Today I participated in my first powerlifting meet. It wasn’t an “official” competition (as in the Swedish championship), but it was a competition nonetheless. The atmosphere was amazing and I am really impressed by the number of people that participated, both as competitors and support. I finished 3rd, which felt great.
My training career is probably shorter than most others. I was never active as a kid in terms of playing soccer or attending sports. I spent most of my time playing video games with a few exceptions of short periods of tennis, boxing and swim practice. All in all, I was never an athlete.
The first time I went to the gym was in 9th grade. It wasn’t very serious and most of my workouts consisted of a combination of training my chest and arms. I guess as most guys first stepping into the gym I was trying to earn my ticket to the very special gun show. I had little to no knowledge about strength training, which led to a very slight increase in both strength and muscle mass. My motivation quickly faltered and I quit. I didn’t step into a gym (or exercise for that matter) until three and a half years later during my high school exchange year in the U.S.
When I arrived at my high school in Sacramento I was told that the grades I got while abroad wouldn’t count back in Sweden. Lazy as I was (to some degree still am), led me to choosing the easiest courses available. Unfortunately, I had to take a few “serious” courses. My day would start with English, followed by Political Science and then Choir before lunch break. After lunch I went to Basketball, followed by Volleyball and then I finished with either “Open sixth” (you can go home one hour early) or Teacher’s assistant.
So, what does this have to do with my strength training? As you have read I attended both basketball and volleyball, but we didn’t practice these sports five times a week, two days a week (Tuesday and Thursday) we spent in the school gym. While in the gym we had to do (what I thought were stupid exercises) squats, deadlifts, power cleans and bench presses. Where were the bicep curls and pec flies? I didn’t take much of a liking or interest in Tuesdays and Thursdays, but as time went on I got a little bit stronger. I did not realize this at the time because my arms were still the same size as they were a year ago (maybe slightly bigger seeing as I went to Taco Bell almost every day after school).
When I got back to Sweden my 3rd and last year of high school was due. Since I spent a year abroad I essentially had to retake my last year, which meant joining a new class. I have never had a challenging time talking to new people or making friends. Earlier however my self-esteem was very low, but after coming back from America it was great. My self-image was still very flawed due to reasons not discussed here (also I still had small arms).
I talked to a good friend of mine and asked him if he wanted to start going to the gym together. He was very positive to the suggestion. We spent a couple of days talking about how we were going to go about it. A rather quick realization for both of us were that neither of one of us had any idea how to train in a gym. We knew how to do a bicep curl but that was about it. So, we started reading up on the subject, it took us a few days but we learned a lot (I am sure that without these days of reading and learning I would not have been where I am today, strength wise).
If I were to summarize the three most important items we learned on a list they would be:
- The optimal movements/ exercises to build muscle and strength are “big lifts” (lo and behold deadlifts, squats and press movements). These lifts will activate the most amount of muscle in your body. The bicep curl is from this point of view subpar because it only activates one muscle (the biceps).
- Your bodyweight is determined by the number of calories you eat. If you eat a surplus you gain weight (the easiest and fastest way to gain muscle is training while on a surplus), if you eat a deficit you lose weight. This is always true. The common notion that different people have different metabolic rates is false (it can vary, but only a percent or two). Your base metabolic rate is determined by your gender, height, weight and the amount of physical activity you take part in.
- Patience is key. You won’t get strong overnight, over a week or over a month. It takes time – a lot of time. During this time, you must train in an optimal way and eat enough protein (somewhere around 1.5-2g per kg of bodyweight) and enough calories to gain weight. Unfortunately, this is probably the single biggest factor to why people give up and quit. The results don’t show up fast enough or at all.
Our plan was to gain (bulk up) weight and muscle August through December and then cut down (diet) January through June so we could become fabulous beach boys for summer.
The day finally came when we first stepped into the gym. We had found a workout plan we thought looked good and that had a bit of everything. Each workout was about one hour long
Monday through Friday, while Saturday and Sunday were rest days. When I think back to this today I would say five times a week is too much, three times a week is more optimal both timewise and physically.
With our newfound knowledge about food we thought the more the merrier. We started eating so much we were on the brink of exploding (I strongly recommend against this – exploding that is). It was all very repulsive, but we got results nonetheless. We gained a lot of weight and a lot of strength.
Several times I would put rapeseed oil in my protein shake for extra calories (who does this?). At the peak of my ‘gaining’ period I had gained about 20 kilos in about 4 months (as I said – repulsive) and I weighted 103 kilos in the morning. You should also know that under optimal circumstances a man can gain about 4 kilos of muscle mass in a year. I gained 20 kilos in 4 months, out of those twenty maybe one kilo was muscle. Again, I would not recommend doing it this way.
Finally, the day had come for our diet to start. The plan was to periodically lower our calorie intake to match whatever we weighted that week (when you lose weight your metabolic rate will go down as a direct effect of you carrying less weight). Both of us quickly deviated from this plan because we thought we weren’t losing weight fast enough (remember that thing about patience? I didn’t either). Looking through my old food diary from this time I saw that some days I would eat as little as 1000 calories (to put this in perspective, sources say the Auschwitz diet ranged from 700-1100 calories a day) – this is far from healthy. Both my friend and I started losing weight rapidly.
For me this crash course diet started taking its toll both physically and mentally rather quickly. I would weigh everything from broccoli to oil, documenting it in my food diary. I would get anxiety thinking about eating candy or ice cream. I was fatigued most of the time and going to the gym didn’t feel at all as much fun as it used to do. Nonetheless we kept going until June. At the end of my “diet” I had lost 30 kilos – I weighted 73 kilos. I was lean, muscular and looked healthy. I thought I looked great. The irony is that I was far from healthy. I would get extreme anxiety if I ate something considered “unhealthy”.
Even though most people praised me for making such a transformation I had a wakeup-call one day at the gym – I became enlightened. I was at the gym working out (at this time I didn’t follow any training regimen or set program, I mostly did what I felt like) and I thought I would try some deadlifts (something I was very good at a couple of months prior to that day). I was weak, I could barely lift half of what I used to be able to. I had wasted all those months becoming stronger and now I was almost back where I started (the food anxiety was just a bonus).
”In the end, however, the most important thing i managed to create was a big set of biceps.”
I started eating again – not the obscene amounts I did before – but enough to maintain a normal weight and have the energy to train. I started training with the sole purpose of getting stronger. I said to myself that any muscle
I would acquire was just a bonus. I started eating whatever I wanted and felt like eating (read: I started eating healthy foods with the occasional binge in candy or whatever). I started becoming stronger again and it felt amazing. All my anxiety was gone and I started looking forward to going to the gym again.
Fast forward a year and I had become really strong – strong enough to compete in the Junior National Championships in powerlifting (with a good shot of finishing on the podium). Two of my close friends were also going to compete – the thought was that we were going to prepare together (we were all in different weight classes). Unfortunately, I fractured a disk a couple of months prior to the competition which made it impossible for me to attend. My two friends did compete and I am still amazed to this day by the amount of discipline they showed both in their training regimen and their diet leading up to the competition.
I wouldn’t let the injury stop me from training (just a couple of weeks). I had to rehabilitate for a long time (which I am sure if you experienced sucks) but I did not give up. That was two years ago. Leading up to yesterday – which was a big moment for me – I am very proud and glad I didn’t quit.
I have learned during my “training career”. I learned about nutrition and strength training. I was able to take control over my life in a way I never had before. I learned that success is not luck – it is hard work. It is the patience to repeatedly do what you believe in even though it feels like absolute shit sometimes. I learned that making mistakes is not the end of the world, merely a part of it. And most of the time the goal is not the goal, the journey is the goal. When I started training I couldn’t bench press 60 kilos, today I have bench pressed 160 kilos. I have ever since applied a lot of this to other parts of my life – and I am grateful that I can.
In the end, however, the most important thing I managed to create was a big set of biceps.
This is my last article for Lundtan – I hope you have enjoyed my articles.
Good luck & good fortune to you all