Who am I to preach to you?
What do I know? I’ve been at this for years, why do I understand what it’s like to start exercising or to struggle for motivation?
Well, because I’ve been there.
I started somewhere just like you. I had my set-backs, my reservations and my ‘things’ I have had to overcome.
So I thought I’d just tell you my story, such as it is.
I’ve made too many mistakes. I’ve been foolish. I’ve hurt myself.
But I wouldn’t change any of it. Partly because it’s shown me that there’s better ways and I can pass them along to everyone who will listen.
But mostly because this way it was my journey. It’s made me what I am really- as sentimental as that sounds. I’d say that training has had the most profound effect on who I am. In the countless hours, through all the sweat, chalk and effort, I’ve changed.
So here it is, my story. It is what it is, I’ve not sugar coated any of it and occasionally it might be too honest, but if it helps even one person to start their fitness journey or to stay the course, then I’m glad I wrote it.
The Early Days-
It’s October 2008, I’m a Grammar School boy. I’m a fairly typical teenager in a lot of ways, probably a little quiet. I had a few close friends, but I was never part of the larger crowd really. I was very skinny back then too.
I’d pretty much actively avoided sport for a couple of years at this point- using my Crohn’s disease as an excuse.
(if you don’t know, Crohn’s is an incurable inflammatory auto-immune disease that can affect your entire digestion system- basically where your immune system begins to attack the cells of your own body within your digestive system).
We are a few weeks after my parents decided to split up at this point and I’m probably more cut up than I realised at the time. It might have looked like I was coping pretty well, but I think that the trauma of the divorce (and what’s about to happen next in the story…) probably had a lot to do with why I got more involved in physical culture.
Back to October 2008- Walking from the local shops back to school me and a friend were mugged. It wasn’t that violent, but it was enough to leave me feeling pretty shaken up.
What was worse looking back is that I didn’t talk to anyone about it. At home I didn’t want to cause a fuss and I didn’t want the embarrassment of talking about it at school.
So I let it simmer.
I was angry, but mostly I felt powerless and afraid.
(Again, at the time I didn’t really equate any of these feelings with what was going on with my parents either. But a lot of the feelings over the two events were probably getting mixed up. There’s never a good time to get mugged, but a week or two after your family has broken is probably about as bad as timing can get when you’re 16).
For weeks I was genuinely afraid of going out. I actually didn’t go out in Stafford (where my school was) for over a year after the event for fear of running into the people who had done it. This meant I missed out on quite a bit socially at the time.
This was at a time when I’d also become ‘the Man of the house’ so to speak with my Dad having moved out and I really didn’t feel like I was living up to that role either!
So, pair the events of a divorce and a mugging with a teenage boy’s view of the world who doesn’t really want to talk about it and two things can really happen-
It can damage the teenager, make him lash out at external things.
Or it can do what happened to me. I internalised everything. But I came up with a plan to fix myself.
It was December 27th 2008 that I put the plan into action.
After a couple of months I was sick of feeling helpless, I was going to do something about it.
I was going to get strong.
I was going to get big.
I was going to learn to look after myself.
Two days after Christmas my Dad drove me to Argos and I bought the classic cast iron adjustable dumbbell set.
(I actually still have them)
I knew weights would help, but I didn’t really know what to do.
The set came with a poster telling you how to train different muscle groups with the dumbbells, so for the next three months I just did almost everything on the poster, nearly every single day.
You have to remember, this was just before the Youtube fitness boom. There weren’t a whole lot of resources out there at the time. I started to add to my knowledge through internet research, but this was as much miss as it was hit!
Despite the fact I had limited equipment and much less than an actual clue about training I was making some progress.
I could see my body changing. My clothes fit differently and I started to feel like I was getting some confidence back.
I was getting home from school, eating whatever my Mum had cooked, training in my room with my small dumbbell set then eating (without fail!) two tins of tuna, 2 slices of bread and a pint of milk.
I knew that I needed food to grow and the internet had told me protein was important. Nobody else really understood what I was doing at the time at home, so the simplest way I could think to get protein without really drawing too much attention was to just add piles of really cheap tins of tuna to the weekly shop as my own little protein stock.
(and we are talking really cheap. I mean tesco blue stripe tuna flake cheap. I hate to think of the amount of mercury I was getting!)
As I got stronger I needed more weight, so I invested in more kit. I remember me and my younger brother carrying two sets of 10kg plates back from argos one afternoon, a feat of strength in itself at the time!
By the time a year had rolled past I had about 60kg in cast iron plates, 2 dumbbell handles, a cheap barbell and a pull-up bar.
And I made real progress!
I started splitting training into upper body and lower body sessions and my workouts looked a bit like this-
Push-ups with weight in a backpack (more than once the weights slid up and smashed me in the skull…)
Pull-ups with weights in the same backpack
Some Dumbbell Rows
Some overhead press
Shrugs and upright rows
Lots of crunches and leg raises
Put all the weights in a backpack and do squats with the backpack on
Attempt what I thought was a deadlift at the time
Perhaps some lunges
Do box jumps up the stairs (plenty safe…)
It was basic as hell, but it worked because I had passion for it. I still believe to this day that equipment and fancy training plans can sometimes disguise what gets you results.
Passion and hard-work.
In my head each and every session was a war. It sounds dramatic (please remember I was 17 or so at the time!) but I was battling against my own weakness and insecurity. I’d remember the people who had made me feel small and I determined never to feel like that again.
I really did have a genuine burning desire to get better.
By the time I finished sixth form I actually looked like I’d been lifting some weights. I was thicker through the chest and back and my trousers were tighter around my thighs.
I even got a few comments about how I was starting to look.
I’d done it all with the sparest of equipment too. I’d gotten by on desire in those first 18 months.
But it got me a long way.
Was my start perfect? Far from it. If I’d known what I knew now I would have done things differently.
But I didn’t.
I did get results too from what I did. But what I also got was mentally resilient to training. I knew what training took. I knew that discipline was something I needed to make progress.
I’d trained alone. I’d pushed myself. No-one else had been there with me.
In truth these early days really saved me from self-destructing a little bit. I found a new, stronger identity I’d made for myself. But at the same time, I don’t feel like I ever became ‘meat-head guy’.
Looking back, I’m quite proud of what I did.
A lot of the time I think people get into exercise because they feel it will grant them something they don’t have at the moment. Whether the goal is weight loss, strength gain, building muscle or whatever they choose to focus on.
(any young men reading this, how many of you started lifting weights to attract women? Hands up.)
Exercise often starts as a tool to attain something.
Whilst I probably didn’t know it, I was definitely looking to find my confidence. I was trying to feel strong and self-assured.
I think having these emotionally related goals are what really solidify an intrinsic motivation in the early days.
You have to care.
Like care more than just looking good at the beach kind of care.
Make it about something more- Do it for more than just something superficial.
If you’re starting out right now, think about what it is that’s really at the core of what you want and kindle that idea. It’ll keep your motivation burning much more than a purely cosmetic goal.
The University Years-
I went off to University in October 2010.
Because of an accommodation shortage, when I arrived I was put into shared accommodation, which meant I was sharing a room with another guy.
I felt pretty awkward about it all. I’ve always liked my own space.
In the couple of years I’d been at home I’d been teaching myself some boxing from YouTube videos, so to avoid being sat in the room all the time I threw myself pretty hard into the boxing society for the first term of Uni.
I was running around campus most nights too.
I got super-fit, but lost a lot of the weight I’d put on training at home. Partly from all the exercise, but also because I was now entirely fend for myself and my diet was largely chicken dippers, more tuna and digestive caramels…
Because I was 19 I got away with the crappy diet largely. I still had ‘abs’ so I must have been healthy. Right?
In the first week of December 2010 I was put into proper accommodation, with my own room.
This turned out to be a pretty big turning point again for my indoctrination into ‘gym life’…
It was an all male flat, 8 in all. Within the flat there was a pretty close knit group of friends and three other guys who kept themselves to themselves.
I fell in with the group of guys and felt instantly more at home than I had in weeks.
It just so happened that these guys were going to the gym.
So I went too.
By the end of that first year of Uni I had started to really fall in love with training. We still weren’t training right though!
It probably looked more like a typical gym rat kind of set up than anything else.
Upper body was definitely prioritised and legs weren’t trained all that hard!
(but I did bench the gym rat mile-stone 100kg! so you know, worth it….)
But, I was training hard and I was building an interest in what I was doing which lead me onto the next phase in the story…