I still recall how simple things were as an aspiring bodybuilder (if I were to be totally honest, I was a “chest and arms builder”). I would make it to the gym 3 days a week, perform 12 hard sets for my chest, maybe 3 sets of direct biceps work, and of course, I would end with a set of 21’s to finish America’s favorite muscle off. These were the simplest of times. Outside of those 60 minutes in the gym, I would say that I was a pretty “normal guy”. Little by little things became a bit more complicated and I started to add more and more strategies in order to improve. Revelations like, “hey, let’s train back too”, or “maybe I should eat a bit of food pre-training?”, or “oh, a post-workout protein feeding is a good idea you say?” slowly built on one another. Before I knew it, I was knee deep in the bodybuilding culture. Soon after, I was so immersed I felt like I was drowning. There were so many rigid rules and the majority of them didn’t actually help me get better. I know I just did a “list” type of article with “Rise of the Machines”, but, some of the unnecessary rituals I took part in need to be individually acknowledged and laughed at in order to maximize the intended purpose of this blog.
– Meal frequency was probably the most disruptive behavior in my daily “to do” list. If I woke up late, I thought my gains would pay the price. Since I only spent about 12 hours awake each day (hahaha more on this later), waking up “a meal late” felt like a setback. On the other end of the spectrum, I often had to stay up late for my last feeding. All I wanted to do was sleep, but at the same time, I thought I needed that last 30 grams of gains to conclude the day. The middle of the day also caused problems. On one particular trip to Disneyland with a former girlfriend (I don’t blame her for not sticking around), bodybuilder Alberto had to stop any and all fun we were having in order to eat a full meal, regardless of how inappropriate the timing might be. I often wondered, how I would ever be able to do what I loved (as crazy as the process was, I loved it) and “grow up” to do all the normal things in life? “What sort of profession would mesh well with bodybuilding?” I would think to myself, “how nice would it be if I could just eat 3 meals tomorrow?” Of course, I never would because I didn’t have the courage to live life in the fast lane like that.
– Training has also changed drastically over the years. When I first started, it was very brief and set up in a way that, overtime, would probably develop a very disproportionate physique. Then, it turned into such high volume of training that onlookers probably thought I was trying to purposely get injured each session. I had leg days with 40 working sets where they were all taken to failure and beyond. I also had no structure or plan beyond beating what I did the previous week. If I was unable to objectively improve my performance from the prior week, I would seek to elicit the most pain upon my muscles possible. You know, with drop sets, giants sets, ultra-high rep work in the 30 to 50 rep range and the like. However, if a certain amount of soreness was not achieved (it should hurt to wear clothes over the trained muscle groups the next day don’t you know?), then it was back to the drawing board. There were no deloads… EVER, and we did this 6 days a week. By the 4th day of the training week, we felt rundown and feverish, but we believe this was what it took to be bodybuilding champion. I also wondered how long I could realistically keep up with this. My internal critical thinker would often step up to the plate to bring this up, only to quickly be told to sit down by my inner “eager-to-be a champion” bodybuilder.
– Orthorexia was alive and well. My dietary restrictions went far and beyond the timing of my food. During the three-year peak of my bodybuilding obsession, there was a point where I maybe cheated on my diet twice a year. Usually a plate of food for Thanksgiving or Christmas that perhaps could have been enjoyed a bit more looking back now. There was always a bit of guilt that rivaled how tasty the pumpkin pie was. I was never really able to let go all of the way. Meals consisted of an animal protein and whole foods as a side. No protein bars, no diet sodas, or even the occasional alcoholic beverage was allowed. I had little social life outside of a few select friends and I couldn’t drink anyway because I had to be in bed early in order to recover from the thrashing/training. This was also done in order to ensure that I didn’t throw off my meal timing.
– Sleep was a huge part of my recipe for success. So much in fact that I convinced myself I needed 10-12 hours a day in order to function optimally… as a bodybuilder of course. Everything else was a bit more secondary and seven-hour sleep-nights felt catabolic to me. Unlike most folks in their early 20s, I didn’t spend many Friday nights enjoying the nightlife. I was usually at home, by myself, in front of a computer doing homework or making bodybuilding knowledge gains from the least credible of sources.
Honestly, I could add a few more to the list, but these were the major ones.
I’m sure many of you are shaking your heads in a combination of disapproval and pity, but I’ll tell you this: nobody was having more fun than this kid. From ages 20 to 23 years of age, I never missed a scheduled workout, meal, or cheated on my diet. It was also the first time I did two very important things in my life that I had never done prior. First, I flexed to the beat of my own drum. I couldn’t have cared less about what my other friends thought. Secondly, I built a work ethic I didn’t know I was capable of building. I learned to be relentless and patient all at the same time. To this day I still have these earned traits which can be summoned upon if need be. I can grind with the best of them and I’m also able to wait on a reward longer than most.
Over the course of the year, I learned first-hand that “knowledge is power” and I got rid of the excess baggage that didn’t contribute to the bottom line. Somewhere along the way, the democracy of reformed bros lifted me up on their shoulders and labeled me as the poster boy of all that is balanced. Now, you explicitly know that it wasn’t always that way. The amount of trial and error it took in order to get to this much more efficient place cannot be understated. Some of you reading this will understand, and possibly relate, to how things were this way. But, a newer generation of bodybuilders unfortunately will not. Surely some of you who started this hobby might have stumbled upon a logical, evidence based system just months into your journey (an example below)
I am thankful that a newer generation has been able to unknowingly learn from the mistakes of others (mine included). I feel that over the long term this will make the sport/hobby more inclusive, effective, and sustainable for more athletes. However, I also feel that it has not allowed many newer athletes to develop the coping skills that this sport, at a competitive level, often requires. This is especially the case for those that have absolutely little to no background as athletes prior to bodybuilding. A little pain and adversity, even misdirected, can serve a purpose in terms of building resilience.
With all that said, in my next post, I will go over some of the issues that I see with generation #IIFYM and offer some insight on solutions that may help you learn to toughen up a bit. This will all be done without having to go through all of the mess that I went through all of the mess that I went through in the points made above… so stay tuned!