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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 many mistakes and learned many things the hard way. I also did a few things completely by accident! Read some of the most critical lessons I learned in the first year of my coaching career.
IN THE BEGINNING…
I wanted nothing more than to get big and strong. I was an endurance athlete during high school (cross country running, 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 it was just an expensive multivitamin) and started training. It was June of 1991, just going into summer. I had a good program and I started getting stronger right away but didn’t really gain much muscle. I was absolutely ripped to the bone though! At the end of the summer, I still weighed about 150 pounds soaked (right where I started 4 months earlier) but I swear I was about 4 or 5% body fat. When you can see the dividing line between your upper pecs and lower pecs without bending your chest, you know you have low body fat!
I wasn’t eating nearly enough or often enough and wasn’t getting enough protein. I would roll or bike to the gym first thing in the morning and do my workout, not eating anything right after a workout. I would roll home then eat a bowl of cereal. Then I would go to work as a lifeguard the rest of the day, eating maybe once or twice more that day with my biggest meal being dinner.
Then It Was Off To University…
Fresh out of high school, I enrolled in college that fall. I learned my lesson about not eating enough and I decided to make up for it. And made up for it I did…with cafe 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 fried the salad. To show you my knowledge of nutrition at the time, I (in the interest of trying to keep fat levels in my diet low) would order fried eggs and cut out the eggs, eating only the whites (which were shiny from overused cooking oil) . All this without ever realizing that I would be better off cutting off the whites and eating the yolks (that’s where the fat-emulsifying lecithin and most of the good nutrients are in the egg!). 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 counted my calorie intake on some of my “big eating” days and found it to be almost 9,000 calories a day!
When I learned my lesson about eating more to gain muscle, I didn’t learn the lesson that you can eat WAY 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 a better quality of food. That, in addition, I am sure that all kinds of “Pezakiro 3000” supplements that I took did not help! Looking back at the ingredients, it was mostly cheap whey protein and maltodextrin (a high glycemic, cheap carb source).
Training at University…
As I ate more at University, I also increased my training. I would try to do more and more sets and use more and more weight. Because I ate a lot more, I still made a lot of progress! Plus, being 18 at the time, I could beat the tar out of myself in the gym and still recover from it with almost no problem. I saw increases in strength and body weight almost daily. But then something happened…something that opened my eyes…one workout I was in the gym for almost 2 and a half hours!
I trained too long and with too many sets. I still made progress but only because I ate a lot. Little did I know that I could actually make better progress by cutting back on my training time. From that day on, I always stopped my workouts at the 1 hour mark, no matter where I was in the program. And it did wonders for my results. I think the week after I started cutting back my strength increased and my body weight went up 10 pounds. THAT opened my eyes. In the Spring Semester, I tried a program that, if you’ve been training for a while, you may 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 lot of food every day, I made great progress with this system and learned about the benefits of keeping your eyes on (and cycling) training volume.
But I totally neglected cardio training…
At the beginning of the eight months when I was frantically trying to increase my body weight, I read that when you are trying to gain muscle, you should reduce cardio training. The aerobic work could burn calories that could be used by the body to build muscles and could affect physiologically in the muscle building process. Well, I took that a little too far and cut out cardio training completely. My thought was, I was doing cardio in the summer (blading to the gym and back) and didn’t gain any muscle. When I was endurance training, I didn’t gain any muscle. So maybe cutting it out was necessary. So I hardly even went up stairs unless I had to.
Too much cardio training (especially prolonged cardio training) CAN hinder muscle growth, sure, but as I’ve learned since then, ANY cardio training should always be a part of any mass building program. The key is to do the RIGHT kind of cardio training (ie interval training that can actually 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 going up a flight of stairs, you’re not exactly at the peak of health. Plus, think of 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? Cardio and muscle building are not mutually exclusive concepts. I now include it in ALL my muscle building programs.
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 concept of bulk and cut). But then I made a BIG mistake. I went back to the same habits that had made me skinny the previous summer. I wasn’t eating nearly enough to support the muscle mass I was building and I wasn’t eating enough protein.
I also started running again, which at this point not doing any cardio training for 8 months was a HARD lesson to learn. Imagine going from being a 150lb cross country runner who could run 5km in about 15 minutes to being 220lbs. a weightlifter who couldn’t even jog slowly for more than 3 minutes straight! Now, even though I WILL TRY to do long duration cardio, it actually resembled interval training more than anything because I had to stop and walk every few minutes. As I got in better cardio shape, I started running longer distances straight through (I’d be better off sticking with the intervals – little did I know!). And I lost weight and lost some fat, but I lost a lot of muscle along with it. Nothing is more heartbreaking than losing what you worked so hard to build. I didn’t lose all my muscles and strength, but it was enough to bring me back.
What you should eat and how you should train are actually quite similar when you’re trying to build muscle or burn fat. The main differences lie in how much you eat and training variables such as rest periods and cardio rate. You still need to eat plenty of protein regardless of your goals and you still need to lift heavy, even when you’re on a fat loss program (this is how you tell your body it needs to hold on to muscle). Increasing cardio frequency, eating fewer calories and reducing rest periods between sets will get the fat burning process going in the right direction. Don’t starve yourself or 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 actually made my roommate throw out a pot of water he was boiling for spaghetti because he added a pinch of salt (never ). mind you the sauce we used already had about 20 times as much salt in it)!
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