10 Observations from 10 Years in the Gym

I recently realized that I had just spent 10 years in the gym. A relatively short amount of time, given that I expect to be lifting for the rest of my life.

However, I thought that after reaching this milestone I’d take some time to write down some of my insights. These lessons are the result of hours of grinding away in the gym and much self-reflection.

I originally went to the gym because I enjoyed exercising, and was curious to find out what it was about. That led to a lifelong pursuit that is its own reward.

1# There Are No Shortcuts

When it comes to training and life in general, there are no shortcuts.

Sadly, many Millennials are under the impression they can just hack their way to success in EVERYTHING. Searching for answers on Google is not the same as a phd. And doing an eight week routine *guaranteed* to build muscle is no substitute for years in the gym honing your physique.

In addition testosterone and anabolic steroids will make not make you into an overnight superhero. If you have a bad diet, inconsistent training and a poor work ethic, no amount of drugs will save you.

Quit with all the hacks.

Pay your dues; put in the time and effort to educate yourself both in and outside the gym, and you will build a great body. Accept the process for it what it is and learn to enjoy it.

Just because you don’t have your ideal physique right now doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can be proud of.

Learn to celebrate your daily successes in the gym, whether it’s more weight on the bar, another rep or five more minutes of cardio. And realize that every small victory brings you closer to success.

2# Leave Your Ego at the Door

I’ve written about this before, but the ego is your biggest obstacle to progress in the gym. If you can take one thing from this article, let it be this:

Leave your ego at the door. 

What is meant by leaving your ego at the door?

Leaving your ego at the door means setting aside your desire to be validated and impress others. No one is looking at you anyway – they’re too busy with their own workout. Nevertheless, doing a bicep curl with your back because the weight is too heavy is not cool.

It’s sad that 90% of guys in the gym have NO CLUE how to train properly. They don’t train to maximally contract their muscle fibres, resulting in adaptation and new muscle growth. Instead, they train their ego and chase numbers on the bar for years.

In the end, all they have to show for it are pec tears and banged up shoulders.

Pick a weight you can do with perfect form for multiple sets and reps. It’s not about being anally retentive about your form. Lifting with correct form ensures two things:

  • It avoids the requirement for your body to bring in other stabilising muscles that take over the lift.
  • It prevents injury! Who would have thought? It’s more important to avoid injury and be in the gym for decades, rather than suffer setback after setback because you were too pig-headed to train properly.

3# Stop Chasing the Magic Bullet Program

This is another common theme I see today among younger trainees. They want to find that ONE program that will solve all of their problems, and turn them into the hulk.

Perhaps this is just a modern craze, or maybe even Eugene Sandow had guys pestering him in the 1900s about the ONE program that will change it all.

Regardless of their level of success, no elite bodybuilder followed just one special program.

Nevertheless, if you follow a new program, only to toss it out for another two weeks later, then you my friend will struggle to build muscle. You need a run of several weeks AT LEAST to give your body time to adapt to new stimulus.

Therefore, if you change every week how do you know what really works? To see real results, stick to a training program for a minimum of six to eight weeks before trying a new one.

Eugene Sandow

The Godfather of modern bodybuilding: Eugene Sandow. Do you think he changed programs every 2 weeks?

Although there is also another reason for you to stick at a program for a decent amount of time. Trying many different styles of training develops experience and wisdom for you to draw upon.

After doing this for several years, if you pay close attention you will have a very good idea of the exercises and training methods your body responds to. Furthermore, you will understand what type of training style you enjoy, and how much time you need to spend in the gym to maintain your physique (hint: not three hours a day as some delusional people believe).

4# Training Intensity Moves Mountains

Training intensity is also an art form that is lost on most. Showing up to the gym and moving weights from A to B is not enough:

You need to train like you mean it. 

Training intensity means lifting weights with aggression and force – but in a controlled manner.

When at the gym you need to leave your job, your relationship and your worries to one side. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t use your frustrations to fuel your workouts.

When you’re frustrated about something you can channel it in a very positive way. This will give you a burning intensity like no other. Some of my best workouts have come when I’ve been extremely frustrated.

By the same token, you should also leave your phone in the locker. Focus on the here and now. Nobody ever got big and strong by focusing on their facebook updates.

Your midsection should be tensed to provide a stable platform when you lift. This will help with the transfer of energy through your body that is required to train with intensity.

If you want a training intensity that makes most men quiver, I recommend you check out the Forged training program by Jim Brown.

Superman in the gym.

5# You Cannot Out-train a Bad Diet

This is a fundamental aspect of training:

You cannot out-train a bad diet. And sooner or later, it’s going to catch up with you.

I get it, staying super lean and having a jacked physique isn’t for everyone. Some men just want to look and feel good about themselves, and that’s fine.

But to achieve this, you’re still going to have put some thought and effort into your diet.  Though this doesn’t mean you have to count every calorie and weigh everything you eat.

It just means you should see nutrition as playing a supportive role for your work in the gym, rather than something you hate.

If you train like a beast in the gym but don’t have a diet to match, then you’re squandering your potential.

6# Hormones Are Paramount

You knew I was going to say this didn’t you? If you want serious results in the gym, then the importance of hormones cannot be overstated.

This is especially true as you grow older. After the age of 30 men’s testosterone levels drop by 1% a year. Although, today it appears as though more and more young men under the age of 30 are affected by low testosterone.

Our toxic environment does not discriminate between ages. What we’re witnessing today is an age-independent population-level decline in testosterone.

If  you’ve got everything dialled in; training, diet and sleep, yet you fail to see any progress in the gym, then consider getting your hormones checked.

Testosterone young men. 7# The Mental Game Is Just As Important As the Physical

I don’t care for sports, but I admire the mindset of elite athletes. Remember, these athletes had to beat off stiff competition from talented individuals to get to the top. Central to this success is the mental fortitude they have cultivated : A champion’s mindset.

They must remain mentally resilient in spite of setbacks; when the crowd jeers at them, games don’t go their way, or they fall out of favour with the coach.

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. ” – Michael Jordan

Just because you’re not an NFL quarterback doesn’t mean you can’t adopt the attitude of an elite athlete. Perhaps you’ve been working out for several months, but you haven’t really gained muscle.

Are you going throw in the towel because life is testing you? Or are you going to keep going until you get it right? Too many young men crumble like a house of cards in the face of adversity.

When things don’t go their way, the top level professionals look within and ask themselves, ‘How can I up my game?’

8# Have Mentors and Learn From the Greats

The importance of having a mentors in life cannot be underestimated. And I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve benefitted from having mentors guide me on my fitness journey.

Whether it’s friends in the gym or a personal trainer; I’ve learned something valuable from each and every one of them. Personal relationships are a necessary part of the journey, however books are also an incredible resource. Here are some of my personal favorites on bodybuilding:

  • Jim Stoppani’s Encyclopedia of Muscle and Strength (Amazon UK). I have used several workout templates from this book and referred to it time and time again. And I will keep referring to it in the future.
  • High Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way (Amazon UK). If you’re truly dedicated to maximising your potential in the gym, then at some point you’re going to try High Intensity Training (HIT).
  • The Testosterone Optimization Therapy Bible (Amazon UK) – Jay Campbell. An amazing resource on all things testosterone and lifestyle optimization.
  • Optimized Under 35 (Amazon UK). I spent over a year writing this book and am very proud of the results. If your hormones are out of whack, you’re not going to get results in the gym. That’s why I spend several chapters showing you how to boost your testosterone. But only that, I have an entire chapter in it dedicated to improving your body composition.

Similarly, take the time to learn from some of the Golden Era greats such as Steve Reeves, Vince Gironda, Frank Zane and Franco Columbo. Arnold was of course from this era, and was famous for being a champion bodybuilder before he became a mega movie star.

These guys built world class physiques long before the internet. Today people think that to be in great shape that it needs to be complex. These guys had a simple approach to things that worked exceptionally well.

There is much to be learned from studying these individuals and their approach to training and life. I guarantee you will take away something that will transform how you see things.

As an example, I read an interview with Frank Zane that changed the way I looked at nutrition. Zane said he usually ate less carbohydrates than protein – typically between 70-150 grams. After reading this I realised that if I wanted to stay lean year-round, then I had to reduce my carbohydrate intake significantly.

Frank Zane.

Frank Zane had one of the most complete physiques of all time.

9# Cardio is King

For years I bought into the idea that regular cardio would result in muscle loss.

And not for the first time, I was wrong.

You might think it’s easy for a guy on testosterone therapy to talk about cardio because it’s easier to maintain muscle that way.

But whether you’re on TOT or not, cardio will NOT result in muscle loss, and will only serve to enhance your physique. Regular cardio not improves only blood flow to muscles and muscle protein synthesis, but can also result in hypertrophy.

You simply cannot have a carved physique without regular cardio. Of course, you can still build a muscular frame, but you won’t have the vascularity and hardness that distinguishes a good physique from a great one.

So what type of cardio and how often?

In my experience, and as indicated by research, steady state cardio at 60-80% of max heart rate 3-5 days a week is optimal both for health and conditioning.

Some people prefer to do HIT style cardio, which can mimic the effects of steady state cardio in half the time. Personally, I prefer steady state cardio and have never enjoyed HIT style cardio. Whichever you prefer, just do it regularly.

Cardio? Is that Spanish?

10# Log Your Progress

Write down your workouts so you can monitor your progress!

How can you expect to make meaningful progress if you make up your routine every time you go to the gym?

Unless you’re Ronnie Coleman or Jay Cutler, and have an intuitive sense of what your body needs on any given day, then you need to log your workouts.

The underlying purpose of a log book is this:

It shows you how many reps, sets and weight you did in your last workout. So, for the next session you have a clear idea of what you need to beat to make it a success. If you fail to make progress after a few weeks, then you can return to your look book to see what needs to change.

Without a log book, you’re like a ship in the ocean with no destination: You simply go around in circles.

As an added bonus, you could even write down how your energy levels were for a particular workout, e.g. marks out of ten. And if you didn’t hit your goals on a certain exercise, you could write down why you felt that was, i.e. lack of sleep, low carb intake, etc.

This only serves to provide you more data to build up a picture, and to better understand your own body and the effectiveness of your workouts.

Log book.

Final Thoughts

There is much more to training than I could ever hope to write about in this article. And more besides, I still have a lot to learn. But I hope that some of these insights will help you on your own journey.

Some days I feel too tired and burned out to go to the gym. My body would rather enjoy comfort and relaxation. However, I know in that moment that is precisely why I must go.

It’s not because I have amazing self-discipline; it’s because I know training my mind and body to do this creates resilience and fortitude.

Training in the gym has taught me so much about life:

A sense of accomplishment, self-reliance, health, confidence and humility. It’s more than looking good in the mirror.

It’s an education that cannot be bought, and that you will not get elsewhere.

If you’ve had a shitty day, a session in the gym cannot fail to lift your spirits.

When you feel great the majority of the time, then your life will soar. Therefore, if training makes you feel this way, why not go all in and be the best you can be?

Take the time to create a habit today that will reward you for a lifetime.

If you’re frustrated with not getting the results you want from your training, contact me about my 1on1 coaching today.

We’ll come up with an action plan to get you results in no time at all.

PS. If you’re a young guy and you enjoyed this article, then you’ll like my book, Optimized Under 35.