T Nation

A Decade In, Let's Compare Notes

Hey Tnation,

I started training & lurking in this forum back when I was 14 (a decade ago), and joined shortly afterwards (age 15, 9 years back). Having recently celebrated my 24th, I’ve officially been in the game for a decade… Hard to believe, but time marches onwards. It’s been quite a journey – here’s some of the stuff I’ve done:

  • Ate like a moron for a year (carbophobia)
  • Ate pretty damn well for 5+ years
  • Dieted down for photoshoots twice, reached ‘photoshoot leanness’ many many times
  • Became a power-to-weight ninja (national powerlifting coach wanted me to compete at nationals)
  • Tore my quadratus lumborum on an ego lift and relinquished my power-to-weight ninja title (tingles/numbness in lower back and right leg for months)
  • Trained high volume, low volume/high intensity, high frequency, low frequency etc.
  • Got really fit (cardiovascular, V02 max, etc)
  • Got really unfit
  • Been obssessed
  • Been rather laissez-faire
  • Built a decent physique (by my standards/aesthetic sensibilities)
  • Read way way way too much about this stuff (but I love it)

Currently? I’m ‘refining’ my physique (chasing my own sense of aesthetics): more shoulders and arms, slightly smaller quads (this is a whole adventure), and rebuilding my chest (the one body part that lost meaningful size/strength during the coronavirus lockdown).

I wanted to share some of my ‘learnings’ from the journey thus far-- feel free to agree, disagree, tell me I’m an idiot, etc – looking for thoughts from the community! In no particular order:

  • I can look good (very lean) or I can be strong. Can’t do both.

  • Feels incredible to be strong and a little fluffy (I mean ‘less defined abs’, not ‘fat’)

  • Being lean feels ‘fine’ until a particular threshold. I haven’t yet figured out whether that threshold is defined by ‘amount of fat on my body’ or ‘calories I’m consuming to facilitate the amount of fat on my body’, but, after crossing the threshold, it just feels shitty.

  • There is, truly, no such thing as an ‘essential exercise’, but I think that the lessons learned from the big 3 are imperative for anyone starting the journey. It’s too easy to train casually on machines and isolation exercises; squats & deads teach the work ethic that should be carried over.

  • You don’t actually have to train hard always. My ‘obsession’ with this aspect of life waxes and wanes. During periods of intense interest, I train very hard, and do progress faster. BUT, even when training is at the back of my mind, and training sessions are just about ‘getting it done’, there’s always more muscle and a better physique on the other end.

  • For building muscle, a calorie surplus is highly overrated. I’m convinced that maintenance gets it done.

  • For strength, a calorie surplus is king.

  • Getting lean is as simple as ‘reduce your food until you feel slightly hungry’. If you really want to cover your bases, I’d add just two caveats: 1) get your protein in 2) keep lifting the same weights (of course, trying to progressively overload, as always)

  • For hypertrophy, I think that getting stronger is overrated. It’s too easy to demonstrate more strength over time with improved technique, faster reps (no juicy pause), better CNS recruitment, etc. IMO, hypertrophy is all about getting a pump in a ‘not stupid’ rep range, then holding that pump throughout the session, pushing it till the muscle burns. To build more muscle, keep doing that, trying to push a little harder each time.

  • Relatedly, chasing bigger numbers is a great way to derail if your goal is more muscle. If you can’t feel the muscle working, I don’t think much hypertrophy is taking place…

  • Building muscle when deep in a deficit is really difficult because it’s so hard to get (and keep) a pump while flat.

  • For physique transformation, there are basically two axes that really seem to matter – caloric intake and total activity. There is a version of you on 4000kcal daily and 4x weekly lifting sessions + 3x weekly conditioning sessions + NEPA. There is also a version of you on 2500kcal daily and 4x weekly lifting sessions. Imagine a 2D matrix with every possible combination of calorie intake and daily activity configuration. Pick the cell that likely best suits your goal physique, do that, and your body will change over time to match. This is a fancy way of saying: ‘If you want to look like someone who lifts a lot, then lift a lot’. ‘If you want to look like someone who can lift a lot and run up a mountain, then lift a lot, run up mountains often, and fuel the activity accordingly’.

  • You can perform (in training) on little sleep… But life is much better when you sleep enough.

  • It’s really worthwhile to maintain conditioning. Training feels so much better, and it’s so much ‘easier’ to push hard when the cardiovascular ‘challenge’ of a lifting session is trivial.

  • No need to force boring cardio. If LISS is too tiresome to bear, then do something else. I love my weekly boxing and conditioning circuits.

  • If you want X to get bigger, train X directly.

  • You don’t need to train abs to see them… but they look much better if you do.

  • Once you build your conditioning and overcome the initial inertia of a session, aerobic and anaerobic work feel really really good.

  • When getting lean, a calorie is absolutely not a calorie. Get very lean on a low volume, high caloric-density diet of poptarts, protein powder, and peanut butter. I’ll wait.

  • Relatedly, nutrition isn’t too important at maintenance or when in a surplus. When in a deep deficit, every choice counts (yes, this one is obvious, the opportunity cost of a calorie spent is high when you don’t have many to spend)

  • I feel better when I eat a ton of fruit & vegetables.

  • Thinking about fruit sugar is not worth the time.

  • Carbs are excellent. Eat carbs.

  • You can drink a lot of alcohol once per week and it won’t really affect your results. Just be smart and balance the calories.

  • If you get a serious injury, you’ll save yourself a lot of pain if you just let it recover.

  • If you train because it feels good and you enjoy it, little ‘vanity’ purchases can make it even more fun. A good non-stim ‘pump’ preworkout does make a difference to the pump during a session, and feels excellent. Using a normal pre every now and then, so you can roll into the gym bouncing off the walls on a stimulant high also feels excellent. Buying new training clothing is awesome. Obviously these are all just icing on the cake (and I’m personally very opposed to frequent use of a preworkout supplement – stim tolerance/adrenal fatigue SUCKS).

  • One of the biggest gifts bestowed by a long time spent training is the control and awareness of one’s own body. You can flex muscles that people don’t even realize they have. You can execute brand new movements with nearly flawless form. You know when you’re eating too much, or too little. You can tell whether your body is tired, or if it’s just your mind. Ultimately, your body is goddamn reliable. It does the things you want it to do (run there, lift this, contort ‘like so’) and it does them well.

  • Unless you’re competitive in some manner, the minutiae really don’t matter, but they can be fun. I’m sure that they do improve results, I just don’t think they’re worth the life/time tradeoffs for non-competitive recreational lifters; unless you enjoy them for their own sake!

  • Unless you’re competitive in some manner, focusing on ‘pursuit of progress’ is probably a bad long-term strategy. It’s not resilient to setbacks, and the bottom falls out when age related decline starts to set in (not there yet personally). It can also expose you to additional mental health stresses: if work/life is tough, the last thing you need is to start beating yourself up because you’re not improving in your recreational passion/hobby. It’s probably better to focus on the experience that you enjoy. You don’t train ‘to improve’. You train because ‘it’s one of your favourite things to do’. Progress can be a side effect of the latter.

Sweet. That’s it for now. This place has changed so much over the years, for better and worse. There’s less pseudo-masculine posturing and BS than ever before, but we’ve also lost some excellent posters. Still, it’s great to see how many have stuck around, and how this forum still has the time (and patience) to lend a genuine helping hand. For the past 10 years, lifting has been one of my greatest pleasures, and an incredibly important source of peace, stability, structure, and discipline. Tnation was formative back in the day, so thanks, to you all.

Here’s to the next decade! Can’t wait to come back and disagree with everything I wrote above…

15 Likes

Lots to agree with there.

The older I get and the more my priorities have to shift, I am basically in the “eat well, train hard, don’t think about it every minute of the day” mode. Training is a part of my life, not a focus of my life like it was for 10+ years.

I train 3 days a week, 30-45 minutes, and probably look as good as I ever did on 5-6 hour+ sessions. Now, maybe I’m better and can do more with less, but I think once you hit a certain threshold there ain’t much more to be had by doubling that or more.

I might add to your list:

EVERYTHING works. Now, not optimally for every scenario or person, but if you are training hard there are no zeros in training. A powerlifter has different focuses than a body builder, but if you are training HARD you are moving forward in the iron game.

Same with dieting… I was so low carb for so long because if I added carbs I would get fat (basically I would just add too many) … I’ve gotten lean on keto/moderate card/ IIFYM and same thing with maintaining… it all works.

Basically you just have to find the philosophy that you jive with the most and put your nose to the grind stone.

1 Like

Yes and yes to the above. I’ve always disagreed with those that were worried about the sugars in their apples or cantaloupe. You’d better be really, really dialed in if that’s what you’re worried about.

Keeping a baseline of conditioning is not difficult, and it makes all the difference in the world. You don’t need to be in the condition to run a marathon on any given day, but being at least fit enough to run a 10K any given day is very doable.

This is my argument against those that work out by targeting muscles in weird ways. Like bodybuilding-style reps of isolation after isolation. You end up looking “strong” I guess, but weird. An example that I can use that I can say without any fear of offending that person (because they are never on this site) is Paul Carter. Dude looks like he spends lots of time in the gym, but also looks like the next athletic thing he does (throws a ball or a punch, or moves with agility) will be the first athletic thing he’s done since childhood.

Unfortunately, this is true for me as well. In my 30’s I was very lean, which looked great at the beach and was effective for races, but my strength suffered. Finding that perfect balance is tough. For me, I think it’s about the high 170’s in weight that is the balance between looking good, feeling good, and still being strong.

1 Like

Cool post! Let’s some sum pichers!!

1 Like

Oh man, I agree with both vigorously. Really wish I’d included them in the OP (though, in fairness, it’s long enough). I would add to your first point by saying that, 9/10 people who ‘can’t put on muscle’ or ‘can’t get stronger’ in their first 2 years of lifting just need to train harder. It’s basically never a programming issue. I mean, sure, programming can certainly be suboptimal, as you note, but I think we’re talking about 100% gains vs 80% gains. The initial 80% comes from just training goddamn hard. Not a big fan of RPE, but most sets I see in the gym are RPE 6 or less (people with muscle being the exceptions to this rule… and I think I know which way that causality flows).

To the second, also yes. I’ve done keto, cyclic ketogenic, fasting, good 'ol fashioned ‘eat less’… they all get you there. Truthfully, I couldn’t detect a meaningful difference in results… but keto and cyclic ketogenic turned me into a grumpy monster.

Indeed. I find that a ‘10K on any given day’ standard can be maintained without even programming conditioning – the cardio stimulus from supersets, leg day, etc. keeps that baseline. I find that the benefits don’t yet diminish if you push the conditioning standard beyond that baseline, but that requires some intentionality (1-2x per week usually suffices for me though).

I know the look, and I’m on the same page. Personally, looking and feeling ‘athletic’ matter quite a bit… ‘Lots of muscle’ isn’t a sufficient goal in and of itself.

This bit is hard, because that usually means being ‘good’ at all three, but not excellent in any… and being excellent is very fun. Right now, I’m having my moment with being lean and looking good. I’ve had a 2 year period when numbers on the bar were all that mattered. I could see myself revisiting that ‘mode’ in a few years’ time (it’ll be good to eat like that again, haha).

2 Likes

Here’s a few from Jan/Feb, before COVID. Truthfully, I’m currently about 4-5lbs of muscle short of this physique (sadly, much in the chest)… But I’ll be back. This is me a little leaner than usual, had run a brief ‘cut’ before a vacation


1 Like

Lookin segsy!

2 Likes

OP, best post in a while. Thanks a lot dude.

I’m gonna put a lot of value in your words. I won’t follow them dogmatically, but I think it’d be stupid of me not to consider them. Sincerely, I’ll read and reread them. And FOLLOW them.

I gotta ask, in those ten years of lifting, exactly how much of that was you consistently training? Even just going to the gym for rehab purposes will count.

1 Like

For building muscle, a calorie surplus is highly overrated. I’m convinced that maintenance gets it done

Do you mind expanding on this? Since it runs counter to what most people say about gaining muscle.

I’m genuinely interested.

1 Like

This is definitely age-related: more things work when you’re younger, when most things are already working pretty well already!

The same is true of nutrition, which is why a lot of lean young dudes spent a fair amount of time uploading videos of themselves eating pizza while flexing their abs. I know if I tried doing the crazy carb loads I was doing 10 years ago, the only thing I’d have to show for it is a spare tyre and a ton of inflammation.

So, the older I get, the more I feel the need to hone, or narrow, my choices in order to optimise my physique.

Similarly, as you allude to in your post, priorities also change. Before, I blindly followed training and diet programmes. I was only interested in outcomes. Now I question stuff and realise a lot of what I previously ‘believed’ was actually pseudo-science, bro-science, etc. That has been quite liberating and also enabled me to make informed choices on how to live my life.

1 Like

Thanks for sharing all this.
I would just add - never, ever underestimate the possibility for injury.
It might not be sexy, especially in your teens or 20s, but it will eventually show up later and it sucks.
I am 42, at the moment in a bad with cracked lower back.
The funny and stupid thing is that I can bear all the pain, but not being mobile and the thought that I can’t lift for who knows how long brings tears to my eyes.

2 Likes

Hey, I appreciate that, but be sure to weight my experience appropriately – lots of coaches and veterans with many more years under their belts (including client hours!) on this site :wink: . But, I do think that I’ve internalized and intellectualized enough about this pursuit to know a thing or two at this point.

It’s been ten years nonstop, tbh. During the first year, it was mostly running, rowing, and bodyweight resistance moves. Year two was me doing what I could with some light dumbbells, the floor, and the aforementioned running/rowing. The latter 8 years were all conventional lifting. There were brief periods wherein I got super busy, so I dropped my sessions to 3x weekly, or I had exams/interviews/life to worry about, so I shortened my sessions to 1 main compound lift + some sprints (or similar). But, for the most part, besides illness, it’s been a consistent 5x per week, 45mins - 1hr15. Btw, to be clear, this isn’t actually a huge feat of discipline. It was at the start, but now I just really like training. It’s often my favourite part of the day! It doesn’t take great discipline to do something that you enjoy doing…

Sure. The overall idea is that, on a daily basis, muscle growth only really requires an additional ~50 calories. That number is a rounding error. Most of us can consume 50 calories by looking at a slice of chocolate cake… through a store’s display glass. Furthermore, I’m also pretty darn convinced that the body will use fat to fuel that additional 50 calories, if your consumption is somehow exactly maintenance, or you’re in a slight deficit. (The caveat here is a ‘deep deficit’ when you’re actually very lean… I don’t think muscle growth is really possible then)

If you want to be completely ‘safe’ about not shortchanging gains, I’d personally aim for an intentional, additional 100-200 calories. I think that anything more is serious overkill. I’m very opposed to the 500+ surplus ‘bulks’ because, once you get fat (will happen), you have to spend much more time focusing on losing that fat. So, even if you build marginally more muscle with a bigger surplus, there’s a good chance that the guy on the 100 cal surplus builds the same/more in the end, because the 500+ calorie guy has to spend much more time deep into a ‘cut’. Ultimately, I dislike the idea of ‘bulk and cut’. I like to think about ‘maintenance/living my life’ and ‘cut’. Spend most of the time doing the former, allow yourself some dietary flexibility. If you ever get a little fluffy (too much flexibility) or you need to be leaner than usual for some reason, then intentionally cut. In my experience, the muscle growth accumulates during the ‘maintenance/living my life’ phase all the same. Btw, I don’t think this view is super uncommon… I’ve seen @The_Mighty_Stu advocating for small surpluses on many occasions, amongst quite a few others.

EDIT: Last note on this – there do exist people with low appetites and high daily burns. I’m not saying that food is not the solution for those people – they probably do just need to eat more. I’m saying that, with generality, assuming you could know your maintenance (aim to discover empirically), you don’t really have to eat much more than that to build muscle, imo. I think most beginners who ‘aren’t gaining’ don’t lack food, they lack time spent in the game, and possibly effort (in the gym). Muscle growth is a glacial process.

2 Likes

Hey, I’m glad you dropped in! You’re one of the posters who seems to frequently advocate for the idea that a calorie is not a calorie, and that the larger hormonal picture plays a huge role in the relationship between your nutrition and leanness/muscle. (Lmk if I’m ‘straw-manning’ you)

While I find the science and mechanisms highly compelling, and I do agree that a calorie is not a calorie in a ‘soft’ sense (obviously thermogenic effect of protein consumption, fibre, resistant starches, etc. etc.), I have never been able to get properly lean without also getting properly hungry. So, in my experience, calorie total is still king. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Have you ever managed to drop fat, while keeping total calories high, using strategic nutrient selection and timing? Something similar?

Full disclosure first off: I have never been super-shredded, i.e. a true 8% or less body fat. I have got down close to that several times but I have never pursued it - and don’t really have a desire to either.

What I have done, and have done recently again too, is my own version of fit-to-fat-to-fit.

In August, I decided to blow up from 174lbs (fairly lean) to 191lbs (fat pig) mainly on junk food. I did this in less than 6 weeks. In response, using a combination of carnivore and 6 x 48-hour fasts (and modest exercise), I reversed this in 18 days. Now, if we say half of this was likely water/glycogen (and none LBM), then I lost about 8lbs of fat mass in 18 days. In terms of energy, that’s 8 x 3500 = 28,000 kcals (or about a 1,555 daily deficit). Now, it’s still all guesswork, but accounting for TEE, the 6 fasts should have cost me about 15,000 kcals. That leaves 13,000 kcals to account for. On eating days, I aimed for around maintenance. So I certainly didn’t net a 13,000 kcal deficit on the 12 eating days. If it’s all about CICO, then somehow my maths is wrong and had this been measured accurately the numbers would tally up.

Now, according to blood glucose and blood ketone readings I took during the trial, my insulin was generally low (after the first 5 days anyway) and ketones high (I pulled a 3.8mmol once, which is the highest reading I have ever recorded despite being into extended fasting and keto dieting for years). This is more suggestive of a hormonal state primed for optimum fat burning.

Of course, it’s all n=1 but it was enough for me to confirm to myself that hormones are key.

3 Likes

Awesome example, thanks for sharing. Certainly, I agree with your read – the math doesn’t check out, unless something else was happening. I’ll trust your intuition for lean mass preservation, but I am intrigued: how was your training during this period? Were you able to perform? Or were you depleted and weak?

Also, what was your hunger like during this period?

The ‘holy grail’, imo, is figuring out the combination of strategic nutrient selection & timing that allows one to maintain a lean (or very lean) physique with minimal hunger. Perhaps such a setup would rely on the hormonal effects, or nutrient partitioning, etc. I’ve been playing around with different eating strategies for staying ‘very lean’ over the past year and a bit. Thus far, nothing has allowed me to maintain leanness beyond a certain threshold without serious hunger. But I’ll keep experimenting.

I have done fasted training for a while, so have learned to ‘train low’. That said, if I was primarily interested in performance I would opt for some form of pre-WO - whether whole food or otherwise.

Hunger. Not really. Having done stuff like this before, that kicks in later in the process when you are really leaning out. Same with tolerance to cold, which becomes an issue with continued fasts (especially in colder weather).

That’s what it’s all about. One of the benefits of the lockdown was that I had not a lot else to do but channel my energies into other things.

1 Like