When you subtract the years I spent as a teenager, messing around in my bedroom with a weight set and no clue of what any semblance of a workout should look like, the total amount of years I’ve spent training “well” has been about 15.
Even though my training has been respectable from outside looking in, it certainly has evolved in the last decade and a half, and the real (only) reason that could have happened was thanks to maturation and the passage of time. Where training is concerned, time is arguably the greatest teacher – it helps you to learn your body and what works for it… and what doesn’t. It may also teach you some lessons that could be tough pills to swallow at the time. I’ve got more than a couple of injuries from learning the hard way about my fitness journey.
But I’ve now got great insights to show for it – and to share with you. If I could go back and do it again, there are a few things I would certainly tell myself.
Your Nutrition Matters, Bigtime
I was one of those kids who had the metabolism of a furnace. Fun fact: In high school I was a 1-time Athlete of the Year winner, and 3 time nominee. I played many sports, including basketball, track, volleyball, baseball, and football. In university, I was a track athlete, focusing on sprints and long jump. Needless to say, I was active with competitive sports right through to my early twenties. I’m sure that (and genetics) contributed to the fact that literally anything I ate would magically transform itself into lean muscle.
Now, I wish I could say I was big and jacked to get the most out of that fortunate reality, but I was a slim, lean kid who could clean off a large pizza and sprite, and then hit the track for practice an hour later. Metabolism aside, that lack of regard I had for things like drinking sufficient water, watching protein intake, limiting bad quality carbs and high cholesterol foods, and properly supplementing where needed is likely the exact reason I never had the exact physique I was shooting for growing up. I wanted to be bigger. I wanted to be leaner. I wanted to be more muscular and imposing. But I wasn’t eating for it.
To add insult, there were injuries (see what I did there?).
At age 20, it started by way of some nagging hamstring chronic pain on my left leg, that ended up turning itself into repeat tears on both hamstrings. It was probably nature’s way of telling me that I wasn’t doing my diligence and giving my body the right fuel. Don’t make the same mistake.
Physical Fitness Doesn’t just mean “Strength”
Might I remind everyone reading this, that strength is not fitness. It’s one component of it. If you’re anything like I was, you’re ditching cardio so it doesn’t kill your ‘gains’, and you’re avoiding any other tests of your athleticism that don’t involve barbells or dumbbells.
Strength, though extremely important, is only 1/11th of the answer to total fitness, and the earlier you can recognize that, the longer your training journey will likely last in the name of good health. Flexibility, muscular endurance, coordination, reaction time, balance, power, speed, agility, cardiorespiratory capacity, and body composition are all components of fitness that also demand your attention. To simplify things, take this litmus test:
- Touch your toes.
- Run a mile without stopping.
- Do a chin up.
- Get on the floor and lie down. Then get up and stand. All without using your hands to help.
- Do 20 good push ups.
- Walk with something equal to your body weight for 45 seconds.
- Do a good cartwheel.
If any of these give you grief, chances are, you have some work to do in certain aspects of your fitness. It’d be wise to reconsider your training, this time in the name of longevity.
It’s not all about heavy triples on the deadlift or squat. Pulling 550 off the ground won’t save you from cardiac arrest for having too high a body fat percentage. And your 420 squat means nothing if you’re hobbling around with damaged knees and hips, unable to break into a reasonable jog to catch the train. Do something about this now.
To be Injury Free, Know your Limits (sleep and recovery)
Everything you do outside of the gym matters as much or even more than the things you do inside it, when it comes to making gains. In other words, it’s never too early to take a good, close look at the quality of your recovery.
Making sure you’re getting your 7-8 hours of sleep per night is something you should treasure for life. Especially since as you get older and have more responsibilities, more stress, and less time to yourself, you won’t have as much of a chance to adopt such habits. When I was young, I definitely wasn’t the worst with sleep, but I wasn’t the best either. I’m a deep sleeper, but I’ve never been an 8 hour sleeper. Dialing into that aspect of my recovery – especially during COVID 19 lockdowns – was a real eye-opener to just how many gains they could unlock. Not having to wake up at 5:00AM five days per week to train clients over basically the last year has allowed me to have better quality sleep for longer stretches. It’s something you don’t even realize the value of until you’ve experienced it. It’s easy to “feel fine” and not realize you’re burning the candle at both ends – regardless of your age. Do the right thing early, and let those ingrained habits carry themselves through to later in adulthood.
Master Bodyweight Early
Often, people rush into the big lifts like bench press and heavy split squats without getting a handle on their own bodyweight first. I was never horrible at moves like push ups, pull ups, and dips – but I was never awesome at them either, and it was worth spending more time at them considering the length of my leverages at 6’4” with a 6’8” wingspan. A true foundation is built from the ground up. In the case of strength and size training, that means using the bodyweight exercises.
Especially for teenagers and lifters who are just starting out, it’ll provide initial gains, but more importantly, calisthenics work will help ingrain the idea of what movement patterns should feel like. Tempo, target muscles and technique all get practice time without any external loading. It’s the right place to begin.
Certain Muscle Groups respond Better to Certain Rep Ranges
As a 19 year old, I was guilty of categorizing stuff in the gym in a very black and white way. I thought training for size meant low reps, and training for endurance meant high reps. I thought every muscle group and every exercise needed to follow this narrative with no alternate lines of thinking. That one-track-mindedness had me doing 4 sets of 4 for everything from bench press to biceps curls – using the heaviest weight I could get my hands on.
In truth, depending on the muscle group and the responsibilities it has, it will likely respond by way of hypertrophy to different rep ranges. For example, muscles of the upper back tend to respond well to high rep work due to the nature of their demands (involving muscular endurance and prolonged contraction). The same is true of the quads. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the development of athletes where high endurance in said groups is necessary – the upper back and lat development of rowers and the quadriceps development of cyclists speak for themselves.
You Still Have 70 Years to Go
Above all else, this is a general message to every young stud who’s trying to put on size and strength in a hurry: Take a minute, breathe, and relax. Don’t forget about the bigger picture. This is just a blip in your timeline, and in 5, 10, or 20 years, no one is going to care how much you can lift or how big your arms are in July of 2021.
The goal should be to train and eat for your gains to last a lifetime. It sounds preachy, but it’s the smartest way to approach your training and nutrition to make it sustainable and injury-free. Staying a step ahead of the game means taking nuggets of wisdom from a weathered coach to heart early on; not only after disaster has struck. Instead of being focused on packing on 20 pounds of muscle in one summer, focus on building the habits you need to now, so that the physique you sport for your entire adult life serves you well – and even turns a few heads while at it.