I started lifting weights at the age of 13. I recall the first day like it was yesterday! It was 2 weeks before 8th grade ended and I trekked down into my older brother’s room where he had a K-Mart bench, small straight bar and adjustable dumbbells. I carried Arnold’s Encyclopedia with me and followed the program of supersets. I supersetted everything! It was hilarious.

I was weak. I squatted using 55 lbs because that’s as much weight as I could lift over my head since I didn’t own a squat rack. I looked at the photo in Arnold’s encyclopedia and how it showed the correct / incorrect form for squatting. I trained three days a week; I did chest and back on the first day, legs the next and shoulders and arms on the third day.  It was pretty basic.

Eventually, I joined the local YMCA. I would ride my bike there and back which was brutal during the hot summer days, especially after a leg work out that included back squats, front squats, leg presses and leg extensions. I did plenty of drop sets, forced reps and supersets as well. The set never ended on my own. I made sure that a person “spotted” me through an extra 2 or 3 reps on every exercise. This is what all the bodybuilding magazines told me to do. Plus, back then there was no such thing as the internet so my information was really limited.

I progressed through the years by copying programs from the magazines. I started splitting things up like this:

  • Monday: Calves, chest, biceps, abs
  • Tuesday: Legs, abs
  • Thursday: Calves, shoulders, triceps
  • Friday: Back, abs

Believe it or not, this program worked well. I got stronger and I got bigger and that’s all that counted to me. When Dorian Yates started growing by 25 lbs a year I figured I better rest more. So I trained every other day which meant some muscles didn’t get any “direct” work for 9 days! But still, I got stronger and bigger. Heck, this must be all I need if I want to be a great athlete, right?

But as I got older and hit my late teens I started to get a few wake up calls. Not the kind that I would have liked to experience but this article is titled, “Lift and Learn”.  So here is what I learned and what you can learn as well.

I never thought I would be writing about the negative side of bodybuilding. But I amassed enough injuries and disappointments in athletics to piss me off. I was a bodybuilder through and through. Don’t get all pissed off, I’ll be writing about the benefits of bodybuilding soon enough!

Wake up call #1: I was an undergrad Health & Physical Education student and one of our requirements was to take a full semester of gymnastics. The class was two times a week for 1 hour and 20 minutes. Our instructor was a bad Mo-Fo.  He was a former All-American wrestler who also happened to be a great gymnast. I felt horrible for my fellow classmates who had no background in wrestling or regular physical activity because we endured tons of gymnastics “conditioning” every class!

Our class always ended with 10 reps of each of the following, non stop, and descending one rep at a time until we did 1 rep:

  1. Push-ups
  2. V-ups
  3. Leg scissors (lean back and scissor your legs across in an over / under fashion)

Each class we added 1 rep until we were doing 20 reps all the way down to 1 rep at the end of each class.

One day our instructor changed things and added plyometric push ups traveling down the wrestling mat and then back up, moving laterally. It must have been a total of 15 plyo push ups to get down and back. Guess who couldn’t make it the entire way? I was not happy. I did about 8 or so and then couldn’t even move.  I had no clue why and didn’t really know the difference between being strong, having power or power endurance or strength endurance. All I knew was that you were either strong or weak.

Another day, our instructor showed us the muscle up on the rings. I was in awe of how easily he talked while cranking out rep after rep. We all tried and we ALL failed at it. I told our instructor that my main goal is to do a muscle up. So for the next 30 minutes he stood next to me as I tried rep after rep getting stuck. When I showed him that my wrists were bleeding he kept repeating, “Get up and do it again.” I loved it, even though I couldn’t do it. I became dedicated to learning how to use my body more effectively as he demonstrated to us.

I started doing plyo push ups during my own workouts and added more bodyweight training. It paid off as I cranked out plyo push ups in class and improved in my gymnastics movements as well. In November I did my first muscle up.  I became more impressed as one morning we walked in to find our instructor doing hand stand push ups on the parallel bars. His upper body was jacked, huge shoulders and arms and ripped abs.

That day we did all conditioning. It looked like this:

1)10 ring pull-ups

2)100 crunches

3)“Walk” on parallel bars to end and do 10 dips, “walk” to other end and do 10 more dips

4)Pommel Horse: lift legs over the horse in front, and then over the horse in back – it was like doing leg raises in the upright position of dips. We had to do 10 reps total (over and back equaled 1 rep)

5)High bar - 10 pull-ups, then 10 chin-ups, then 10 hanging leg raises

6)30 seconds of jumping on the crash mats – my legs went numb on these and I was realizing the difference between being able to squat 495 lbs and jumping for height over and over again. Leg pressing over one ton didn’t mean anything.

We then partnered up and carried someone on our back.  This was followed by walking on our hands while a partner held our ankles. Walking lunges around the wrestling mat and then carry your partner some more!  I thought this was gymnastics not wrestling practice! It was gymnastics and it was also a test of mental toughness to see who would quit when your muscles felt like they couldn’t move any more.

I was pissed at how my body responded to the effects of this training at first because I had trained for so long yet I always had trouble during the initial experiences with this conditioning.

Unfortunately, after the class ended I didn’t get a good enough kick in the ass. I would get injuries to my lower back from doing the slightest things, like lifting a 60 lb dumbbell off the rack quickly. I guess using the smith machine for squats and other machines for leg press and hack squatting didn’t help strengthen my lower back.

Wake up call #2: As the years passed I continued to wrestle, and one day during a clash of egos, my older bro and I decided to bang heads while he had some leave from the military. This left me with a slight tear in my rotator cuff. How the hell can a 185 lb man hurt me? I weighed 225 and was a strong bodybuilder who could squat 495 for reps! This injury took a good 6 months before I was back into training full force.

I trained harder than ever and was excited to be healthy again. I did an upper and lower body split due to my hectic schedule. It worked pretty damn well. I got bigger again, regaining muscle mass and size so things were looking and feeling great! I was getting stronger on the incline hammer press, and I could go heavier than ever before doing incline benches on the smith machine! I was doing seated dumbbell presses for my shoulders using the 100’s!

Wake up call #3:  With my newfound health and strength I started training in MMA. My love for wrestling drew me towards MMA quickly and 2 months into it I tore my ACL. I can still recall tearing my ACL because I could hear it snap. I thought I tore my hamstring when it happened. It was time for a final wake up call and this injury finally did me in.  After 14 years of bodybuilding it was finally time to say good bye.

The lack of joint strength and stability may have been accelerated due to all the machine usage I did. In addition, I did very little training on my feet. I should have been doing the clean and press, not the seated dumbbell press. The smith machine…..what the hell was I using that for? And forced reps and negatives certainly busted me up. I was a wrestler and I had the mentality that I had to outwork anyone and everyone.  It had nothing to do with training smarter, only training harder.  If I can outwork you, I can beat you, right? Not all the time.

Doing this style of training isn’t that bad.  In fact, one can argue that nothing is bad if you use it in moderation, but I didn’t. I trained like this non-stop for well over a decade. I recall using a method where we would train to failure in the 8 – 12 rep range, then add weight and perform 3 eccentric reps (your partners lift the weight for you). Holy dumb ass! I did this with leg presses, incline smith presses, triceps push downs, calf training and hammer preacher curls.  No lift was too small or too insignificant.

Yes, this is the poison that was / is out there and I was sickened by it all. Now, as tumultuous as this journey was, I still loved every minute of it and I learned so much from those years of training as a bodybuilder! This is why I have to write a part two where I can speak of the many benefits that came with bodybuilding and what I learned as a bodybuilder.

Certainly, I have missed some of the downfalls that coincide with bodybuilding and maybe there are still lessons that I need to learn.  There is beauty in everything if you choose to see it.   Until the next time, train smart and train hard!