Fitness is a journey, and you're always learning. What have you learned?
My fitness journey started in middle school, and my philosophy has changed quite a bit over the years, which I is one of the reasons I decided to start writing about what I've learned. Self-reflection can teach you a lot about yourself. You'll see some lessons I've learned at the bottom of this post. But first, my journey...
Basketball drove my first foray into fitness. Starting in seventh grade, I attended a basketball-obsessed school. This served as my first introduction to running. Sprints inside the gym to increase our explosive cardio. Running outside in the Texas heat to improve overall fitness. Testing our mile times on the track...well, just because? Side note: I once clocked a 5:45, still my fastest time!
At some point around this time (maybe ninth grade?), our basketball coaches decided we needed to bulk up. This was the mid-90s, long before the bodyweight fitness movement and the emergence of other, more enlightened approaches to exercise. For our coaches, the answer was clear: we needed to pump iron.
Never mind most of us had never touched barbells and had absolutely zero strength to build on. We were immediately thrust into a program consisting primarily of variations of the barbell bench press (flat, incline and decline), as well as barbell squats. I think you can see where this is going.
Several of us quickly discovered we could barely lift the 45-pound bar on bench press. The thought of getting under the bar for squats terrified us. We began falsifying our workout logs when the coaches weren't looking, which was most of the time.
Then they decided to test us by maxing us out on squats and bench press. You can guess what happened next...
Even though I didn't realize it then, that early experience with weight training shaped my future fitness mindset. I knew what they were having us do was stupid. If I was ever going to do that again, I'd need a plan.
Enter one of my best friends, Justin. We met on the first day of college and hit it off. He was on the power lifting team in high school. He gave me a plan. I learned how to put together a traditional, bodybuilder-style weight routine.
At first, the gains were quick, even with the dreaded bench presses and squats. On the bench, I moved my max from 65 to 95 within a few months. But pretty quickly, with that type of plan (chest one day, legs the next, and so on), I hit a wall. While I built a good base of strength, even over several years of working out this way, I wasn't turning into Adonis.
After school, I got my first real job, which came with an early schedule and a 4 a.m. wake up call. My dedication to exercise began to slip. I started eating more fast food tacos and burgers, and drinking beer.
The real world was doing a number on me. I gained weight and lost stamina. I didn't do much in the way of working out, other than some light running. This continued into my late twenties.
About six months before I turned 30, something happened. I didn't like the way I looked in photos. I was sitting on the bus one day, headed to work, and I could feel my belly jiggling in the seat.
I didn't like the way that felt. I began doing some research. I went to a bookstore (you know they still exist, right?), and perused the fitness section. My brand loyalty to Men's Health won out, and I bought a book called The Abs Diet. Between the recipes and the circuit workout with weights, which still exists on the internet, I got back in shape!
Competition with Myself
As my thirties wore on, I started to develop what I realize now to be an unhealthy competitive streak. But I wasn't really competing with others—I was competing with myself. I had to lift more. I had to run faster.
This manifested itself first with weights. I'd always knew I'd never be a bodybuilder, but I started trying different weight routines. Eventually, I settled into routines from the Starting Strength program. By focusing solely on core barbell lifts a few times a week (squat, bench press, press, deadlift, power cleans), I was able to get stronger than I had ever before.
The danger here was that I was doing this all without coaching, based on things I read on the internet and in books. I weighed about 140 pounds at the time, and eventually got my deadlift to 305 pounds, all in the confines of my own garage. But I also did a number on my lower back, which I still feel today.
In my mid-thirties I also got back into running. I knew I'd never want to run a marathon, so first I settled on the half marathon distance. I've never been the fastest runner, but I became obsessed with breaking the two hour barrier for a half marathon. I finally did it when I was 37. Let's just say I'm glad I didn't wear a heart rate monitor back then. Look at that pace...barely made it.
The downside of all this self-competition was that it would cause me nagging injuries, and because I always wanted to press forward, I'd never let them heal. The stupidest injury I had during this time period involved box jumps. Week after week, I kept making the boxes slightly higher, which is really fun until you pull your groin.
After the nagging pain in my back and groin, I decided to do bodyweight only strength training and switched from running to road cycling. This happened to coincide with the beginning of the COVID pandemic, which made for good timing. It took a few years, but my body feels much better than it did in 2019.
Today, I'm doing a more diversified fitness routine. I cycle. I (sometimes) run. I use dumbbells and kettlebells. I enjoy light yoga and stretching.
What I've Learned on My Fitness Journey
Over the years, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on what works best for me from a fitness perspective. Here are a few key things I've learned.
Establish a base of strength: When starting strength training for the first time, you can't expect to be pushing and pulling super heavy weight quickly. Start with bodyweight fitness, like pushups, pullups and squats, before you dive into the weights.
Mix it up: You'll always plateau. Keep your workouts constantly changing to avoid getting bored with your routine and continuing to progress toward your goals.
Be safe: With my competitive nature and desire to keep reaching goals, I've often risked or realized injuries. Now, I'm learning to back off and be safer in my workout routines, particuarly with strength training.
Find fitness activties you enjoy: There's always a new fitness activity to discover. For example, I've realized I enjoy cycling and walking much more than running, so those two activities make up most of cardio routine these days.
Take some time to reflect on your fitness journey. What have you learned over time? What can you do better? What works best for you? While workout plans and tips are helpful, you can tweak any plan to suit your needs and guide your future fitness approach.
Please share what you've learned in the comments below!