Let’s get this out of the way right from the start.
Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most overrated album of all time. I realize that context is everything and that, at the time, it was very experimental and inventive. But listening to it now (the album just turned 50 years old!) it’s essentially a collection of overwrought nursery rhymes. Go ahead, give it a listen and you’ll see that it no longer holds up. I’ll wait.
Speaking of things that are celebrating birthday’s and how they are holding up, I just celebrated my forty fifth. And for the most part I’d say I’m doing pretty well. I’ve been battling some pretty gnarly knee tendonitis that’s been holding back my training. But my body composition and strength are still quite good. I mean, I’m no Kyle Fields, but I can still wake up in the morning and see all of my abs. And for a 230 pound old man, that ain’t bad.
Milestones like this will make a man reflective and I have always been a sucker for nostalgia. Recently I’ve been trying to consider my earliest fitness memories – what may have been the first seeds that sent me down the path that I am on now – and I have it narrowed down these few.
A Walk Down Memory Lane
We had a set of cement-filled plastic covered weights in my basement when I was a kid. I’m not sure where they came from – most likely it was either Herman’s Sporting Goods or Sears – and it came with a barbell, dumbbells and a bench. Honestly I didn’t use them much but I remember this one time when my brother was a junior in high school and decided he wanted to play football. He invited a friend over so they could get strong for tryouts. I wasn’t allowed down there when my brother and his friend were working out but I remember my brother yelling out the name of the guy who was also trying out for the same position while he was presumably lifting weights. “Oscar, Oscar, Oscar!” Kind of like Lou Ferrigno yelling out “Arnold, Arnold, Arnold” while doing presses in “Pumping Iron”. It was the only time the friend came over and I believe the only time my brother worked out to this day. He did not get the starting job.
Around the same time, I remember hanging out with a few guys in our junior high “weight room” which consisted of a lone Nautilus multi-purpose machine. The selector-ized bench press went up to 220 pounds and I remember on of our school’s better wrestlers, Mike Greenburg, laying down on the bench and maxing out the machine cold.
Speaking of feats of strength, when I was 10 my parents took us to Disney World and we ate at a place called “Show Biz Pizza” which was essentially “Chuck E. Cheese” before that chain existed. But rather than ball pits and rat mascots and skee ball, Show Biz had unique and super cool video games. One such game which was wildly popular on our visit was this arm wrestling machine. The backboard was a graphic of a masked professional wrestler from which a mechanical metal and plastic arm stuck out. You bellied up to the machine, chose your desired level of resistance, and faced off against this nameless luchador. Tons of guys were going up against the machine, picking the “lightweight” resistance and dominating the machine or choosing “middleweight” and struggling. After about 10 minutes of begging, my brother and I finally talked my Dad into giving it a try. He stepped up to the machine and my left-handed father quickly declared “this isn’t fair, you can only use your right arm”. After about another 15 seconds of pleading my Dad dropped a token in the slot, hit the super heavyweight button, struggled against the machine for about 8 seconds, defeated it and then wordlessly walked out to the parking lot to get our rental car. Gangster.
One day, seemingly out of the blue, my older cousin Lee – who was pretty into fitness and bodybuilding – invited me to go to the gym after school. So I pooled what I had left of my weekly lunch money to pay the seven dollar fee for a one day pass to a truly old school gym filled with free weights and every machine ever made. Of course we crushed upper body (Lee has continued to go to the gym for the past 30 years and I still argue with him that he needs to train legs). I was sore for a week and loved it. But with no way to pay the $79 annual gym membership and giving me a ride meaning that Lee would have to drive 20 minutes out of his way, the plan of training with my cousin was both ill-thought out and short lived.
Eventually I got a driver’s license and a gym membership to Jack LaLane, which became Bally’s Fitness, during the Summer before my senior year in high school. I’d go a few times per week after my job working as a camp counselor and before going home for dinner. I mostly worked out on the machines and I can distinctly remember taking the step aerobics class with my friend Lee (no relation to my cousin) who I talked into joining with me. By the time we were ready to head back to school I had developed a decent if not overly impressive set of biceps. That’s they joy of being 17 years old – anything you do in the gym will work.
And I will end the “This Is Your Life” segment of this post by, once again, ever-so circuitously, getting to the point. Every so often on The Facebook someone will ask something along the lines of “If you can go back and give your younger, beginner self training advice, what would it be”. I usually find this question a bit comical because it’s 24 year olds going back an entire two years (!) in an effort to negate all the mistakes and set themselves on the right fitness path.
But given that it’s been 28 years since I got that first gym membership, 30 years since my cousin gave me my first taste of the glorious delayed onset muscle soreness and even longer since Mike Greenburg had our jaws on the floor with his bench press prowess I think enough time has past that I may have some meaningful answers. Some answer that maybe you yourself, oh dear reader, could learn from. So here goes:
Get strong, young Daniel. When I first started lifting there was no internet, no CrossFit, no Eddie Hall deadlifting 550kg, no Ilya Ilyin videos on YouTube and nothing else that would ever have us believing that getting strong was important and a process that was worth undertaking. There was Flex Magazine and Lee Haney and Hulk Hogan in Rocky IV and everybody, everybody, did bodybuilding-style training. No one gave a shit about the back squat. Deadlifting wasn’t a thing. Snatch? Clean and jerk? What the fuck are those? No one even asked ‘how much you bench”.
Of course, I’m exaggerating a bit. But really only a bit. Powerlifting was just not something you heard about unless someone who found it introduced you to it. Maybe you saw someone snatch at the Olympics if you were tuning in at 3AM. World’s Strongest Man was not yet on ESPN. But we knew Arnold. We knew Lou “The Incredible Hulk” Ferrigno. We knew Mr. T. All anyone cared about was getting big and muscular and jacked. We saw Stallone transform from First Blood to Rambo and we wanted to do that. So we bench pressed every time we went into the gym. We knew every curl variation. We judged a workout’s effectiveness by how sore we got. None of this is particularly bad or misguided, by the way. We lose sight of the fact that the majority of the fitness world – particularly the male fitness world – still trains this way.
But looking back I wish I had focused more on performance rather than just size and aesthetics. I’m truly convinced that not having that base of strength that is best built early on has hurt me in reaching my strength goals today. You only get one shot to be a young man. Use those tools when you have them.
Work harder. You may not have a ton of knowledge. You may not have developed the coordination to really perfect the big lifts. You may not have the muscle maturity. But what you do have when you are younger is the ability to recover and shrug off the nit-picky, nagging injuries that can really hamper training down the line. So take advantage of this near-invincibility by working harder when you are in the gym.
I trained much, much harder when I was in my 30s then when I was in my teens and 20s. And I survived it just fine. But I wish I had taken more advantage of those bullet-proof days and trained harder with more attention and intent when I had first started.
Perfect movement. Maybe “perfect” is too lofty a term but I would have paid much better attention to movement quality in all the big exercises as it would have allowed me to train harder, get more out of my training and made me an overall stronger, more athletic and bad ass individual. Back then we just moved the weight at whatever the cost. Honestly, we didn’t even know there was supposed to be much technique involved. In hindsight moving the weight with ideal technique would have maximized my training for years to come. And likely prevented a lot of the injuries I accumulated along the way.
Train with someone. Or everyone. Like every Marvel Comics origin story, nearly everyone I admire for their strength or athletic prowess started in the same way. But rather than being blasted by radiation, being bit by something radioactive or falling victim to the radioactive experimentation of a mad scientist (I mean, I love you, Stan Lee, but step out of the comfort zone every once in a while), when strong people talk about how they started it goes something like this:
“We had a weight set in our basement and my buddies used to come over and we would try to outdo each other.”
“My older brother would need to train for wrestling season so I got volunteered to be his tackling dummy.”
“My best friend and I would dare each other to climb the highest tree or jump over the creek at the widest point we could handle or challenge each other to races down the street.”
The commonalities are the same – they started young and they had someone or a group of people (hopefully people who are a few years older) to train with. We know that people train harder when they train with others. So while I greatly, greatly admire the teens and adults who are solo garage warriors, training their asses off, I believe that greatness begins by training in groups. So find a buddy and go to the gym together – you’ll train harder, be more inventive, and go much more often. I should have found a way to stick it out with Cousin Lee.
Go all in. This one I got from a recent conversation with Kyle. There was a time in his life, right after law school but right before he started working, that he went all in on training. He counted his macros. He went to the gym late at night to train with the other dedicated bodybuilders. He’d get up early to do fasted cardio. He was active on Body Space.
When you are young there are often transitional periods in your life – your Summer job just ended but school hasn’t yet started, you got laid off from a job and don’t yet have a new one – where you have enough free time to dedicate a nearly absurd amount of time to your training. Take this opportunity and do just that. It may feel a little obsessive or even like a giant waste of time but it will set you up to understand the constant discipline that people at the highest level of iron sports must maintain. It will also shoot your body composition, strength levels or athletic capabilities to new levels and show you what is actually possible with effort. Time well spent, even if that time has to come to an end.
Learning as you go is part of life, part of the fun. If I had all the answers back then, if I hadn’t had to make mistakes, miss opportunities and do the wrong thing from time to time (or most of the time) maybe this whole journey would not be as fulfilling. So I don’t lament any missed opportunities, but it is fun to think about what might have been with a bit more insight. But, as Socrates once said, whatcha gunna do?
And, in case my intro seemed confusing and irrelevant, the title of this post is the name of a song on Sgt. Peppers in which Paul McCartney wonders if his love interest will still care for him as he gets older. It’s a sweet, bouncy number and I understand why people like it and, for that matter, the entire album. It’s because, like me, they are suckers for nostalgia.
But I’m still saying overrated.