Why I Got Started with Weightlifting
As of 2020, I've been weightlifting for 10 years. That's not to say it's been 10 consistent years, because it took me about 6 years before I was able to stay consistent with my workouts and get 3-4 sessions completed each week. Despite my now-consistent weightlifting routine, I have never been consistent in cardio. I have yet to find a form of cardio that I can mentally tolerate, but maybe I'll write a post in another 10 years saying that I've found a way to be consistent in that!
I distinctly remember the day I decided to join a gym. I was helping a friend move, so I was tasked with carrying furniture with another friend's boyfriend. He is an Olympic lifter, and when I say Olympic lifter, I mean he actually was an alternate for the US weightlifting team. Let's just say I was the exact opposite. While moving a couch, I needed to stop for a break, and he joked that I was being a wimp. He absolutely was joking, but I couldn't shake this feeling that I totally was a wimp. In spite of being 6'2" and 240 lbs, I had no muscle or endurance. I believe I looked up gyms the next day, and joined one near my apartment that weekend.
Joining a Gym
The gym I joined was a Retro Fitness, which had enough machines, free weights, and cardio that I wasn't going to run out of things to do. I basically just "did whatever" for almost 2 years. I tried machines, watched a million videos before venturing over to the free weights area, tried using the treadmills and bikes, and sort of followed whatever plan (or lack thereof) that I wanted. My brother lived nearby, and he would come to workout with me occasionally, which was great as he was in much better shape then I was. At one point we even followed the "LL Cool J Workout". All I remember from that was a LOT of ab exercises.
While some might say I should have followed a plan, stuck to it, and really optimized my "newbie gains", I don't regret the "do whatever" approach. The main thing this time helped with was just getting used to going to the gym, working hard, and trying out a bunch of stuff. I was so untrained that literally anything helped, so it wasn't wasted time (even if it wasn't optimized). I found some machines I liked, some I hated, and some I couldn't figure out what it was supposed to be used for. I learned compound movements here, and I'm sure my form was terrible.
At the end of 2011 we moved, so I joined the local LA Fitness. I was much less consistent with going there. I'm not sure if that's due to my brother not being nearby, not seeing much physical results, or just the unfamiliarity, but I don't remember going there very much. My lasting memory of that gym was that when I went to cancel my membership, there was this huge battle just to be able to get out of the contract. I had to threaten to block the charges on my credit card just to get them to relent. This taught me a business lesson (not a fitness lesson), in that if someone wants to drop your service or stop using you, just make it as easy as possible. Retro Fitness was a breeze to get out of, and that alone makes my memories of them much better than LA Fitness, and I'm absolutely more likely to recommend Retro if someone has the choice for this alone.
Building a Home Gym
In June 2012, I talked to my wife about buying equipment for a home gym. I still remember her initial question, which I thought was going to be "how much?", but it was "will you use it?". That was a very good question, because I had a habit of buying things immediately after getting the idea, only to let it sit unused for a long period of time. I also wasn't consistent with my gym sessions at this point. I said yes, but it was definitely a mental trigger for me that I better make use of this or else I will have outright lied. I still value this question as a motivating factor for continuing working out.
My friend was getting rid of an adjustable bench (that I still use today, thanks Adam!), so I just needed a rack and a weight set. Dick's Sporting Goods had a 300lb set with a bar for $210 on sale. I measured our basement, and I couldn't fit a full size power rack, so I had to find something shorter. There was a company called New York Barbells that made a Sumo Rack (that is now discontinued, so I can't find the price). It's a 4-post rack without a top, and the back 2 posts are about 6 feet high while the front 2 posts are about 4 feet high. This was perfect for our basement, as I'd be able to do squat and bench in the rack, seated overhead press, and then deadlift in front of the rack.
Over time I slowly bought more equipment, or acquired it from friends. My brother let me set up his heavy bag, so I used that for cardio for a while. I believe my first couple purchases were bumper plates from MDUSA, because I saw how badly the concrete floor was getting cracked from deadlifts. I also got horse stall mats from Tractor Supply, which was quite a feat considering I had to fit them in the back seat of my Mitsubishi Lancer. I got a couple of 25lb dumbbells from my brother, and bought a 35lb kettlebell. To be honest, this was all gravy, since I could do pretty much any compound lift with what I had, and adding a set of 45lb bumper plates to the 300lb original weight set allowed my deadlift to improve without limiting me.
Home Gym Routines
I knew I needed a plan for my workouts to be consistent. Originally, I found a chart that showed a list of "inexperienced", "novice", "intermediate", "expert", and "world class" lifting levels for each lift. At this point I could do the "inexperienced" lifts, but I had an initial goal of getting to "novice" on everything for the 220lb class (even though I was still 230lb+ in 2012). My deadlift was always my best lift and my bench press was my worst, although honestly my squat form was so awful that I don't know if you can say I was actually performing a squat.
From 2012-2016, I started a stopped a few routines. I tried PHAT, a modified Starting Strength routine I found, a "traditional" bodybuilding split (chest/tris, back/bis, legs, shoulders/abs), a "full body each day" routine, and the Greyskull Linear Progression. I don't think I stuck with anything for more than 9ish months. There were also months where I just didn't work out, or time periods where I was traveling a lot for work. While I do wish I would have stuck with something, I do like that I was able to try a few different things and see the similarities and differences between programs.
During this time, I also had my first lifting partner at the home gym. I knew Albert from church and we were in a band together, and I was talking about lifting and he said he'd like to come work out with me. To this day, I strive to curl as much as he was able to curl!
5/3/1 by Jim Wendler
For a while, I had seen mention of 5/3/1 as a program that is recommended after you are not a beginner anymore. I desperately didn't want to be a beginner, in spite of the fact that I wasn't consistent enough to be intermediate. In retrospect, I think this is something that is common among many hobbies and disciplines. No one wants to be a beginner, but in a way, being a beginner in weightlifting is a good thing, because you're going to progress faster and you have a lot more options for what works.
As I started researching 5/3/1 in 2016, I liked the flexibility it gave, while also being very strict. There's set percentages and weights that you hit for your main sets, and these are non-negotiable. Then, you have your AMRAP set, where you just go for as many as you can. Then, your accessories are more of the "do whatever" approach, with some guidelines to follow. I already knew I liked to "do whatever" in the gym, but I also liked to map out things on spreadsheets and do nerdy math about training max percentiles, so this seemed to be the thing I wanted to try.
One of the things about 5/3/1 that I've really come to like is that you are working in submaximal weight ranges. This means that instead of going for your true 1-rep max or working near that top weight, your training max is 80%-90% of that, and then your highest set on any given day is another 85%-95% of that training max. This seemed counterintuitive to me at first, but I've realized that this is great for building strength and size, regardless of having to check my ego. One way I convinced myself this is OK is to have a separate spreadsheet where I take the weights and reps I did that day and calculate an estimated 1-rep max. This is definitely an inexact guess, but converting everything to a single number helps me see my progress over time that is muddied when you are using different rep ranges.
New House, New Home Gym
In 2017 we purchased our first house. I actually wasn't present for the first visit, so when my wife was telling me about the house, she informed me that she went in the basement and reached her hands up and it was high enough that she couldn't touch. This meant that I actually could get a full size rack and maybe even do standing overhead press!
We hired a moving company, which was our first time doing so, and I don't regret paying for that in the slightest. They even disassembled my rack and carried all my weights up to the truck, then put it all together at the new house. I told my brother that I was planning to build a full platform to keep the floor nice, and he said he had one that he wasn't using, so I got that from him. My uncle had a rack that his friend had welded by hand, and so he gave that to me, along with a homemade trap bar.
This trap bar opened up my eyes to doing traditional powerlifting movements, but with variations. I really enjoyed the neutral side grip of the trap bar, so I ended up buying a heavier-duty one from Titan Fitness, since I was bending the homemeade one with the weight I was doing. I also purchased a Safety Squat Bar off of Craigslist. This was more of a necessity, as my left shoulder was messed up and holding a squat position wasn't working. I had tried tying straps to a straight bar, but it was clear that wasn't a good long-term solution.
I got a few other random things to try to increase my conditioning. I got a sandbag and 100lbs of sand, a weighted vest that is adjustable up to 80lbs, and a stationary bike. I still hate cardio, but doing 8-10 minutes of biking at the end of workouts has been doable for active recovery, but longer than that and I just get bored. A pair of mini farmer's handles has been a great purchase, as it is my start into the world of Strongman.
5/3/1 Forever, Plateaus, and TRT
Since 2016, I've been running variations of 5/3/1, and it's the kind of program I can see using as a base for a long time. Jim Wendler put out a new book called 5/3/1 Forever, which lists out dozens of different programs. There's a few that have stuck as favorites of mine, namely Coffinworm and 5x5/3/1. After trying a few that have widowmaker sets (20 rep sets), I've decided not to do those, at least not for deadlifting. A back/glute injury during a widowmaker set in the SVR2 template really set me back for 6ish months, so I'm hesitant to get back to that. For now, I just limit all my AMRAP sets to 10 as a max, and then just keep the training max increasing every 3-4 weeks.
In 2019, I started looking more into Testoterone Replacement Therapy. I had a hunch that my testosterone was low after seeing a list of common symptoms. Most of my symptoms were mental, but one that stuck out was "plateaus in the gym" and "excess fat and little muscle". Since I had been keeping pretty good notes of my workouts over the 9 years I had been lifting up to that point, I was able to see trends of plateaus and hard limits that I should be well beyond given my lifting history. I also had some progress pictures that I had taken over the years (though not as many as I'd like, since I wasn't happy with my body), and I saw that there was still a ton of fat and not a lot of muscle. I had always just sort of thought that I should try harder (which is at least partially true), but in addition to the mental symptoms, this was a sign.
I was put on TRT in September of 2019, and it was an immediate change, both mentally and physically. I noticed muscle gains, fat loss, and plateaus busting. That being said, I really couldn't slack off. I wasn't tracking food for a while, which caused me to get bloated and noticably puffy when I got up near 250lbs. However, by having my diet controlled, my workouts consistent, and my protein high, I was able to see what I should have been able to do if I had "normal" testosterone my whole life. That's not to say that I think everyone should jump on TRT, but having your hormones working is a crucial component that can get overlooked.
Lessons Learned from 10 Years of Lifting
If someone asked me for my "one weird trick" for working out, my answer at this point would just be "consistency". I've learned a lot from different exercises, routines, locations, diets, online forums, and people, but just sticking with it for so long has really been the key to this. While I'm still working on my physical results from weightlifting (as Dom Mazetti says, "The day you start lifting is the day that you are forever small"), the mental results have been spectacular. Shifting from motivation to discipline is easier said than done, but now I'm at the point where I can just assume that I'm doing overhead press on Monday, deadlift on Wednesday, bench press on Friday, and squats on Sunday.
Along with this consistency and discipline, however, is a sense of adaptation. I've found a way to be consistent with my workouts and track my food, but without letting it control my life or schedule. I can move a workout a day forward or back to accomodate a social event. I can have a few drinks one day if I want to. By sticking to the plan 90% of the time, I can shift the other 10% and not feel guilty or shamed.
I've learned plenty of "minor" things as well. I'm pretty good at portion size measuring, which also helps with my diabetes. I've learned a lot about the human body and various muscles, along with what movements use those muscles. I've learned what triggers me to give up, and what can trigger me to keep going in a set or workout. I've learned what it feels like to fail a rep, and what it feels like when you think you'll fail but you get it anyway. I've learned how to give advice to others without assuming that their body will respond the same way mine does. I've learned what matters in a workout program and what really doesn't. I've learned to track data and pictures, even if I don't like what they show, because it helps when you're 10 years later and wanting to analyze your progress.
Maybe one day, I'll learn to like cardio.