Investment Banking Fitness: How to Stay in Shape While Working 105 Hours per Week
If you’ve been reading this site for a long time, you probably thought that I’d never return to the topic of investment banking fitness.
After all, what’s different? Is there anything to say beyond the original article? Does the human body even change much in a ~10-year period?
The human body has not changed much, if at all, but the industry has changed.
And that has created good and bad news if you want to stay in shape or get in shape while working crazy and stressful hours.
- Working from home (WFH) has become far more common in the post-2020 world. The large banks think they might return to the office “eventually.”
- Banks have “kind of” made junior bankers’ lives easier with measures like protected weekends, more time off, increased compensation, and other perks.
- The industry has become more accepting of people following different diets, not drinking alcohol, etc., so that they appear more “inclusive.”
In addition, with a decade of additional experience, my views on some of the points in the original article have changed.
So, given everything above and the fact that we’re in the month of New Year’s Resolutions, I decided to revamp my investment banking fitness advice:
Investment Banking Fitness: Assumptions and Sources & Uses
Your first questions might be:
“Wait, why does this matter? How is physical fitness related to compensation, bonuses, exit opportunities, or proficiency in Excel?
Also, who cares if I’m out of shape for a few years in my 20s or 30s? I can always recover later.”
The short answer is that physical fitness makes a huge difference because your health affects everything else in your life.
If you’re fit, your mind will function better, you’ll be more alert, and you’ll even perform better in interviews.
You’ll also live longer, you’ll have a lower chance of developing chronic diseases, and you’ll be much more likely to survive banking.
Being out of shape when you’re 22 or 24 isn’t the end of the world, but what you do in your 20s shapes your lifelong habits.
The earlier you establish a routine, the more likely you are to continue it for decades.
The challenge is that the conditions in investment banking are awful for staying fit.
At best, you can avoid getting too fat or developing actual illnesses.
The lack of sleep, irregular schedule, high stress, lack of physical activity, and abundance of food and drinks synergize to widen your waistline.
Preventing this from happening comes down to:
- Diet – You can’t starve yourself because you’ll need energy for the long hours, but you also can’t eat too much because you’ll be sitting motionless for those long hours.
- Exercise – What do you do if you only have 2-3 hours per week? Or what if an MD or VP is giving you so much work that you only have 10 minutes in an entire day?
- Sleep – I don’t have any magical tips or tricks for this one. But sleep is critical to your well-being.
- Avoiding or Limiting Things That Will Derail Your Results – Drugs and alcohol are high up on this list.
Here’s my 4-point plan for everything above:
Investment Banking Fitness, Part 1: Diet
Working from home is both a blessing and a curse for your diet.
On the one hand, it’s easier to avoid social outings with excess food and alcohol.
But on the other hand, it’s also easy to order junk food online and get it delivered to your apartment as you sit on the computer all day, every day.
If you’re in the office, it’s easier to avoid mindless snacking, but you might also get pulled into social outings where you’re pressured into eating and drinking.
Beyond your environment, the other challenging part is the endless debate about “the best diet” and the specific components of each diet.
Should you do Keto? Carnivore? Atkins? Paleo? Vegan? Vegetarian? South Beach? Mediterranean?
How many times per day do you eat? Should you eat the same number of calories each day or mix it up?
Is sugar evil? Should you avoid carbohydrates at all costs? What about “Cheat Days”? Is it OK to eat dessert occasionally?
Over the past 10-15 years, I’ve tried most popular/fad diets, and I’ve tracked many of these other variables.
My conclusion is that “the best diet” is the one that works best for you while allowing you to comply with the most important principles.
Those principles are:
- Target a High Protein Intake – I aim for at least 2 grams per kilogram of body weight (about 0.9 g per pound in the U.S. system, which you can round up to 1 g per lb). But you don’t necessarily need this much; you could go ~25% lower and be fine. The main point is that you want more protein than what the useless government idiots recommend.
- Eat Mostly Real, Whole Foods – Focus on items found in nature or that humans have consumed for thousands of years (vegetables, fruit, real fish/meat, oats, whole grain bread, etc.). It’s fine to have protein shakes and bars to reach your daily protein target (see above), but you don’t want to lean on them too much.
- Eat Around Your “Maintenance Calories,” and Try to Increase This Over Time – You’ll need to experiment a bit to figure this out, especially if you’ve never tracked your food intake before. You can get an estimate by looking at your average weight over the past 7 days and seeing how it changes when you eat different amounts.
You can follow these principles with almost any diet.
It is challenging to eat 100, 150, or 200 grams of protein per day on a pure vegan diet, so you may need to rely a bit more on sources like protein powder in that case.
You might now say, “OK, but I don’t have time to cook, and restaurant food is unhealthy! What do I do? How does this work with Seamless or grocery delivery?”
My recommendations are:
- Order food that has already been “prepared” or simple items that do not require actual preparation or cooking.
- Order from restaurants where you can see basic nutritional information and portion sizes.
Even though I no longer work in banking, there are plenty of days where I have almost no free time.
So, I tend to eat quick-and-simple food that requires minimal-to-no preparation.
For example, I start almost every day with something like this:
And yes, I am moderately obsessive-compulsive, so I track my calories and macros each day.
If you’re completely new to this and have never taken your nutrition or fitness seriously, it’s a good idea to track at first.
Most people are terrible at “estimating” how much they eat, but the more you track, the better you’ll get at eyeballing calories.
I always aim for a mix of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and either fruit or vegetables each time I eat, but you can get there in many ways.
In terms of meal frequency, do whatever fits your schedule.
Many people have conducted studies on the benefits of eating more frequently, but I don’t think there’s a notable difference for the average person.
Your total caloric intake and macros (high protein!) matter the most, by far.
Investment Banking Fitness, Part 2: Exercise and Activity
In an ideal world, you would do various physical activities each week: strength training, cardio, and individual/team sports.
However, investment banking is not an ideal world; it’s a prison with better pay and exit opportunities.
So, if you only have 2-3 hours of free time per week (or less!), you need to pick the most efficient exercises.
That’s why I recommend focusing on weightlifting – and if you have more than a few hours of free time, sure, you can add other activities to the list.
Focusing on strength offers several advantages:
- Metabolism – Lifting weights boosts your metabolism for 24-48 hours after you finish, unlike cardio. And in the long term, adding more muscle to your body increases the amount you can eat each day while maintaining the same weight.
- Scheduling – It’s not a great idea to go for a run at 3 AM in the middle of a big city, but you can lift weights at a 24-hour gym or do body-weight exercises at home or in an empty room at the office. And due to your unpredictable schedule, it will be tough to participate in team sports consistently.
The challenge, though, is that some weeks you’ll be so busy that you won’t be able to make it to the gym, even for a 60-minute workout.
So, you need a “Plan A,” “Plan B,” and “Plan C,” which you can follow based on your daily schedule and overall busyness:
- Plan A: 1-Hour Full-Body Workout at the Gym 2-3x per Week – “Full-body” means that you exercise each part of your body (chest, back, legs, triceps, biceps, etc.) in the same session rather than splitting these into different days. You should focus on compound lifts using barbells if you know what you’re doing. If you’re new to this, start with machines.
- Plan B: 30-Minute Body-Weight Workouts – If you have no time for the gym, you also need an option to “collapse” your training into a shorter session that you can do at home or even in an empty room at the office late at night.
- Plan C: 10-Minute “Trigger Sessions” – And if you have almost no free time, you want a session the length of a coffee break that you can do using resistance bands or your body weight.
- Plan D: Be As “Active” As Possible – For example, stand up every 20-30 minutes to walk around or use a standing desk (both much easier when working from home). If you’re at the office, step out for a 5-minute coffee break every few hours to increase your step count for the day.
I recommend full-body workouts because your schedule will be unpredictable, and it’s very easy to miss 1-hour sessions at the gym.
If you split your workouts by body part (e.g., chest on Monday, back on Wednesday, and legs on Friday), you might be able to finish only one or two of them.
By contrast, if you do full-body workouts, you’ll be able to hit each body part at least once per week, even if you only make it to the gym once.
There’s also mounting evidence that it’s better to exercise each body part at least 2x per week rather than 1x, but this one’s more of a point for experienced lifters.
When you’re at the gym, you should focus on compound exercises – squats, bench press, overhead press, deadlifts, lunges, dips, pull-ups, shoulder press, etc. – for both efficiency and effectiveness.
BUT if you are new to all of this and have never lifted weights before, you need to be careful because it’s easy to injure yourself if you don’t use the correct form.
You can find plenty of good YouTube tutorials demonstrating the form for these exercises, but it still helps to have a trainer or experienced friend review and correct you at first.
If that’s not an option because you’re already working, stick to the “machine” versions of these exercises and the ones that pose less injury risk, such as pull-ups.
Here’s an example full-body workout I used last year that took 60-70 minutes to complete, with 1-2-minute rest periods in between sets:
- Back Squat: 3 sets of 10 reps
- Barbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 12 reps
- Pull-Ups or Weighted Pull-Ups: 3 sets of 10 reps (if you can’t do 10 pull-ups, scale this down)
- Shoulder Press: 3 sets of 10 reps
- Bicep Curls: 2 sets of 15 reps
- Triceps Pushdown: 2 sets of 15 reps
If you don’t know what these exercises are, Scott Herman’s YouTube fitness channel has good, short demonstrations of each one (do searches).
On other days, I swapped in other exercises for each body part, such as lunges or front squats for legs or an incline bench press for chest.
I can’t tell you “how much weight” to lift because it depends on your gender, height/weight, previous experience, existing muscle mass, and genetic potential.
But as a general rule, you want these exercises to feel challenging but not impossible.
When you finish, you should be thinking, “I probably could have done 2-3 more, but nothing past that.”
Over time, you can increase the weights as you get stronger.
For your Plan B options, when you don’t have time to go to the gym, I’ll refer you to some good YouTube tutorials:
- ATHLEAN-X – This one is more advanced and requires a pull-up bar for the best results.
- Jeremy Ethier – This one is doable with a table, chairs, and bed sheets.
- Jeff Nippard – Simple, 20-minute at-home workout.
And for your Plan C options, I freely admit that I’m taking this concept of “Trigger Sessions” from Mind Pump Media, so you can check out their tutorial and explanation.
Advanced Note: If you’re into weightlifting, yes, I am simplifying everything above. Yes, I know that training gets much more complicated, but I am writing this as a quick introduction rather than a detailed guide.
Finding the Time to Exercise
This one depends heavily on how your group operates and whether you’re in the office full-time, at home, or a mix of both.
My general advice is to focus on proving yourself in the first 1-2 months of the job and then “make the ask” to step out for ~1 hour at night to exercise once people know and trust you.
You could aim for gym workouts on Friday and Sunday and, if time permits, do another one on any weekday in between.
If not, stick to your Plan B and Plan C options on those other days.
The main point is that even if there’s a disaster or other emergency, you still want to squeeze in at least 10 minutes of exercise per day.
Investment Banking Fitness, Part 3: Sleep
Sleep is critical to your physical recovery and mental clarity, but, unfortunately, you can’t do much about it as a junior banker.
You’ll get less sleep than recommended (5-6 hours per night?), and you’ll have an irregular schedule due to last-minute meetings, calls, and emergencies.
All I can recommend is that if you ever get unexpected free time, use it to catch up on sleep.
You might be tempted to go on a drinking binge if you get a night off, but save that for your next vacation; if you get a few free hours or a free night, pay down your sleep debt.
And if you’re working from home, try to sneak in short naps if there are any specific intervals where senior bankers aren’t “looking for you.”
Investment Banking Fitness, Part 4: What to Avoid
Let’s start with things you should definitely avoid or limit:
- Drugs – Putting aside all the health problems, another big issue is that you cannot afford to be high if you’re called into work at some random hour. It’s just too risky because of your unpredictable schedule.
- Alcohol – Alcohol has many of the same problems as drugs, plus some additional ones: it tends to make you eat more junk, and the calories are mostly empty. But having a small-to-moderate amount of alcohol won’t kill you, so limit it to something like a glass of wine or a small amount of whiskey on the weekend. At social events, you can reduce alcohol intake by taking forever to finish your drink.
- Liquid Calories – It’s easy to go off the rails when you consume liquid calories (think: that Starbucks Frappuccino) because you don’t feel “full” afterward. Stick to water, tea, and coffee. Protein shakes are a partial exception, but you shouldn’t rely on them anyway.
It’s also worth mentioning a few things that have been unfairly demonized:
- Sugar / Carbohydrates – People often claim that these are the root of all evil, but after many years of tracking my diet, weight, and blood work, I don’t believe it. If your body reacts poorly to these, sure, avoid them. You don’t want to eat 10 cupcakes per day no matter your diet. But if you occasionally eat a small dessert (~200-300 calories), you’ll be fine as long as your average daily calories are reasonable.
- Caffeine – This one is the lifeblood of bankers everywhere, so it’s at the bottom of the food pyramid. I still don’t think it’s great to consume excessive caffeine (e.g., 10 cups of coffee per day), mostly because it can interfere with your already-limited sleep. But a moderate amount, especially early in the day, is fine (and if it causes problems, switch to decaf or tea).
Does All of This Work? Are You Just a Crazy Person on the Internet?
In 2020, I followed the plan above, ate in a slight caloric deficit (~2,200 calories per day vs. maintenance of 2,500), and did body-weight exercises at home 3x per week.
Due to lockdowns, I could not go to the gym to lift real weights for ~6 months.
I did a moderate amount of walking each day, but no running or other cardio.
Here are the results from a DexaFit body scan done in September 2020:
No, I’m not going to post a photo of myself because that would be incredibly weird, but if you want some context for these percentages, see this Men’s Journal article.
I didn’t reach the lowest percentage possible for men, but I dropped from ~18% body fat to 8.6% body fat.
In terms of strength, I can lift just over 2x my body weight, depending on the exercise, which puts me in the advanced range for something like the back squat.
Professionals, athletes, and Instagram influencers post much higher numbers, but these are decent results for a few hours of weekly training, an inconsistent schedule, a history of injuries, and a sedentary job.
You’re not going to be a marathon runner, Olympic weightlifter, or professional athlete if you work in investment banking, but you can limit the damage to your health until the hours improve or you find a more reasonable job.
There’s a truckload of nutrition and fitness information online, so I’ll link to some of the sources I found helpful as I was learning the fundamentals:
- YouTubers: Mind Pump, Athlean X, Jeremy Ethier, Jeff Nippard, and Scott Herman
- Books: Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe (and take a look at all the recommendations under “Customers who viewed this item also viewed”)
Many of these authors and YouTubers also have paid training programs, but I’m not going to make a specific recommendation here.
Start with these sources, see what works best for you, and then decide if you need more structured programs.
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How come you don’t recommend aerobic exercise? Wouldn’t running on a tread mill for 30 minutes be a nice compliment to the weightlifting?
Looking forward to hear your opinion on that :)
“That’s why I recommend focusing on weightlifting – and if you have more than a few hours of free time, sure, you can add other activities to the list.”
“In an ideal world, you would do various physical activities each week: strength training, cardio, and individual/team sports.”
One comment regarding meal frequency:
Without making any other changes, I switched to time restricted feeding (16:8 and One Meal A Day) and my DexaFit numbers improved across the board.
The science seems to be moving away from “eat small meals frequently” to “larger meals infrequently.” (See George St Pierre and Dr Jason Fung)
I imagine pigging out at dinner is a major banker temptation, so this plan would fit with the lifestyle…
Thanks for adding that. Yes, restricting the time window can help, but I think it’s a bit unrealistic for most bankers, especially those who get cajoled into social meetings/gatherings if/when human interaction ever returns.