What I learned working out for a year
A year ago, I went to a good friend’s wedding. It was astounding. If you ever get the chance to go to my friends Claire and Alan’s wedding, you definitely should.
I danced for maybe an hour. I got my boogie on hardcore. Claire’s mom said I had great moves. I believe I hit on 12 of Claire’s single friends. (She will read this and text me the actual number.) I felt awesome. The whole world was fantastic.
Then came the next morning.
I could barely move. I was so out of shape that just a few hours of dancing made me feel like I got hit by a truck. Before the wedding, I had been planning for weeks to start exercising more. I bought some dumbbells, a simple weight bench, and I had a plan. I was going to start it in a few weeks, after my life slowed down a bit.
After that wedding, as me and my friends were driving back to Chicago, I decided to hell with it. I need to start exercising tomorrow.
That was a year ago. Today marks one year of me lifting weights. Here are some fun stats about the last year:
- Went from weighing 278 pounds to 218 pounds.
- Lost about 44 percent of my body fat, currently hovering around 20 percent.
- Did my weight-lifting routine 152 times.
- Went from being able to bench press 40 pounds to 160 pounds yesterday(3 sets of 6!)
- When I started, I could barely squat 40 pounds. On Friday I squat 215 pounds (3 sets of 8!)
- Had a 20 inch neck. Now it’s 18.
- Went from walking an average of 30 miles a week. Now I’m averaging 65 miles.
If you haven’t incorporated strength training into your life, it really is amazing what you’re able to accomplish just by lifting heavy things up and down.
My life is much better because I lift weights. It’s one of the best things I ever started doing. Maybe a few things I’ve learned can help you out. Because honestly, I wish I had started 10 years sooner.
Things I learned
- Just go do stuff. Then keep doing it.
Every other time I’d tried to get into lifting weights I became paralyzed with fear. Most magazine covers have ONE SIMPLE TRICK to help you get washboard abs. The fitness section of the most bookstores have about 782 different ideas about how to get in shape.
Everywhere I looked I found different advice. But none of them ever gave me the advice I needed: Just find a routine, any routine, and then go and do it. That’s what I did. I Googled, found a routine that I could do from my apartment with a cheap weight bench and dumbbells, and then did that, three days a week.
Next thing I knew, that workout routine became part of my life’s routine. And a year later, I’m still lifting weights, albeit a bit differently. But all that matters is I started.
2. You don’t lose weight in the gym
You lose weight in the kitchen. Your body burns fat (and muscle) for fuel. If you’re giving it too much fuel, it stores it somewhere as fat. If you’re not giving it enough fuel, it uses whatever it can find (fat and muscle).
Part of the reason I wanted to start lifting weights was to look better in a t-shirt. That meant I needed to lower my body fat. So I wanted to lose fat, but try and retain some of my muscle.
That meant if I was eating less food to lose weight (about 500 less calories than my total daily energy expenditure, or TDEE), I had to do strength training, to make my body realize it should burn the fat and not the muscle.
I’ve managed to lose only a few pounds of muscle in a year. The majority of my weight loss has been fat. I actually gained muscle in some areas, but lost some in others. All because I lifted weights while eating less food.
And because I upped the amount of protein I ate. In the first three months of lifting weights, I wasn’t eating enough protein while cutting my daily calories. In 90 days I lost about 8 pounds of fat and 20 pounds of muscle, according to a DEXA Scan I did.
I upped my protein intake immediately, trying to hit around 200 grams a day. The next 90 days, I lost about 15 pounds, and only half a pound of muscle. Much better. Since then, I’ve gained almost all of that muscle back, mostly because I increased the amount of protein I consume while also lifting heavier and heavier weights.
Weight loss doesn’t happen overnight. I didn’t gain all that weight in a month, so I’m not going to lose it in a month, either. This is what one year of weight loss looks like, from me weighing myself every day. Lots of peaks and valleys:
3. Almost everything you need to know is free and online
Thousands of kind people have put up thousands of videos on how to properly exercise. Not just videos explaining proper form, but also how to stretch properly, how to get warmed up, just everything you need to know.
On top of that, most of the online community, especially on on the Fitness subreddit (I know, right?), is super positive and helpful. Lots of websites exist just to help you lift weights safely and properly. Search and you’ll find them.
4. People will want to give you advice and it isn’t always great
When I started out, lots of friends wanted to tell me how to lift weights properly. Almost none of them went to the gym. Or they heard from a friend who heard from a friend that if you do a single curl, you’ll end up looking like Arnold Schwarzenneger.
The only people who gave me the best advice were those I either asked for help, or those who saw a video I posted of my form and messaged me some critiques. The people who usually messaged me critiques were good friends who have been going to the gym longer than me.
Everyone wants to tell you the thing you’re doing is wrong, or there’s a better way to do anything. So sometimes you gotta figure out when to listen and when to politely say, “Oh, cool, thanks for the tip!”
5. Progressive overload was my missing link
I’ve tried to get into lifting weights about eight times in my life. I even took a weight lifting class in high school. None of it ever took. Because I was missing the one piece of information that was the most important thing.
It’s called progressive overload. It’s the simple idea that if you gradually stress your muscles more, they adapt to the stress. That adaptation is either building, or maintaining, muscle.
You stress your muscles by either adding more weight to your lifts, more repetitions to your lifts or shortening the time between your sets. So, if you were bench pressing 80 pounds, for 3 sets of 6, with three minutes of rest in-between each set, you can progressively overload your muscles the next time by either:
- 85 pounds, 3 sets of 6, 180 seconds rest
- 80 pounds, 3 sets of 7, 180 seconds rest
- 80 pounds, 3 sets of 6, 90 seconds rest
Some of the reason you’re able to lift more weight is because your central nervous system adapts to the weight lifting movement, so you get better at that particular lift. But eventually, your body realizes it needs to adapt, so you build more muscle.
This is why I track every workout and follow a specific routine. Here’s my current one. I write down how much I was able to lift, so the next time I know I need to push myself further so my body is forced to adapt.
(Just a quick note: I don’t do any cardio, other than walking. Years of being fat haven’t been too kind on my knees. Not to mention, running isn’t the greatest thing for everyone.)
6. Weight lifting is kind of a game
But the only person you’re competing with is yourself the last time you lifted. It’s all about self-improvement by pushing yourself to be stronger, to have better form, to just be better than you were six months ago.
Because my primary goal of lifting weights has been to look better, I take photos every week of myself after I go to the gym. That’s a great way to be able to see your progress. I mean, look at this before and after:
See? I’m winning the game versus old, sedentary me. Also, you can see the spots on my chest where doctors had to recently shave my chest when I thought I was having a heart attack. Nope! Just pleurisy.
7. People treat you better when you’re in better shape
This is one of the suckier things to discover. And, I know, it’s so obvious that better looking people get treated nicer.
But when I was fatter, people were generally nice to me. Now that I’m skinnier than the average American male, people treat me way nicer. People smile more at me. Strangers talk to me more often. (Sometimes it’s because they’re hitting on me.)
It’s definitely made me rethink how I treat strangers in my life. I want to be just as nice to everyone, regardless of how they look. And I wish more people did, too.
8. Exercising regularly has helped my health, my mood and my creativity
I got sick pretty regularly before I started working out. My mood was pretty crummy a lot of the time, too. And I found it hard to focus on my creative projects after work.
Now that I lift weights, I get sick much less often. My mood doesn’t swing to such wild ends of the emotional spectrum as often. And because exercising causes all of these endorphins to rush to my brain, I’m always able to sit down and get a lot of writing done after I hit the gym.
9. Fixing some physical problems didn’t automatically fix my mental ones
This next section is kind of a bummer, so stay with me. For some reason I thought if I became more visually appealing, that’d fix some of the problems in my brain. That was wrong.
I still get super sad sometimes. I’ll get in a depressive funk that won’t go away. My brain will steer me toward doing self-destructive things. It sucks. A lot.
I thought if I made myself more visually appealing, if I became objectively more attractive to the world, it would mean more people would like me and love me. And that would somehow fill that emptiness inside of me, this void that’s been ever present since I ever could remember.
That’s not the case at all. If anything, the nothingness is bigger now. Because I still look at myself in the mirror, and I know all the progress I’ve made, but I can still grab at my stomach and call myself fat.
That hatred of myself and my body, fueled by constant bullying throughout my entire life because of my size, that just doesn’t go away because I can fit into normal sized pants. I still see a fat kid in the mirror. One who isn’t worthy of anyone’s love.
And I know, deep down, that’s total bullshit. I do deserve to be loved, regardless of how I look. Everyone does. No matter what.
I wish I had started lifting weights sooner. I truly think everyone could benefit from it. I was super fortunate that I had a good gym near me when I decided I needed to upgrade from just working out at home.
If you ever think, hey, I wanna give exercise a try, you should. I’m proof that you can lead a busy life and still make these positive changes. You don’t need to lift weights. You can just go for a walk. Then, the next time, try walking a little longer. Then a little longer. Next thing you know, you’ll be walking miles and miles with no problem at all.