As a long-time trainer,
I've learned a LOT of lessons about building muscle
and losing fat. But nothing beats the learning
curve of my first year of training. I didn't always
make good progress. In my first year of training,
I made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot of
things the hard way. I also did some things quite
right completely by accident! Have a read through
some of the most critical lessons I learned in
the very first year of my training career.
IN THE BEGINNING...
I wanted nothing
more than to get big and strong. I had been an
endurance athlete all through high school (cross-country
running, speed skating, skiing) but wanted to
make a change. I was 17 years old and skinny and
jumped into weight training with both feet. I
saved up some money, bought the Cybergenics supplement
program (mistake #1! - basically that was just
an expensive multivitamin) and started training.
It was June of 1991, just heading into summer.
I had a good program
and I started getting stronger right away but
wasn't really gaining much muscle. I was, however,
getting absolutely ripped to the bone!
By the end of the
summer, I still weighed about 150 lbs soaking
wet (right where I started 4 months earlier) but
I swear I was about 4 or 5% bodyfat. When you
can see the division line between your upper pecs
and lower pecs without flexing the chest, you
know you're at low bodyfat!
I wasn't eating
NEARLY enough or frequently enough and wasn't
getting enough protein. I would rollerblade or
bike to the gym first thing in the morning and
do my workout, eating NOTHING immediately after
training. I would rollerblade home then eat a
bowl of cereal. Then I would go to work as a lifeguard
the rest of the day, eating maybe once or twice
more that day with my largest meal being dinner.
THEN IT WAS OFF TO UNIVERSITY...
Having just graduated
from high school, I enrolled in university that
fall. I had learned my lesson about not eating
enough and I was determined to make up for it.
And make up for
it I did...with cafeteria food! Some people drink
too much their first year of college - I ate too
Not to knock the
food service there, but I'm just sure they deep-fried
the salad. To show you my knowledge of nutrition
at the time, I would (in the interest of trying
to keep fat levels in my diet down) order fried
eggs and cut out the yolks, eating only the whites
(which were shiny with overused cooking oil).
All this never realizing that I would have been
better off cutting off the whites and eating the
yolks (that's where the fat-emulsifying lecithin
and the majority of the good nutrients in the
Eight months later,
at the end of my first year of school, I was 70
pounds heavier, probably about half of which was
actually muscle mass. At one point, I sat down
and calculated my caloric intake on some of my
"big eating" days and found it to be
almost 9,000 calories per day!
When I learned my
lesson about eating more to gain muscle, I didn't
learn the lesson that you can eat WAY too much
and you can easily eat the wrong types of foods.
Sure, I got big and strong, but I probably went
from 5% bodyfat to 15 to 20% bodyfat at the same
time. NOT the results I was looking for! What
I needed to do was eat more, certainly, but also
eat a better quality of food.
That, plus I'm sure
all the "Weight Gain 3000" type of supplements
I was taking didn't help matters! Looking back
on the ingredients, it was mostly cheap milk protein
and maltodextrin (a high glycemic, cheap carb
TRAINING AT UNIVERSITY...
As I was eating
more at University, I also ramped up my training.
I would try and do more and more sets and use
more and more weight. Because I was eating so
much more, I was still making great progress!
Plus, being then 18 years old, I could beat the
tar out of myself in the gym and still recover
from it pretty much without a problem.
I was seeing increases
in strength and bodyweight on almost a daily basis.
But then something happened...something that opened
up my eyes...one workout I was in the gym for
almost 2 and a half hours!
I was training WAY
too long and with too many sets. I was still making
progress but only because I was eating so much.
Little did I know, I could actually make BETTER
progress by cutting my training time WAY down.
From that day on, I always stopped my workouts
at the 1 hour mark, no matter where I was at in
the program. And it did wonders for my results.
I think the week after I started cutting back,
my strength shot up and my bodyweight went up
10 pounds. THAT opened my eyes.
In the Spring Semester,
I tried a program that, if you've been training
awhile, may be familiar with: Serious Growth by
Leo Costa. At that point, I started training twice
a day, six days a week, but only 45 minutes per
session, at the most. Still eating a ton of food
every day, I made excellent progress with this
system and learned about the benefits of keeping
your eyes on (and cycling) training volume.
BUT I TOTALLY NEGLECTED CARDIO
At the start of
the eight months when I was furiously trying to
increase my bodyweight, I had read that when trying
to gain muscle, you should reduce cardio training.
The aerobic work could burn up calories that could
be used by the body for building muscle and might
interfere physiologically with the muscle-building
Well, I took that
a little too far and cut cardio training completely
out. My thought was, I was doing cardio in the
summer (blading to the gym and back) and didn't
gain any muscle. When I was endurance training,
I didn't gain any muscle. So maybe cutting it
out was necessary. So I didn't even hardly walk
up flights of stairs unless I had to.
Too much cardio
training (especially long-duration cardio training)
CAN interfere with muscle growth, sure, but as
I've learned since that time, SOME cardio training
should always be a part of any mass-building program.
The key is to do the RIGHT kind of cardio training
(i.e. interval training, which can actually help
the muscle-building process).
Let me put it this
way, it's nice to be big and strong but when you're
big and fat and strong and lose your breath going
up a flight of stairs, you're not exactly at the
pinnacle of health. Plus, think of it is this
way...you NEED good cardiovascular functioning
when training for muscle mass. What pumps blood
and nutrients to the muscles? What helps you recover
faster in between sets?
Cardio and muscle-building
are not mutually exclusive concepts. I include
it in ALL my muscle-building programs now.
WHAT HAPPENED AT THE END OF
THE SCHOOL YEAR?
Well, at that point,
being big and strong but big and fat, I decided
I needed to burn off of the excess (the old bulk-and-cut
concept). But then I made a HUGE mistake. I went
back to similar habits that got me lean the previous
summer. I didn't eat nearly enough to support
the muscle mass that I had built and I didn't
eat enough protein.
I also started running
again, which at this point having not done any
cardio training for 8 months, was a HARD lesson
to learn. Imagine going from being a 150 lb cross-country
runner who could do 5 km in about 15 minutes to
being a 220 lb weightlifter who couldn't even
jog slowly for more than 3 minutes straight!
Now, even though
I was TRYING to do long-duration cardio, it actually
resembled interval training more than anything
because I had to stop and walk every few minutes.
As I got in better cardio shape, I started running
longer distances straight through (I would have
been better off sticking with the intervals -
little did I know!).
And I did lose weight
and did lose some fat but I lost a LOT of muscle
along with it. Nothing is more depressing than
losing what you've worked so hard to build. I
didn't lose all of my muscle and strength but
it was enough to set me back.
What you should
eat and how you should train are actually fairly
similar when you're trying to build muscle or
burn fat. The main differences lie in how much
you're eating and training variables such as rest
periods and cardio frequency. You still need to
eat a lot of protein regardless of your goals
and you still need to lift heavy, even when on
a fat loss program (it's how you tell your body
that it needs to hold onto muscle).
frequency, eating fewer calories and decreasing
rest periods in between sets will get the fat
burning process moving in the right direction.
Don't starve yourself or go nuts by dramatically
increasing your training workload.
SO WHAT HAPPENED IN MY SECOND
YEAR OF TRAINING?
That's a story for
another day...it involves going so far in the
opposite direction of my first year of training
that I actually made my roommate throw out a pot
of water he was boiling for spaghetti because
he added a pinch of salt (never mind that the
sauce we were using had about 20 times that much
salt in it already)!