I’m going to get a tiny bit personal with this post. This May will mark nineteen (19!!) years since I started my fitness journey as a very overweight kid in Pennsylvania. My first treadmill run lasted about 30 seconds, which is when my coach intervened so I wouldn’t pass out or break his treadmill. My first day bench pressing, I managed to move an empty barbell in a diagonal, twisting fashion about four times before I had to rest. My deadlift was so bad they just asked me to stop. Same with my squat. My coach didn’t dare give me an olympic lift or take his eyes off me in general. In short, I was awful. The only thing that brought me back two days later was the desire to not be the most un-fit youth in America.
With the benefit of almost two decades of struggling to get better, I thought it might be good to look back and give myself some advice from the future. I hope some of it helps you.
Fitness is not (really) a competition
Not for most of us, anyway. I’m probably not going to be able to outlift Hafthor “The Mountain” Bjornsson, outrun Usain Bolt, or outswim Katie Ledecky, and it’s likely that comparing myself to them is only going to bum me out. When you show up at the gym, your opponent is the version of you that walked through that door yesterday and all the days before that. The goal is improvement, whatever that may look like. Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.
The purpose of the gym is to train
The biggest change in gym culture since 2000 is undoubtedly cellphones. When I started, we had one TV in the back of the gym, behind the heavy bags next to the fridge, always tuned to Headline News, and always on mute. It was easy to focus because all of the fun and distractions existed outside, so if the gym wasn’t your idea of fun, you just had to work faster!
Your phone now makes it possible to spend 3 minutes doing emails between sets or to check Twitter and fly into a rage over whatever (that’s what I often do). Do not do this. You need to focus to progress on your lifts, gymnastics and conditioning, and if you’re not progressing, you wasted a session. Put your phone in your bag if you can, and don’t touch it unless you’re recording to check your form.
Change does not come from one meal or workout
You’ve heard this from all of your coaches: consistency is the most important single factor in training. Hitting a 1 rep max PR feels great but isn’t necessarily making you stronger. Focusing on big numbers and ignoring accessory work, form, and less flashy higher rep sessions limits your potential and makes the next PR a little less likely. Two big, horrible sets of 12 back squats in May are what get you that big 1 rep max in June.
Likewise, eating pizza once a month will not sink you and eating salad and protein once per month will not vault you into Olympic contention. But when pizza once a month becomes pizza twice a week and salad twice a week becomes salad once a month, it begins to add up.
Dietary consistency is tougher for most of us than training consistency, which is why you need to be firm but flexible. If you eat chicken and waffles at brunch, please enjoy it – every single bite! Do not beat yourself up. BUT, you’re spending a lot of time working out hard so don’t let one unhealthy cheat meal start a long slide to dietary apathy.
There will be bad days
You’re tired, you’re tight, you’re thinking about the fight you just got in at the bodega, you’re considering taking a new job, and you can’t do anything right today. The barbell won’t cooperate and coach just keeps pushing you. You are getting stronger. Every day you overcome your fear, show up, and try as hard as you can is a day won. There will be a time you look back on that day and are glad you showed up. Keep showing up.