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Critical Lessons I Learned in My First Year of Training to Help You Maximize Muscle and Fat Loss
As a long time trainer, I have learned MANY lessons about building muscle and losing fat. But nothing beats the learning curve of my first year of training. I didn’t always make good progress. In my first year of training, I made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot the hard way. I also did some things quite right by accident! Read some of the most critical lessons I learned in the first year of my teaching career.
AT THE BEGINNING…
I wanted nothing more than to grow big and strong. I was an endurance athlete throughout high school (cross country, speed skating, skiing) but wanted to make a change. I was 17 years old and skinny and jumped into weight training with both feet. I saved up some money, bought the Cybergenics supplement program (mistake #1! – basically this was just an expensive multivitamin) and started working out. It was June 1991, just heading into summer. I had a good program and started getting stronger right away, but I wasn’t gaining much muscle mass. I was, however, sick to the bone! By the end of the summer, I still weighed about 150 pounds soaking wet (right back from where I started 4 months earlier), but I swear I had about 4 or 5% body fat. When you can see the dividing line between your upper and lower leg without bending your chest, you know you have low body fat!
I wasn’t eating NEARLY enough or often enough and I wasn’t getting enough protein. I would rollerblade or bike to the gym first thing in the morning and do my workout, not eating anything right after the workout. I would rollerblade home and then eat a bowl of cereal. Then I would go to work as a lifeguard for the rest of the day, eating maybe once or twice more that day with my biggest meal being dinner.
Then he went to University…
Fresh out of high school, I enrolled in university that fall. I had learned my lesson about not eating enough and was determined to make up for it. And I made up for it…with cafeteria food! Some people drink too much their first year of college – I ate too much. Not to knock the food service there, but I’m sure they fry the salad. To show you my knowledge of nutrition at the time, I would order (to try to keep the fat levels in my diet low) fried eggs and cut out the yolks, eating only the whites (which were glossy with overused cooking oil). All this without ever realizing that I would be better off cutting out the whites and eating the yolks (that’s where the lecithin that emulsifies the fat and most of the good nutrients in the egg is!). Eight months later, at the end of my first year of school, I was 70 pounds heavier, probably about half of which was actually muscle mass. At one point, I sat down and calculated my caloric intake on some of my “big eating” days and found that it was almost 9,000 calories a day!
LESSON No. 2
When I learned my lesson about eating more to gain muscle, I didn’t learn the lesson that you can eat TOO much and you can easily eat the wrong kinds of foods. Sure, I got big and strong, but I probably went from 5% body fat to 15 to 20% body fat at the same time. NOT the results I was looking for! What I needed to do was eat more, sure, but also eat better quality food. That, plus I’m sure all the “Gain 3000” type supplements I was taking didn’t help matters! Looking back at the ingredients, it was mostly cheap milk protein and maltodextrin (high glycemic index, cheap carb source).
As I ate more at University, I also increased my education. I would try to do more and more sets and use more and more weight. Because I was eating so much more, I was still making great progress! Plus, being 18 at the time, I could beat the tar out of myself in the gym and recover from it with almost no problem. I was seeing increases in strength and body weight almost on a daily basis. But then something happened…something that opened my eyes…one workout I was in the gym for almost 2 and a half hours!
I was training too long and with too many sets. I was still making progress but only because I was eating so much. Little did I know that I could actually make BETTER progress by reducing my training time SOMEWHERE. From that day on, I always stopped my workouts at 1 hour, no matter where I was in the schedule. And it did wonders for my results. I think the week after I started cutting, my strength went up and my bodyweight went up 10 pounds. THAT was an eye opener for me. In the spring semester, I tried a program that, if you’ve been training for a while, you might be familiar with: Leo Costa’s Serious Growth. At that point, I started training twice a day, six days a week, but only 45 minutes per session, at most. While still eating a ton of food every day, I made great progress with this system and learned about the benefits of tracking (and cycling) training volume.
But I completely neglected cardio…
At the beginning of the eight months, when I was frantically trying to get my bodyweight up, I had read that when you’re trying to gain muscle, you should cut back on cardio. Aerobic work could burn calories that could be used by the body to build muscle and can physiologically affect the muscle building process. Well, I took it a little too far and cut out cardio completely. My thinking was that I did cardio over the summer (blades in the gym and back) and I didn’t gain any muscle. When I did resistance training, I didn’t gain any muscle. So maybe it was necessary to cut it. So I hardly took the stairs unless I had to.
Too much cardio (especially long duration cardio) CAN affect muscle growth, sure, but as I’ve since learned, SOME cardio should always be part of any mass building program. The key is to do the RIGHT kind of cardio (ie interval training, which can really help the muscle building process). Let me put it this way, it’s nice to be big and strong, but when you’re big and fat and strong and out of breath walking up a flight of stairs, you’re not exactly in peak health. Plus, think about it like this…you NEED good cardiovascular function when training for muscle mass. What pumps blood and nutrients to the muscles? What helps you recover faster between sets? Heart disease and muscle growth are not mutually exclusive concepts. I include it in ALL my muscle building programs now.
What happened at the end of the school year?
Well, at that point, being big and strong, but big and fat, I decided I needed to burn off the excess (the old bulk and cut concept). But then I made a HUGE mistake. I returned to similar habits that had worn me down the previous summer. I didn’t eat enough to support the muscle mass I had built and I didn’t eat enough protein.
I started running again, which at this point, after not doing any cardio for 8 months, was a HARD lesson. Imagine going from a 150lb endurance runner who could run 5km in about 15 minutes to a 220lb weightlifter who couldn’t even slow jog for more than 3 minutes straight! Now, even though I was trying to do long cardio, it really felt like interval training more than anything because I had to stop and walk every few minutes. As I got into better racing shape, I started running straight for longer distances (it would have been better to stick to the intervals – little did I know!). And I lost weight and I lost some fat but I also lost a LOT of muscle along with it. Nothing is more depressing than losing what you have worked so hard to build. I didn’t lose all my muscle and strength, but it was enough to set me back.
What you should eat and how you should train are actually quite similar when trying to build muscle or burn fat. The main differences lie in how much you eat and training variables such as rest periods and heart rate. You still need to eat a lot of protein regardless of your goals, and you need to lift heavy, even when you’re on a fat loss program (it’s your body’s way of telling it to hold on to muscle). Increasing your heart rate, consuming fewer calories, and reducing your rest periods between sets will get your fat burning process moving in the right direction. Don’t starve yourself and don’t go crazy by dramatically increasing your training workload.
So what happened in my second year of training?
That’s a story for another day…it involves going so far in the opposite direction of my first year of training that I had my roommate throw out a pot of boiling spaghetti water for adding a pinch of salt (never mind that the sauce we used already had about 20 times more salt)!
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