This is the first in what I hope to be a multipart series detailing my training history up until this current point and the lessons I have learned from it. I intend to revisit it regularly, but will make non-related updates as well, such that I won't bore any of my regular readers with constant sentimental self reflection.
To be blunt, I was a fat kid growing up. Exercise for the sake of exercise was a foreign concept, and I ate poorly. Now, compared to current societal standards, I was more “chubby” or “husky” compared to what actual fat kids look like these days, but for the early 90s, I was a fat kid.
I was infatuated with strength, as I am today, but taking no action on achieving that. I told myself that it was because lifting weights would stunt my growth, but looking back on it now, that must have simply been an excuse to continue enjoying my lifestyle of excess.
Oddly enough, I was involved in many sports growing up, which was again very common for children at the time yet something that seems to be lacking today. I played t-ball, baseball, soccer (indoor and outdoor), basketball, ice hockey, swam, and did Tae Kwon Do for 8 years. Despite the activity level, I remained a fat kid. There were a few factors at play here. For one, children get way too many snacks during their games and practices, and the choices that are made for snacks are terrible. The activity level kids are putting out can’t match the input of sugary energy. Additionally, I was dogging it at the sports I was playing due to a lack of interest, which meant output was minimal as well.
Football seemed like the answer to me. It was a sport where I could put my size to good use, because though I was a fat kid, I was also a big kid. I was a year younger than the majority of my peers due to some rule in the California school system, yet was typically the tallest person in my class (which, now that I am 5’9 as an adult, seemed like such a cruel genetic prank to play on me). I thought this would be a blessing for football, but because of the rules of pop-warner football, there are weight classes based around age rather than grade level, and I was too heavy for my age (11) to play. Oddly enough, there was an older/lighter division, for skinnier older kids to play, but no younger/fatter division for me to fit in. As an adult, I feel like the latter would be far more enjoyable to watch, even if it required a somewhat sick sense of humor, but I digress.
Imagine a whole team of Cartmans...just imagine
My second opportunity for football would come as a high school freshman, where at age 13 I was able to start playing. This opportunity was afforded to me primarily because my high school was small enough to have a “no cuts” offer, and anyone who tried out got a spot on the team. I played center and nose tackle, and was terrible at it. I also lost no weight during the season, but for once, I was in what I would call “good shape”. I could practice for 3 hours in the hot sun in full pads and not need to throw up, and even though I lost zero pounds, I had a decent fitness foundation.
The turning point came the summer between my freshmen and sophomore year. I had given up on pursuing football any further, due to the fact that I just had no skill at the game and no chances of going any higher than junior varsity. That summer, I had finally had enough, and decided I was going to stop being the fat kid. I was the age that everyone said was ok to start lifting weights, and figured it was time to put my money where my mouth was. I drastically reduced my calories to about 1/3 of what I had been eating before (which in retrospect may have been a bit much) and started doing some manner of physical training every day. Over the span of the summer, I dropped 25lbs, from 176 to 150, and began my life anew. Long introduction aside, I want to use this space to document how I trained through out this time and the lessons I learned.
Despite the fact that my excuse for not training was being too young to lift, when I first started my journey into fitness, I relied primarily on bodyweight exercises. My dad was in the Air Force for 4 years, and had 2 stories that really stuck out in my mind. The first was about a friend of his that got a six pack in 2 months by doing 200 sit ups a night, and the second was of another friend that owed an impressive physique to doing 200 push ups a night. The lessons I took from this is that the number 200 was significant, and training at night was the key. By combining the sit ups with the push ups, I was sure to make significant strides in physique and strength.
I don’t remember my starting numbers, but I do know that they were definitely nowhere close. I diligently trained each night with no days off, working towards either higher numbers or harder variations of the movements. Despite the fact that this was in no way what I needed to do in order to accomplish my goals, I do credit this training with helping me to establish a decent foundation to train with. If I were smarter, I would have worked chins and some leg work into the mix as well, but as a 14 year old boy, pecs and abs were high on the priority list, and legs and back did not exist in my mind.
It should be noted that I was also running in some capacity everyday, which of course I considered my “leg training”, but was also improving my cardio and general health. I was still training martial arts 2-3 times a week as well. The idea of focusing on one thing had never entered my mind, and being that I wasn’t strong enough to do any real damage to myself and had the ability to recover like a teenager, I wasn’t coming close to “overtraining”.
A real turning point in my training came when, after spending the majority of the summer training push ups and sit ups, I had saved up enough money to buy a standard weight bench that came with adjustable dumbbell handles and a preacher curl/leg extension/leg curl station. I had to cover it with a tarp to keep it from rusting, but that meant I got to train outside in beautiful San Diego weather. I was now ready to meet my lifelong dream of lifting weights.
While I still trained my push ups and sit ups every night, I was now benching and curling everyday as well. Again, the priorities of a 14 year old had taken over, and that leg extension/curl saw no use. My routine was simple: no warm up, perform 1 set of the heaviest weight I could bench that day for 10 reps, 1 max weight set of curls for 10 reps, and 1 max weight set of preacher curls for 10 reps. Train this way everyday. Apparently I was part Bulgarian. My dad kept telling me that I needed to take days off in between training to heal, whereas I kept telling him that, every time I did that, I got weaker, whereas training everyday made me stronger.
I speculate a few things were happening here. My dad wasn’t wrong about needing to rest, his advice simply didn’t coincide with my style of training. Given that I was only training 1 set, and that I was training without warm-up, I was in turn training at submaximal loads compared to what I could actually train. Pair this with the rapid adaptation of a beginner lifter along with learning the mechanics of a new movement, and I had developed a way to basically rapidly accelerate my way through my strength gains. I wasn’t training with enough volume to necessitate resting, and had a decent work capacity due to the summer of push ups and sit ups which allowed me to continue training in this style without fatiguing.
With this style of training, I was able to work up to a bodyweight bench of 150lbs on a standard bar/bench early into the school year.
-Fear of overtraining is way overstated
-Rapid adaptation permits for frequent training
-A base of bodyweight exercises is an amazing foundation for training
-You can get strong training the “wrong” way when you are green enough
Next, I will discuss training at the high school weight room and my experiences in wrestling in high school