hopes with – that I was crazy, that I needed to revaluate my life, that I needed to let it go and find some other hobby.
He gave me what we in #teamliftheavy today refer to as a very Bojanesque response – a short email with an attachment. Man, was I surprised when I opened the attachment though. He had sent me an entire training program – for free – and told me to finish it and contact him again if I still wanted to pursue my dream.
Bojan, always having to be a pain in the ass before taking on a new project (sorry, brother), did not say ‘Yes’ immediately. He wanted to make sure I could handle the enormous workload he would put me through, both physically and mentally, and to make sure I had the right mindset to go through his coaching process which, as I had quickly realised, was not going to be a walk in the park.
The program was not your average 12-week transformation on SALE (that ends at midnight). It was 36 weeks long expedition through different phases with ever increasing intensity and complexity.
It was long, very detailed and a bit crazy.
Just like him.
Had I known back then how much effort, energy and time it would have takes I probably never would have pursued it. But I’m glad I did.
I still remember those insane leg sessions that always ended with me borderline passing out on the gym floor in a puddle of my own sweat and tears. I hated it and I loved it. But the results could not be ignored. My weight cannonballed up to an all-time high and I gained a tremendous amount of strength with sizable personal records in the bench press, squat, deadlift and weighted chin-ups.
The biggest victory however, was not in any of the lifts. I had passed Bojan’s test. Apart from having to call my heart clinic and ask them to raise the upper heart rate limit on my pacemaker, the process went smoothly health-wise. High volume lifting and intermittent fasting actually seemed to positively affect my health as my labs and vital parameters improved throughout the whole process.
Dieting and Starting a Business
Just as I started to relax from the enormous effort, Bojan delivered the next blast and surprised me by putting me on a fat loss diet that would last the majority of 2014. Now that he had accepted taking me on as a client he wanted to see how my body would react to stage ready levels of body fat – and to give you a visual of what he had to work with, here is a snapshot of me in my less than flattering post-bulk glory.
Bojan introduced me to his approach to cutting and put me on a diet that would last the majority of 2014. It was the worst and best fat loss diet I had ever done. I lost around 21kg (46 lbs), and achieved the best conditioning until that point in my life. During this undertaking I quit my day job and started my own personal training studio and coaching service Heart Shaped Physique. Bojan made sure we celebrated my results with a photo shoot. He contacted his trusted friend Isa Olsson, the owner of the phenomenal Massive Performance training facility, who not only provided a backdrop for the shoot but personally shot and edited all photos for his documentation as well as my marketing materials.
We now knew what we needed to get through to get me on that stage and we decided to pull through.
Stepping Up on Stage
I would compete at Decembercupen 2015 in the Men’s Physique division, and after a short lean bulk, it was time for another fat loss diet. This wasn’t going to be just a regular ‘cut’. This was going to be a competition diet and I knew it would be one of the most challenging things I would have ever had to do. During the whole process Bojan kept a close eye on me and I was looking better by the day; I knew it was time to embraced the suck so I kept doing what I knew needed to be done. I never felt alone and I knew I would bring the best of myself to the stage.
Towards the end, when my body fat was really low, my resting heart rate dropped to ~28 beats per minute, making both Bojan as well as the nurses at my hospital a little nervous (my pacemaker transfers data remotely to the heart clinic). Apart from doing my best to make them a little anxious, the competition diet went well and my heart tolerated the stress like a boss.
On the day of the competition a snowstorm hit Sweden and Bojan was stuck inside his cottage. He tried his best to dig himself out to his car (picture below) but there was no way for him to get out to the main road. The last text I got said that he was sitting in his car waiting and hoping that someone would clear the streets and get him out. I had a feeling that he probably wasn’t going make it on time.
We had been journeying together, every single step of the way. Standing backstage, knowing I would step up on stage without him by my side…sucked.
I was nervous.
Just as I was getting ready to step up on stage I heard the door to the arena slam open. I saw Bojan running down the stairs, camera in hand, steam rising from his head. Understanding that he must have been close to death to get there considering the weather outside, I knew there was only one thing for me to do.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, exhaled all the nervous energy in my heart (see what I did there?), smiled, took a few confident steps out on the stage, set my sights on the judges, smiled, and hit my line-up pose.
And guess what? I made it to the final rounds. Before I even left the stage I knew I wanted to do it again. It was worth every minute in the gym, every single drip of sweat, every second of breathlessness. I felt alive.
I FUCKING DID IT.
Right now I’m in the middle of a bulking period, still working with Bojan. The plan now is to add as much muscle mass as needed to improve my weak spots and take the next step in my bodybuilding career. Following another of Bojan’s insanely fucked up programs (you know I love you) I’ve added about 15 kilograms (33 lbs) of body mass, still making progress every day with minimal fat gain(as seen in my progress photos below) and I don’t plan on stopping now. Semper ad Meliora.
I would like to end this essay with a few words about my partner in crime. I think Bojan differs a lot from other coaches in a number of ways which I want to point out.
Having been in the fitness industry for a long time I’ve come across the whole spectrum of different coaches. While there are some differences between them, there are too many copycat, re-hashing, circle jerk pretenders contaminating the industry and it makes me sick.
Bojan stands out from the rest.
When you wake up in the middle of the night with abdominal hunger cramps during your contest prep, he might not the kind of guy who will hold your hand, dry your tears and tell you everything’s going to be all right.
For better or worse, he is 100% honest with what he thinks and he will tell you what you need to hear, even if you don’t want to. He may not dry your tears and hold your hand but he will guide you in every way possible to maximize your full potential. He will listen to you sob like a 12 year old when you’ve been dieting for 6 months straight and will still somehow find a way to motivate you to keep on grinding.
He has got no problem telling you to man up and reminding you that this was your own choice – but he makes sure to provide you with all the necessary tools to take ownership of the process and get the job done. He always has time, and his answers, no matter the subject matter, are always delivered in a methodical, practical and actionable way.
Not once during the time we’ve worked together did I ever feel like I was missing out on something or was lacking the tools necessary to complete my task. Not once did I wonder if some other coach had something better to offer. That to me means more than anything. Throughout the years Bojan has been an invaluable advisor and coach when it comes to training, nutrition and medical matters – but more than that he has also become a mentor and a trusted friend. I’m proud to be a part of #teamliftheavy and I look forward to what the future holds as I continue to dominate not only life in the gym, but life in its entirety along side my team mates, online and off.
Do you think more people need to hear this story? Feel free to share it with your friends. And please leave any comments below, I’ll make sure Nadim gets them.
© 2016, Dr.Bojan Kostevski. Lift-Heavy.com is a division of Hardcore Training Solutions – All Rights Reserved – All images are copyright of their respective owners.