I started lifting weights for bodybuilding when I was 14 years old, but I never had ripped abs until I was 20. I endured six years of frustration and embarrassment. Being a teenager is hard enough, but imagine how I felt being a self-proclaimed bodybuilder, with no abs or muscle definition to show for it. Imagine what it was like in swimming class or when we played basketball in gym class and I prayed to be called out for "shirts" and not '"skins" because I didn't want any one seeing my "man-boobs" and ab flab jiggling all over the court.
Oh, I had muscle. I started gaining muscle from the moment I picked up a barbell. I got strong too. I was benching 315 at age 18. But even after four years of successful strength training, I still hadn't figured out this getting ripped thing. Muscle isn't very attractive if it's covered up with a layer of fat. That's where the phrase "bulky" really comes from – fat on top of muscle. It can look worse than just fat.
I read every book. I read every magazine. I tried every exercise. I took every supplement in vogue back in the 80's (remember bee pollen, octacosanol, lipotropics and dessicated liver?) I tried not eating for entire days at a time. I went on a rope skipping kick. I did hundreds of crunches and ab exercises. I rode the Lifecycle. I wore rubber waist belts.
The results were mediocre at best. When I made progress, I couldn't maintain it. One step forward, one step back. Even when I got a little leaner, it wasn't all the way. Still no ripped abs. When I played football and they beat the crap out of us at training camp, I lost weight, but STILL didn't get all the way down to those elusive six pack abs. In fact, it was almost like I got "skinny fat." My arms and legs lost some muscle but the small roll of ab fat was still there.
Why was it so hard? What was I doing wrong? It was driving me crazy!
My condition got worse in college because I mixed with a party crowd. With boozing came eating, and the "bulk" accumulated even more. At that point, the partying and social life were more important to me than my body. I was still lifting weights, but wasn't living a fitness lifestyle.
Mid way through college I changed my major from business management to exercise science, having made up my mind to pursue a career in fitness. That's when I started to feel something wasn't right. The best word for it is "incongruence." That's when what you say you want to be and what you really are don't match. Being a fitness professional means you have to walk the talk and be a role model to others. Anything else is hypocrisy. I knew I had to shape up or forget fitness as a career.
But after four years, I STILL didn't know how to get ripped! Nothing I learned in exercise physiology class helped. All the theory was interesting, but when theory hit the real world, things didn't always work out like they did on paper. My professors didn't know either. Heck, most of them weren't even in shape! Two of them were overweight, including my nutrition professor.
However, out of my college experience did come the seeds of the solution and my first breakthrough.
In one of my physical education classes, we were required to do some running and we were instructed to keep track of our performance and resting heart rates. Somehow, even though I was a strength athlete, I got hooked on running. After the initial discomfort of hauling around a not so cardio-fit 205 pound body, I started to get a lot of satisfaction out of watching my resting heart rate drop from the 70's into the 50's and seeing my running times get better and better. And then it happened: I started getting leaner than I ever had before.
The results motivated me to no end, and I kept after it even more. My runs would be 5 or 6 days a week and I'd go for between 30 minutes to an hour. Sometimes I had a circular route of about 6 miles and I would run it for time, almost always pushing for a personal record. When I finished, I was spent, drenched in sweat and sometimes just crashing when I got home. And I kept getting even leaner.
That's when I started to figure it out. If you're expecting me to say that running is the secret, no, that's NOT it per se. I was thinking bigger picture. In fact, I noticed that my legs had lost some muscle size, so I knew that over-doing the runs would be counter productive, ultimately, and I don't run that much anymore these days. But that's how I did it the first time and I had never experienced fat loss like that before. The fat was falling off and I had barely changed my diet.
My "aha moment" was when I realized the pivotal piece in the puzzle was calories. It wasn't the type of exercise, it wasn't the specific foods and it wasn't supplements. Today I realize that it's the calorie deficit that matters the most, not whether you eat less or burn more per se, but in my case creating a large deficit by burning the calories was the absolute key for me.
These runs were burning an enormous number of calories. Everything I had done before wasn't burning enough to make a noticeable difference in a short period of time. 10-15 minutes of rope skipping wasn't enough. 45 minutes of slow-go bike riding wasn't burning enough. Hundreds of crunches weren't enough. I put 1+1+1 together and realized it was intensity X duration X frequency = highest the total calorie burn for the week. How much simpler could it be? It wasn't magic. It was MATH!
It was consistency too. This was the first time in SIX YEARS I stuck with it. Body fat comes off by the grams every day – literally. Kilos and pounds of body weight may come off quickly, but they come back just as fast. Body fat comes off slowly and if you have no patience or you jump to one program to the next without following through with the one you started, you're doomed. In six years, I had "tried everything"… except consistency and patience.
Then the stakes went up. I had finally gotten lean, but there was another level beyond lean… RIPPED! My buddies at the gym noticed me getting leaner and then they popped the question: Why don't you compete? My training partner Steve had already competed 3 years earlier and won the Teenage Mr. America competition. Since then, I had been all talk and no walk. "Yeah, I'm going to compete one of these days too… I'm going to be the next Mr. America." Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. The only title I had won was "Mr. Procastinator." Then finally, Steve and my other friends challenged me almost in an ultimatum type of way. Well, the truth is, I set myself up for it with my big mouth and they called me out, so I would have been the laughing stock of our gym if I didn't follow through.
The first time you do a real cut - all the way down to contest-ready - is the hardest. Not as much physically as psychologically, simply because you've never done it before. Doing something you've done before is no big deal. Doing something you've never done before causes uncertainty and fear, sometimes even terror! I was plagued with self-doubt the entire time, never sure if I was ever going to get there. It seemed like it was taking forever. But failure was not an option. Not only did I have an entire gym full of friends rooting me on, I had great training partner who was natural Mr. Teenage America! The pressure was on. I had to do it. There was no way out. No excuses.
Some other day, I'll tell you all the details of the emotional roller coaster ride that was my first contest diet, but let it suffice to say, at that point, I still didn't know what I was doing. It was only later that I went into "human guinea pig" mode with nutritional experiments and finally pinned down the eating side of the equation to a science (and gained 20 lbs of stage-weight muscle as a result).
In the late 1980's, the standard bodybuilding diet was high carb, low fat. For that first competition, I was on 60% carbs – including pancakes, boxed cereal, whole grain bread, and pasta - so I guess you can toss out the idea that it's impossible to get ripped on high carbs – although high carb is NOT the contest diet I use today. But it didn't matter, because I had already learned the critical piece in the fat loss puzzle – the calorie balance equation. Understanding that one aspect of physiology was enough to get me ripped. It only got better later.
In the end, I took 2nd place at my very first competition, the Natural Lehigh Valley, and one month later, I won first place at the Natural New Jersey. Seven months later, the overall Natural Pennsylvania.
Looking back, was all the effort worth it? Well, my good friend Adam Waters, who is an accountability coach, teaches his students about using "redemption" as a motivator. Remember the Charles Atlas ad where the skinny kid got sand kicked in his face and then came back big and buffed and beat up the bully? That's redemption. Or the dateless high school nerd who comes back to the 10 year class reunion driving a Mercedes with the prom queen on his arm? That's redemption.
After all the doubt, heartache and frustration I went through for six years, I not only had my trophies, my abs were on the front page of the sports section in our small Pennsylvania town newspaper. The following year, I was on the poster for a bodybuilding competition… as the previous year's champion. THAT'S REDEMPTION. You tell me if it was worth it.
There are 7 lessons from my story that I want to share with you because even if you have a different personal history than I do, these 7 lessons are the keys to achieving any previously elusive fitness goal for the first time and I think they apply to everyone.
1. Set the big goal and go for it. If your goal doesn't excite you and scare you at the same time, your goal is too small. If you don't feel fear or uncertainty, you're inside your comfort zone. Puny goals aren't motivating. Sometimes it takes a competition or a big challenge of some kind to get your blood boiling.
2. Align your values with your goals. I understood my values and made a decision to be congruent with who I really was and who I wanted to be. When you know your values, get your priorities straight and align your goals with your values, then doing what it takes is easy.
3. Do the math. Stop looking for magic. A lean body does not come from any particular type of exercise or foods per se, it's the calories burned vs calories consumed that determines fat loss or fat gain. You might do better by decreasing the calories consumed, whereas I depended more on increasing the calories burned, but either way, it's still a math equation. Deny it at your own risk.
4. Get social support. Support and encouragement from your friends can help get you through anything. Real time accountability to a training partner or trainer can make all the difference.
5. Be consistent. Nothing will ever work if you don't work at it every day. Sporadic efforts don't just produce sporadic results, sometimes they produce zero results.
6. Persist through difficulty and self doubt. If you think it's going to be smooth sailing all the way with no ups and downs, you're fooling yourself.. For every sunny day, there's going to be a storm. If you can't weather the storms, you'll never reach new shores.
7. Redeem yourself. Non-achievers sit on the couch and wallow in past failures. Winners use past failures as motivational rocket fuel. It always feels good to achieve a goal, but nothing feels as good as achieving a goal with redemption.