11 Years, 11 Lessons, 100 Pounds
People Magazine has a yearly feature called "Half Their Size." This year featured the stories of morbidly obese readers who've managed to cut their body weight in half. It's a huge accomplishment and I respect these folks immensely, but to me, it's a lot more impressive to double your body weight through proper training and nutrition.
T NATION readers can surely appreciate this feat as it's incredibly rare and takes a lot of time and persistence. I can appreciate it simply because, I've done it.
Growing up, I was always athletic, playing every sport imaginable. My diet, however, wasn't that stellar, and as a result I was "husky." When college soccer recruiting time came around, the big knock on me was my speed. I knew the game very well and had great touch on the ball, but running fast just wasn't my thing.
So, when my senior year of soccer wrapped up, I dedicated every waking moment of my life to turning my pudgy 185-pound frame into something that could compete in college soccer. Results, at first, were good. I ran faster, got stronger, and saw abs for the first time in my life.
Type A guy that I was, though, I kept raising the bar higher. Two-a-days every day for about six months left me emaciated, un-athletic, physically sick, and frankly, pretty screwed up in the head. When all was said and done, I'd wasted an opportunity to play at the next level, and in the fall of my freshman year of college, a sinus infection nearly killed me. I spent a week in the hospital, weighing in at a whopping 97.5 pounds at age 18 in the fall of 1999.
The picture to the left was from June of 2000, about a week after doctors had cleared me to start exercising again.
I'm lucky that I found my way and came out of things okay. Thanks to this experience, I discovered my passion for strength and conditioning and proper diet. I've gotten a Master's Degree in Exercise Science, written articles and books, filmed DVDs, lectured nationally and internationally, and performed and published research.
I've trained more athletes and average Joes than I can count and founded a strength and conditioning facility (Cressey Performance) where we manage the training of over 50 professional athletes on top of our high school, collegiate, and adult clientele.
I've also set state, national, and world powerlifting records, and I now walk around at 195-200 pounds – double my weight in the fall of 1999.
But this article isn't about me. It's about how the lessons I've learned over the past 11 years can help you.
While we're often focused on the specifics of training, nutrition, and supplementation here at T NATION, we often overlook the big picture, long-term success.
1. Your end goal may change, but not the manner in which you accomplish it.
When I was bouncing back, my sole mission was to gain weight, and I put on about 55 pounds in the year that followed. By the time I got to graduate school in 2003, I'd caught the powerlifting bug, deadlifting 510-pounds at a body weight of 163 in my first meet in June of 2004.
I loved the purely quantifiable success measures, competition, and unique social circles powerlifting afforded me. For four years, all I cared about was lifting heavier and heavier stuff – with really no concern for appearance, provided that I stayed in my weight class.
When I moved to Boston in 2006 and started a business, met my wife, and started spending almost my entire time surrounded by athletes, my priorities changed. I still loved to train, but being athletic enough to run, jump, catch bullpens, and participate in a host of other "less predictable" tasks became more important to me than just getting as big or strong as I possibly could be.
Now, at age 30, I can deadlift in the mid-600s and bench press in the mid-300s, vertical jump 37 inches, sprint with my guys, and catch bullpens. My goals might shift in another year or two, but I'll apply very similar principles along the way: persistence, consistency, open-mindedness, seeing the "big picture," appropriate time management, relationship cultivation, and an insatiable desire to learn.
Successful people are usually successful across multiple disciplines because they apply what's worked well previously to new ventures, whether they're fitness, business, or personal. Figure out what you're good at doing, why you're good at doing it, and then apply those exact principles to your exercise and nutrition programs.
2. Long-term goals matter a lot less than short-term objectives.
If you'd asked me in 1999 how I planned to gain 100 pounds, I wouldn't have known what to tell you. At the time, I thought I was going to be an accountant, and I was more focused on just not being skinny. The secret for me was focusing less on the big picture and more on the "little" things: eating the right stuff at a single meal, and mentally preparing myself before each training session and set within it. Little things, over time, become habits and add up to big things.
I love the "21-Day Rule" that Chris Shugart proposed here. Focus on doing something well for three weeks – whether it's simply eating breakfast, foam rolling, or working on deadlift technique – and it'll eventually become a habit. You'll notice a similar strategy in the way Dr. John Berardi has changed thousands of lives over the years. Start simple with a few key objectives; focus on consistency, and eventually big things happen.
3. Consistency is everything, and the best programs are sustainable ones.
Cal Ripken is one of only 27 players in Major League Baseball history with 3,000 hits. It's a tremendous accomplishment that, unless your name is Pete Rose, guarantees you enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
But Ripken wasn't one of the best pure hitters baseball has ever seen. He has the lowest career batting average (.276) of any of the 3000-hitters. He even overhauled his batting stance in the middle of his career.
One thing he did do better than anyone in history, though, was show up and bust his ass. As a result, his consecutive games played record will likely never be touched.
On a related note, about a month ago, I had dinner with several buddies, one of whom was AJ Roberts. For those who don't know AJ, he just broke the all-time world record total in the 308-pound powerlifting class with 1,140-pound squat, 870-pound bench, and 810-pound deadlift.
AJ said that he credits a big chunk of his success to the fact that he's never had a serious injury; there's never been an extended period of downtime from training. I know of very few powerlifters – much less elite caliber powerlifters – who actually foam roll, do mobility warm-ups, and stretch. AJ's one of the few. That should be a wake-up call to many of you.
If a training program injures you, it's not the right training program, no matter how sexy the periodization sounds or how cool the new exercises look. Likewise, if a program isn't conducive to your goals and lifestyle, then it isn't a good program. Find the program that is right for your goals, your level of physical preparation, and your lifestyle.
4. Opinions are like assholes; everyone's got one.
Early in my career, I made the biggest mistake rookies can make: I took every criticism personally and wound up wasting loads of time in pissing matches via email exchanges and forum debates. Eventually, I realized that criticism was just part of the game. As the saying goes, the higher up you get, the more hot air you encounter. If you aren't getting criticized, you probably aren't doing anything remarkable to change the status quo.
This doesn't just apply to writing about strength training or nutrition, either. How many of you have busted your butt in the gym and kitchen to pack on 20 pounds, only to be accused by a friend or family member of being on steroids? Or they tell you that your priorities are warped and that you'll drop dead if you don't do more aerobic exercise? Usually, people give you a hard time because they're insecure themselves.
I have a close circle of people – family, plus a few friends and industry colleagues – from whom criticism is always taken to heart. That's it. People are entitled to their opinions, but you're entitled to ignore them, if you're so inclined.
5. Long-term planning isn't always feasible.
In July of 2007, I started training a former college volleyball player who'd taken up the sport of skeleton. Eventually, she made the switch to bobsled, and just over 2.5 years later, Bree Schaaf had a 5th place finish under her belt for Team USA at the Vancouver Olympics.
In all, that encompassed 27 programs. Some were four weeks in length, and others were shorter or longer because competitions often "interfered" with normal training. She had some crashes on the track that led to unexpected training hiccups, as well as long flights, time changes, hit-or-miss gym equipment access, and a host of other factors that required me to modify her program on the fly.
Just imagine if I'd written out all 30 months of programming in advance? That would've been about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.
Bree does this full-time. If there was ever an example of an athlete who could have enough consistency for an ultra-specific long-term training plan, she'd be it. It just wouldn't work for her, though, and it certainly won't work for you.
It's fine to set goals and deadlines, and have a general plan for what you want to do over an extended period, but you have to be willing and ready to roll with the punches. Call it "cybernetic periodization" or simply "flexible programming," but make sure that you aren't too rigid in your ways to modify things when life throws you a curveball. It will improve your consistency and make programs more sustainable.
6. You can always make lemonade.
While battling my health issues, I was "shut down" from any form of exercise for the better part of a year. Given my athletic background and raging case of OCD, this went over like a fart in church. Combined with the insomnia I was already dealing with and it meant I had extra-long days of wakefulness to fill. How did I pass the time?
I read excessively. I read everything from anatomy texts, to medical research, to nutrition pieces. I covered muscle magazines, coaching manuals, business books, and the classics.
It would've been easy to just have a pity party for myself and watch movies all day. Instead, as I realize today, I set the stage for my future career in many different ways. Obviously, the exercise science and nutrition knowledge paid off, but all that reading made me a more polished writer and gave me a better perspective from which to write.
I often see people take two months off because a shoulder or knee hurts. Or maybe it's because they're so busy that they can only get to the gym twice a week instead of their normal four – so they end up just doing nothing.
Shit happens. Quit feeling sorry for yourself.
No matter how rotten the lemons are that life hands you, someone's got it much worse and there's always something you can do to get better.
7. You're not so freakin' special.
I am a firm believer in the importance of individualization. I'm also positive that people draw motivation from different sources, and that different folks respond to different coaching cues. There are both visual and auditory learners. Some folks can't perform certain lifts because of pain or faulty movement patterns. Some need far more carbs than others. That's all okay.
These issues make you unique, but they don't make you special. Just because your Mommy reamed out the principal over the "D" on your report card doesn't mean that you didn't fail miserably in class and deserve the grade.
As a coach who deals with young athletes, it pains me to say this, but we currently have a generation of kids who think they're entitled to success. They expect quick results on very little effort – and they prefer that others put forth that effort for them.
Making progress in the gym is no different from anything else in life – you get out of it what you put into it, no matter how special you're convinced you are.
8. Have a good team around you.
Very few people in the "iron game" have been successful flying solo. This refers not only to having good training partners, but also having a caring family, understanding friends, and skilled practitioners (massage therapists, rehabilitation specialists, manual therapists, nutrition advisors, etc.) to support your efforts.
That said, just as these individuals can be your most valuable assets, they can also be your worst enemies. Choose and manage these relationships wisely. If someone is negative, drags you down, or stands in the way of what you are trying to achieve, your best bet is to simply get them out of your life.
Granted, it's a lot easier to just go to a new massage therapist than it is to disown your wife because she won't eat healthy food with you. To that end, if you're going to try to "change" someone, focus your efforts on the relationships you value most.
Surround yourself with the right people and get negativity out of your life.
9. It is your responsibility to take a newbie under your wing.
Remember the movie Pay it Forward ?
Yeah, I got bored and didn't watch to the end, either.
In spite of my raging ADD, I gathered from the movie that when someone helps you, it's good karma to help someone else.
When I was just getting my health sorted out, a competitive bodybuilder and strength coach named Daryl Conant took me under his belt. Daryl introduced me to proper diet and appropriate training volumes and modeled the healthy lifestyle I wanted to lead. He also facilitated my passion for exercise science when he hired me to work the front desk at his gym as a green-around-the-gills 19-year-old. And, he answered all my annoying questions along the way.
I also got loads of help from Alwyn Cosgrove, who was a business mentor to me, and Chris West, who took me under his wing in strength and conditioning at the University of Connecticut. The list goes on and on, and I'm sure that I'm not alone. The veterans out there all surely have had mentors along the way who never asked for anything in return.
If you're reading this article, you have something to offer to somebody, somewhere, sometime – whether you're a novice exerciser who can just provide a spot on the bench press, or an experienced coach who can help an up-and-comer avoid the mistakes you made.
Remember all the free help you've received over the years, and do your best to give back.
10. Balance is more important than you can imagine.
I've known T NATION contributor John Romaniello for almost a decade. Along with being a great dude and super bright, he's a physical specimen.
You know what else he is? One of the most easygoing and fun-to-be-around guys you'll ever meet. He could strike up a conversation with a mime at a funeral, if he wanted to, and that mime would be laughing hysterically by the time Roman's done with him.
Most people probably look at Roman and expect him to be a neurotic schmuck who counts every calorie, carries a pill case around for his supplements, and can't go to a movie because it might interfere with his next meal. This isn't the case, as he's delayed many meals over the years to not interfere with hotly contested games of Dungeons and Dragons.
He works his butt off and is fun to be around, but just so happens to maintain a great physique. You can argue "genetics" all you want, but I'm convinced that guys like John are onto something bigger. They have balance in their lives.
The guys around you with the best physiques are usually the most easygoing. The strongest powerlifters are the guys who crack jokes between sets and make training fun.
I'm not saying that those with less impressive physiques are so neurotic and annoying that they can't even find someone willing to spot them. I am, however, convinced that if people found more balance in their lives and realized that training hard and eating right can be fun, they'd see much better results.
Last summer, I trained lower body on Mondays Thursdays, upper on Tuesdays and Fridays. We set aside Saturdays as a "throw a bunch of s**t on the wall and see what sticks" day where our staff, interns, and some of our most experienced clients jumped in on the madness. We did loads of carrying variations, sled work, yoke walks, thick grip training, sledgehammer stuff, and a host of other nontraditional training initiatives.
It was a great change of pace that royally kicked our asses and built camaraderie among the guys. It also made training as genuinely fun as I could remember. Some of our younger athletes even stuck around just to watch the chaos unfold.
When September rolled around, one of my professional baseball players came back from the long season to start his off-season training. The first thing he said to me was that he thought I looked bigger and leaner, even though I was still the same weight. A little fun went a long way.
Make eating right and training hard fun. Balance in your life is an integral part of success.
11. Progress isn't linear, but it can be steady.
When you first start strength training, you make some big gains, and you do so quickly. It doesn't matter whether you're lifting free weights or training on machines, exercising 3x/week or 7x/week, or drinking Coke or protein shakes. You'll put on muscle mass no matter what.
Then, after a few months, reality sets in and you realize that if improvements were linear and this "newbie" trend endured, you'd quickly be 800 pounds at 8% body fat. This is when the fun begins. You have to start experimenting to see what works best for you.
I've done some programs that have worked wonderfully, and others that have royally stunk. I've gotten fatter on high carb diets to realize that a lower carb approach works best for me. You have to make mistakes to learn how your body best responds, and making mistakes dictates that you'll have regressions to accompany your progressions.
There will be injuries. Gyms will go out of business and leave you high and dry. Family issues will at times take precedence over training. All of this is just life getting in the way, but it doesn't mean that there still can't be a general, steady improvement over the course of your training career.
It'll never be as quick as it was when you first start, but your goal is to have a lot more good days than bad ones to ensure that you're progressing over the long haul.
These eleven points are just some of the many lessons I've learned along my journey, and I'll undoubtedly pick up many more in the years to come. In the LiveSpill comments section to follow, I'd love to hear what valuable lessons you've learned that have helped you succeed. I'm sure it'll help many of the up-and-comers who are reading this article.
Think of it as your first chance to "pay it forward."