As more and more of our athletes at The Muscle Emporium are transitioning from the safe and regulated environment of high school to the far less structured college lifestyle, I am repeatedly questioned as to how these athletes should balance school, work, and in some cases, college athletics. It’s amazing how little literature is available to guide college students down a path of sustainability in fitness and health. Consequently, it is our obligation as fitness professionals to educate this developing and impressionable age group.

So what are some tips we can give these kids to help them maintain healthy lifestyles? As with any fitness related questions, there are countless correct answers, and what I constitute as “important” may not even be mildly significant in the minds of others. But what I share with you now, and what I hope you will share with your college-bound clients, summarizes the most important information that I’ve gathered in my first few years of college, as well as what I wish I would have learned sooner to make the most out of my college experience:

Train at Non-Peak Hours

When I first began weight training in college, it was scheduled around classes, homework, and grueling swimming practices (I swam for a Division-2 team my first semester in college). Therefore, I had no choice but to schedule workouts first thing in the morning. Although this was not the best time for me to work out, I pushed through because I realized that a less-than-optimal morning workout is never as bad as none at all. However, after I left the swim team, I had more freedom to schedule more workouts at times that gave me a chance to sleep in a bit and workout at more “optimal” times.  Although this seemed to be a blessing, I shortly found out that the “optimal” workout time was the same for everyone else as well. Half an hour was added to my workouts between 3:00 p.m.-5:30 p.m. just by waiting for equipment to open up. So then I started experimenting with different times that my schedule would permit throughout the day. In my workout log book (which all of you should be keeping), I began writing the time as well as how crowded the gym was. After about a month, I reassessed the best time for me to workout based off of equipment availability and how I felt at that time of the day. Once I compiled my logs and data, I found what times worked for me and was able to fly through my workouts as fast as I was during those early morning workouts during swimming season. Yet, now I also had even better energy levels, and I perceived workouts to be more successful.

Of course, I understand that many students may work full-time jobs on top of classwork and socializing. However, there is still no excuse for not training. This is where your independence kicks in. You are on your own now. No one is telling you how to live your life or is forcing you to stay up until 4 a.m. every night doing whatever. The fact is that you control your life now. Get to bed early, wake up early, workout before the hung-over frat bros come in and talk about how many beer bongs they slammed down after throwing up for the fourth time last night.  The early bird gets the worm; it doesn’t get much simpler than that.

And okay… I guess some of you may have second- or third-shift jobs and can’t get to the gym other than during peak hours, I get that. But once again, this is no excuse for not training. The fix? Switch up your program. It’s not going to kill you to move one of your “bench and biceps” days to anything other than Monday. You need to be able to see what equipment is generally available on certain days and at what times. Consider actually doing legs for once (sorry, general college gym rat stereotype), and doing them in lieu of a chest day. Chances are your legs and/or back are underdeveloped anyway.

Also, feel free to change up what you are doing if the equipment you need is being used. I have noticed that in many gyms some equipment is favored over others. So if the squat racks are always taken, feel free to pull out some plyo-boxes gathering dust in the corner and do some weighted step-ups, box jumps, etc. instead. Substitute whatever you can’t do for other forms of equipment- body weight, dumbbells, barbells, suspension systems, machines, etc. All that matters is that you stimulate your targeted muscles. So don’t be so dogmatic about it, just make sure that whatever you do fits your schedule and allows you time to work out.

Drink More… Water

The benefits of a properly hydrated body cannot be overstated. One trick that I caught onto was simply bringing a bottle of water to class and making sure I finished it before class was over. Then I would fill it up and do the same for the next class. I am frequently asked by my clients, as well as the general population, about my thoughts on ideal water intake. In reality, unless you’re trying, you are never going to drink too much water. For one of my recent powerlifting meets, I was trying to use diuretic hormone manipulation to lose weight. At one point, I was drinking three gallons of water a day. So I was basically drinking water almost nonstop for the entire day. The point of this being, it is very hard to drink water in excess, so always strive to drink as much water as you can. All of your bodily functions and processes will thank you.

Which leads me to an obvious fitness tip for any college student/athlete/all other human beings: Limit alcohol consumption. Maybe I’m being blasphemous for this and am subject to persecution by court of The Delta House (Animal House anyone?), but seriously. Alcohol consumption is linked to a plethora of negative effects on the body. Alcohol is a toxin and should therefore be treated as such. Notice that I didn’t say, “No Alcohol, ever.” So I don’t want to hear any comments or angry emails saying how in moderation it can, "blah blah blah"… Besides preaching the dangers of alcohol to my clients at The Muscle Emporium, I also preach sustainability. Occasional alcohol consumption does have its benefits, and one of the most important health benefits of any sort of fitness related cheat day/meal/food is that you are restricting but still allowing what you want. This prevents most severe cases of deprivation and therefore prevents crash and binge eating/drinking patterns. Just remember, moderation, moderation, M-O-D-E-R-A-T-I-O-N.

Eat Healthier

The transitional period from eating whatever-the-hell-your-mom-decides–to-make-that-night lifestyle to the unlimited-food-any-time-of-the-day lifestyle can be dangerous, especially in schools that offer buffet style eating establishments. Again, this is where lifestyle choices come into play. Although it is easy to fall victim to food choices that will guarantee the freshman 15, it is just as easy to make good choices. The only difference is that now mommy isn’t breathing down your back and making sure you eat your veggies.

College dining facilities like these can be extremely advantageous though. You can chose when you want to eat, which can very much determine your fitness success. Try timing meals around workouts when possible. I don’t want to beat a dead horse here anymore than I have to, but the optimal meal time for nutrition and fitness success is immediately post workout to approximately an hour after (depending on who’s counting, but I really don’t care about specifics here. I’m just establishing general guidelines- again, please no email/comment harassment).

When establishing your nutritional plan, I understand you may fall prey to some diet dogmas (paleo, carb back-loading, etc.), but try to avoid this for as long as possible, especially given the variety of foods available. It may seem easy to follow these dogmas on a school dining program, but also understand the menus and availability of diet approved foods are subject to change and can lead to frustration and subsequent binging.

Another feasible option, if you have your own apartment or access to a kitchen, is to reduce your campus dining plan and make the majority of your own meals. This can be a great option if done properly and was done by myself after my freshman year. By reducing your dining plan, you can spend more money on organic/grass-fed meats and produce. Although this does require a lot of preparation, it is definitely worth it. This is also the best option for more dogmatic eaters. You can cook and prepare exactly what you want whenever you want. This does not, however, give you a free pass to get drunken 3 a.m. pizza because you didn’t feed yourself all day because you were too busy with whatever. College is when you set up the foundations of your lifestyle. Don’t resort to bad choices because of lack of time. Make time. You’ll thank me later.

Pick Classes that Matter

It’s very easy to want to pick classes that you think guarantee you an easy A, but college is supposed to be a time of learning and enlightenment. Treat it as such. Although you may not be in exercise science, or a related major, you can still use your education to further your knowledge in fitness. When it comes time to pick classes, pick those from which you will truly learn the most, in a fitness related way or not. This is extremely important. Pick what classes interest you and challenge you.

Specifically from a fitness standpoint, do not overlook core classes like chemistry, physics, and biology. These classes lay the foundation for all exercise and nutrition classes, and having a firm understanding of these will create a base of knowledge that will almost guarantee your success in ensuing exercise science related classes.

Not only will these classes fill requirements and teach you the material, but they will also teach you a lot about yourself. They will teach you what your interests are, what your weak points are, and although you may think it’s forever away, these classes can help you determine what you want to do with your life upon graduation.

Get Involved

Check your campus to see if there are any health and fitness related clubs or organizations. These groups can provide camaraderie and put you in a social group that has goals and ambitions similar to your own. During my first year in school, I was introduced to such a club. Not only did I gain knowledge from the organization, but I have also used to its resources to network and further advance myself in the fitness community. Among the many things I preach to my clients and athletes, the importance and value of learning and continued education are key. And like I said earlier, you’re in college to learn. You can’t learn a great deal with a closed mind. So the sooner you accept that everyone can teach you something, the better off you will be.

If you are not already a college athlete, consider intramural athletics or strength sports to focus your lifestyle and create goals.  After all, it is a lot easier to drag yourself to the gym and to keep you on track with workouts if there is an actual goal or event that you are training for. This is what will keep you going back to the gym. This isn’t high school anymore, and the majority of you aren’t training for sports. Now you will need to reevaluate yourself and create goals, or your chances of a healthy lifestyle will diminish rapidly.

It’s a Lifestyle

A healthy body and a healthy mind are the result of a lifetime of proper decisions. Now that you are on your own, the decision is yours and yours alone. You are a product of your environment, so be sure to surround yourself with like-minded individuals to achieve success. Make sure you get your training in. (I do say “training”to mean workout with a specific goal in mind). Work toward proper steps day in day out. Pay attention in class, before anything else college is a time for learning. Just make sure you realize that the classroom isn’t the only place you will learn. Involve yourself with campus organizations that you enjoy doing.

More than anything, understand that health and fitness isn’t a specific doctrine with a specific set of rules. Your health will be a direct result of a lifetime of proper common-sense decisions. So don’t get wrapped up in low carb vs. low fat, or high intensity vs. high volume, just understand that gummy bears and pizza probably don’t make a great diet, and that any physical activity is better than none. As long as you can stick to those guidelines and make sure you never stop being a student of fitness, college will be an extremely rewarding and fun stop in the journey of life.


Feel free to drop a comment or email me over any and all questions you may have.