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If I Knew Back Then What I Know Now

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I recently celebrated my 24th birthday and I’ve got to tell you it hit me like a ton of bricks.  My joints feel a little stiffer, my memory is worse and I added a few more gray hairs to head…  I’m kidding of course, except for the gray hairs.  That one’s true.  Wisdom comes at a price.  In all seriousness though, I do feel really good.  My fitness is the best it’s ever been and I can honestly say that I am happy with my body composition, a tough thing to accomplish for a former fat kid.  This led me to think back on how far I’ve come and all of the stupid mistakes I made to get to where I am today.  So I thought it would be fun to put together a list of tips I would give my younger self to help him avoid all of the silly mistakes I’ve made in my quest for fitness.

So if I could hop in my own Delorean, I would travel back in time to 2009 and find my past self fresh out of high school, a naïve, young kid eager to learn about fitness.  The first tip I would give to him would be, “Get a haircut!  This has gone on long enough!”

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Look at that hair!

But after that my first real piece of advice would be to focus on getting strong.  You see at the time I had decided that I wanted to just look really good.  I wanted to put on a lot of muscle and lose body fat.  The Holy Grail if you will.  So I wasted a lot of time doing the old bodybuilding prescription of 3 sets of 10, without seeing much improvement.  It wasn’t until I changed my goal from gaining muscle mass to gaining strength that I actually started to see significant results.  I focused on getting stronger in full-body exercises like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and weighted pull-up.  The increase in strength translated to an increase in muscle mass as well, because when I did do bigger sets of 8-10, I was able to do it with a lot more weight than I had before.  This resulted in more training volume and an overload to the muscles which led to growth.  But that’s not the only reason I would recommend focusing on getting stronger.  Having a solid foundation of strength sets you up really well for other fitness pursuits as well.  If you want to get faster running, an increase in strength will help you apply more force to the ground when you run.  If you want to do CrossFit, a solid base of strength is going to help you do workouts as prescribed and not get crushed by weightlifting movements in the workout, like the 95 lb. thrusters in “Fran”.  There are so many ways getting stronger can help your fitness pursuits.  Moral of the story:  Getting stronger is almost always a good idea.

My second piece of advice to my younger self would be to focus on food quality and avoid the extremes.  All throughout high school I consumed a diet centered mostly on breakfast cereal and lots of milk, as in a mason jar of milk at each meal.  I would eat cereal for breakfast.  I’d come home for lunch and eat a normal meal, but leave a little room for a bowl of cereal after.  I’d be hungry when I got home from school, so why not just have another bowl.  Then I would usually eat a big dinner at night and finish up with a bedtime snack of, you guessed it, cereal.  As you can see, at this time I really didn’t know much about nutrition, so I ate when I was hungry and didn’t think too much about it.  However, at 18 years old I decided I wanted to get “ripped” and found out my current nutrition habits weren’t going cut it.  So, instead of doing the sensible thing and making a series of small changes to my diet over time, I decided I was going to turn it on its head and go on a series of awful diet plans that left me feeling so terrible I had to calculate whether moving was worth the use of energy.  I’ve tried a version of probably every diet trend out there and the two factors that I’ve found to be most important are food quality and consistency.  More often than not, if you are putting high quality foods into your body and eating enough food, you are ahead of the game.  It’s also important to stay consistent and avoid the extremes.  So you probably shouldn’t go from eating 300 grams of carbohydrate a day to zero grams.  This is going to be very hard to maintain and consistency is the key to success.  So, make small changes to your diet that you can maintain.  Be consistent, stick with it for a good period of time and then you can determine if you need to make adjustments like lowering your carbohydrate intake or increasing your calories etc.  It’s really that simple.  When I was younger, I was always looking for a secret diet or hack to getting lean, but like most things in life you have to work hard and be consistent.  Who knew…

The next piece of advice I would give my younger self would be, you don’t need a hundred supplements, you need 8 hours of sleep every night.  I would give myself this advice because at the time I was spending a lot of money on supplements and trying all these different things in hopes of waking up jacked on day, but at the same time I was staying up until midnight watching Lost every night (I’m still confused about that ending by the way).  In my experience, the easiest thing you can do to boost your performance would be to sleep 8 hours every night.  This allows you to keep your hormones in check and recover optimally from your training, leading to better results.  So instead of wasting money on a bunch of supplements, I would tell a younger me to invest in some blackout shades and go to bed at 10 o’clock.  Besides Netflix will still be there tomorrow.

My fourth piece of advice to younger me would be to make mobility a priority.  To be honest I neglected mobility pretty much my entire life.  Sure I would half-ass the stretches that our coaches made us do in sports, but that was about it.  And I didn’t really find out it was a problem until I really started chasing performance in the weight room.  I would try to perform different movements in the gym, like the snatch, and all of the sudden I would realize that I couldn’t get my arms straight overhead, my ankles were really tight and a host of other things.  So I spent a ton of time learning how to fix these mobility problems and it is something that I am still constantly working on today.  I believe that if I had made mobility a priority early on in my life, I would have progressed further than I am currently, because I wouldn’t have had to fight to undo all my years of neglect.  Mobility becomes especially important when you want to start adding more volume to your training.  For instance if you really struggle with pressing overhead and you want to improve your handstand pushups, you may try adding in additional sessions to work this weakness.  However, if your mobility overhead is your limiting factor, your time may be better spent performing shoulder mobility drills.  Without a good overhead position, you are going to get beat up by these extra sessions, which may keep you from training at all.  That is why it so important to have the requisite mobility to perform a movement adequately before you really try to add strength to the movement.

These four tips would be a good list of rules to live by in the area of fitness.  My last piece of advice is not necessarily fitness-related, but it’s something that I wish I would have taken to heart earlier in my life.  My last piece of advice would be to Be You.  I think too often in life, we look outside of ourselves to try to define ourselves.  I’ve struggled with this myself.  You worry so much about what people think of you, trying to make other people proud of you, trying to make other people like you, that you can lose track of who you are and what’s important to you.  You can try your best to make everyone around you happy, but if you’re not happy with yourself, your choices, your life, then what’s the point?  When you stop caring about what other people think and start going after what’s important to you, the important things in your life become clear.  So I would tell my 18 year old self to never try to be something I’m not, and to always stay true to myself.  When you do that you will surround yourself with the right people, the right opportunities will be presented to you and you will live a life that make you happy.

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