The Six Year Itch: Was It All A Waste Of Time?

This is a manifesto of sorts.

I turned 28 about 3 weeks ago, I’ll be entering grad school for exercise science in the fall (the program will last 2 years), I’ve been married for over 3 months (things are great by the way), and I’ve lived in Austin for 7 years.

Why am I listing these things?

I’ve been thinking about the passage of time, about how quickly it goes, and about (of course) physical culture. When we start this sordid affair, we have dreams of being the next Mr. Olympia…ok, maybe not. Slin gut isn’t attractive on anyone. However, we believe we’re at least going to end up like Casey Viator’s “before” photo from the Colorado experiment:

On the left

If you are smart, you quickly realize your genetic lot, but you’ll fight it because you believe the headlines from Muscle and Fiction. Or you listen to the bros on T-nation. Or your get ADD-OCD: you become absolutely obsessed with a new training program for 10 minutes before you move on to the next, each holding the “secret” to superhero status. Whatever it is, you try to make what your genetic destiny is happen faster than it can happen and take it beyond its capacity. As a result of this lonesome dance you might abandon what is best for you.

I’ve been training for 15 years and “seriously” strength training for 12. During the first couple years I trained exclusively HIT, exclusively Superslow. I had a running vertical leap of ~39″ with zero explosive training… I trained hard once a week and jumped a lot, just like every dunker on YouTube who jumps higher than you. I gained 16lbs during my first 4 months of training when I “got serious,” most of which was because I was underweight from 2+ hours of basketball daily throughout high school and an atrocious diet, think eating a tub of cream cheese with a bag of pretzels atrocious. I gained that weight training once per week on ~6 exercises per session, all superslow with a sprinkling of “special” HIT techniques thrown in.

Once the newbie gains tapered off, I got anxious. I didn’t have a wise old mentor for perspective…actually, I did but he was unable to say the things I needed to hear in a way that I could hear them. Old football coaches don’t always have a way with words! I started program bouncing, changing exercises and HIT methods too often, eating way to much to attempt to force muscle gain (pushing with a rope, as I explain it now). I got fat, but I didn’t get more muscular. I took the job here in Austin at Efficient Exercise and decided I was going to achieve my genetic destiny.

More Serious-er

I came to Austin and, after about a year, I decided to get even “more serious” than I had ever been. Methods used included but was not limited to 531, GVT, HST, Westside, Wave Loading protocols (ala Pendelay’s hormonal manipulation cycle), Doggcrapp, Max Stim, Myo-reps, Reverse pyramid, and the ubiquitous 5×5. I ate my way up to 220lbs but only had 3/4″ more on my arms than I did at 188, so while being a fatty powerlifter netted me a a 400lb box squat and 455 x 4 on the trap bar deadlift, it didn’t give me more lasting muscle but did give me a pulled erector spinae. My levers seemed to improve (good for strength) but it was not sustainable to eat a whole pizza every night to maintain the weight (bad for health). After cleaning up my diet and looking toward health and longevity, I find myself leaner but smaller than I was nearly 10 years ago. If you would have told me that when I was 19 I would have cleaned out the skull with a .38 special…sorry, manly weapon… M1911, vintage 1945. Not really, but you get my point. I wanted to be the hulk and am (and always was) built to be a fitness model.

Realistic Expectations

I made pretty solid gains on once a week training, which in hindsight was fantastic gains given the amount of time invested. The fact that all the hours I’ve spent fretting over training, feeling like hammered dog shit, and attempting to fit what a guru/old iron head/ genetically elite individual thought was dedication has netted me no gains over the last 6 years. All the “muscle building” exercises made me stronger on those exercises  but never made me bigger without eating to gain fat. This makes sense because, as any weight class strength athlete will tell you, strength is a skill that you can drive up for a long time without significant weight changes. In spite of that I still jump higher than most anyone reading this blog. Not a boast but a recognition of how we often pay the least attention to that in which we are best suited.

Regarding rate of gain, I recently contacted NGA and IDFA pro bodybuilder Josh Trentine regarding his rate of gains over the course of his training career and here’s what he told me:

My first competition was in 1993 at age 21, my height was right around 6’tall and my weight, the day off the show, was 159#…my heaviest competition weight was in November of 2006 when I got my pro card at the Mr.USA. I wanna say I weighed around 183# the day of the show, with as little bodyfat as a person could have, by this age my height was closer to 5’11”.

So in 13 years I gained about 24# of muscle.(and lost a inch of height. lol)

Beastly

So the math on that means he gained ~1.85 lbs of muscle per year of training. You might say that, since he uses Superslow (or Renex as he calls it now in its more mature form) its the system’s fault and he could have gained a whole lot faster with high volume training. To that I say have you met Dave Gooden?

Paper Tissue Thin Skin

In this interview Dave explains that he’s gained 30lbs of muscle in 20+ years of training. For those with low math IQ, that’s 1.5lbs of muscle per year. Itty bity stuff, right? You can gain more in 2 weeks, right? I thought the same thing and have ended up spinning my wheels for years.

My point here is that you can’t have it both ways: two natural pros gaining at roughly the same rate on 2 totally different systems. Some say Mr. Goodin is the greatest natural pro ever, with perhaps the greatest genetic lot for the sport ever. So if the greatest genetic card “only” gained 1.5lbs/year on average, an “inferior” system putting about the same amount on another, “average” natural lifter must be pretty good, right?
(Update 9/4/2012) Another bodybuilder, Chad Shaw, says this:

It took me 26 years to put on 40 lbs of muscle! That averages out to roughly 1.5 pounds of muscle gained each year!

He’s not doing too bad, either.

 

Update: 5/10/2013:ANOTHER bodybuilder, this time Aaron Curtis who, according to this video, has put on ~22lbs (10 kilos) in 10 years (based on the photos in his video), or 2.2lbs/year, on average:

If you told me that if I could train hard for the next 10 years that I’d be 5 kilos heavier on stage I’d say “Fuck, I’m gonna do that.” … If you say that to someone else they’ll tell you to get fucked.

And one more for good measure: have you met Clarence Bass, old man ripped?

Mr. Bass has been a meticulous record keeper, performing more hydrostatic weighings than perhaps anyone. In his book “The Lean Advantage,” Mr. Bass explains gaining muscle after 40:

In 1977, when I was 39, I was already hard and muscular with 2.4 percent body fat, but I was much better in 1983 at 45 – one percent body fat and 11 pounds more muscle.

Or an average of 1.83 pounds of muscle per year, all while staying obscenely lean…and that’s a compliment! Also note that this is much later in his training career, well past his days of “best gains.”

My point? 4 examples of a rate of gain not exceeding 2lbs per year over the course of a training career, 4 different genetic lots on 4 totally different programs. That’s 0.0385 lbs/week. Still searching for that “magic” program? Maybe it’s simply work hard on whatever system suits your disposition best without hurting yourself and you’ll get whatever you can get over the next decade or so. Yes it takes that long for 99.99999% of natural trainees.

(Of course, some idiots on bodybuilding websites will imply that when I say “average” I’m saying you can’t gain more than 2lbs/year from year one. This is false.  I just noted that I gained 16 pounds in 4 months when I started out; that’s not sustainable over a lifetime and there is no “magic” program that is going to change that.)

Not Was All Lost

Huge amount of time wasted to not get anywhere but as I’ve gotten older I’ve gained a greater appreciate for those who stay away from the internet when it comes to things like this. You might not find my methods hardcore enough, you might think that I can do it faster with your routine, you might think that in order to be truly “fit” ( a hugely subjective term) you need hyper complex systems filled with esoteric rhetoric…and maybe that’s true. Maybe the stress and time to push toward perfection isn’t worth the cost. Maybe if I had been patient, I could have been 200lbs of lean tissue on a merely “adequate” routine by now. Maybe. I know I’m not likely to find “the answer” on the internet, only distraction from the real work.

Ultimately, that doesn’t matter. I have 60+ sessions of clients who find how I teach training to be adequate to make their bones stronger, their muscles stronger, their gait better, their resting heart rate lower, their quality of life better. I didn’t need to be a monster to earn their respect like I thought I would; I had to produce results they were looking for and I needed to be smarter than your average doofy trainer.

I also learned that I didn’t need to be “huge” to get laid, to play sport well, to be athletically better off than 99% of the people I meet, you know anything implied in our popular medial. Basically all of the angst that I had developed toward my training was a direct result of people with different goals than my own. I bought into their goals, allowing them to dictate the rules of their game. No longer is this the case. My mother’s death reminds me that life is too short, sometimes tragically so, to worry about what others negatively think.

Regarding people talking shit about how a person trains, of all things to get worked up about, I offer this: those you care, don’t matter; those who matter, don’t care. Or to put it another way: the egos are so large because the stakes are so small.

Training can do amazing things for people, but focusing on it at the detriment to everything else takes away its ability to make all aspects of your life better. Recently at the LA Fitness Expo, I caught a portion of a talk Jay Cutler was giving about what he had to give up to be a champion bodybuilder, namely his family and friends for training, diet, recovery, etc. The thing is that there were people in the audience taking notes as if THIS was the thing they had to do to get bigger! They took his warning as a guide! Incredible.

The Manifesto

I write this mostly for myself, as a return to what got me to damn near my genetic potential in the first place. High intensity weight training to total muscular fatigue, focusing on emptying the tank as fast as possible and judging progress by internal cues rather than forcing external metrics (e.g. raising weight just because or fidgeting to reach a better TUL).

If I end up training with weights more than 1 hour per week, I’m doing it wrong. I bet I can get it back down under 20 minutes like the old days. Hell, less than 10 minutes has let Vee achieve 18+ inch arms.

And I bet I’ll still jump higher than 99.9% of the population:

If I make no gains above where I am now, I’ll still have superior return on investment. Not all was lost in all of that time wasted, as I’m confident that bouncing around won’t do a damn thing for me and my goals, should the itch to jump around return. This is my reminder that I can only control my effort: what exactly my returns is beyond my control. There are more important things to think about and certainly more things either within my control or partially within my control. My genetic lot is as far away from my control as Pluto is from where I sit.

That’s the real gem to come from this…I count my blessings for that.

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58 thoughts on “The Six Year Itch: Was It All A Waste Of Time?

  1. Great post Skyler. Most people seem to have this idea that to be effective something has to be complex, while sticking with a very brief, basic routine with little flair will get people about as far as they’re going to go, as long as they do it hard and consistently.

    A lot of people I talk to worry when they’re starting out that they’re not doing enough. I can tell they “get it” when they start worrying they’re doing too much, and look for ways to cut back to what is essential. Hard, brief, progressive and simple works.

  2. Ahh, the n=1 Physical Culture journey is so much sweeter than attaining any preconceived notion of what an “ultimate” physique might be. Truth be told, that ultimate physique is always just beyond one’s grasp. I’ve reveled in process for some 35-odd years now (yikes!), and it’s the process – not the outcome – that sustains me now. I don’t think anyone who is concerned purely with the outcome stays in the game long.

    • This is such a golden thought! People have asked me (and I have asked myself as well) the question “Why the heck are you (am I) doing this when the goal is so hard to achieve!?”. It’s often hard to clarify to people, other than to say “I enjoy the process!”. I think this is also a terrific metric for understanding what other activities in life are worthwhile for a given personality type (i.e. like learning about human body = doctor, thoroughly enjoy explaining concepts to others = teacher, etc.) If you’re purely looking at the outcome (e.g. “I want to make a _______ salary.” or “Once _______ process is over, I’ll be happy.”), you likely will never fully enjoy the activity in question. Great article overall, as well.

  3. Yahtzee!!

    I loved this post.

    You really hit the nail on the head. How backwards did we think of these things all along? The external numbers are someone else’s guidepost.

    Al

  4. Awesome post Skyler! There’s really not much to say here except that you have just explained what every young lifter, with whatever goal he may have, thinks and how he ends up spinning his wheels.

    • Thanks! You gotta know when to fold ‘em, what is best for your personality, and be open to being surprised by life.

  5. Superb post skyler. I am a bit older than you – 43- but have had a similar history. When I was 18 I just wanted to be a bodybuilder. I was not built for it but never gave up….and still did not get anywhere. I followed the hardgainer advice of eating lots, drinking my milk and breathing squats. I got to 17 stone – about 235lb. I was big but fat and unfit. Just by cleaning up my diet I lost 5 stone over about 6 months. Nearly all of my size was fat.

    Of course I would still like to be a bodybuilder. But I am not built for it.

    The other thing I have learned with age is that – as you say- there is more to life. Family for one. Also career and work. My job now requires so much more time and energy from me that 20 minutes of gym a week is fine.
    I

    • And you’ve found new athletic things that you do enjoy are
      do well in to sustain you: the hills. Clarence’s advice to
      challenge ourselves becomes more relevant by the day!

  6. Skyler-awesome post! I fell absolutely the same way. A while back, when I was arranging a pictorial history of my physique, I realized that most of my progress came by the time I was 16 years old, when my training was rather inconsistent-I planned on training 6 days a week but would usually manage only 3 days-which turned out to be better (the pics can be seen at http://www.maximumheadroom.net-I‘ll be blogging again soon). There is no doubt in my mind I would have achieved more by now if I had trained once or twice weekly on a limited routine, but the bodybuilding propaganda was too much for my brain, and like you, I got mostly fatter over the years trying to eat my way bigger while using conventional routines. Now, I weight less than I was at 16 but am stronger and probably a little bigger, but not much. At 40 years old, I realize I wasted a lot of prime years overtraining and looking for the “perfect routine”. I also wasted a lot of time I could have devoted to more productive activities. Anyway, cheers to low volume, safe, intense and infrequent training-it gives but does not take-and you can’t ask for much better than that.

    • Thomas,

      And while we all might disagree with his grain-heavy diet, Clarence Bass is a fantastic example of muscle building past 40. I just cracked open his “Lean Advantage” book from the 80’s and he notes that between the age of 39 and 45, he gained 11lbs of muscle, again less than 2lbs per year. There’s still hope yet! ;)

  7. I can’t exactly say I was discouraged by the comments over on Chris Kresser’s blog post re exercise (I went ahead with my HIT plans … now have a whopping two whole sessions under my belt), but this is a fab counterpoint to those kinds of arguments. So thanks!!

  8. Skyler,

    So my question to you;

    what is more important, to try to optimize or maximize?

    perhaps more has happened that what appears….

    Joshua Trentine
    renaissanceexercise.com

    • Josh,

      What is more important…in the years of fudging around that I’ve done, I was always trying to maximize. As De Vany would put it, top-down Soviet “command and control,” in spite of the fact that I was rationalizing that I in fact wasn’t.

      However, optimizing the variables is something very controllable: good equipment, good form, good attitude. Optimize though variables and you’ll be able to control your effort to the finest degree.

      Perhaps more has happened…and maybe my explanation is what you were referring to.

      Best,
      Skyler

  9. Great post. Reminds me a lot of myself. I tend to get caught up in the though process of working out 6 days a week. I hate it but I cannot get over the feelings of having to be there. You mentioned HIT and that peaked my interest. I would love to be able to workout out less and enjoy life more. Might you have some suggestions on where I can learn more about HIT? Good book ore website recommendations?

  10. I have 5 of Clarence Bass’s books-all great. He’s been doing HIT for years, although he’s not too dogmatic about it as you tend to see in the HIT blogasphere. He’s also changed his diet somewhat over the years, but his high carb/grain diet has worked for him, as I think he looks better than DeVany at about the same age. Clarence is still “Ripped”, hip replacement and all.

  11. Skyler,

    I forgot to ask you the other day….have you ever read Mastery by the late George Leonard?
    It is self-helpish in parts(those types of books usually make me vomit), but overall it really encapsulates what your post was about. I read it a few years ago because Richard Winnett recommended it in Master Trainer.

    Al

  12. Great stuff. I kind of stumbled on this post, which is
    weird, because it explains much of my previous history. I started
    bodybuilding when I was 18 and won the overall at Texas Shredder in
    Austin to get my pro card in 2003, never to compete again. I found
    myself in an unhealthy ADD-OCD cycle of trying so desperately put
    on muscle naturally, all the while blowing up and feeling
    disgusting. It was hard to bag it after all I had done, but now
    find my life SO much more rewarding, living a cleaner, more natural
    existence and by listening to my body. I talk about it a bit
    here… http://www.brian-speaks.com/2011/03/health-vs-fitness.html
    I’ve never tried the HIT method, but if it saves me time in the
    gym, I would be give it a shot. Anyway, great post!

      • Thanks man- I love the bodyweight challenges, like the flag. They feel more real to me. I would love more HIT info. Where do I start? I am familiar (from Mentzer back in the day) and recently saw some McDuff sp? info. Any direction would be helpful.

        Brian

  13. Skyler, I truly inspiring and HONEST post. This should go
    down in the annals of physical culture. I am going to make copies,
    sneak down to GNC and stuff it inside every box of bodybuilding
    supplement I can find. Would you consider allowing me to cut and
    paste this as next week’s WOW posting? Best, Doug

  14. Skyler,
    An insightful post coming from a such a young man!
    A few weeks ago I was reviewing some old videos I unearthed in my endless stack of stuff,and realized I was probably at my most muscular in 1995 at age 35.Vascular forearms,traps up to my ears,quads that could provide shade for an infant sitting at my feet,etc.Now,at age 51,I’ve lost a little bit of muscle but I don’t worry about it at all.I’m having too much fun with all the other things going on with my life-work,wife,cool cars,dogs,keeping tabs on my adult children,promoting strength contests.Sometimes I workout for 14 minutes at a time.Other times my workouts last under two minutes.As long as they’re hard and basic,that’s all I’m after.Like Drew said,stick with the basic,difficult movements and you’ll be at this for a long time.

  15. Skyler,

    I have personally seen your growth throughout the years, no pun intended, and I think this post brilliantly displays that journey. I can still remember my workout at Champions you took me through when you were a skinny 17 year old kid. After dry heaving in the parking lot I remember thinking, man I’ve got to get this kid to Austin to help me with Efficient Exercise ;-)

    You had a gift back then and you have honed it throughout the years.

    My thoughts with training have always been that the pursuit of variety in training programs is more from a psychological drive than a physiological need. Just look at Louie Simmons who despite some dynamic and max effort *variety* has done the same basic exercises for years. I’ve personally seen him keep up with the young guns at Westside during a max effort squat day despite the numerous nose bleeds.

    Here’s to more years to come…
    Mark

  16. Skyler,

    BRAVO!!!

    I remember a conversation that I had with Coach Colman years ago. You were about 19 at the time. I told him that you “get it”. Your varied experience with other training protocols will only serve to make you a better instructor.

    I went down a similar road in my twenties. It may not be productive (although it certainly may be) but it should be educational.

    Your clients should feel lucky to work with you. And you should raise your rates…

    Greg

  17. Great insights, thanks for sharing. What exercises did you do to gain/keep your vertical? We all know that playing basketball for 2 hours everyday (!) is actually counterproductive in this case…

  18. I’ll be curious to see where Richard WInnett’s idea’s go in the future (with his Sustainable Training project), but I see a hint of what you write about here in his updated web site.

    “Come back soon to see how our new commitment to Sustainable Training is incorporated on the site over the next year. On the physical side, that’s about it. Then just train consistently hard and what ever can happen will happen.”

    http://ageless-athletes.com/sustainable_training.php#continue

  19. Great post, Skyler! I am sure most of can relate to a similar scenario. Everyone picking up a barbell for the first time, feels that he could somehow become the next Mr. Olympia without realizing that there are far too many variables involved. The most determining variable being genetics. Yet, within the limits of genetics one can obtain a truly deserving strong physique that enhances most of life’s activities. Far too much time is wasted in discovering “The Program” while little attention is given to the more important factors. Like, Drew mentioned, a template that is hard and brief, executed in good form allowing proper recovery will give great results to most trainees.

  20. Holy shit story of my life. Since I was 15 I was on a journey to become way more than my pathetic genetics would let me go. Now at 49 k have given up the fight and accepted realization. I’m happy with what I have accomplished now and look great for Amanda of my age. Its a shame I wasted so many years of my life never being happy with my body. Lifes to short. Realize your strengths and weakness early in life and use them wisely.

  21. I was curious if you ever thought of changing
    the page layout of your blog? Its very well written; I love what youve got to
    say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or two images.
    Maybe you could space it out better?

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