Jason Hilger spent nine years in the Army as an Infantry soldier. At the time, he described himself as “Army fit” — his diet consisted of pizza, beer and burgers, but he could still throw 150 pounds on his back and pound out some cardio when he needed to.
“We didn’t have that chiseled look like an athlete, but we were fit and could run forever and walk for days,” he recalls.
About two years after he left the Army and returned home to Circle Pines, Minnesota, Hilger started working in construction to get himself through college, as he had started school to become an airline pilot. He first needed to become a flight instructor, which came with little pay and long hours. At the time, Hilger had a newborn to take care of, a house to pay for and a pile of debt — that’s when all the stress really started to hit him.
So fast food in large quantities became the norm. Hilger would down a 12-pack of Coke a day (equivalent to nearly 1,700 calories). When he ordered a jumbo deluxe burger from Culver’s, he’d make it a triple, so instead of three patties he’d get nine. His motivation to exercise was shot, so from about 2001 to 2007, the number on Hilger’s scale steadily rose. By 2009, he hit his heaviest weight of 298 pounds (which you can see in the “before” photo above, taken by his doctor.)
While he had no heart health issues, his doctor still recommended that he consider lap-band surgery, a procedure that would result in a silicone band being placed around the top part of his stomach to restrict food intake. During their first meeting, his doctors told him that he would have to lose at least 30 pounds on his own before the surgery.
“If I’ve gone that far, there’s no need to pay $12,000 when I could just do this on my own,” Hilger recalls.
But he went through all of the weight-loss classes as if he was going through with it, and that’s when he really started to make some changes. The very first thing he needed to do was control how much he was eating. With the help of MyFitnessPal, Hilger started documenting everything he ate — but that doesn’t mean his diet automatically transformed into fish and salads.
“For about the first six months to a year, I was just controlling calories and learning how to live off of less food. So instead of a whole pizza, I’d just have one slice,” he says.
After losing about 30 pounds in the first few months, Hilger started walking every day after dinner. After losing another 20 pounds, he got his first gym membership and started running on the treadmill. To keep his progress going, Hilger followed a meal plan and workout routine using an online nutritionist and trainer. That’s when he started to learn more about macronutrients and how to split up his calories between protein, carbs and fat. He continued to rev his metabolism through daily cardio.
Within two years, he was down to 185 pounds. But he lacked the muscle definition that he wanted, and even started to gain some weight back, so about three years ago, Hilger decided to enlist the help of a personal trainer.
“After a few months he asked me to redefine my goals. I told him that I don’t really have one, just to get in shape and stay there,” Hilger says. “He kept pushing me on a goal. Behind him was a poster for a local NPC bodybuilding competition, so I said ‘OK, I want to win that.’”
His trainer helped him prepare for a full year, but about two months before the competition, Hilger’s excess skin had become the focal point of his six-pack.
“A couple of friends pulled me aside and said, ‘It looks like you’re in great shape, but all they’re ever going to see is that,’” he says.
Knowing he would never place with loose skin, he decided to forgo the competition. He was hesitant to get the pricey procedure, but his wife kept pushing him to follow through with it, so toward the end of 2015, he went through the first surgery. All of the excess was fully removed by January 2016. Within a month, he was already prepping for his next competition in November, where he placed first in novice and third in the 40+ age group. He kept at it and did another one this past April, where the competition was fierce. He placed fourth and fifth. (You can see him at that show in the after photo above at 200 pounds.)
Hilger is currently prepping for another show — and he’s determined to win it this time. That means he goes into the gym with a completely different attitude.
“You’re not here to work out for a certain time period, you’re here to work out until you’re done,” he says. (Don’t have time to hit the gym? Shed fat at home with Anarchy Abs from Men’s Health, a fitness program guaranteed to help you carve a legendary six-pack.)
His schedule is no joke: He breaks a sweat five days a week and splits his days to make sure he’s working every muscle group. Standing calf raises, the incline bench press, lat pulldowns, deadlifts, concentrated bicep curls, barbell squats, hamstring curls, hanging leg lifts and crunches are only a taste of the exercises he does every single week.
What’s more, the man that once downed a case of soda of a day now preps all of his meals every Sunday. (Check out our beginner’s guide to meal prep.) Hilger focuses on eating lean protein, healthy fats and loads of vegetables, like chicken and asparagus with a bit of olive oil.
Hilger now sits at a muscular 207 pounds and has dropped from a size 46 to a 32. He looks like a different person and feels like one, too. He can finally keep up with both of his kids, and since he coaches his son’s baseball team, his fear of being the “fat dad” is long gone.
“I run around and do everything with them,” he says. “One day, one of the other fathers said, ‘Boy, it’d be great to be your age again.’ I told him I’m 46 and he said, ‘Holy crap, I’m 10 years younger than you.’”
Hilger’s secret to sticking with a lifestyle change? “Surround yourself with the right people,” he says.
His wife and kids always encouraged him to stay on track — and called him out when he was tempted to go back for more pizza. Once he started to hit the gym regularly, he made friends with other guys who encouraged him to stay focused.
“When you surround yourself with people with similar goals, it’s kind of hard to stray from them,” he says.