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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 a LOT of lessons about building muscle and losing fat. But nothing beats the learning curve of my first year of training. I didn’t always do well. In my first year of training, I made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot the hard way. I did some things completely right by accident! Read on for the most critical lessons I learned in the very first year of my training career.
I wanted nothing more than to be big and strong. I was an endurance athlete throughout high school (cross-country skiing, speed skating, skiing), but I wanted to change. I was 17, skinny, and jumped into weight training with both feet. I saved up some money, bought the Cybergenics supplement program (mistake 1! – it was basically an expensive multivitamin) and started working out. It was June 1991, heading into summer. I had a good program and I started getting stronger right away, but I wasn’t really gaining. However, I was completely torn to the bone! At the end of the summer, I still weighed about 150 pounds soaking wet (right where I started 4 months earlier), but I swear I was at about 4 or 5% body fat. When you can see the dividing line between your upper and lower pecs 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. First thing in the morning I would roller skate or bike to the gym and do my workout and not eat anything immediately after the workout. I would roller skate home and then eat a bowl of cereal. Then I went to work as a paramedic for the rest of the day and ate maybe once or twice more that day and my biggest meal was dinner.
Then he went to university…
I had just finished high school and enrolled in college that fall. I learned the lesson that I wasn’t eating enough and I decided to make up for it. And I replaced it with… cafeteria food! Some people drink too much in their first year of university – I ate too much. Not to knock the catering there, but I’m sure they fried the salad. To show my nutritional knowledge at the time, (to reduce the fat content of my diet) I ordered a fried egg and cut out the yolk, eating only the white (which was shiny from the excess cooking oil). . All this I never realized it would have been better to cut the whites and eat the yolks (that’s where the fat-emulsifying lecithin and most of the good nutrients found in eggs are!). Eight months later, at the end of my first year of school, I was 70 pounds heavier, probably about half of which was muscle mass. I once sat down and calculated my calorie intake on some of my “big eating” days and found it was almost 9,000 calories a day!
When I learned the lesson of eating more to gain muscle mass, I didn’t learn the lesson that you can eat A LOT and easily eat the wrong types of foods. Sure, I got big and strong, but I probably went from 5% body fat to 15 to 20% body fat all at once. NOT the results I was looking for! What I had to do was eat more, but at the same time, better quality food. That, plus I’m sure all the “Weight Gain 3000” type supplements I was taking didn’t help matters! Looking back at the ingredients, it was mostly cheap milk protein and maltodextrin (a high glycemic, cheap carb source).
Training at the university…
Since I ate more in college, I also ramped up my exercise. I would try to do more and more sets and use more and more weight. Since I was eating so much more, I was still making great progress! Plus, at 18, I could beat the tar out of myself in the gym and still recover from it with pretty much no problem. I experienced an increase in strength and 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 was still making progress, but only because I was eating so much. Little did I know that I could improve BETTER by reducing my training time. From that day on, I always stopped training at the 1 hour mark, regardless of where I was in the program. And it did wonders for my results. I think the week after I started cutting back my strength shot up and my weight went up 10 pounds. THIS opened my eyes. In the spring semester, I tried a program that, if you’ve been working out for a while, may be familiar: Serious Growth – Leo Costa. That’s when I started training twice a day, six days a week, but only 45 minutes per workout at the most. I still ate plenty of food every day and made excellent progress with this system and learned the benefits of keeping an eye on my training volume (and cycling).
But I totally neglected cardio…
At the beginning of the eight months I was furiously trying to gain weight, I read that you should cut back on cardio when building muscle. Aerobic work can burn calories that the body can use to build muscle and can physiologically affect the muscle building process. Well, I went a little overboard and skipped cardio altogether. My thought was that I did cardio (to and from the gym) over the summer and didn’t gain weight. When I did endurance training, I didn’t gain muscle. So maybe it had to be cut out. So I almost never went up the stairs unless I had to.
Sure, too much cardio (especially prolonged cardio) can interfere with muscle growth, but as I’ve since learned, SOME cardio should always be part of any bulking program. The key is to do the RIGHT cardio (meaning interval training, which can really help the muscle building process). Let me put it this way, it’s good to be big and strong, but when you’re big and fat and strong and you get out of breath when you walk up a flight of stairs, you’re not exactly at your peak health. Plus you think it is… you NEED good cardiovascular function when you train 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. I now incorporate it into ALL my muscle building programs.
What happened at the end of the school year?
Well, at this point, being big and strong but also 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’m back to the same habits that slimmed me down the previous summer. I wasn’t eating nearly enough to maintain the muscle mass I was building, and I wasn’t eating enough protein.
I also started running again, which at this point, since I hadn’t done cardio in 8 months, was a HARD lesson. Imagine going from a 150-pound cross-country runner who can run 5 miles in about 15 minutes to a 220-pound weightlifter who can’t even jog for more than 3 minutes! Although I was trying to do long-distance cardio, it was more like interval training than anything because I had to stop and walk around every few minutes. As I got in better cardio shape, I started running longer distances straight up (it would have been better if I had stuck to intervals – I didn’t know!). And I lost weight and lost some fat, but I also lost a LOT of muscle along with it. There is nothing more depressing than losing what you have worked so hard for. 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 exercise are actually quite similar when you want to build muscle or burn fat. The main differences lie in eating and exercise variables, such as resting time and heart rate. You should still eat plenty of protein regardless of your goals, and you should still lift heavy weights even if you’re on a fat-loss program (this is how you tell your body to maintain muscle). Increasing your cardio, consuming fewer calories, and reducing rest between sets will kick-start the fat burning process in the right direction. Don’t starve yourself or go crazy by dramatically increasing your training load.
So what happened in the second year of my training?
That’s a story for another day…it means I’m going so far in the opposite direction of my first year of training that I threw out a pot of water my roommate was boiling for spaghetti because he added a pinch of salt (never mind that the sauce we used already had about 20 times as much salt)!
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