11 years ago, I began my journey to a healthier lifestyle.
I had just been cut from the high school basketball team (my first big fail ever), and decided it was time to get bigger, stronger, and healthier.
The only problem was that I had no effing clue what I was doing.
The next day, I signed up for a gym membership, almost killed myself within 20 minutes trying to bench press way too much weight, and have been making mistakes on my path to a leveled-up life ever since.
What started back then as a quest for becoming less of a pushover turned into an eleven-year (and counting) Odyssey of comical mishaps, months and months of wasted effort, hundreds upon hundreds of read articles, watched videos, memorized conversations, and analyzed interviews with experts to figure out how to live better.
Looking back now, eleven years later, here are the eleven biggest lessons I wish I had known back then…hopefully this will help you get to your goal eleven years faster than it took me!
1) Diet is the most important thing
This one lesson alone would have saved me six years of struggle.
Unless you are running ultra-marathons with frequent regularity, there’s no amount of exercise you can do that will balance out a crappy diet. If you are trying to lose weight, what you eat is 70% of the battle. If you are trying to gain weight and build muscle, it’s probably 80% of the battle. If you are trying to look like Saint, then it’s probably more like 90% of the battle.
Yeah, it’s that important!
Back in high school and all through college, I tried to gain weight and build muscle – I was one of those super skinny nerds that would blow over in a stiff breeze. Through four years of college, I worked out in a gym five days a week, lifting heavy weights and drinking protein shakes…and put on maybe four pounds. After college, I moved to California, radically adjusted my diet – doubling my daily caloric intake – and worked out LESS, and put on 18 freaking pounds in 30 days. Obviously it wasn’t all healthy weight, but after six years of failed attempts to build muscle, I felt like I had just cracked the Da Vinci code of muscle creation.
Since then, I’ve put a much larger focus on what to eat and how to eat in order to reach maximum awesomeness.
If you want to look and live better…clean up what you eat. Start here.
2) Be careful where you get your advice
I remember my first few months in the gym…wandering aimlessly like a sheep without a shepherd, accepting advice from any chump that was willing to dispense it. I asked one guy about squats, and he stuck me in the Smith Machine (which I’ll get to in a second…ugh), loaded up plates on both sides, and had me squat down until my back was contorted and pain shot through my spine. Another guy told me that I needed to be hammering each muscle group with at least five exercises in order to be successful.
Because I didn’t know any better, I not only wasted valuable time doing things incorrectly, but I also could have done some serious damage to my body.
Once I got to college, I decided to start taking my advice from magazines like Muscle & Fitness to get my workout plans…which had me in the gym for two-three hours a day, five days a week. Little did I know that these workouts are for roided-up meatheads, in magazines that are owned and operated by supplement companies.
Combine that with my previous lack of knowledge in the diet department and I ended up with hours of wasted time and nothing to show for it.
Question everything, and do your own research! I like to think that I’ve earned your trust through Nerd Fitness with eleven years of mistakes and three years of writing and research, but I want you to question what you find on this site. If something doesn’t make sense to you, do your research, speak to others in the same predicament, apply what you can to your personal situation, and then test and track your results!
If you are overweight and trying to lose weight, find others that have similar body types that have had success. If you are skinny and trying to bulk up on a limited budget and tight schedule, find former skinny guys who have paved the way for you. I know where there’s a community full of people on different paths to awesome, coming from every origin imaginable.
Maybe you should check it out!
3) Machines are the devil
I spent my first few years in a gym working out using machines because I was afraid of free weights. After all, a machine are safer, right?
Machines are the devil ; avoid them at all costs. Machines might be safer because you can’t drop a weight on your toe, but other than that they can actually do some serious damage in the long run. Here’s why:
When you use a weight machine instead of free weights, your stabilizer muscles have nothing to do. All of the work that they SHOULD be doing is being done by the weight machine! This means that as you get stronger and stronger by increasing the weight on the machine, your stabilizer muscles get proportionally weaker and weaker as they’re not being used at all. Sure, you might get bigger muscles, but they’re held together by weak stabilizer muscles. We call this “non-functional strength” as it doesn’t translate very well to real world situations.
We also call this “a fail.”
When you have to suddenly take off in a dead sprint (to run away from zombies), pick up your kid, move furniture, or do some other activity that requires multiple muscle groups, your stabilizer muscles have no clue what to do…and injuries happen.
Secondly, weight machines generally only operate on a single plane – up and down, left and right, forward and back. For example, in the dreaded Smith machine (BOOOOO SMITH MACHINE!), the bar only moves up and down. Try to do a squat right now; notice that your body does NOT move in a perfectly-up down movement. Machines force your body into compromising positions because they only allow you to move on a single plane.
This is also how injuries and imbalances happen.
I received an email a few weeks back from a reader that told me he refused to use free weights and wanted my advice on building a workout around using machines…I thanked him for the email and then told him that he needed to find another website because I couldn’t create such a workout with a clear conscience. That’s how important this is to me.
4) More is not always better
I used to spend hours and hours and hours doing things like bicep curls, calf raises, leg extensions, leg curls, three different kind of bench presses, and three or four different triceps exercises, isolating each muscle group for “maximum impact” or some crap like that (thank you muscle magazines!). My workouts looked something like this, and would last for 90 minutes or more:
- Monday – Chest
- Tuesday – Legs
- Wednesday - Shoulders
- Thursday – Biceps
- Friday - Triceps
Here’s the truth – unless you are an elite body builder and need to sculpt your muscles for a competition, doing these isolation exercises is an inefficient use of your time. Just like with machines robbing your body of its use of stabilizer muscles, iso-exercises that target individual body parts don’t help you build functional real-world muscle (which is the cornerstone of a leveled-up body).
On top of that, I would do things like leg presses on the press machine, put WAY too much weight on it, only move my legs a little bit, but tell myself that I was stronger. Same thing with crappy squats, throwing my back into bicep curls (so dumb), and cheating on chin ups. Sure I was lifting more, but at what cost?
These days, my workouts are all full-body routines – and I only use a handful of exercises: squats, deadlifts, push ups, overhead presses, handstand push ups, dips, pull ups, chin ups, body rows, and lunges. So something like this:
- Monday – Squats, Pull Ups, Push Ups
- Wednesday – Deadlifts, Body Rows, Overhead Presses
- Friday – Lunges, Chin Ups, Dips
I lift less weight now, but I go through a full range of motion and feel MUCH stronger (and have the functional muscle to prove it)…and I’m done in 45 minutes or less. If you can spend more than 45 minutes in a gym strength training, then you weren’t going hard enough! Increase the intensity, increase the weight, decrease the time between exercises…whatever you need to do to up the challenge and wipe you out in less time. We’re all busy people, but I KNOW you have time for 45 minutes every other day.
(Extra tip: guys – want great abs? eat clean, do heavy squats, deadlifts, and pull ups and chin ups. Ladies – want a great butt and thighs? heavy squats and deadlifts. You’re welcome!)
5) Warm up before, stretch after
Does this sound familiar? Walk into a gym, head immediately to the weights, load up some plates on either side of the bar, and start cranking out exercises. Or this: After the workout is done, immediately packing up and going home.
That was me. I never warmed up (other than maybe running on the treadmill for a few minutes), and I certainly never stretched after. Not surprisingly, I spent years walking around like an 80-year old man (no offense intended to 80-year old NF readers), aching with each step, unable to touch my toes, and constantly saying things like “ooooh” and “ouch” as I had to bend throughout the day, thanks to spending all of my time on strength training and none of my time on stretching.
Luckily, these days I am older, wiser, better looking, funnier, and most importantly more modest.
I now know that warming up before exercising is one of the most important aspects of training. And I don’t mean running half-assed (not literally) on a treadmill for five minutes. I mean a true dynamic warm up with jumping jacks, jump rope, push ups, arm swings, body squats, lunges, and more. Your muscles are like cold rubber bands when you start out. Stretch them too much too quickly and they snap. SUCK! Instead, warm them up and dynamically stretch them out so they’re warm and ready to go.
Along those same lines, spending 5-10 minutes after you finish your strength training with a good stretching routine can help kickstart the muscle rebuilding and recovery process, and keep you more limber and flexible on those off days. Remember that real world functional strength we were talking about earlier? it includes stretching too!
6) If it’s not fun, don’t do it.
Its no secret that I’m not a fan of long-distance running. I think it’s due to the fact that I have the attention span of Dori from Finding Nemo, but distance running (especially on a treadmill) just bores the crap out of me. Conversely, I LOVE lifting weights and doing body weight strength training. I love sprints, hiking, trail running, parkour, and anything involving pretty much anything other than just pure running.
So why did I spend years running on a treadmill before and after every workout? Because I thought that’s what I’m supposed to do!
Fortunately, I now know that there are approximately 800 million (give or take) ways to get in shape and be happy.
Maybe you LOVE running and hate weight training. I am happy for you (and think I can help you!) Maybe you hate sports but love mixed martial arts. Maybe you love to toss the frisbee. Maybe you’re a yoga nerd. Whenever somebody comes to me and says “I don’t enjoy exercise,” I tell them that they just haven’t found the activity that makes him/her happy yet.
So try new things! If you don’t get excited to do it again, pick something new. What’s important is that you find an activity that elevates your heart rate, challenges you to be better and healthier, and makes you happy.
THAT is what Nerd Fitness is all about.
7) Your plan doesn’t need to be perfect. But you do need one.
My first three years in a gym were spent lifting weights with no official plan.
My first three years coincidentally resulted in absolutely no progress.
Some days I would do bench presses, other days I would do pull ups, and others I would do some sort of lame leg workout with the leg press machine. The machine I used didn’t really matter, I never kept track of sets or reps, and I never knew if I was getting stronger. But darnit, I’d leave that gym and say, “I worked out!”
Eventually, I realized that I needed a plan, but would agonize for weeks at a time over what program to follow:
- Do I follow the body building plan in this month of Muscle and Fitness or last month?
- How many sets do I do with how many reps for maximum results?
- Should I wait 30 seconds or 35 seconds between sets?!
I freaked myself out by looking at 100 different workout plans.
Here’s the secret – unless you are training for the Olympics or want to qualify for some professional sport…any quality plan will start to get you results:
- Three sets of 5 reps with heavy weights and 3 minutes between sets
- Four sets of 8 reps with weights and 90 seconds between sets
- 5 sets of 12 reps with 60 seconds between sets.
Any of those plans above will get started down the path to success. Remember, your diet is 80% of your success or failure anyways. What’s important is that you HAVE a plan, and keep track of your results. Either keep an online journal, excel sheet, note on your iPhone, or a handwritten journal with your stats. If you did 4 sets of 12 push ups this week, you know you need to aim for 4 sets of 13 push ups next week to be stronger. If you did barbell squats with 105 pounds this week, next week better be 110 if you’re headed in the right direction.
Track your results so you can tell if you’re improving. If your results aren’t changing, then it’s time to evaluate what’s working and what’s not working – which is only possible if you know how you did last time and how you need to do this time. Pick a plan, write everything down, and make adjustments after that.
(Insider tip: if you are trying to get bigger and stronger and you’re not seeing progress in the gym, eat more. Yup, it’s that simple).
8 ) You don’t need a gym to build muscle
This is a lesson I only learned in the past year.
I’ve been a gym rat since I started training, as I immediately fell in love with the Iron (like Henry Rollins); I can probably count the number of months I’ve been without a membership, as I always thought I NEEDED a gym to go to train.
I wanted to get stronger and bigger, and there’s no way to do that without weights right?
Unfortunately, because I had this mentality, every time I was without a gym or traveling (which was frequently), I put my workouts on hold, and lost much of the progress I had made in a gym in those weeks because I just told myself “no gym, can’t train, oh well!”
Back in January, I began an epic adventure around the world, and I knew that I would be without a gym for six months. On top of that, I was going to be speaking at Google in May, and I was terrified that I’d show up to that talk looking like an out-of-shape chump and not be taken seriously. So, I set out to learn everything I could about building muscle without using a gym.
With a renewed focus on my diet while traveling, and dedication to improving my strength with difficult body weight exercises (handstand push ups, one-legged squats, one-handed chin ups), I was able to pack on 12 pounds of muscle in four months of travel.
Gyms are not necessary for a leveled up life.
Get outside and enjoy the weather. Work out in the comfort of your own home. Find a park down the road and get funny looks from the snot-nosed kids on the swing as you do pull ups from the tree branches next to them. If gyms are too stuffy or intimidating for you, get out of there!
9) One day off doesn’t kill you
I think everybody can relate to this one, especially after Thanksgiving break.
I used to get completely thrown off and discombobulated whenever something unexpected came up and I missed a workout. Because I was doing different body parts each day, I would freak out and wonder how I could get back on track:
- Do I do the next body part or do I skip it and come back to it later?
- Oh shoot, now it’s two days in a row! What now?
- I ate like crap yesterday, why bother working out today?
- Eh screw it, the rest of the week is almost over, I’ll just start up again next week.
One skipped workout, one bad meal, one long weekend does NOT make or break you. While traveling, I missed workouts all of the time due to a funky schedule, but it never bothered me. I simply started up again IMMEDIATELY the next day, knowing that the first day after a missed workout is the most important – on top of that, a missed day never throws me off because my workouts are always full body routines – days off don’t mess up anything.
Who cares that you missed a day or ate like crap for a weekend? Who cares that you’re going on vacation and you can only work out once before then? Put on your hard hat and get after it! One day is better than none, and a workout tomorrow is better than a workout next week.
Get it done.
10) Be patient you idiot!
Want to know a big reason why I didn’t get results for the first 6-7 years of my training?
Sure, a big part of it was my failure of a diet; but it was also due to the fact that I was too damn impatient. Every few weeks, I would freak out that I wasn’t getting results, so I would try the latest and greatest plan that I found on the interwebs. After a few more weeks, I would get discouraged again and move onto the next plan.
Getting in shape takes time, sucka! Yes, you can see small changes over the course of a month to make sure that you’re headed in the right direction…but it ain’t gonne be overnight.
No, you won’t lose 100 pounds in the next month. No, you won’t pack on twenty pounds of muscle in three weeks. No, you won’t go from overweight to 6-pack abs tomorrow.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Optimus prime didn’t transform in a single move. It’s a lot of little moves, little changes, and little improvements, over a long period of time.
Pick a plan, and stick with it. If you are tracking your results properly, and you are seeing positive changes, keep doing what you’re doing. Get a little bit better each day.
11) Have a purpose and goals
“I want to get in shape!”
“I want to get bigger and stronger!”
These used to be my incredibly vague goals. I would work out and try to get stronger, but I never knew if I was on the right path. I didn’t know how to tell if I was in shape, or how much stronger I wanted to get…there was absolutely no specifics. Not surprisingly, my progress suffered. It was like I was driving a car but didn’t really know where I was going.
It’s kind of tough to get someplace if you don’t know where it is.
Now, I have my goals clearly laid out: in fitness, in business, and in life. I can tell when I’m on the right path, and when I’m not. I can tell when I’m progressing with the right amount of speed or when I need a good kick in the butt to pick up the pace. I am always working towards something, and I know exactly why I’m doing it:
- I exercise to inspire and motivate the Nerd Fitness community.
- I travel to enrich my knowledge of the world and expand my horizons.
- I work tirelessly on Nerd Fitness because I want to make a dent in the universe.
Have a purpose for why you do the things you do – it makes every decision that much easier, as each decision either takes you one step closer or one step further away from your goal. Once you have that purpose, turn your goals from something vague to something concrete:
- Start a business by December 2012
- Lose 60 pounds by June 2012
- Squat 200 pounds by March 5th.
And then freaking start!
What about you?
Those are 11 lessons I would teach the Steve Kamb of 11 years ago.
What’s one lesson you’d like to teach yourself from 11 years ago?
PS – Today marks my first official day in my new apartment here in Washington, DC…the first time I’ve had an actual home in 350 days. Of course, I can’t sit still for very long, so on Tuesday I’m off to South Africa for two weeks with my buddy Cash; Cape Town to be specific. If you happen to live in Cape Town, shoot me an email as I’d love to meet up with you while I’m down there!