My First Article With 1M Views Was My Bodybuilding Story. Here’s Why I Gave The Sport Up
If you recognize the above before/after photo, then chances are, you came across this Quora answer.
This was the first massively viral thing I’d ever written on the Internet. It landed on the front page of Reddit, put me on the map on Quora literally overnight, and set the stage for the five years of writing I’ve done since.
Someone on Quora recently asked me whether I still lifted weights or not. What I ended up writing feels honest and true, so I figured I’d share it here on Medium as well.
Yes, I stopped bodybuilding — and for long stretches of time, I stopped working out completely.
There are a few reasons why.
First, I herniated a disc in my neck.
I remember the day because a mentor of mine loves telling this story.
It was my 26th birthday, and as the day at the office was coming to a close, my boss and mentor said, “Hey, how about I treat you to a birthday dinner. You love steak. Pick anywhere in the city and let’s go.”
But I didn’t want to go out for my birthday.
It was a Monday, and I wanted to hit chest.
So I said, “No thanks,” took the train back to my apartment, changed into my workout clothes, and went to the gym.
It was one of the best lifts I had ever had in my entire life. And to be honest, the real reason why I decided not to go out for a birthday dinner was because I hadn’t missed a day at the gym in months. I was on a roll. May, 2016, I was arguably in the best shape of my entire life. I was also stronger than I’d ever been: squatting 315, benching 250, and being able to do supersets to the point where my veins looked like they were going to explode.
At the very end of my workout, and still feeling like I had more energy to burn, I decided to do one last exercise: chest flies mixed with pushups.
I remember being downstairs at Quads Gym downtown Chicago. I was on my second set. And all of a sudden, right in the middle of my ten pushups, I felt something pop near my neck. It was the strangest feeling, and what confused me was that I didn’t immediately feel pain. My muscles were so pumped from two hours of working out that it just felt like a weird twinge. So, not thinking anything of it, I decided to keep lifting.
It wasn’t until I got home, thirty minutes later, that all of a sudden the pain started to kick in.
I was making dinner, when my whole left trap felt like it was on fire. When I turned my head to look at my left arm, a shooting pain ran from the bottom of my skull all the way through my shoulder and down my spine. It hurt so badly that I just froze, in a contorted position, and tried to take a deep breath. Every second that passed though, the pain just got worse. And worse. Until my head was pounding so badly that I wondered if I had to go to the hospital.
I spent the next month on Vicodin and Codeine. It was horrible. I would show up to the office and walk around with an ice pack resting on my neck, only taking it off for meetings with clients. I would try to get as much work done before popping another painkiller and knowing my productivity would be shot. I couldn’t lift. Not lifting made me depressed. And the more depressed I got, the more I started to really question whether I’d ever be able to lift that seriously again.
It took me six months of resting and mild stretching before I could even step foot in a gym again. And then every time I would, I’d lift for two or three days, feel that part of my neck and trap flare up again, and then have to stop. This went on indefinitely — until eventually, I just stopped trying altogether.
At a certain point, I accepted I would never be able to bodybuild again. Physically, herniating that disc caused a lot of trauma to the muscles in my back. I’m still working through knots that have formed around my left shoulder from me trying to “lean away” from the pain. And my awkward posture for the months of my healing has led to my mild scoliosis worsening, with my entire right side now overcompensating for my weakened left.
Needless to say, I still have a lot of healing to do before I can approach the gym the same way I did when I was 24, 25, 26. And if and when I am able to get back to a place where it’s possible to lift seriously again, I don’t think I’ll want to go back to putting my body under that level of physical stress.
The second reason why I stopped bodybuilding was because it wasn’t going to become my full-time passion or career.
As painful as herniating a disc was, it was a blessing in disguise.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but lifting was still my number one priority. I worked as a copywriter for 8–10 hours per day, five days per week, and then as soon as work was over, I lifted. I put lifting over dating. Lifting over going out and making new friends. I even put lifting over writing. There wasn’t a single day between the ages of 23 and 26 that I chose to skip the gym to write instead.
I wrote almost every night. But if it ever came down to it, I always chose to lift.
The reason why herniating a disc was a blessing in disguise was because it removed lifting from the equation entirely. After my month spent on painkillers, I’d come home from work and not be able to do much else except write. I was in too much pain to be social, too much pain to even stretch or do a mild workout. And (if you’ve read a lot of my work then you know this story) I still didn’t have Internet in my apartment. That was a promise I’d made to myself right after graduating college. I would not get Internet until I finished my first book: Confessions of a Teenage Gamer.
Well, those few months right after I got injured, I finally finished it.
With nothing else to do, I invested all those hours I would have been lifting into writing instead. And not only did I finish Confessions, but I wrote some of my most popular Quora Answers and Inc Magazine columns, started ghostwriting for a handful of executives, and ultimately reached a point (4 months later) where I felt ready to “take the leap” and become a full-time writer.
Letting go of lifting helped me realize my true potential as a writer.
I’ll never forget, about eight months later when I tried to return to the gym, I met one of my old workout friends there for a lift. Already nearly twenty pounds smaller, I looked at myself in the mirror and hated what I saw. I felt like years of hard work were vanishing right before my very eyes, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Listening to me vent, my friend turned to me and said, “Cole, don’t get me wrong, you were a beast in the gym. But your potential is bigger than just lifting weights.”
In that moment, hearing him say that, even if I wasn’t ready to admit it out loud, I knew he was right. I loved lifting. Loved it with all my heart. But I was giving too much priority to something that wasn’t my highest potential. Which meant I had to start treating it more like a hobby, a form of self care — and less like a sport.
I had to let it go.
The third reason I stopped bodybuilding was because it no longer aligned with who I was becoming.
Herniating that disc in my neck caused a lot of major life events to happen in a very short amount of time.
My injury happened end of May, 2016.
By August, I’d finished my book, was getting ready to release it to the world, and had decided I was going to take the leap and go all-in on my talents as a writer.
September, I published Confessions, quit my job, and immediately flew out to Los Angeles to work on a startup with a few friends.
October, I had started dating a girl from Arizona (that I’d met in LA). I was on planes 3 out of every 4 weeks of the month, month after month. I was flying from Chicago to Arizona to see my first girlfriend in almost four years. I was flying to LA to work on this startup. And I was flying to Atlanta to try to convince my (now co-founder, Drew Reggie) to quit his job and take the leap with me. My first real month as a freelance writer, out on my own, and I doubled my income.
November, I was spending more time in other cities than I was in Chicago. I was ghostwriting for a handful of incredibly successful entrepreneurs and C-level executives. I was starting to realize that my potential was way bigger than just “being a freelance writer.” And, I doubled my income again, meaning two months after I’d quit my job, I went from making $45k/year to over six figures. Instead of spending it on a new apartment or a car, I saved it. And the way I started to think about my future got bigger.
By December, I was living the dream. I had effectively doubled my salary, again, meaning I was outearning my former job by a factor of four. I was working 2–3 hours per day. I was taking vacations with my new serious girlfriend. I was treating us to anything that sounded like fun: fancy dinners, Broadway shows, museums, expensive hotels. Everything I’d deprived myself of during my bodybuilding years, I let myself enjoy. I stopped counting my meals. I ordered wine with dinner. I ate for pleasure instead of for “gains.” And honestly, I loved every second of it.
By January, 2017, it had become very clear to me that my life was taking a very different direction — and things only started moving faster. In February, Drew quit his job and took the leap with me. Four months later, we launched Digital Press. By the end of the summer, we had over 25 clients and I had decided to move out to Los Angeles. By fall, we’d crossed ten full-time employees. And by the time January 2018 rolled around, I looked like I’d never lifted weights seriously in my life.
I had become an entrepreneur, and a professional writer.
My friend was right: my potential was bigger than just lifting weights.