Jaco van der Merwe was always skinny. The 22-year-old law student from Pretoria, South Africa, had a pacemaker inserted when he was six, which kept him out of sports. “As I started growing older,” he says, “I started getting insecure about how skinny I was but I didn’t think I’d be able to change it.” Even when he saw his friend working out, he dismissed it as a waste of time.
It took YouTube to change his mind. Specifically, transformation videos from the likes of David Laid, who started bulking up as a 14-year-old. Seeing how they’d redefined themselves made him believe he could do it, too.
So he started working out at home with another friend, using the basics: a barbell, bench, dumbbells, and plates. “We had no clue what we were doing,” he says. He started by copying Laid’s “PPL (Push, Pull, Legs)” workout split. He didn’t know much about diet, either; he basically took three scoops of whey protein along with whatever he normally ate, with no concern for calories or macros.
But it worked. He started seeing some gains, which motivated him to keep going. “I remember waking up and feeling bigger than yesterday,” he says.
Working without a trainer, he’s developed his own knowledge base thanks to the internet. He tracks his calories and shifted to an upper/lower split workout, with an extra day for arms. “Progress was what motivated me at the start but by now working out has become such an integral part of my life it feels like second nature,” he says.
He started at 158 pounds and quickly worked up to 180. Dieting brought him back down to 172, then he bulked up twice more, hitting 203 pounds each time. He dieted back down to his current weight, 176 pounds, on a 5’10” frame. “I gained 18 pounds in total and I’m way leaner than when I started,” he says.
For him, motivation or finding the time to hit the gym wasn’t a problem. “The most difficult part for me was mastering each exercise,” he says. Wanting the best results, he carefully researched form for exercises like deadlifts and squats. “In retrospect I regret not starting to work out sooner,” he says. “I can’t see myself without it any more.”
The physical changes mean he’s gone up a shirt size—his chest grew the fastest—and he has to worry about Hulk-busting through his old jackets; similarly, all his pants needed to be replaced to fit his new, thicker legs. “Along with the physical size I definitely feel like I grew as a person,” he says, describing feeling more disciplined and self-confident. He’s also more social. “Before I started working out I was basically a hermit, spending the whole day playing games,” he says. “Now I’m active and I’ve met a lot of great people at the gym.”
Surgery to install a new pacemaker in June left him to recover some of his gains, but he’s staying consistent and putting in the work. He’s nowhere near the end of his journey. “Even 10 years down the line I think I’ll still have space to improve,” he says. “No one’s physique is perfect and there’s always something to work on.”