Instead of living in research journals, arguing on the Internet, and postulating wildly about matters of training and diet, I usually just try something and see how it works. Sometimes these experiments lead to "ah-ha" moments – the realizations that change everything. So, following the example of Mike Robertson, Tim Henriques, and Alwyn Cosgrove, I thought I'd share a few of them.
Ah-Ha Moment #1: You Can't Out-Train a Crappy Diet
The first time I completed a real bodybuilding-style diet, I remember being shocked by the results. Looking in the mirror I thought, "Now this is what all the workouts, all the fasted morning cardio, and all the fat burners were supposed to be doing!"
What was this magic diet? Nothing much; I just lowered carbs. The point is, I was stunned at how fast the fat came off. I learned right then that you can't out-train a poor diet.
Another time, years later, I adjusted my diet for fat loss and adopted Chad Waterbury's ABBH program. I lost about 10 pounds of body fat on this cutting plan. I upped my calories and carbs and did the same training program a couple of months later, and this time I gained 10 pounds. Same lifting program, different results.
The lesson is this: Hard training is the car, but diet is the steering wheel.
Most people focus solely on the training program. They skip the nutrition articles and go straight to the "Build Boulder Biceps!" articles.
"What's the best workout for mass gains?" they ask on forums. "What's the best training program for fast fat loss?"
But the truth is that major changes in body composition are driven more by how and what you eat, not by the specifics of how you lift weights or the type of cardio you do. High reps or low reps? Steady-state or HIIT? Full-body training or splits? If your diet sucks, it doesn't really make a difference.
Yes, you want to be training hard using big movements and lots of free weights. That's a given. But the results of that intense training are driven by the food you eat.
Always chubby-looking in spite of hours in the gym every week? It's your diet.
Always scrawny-looking in spite of using all the popular "get freakin' hyooooge" supplements? It's your diet.
If you aren't satisfied with your physique and your progress in improving it, it's most likely not your set/rep scheme, split, tempo, or exercise choices. It's your diet.
Most people are animals in the gym and wimps in the kitchen. They'll train hard and try any grueling workout program, but they don't have the willpower to choose the right foods at the right times in the right amounts. And their physiques reflect it.
Take control of your diet, once and for all, and you're guaranteed to have your own ah-ha moment.
Ah-Ha Moment #2: Effort Trumps Training Programs
There are men in just about every gym in the world who don't squat, use too many machines, lift with poor form, and curl in the squat rack.
They don't keep training logs, either. They ignore post-workout nutrition, they use partial movements, they do too much steady-state cardio, and they use a lot of isolation exercises. In short, they break all the supposed "rules."
And they look bigger and more muscular than you, Mr. 10,000 Forum Posts – the guy who does everything "right."
What the hell is going on? Well, some of them may have great genetics and use steroids, but a lot of them don't. So what's their secret? One word:
They strain, they push themselves, they hit it with everything they have in every workout. And that effort, that crap-a-kidney, hold-your-breath, can't-help-but-grunt effort, trumps any magical training program from the latest Internet guru.
Effort is key. Train brutally hard. Make that vein in your forehead stick out. When you come close to blacking out when you rack the weight, you're doing it right.
You can go to the gym seven days a week, hold dumbbells, and lay on benches all you want. But you can't reach your physique goals through osmosis. Your gym attendance doesn't mean shit if you're not sucking wind, fighting nausea, and soaking wet after a workout.
All that said, programs are good. They force you to train in new ways you may not have tried on your own. But a poor program performed with intense effort will be more effective than the "best" program performed lackadaisically.
Hint: If you're lifting with one arm and talking on your cell phone with the other, your effort level is lacking.
Yes, choose a good program from one of the many experts here at Testosterone Muscle, but worry less about the minutia of the program and more about the effort you put into it.
Ah-Ha Moment #3: Steroids Change the Game
I touched the steroidal hot stove more than 10 years ago. It was a short little experiment, and I decided quickly it wasn't for me, but I got it. I learned firsthand that steroids make a huge difference in every aspect of bodybuilding.
If a steroid user offers you training or diet advice, take it with a grain of salt. What works for a drug user may not work for you. In fact, some of the worst lifting, eating, and supplement advice comes from steroid users.
Steroids have changed the rules of the game. They allow for a whole lot of wiggle room when it comes to hypertrophy training, recovery, strength training, athletic training, diet, and just about everything else.
Sometimes the steroids keep the lifter ignorant. After all, why does he need to learn more about training and nutrition when he's already bigger than just about everyone else? What he's doing in the gym is effective (because of the drugs), so why seek more knowledge?
This often leads to the steroid user giving up on bodybuilding altogether once he's off the sauce: he just doesn't know how to make progress without drugs. And psychologically he can't handle going to the gym every day and watching himself get smaller. Sadly, his attitude becomes: "I'm not using, so why even bother?"
Steroids and related drugs don't work without effort, of course, but swallow enough pills and inject enough juice and just about any training and nutrition program will work. If I hear one more meathead talking about how well XYZ training program works or how effective liquid creatine is while he's sticking a couple of grams of anabolics in his ass every week, I swear I'll puke.
Sorry, but if you're a heavy juicer, your advice has very little value to the natural trainee. If a person wants really good info, he'll talk to a natural lifter who's accomplished the same goal he's chasing, not the local 'roid monkey.
Ah-Ha Moment #4: It's About Body Comp, Not Scale Weight
I started seriously lifting weights when I weighed 159 pounds. At my heaviest trained weight I was around 230. And you know what? I looked like crap.
It was psychologically painful to accept the fact that I looked my best under 200 pounds. After all, that 200 mark had been a goal when I weighed 159. But what's the point of getting "big" if a whole lot of that bigness is just excess body fat? I didn't look good, I didn't feel good, and women didn't turn their heads. But hey, I was "big" and the other chubby guys in the gym would slap me on the back.
I had to learn to ignore the scale and focus on the mirror, and the mirror told me I was still carrying around too much fat. It took the Velocity Diet to finally get me below 10% body fat.
And yeah, I'm now (gasp!) under 200. Sure enough, a few of my "big" friends at the gym like to give me a hard time about it. That's okay. My last three girlfriends were a Playboy model, a figure competitor, and a former NFL cheerleader. So I don't mind so much that my "full blown" buddies at the gym don't like my scale weight.
I didn't (entirely) write that last part to brag but rather to make a point: If you're an experienced lifter who trains mainly to look good, then another bulking diet when you already sport love handles may not be the answer. It may be time to simply drop the body fat and see what's under there, scale weight be damned.
For years we've heard the advice, "You gotta eat big to get big." And while it's true that you need adequate calories to build muscle optimally, you don't need so many calories that it spills over into excess fat gain.
Gross overeating and the accompanying fat accumulation leads to no more muscle gain than just eating adequate calories. "Adequate" may mean higher than maintenance, but it doesn't mean bingeing on junk foods.
As men who like to eat, we really want to believe that we should pig out on just about anything we want. That's fun, and after all, eating is classified as a sensual impulse, just like the sex drive. So, it's not hard to convince most guys to eat a lot. It's pleasurable. But the "just fuckin' eat" attitude is bullshit rationalization, thin excuse-making, and, when it comes right down to it, laziness.
This super-size-me attitude has led to a generation of hard-training chubby guys who either think they have to overeat all the time to get bigger or who've been doing it for so long that they've developed bad habits and wrecked their health.
Know what else? Breasts on men just aren't that attractive. Neither are pregnant bellies. Do you train to impress the other fat guys in your gym, or do you train to impress yourself and the opposite sex?
If it's the latter, then drop the fat. You may be surprised. Assuming you have some muscle under there, you may even look "bigger" after dropping a couple dozen pounds, like Testosterone Muscle reader Gus Pancho below.
Gus looks more muscular today (pic on right), even though he's about 40 pounds lighter.
You've built the muscle. Now uncover it. Think body composition, not scale weight.
Ah-Ha Moment #5: Listen to Everyone, Idolize No One
In spite of their ridiculous drug use and Zeus-like genetics, I've learned a thing or two from pro bodybuilders. Say what you want about them, but the top guys have Ah-Ha Moment #2 above nailed.
I've also learned lots of things from coaches who specialize in athletic performance. The same is true for powerlifting coaches, strongmen, and Olympic lifting experts. But the worst thing I've ever done is embrace one training philosophy while disregarding all the rest.
Sorry performance coaches, but curling works, at least as far as bodybuilding is concerned. So do leg presses and several machine exercises. I get tired of hearing performance coaches bash training techniques and exercises that have built thousands of great physiques over the years. These exercises may not be "functional" or carry over to sports, but they build muscle, and that's good enough for the aesthetic bodybuilder.
On the other hand, performance coaches have taught me a lot about posterior-chain exercises and how some types of performance training can also lead to hypertrophy and rapid fat loss. I've also learned that sprinting makes my butt look good. So thanks for that.
And I'm sorry powerlifting coaches, your DVDs about how to shorten the distance the bar has to travel so I can bench more weight just don't apply much to me. I don't compete, and I only bench to build my chest, triceps, and other pushing muscles. I wanta long range of motion because it makes me work harder and helps to build more muscle. But thanks for the great tips on bringing up the triceps. You guys know more about triceps training than a lot of bodybuilding experts.
And sorry Olympic lifting dudes, I just don't give a rip about your sport or the lifts it involves, but I'll use some of them because they give me better traps.
Are you getting the idea here? Don't close your mind to any type of training, but don't swallow the Kool-Aid either unless you plan on competing in that specific sport. Most of us are just average guys who want to train hard and, well, not look average. We're not elite athletes or competitive bodybuilders with our hearts set on the Sandow.
But we can take a little from every discipline and use that knowledge to make us better: bigger, leaner, stronger, healthier, whatever your goal.
This is the time in the article where I'm supposed to paste in that wise but overused Bruce Lee quote. You know the one. And if you don't, you should.
Ah-Ha Moment #6: The More You Cook, The Better You Look
The title of this one says it all, but let me add this:
Since I've been flexing my culinary muscles I've never once come across a recipe that called for trans fat, high-fructose corn syrup, or any of that other garbage you find in packaged foods and even some restaurant meals.
Funny how that works.
Ah-Ha Moment #7: It's All In Your Head
Back in college I battled obesity while at the same time getting a psychology degree. Now that was an ah-ha moment as those two worlds – the study of behavior and physique transformation – came together.
Fat people know why they're fat. And they generally know what to do to get rid of it. They're not ignorant. They know, but they just can't do.
Whether it's fat loss or any other aspect of improving your body, knowledge isn't power; applied knowledge is power. And that begins in the head. Telling the overweight person not to eat crap foods is like telling the alcoholic not to drink.
No shit, Sherlock.
You must go deeper to really make a permanent, healthy change. Make no mistake: Psychology – the mental aspects of training and nutrition – is the beginning, middle, and end of your bodybuilding story. It's not just foundational; it permeates every level.
Behavior modification, bad habit removal, good habit installation, defense mechanisms, motivation, mood, and a hundred other topics fall under the umbrella of psychology. Ignore that stuff and your dream physique will remain just that: a dream.
Ah-Ha Moment #8: Health Matters
Try worrying about your calf development after your doctor tells you that you might have cancer or heart disease.
It can't be done.
Health and the pursuit of longevity are just as important as big muscles and shredded abs. None of those things matters much without basic good health.
This is why I now believe that your supplement dollars should first go to things that can help prevent disease and maybe even extend your life. Things like Flameout and Superfood come to mind immediately.
Be smart: Work to add years to your life as well as life to your years.
My ah-ha moments may not be your ah-ha moments. That's okay. We all have different backgrounds, different genetic predispositions, and different goals.
But maybe I've given you a few things to think about. Hopefully you'll try out a few of these ideas and experience your own epiphany worthy of a resounding "ah ha!"