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I can remember when I first started training with weights. Yep, that’s right. Training with weights. Notice, I didn’t say, “bodybuilding.” I didn’t begin my journey with the intention of becoming a bodybuilder. To tell you the truth, I would have been content with some abs and some beach muscles. Having a physique was never what I was after. You’re talking about a kid who was fat his whole life and would have given anything to just be skinny. After practically starving myself and running five miles a day for the first year of high school, I dropped seventy pounds and had arrived at skinny only to realize it wasn’t where I wanted to be.
Okay, so back to weight training. Once I had lost all this weight and no one recognized me, I felt the need to put on a little muscle. I was fifteen and didn’t have a job or a car so that left me with no money for a gym membership (or a way to get to a gym). But my uncle had some old beat up stuff in his basement. He had an Olympic bench, bar, York plates, and those old cast iron York dumbbells. He had a calf raise too.
So I rode my bike to his house everyday and went to town in his basement. It was over the summer and he was working and I was by myself. None of my friends gave a shit about working out and even if they did, I doubt they would have wanted to go work out in my uncle’s musty basement. The lighting sucked, it smelled funny and the only mirror I had was an old bathroom vanity mirror that I propped up on a laundry basket.
I really had no clue what I was doing. I had a bench, a bar, plates, and dumbbells. What I did have was this little shitty spiral bound book written by Bill Pearl that showed all the free weight exercises and how to execute them. The exercises were categorized according to muscle groups. The book also had a section in it about training splits and some nutrition stuff. Not much. And to tell you the truth, I don’t know if I would have really listened to any advice at that point anyway.
If you had told me that training each muscle one time per week was sufficient, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you tried to tell me that essential fats were important for muscle growth and that carbohydrates are what I should have been watching, it would have fallen on deaf ears. You would have been talking to someone who had changed his body by himself without listening to other people and because of that you would have had no chance of getting through to me.
Did my being thick in the head hurt me? Maybe. Could I have saved myself a shitload of misguided effort if I had listened to a few people? Most definitely. But to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t take it back because I learned something else that I notice some people will never learn. I learned how to train. I learned how to read my body. I tested what was too much and what was too little. I sat in a basement with a jumble of free weights and learned how to move each and every one of them the right way.
I learned how to feel the muscle working. I decided for myself how each grip, each different bar, each stance hit the muscle differently. There was no gym. There were no TVs or gossiping people or crazy trainers with medicine balls, weighted vests and stopwatches. There were no distractions. I was spared having to look at people doing odd things with the lat pulldown machine or inventing exercises. I can’t tell you how many times, once I joined a gym, I saw people and wondered what the hell they were doing and what muscle(s) they were attempting to train.
But really, my reason for writing this is not to talk about myself or reminisce about how I got started as a bodybuilder. Rather, I feel the need to stress the importance of trial and error. I want everyone to know that bodybuilding is something that you learn. I can guarantee you that the best bodybuilders are those who have learned that to progress you must be both analytical and critical. Bodybuilding, I’m sorry to say, is not simply about how hard you work. If I spent 8 hours a day in the gym I think that would make me a fairly hard working bodybuilder. Agreed? Yes, but it would actually make me a worse bodybuilder.
Bodybuilding is about knowing what to do, how much to do, and when to do it. In my opinion, it’s a thinking man’s game. Every time I set foot in the gym I do something different. Never once, since I started training, have I used someone else’s routine or rep scheme. No two workouts are ever the same. What I do for back one week may not feel appropriate the next. In one back workout I may do five different exercises and hammer out upwards of twenty sets. The next week, maybe I’ll just go in and deadlift until I’m toasted. No one told me to do that. I do that because that’s what I want to do and because I feel it will benefit me.
Regardless of how simple my eating or training may appear, there is a calculated reason for everything I do. Everything from the type of bar I use, to the number of exercises, to the number of reps, to the selection of exercises (or lack thereof) and the order in which I place them is all thought out. I do what I do because it makes sense to me. And in my mind, the only way to progress is to be constantly asking yourself how you feel and how you can make things better.
Bodybuilding, life for that matter, should be an ongoing process of assessment and adjustment. Working harder is not always the answer. The hardest working people are not always the most successful. Bodybuilding is no different. You have to use your brain. You have to be able to look at yourself and what you are doing and ask yourself what you can do to improve things. Asking someone else what they do and attempting to copy them will only give you satisfactory results. Forget doing something just because someone else does it. Do your own thing. Find what works for you.
The minute you adopt someone else’s way of doing something and think you’ve arrived at the definitive answer is the minute you stop progressing. The most successful people don’t give a shit what other people are doing because they decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong and what they are going to do. In a way, some of my best progress was made with limited knowledge and limited equipment in my uncle’s basement. Why? Because I didn’t have to claw my way through all the mud and confusion. I listened to my body and made the changes I had to make. Simple as that. Trial and error.